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Isle Royale: The Least-Visited National Park in the Contiguous United States

A whopping 300 million people toured the national parks in 2015—a number so large that the National Park Service is actually weighing the possibility of visitor caps. Not every park is so busy, though; the least-visited parks, which get a fraction of the NPS’s total headcount, are in Alaska or American Samoa. In the contiguous United States, however, the honor of least-visited park goes to an island in the middle of Lake Superior called Isle Royale National Park.

The low attendance isn’t due to its lack of splendor or dull landscapes, but how hard it is to get there. Isle Royale is only accessible via boat or seaplane, the former of which can entail a trip lasting anywhere from an hour and a half to five hours depending on where you’re departing from (boats leave from a few locations in Michigan and Minnesota). As a result, the annual number of visitors to Isle Royale is around 16,500, which is roughly what Yosemite gets in a single day during the month of June—not even the busiest time of the year.

Those who do make it to Isle Royale tend to stay a lot longer than other parks' visitors—three and a half days vs. four hours—and with good reason. The park, established on April 3, 1940, is a National Wilderness Area and an International Biosphere Reserve made up of 894 square miles of wilderness. Wolves and moose roam the land, and predator-prey interactions on the island have been studied for nearly 40 years. There are miles and miles of trail to hike, camping, kayaking, fishing, and more. And best of all, you can often partake in your activities of choice in near-isolation—just you and nature—which, really, is sort of what the parks are all about.

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Geological Map Shows the Massive Reservoir Bubbling Beneath Old Faithful
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Yellowstone National Park is home to rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs, but Old Faithful is easily its most iconic landmark. Every 45 to 125 minutes, visitors gather around the geyser to watch it shoot streams of water reaching up to 100 feet in the air. The punctual show is one of nature’s greatest spectacles, but new research from scientists at the University of Utah suggests that what’s going on at the geyser’s surface is just the tip of the iceberg.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, features a map of the geological plumbing system beneath Old Faithful. Geologists have long known that the eruptions are caused by water heated by volcanic rocks beneath the ground reaching the boiling point and bubbling upwards through cracks in the earth. But the place where this water simmers between appearances has remained mysterious to scientists until now.

Using 133 seismometers scattered around Old Faithful and the surrounding area, the researchers were able to record the tiny tremors caused by pressure build-up in the hydrothermal reservoir. Two weeks of gathering data helped them determine just how large the well is. The team found that the web of cracks and fissures beneath Old Faithful is roughly 650 feet in diameter and capable of holding more than 79 million gallons of water. When the geyser erupts, it releases just 8000 gallons. You can get an idea of how the reservoir fits into the surrounding geology from the diagram below.

Geological map of geyser.
Sin-Mei Wu, University of Utah

After making the surprising discovery, the study authors plan to return to the area when park roads close for the winter to conduct further research. Next time, they hope to get even more detailed images of the volatile geology beneath this popular part of Yellowstone.

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31 Facts About National Parks
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A little over 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into law, ensuring that the country’s most remarkable natural landscapes would be preserved for future generations. Today, national parks are more popular than ever, with millions of visitors passing through the system’s 400-odd properties each year. But even if you’re working to check every national park off your bucket list, you may be unfamiliar with some of these facts. For instance, did you know that Dolly Parton is an official ambassador to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Or that Yosemite campaigned to host the Winter Olympics in 1932?

That’s just some of the trivia John Green shares in this latest video from Mental Floss on YouTube. You can check out all 31 facts above, then subscribe to our channel if you're still hungry for more brain food.

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