Best National Park in the US? It's not Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Great Smokies, according to new list

Sunrise at Isle Royale National Park
This National Park draws fewer crowds than its more popular counterparts, but is still rated highly for hiking trails and wildlife sightings (Image credit: Posnov)

What is the best National Park in the US? The answer, of course, is entirely subjective  – but when put to the average person, most might suggest Yellowstone for its heady array of geysers, Yosemite for its tumbling waterfalls or the hazy peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains. However, a new list ranking the National Parks has named a much lesser-visited (and even lesser-known) park as the top park to visit.

According to the new list by the Wall Street Journal published last week, the best National Park is in fact Isle Royale, Michigan. Never heard of it? You wouldn't be the first, as its national visitorship is just 25,000 per year, barely a drop in the bucket compared to the 12 million who crowd the gates of Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. And that is part of the appeal of this park.

The WSJ say they used "cold, hard numbers" to come up with their list, and looked at crowd sizes, quality and quantity of hiking trails, availability of campsites and access to recreational activities like mountain biking, fishing and horseback riding to determine their rankings. 

With that criteria in mind, Isle Royale, which sits 15 miles off the mainland in Lake Superior and can only be reached by plane or ferry, elbowed the most popular National Parks out of the way to reach the top of the list ahead of Northern Cascades, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and Big Bend National Park, which round out the top three.

Two wolves howling

The paper called it "a land of moose and wolves and the drama forever playing out between them" (Image credit: Laura Hedien)

What's so great about Isle Royale?

The lack of crowds is key to sending Isle Royale out ahead of the pack, and makes the 45-mile long island a "true wilderness" according to the paper, which also noted the wildlife viewing opportunities, writing that the parks is "a land of moose and wolves and the drama forever playing out between them."

Last year, we reported on the long-running wolf-moose project on the island which has returned a thriving wolf population to Isle Royale and benefited the moose and vegetation.

The WSJ also noted the ease with which backpackers can pitch a tent in one of the park’s 36 rustic campgrounds, while hikers will find plenty of day hiking opportunities, too. This rugged island made our list of the most underrated National Parks thanks to its pristine shoreline, swamps, boreal forests, glacial lakes, several small mountains. 

Isle Royale National Park is open every year from April 16 through October 31 so there's plenty of time to plan a trip there this year. There are no shops, but the Rock Harbor Lodge has two restaurants. Boaters and backpackers are encouraged to bring their own food, and it's important to know what to do if you encounter a moose or a wolf on the trail.

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.