The Most Difficult National Parks to Visit in North America
From the Arctic Circle to the Panama Canal, here are the most difficult national parks in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean—and all the reasons you'll want to visit each and every one.
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Worth the trip
National parks decorate the North American landscape, providing park-goers with extraordinarily diverse ecosystems and breathtaking natural beauty. Extremely remote locations and susceptibility to severe weather mean that some of these parks receive far fewer visitors than their stunning scenery deserves. Some hard-to-reach parks can only be visited by small boat or plane and receive fewer than 200 visitors per year. Don’t miss these 10 national parks in the U.S. that are off-the-beaten-path.
Denali National Park
Okay, so Denali National Park in Alaska is not necessarily the most difficult park to get to (you can drive there from Anchorage or Fairbanks) but most visitors to Denali only see a very small portion of the park’s six million acres. Visitors driving themselves into the park can only access the first 15 miles of the road, while those riding the park-operated bus turn around after 60 miles. The only way to get to the end of the tourist road—mile 92—is to either stay in a lodge, such as the Denali Backcountry Lodge or to join the narrated Denali Backcountry Adventures full-day bus tour. Both options allow for activities like gold panning and nature walks but staying overnight at the lodge means you can join a guided morning hike to take in the entire Alaskan mountain range, where it’s unlikely you’ll see another soul. These 40 stunning photos of national parks covered in snow will inspire you to get packing.
Gwaii Haanas National Park
Gwaii Haanas National Park in British Colombia is not your typical park. Made up of 1,884 islands and islets that are only accessible by plane or boat, it’s a quiet, lesser-visited park that’s perfect for kayaking, camping, and wildlife spotting. Sometimes referred to as the “Canadian Galapagos,” Gwaii Haanas is home to many endemic species found nowhere else, as well as brown and black bears, porpoises, sea lions, and whales. As a migrant bird stopover along the Pacific flyway, you’ll also find large seabird breeding colonies here. Ferries and cruise ships do visit the park but the quickest way to get there is by plane (about two hours from Vancouver). The archipelago also boasts one of the most gorgeous shipwrecks in the world.
Los Haitises National Park
A new highway accessing Los Haitises National Park in the Dominican Republic has made accessing the park a bit easier but its low profile and remote location mean few tourists have even heard of the park. Massive rock formations jut out of turquoise waters as boat tours weave through mangrove forests, explore caves with indigenous pictographs, and float past pelicans, manatees, and dolphins. The easiest way to get here is to fly into Santo Domingo, drive 100-miles northeast to Samaná, then catch a ferry to the park. Several companies run day trips to the park but considering the effort it takes to get here, not to mention its astounding beauty, it’s well worth spending a night within the park or at a treehouse ecovillage just 20 miles away. Discover 13 other under-the-radar Caribbean gems.
Dry Tortugas National Park
About 70 miles west of Key West, Florida lies Dry Tortugas National Park, a remote, mostly open water park that is only accessible by boat or seaplane. This pristine park may be a challenge to get to but its landscape is stunning and it’s one of the best places to camp in a national park. Crystal clear waters beg visitors to kayak through mangroves and to swim, snorkel, scuba dive among shipwrecks, and shallow coral reefs. History buffs will also enjoy exploring 19th-century Fort Jefferson. Note that due to its remoteness, there are no restaurants within the park and visitors are recommended to bring all the food they’ll need during their visit.
Alexander Humboldt National Park
Cuba’s most famous national park occupies a rainy, mountainous section of Guantanamo province on the northeast corner of the island. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is brimming with flora and fauna (like endangered tree snails) and is considered to be one of the most biologically diverse tropical islands on the planet. The park can be visited as a day trip from Baracoa, a charming, ocean-front village that deserves a few days in its own right, but the nearest major airports are in Holguin and Santiago de Cuba, each several hours away by car/bus. As most flights to Cuba fly into Havana, visitors could catch a domestic flight to Holguin or Santiago de Cuba. From there, hire a taxi or take the Viazul tourist bus to Baracoa then hire a private taxi to the park. Don’t miss these never before seen photos of Havana.
Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands
The Caribbean may be known for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing, but beautiful beaches are only the beginning of what Virgin Islands National Park has in store for park-goers. A must-see within the national park is Trunk Bay, considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but anyone visiting the island should allow plenty of time to explore its other attractions. Visitors can hike to old sugar plantation ruins, volunteer with endangered sea turtle conservation efforts, or explore ancient petroglyphs carved by the indigenous Taino people that occupied the island. There are two options for visiting the park: flying to St. Thomas and taking a ferry to St. John, or joining a cruise, such as SeaDream, which visits the national park as part of the cruise itinerary.
Gates to the Arctic
Situated entirely north of the Arctic Circle, Gates to the Arctic national park in Alaska is the northernmost national park in the United States. We’re talking pure, untouched wilderness so there are no roads, no trails, and no established campsites. If you’re thinking that this extremely northern location means the park has nothing more than snow and ice, think again! About 8.4 million acres of wild rivers, caribou-studded valleys, and alpine lakes await adventurous visitors. Due to 24-hour sunlight in the summer, the park serves as the summer destination of many migratory birds. Note that cell phones do not work here so park visitors must be strong hikers and competent in wilderness survival skills. If not, they should hire a local guide service or outfitter to accompany them. These 16 photos prove that Alaska is every bit the winter wonderland you dream it to be.
National Park of American Samoa
While it’s not technically in North America, the National Park of American Samoa is the first—and only—U.S. national park in the southern hemisphere and is one of a handful of islands Americans can visit without a passport. Sitting 2,600 miles west of Hawaii, a 14-hour flight (including a four-hour layover in Honolulu) separates American Samoa from the contiguous 48 states. Spread across three islands, the park spans lush tropical rain forest (complete with mountainous adventure trails), powdery sand beaches, and massive, unbleached coral reefs. Local Samoans help manage the park and their villages provide unique home-stay guest accommodations. The park is exceptionally beautiful but visitors should be prepared for heat, humidity, and mosquitos—lots of them.
Sitting just 400 miles from the north pole in the Canadian Arctic, Quttinirpaaq can only be accessed by plane and truly offers visitors a “top of the world” experience. Kickback in high-arctic accommodations (somewhat of a tent and cabin hybrid) and head out to explore massive glaciers, cross wild rivers, and hike through tundra dotted with yellow Arctic poppies. Wildlife lovers will spot muskoxen, arctic wolves, caribou, and polar bears and stargazers may be treated to the Northern Lights. Due to its extreme northern location, Quttinirpaaq is drenched in 24-hour sunlight from May to August and is blanketed in darkness from November to February. Hint: you’ll want to go in the summer.
Torngat Mountain National Park
Inuktitut (the Inuit language) for “Place of Spirits,” Torngat Mountains National Parks is the only park in Canada that is 100 percent managed by indigenous Inuit people, who also serve as park guides. Spanning 3,700 square miles, this massive park receives just 200 visitors per year. Hiking is superb and the endless rivers, waterfalls, mountains, floating icebergs, and whale and seal spottings make it a photographer’s paradise. The park is only accessible six to eight weeks per year (typically mid-July to early September) when enough ice has melted to allow boats to enter. Visitors can arrive by plane or boat, and currently, Adventure Canada is the only expedition cruise visiting the park. Still hesitant to book your trip? These stunning photos of national parks in full bloom will help solidify your travel plans.