Let This Year's Vacation Take You Someplace Unexpected

The Rockies, Yosemite, Yellowstone... national parks that are all likely on your list of must-see places. But what about America's lesser-known gems that are equally incredible, and often more peaceful? This summer, consider avoiding the Grand Canyon throngs and venturing farther afield to some of these remote, pristine wonders of nature - a few of the least-visited national parks.

Isle Royale

Isle Royale is a true hidden gem - perhaps this is why Michigan's state gemstone (Isle Royale greenstone) is named after the remote little island that's closer to Canada than it is to the States. Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, Isle Royale National Park attracted 15,973 visitors in 2007.

Due to its remoteness, the island is populated by only about one third of the mammals that are found on the mainland. Interestingly, it is the only known place where wolves and moose live together without bears. If you don't like crowds (or bears) pack up the seaplane and head to Isle Royale National Park. Check out these amazing wildlife photos.

Dry Tortugas
Seventy miles west of Key West are the Dry Tortugas islands, which mix history and nature seamlessly.

The centerpiece is Fort Jefferson, a brick fortress originally intended to protect the U.S. from Gulf Coast invaders (namely pirates), but also used as a Union stronghold during the Civil War. The never-completed fort is comprised of more than 16 million bricks, making it the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.

Dry Tortugas is also a great place to watch migratory birds in the spring. As the 60,895 people who visited the park in 2007 can attest, Dry Tortugas National Park offers some great history in an idyllic setting. Meet America's greenest presidents.

Great Basin
Think of Nevada's Great Basin National Park as the yin to Las Vegas's yang. Flashing neon lights are replaced with awesome, naked-eye views of the starry night - a rare opportunity for many. The park near the Utah border attracted 81,364 visitors in 2007.

It's estimated that two-thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their backyards, and as light pollution continues to worsen, chances to observe the cosmos as nature intended might be running out. But thanks to an almost complete lack of civilization in these parts, that's not a problem at Great Basin National Park, where the night skies are among the darkest in the country. Light pollution may also be throwing off the migratory patterns of birds. Here is one idea San Francisco had to help.

Lake Clark
Given that it contains all the best that Alaskan wilderness has to offer, it is surprising Lake Clark National Park and Preservation had only 5,549 visitors in 2007. Lakes, active volcanoes, three mountain ranges, glaciers, waterfalls, arctic-like tundra and even a rainforest comprise this majestic park outside of Anchorage. Sled dog teams were the best way to travel around the area until the 1960s, but they have recently faced competition from snowmobiles.

At 6,297 square miles, the park provides plenty of open space for your personal enjoyment. Its average of only 15 visitors per day means each visitor has 419 square miles of pristine national park to him or herself every day. Get there soon: it's one of the eight endangered national parks.

PLUS: See these other endangered places before they're gone forever.

Have you visited any of these parks? What is your favorite national park?

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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.