The USA makes up 16.5 percent of the Earth’s land surface, so it’s unsurprising that America has its fair share of spectacular landscapes – many of which are now designated national parks. This year marks 100 years since the National Parks Service was founded and there are now 59 areas around the country and its territories that are under the protection of the United States Government.
There are hundreds of events going on throughout the year, including free open days at certain parks, and the release of a stunning film by Brand USA and MacGillivray Freeman that encapsulates America’s wild side. If you’re thinking about visiting a national park this year, here are a few fun facts to help you decide which ones to explore.
Top image © eyeCatchLight Photography/Shutterstock
Acadia National Park was first inhabited by the Wabanaki people, who settled here 12,000 years ago. They still have a spiritual relationship with the land, particularly Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the East Coast, because at certain times of the year it’s the first place in the entire country to see the sunrise.
2. Arches National Park, Utah
Millions of years of erosion have created the striking red and golden sandstones that spiral out of the ground in columns, arches, towers and spirals in Arches National Park. But counting the arches that gave the park its name is not as straightforward as you might think. In order to be counted as an arch, the rock’s opening must measure at least three feet in any direction, yet old arches sometimes fall, and new arches are being created all the time. Although over 2000 have been recorded, it’s impossible to keep track of the total number throughout this 76,519-acre park.
3. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The 244,000-acre Badlands National Park was once home to rhinoceros and saber-toothed cats, evidence of which was discovered by a seven-year-old girl in 2010. Today, it’s just home to bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and thousands of visitors from all over the world who come to see the hundreds of ancient fossils embedded in its rocks.
4. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend National Park isn’t just worth visiting for stunning scenery, with its dark nighttime skies, towering mountains and limestone canyons covering over 800,000 acres. This Texan national park has more bird species (over 450 in fact) than any other place in the USA. From woodpeckers to mockingbirds to gnatcatchers, Big Bend is a twitcher’s paradise.
5. Biscayne National Park, Florida
There are six shipwrecks in Florida‘s Biscayne National Park, a marine conservation area encompassing mangrove forests and coral reefs at Florida’s southern tip. The wrecked ships ran aground in the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and today are prime locations for scuba diving.
6. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Surprisingly few people have heard of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado; it’s among the country’s least visited national parks. Yet the striking, sheer rock faces of this mile-deep gorge, carved over two million years by the Gunnison River, make it one of the country’s most spectacular canyons. At points, it’s even deeper than it is wide.
This national park of epic proportions holds the world’s largest collection of hoodoos (rock pinnacles) in one place. Named after Mormon settler Ebenezer Bryce, who famously proclaimed that it would be “a helluva place to lose a cow”, Bryce Canyon National Park is by far one of the strangest landscapes in the US.
8. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The first-known successful rafting of Canyonlands‘ Cataract Canyon was undertaken in a wooden boat in 1869. Today, hundreds of whitewater-rafters enjoy a safer, though no less hair-raising experience in inflatable boats. Rivers define Utah‘s largest national park, dividing it into three main sections: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. Hikers will love the otherworldly Needles area, while drivers should head to the Island in the Sky, a mesa with incredible views of the park.
9. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Reef’s landscape is defined by what geologists call the Waterpocket Fold: essentially a wrinkle on the Earth’s surface.
This area has been preserved as a national park since 1971 and encompasses colourful cliffs, canyons and domes along its nearly hundred-mile length.
10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Chihuahuan Desert is beautiful on the surface, but even more intriguing beneath. This park has a network of 119 caves below ground, all formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone. The caves are so old, some of the speleothems (mineral deposits like stalactites or stalagmites) were active and growing during the Ice Age.
11. Channel Islands National Park, California
The islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara make up the Channel Islands National Park, sitting just off the coast of California. The park thrives with interesting wildlife species, including the only breeding colony of northern fur seals south of Alaska. The oldest human remains in North America were discovered here too – the 10,000-year-old bones were excavated in 1960 and dubbed the “Arlington Springs Man”.
12. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Local legends say that the knobbly knees (small growths that rise from the base) of the cypress trees in Congaree National Park are actually elves that come to life at night and dance through the swampy forests. Congaree, named for its Native American inhabitants that were wiped out by a smallpox epidemic hundreds of years ago, also has an astonishingly well-preserved and biologically-diverse river floodplain ecosystem, making it a fascinating place for children and adults alike.
The 1943ft-deep crater filled with crystalline waters in Crater Lake National Park is the deepest lake in America and one of the ten deepest in the world. Formed after a volcanic eruption 7700 years ago, today the lake is the centrepiece of a 740 square-kilometre national park, which is like a winter wonderland for most of the year, as from October to June it’s covered in snow.
Top image © Wollertz/Shutterstock
14. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
In the Mohawk language, Cuyahoga means ‘crooked river’ – a befitting name for the bendy waterways in this national park. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the only park in Ohio and is particularly gorgeous in the fall, when the tree leaves turn all shades of orange, brown and red.
15. Death Valley National Park, California & Nevada
The aptly named Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley National Park was recorded as the hottest place on Earth in July 1913 at 134°F (57°C). Today, it’s still sweltering come summer, with temperatures reaching up to 120°F (49°C). It’s the depth and shape of Death Valley that makes it so hot, as it’s walled in by mountain ranges, and little plant cover allows sunlight to heat up the desert ground.
16. Denali National Park & Preserve Alaska
The highest mountain in North America looms over this stunning national park. Once called Mount McKinley, it was renamed in 2015 by President Barack Obama, restoring its Koyukon name.
The mountain isn’t the park’s only highlight: there’s tundra and taiga, glaciers and abundant wildlife to be seen too.
17. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
There are seven small islands within the park, and from March to September, around 100,000 sooty terns come to nest on their shores.
The island pictured here is Garden Key, where the enormous but unfinished Fort Jefferson resides.
The astonishing Everglades National Park is vital to much of Florida‘s infrastructure and population: one in three residents in the state rely on the Everglades for their water supply. Its wetlands are also home to crocodiles, manatees and dolphins, while skulking through its grasses is the elusive Florida panther.
19. Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
America’s second-largest national park is also one of its least visited. There are no visitor facilities here, and it’s difficult to reach, but this makes for an even more rewarding experience. Undisturbed ecosystems thrive here: graceful caribou migrate across its wild rivers and through glacier-carved valleys.
20. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Glacier Bay is part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site on the southern Alaskan coast – one of the largest by area in the world – and has a brilliant array of wildlife. Humpback whales, dolphins, sea otters, porpoise and bears and more inhabit its vast wilderness.
21. Glacier National Park, Montana
This park in Montana, known to Native Americans as “Shining Mountains” and the “Backbone of the World”, has around 25 moving glaciers within it. There are also alpine meadows, mountain peaks and glassy lakes to be explored, and the landscape is a hiker’s dream with more than 700 miles of walking trails.
22. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The Grand Canyon – one of America’s most-visited sites, famous the world-over for its dramatic size – is apparently still getting bigger. Scientists have found it’s deepening by the thickness of a piece of paper each year.
But the canyon is far more than just a hole in the ground – it’s an important area for geological research, with its lower rock regions dating back around two billion years.
23. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park is arguably one of the country’s most impressive, with hulking mountains that rise almost 7000ft above the valley floor. Within these beautiful surroundings lives North America’s largest bird: the trumpeter swan, which can weigh up to 13 kilograms.
24. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
The name Great Basin, which refers to an area of over 200,000 square miles in Nevada, is somewhat misleading: rather than one enormous basin, there are actually 200 smaller basins in this national park. This park has relatively few visitors, so if you’re after a quiet escape to nature, Great Basin is the place to go.
25. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
As its name suggests, Great Sand Dunes National Park holds America’s highest dunes, some rising from the ground up to 750ft.
It’s an unusual sight, more akin to the Sahara than anywhere you’d expect to see in the USA, and you can even sandboard down the dunes’ smooth sandy sides, or trek across the undulating ridges.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling both North Carolina and Tennessee, is America’s most-visited national park. It boasts some 17,000 species of plant and animal life, and in the 95 percent of the park that’s forested, you can see 100 species of native trees in their natural surroundings.
27. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
The Guadalupe Mountains are the highest point in Texas at 8749ft. Archaeological evidence shows that hunter-gatherers lived in the caves and alcoves here up to 10,000 years ago, while many millions of years before that, the area was entirely underwater. The park you can explore today is the remnants of an ancient ocean reef.
28. Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
The ethereal Haleakala National Park has more endangered species than any other site in the National Park Service, including the beautiful Hawaiian goose. Mount Haleakala has the largest population of the Hawaiian petrel, too.
29. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Centennial celebrations in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park promise to be extra spectacular this year, as the park itself is also turning 100.
Established in 1916, the park is home to the Kilauea volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, from which lava flowed continuously between 1983 and March 2015.
30. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
While most national parks are vast areas, far from city streets and residential areas, Hot Springs National Park is quite the opposite.
This is the smallest national park in the USA and borders a city of the same name.
And – you guessed it – it’s home to some 40 hot springs to bathe in.
31. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Here’s a fact to get your head around: Ryan Island, which sits on on Isle Royale’s Siskiwit Lake, is the largest island within the largest lake on the biggest island within the largest freshwater lake in the world.
Michigan‘s Isle Royale National Park is a 570,000 acre island smothered in lush forest and vegetation and teeming with exciting wildlife.
32. Joshua Tree National Park, California
There is more to the tree that gives Joshua Tree National Park its name, than twisted, spiky branches. Joshua Trees have been utilised by native tribes for centuries, with the leaves used in making baskets and sandals, and the flower buds and seeds as a healthy addition to their diet. Visit this national park at sunset for an otherworldly sight: the twisted-looking Joshua trees are most striking when silhouetted against the setting sun.
In this vast, wild national park, which over 2000 brown bears call home, there are many waterways and rivers, but only one bridge. If you’re trekking through this lush expanse, you’re going to have to get wet: all the other rivers in Katmai National Park must be crossed on foot (or by boat).
34. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Kenai Fjords National Park is home to the Harding Icefield, where up to 100ft of snow can fall each year. After four to ten years of compression, the snow can turn to glacial ice, attaching itself to one of the forty glaciers in this Alaskan national park.
35. Kings Canyon National Park, California
At more than 8200ft-deep at points, Kings Canyon in California is one of America’s biggest caverns and is far deeper (by about 2000ft) than the more famous Grand Canyon.
This park encompasses some beautiful, varied scenery, from mountain peaks to lakes to some of the tallest trees in the world.
36. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
Each year, around half a million caribou migrate across the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes not just once, but twice.
They leave their tracks in the north during spring, and in summer they traverse the south.
Wetlands, rivers, sand dunes and towering mountains make up this national park’s unusual landscape.
37. Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
The original name for Lake Clark was Qizhjeh Vena, meaning “a place where people gathered” in the Dena’ina Athabascan language. The Dena’ina still rely on the land for subsistence, including the eight different types of berry that can be found throughout the park.
38. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
No other national park has such a dramatic natural history as this one: in June 1914 three men climbed Mount Lassen to find out why the peak had begun rumbling two weeks before. As they reached the top, the active volcano began to erupt, sending them running down its slopes.
The men were lucky enough to get away before the worst of eruptions engulfed a three-miles-long and one-mile-wide area of land nearby. It was designated a US National Park in 1916 and the peak, though still active today, has remained quiet since 1921.
39. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
As the world’s longest cave system, Mammoth Cave is an apt name for this Kentucky national park. Discovered and first-mapped by Stephen Bishop, who was a slave for most of his life, it is now accessible to all.
In the 400 miles of underground terrain, there are 10 miles of passages that can be explored on a ranger tour, some of which reach depths of 300ft below the earth.
40. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
For 700 years, between 600 and 1300 AD, the ancient Pueblo people lived among the rocks of Mesa Verde National Park. You can explore over 4700 archaeological sites here today, including farm terraces, dams, towers and some 600 cave dwellings.
41. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
It was in Mount Rainier National Park that pilot Kenneth Arnold reported what is now widely considered to be the world’s first UFO sighting. As he flew his plane near Mount Rainier, Arnold described seeing nine objects “flying like a saucer would” in the sky.
There have since been a number of sightings in the park, but the only things out of this world in Mount Rainier are the jaw-dropping views.
American Samoa, an archipelago of seven islands in the South Pacific, is a US overseas territory. The National Park covers three of these islands: Tutuila, Ofu and Ta‘u.
It’s the only US National Park in the Southern Hemisphere and combines a protected coral reef and tropical rainforests.
43. North Cascades National Park, Washington
North Cascades National Park is renowned for its world-class climbing among mountains with names such as Mount Terror and Desolation Peak. But it’s not all about the rocks: North Cascades holds the record for the number of plant species ever recorded in a national park in the USA. There are eight different distinctive ‘life zones’ throughout the park that support the thousands of vascular and non-vascular plants.
44. Olympic National Park, Washington
Beneath the 10ft of snow that usually blankets Olympic National Park’s Hurricane Ridge in winter, endemic snow moles scurry about, protected by the white powder. These aren’t the only endemic animals in the park though: among its plethora of wildlife there are 16 endemic animal species and 8 endemic plants.
45. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
A visit to Arizona‘s Petrified Forest National Park will take you back in time. This 200 million-year-old landscape was inhabited by some of the earliest dinosaurs, although back then it bared little resemblance to the grassland environment you see today.
The petrified trees are now almost entirely quartz, which weighs around 168lbs per cubic foot and can only be cut with a diamond-tipped saw.
46. Pinnacles National Park, California
The strange landscape of Pinnacles National Park was formed 23 million years ago by volcanic eruptions, but only recently became a national park.
America’s first new park in eight years, it officially designated by President Barack Obama in January 2013.
Covering 26,000 acres, it’s ripe for rock-climbing, hiking and stargazing.
47. Redwood National Park, California
During the 1800s, the future of this giant redwood forest was threatened by a seemingly inexhaustible demand for lumber. Today, thankfully, the Save-the-Redwoods League have helped preserve some of the tallest trees on Earth. It’s not just about the forest, though: prairies, rivers and a forty mile coastline are also protected within this park in California.
48. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Women played an important role in the NPS in its early days, campaigning and raising awareness for preservation of nature. But it was in the 1920s and 30s that many women became staff at Rocky Mountain National Park, leading visitors into the heights of the mountains. British explorer Isabella Bird said this of the park: “I have dropped into the very place I have been seeking, but in everything it exceeds all my dreams…”
49. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Arizona’s Saguaro National Park is home to America’s largest cacti. These hardy plants can grow up to 60ft tall, and when fully hydrated they can weigh up to 2000kg.
The saguaro cacti are most impressive at sunset when silhouetted against the slowly darkening orange sky.
As well as being home to the famously giant sequoia redwood trees, Sequoia National Park also has over 275 discovered caves. The caves link together to form an underground series of passageways and tunnels stretching for 25km, and scientists believe there are many more yet to be unearthed.
51. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Seasons in the park are distinctive: though most famous perhaps for its vibrant autumnal foliage, spring brings new leaves and wildflowers to the park.
52. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
America’s 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, said that it was his experiences in this park that made him leader material, toughening him up both mentally and physically and instilling in him a passion for conservation. The rocks that make up the petrified forest here come from 60-million-year-old trees.
53. Virgin Islands National Park, United States Virgin Islands
Strung out in the Caribbean east of Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands are home to a small but beautiful national park on the shores of St John.
Despite its small size, over 800 subtropical plant species grow here, and beyond the lush vegetation, there are stunning coral reefs in the surrounding waters and idyllic sandy beaches.
54. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Over a third of Voyageurs National Park is made up of water: there are over 30 lakes, connected by narrow waterways which separate hundreds of small islands. On occasion, in the early hours of the morning, the aurora borealis can be seen dancing in the sky.
55. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Below the prairie lands in Wind Cave National Park, where bison and elk graze, lies one of the densest “maze caves” in the world, much of which is still waiting to be explored. Caving here is not for the fainthearted, though: the strenuous Wild Cave Tour lasts four hours and mainly involves crawling through dark, narrow passages.
56. Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska
It’s easy to feel dwarfed by nature in America’s largest national park, which covers a staggering 13.2 million acres of the Alaskan wilderness.
The terrain in this park is rugged, wild and a natural playground for the adventurous, encompassing a vast landscape of glaciers and four major mountain ranges
The Wrangells were originally volcanic, yet only Mount Wrangell itself remains active, having last erupted in 1900.
America’s oldest and most famous national park is also one of its most diverse. Yellowstone National Park holds live volcanoes, vast forests, over 300 geysers, swathes of grassland and around 67 species of mammals.
Each year, the park also experiences between 1000 and 3000 earthquakes.
58. Yosemite National Park, California
“Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space,” said landscape photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams, who spent a substantial amount of time photographing Yosemite. Each year he discovered new secrets, hiking and climbing through the park’s deep valleys, crossing waterfalls and walking among giant redwoods. He captured its beauty in photographs now recognised worldwide, and his work has contributed to a state recognition of the need to preserve the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park.
59. Zion National Park, Utah
“A place of peace and relaxation” is the meaning of the Hebrew name given to this national park by Mormon pioneer Isaac Behunin in 1863. Relaxing isn’t all that’s possible in Utah’s Zion National Park, though, with spectacular hiking and climbing on offer, as well as canyoneering and trips down the Virgin River.
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