National parks tend to be seen as the perfect places to seek refuge and get in touch with nature. But with the crowds and selfie sticks parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite attract, they can also be the farthest from serenity. So instead of another trip battling tourists, head to these far-flung locales to bask in the solitude of some of the most remote national parks on Earth.
1. Band-e-Amir National Park, Afghanistan
Yes, there is a national park in Afghanistan. And yes, it’s worth seeing. Established in 2009 and known as “Afghanistan’s Grand Canyon,” the country’s first and only national park (pictured at top) is an oasis of tranquility in a region long gripped by war. A series of six stunning deep blue lakes set against the rugged red cliffs and high desert canyons of central Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush Mountains, the park receives about 6,000 local tourists each summer when the area is warm enough to visit. As you might expect, amenities are very basic with small dinghies and a few swan-shaped paddleboats available for use in addition to one public toilet. You can camp or sleep on a mat on the floor at a teahouse/hotel located within the park, but most visitors come for the day to enjoy its scenic waterfalls and placid reflections of the mountains in the lakes. Walking is the main mode of transport here (unless you know someone with a donkey or horse) and while it is only one hour from the town of Bamiyan (where the famous Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001) and four hours from Kabul, it feels a world away.
2. Northeast Greenland National Park, Greenland
The world’s largest and northernmost national park is also the largest protected terrestrial area in the world, roughly the size of Egypt and larger than all but 30 countries. As it takes up nearly half the total landmass of Greenland itself in the country’s largely uninhabited northeast quadrant, even the Danish territory’s official tourism site recognizes “it is not a national park in the traditional sense.” Home to fewer than 50 permanent residents such as climate scientists at weather monitoring stations and members of the Danish navy’s elite Sirius Patrol (who patrol the area by dogsled), the area’s fewer than 500 visitors who experience the rugged beauty of the park’s coastal fjords and remote glaciers mostly do so via high-end Arctic cruise stops. Otherwise you need a special permit and “valid reason” for travel to this international biosphere reserve, which features an average annual temperature of three degrees Fahrenheit and is covered in darkness four months of the year. On the other hand, the southern end of the park is known as the “Arctic Riviera” thanks to 24-hour summer sunshine and temperatures that can soar as high as the 40s.
3. Ahaggar National Park, Algeria
Located in the middle of southern Algeria’s Sahara Desert region, one of the world’s largest national parks (roughly the size of Sweden) is largely wind-swept desert dominated by the jagged volcanic rock formations of the picturesque Ahaggar Mountains. Yet despite much of the region’s barren Lawrence of Arabia-type feel, the park is also brimming with life such as gazelle, sheep and the occasional cheetah; as well as exotic plant species that can be found in no other parts of the Sahara. The landscape is also surprisingly and eerily beautiful with trippy otherworldly rock structures dotted with palm and olive trees as well as active volcanic ranges through which you can hike, mountain bike or just dawdle staring mouth agape at the world-famous sunsets. Bonus: Tassili n’Ajjer Cultural Park, one of the world’s most important sites of prehistoric cave art, is just a short Jeep ride away.
4. Socotra Island Nature Sanctuary, Yemen
By far one of the most staggeringly unique places on Earth, the otherworldly island of Socotra isolated in the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia is a cross between a peaceful Cast Away-style paradise and a crazy acid trip sci-fi fantasy. With plants up to 20 million years old and hundreds of endemic species that can be found nowhere else on Earth, this “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” features everything from pristine beaches and lava-filled canyons to rugged mountains and limestone caves. With a landscape dominated by the mysterious flying saucer-style Dragon’s Blood trees, the island is not only a nature sanctuary geared toward ecotourism but also home to around 40,000 people who mainly live in a few scattered towns such as the historic walled city of Al Hajjarah. Activities include forest hiking, bird watching, even shipwreck diving tours, while the main mode of transport here is either by bike or camel as the number of roads has purposely been limited in order to preserve the island’s one-of-a-kind mystique.
5. Kronotsky Zapovednik, Russia
When you think of Russia, you don’t often think of national parks. But the world’s largest country in fact has 48 of them as well as 101 strictly protected nature reserves, including this Far East Russian gem located just across the Bering Sea from Alaska’s westernmost point. About 25 percent larger than Yellowstone, the park is most well-known for its hundreds of geysers and hot springs that can be found near its world-famous “Valley of the Geysers” set amid active volcanic mountain ranges and vast open meadows that are home to one of Russia’s largest brown bear populations. Once only accessible to scientists, the park has been opened to tourism in recent years but visitation is still limited to around 3,000 well-heeled tourists per year who pay $700 for a day trip via helicopter as there are no roads to the park. And, with the park a source of great national pride, the Russian government seems to like it that way.
Jay Gentile is a world traveler and freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications including SPIN, VICE, Chicago Tribune, Thrillist and Consequence of Sound.