America has many national parks - 63 to be exact. Many of them are utterly stunning and world-famous - like Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park. But which national parks are the best? That question is largely unanswerable as it depends on one's individual preferences.
One may be tempted to go by visitors as a gauge of how popular the national park is and therefore how good it is, but this actually has more to do with accessibility and proximity. The most visited national park is not one of the "greats" like Zion, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or Yellowstone, instead, it's the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. The least visited is the spectacular Gates Of The Arctic National Park - but it's incredibly difficult to access and remote.
The Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park represents the Appalachian Mountains at its best. It is situated in North Carolina on the Tennessee border. It preserves the largest old-growth forest east of the Mississippi River and boasts one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. This is a park that can be enjoyed from one's vehicle.
- Size: 292 Square Miles or 756 Square Kilometers
- Annual Visitors: 12,500,000
- Black Bears: Home Of The Densest Black Bear Population In Eastern US
This stunning national park is also designed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While there are no National Park Services in Gates of the Arctic, they are very active here. Additionally, they maintain historic 78 structures in the park and that were part of various small Appalachian communities.
- Visitor Center: Sugarlands Visitor Center and Oconaluftee Visitor Center (with a museum).
Many of the trails in the national park are rugged and steep, but there are also a number of short accessible trails for those with wheelchairs. One of the big attractions here is the Mountain Farm Museum that preserves historic buildings. Most of the attractions are wheelchair accessible as are the talks and demonstrations.
In the Smokey Mountains, one can enjoy hiking, ranger programs, seeing historic settlements, camping, horse riding, and other attractions. It is a very easy park to visit and explore.
In the park, there is limited lodging - only the Le Conte Lodge (which is only accessible by hiking). However, there is plenty of accommodation options near the park. Inside the park, there are many camping opportunities with a selection of backcountry campgrounds, front-country campgrounds, group campgrounds, and horse camps.
Gates Of the Arctic
America's least visited national park is also its largest and northernmost park. It is so large that it's bigger than a number of countries in the world (like Belgium). Together with the adjacent Noatak Wilderness, it forms the largest contiguous wilderness in the United States.
- Size: 13,238 Square Miles or 34,287 Square Kilometers
- Annual Visitors: Around 10,000
- Caribou: There Are Over Half A Million Caribou Here
This hostile but stunning national park is located north of the Arctic Circle in northern Alaska. It's not hard to understand why it's the least visited national park in America - there are no roads in or out of it!
- Access: Must Schedule Flights Or Be A very Intrepid Hiker (There Are No Roads)
- Visitor Centers: None (In the National Park)
The park is open all the time 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. But remember this is in the Arctic Circle. The weather can and does change on a dime and extreme cold is a very real danger. One is far from help here. Warning that cell phones don't work and there are limited means of communication.
- Covid-19 Notice: To Visit Gate Of The Arctic One Must Request Permission From The Village Council Of Anaktuvuk Pass Via Email
This national park is vast and it is untouched wilderness - don't expect any of the development of the other national parks. There are no roads, no trails, no NPS services, and no established campsites. There are no set routes - just fly in and wander wherever one wants.
- Services: None
- Warning: Visitors Need To Be Proficient In Outdoor Survival Skills
The landscape is also challenging, and visitors should expect dense vegetation, boggy ground, frequent (fridged) stream crossings, and tussocks. Six miles is a good day's travel for an experienced hiker here.
If one is not proficient in wilderness survival skills then take a guide. Local air taxis provide flight-seeing trips with options of day trips and overnight camping at remote locations.
Accessibility and Proximity
The reason why there are such different levels of visitation is accessibility and proximity to population centers. Great Smokey Mountains is one of the best national parks in the eastern half of the United States, it's easy to access, it's relevantly near America's population centers.
Gates of the Arctic on the other hand is basically inaccessible to all except the most intrepid and those who have deeper pockets and can afford the expense of charting flights etc.