for National Geographic News
Visiting a national park conjures images of pristine, untrammeled wilderness. Whether traveling to see geological wonders or historical landmarks, visitors head out to parks in search of clean, quiet spaces to escape the din of urban life.
To find out which parks meet those expectationsand which fall shortthe National Geographic Sustainable Destinations Resource Center recently conducted a survey of 55 national parks in the U.S. and Canada. The results, which appear in the July/August issue of National Geographic Traveler, offer a few surprises.
Traveler geotourism editor Jonathan Tourtellot spearheaded the survey, which solicited findings from 300 expert panelists in such fields as park management, archaeology, and historic preservation.
"The winner was a big surprise to me," Tourtellot said, "because I had never even heard of it."
British Columbia's Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site was the surprise top scorer. If you've never heard of it either, you're probably not alone. Located in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the central coast of British Columbia, the park welcomes a mere 3,000 visitorsall arriving by boat or floatplaneeach year.
Beyond a simple scorecard of the parks themselves, the survey also offers assessments of the parks' surrounding communities, the so-called gateways from which visitors launch their outdoor excursions.
At a time when parks are struggling with overcrowding, increased pollution, and gaudy development, the highest scorers like Gwaii Haanas turned out to be more isolated, less well-known, and surrounded by communities concerned with preserving their cultural integrity.
The panelists, who responded to the survey anonymously, noted that Gwaii Haanas's low visitation helps keep its environment pristine. But the park also scores high for its relationship with the nearby Haida Nation.
"The strong co-management of the park with the Haida people has significantly improved the management of this park," one panelist wrote in his findings, "and it largely retains it wilderness character and cultural significance."
The top park in the United States, like Gwaii Haanas, is not widely visited, either. Fewer than 200,000 travelers visit Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a group of 21 islands on Lake Superior. And since most visitors pass through on sailboats or kayaks, their environmental impact is minimal.
Also like Gwaii Haanas, the Apostle Islands earned points among panelists for the relationship between the park and its nearest town, Bayfield. "Bayfield is a delightful gateway community providing authentic Great Lakes atmosphere," one panelist noted.
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