Personal finance

Want to get away from it all? Try the 10 most ‘underrated’ national parks

McBride Inlet in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, which ParkSleepFly rated as America’s most underrated national park.
Andrew Peacock | Stone | Getty Images

Ever since Covid-19 first made social distancing a thing, Americans looking to escape lockdown boredom and work-from-home isolation have sought out open spaces at the country’s 63 national parks — and hundreds of national monuments, preserves and other federally protected spots — in historic droves.

Popular destinations like Muir Woods National Monument near San Francisco and Acadia National Park in coastal Maine have ironically become so crowded that the National Park Service has had to introduce advance reservations for certain areas and attractions.

Acadia, for example, drew 71.38% more visitors year-to-date as of August than last year, hosting some 802,926 parkgoers in that month alone. In response, the Park Service instituted a reservation system for motorists wanting to drive up Cadillac Mountain, arguably the park’s top attraction.

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The annual growth in visitors in not simply attributable to depressed travel last year. Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, for example, had around 752,114 recreational visitors in June, according to the park service. While that was a 61% jump from June 2020, it was also a 20% increase from June 2019 — and represents an all-time high for that month.

Bigger crowds and restricted access have eaten into the wide-open appeal that draws visitors to the parks in the first place. Yet, while you may have more company than you’d like if you visit Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, there are several fantastic national parks that remain undervisited.

Which parks to pack for? Travel website ParkSleepFly compiled lists of what it termed the most “underrated” and “overrated” U.S. national parks, by which it meant parks that, respectively, earn high visitor reviews but attract fewer people or — conversely — draw large numbers but get lower grades.

10 most underrated U.S. national parks

(Rank / Park / # of Visitors / % Excellent Reviews)

1. Glacier Bay, Alaska: 5,748; 92.9%
2. Kenai Fjords, Alaska: 15,882; 89.9%
3. Crater Lake, Oregon: 670,500; 87.1%
4. Redwood, California: 265,177; 86.2%
5. Badlands, South Dakota: 916,932; 86.1%
6. Sequoia, California: 796,086; 83.6%
7. Dry Tortugas, Florida: 48,543; 82.9% (tie)
7. Haleakala, Hawaii: 19,147; 82.9% (tie)
9. White Sands, New Mexico: 15,383; 82.3%
10. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico: 183,835; 81.5%

Source: ParkSleepFly

The site did so by analyzing and comparing visitor review data from Tripadvisor with official 2020 attendance figures for parks with both fewer and more than 1 million visitors per year.

Martin Jones, CEO of ParkSleepFly, said it’s no surprise visitors flock to the many breathtaking national parks in the U.S.

“However, there is something particularly beautiful about the ‘underappreciated’ national parks,” he added. “The serenity of the untouched locations provides for a unique experience, and the opportunity to truly appreciate the stunning views, away from the hustle and bustle.” 

The No. 1 underrated — or undervisited, given a high satisfaction rate — national park on the ParkSleepFly list is Glacier Bay. The park, in southeastern Alaska, had just 5,748 visitors last year, despite 92.9% of its Tripadvisor reviews being “excellent.” Its relative remote location vis-a-vis the lower 48 states may be to blame.

Some of the other so-called underrated parks are also in isolated locations or a plane ride away from the mainland U.S. These include second-place Kenai Fjords, also in Alaska, and, tied at No. 7, Dry Tortugas — a remote island chain west of Key West, Florida — and Haleakala, on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

When it comes to overrated national parks, which basically merit a “meh” from Tripadvisor reviewers, the top spot went to Indiana Dunes in Indiana. Although it drew nearly 2.3 million visitors in 2020, a mere 51% of the park’s Tripadvisor reviews were excellent.

Rounding out the bottom five were Cuyahoga Valley, in eastern Ohio; Hot Springs, in Arkansas; Yosemite, in central California; and Zion in Utah — all incredibly popular in terms of visitor numbers.

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