These national parks are less popular, but no less spectacular
Visiting one or two national parks a year is a big feat. But for Jonathan Irish and Stefanie Payne, that wasn’t enough to fill their curiosity about America’s complex national parks system. They armed themselves with an assortment of Fujifilm X-series cameras and an Airstream trailer. The couple went on an epic journey. They dubbed it “The Greatest American Road Trip.” It was a nod to the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. Their mission was to visit all 59 parks. They wanted to do so in just 52 weeks.
“We decided to dedicate a year and do a project that was really special,” Irish tells Smithsonian.com. “We both grew up exploring the national parks. We wanted to see if it’s actually possible to visit all of them in a year.”
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Annual Visitors: 10,745
“We knew from day one of the project that Gates of the Arctic was going to be one of the greatest challenges to do and do right," Payne tells Smithsonian.com. "It’s incredibly remote. There are no established trails in the park. Therefore, it's hard to both get to and explore. We only saw two souls during our 82-mile float down the Noatak River. It is very much the heart of the park."
The river surprised Payne for a reason other than its beauty. Grizzly bears on the river banks were curious about the visitors, but not aggressive. "They just aren't familiar with human beings," she explains. "That idea boggles my mind-unfamiliar humans. And I thought we were everywhere!”
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
Annual Visitors: 17,818
Lake Clark is also only accessible by plane. But Payne says it was well worth the trouble. "It’s very wild, just like all of the Alaska national parks. The wildlife viewing is exceptional," she says.
Brown bears wandering right next to their camp was reason to visit in and of itself, she says. But the experience of flying into and out of Lake Clark was memorable, too. "You’ll travel by bush plane. This gives a unique glimpse into the rugged wilderness-braided rivers, lush tundra, jagged mountain peaks and the impossibly blue Lake Clark," she says. Another highlight was Proenneke's Cabin. It's "a historic homestead engineered immaculately with ingredients grown in the Lake Clark wilderness."
Isle Royale National Park
Location: A remote island off the coast of Michigan in Lake Superior
Annual Visitors: 18,684
“Visiting Isle Royal feels like an adventure from the very beginning," Payne says.
"To get there you have to cross Lake Superior by ferry or seaplane. As soon as you land, with mainland Michigan gone from your sight, you get the sense that you’re truly off the grid."
If she were a Midwesterner, she says she would consider it the best place around for adventures like hiking, camping and kayaking. The couple's basecamp was at Rock Harbor Lodge. It's the park's only lodging option. “We could drop down to the dock to fish, hop in a canoe and catch the Aurora Borealis. This is a prime viewing spot during the summer."
They even visited the home of the longest continuous predator-prey study in the world. The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale. "It was amazing to put on my thinking cap and learn about the northern wildlife habitats in an area that I’m not too familiar with,” she says.
North Cascades National Park
Annual Visitors: 20,677
North Cascades may be relatively unknown. But for Payne it was like coming home. “Washington is my home state, so I know this park in an intimate way," she explains.
There she found the beauty she fell in love with in the past. It included “walls of trees; rocky, mountainous peaks; waterfalls for days; and vibrant, turquoise-blue alpine lakes."
They hiked to Thornton Lakes. Then they slept beside a serene lake. And they took plenty of scenic drives.
"I love photographing the roads that meander wild," she says.
"For me, a trip along the North Cascades Scenic Byway is a must to take in those sweeping views.”
Katmai National Park and Preserve
Annual Visitors: 37,818
“Before we started this project," says Payne, "I was most excited to go to Katmai."
A long-time Brooks Falls Bearcam fan, she's been "mesmerized" by witnessing bears catch salmon in plain sight.
Their home base was the Katmai Wilderness Lodge on the Shelikof Strait. The couple explored large stretches of the coast by boat and on foot. They went with bear naturalists.
"Having that expertise to access while in the field adds so much to an experience," she says. (Guides also know the ways of bears. This can increase safety for visitors.)
One highlight was a day trip to Brooks Falls. They watched bears eat their fill despite being fat with berries and salmon. "They looked so tired of eating," she recalls.
National Park of American Samoa
Location: American Samoa
Annual Visitors: 13,892
Later this year, Payne and Irish will visit one of America's least-known and most remote national parks. The National Park of American Samoa.
"It’s hard to imagine that one of the national parks is closer to Australia than it is to the mainland United States," says Payne.
She thinks that its tropical terrain will be a welcome break after so much time on the road. Expectations are high for Irish. He has visited the park before. "I loved the dramatic cliffs and coastlines," he recalls.
He calls American Samoa "busy and crazy.” It is full of bustling roads. They are overrun with cars, stray dogs and pedestrians. He thinks the park is ”a peaceful shelter" from the chaos nearby.
"Most people have an idyllic impression of the South Pacific islands. And the park is probably the only place on the island where one can find that serene nature that is natural to the environment," he explains.