Camping in the Redwoods (credit: Thinkstock)
When the weather heats up, there’s no better time to visit one America’s national treasures. But if the visit includes camping overnight, it can be difficult to make reservations, especially at the most popular destinations like Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone. The alternative is to stay at a lesser known park that’s still blessed with incomparable natural beauty. For those making last minute camping plans, here are five of the best national parks to avoid huge usual crowds and traffic congestion.
Redwoods National & State Parks
1111 Second St.
Crescent City, CA
Preserving 133,000 majestic acres near the Oregon border, Redwoods National Park is home to nearly half of the remaining coast redwoods in the world. Yet despite preserving a significant portion of the world’s tallest tree species, designated as a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, it’s one of the least visited national parks in California. Established in 1968 in part to preserve old growth redwood trees and its watershed, the park combines three California State Parks and is home to Hyperion, which at 379.3 feet the tallest known living tree on Earth. Only a small percentage of visitors actually camp within Redwoods National Park, which suggests there is a greater chance of booking a camping reservation than at more high profile national parks. In addition to the old growth redwood forests, Redwoods National Park stretches across 40 miles of rugged coastline and is also home to a diverse collection of animal species, including California sea lions, bald eagles, black tailed deer and spotted owls. The park headquarters can be found a few miles outside the protected area in Crescent City.
Key West, FL
Only accessible by boat or plane, Dry Tortugas is one of the hardest national parks to reach. It’s also one of the least visited parks in the system with less than 70,000 visitors annually. However, those who make the 70-mile trek from Key West are guaranteed a place to camp and have access to secluded beaches and pristine blue waters. Established in 1935, this national park preserves Fort Jefferson in addition to neighboring islands that comprise the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico. Known as one of the world’s best spots for snorkeling, Dry Tortugas National Park has a 10-site primitive campground available on a first-come, first-serve basis. However, the National Parks Service states all campers, once they arrive, will be guaranteed a place to camp either at one of the campsites or in the large overflow area.
800 East Lakeshore Drive
Houghton, Michigan 49931-1896
For outdoor enthusiasts seeking a peaceful campsite that’s absent of summertime crowds, one of the most unique spots to stay is Isla Royale National Park. Located off the Michigan coast on Lake Superior and near the Canadian border, this captivating destination is one of the least visited units of the National Parks Service (NPS). The lack of visitation can be credited primarily to its remote location; Isle Royale can only be reached by boat or seaplane. Additionally, no wheeled vehicles, with the exception of wheelchairs, are allowed on the island, although visitors can navigate the island by foot or canoes/kayaks. Isle Royale offers 36 campgrounds, and permits are required for overnight stays. The NPS says if the campsites are full, campers should graciously share a space with another camping party.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde, CO 81330
Located in the Montezuma Valley about 35 miles west of Durango and in the vicinity of the Four Corners region, Mesa Verde is both a national park and a critically important World Heritage Site. The park was established in 1906 and features some of the best-preserved ruins built from the 6th to the 12th century by Ancestral Puebloans. Surprisingly, Mesa Verde (Spanish for Green Table) is among the least visited national parks in the U.S., and its campgrounds rarely sell out. The Morefield Campground and Village is fully open through October 19 and reservations can be made through Aramark Leisure. Mesa Verde holds approximately 4,400 archaeological sites, including several structures built 2,000 feet above the valley floor. The most famous site is the Cliff Palace, with an estimated 150 rooms, is the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
360 Highway 11 E.
International Falls, MN 56649
Residing 12 miles east of International Falls in the uppermost portion of northern Minnesota, Voyageurs offers idyllic campsites only accessible by boat. Named after the French-Canadian fur trappers who traveled these waters to the Great Lakes during the 19th century, visitors must follow a similar path by canoe or kayak to reach the “boat-in” campsites. In all, Voyageurs holds more than 200 designated campsites that are scattered across more than 218,000 breathtaking acres, including 84,000 acres of water. The park has four entryways where visitors can park their vehicles before completing their scenic journey through interconnected waterways by boat. Online reservations for front country camping or backcountry camping can be made through Recreation.gov.