Little-Known National Parks That Are Perfect For Family Vacations, According To Visitors

Residents of the United States and visitors to these fine shores are blessed to have the National Park Service (NPS). A body that is part of the Department of the Interior, it oversees vast expanses of land and sea across the U.S. and its territories. Set up in 1916, NPS administers more than 429 specific units encompassing more than 85 million acres of space. These include battlefields, memorials, and scenic trails. It also consists of the shining jewels of the system, the 63 national parks.


These wilderness areas received over 92 million visitors in 2023 – a clear indicator of their popularity. Places like Yosemite, Arches, Death Valley, and Yellowstone National Parks are household names. As icons of American nature, they receive millions of visitors each year, but the same isn't true for all national parks. Using NPS data, we've identified national parks that get fewer crowds or might not be so familiar to most travelers. Further, we've consulted family travel blogs like Milana's Travels to ensure we've made good picks for adults with kids in tow.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park - Colorado

Do you like inspiring drives? Consider paying a visit to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The Gunnison River carved out the rugged scenery in this area, located in western Colorado, about a three-hour drive north of Durango. Take it all in through one (or more) of the many good hiking trails for all ages, with several easy walks available. According to the blog Let's Jet, Kids!, Black Canyon of the Gunnison sees some of the lowest numbers of visitors of the four national parks in the state. "With steep, deep, and beautiful canyon walls, it's a great place to spend a day," wrote travel mom Megan.


The North Rim Road traces the top of the canyon and passes by six overlooks, a journey that takes a couple of hours. On the South Rim Drive, which moves between Tomichi Point and High Point, you'll find 12 overlooks. The road bends and curves close to the lip of the canyon cliffs, and at the overlooks, travelers can peer deep into the heart of the chasm. For a trip at lower elevations, into the bottom of the canyon, the East Portal Road features a steep route toward the Gunnison River. Of these options, only the South Rim Drive remains open all year round (though it experiences a partial closure in winter.

Channel Islands National Park - California

Expect encounters with marine wildlife while visiting this park off the coast of California. Such experiences could occur on the boat ride to the islands, as documented on the family travel-oriented blog Milana's Travels. The author noted seeing many dolphins and seals in the ocean and an endemic fox on land. Five separate islands make up Channel Islands National Park, and their separation from the mainland has allowed them to maintain their ecosystems and allow remarkable flora and fauna to grow. There are no food facilities nor any stores of any kind on the islands, so visitors need to be fully self-sufficient once in the park. 


The park offers campsites but no other lodging options, so many travelers visit it as a day trip. Santa Rosa Island promises options perfect for your first solo hike, walks that take in old ranches, bluffs by the sea, and a white-sand beach. Meanwhile, hikes on Santa Barbara Island survey coastal cliffs, but they tend to be challenging. Other outdoor options include kayaking adventures through Channel Islands Adventure Company and snorkeling around sea caves and kelp forests.

Congaree National Park - South Carolina

Congaree National Park awaits about 30 minutes away by car from Columbia, South Carolina. According to a Tripadvisor commenter visiting with family, the park's "beauty lies in the dense forests and wetland areas throughout the park that team with all kinds of animal life." It features the biggest tract of intact old-growth bottomland hardwood trees in this part of the country. Water plays a central role in the environment; some walks get flooded depending on the conditions. The Boardwalk Loop Trail is a simple hike for all the family, with lower and elevated sections that cut through hardwood forests. Travelers can look for tupelo trees, oaks, loblolly pines, and bald cypresses along the route.


On a canoe or kayak excursion trip in the park, along the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, visitors will paddle past towering trunks and can look out for deer, otters, birds, and possibly alligators. For something the kids will never forget, time a visit from mid-May to mid-June when thousands of synchronous fireflies flutter and light up around the park while searching for a mate. You'll need to secure advance tickets for these viewing events.

Dry Tortugas National Park - Florida

Located 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most stunning snorkeling destinations in the U.S. Yet, in 2023, it had less than 85,000 visitors. Part of that could stem from difficult access since getting there requires taking a boat or arriving by seaplane. As Emily, the writer of the blog A Mom Explores, opined, visiting this national park "was honestly the experience of a lifetime. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone with babies, toddler, and young children," as long as they arrive prepared. The park comprises seven islands, all small in size and spanning 100 square miles total. Of that space, land accounts for less than 1%; the rest consists of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.


Travelers will find the visitors' center and Fort Jefferson, which takes up a large portion of the space, on the island of Garden Key. A solid structure planned as a way to safeguard the busy shipping waters, construction began on Fort Jefferson during the 19th century but never finished. By the fort's moat wall, swimmers might see reef squid and nurse sharks while tarpon and groupers swim in numbers by the pier pilings. Though the activity serves as a massive draw for the national park, thanks to the clear waters and abundant sea life, visitors should be careful not to touch anything while snorkeling.

Great Basin National Park - Nevada

Though this park is located in Nevada, it sits close to the border with Utah and is less than four hours by car from Salt Lake City. For kids that like caves, this place will be quite the adventure. A commenter on Tripadvisor, who traveled in a family group, called it a "National Park not to be Missed," where "the caves were fantastic and easy to navigate." Tours of the cave system are always done with a park ranger, and tickets must be purchased, usually in advance, as they quickly sell out. Trips through the caves have been conducted for more than 130 years, and while tours are available all year round, the summer tours offer a wider selection of areas to visit. 


There are also creatures living in the caves, from bats to false scorpions. Outside, visitors might see alpine wildflowers, which include Crimson Columbine and Parry's Primrose, and that grow throughout the summer. Young and old astronomers might want to stick around for the night sky. One poster on Reddit proclaimed, "The stars were so bright, you can actually see the reflection on my car."

Guadalupe Mountains National Park - Texas

Travelers will find Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the western portion of Texas, near the border of New Mexico and a couple of hours' drive from El Paso. The appearance of inland dunes framed by mountains and the flora and fauna makes it a unique place to explore. The blog Gagnons Gone, in a post about a trip to the park with kids, declared, "Visitors will enjoy spotting jackrabbits, black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, fox, deer, and elk, as well as many species of reptile." Travelers will inevitably seek out the Salt Basin, where the wind moves sand from a dry lake bed and forms the dunes.


Patches of scrubby greenery populate some low dunes, while others rise as high as 60 feet. You'll also encounter dunes composed of fine grains of red quartz. While the areas of the low desert may seem like fine places for inner reflection and tranquility, visitors should remain alert, as poisonous snakes sometimes appear in the sand. A hiker's paradise, Guadalupe Mountains National Park features more than 80 miles of trails and the four highest peaks in the state. Visitors can experience a variety of landscapes, including narrow slot canyons along the Devil's Hall trail.

Isle Royale National Park - Michigan

Families can visit lighthouses, fire towers, and an old fishery or learn about nature in this remote part of Michigan. Less than 30,000 people visited Isle Royale National Park in 2023, making it a quiet destination, though it opens only seasonally. Since no roads lead to the island, getting there requires a ferry or seaplane, which operates from mid-May to September. You'll find arrival points at two places on the island — Rock Harbor in the east and Windigo in the west — and visitors will use the appropriate transfer method depending on where they plan to stay.


Rock Harbor has the benefit of a lodge, with rooms and restaurants, while Windigo has rustic cabins that campers can use, equipped with bunk beds, electricity, and tables and chairs. A trip to Isle Royale is all about the wilderness, though travelers don't need to be hardened outdoors types to enjoy the place. Maura Marko, one of the authors of We Found Adventure, a family travel blog, observed, "Isle Royale is a magical place and worth a visit no matter your physical abilities." Kids can enjoy the hikes, go fishing, take a boat ride, or join the Junior Ranger or Wilderness Ranger programs. Successful completion of ranger programs ensures that the enrolled kid receives a badge.

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve - Alaska

In 2023, 16,728 visitors made their way to this park close to Anchorage. While this might seem like a disproportionately low number given the park's proximity to Alaska's biggest city, consider this — access requires a boat or plane. Lake Clark National Park & Preserve has distinguished itself as a prized spot for seeing bears. While it is a destination for people who want to stay overnight at campsites and lodges, it also can easily be visited as a day trip. A contributor on Tripadvisor called it "A great off the beaten path national park. Peaceful and serene. No huge crowds, plenty of scenery and wildlife."


Lake Clark is a realm of bears, rugged mountains, still turquoise lakes, and untouched wilderness with no roads in the park. Crescent Lake is the number-one destination, with visitors landing on the water by seaplane. Once there, travelers fish — salmon and trout are among the prize catches — or come to watch brown bears that roam the shore when salmon populate the lake. The approach to the lake on a plane takes in its waters and the jagged ridges of the Chigmit Mountains and Redoubt Volcano.

National Park of American Samoa

This park is split between villages on three islands in the South Pacific and has fine beaches and snorkeling. A Tripadvisor commenter who visited noted, "The South Pacific is stunning, but this spot especially." A little over 12,000 visitors made it to the National Park of American Samoa in 2023, so if you follow in their footsteps, you'll find yourself in a select company. Tourists can expect to see plenty of wildlife at the park, from 35 bird species, including brightly colored kingfishers, to the Samoan fruit bat, which even flies during the day.


Families can enjoy many hikes, some that trace mountain ridges and emerge onto island views. They might also encounter local school groups, a novel way for kids to interact with their American Samoan peers. Of course, the beaches are a big draw and are often empty. The blog AmSamFam said of the beaches, "Since there are no crowds, you can always find plenty of space to spread out and let the kids run and explore." Be sure to stop at the visitor center, where exhibits examine local flora, fauna, culture, and crafts.

North Cascades National Park - Washington

Glaciers and alpine lakes with cool blue water draw visitors to this park, three hours from Seattle. North Cascades National Park offers grand scenery, with craggy peaks rising high into the sky and hundreds of glaciers dotted around the terrain. Travelers can also encounter deep valleys and roaring waterfalls. Hikers will find many options to keep them entertained and out and about. There are routes all over the mountains, ranging from easy, quick treks that take in the fine alpine surroundings to more exacting stretches better suited to experienced hikers. 


The driest conditions prevail from June through September, the height of summer, though some trails will have snow on them even during that window. Select hikes take less than an hour, like winding through the forest on a boardwalk. Slightly longer trips, including one that crosses over a dam, are also available. The writer of Daly Family Travels explained, "I was really impressed with how family friendly this whole National Park was," with praise for the Junior Ranger program.

Pinnacles National Park - California

The rock spires attract visitors to this park, about 90 minutes southeast of San Jose. The terrain results from volcanic activity, from eruptions to lava flows to sliding layers. A Tripadvisor commenter described Pinnacles National Park as "an alien landscape where desert meets the sea." Today, visitors will find woods filled with oak trees, winding canyons, scrubby vegetation, and the spiky rock structures that give the park its name. It's also an environment with rich bird life, from falcons and eagles to the California condor, one of the most threatened birds on the planet. The Local Passport Family blog revealed, "Visiting Pinnacles National Park with kids brings the opportunity to explore talus caves, spot one of the rarest birds in the world, try rock climbing, and so much more. Pinnacles with kids is a blast!"


Travelers can explore 30 miles of trails, from some easy options that rumble along flat grasslands to others that wind through the talus caves to the pointy rock spires. On Tripadvisor, a contributor said, "The scenery was amazing and we felt at the top of the world, without being surrounded by crowds of tourists like at Yosemite or Yellowstone." Climbers will find many routes, from easy options like First Sister to more challenging ascents on the Chockstone Dome.

Voyageurs National Park - Minnesota

A varied landscape among the lakes of Minnesota makes Voyageurs National Park an ever-changing destination. The park boasts lakes and green islands across about 220,000 acres by the Canadian border. Around it, visitors can see wetlands, forests, tall cliffs, and ridges of ancient rock. You'll even encounter a botanical garden at Rainy Lake with raspberries and milkweed, and you will learn how plants played a crucial role for the Ojibwe people who once lived in the area. Voyageurs has hiking trails — a staple across many national parks — that meander through the old forests into wetlands and have expansive views over lakes. Winter visitors can also take advantage of cross-country skiing trails.


Among the more unusual amenities are star-gazing get-togethers during a dedicated week and the chance to rent a houseboat to explore the park. Given the wealth of waterways, a houseboat is a sensible choice for getting around and lodging since many parts of the park are inaccessible by car. The family travel blog Adventuring Beyond said, "Our summer trip to Voyageurs National Park was perfect—it included beautiful sunsets, stunning lakes, great hikes, and some fun history."

Wrangell-St Elias Park & Preserve - Alaska

Here's a fact that not everyone may know, even fans of national parks: Wrangell-St Elias Park & Preserve is the biggest national park in the United States, larger than the country of Switzerland, and climbs from sea level to a peak of more than 18,000 feet. It's an area of grand wilderness where adventure is always close by. Luckily, families wanting to explore the park don't have to rough it — the Kennicott Glacier Lodge sits in its heart. Views from the lodge take in snow-capped glaciers.


A poster on Tripadvisor said of the park, "It was fantastic & like nothing you've ever seen before — very untouched and remote." For kids, the ranger program presents a chance to learn more about the terrain and history, while families can also join rangers on walk and talks or tours of an old mill. Animal enthusiasts can look for bears, sheep, caribou, porcupines, and many migratory birds. The blog We Go With Kids praised the park's ice climbing, saying, "The views and the experience made the trip into Wrangell-St. Elias worthwhile."


We can thank the over 20,000 employees of the NPS and, of course, Mother Nature for America's gorgeous national parks. But at some national parks, especially during the warmer months, travelers will find themselves battling the crowds. That's no fun, especially if you have a family in tow. So, we analyzed National Park Service statistics data and found parks where you're far less likely to run into swarms of sightseers.


We refined our list by excluding those parks that get few numbers — which might be little-known — but aren't really suitable for a family visit. That's why parks like Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, which received 11,045 visitors in 2023, are not included. Yes, it's a pristine expanse of nature, but it has no roads or trails.

Further, we consulted family travel blogs like Local Passport Family and Let's Jet, Kids! to get a more well-rounded picture of whether our choices actually worked for children. We also referred to the review site Tripadvisor for highly rated parks and Reddit for independent feedback on the chosen destinations. Finally, whenever possible, we highlighted places found across the country, an important factor in narrowing down our selections.