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National Parks Week


Saturday kicked off National Parks Week here in the United States! Each year from the 16th to the 24th of April, we celebrate what documentarian Ken Burns called “America’s Best Idea.”  The National Parks of our nation are true marvels, a melting pot of biomes, history, and spiritual renewal.

We’ve covered quite a few topics regarding the parks over the years, from some individual profiles to wider treatments, such as the difference between National Parks and National Monuments. This missive will take a broad look at the 63 National Parks (not the hundreds of other units in the National Parks System). I envision this article to be something of a landing page for the website’s section on parks, so this edition will be the first where the product on the TMAC forever page doesn’t exactly match the email!

Let’s explore a bit about our parks with a wide-angle lens!

Many well-informed mountain people know the honor of being the first National Park goes to Yellowstone, but the timeframe might be a bit surprising. We christened the world’s first National Park all the way back in 1872! A timeframe well before The Father of the National Parks, John Muir, set the parks movement in motion.

Less well-known trivia appears with the second National Park. Mackinac National Park, at the confluence of Michigan’s two parts, joined Yellowstone in 1875. Never heard of Mackinac National Park? You’re not alone; it was decommissioned in 1895. In 1890, a trio of parks entered the stable, including the famous Sequoia and Yosemite. The third, called Rock Creek Park, located in Washington, D.C., later merged into National Capital Parks, which itself was split up into various administrations. 

Congress established another eight parks before the National Park Service was even created to oversee the system in 1916. As of publication, NPS supervises 423 units, including the 63 big parks.

Arch Rock on Mackinac Island, formerly a National Park - photo by Jeffness

Today, these parks span the nation, sea to sea, north to south, and even spill over the traditional borders of the continent.

Thirty different states house a National Park, but just seven contain over half the parks! California leads the way with nine – Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Redwood, Sequoia, and Yosemite – followed by eight in Alaska. Utah has its Mighty Five: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Only the front and back of the alphabet will do for Utah. Colorado has tremendous variety in its four parks. Rocky Mountain features the height, Black Canyon of the Gunnison brings the big walls, things get wavy and desert-like at Great Sand Dunes, and ancient history comes to life at Mesa Verde. Arizona, Florida, and Washington each have a trifecta of parks. No other state contains more than two.

Additionally, two parks exist outside the strict borders of the United States. The Virgin Islands includes a park, as does American Samoa in the Pacific. 

The Pola Islands at National Park of American Samoa - photo by Tavita Togia

Alaska possesses the four largest parks (and six of the largest seven). The biggest – Wrangell-St. Elias – contains more area than the nine smallest states! The largest park east of the Mississippi River is Everglades in Florida.

Unsurprisingly, Alaska also contains the park farthest north. That distinction goes to Gates of the Arctic. American Samoa is the unit farthest south. If we limit the search to states, the farthest south is Hawaii Volcanoes. The easterly award goes to Acadia in Maine (there’s no trick in this piece of trivia: all the Parks are east of the International Date Line). American Samoa doubles up on the superlatives; it’s also the farthest west. If we go back to just Parks in states, that distinction lies in Kobuk Valley in Alaska. Of the contiguous states, Olympic in Washington becomes the most westerly unit.

52.2 million acres of our great nation are protected as National Parks. That figure falls just below the size of the entire state of Kansas!

Caribou crossing the Kobuk River in Kobuk Valley National Park - photo by Western Arctic National Parklands

Tourism to the National Parks is immense and has only increased during the Covid pandemic.

Since 1944, Great Smokey Mountains National Park has led the visitation rankings. In 2021, more than 14 million people visited the park. Overall, over 84 million people tour one of the parks each year.

The Top 10 in terms of visitation (2021):

1. Great Smokey Mountains
2. Zion
3. Yellowstone
4. Grand Canyon
5. Rocky Mountain
6. Acadia
7. Grand Teton
8. Yosemite
9. Indiana Dunes
10. Glacier

On the other end of the spectrum, some National Parks see extraordinarily small volumes, mostly because they are difficult to reach. Gates of the Arctic receives about 7,000 visitors each year. One needs to charter a tiny prop plane to spend time there. Another thousand humans make it each year to American Samoa, the second-least-visited park. In the continental United States, the least trafficked unit is Isle Royale, which sits in Lake Superior. Again, you’ll need a plane or a boat to get to this gorgeous spot.

When we exclude the Parks that need transportation to reach them, the least visited spots are Great Basin in Nevada and Congaree in South Carolina.

Bristlecone pines in Great Basin National Park - photo by James R Bouldin

The breadth of what one might encounter in the National Parks is incredible.

They include nearly every type of outdoor feature in spades. Mountains. Rivers. Canyons. Forests. Caves. Islands. Valleys. Deserts. Dunes. Glaciers. Volcanoes. Swamps. Reefs. Badlands. Craters. Geysers. And critters galore.

And, yes, human-made structures, too. Military prisons. A giant arch. Ancient abodes cut into the rock. Petroglyphs. Hot Springs. Canals.

No matter where your penchant lies, a magical spot waits somewhere for you in the National Parks of the United States. In other words, it’s not only the mountains that are calling! 

What’s your favorite National Park?

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