Oldest national parks in America
We live in a land of giants, legends, and ancient history. Early descriptions of the regions that would eventually become our national parks, most often told by explorers or laborers, were so foreign and fantastical to the average person that they simply weren’t believed. Even today, the parks’ grandeur can only fully be comprehended in person. But the majesty of Yosemite, Sequoia, and Yellowstone proved all too real, prompting a radical idea; some say it was America’s best idea ever.
The idea was simple and conceived in earnest: preserve these lands so that they might flourish and feed the human spirit of every generation to come. Thanks to the National Park Service (NPS), over 14 billion visitors since 1904 have had the chance to do just that: to experience the impressive scale, history, and raw beauty of these environments.
The creation of the national parks as we know them today—over 400 areas, with 84 million acres in 50 states and other territories—was a hard-won achievement. It was a battle fought by pioneers, politicians, scientists, and artists alike to preserve these environments well beyond the scope of their own lives. Individuals like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and countless others were integral in facilitating these protections.
In August 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, which officially established the National Park Service as a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior. The NPS was tasked with protecting the national parks and monuments already established up to that point and any future parks that would be created. A 1933 executive order transferred 56 pre-existing monuments and historical sites to the purview of the NPS. Today, new national parks are created through acts of Congress.
The importance of these lands goes back further than explorations of the western wilderness, further than the passage of protective legislation. Many of the regions in which the national parks reside are significant cultural heritage sites for the communities of American Indians, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians who have lived and flourished in those lands since time immemorial. The first stewards of these lands lived here long before the NPS; protecting and sharing these histories is an essential duty of the NPS as it attempts to preserve the legacy of its parks.
Using a variety of historical sources such as the National Park Service, Stacker compiled a list of the 25 oldest established national parks in America. The area of each park is current as of 2017, and the number of visitors who visited each park for recreation account for 2018. Any parks that have been disbanded since their founding or have merged with other national parks, are not included in the list.
Read on for an overview of the history and defining characteristics of the 25 oldest national parks.
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25. Kings Canyon
- Location: California
- Date established as park: March 4, 1940
- Area: 461,901 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 699,023
Kings Canyon resides in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, adjacent to Sequoia National Park. Its dramatic geography, with its glacial valleys, rocky outcrops, and expansive meadows, all of which was brought to prominence in the late 19th century by John Muir, is often compared to the legendary Yosemite. But one of its most well-known and visited features is Grant Grove, an expanse of mighty redwoods, and home to the General Grant Tree, one of the largest living trees in the world.
- Location: Washington
- Date established as park: June 29, 1938
- Area: 922,649 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 3,104,455
Olympic National Park, located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, is defined by its geographic isolation. Olympic contains three distinct ecosystems—temperate rainforests, pacific coastline, and glaciated mountains, the most famous of which is Mount Olympus—making it one of the most ecologically diverse parks in the U.S.
- Location: Virginia
- Date established as park: Dec. 26, 1935
- Area: 199,218 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 1,264,880
Just over an hour’s drive away from D.C., Shenandoah offers a stunning perspective on East Coast wilderness, including 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shenandoah’s most prominent feature is Skyline Drive, a road that traverses the entirety of the park with over 70 overlooks of the Shenandoah Valley. But Skyline Drive and the park as a whole were not always so accessible. Adhering to Jim Crow laws, private operators implemented what they claimed were separate but equal facilities throughout the park until it was fully integrated in 1950.
22. Great Smoky Mountains
- Location: Tennessee, North Carolina
- Date established as park: June 15, 1934
- Area: 522,427 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 11,421,200
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the single most visited park in 2018. It is also the most biodiverse park in the national park system—over 19,000 species have been documented and scientists believe up to 100,000 undocumented species may live there. Its creation was more complicated than that of other national parks, requiring extensive fundraising, the purchase of thousands of small farms, and the removal of those who lived there previously.
- Location: Florida
- Date established as park: May 30, 1934
- Area: 1,508,934 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 597,124
Everglades National Park—established thanks to the efforts of former-land-developer-turned-conservationist Ernest F. Coe—is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. It was also the first national park created to protect an ecosystem at risk. The park is home to many federally threatened and endangered species, including the West Indian manatee and the Florida panther.
20. Carlsbad Caverns
- Location: New Mexico
- Date established as park: May 14, 1930
- Area: 46,766 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 465,912
Carlsbad Caverns, located in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico, is defined by its unique and long geological history, most of which is hidden from sight. This national park contains one of the Earth’s oldest and best-preserved fossilized reefs. Capitan Reef is a record of a 250 million-year-old Permian-age ocean teeming with life in the present-day arid, mountainous region bordered by the Chihuahuan desert. Also hidden below the surface of the Earth is an extensive system of limestone caves decorated by a variety of calcite deposits, the viewing of which is a popular activity for park visitors.
19. Grand Teton
- Location: Wyoming
- Date established as park: Feb. 26, 1929
- Area: 310,044 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 3,491,151
Grand Teton National Park is characterized by the rugged Teton Mountain range, clear alpine lakes, and the well-known Jackson Hole Valley. Human presence in the region goes back nearly 11,000 years. The park was also a popular destination for mountaineers, fur trappers, and dude ranchers.
18. Bryce Canyon
- Location: Utah
- Date established as park: Feb. 25, 1928
- Area: 35,835 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 2,679,478
Bryce Canyon is the land of hoodoos, or irregular rock spires. In fact, it’s home to the largest concentration of hoodoo formations on Earth. The park’s topography is singularly striking, a relic of far off periods in Earth’s evolution. Bryce Canyon was initially designated as a national monument in 1923 before the land was sold to the federal government and established as a national park five years later.
17. Hot Springs
- Location: Arkansas
- Date established as park: March 4, 1921
- Area: 5,548 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 1,506,887
As its name suggests, Hot Springs National Park is known for its geothermal pools. The city of Hot Springs and successful bathhouse industry grew around and in response to the region’s unique hydrothermal features.
- Location: Utah
- Date established as park: Nov. 19, 1919
- Area: 147,237 acres
- Recreational visitors in 2018: 4,320,033
Zion National Park has a long human history dating back to nearly 6,000 B.C. when small semi-nomadic family groups inhabited the region. WIth its deep canyons, vast plateaus, sandstone cliffs, and river formations, Zion has no shortage of striking geological panoramas. Zion was initially established as Mukuntuweap National Monument by President William Taft in 1909. Fearing that a Native American name would deter visitors, the region was renamed Zion, a Mormon phrase reflective of the population residing there at the time.
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