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Get off the beaten park path

Explore some of America's lesser-known national parks

By Marnie Hunter

Nature walks and canoe tours are popular activities at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.
Summer Trips
National Park Service
Tourism and Leisure

(CNN) -- This summer, instead of elbowing for room around Old Faithful or vying for a picnic table with a Grand Canyon view, consider packing up the family and pointing the car toward some of America's lesser-known national parks.

"Some of these places may not be as familiar, they are not going to be as heavily visited, which means that you and several fewer people are going to be exploring them this summer," said National Park Service spokesman Al Nash.

Last year, more than 266 million recreational visitors toured the 388 sites that make up the National Park Service.

Nearly a quarter of the visits were made to the 57 scenic areas designated national parks, including tourism hubs such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone.

But travel experts say there are many parks -- as well as battlefields, seashores, and other sites within the realm of the National Park Service -- that go undiscovered by the majority of tourists.

These places have plenty to offer without the crowds and traffic jams that are typical during the busy summer months at some of the most visited destinations.

Looking beyond the most popular sites can make for fewer headaches in the planning stages and smoother navigation inside the parks, according to Nash.

"It's easier to find a place to park your car. For those who are interested in camping or finding lodging in the area, it's often easier to plan a trip on shorter notice to some of these places," Nash said.

More room to work out the logistics of your trip isn't the only benefit to choosing a more lightly visited location. The choice also may offer visitors a leg up on getting a true feel for the site.

"Certainly you have a greater opportunity to get to know these places on a more intimate basis," Nash said. "You're not competing with as many other people to see and to do and to go."

Great escapes

Michigan's Isle Royale National Park, in Lake Superior off the coast of Ontario, Canada, south of Thunder Bay, is one place visitors won't face a lot of competition.

According to NPS statistics, last year during the park's busiest months, July and August, Isle Royale had only about 12,000 recreational visitors. Many of the country's sweeping Western parks welcome more than a million tourists during the peak season.

Isle Royale's remote location plays a role in keeping visitor numbers down.

It is accessible only by seaplane from Houghton on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or by boat from Copper Harbor, Michigan, and Grand Portage, Minnesota. So getting there does require some advance planning.

This off-the-beaten-path destination comes complete with moose and wolves, 165 miles of scenic hiking trails and 36 campgrounds.

"It's a very lightly visited wilderness park, so people who are specifically interested in getting away from it all can really get away from it all in Isle Royale," Nash said.

North Cascades National Park in northwestern Washington offers a different brand of ruggedness with hundreds of glaciers clinging to the North Cascades, sometimes called the American Alps.

"It's very attractive to hikers and mountaineers because it is so rugged and there are just so many opportunities for backcountry hiking," said Elizabeth Newhouse, editor of National Geographic's "Guide to the National Parks of the United States."

The cool, dry air in the North Cascades means a welcome respite for visitors during the summer. Despite the pleasant climate and mountain scenery, North Cascades National Park welcomed fewer than 10,000 visitors last August, according to NPS statistics.

For visitors who like more amenities than the backcountry has to offer, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas are part of the North Cascades complex, and offer activities such as boating, fishing and horseback riding.

American life

Florida's Biscayne National Park, south of Miami, unique because 95 percent of the park is underwater, is another site well worth a visit, Newhouse said.

"People mainly see it by taking a tour on a glass bottom boat, where you see fantastic corals and gorgeous tropical fish, or by snorkeling or scuba diving," she said.

More lightly visited parks offer alternatives to some of the biggest tourist draws like the Grand Canyon.

Along with being home to more than 325 types of fish, Biscayne also boasts an extensive mangrove forest and submerged archaeological remains of centuries-old shipwrecks.

For travelers more interested in pioneer life than marine life, a trip to North Dakota may be in order.

"If you like wide-open spaces and a sense of the Old West and pioneering spirit, there's Theodore Roosevelt National Park," Nash said.

The park consists of portions of the ranches Roosevelt helped establish in the 1880s in the Badlands of western North Dakota two decades before he became president.

It offers spectacular settings for a range of outdoor activities including horseback riding, wildlife viewing and camping.

If riding the open range, diving into the underwater world or hiking the backcountry don't suit summer trekkers' tastes, there are hundreds of additional sites waiting to be explored within the National Park Service system.

And don't fret if you're planning a trip to one of the more heavily visited areas. Most people drive through the parks and stick to the popular "front country" overlooks, Newhouse said.

"If you park your car and take off down the path, take a trailhead and really go onto a trail, you'll find before long that you've lost everybody," she said.

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