America’s least-visited national parks
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America’s hidden gems: The 20 least-crowded national parks in 2009

Mention Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain national parks, and Americans can quickly conjure images of Old Faithful or Longs Peak. Likewise, Californians can easily picture the desert cactus of Joshua Tree and Half Dome in Yosemite.

But mention secluded Kobuk Valley in Alaska or the remote Channel Islands off the Southern California coast and the mental image may not come as quickly. These 20 least-visited of the 58 national parks in the U.S. offer the same types of natural beauty, exotic wildlife and adventurous outdoor activity as their more popular counter-parks do -- but with smaller crowds and enough adventure to satisfy even the most daring.

-- Kelsey Ramos, Los Angeles Times ()
A look through the Mesa Arch, perched on the edge of a 600-foot canyon drop-off in Utah’s Canyonlands, reveals stunning canyons, mountains and plateaus. The park encompasses the desert ecosystem of the Colorado Plateau, a high-desert region where temperatures can fluctuate up to 40 degrees in a day. Travel in the spring to avoid late-summer monsoons or winter snowfall.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 310,930

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Pictured: Mesa Arch (National Park Service)
Lassen Peak, which last erupted in 1915, is the largest of more than 30 volcanic domes in the park, which is about 165 miles north of Sacramento. Hissing fumaroles (steam vents) and boiling mud pots from those volcanoes continue to shape the park’s landscape. Though the climate is unpredictable, summer, with its warm, dry weather, may be the best time for a visit.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 266,721

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Pictured: Boiling Springs Lake  (Russell Virgilio / National Park Service)
The five isles of the Channel Islands -- Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara -- are isolated from the nearby Southern California coast (visitor centers are in Ventura and Santa Barbara), stimulating the evolution of new species of plants and animals.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 248,720

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Pictured: Water Canyon Beach on Santa Rosa Island  (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)
The tallest sand dunes in the U.S. are found in this national park, which is halfway between Denver and Albuquerque. You can board, sled and ski on these dunes, some up to 750 feet tall. But don’t be fooled by the dry, sandy climate; the park also features alpine lakes, forests and wetlands.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 241,409

More info: (Hal Stoelzle)
Big Bend spreads over more than 800,000 acres in southwest Texas and includes mountain, desert and river environments. The park is named after the sharp northeast “bend” of the Rio Grande, which runs through the park. Visitors should carry plenty of water when exploring the park’s remote desert and be aware of the Mexican border across the Rio Grande.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 239,452

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Pictured: Santa Elena Canyon (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Kenai Fjords is a land of wilderness and glaciers. Harding Icefield, the park’s centerpiece, contains at least 38 glaciers, the largest being Bear Glacier. Kenai Fjords can be accessed through Seward, a town 130 miles south of Anchorage. You’ll need rain gear when the stormy fall season begins in September.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 193,430

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Pictured: Bear Glacier (National Park Service)
Voyageurs, licensed fur traders, once paddled canoes full of animal pelts and other goods through the lakes and rivers of Minnesota that now encompass this national park. Today, water sports, including boating, canoeing and kayaking, are popular here.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 183,584

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Pictured: Satellite image of Lost Bay (Google Maps)
Forsaking cumbersome boats, the first explorers to successfully navigate the Black Canyon used rubber air mattresses to float on the canyon’s waters in 1901. Today, visitors raft, kayak and fish in the park, which is about 250 miles southwest of Denver.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 124,835

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Pictured: Near Tomichi Point  (Lisa Lynch / National Park Service)
Guadalupe Mountains park in far West Texas is a hiker’s paradise, with more than 80 miles of mild trails through canyons and springs and more strenuous back-country hikes where steep mountain switchbacks lead into the wilderness. The park also has sandy dunes and dry salt lakes.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 123,788

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Pictured: The salt flats  (Dustin Nelson / National Park Service)
Seven islands of coral reefs and sand compose the Dry Tortugas, named after the abundant sea turtles found in the area. The rocky reefs and shoals of the island, 70 miles west of Florida’s Key West, have been the cause of hundreds of shipwrecks since the days of Spanish exploration.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 70,659

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Pictured: Underwater at Dry Tortugas National Park  (National Park Service)
Before Congaree became the first national park in South Carolina in 2003, it was known as the Congaree Swamp National Monument. The Congaree River flows through the marshy region, which contains the largest intact remains of floodplain forests on the continent. The park is about 20 miles from Columbia, the capital, which is in central South Carolina.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 63,068

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Pictured: Weston Lake  (National Park Service)
The “pearly gates” are one of the thousands of calcite formations that visitors can see in the marble Lehman Caves inside this park, which is about equidistant from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Guided tours inside these caves reveal beautiful stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, flowstone, popcorn and rare shield formations year-round.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 60,248

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Pictured: The “pearly gates” cave formation  (Brandi E. Roberts / National Park Service)
At more than 9.6 million acres, this national park in south central Alaska is the largest in the United States and six times bigger than Yellowstone. The park includes nine of the 16 highest peaks in the nation, including Mt. St. Elias, the second-highest peak in the U.S. at 18,008 feet.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 53,274

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Pictured: Sunrise behind the Wrangell mountains  (Neil Hannan / National Park Service)
For amazing views of Washington, North Cascades visitors should head to Sahale Arm, a part of Sahale Peak. Hikers can reach Sahale Arm through a six-mile trail through beautiful forested valleys, sub-alpine meadows and flowered fields. This national park in northern Washington, about 100 miles from Seattle, and has hundreds of miles of hiking trails for day hikes or backpacking excursions.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 13,759

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Pictured: Sahale Arm  (O’Casey / National Park Service)
The wilderness of Isle Royale, on Michigan’s Lake Superior, is accessible to visitors only by boat or seaplane. Isle Royale’s remoteness is one of the qualities that attracts adventurers to its hiking trails, waterways, rugged coast and shipwreck remains.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 12,691

More info: (National Park Service)
Gates of the Arctic is above the Arctic Circle, away from any roads or supplies. Backpackers and explorers are dropped by float planes or bush planes into the park’s wilderness. They can also hike in from Dalton Highway or Anaktuvuk Pass. Visitors can expect dense vegetation, boggy ground and frequent stream and river crossings.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 9,257

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Pictured: Two wilderness travelers on the tundra enjoying Alaska’s midnight sun  (Don Pendergrast / National Park Service)
Katmai became known for the ash flow remains preserved from the 1912 eruption of Novarupta volcano. It is also well known for its pristine waterways and abundant brown bears; the most recent survey documented more than 2,000 brown bears in the park.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 4,535

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Pictured: The Iliuk Arm of Nakbek watching over Lake Katmai (Robert Glenn Ketchum)
Alpine wild blueberries ripen in August in another of Alaska’s national parks, Lake Clark. The park’s Twin Lakes are known as the site where naturalist Dick Proenneke built a cabin using only hand tools. Proenneke became a wilderness icon after two books and the documentary “Alone in the Wilderness” were published based on his journals. The park is across the Cook Inlet from Anchorage.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 4,134

More info: (National Park Service)
This national park is composed of pristine beaches, tropical forests and biologically diverse reefs spread across the islands of American Samoa. It is thought that the first people on these islands came by sea from southwest Asia 3,000 years ago. In September, a tsunami wreaked havoc on the park, damaging its visitor center, beaches, forests and artifacts.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 2,412

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Pictured: Maga Point beach on Ofu island  (National Park Serivce)
Wild reindeer, called caribou, have been hunted in the same spot in Kobuk Valley’s Onion Portage for the last 9,000 years. The park, which has no roads, trails, or campgrounds, is about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Most park visitors are skilled back country explorers and locals who hunt caribou during the animal’s annual fall migration.

Visitors in 2009 (through August): 1,250

More info: (National Park Service)