The United States is home to incredible natural wonders and many protected wilderness areas. As of September 2020, there are a total of 421 units in the US National Park System. These sites are spread across the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories and include national parks, seashores, recreation areas, monuments, battlefields, and more.
Currently, 62 of these sites are designated as US national parks, each of which has fantastic things to offer. From old-growth forests to soaring mountains to stunning alpine lakes, US national parks are filled with opportunities to discover the natural world’s immense beauty. With so many awe-inspiring places to visit, how do you choose where to go next?
We selected the 25 most popular US national parks and sorted them by 2019 visitation numbers to help you decide which ones to put on your bucket list. Click on the web story below to see the full list:
US National Parks at a Glance
There is incredible diversity among US national parks in terms of environments, ecosystems, wildlife, visitor numbers, age, and size.
As a whole, national parks have been increasing in popularity in recent years among Americans as well as visitors from around the world. In 2019, US national parks saw more than 327 million visitors, the third-highest total in more than 100 years.
Visitation numbers at the 62 different parks ranged from around 10,500 at Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska to 12.5 million at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.
All 25 parks on our list have more than 1 million visitors a year, but it’s still possible to experience solitude by going in the off-season or avoiding popular trails and scenic drives.
Some of the most popular parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park and the Grand Canyon, have been protected for around a century and have been near the top of the list for many years. Others, like Indiana Dunes and Gateway Arch, have only become national parks in the past couple of years.
There is also significant variation in the size of US national parks. The largest park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska, contains a whopping 13.2 million acres. This park is larger than Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the country of Switzerland combined.
The smallest, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, is just 5,550 acres and could fit into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park almost 2,400 times.
No matter how old, young, large, or small a park is, it still has amazing things to offer to those who visit. Many of the parks on this list are known for their incredible hiking opportunities and natural beauty. Some of them even contain sections of famous thru-hikes and trails known to be among the best hikes in the world.
National parks have become such an iconic part of the US that it’s hard to imagine life without them. But before 1872, there were no US national parks. Continue reading below to learn more about the history of America’s national parks and what qualities lead an area to become protected by the National Park Service (NPS).
History of the National Parks and NPS
After the Lewis and Clark Expedition from 1804 to 1806 and subsequent explorations, word spread about the wonders of the American West. As a result, more and more people ventured westward to discover the natural beauty they had heard tales of.
Westward expansion became even more popular In the middle of the 19th century when news of gold discovered in California brought around 300,000 people to the state in search of riches. As more people traveled west to profit from resources like gold, lumber, farmland, and ranchland, naturalists grew concerned about the destruction of the West’s pristine landscapes.
Conservationists like Nathaniel P. Langford and John Muir began calling for the protection of wilderness areas, and politicians listened. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant made Yellowstone the world’s first national park.
More US national parks were created through the beginning of the 20th century. But with no central organization to manage these protected areas, they were falling victim to private commercial interests and entrepreneurs who saw the potential to profit from the parks’ resources.
Thanks to the efforts of industrialist and millionaire Stephen Mather, the National Park Service was created in 1916 and became dedicated to preservation. The organization’s objective was to secure these wilderness areas for future generations’ enjoyment, a mission it still seeks to uphold today.
How Does a Place Become a National Park?
The National Park Service has set forth certain criteria that a particular area must meet to become a national park. According to the NPS, “Only the most outstanding natural, cultural, historic, and recreational resources are added to the National Park System by an act of Congress.”
Each place becomes a national park for different reasons, but generally, parks contain one or more of the following characteristics:
- Natural Resources – From unique rock formations to ancient forests to geothermal springs, there are exceptional natural resources in US national parks. Protecting these areas allows the chance for us to study and enjoy them for generations to come.
- Wilderness Areas – Few areas today feel truly wild. The US National Park System contains some of the last wilderness areas in the country and ensures these spaces will stay wild in the future.
- Wildlife Habitats – Many US national parks are home to extensive flora and fauna, including numerous endangered and threatened species. Protecting their natural habitats ensures endemic plants and animals will have a place to thrive for years to come.
- Cultural and Historical Value – In addition to their natural value, many parks have important cultural and historical significance. Some protect the archaeological heritage of Native Americans like the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people in Mesa Verde, while others, like Gateway Arch, commemorate moments in more recent American history.
- Recreational Value – Nearly every national park offers opportunities for outdoor recreation. From hiking to fishing to rock climbing, there are many different options for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy on public lands. Protecting these areas ensures future generations will have access to spaces where they can partake in their favorite outdoor activities.
Each national park is special for its own reasons and offers visitors unique opportunities to observe the wonders of the natural world. From witnessing a geyser erupt in Yellowstone National Park to seeing endangered manatees and American crocodiles in the Everglades, there are incredible things to do in all 25 places on our list.