Since the first national park in the U.S. – and the world – was established in 1872, America’s National Park System has grown to encompass more than 400 areas in 50 states, the District of Columbia, and various U.S. overseas territories. Of these, the majority are national recreation areas, monuments, designated scenic trails and historic places overseen by the National Park Service.
That first national park, Yellowstone – which protects a huge swath of volcanic land stretching across parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and is best known for its geysers and wildlife – remains one of the jewels of the system. It’s now part of a diverse and highly select group of 58 forests, deserts, canyons, mountains, bodies of water and wetlands, battlegrounds and other areas of natural scenic beauty and historic significance that warrant full national park status.
The National Park Stars
The most visited national park is the Great Smoky Mountains, accessed via a highway that cuts through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee and leads to hiking trails, waterfalls, wildlife viewing and fall color scenery.
It receives more than nine million visitors per year, about twice the number of the second most-visited park, the Grand Canyon – though the 277-mile-long, 6,000-foot-deep canyon is probably the most famous U.S. national park. California’s Yosemite – a natural wonderland of valleys, meadows, waterfalls, and granite rock formations -- is the third most visited national park, followed by Yellowstone.
Other Top 20 National Parks
Other popular U.S. national parks include Washington State’s Olympic (for hiking through rainforest) and 14,400-foot Mt. Rainier; Colorado’s Rocky Mountains (with 60 peaks 12,000 feet or higher); Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, south of Yellowstone and replete with mountains and wildlife; Utah’s Bryce Canyon, Zion and Arches, known for their unusual rock formations and multi-colored canyons; and Maine’s Acadia, which was the first national park east of the Mississippi, with good hiking trails, campgrounds and beaches.
Along with Yosemite, California offers up two outstanding desert parks, Joshua Tree and Death Valley, as well as Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Redwood national parks, which feature the world’s biggest and tallest trees, respectively. Sequoia’s 2,500-year-old General Sherman tree is believed to be the world’s largest living thing.
Other top 20 most-visited national parks include Ohio’s Cuyahoga, which features a scenic railway ride as well as biking, hiking and horse trails; Montana’s Glacier, for hiking, camping, and mountain scenery; South Dakota’s Badlands, where erosion has produced an array of canyons, spires, and buttes; Hawaii Volcanoes, where Kilauea has been erupting since 1983; Hawaii’s 10,000-foot-high Haleakala volcano; and Arkansas’ Hot Springs.
Don’t Overlook These Gems
Other notable national parks include Florida’s Everglades, the country’s only subtropical wilderness area, known for its network of rivers and wetlands as well as its wildlife; Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest known cave system, with almost 400 miles of caverns and passageways; Arizona’s Petrified Forest, with its ancient fossilized trees, and Saguaro National Park, home of giant cacti.
Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park offers scenic drives through the mountains; Alaska’s Glacier Bay and Denali provide incredible scenery (Denali is North America’s highest mountain); and Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park is great for boating in summer, snowshoeing in winter.
Don’t know where to start? You can rely on Stride to help sort your way through the U.S. National Park System and soon have you on your way to some of America’s most beautiful and historic settings.