25 things you didn't know about US parks

As environmental awareness around the world continues to increase, so does our appreciation for our national parks. Here are 25 things you may not know about US National Parks.
Autumn colors in Mt. Rainier National Park
Autumn colors in Mt. Rainier National Park. Photo: Shutterstock

The US National Park Service has been around for more than a century. We’ve decided to spotlight 25 little-known facts about the country’s beloved national parks. Prepare to be amazed.

1. The US has 62 national parks

There is a total of 62 areas that are classified as US national parks. Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yellowstone are among the most visited, drawing crowds in the millions each year (more on that in a bit). White Sands is the newest of the bunch, upgraded to national park status in late 2019.

2. The tallest point in a US park reaches over 20,000 feet high

The award for tallest peak in North America goes to Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley. Former President Obama wielded his executive power in 2015 to reinstate the title, which is a native Alaskan name that loosely translates to "the high one." The majestic, snow-capped mountain is the crown jewel of Denali National Park and Reserve, kissing the sky at over 20,000 feet high. The park itself spans six million acres of wilderness. It's also the only national park that has a kennel of working sled dogs.

3. The biggest national park is way up in Alaska

Alaska (which is the largest state in the U.S.) is also home to America's biggest national park. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve takes up a whopping 13.2 million acres of space – a swathe of land larger than Switzerland, Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park combined. The park's highest point reaches over 18,000 feet, providing raw, rugged views of Alaska's awe-inspiring wildness. Since the park covers multiple climate zones, visitors come for everything from intense mountain biking to more serene wildlife spotting (bird-watching is a big one here). In other words, the untouched natural beauty of Wrangell-St. Elias has a little something for everyone.

4. The teeniest one is in Philadelphia

On the other end of the spectrum is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, which covers just 0.02 acres of land. The area, operated by the National Parks Service, rests on the urban streets of Philadelphia – and looks more like a colonial-style schoolhouse than a park. The memorial honors Kosciuszko, who was a Polish freedom fighter and revered military engineer who played a vital role in the American Revolution. The site itself was once his home.

5. Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the US

The oldest national park in the US is the treasured Yellowstone in Wyoming. This cultural gem is perhaps the country's most celebrated park, officially being classified as a national park in 1872. Yellowstone is known for its epic geysers, vibrant hot springs, superior campgrounds and marvelous geology. Hundreds of years before earning its national park title, the land served as a home base for many Native American tribes (some are believed to have lived here as far back as 1400). Today, it's a premier hotspot for nature lovers. Over four million visitors stopped by in 2019.

Taking a trip to explore these great national parks? Don't forget your copy of Insight Guides: National Parks West

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone National Park. Photo: ShutterstockGrand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Shutterstock

6. The US park system has more than 21,000 miles of trails

We can't help but feel that most US national parks were made to be discovered on foot. Together, there are more than 21,000 miles of trails to be found; some designed for long-distance treks, others for less intense walks. The National Trails System includes the iconic Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), on which writer Cheryl Strayed hiked over 1,000 miles from Southern California to the Washington-Oregon border (she later penned Wild). On the other coast, the Appalachian Trail spans more than 2,000 miles through rugged alpine woodland. The Teton Crest Trail at Grand Teton National Park is another stunner, perfect for wandering throughout the summer.

7. The US parks are loaded with active volcanoes

The country's parks system is jam-packed with active volcanoes. The Yellowstone Caldera is a biggie, covering an astonishing 34 by 45 miles. Thankfully, it's not on track to erupt again for another 100,000 years or so, which is a good thing as experts expect it to be catastrophic. Meanwhile, Mount Rainier in Washington has proven a harrowing climb even for experienced hikers. All the same, it's a sight to behold. But if you really want to take in some volcanic wonder, head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; it's home to an utterly gigantic volcano – Mauna Loa. It happens to be the biggest volcano on the planet.

8. The biggest tree on earth is in a US park

It's hard to believe that the towering General Sherman tree, which stands roughly 275 feet high in California's Sequoia National Park, is 2,000 years old – but that's the estimate, according to experts. The volume of this enormous fixture comes in at just over 52,500 cubic feet. As Live Science puts it, that's over half the volume of an Olympic-size swimming pool. You'll find it at the north end of Giant Forest.

9. Over 325 million people visited US parks last year

According to a recent report put out by the National Park Service, 2019 was a big year for US parks. Over 325 million people visited national parks last year. Great Smoky Mountains National Park drew an incredible 12.5 million recreational visits. Grand Canyon National Park came in second, with 5.97 million people passing through its grounds in 2019.

10. Caves make up a huge portion of the parks

US parks aren't all mountain peaks and lush wilderness. Underground cave networks actually make up a good chunk of territory. The world's longest system resides in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park, which features over 3,000 miles of mapped cave routes. Meanwhile, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico is tucked away beneath the southwestern deserts. Here, hundreds of caves are waiting to be discovered via guided tours. This subterranean hidden gem is brimming with prehistoric wonder.

11. It takes a lot of people to keep the parks going

The National Park Service is no small operation. The agency reports that between permanent, temporary, and seasonal staff, it employs roughly 22,000 people. And that's not counting the 315,000-plus volunteers sprinkled throughout the park system. It appears that when it comes to keeping the country's beautiful parks up and running, it indeed takes a village.

12. There's more to the park system than just parks

Despite what the name implies, the National Park Service doesn't just oversee national parks. Within its domain are also monuments, historical sites, scenic rivers, battlefields and more. If you want to get technical, the White House is actually overseen by the NPS. In total, the agency covers more than 400 areas, which translates to over 84 million acres of land. This includes roughly 75,000 archeological sites.

Read more: Exploring America's spectacular national parks

13. There are some ancient relics in these parks

While we're on the topic of archeological sites, the National Park Service also looks after tens of thousands of historic and prehistoric structures. Among the most notable are the ancient natural bridges you'll find in a part of Utah that was once populated by Native Americans. The Owachomo Bridge is particularly stunning come nightfall, when the Milky Way lights up the evening sky with a dazzling star show. These fragile, age-old bridges top the list of American natural wonders.

14. The Grand Canyon is probably the most mystical site in the park system

The Grand Canyon is pretty much the most iconic national park in the United States. The jaw-dropping sight is actually one of the seven wonders of the natural world – and with good reason. Measuring roughly 6,000 feet in depth, this rusty, geological marvel is unimaginably vast (and downright inspiring). As for its origin, it remains a hotly debated topic among scientists. Many believe that the Colorado River is what carved out the canyon between five and six million years ago, but the exact details remain a mystery. Of course, this doesn't make the Grand Canyon any less mesmerizing.

Sunset at Toroweap, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Photo: ShutterstockSunset at Toroweap, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Photo: Shutterstock

15. Delaware is the only state without a national park

It's true; Delaware is the only state without a national park. What's more, it wasn't until 2013 that the First State National Monument was recognised (Delaware was the "first state" to ratify the constitution). But as far as actual national parks go, Delaware remains an outcast. California, on the other hand, has nine, while Alaska has eight.

16. US parks help protect endangered animals

US parks are loaded with endangered and threatened wildlife, like the Florida Panther and certain subspecies of the grizzly bear. Protecting these animals is a top priority for the National Park Service. The Pacific Northwest and the Southeast regions, as well as Hawaii, are particularly vulnerable as these areas have the greatest numbers of threatened species. Since 2010, volunteers in Hawaii have planted over 10,000 silversword seedlings on Mauna Loa. The efforts seem to be paying off; the NPS says that this endangered species is expected to make a full recovery.

Read more: Top 5 national parks in Costa Rica

17. Crater Lake is crazy deep (and mesmerising)

For an eyeful of natural beauty, Crater Lake in Oregon won't disappoint. Recognised as the deepest lake in the US, this aptly named body of water is known for the tip of the sleeping volcano that pierces its surface. It's believed that Crater Lake was formed over 7,000 years ago after a powerful eruption caused a neighboring volcano to collapse. Since then, it's been fed by a combination of rain and snow to create what we see today – a spectacular example of Mother Nature at work.

18. There are waterfalls galore

Caves, mountains, volcanoes... US parks have no shortage of natural beauty. You can also add magnificent waterfalls to the list. Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina stands out from the pack. Here, mossy rock formations rest beneath the majestic Roaring Fork Falls. In Michigan, the Upper Tahquamenon Falls make a dramatic 50-foot drop within the park. But where waterfalls are concerned, the real showstopper is Horsetail Fall in Yosemite National Park. The flow of water lights up like fire during late February sunsets.

19. The NPS was founded in 1916

More than one century has passed since President Woodrow Wilson launched the federal bureau to protect the US’s treasured parks and monuments. At that time, there were just 35 national parks in existence.

20. The most notable tropical parks are in Florida

Florida is unique in that this region is home to some truly special plants and wildlife that can only be found in the southeast – like fear-inducing alligators and delicate egrets. Just a stone's throw from Miami, you'll find a subtropical paradise of coral reefs and vibrant marine life in Biscayne National Park. In the Everglades, prepare to be dazzled by 1.5 million acres of diverse ecosystems, lush mangrove trees and immersive nature trails. It goes without saying that Florida parks stand apart from the rest.

21. Alcatraz is managed by the National Park Service

Remember how we mentioned that the National Park Service also manages a slew of other monuments and land? This includes the famous former prison Alcatraz Island off San Francisco. The now-closed federal penitentiary is steeped in mystery, making it a major tourist attraction in California. Baltimore Civil War site Fort McHenry, which served as a prison camp for confederate prisoners of war, is also run by the NPS. Both sites, among many others, are open to the public for tours and exploring.

Alcatraz Island in San FranciscoAlcatraz Island in San Francisco. Photo: Shutterstock

22. The best archaeological treasures are hiding in Colorado

For the best archaeological wonders in the United States, head to Colorado. Mesa Verde National Park plays host to thousands of treasured sites. Among them are the stone villages of the Anasazi people. These were the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in Mesa Verde roughly 1,400 years ago. Remnants of their lives can be found today in preserved alcoves of the park's walls. These primitive yet elaborate cliff dwellings reflect life in another time; experts say the Ancestral Puebloans first arrived there around 550 AD.

23. Active glaciers are abound

Head north and you'll find an abundance of glaciers in US parks. The appropriately named Glacier National Park in Montana is currently home to 25 active glaciers. World-renowned for its remote vibe, mountainous terrain and serene lakes, the park is ideal for hikers looking to get away from it all. The glaciers create unique U-shaped and hanging valleys, as well as saw-toothed walls you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

24. There's a surprising number of hot springs

There are numerous hot springs to be found throughout the United States, but the most astounding is by far Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. A distinctive combination of bacteria creates an absolute blast of orange-rimmed turquoise water that plunges nearly 200 feet down. The smoky spring is said to reach up to 160°F. Meanwhile, the thermal pools at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas have earned the park the nickname of the "American Spa".

25. Some national parks are "outside" of the US

Believe it or not, some of the most magnificent US parks are located in outer territories. Virgin Islands National Park, pictured here, is comprised of dreamy beaches, aquamarine waters, and verdant, cascading hills. Similarly, Guam's breathtaking landscapes play host to the War in the Pacific historical park. The park honors World War II veterans and related battles.

Picturesque Trunk bay on St John island, US Virgin Islands. Photo: ShutterstockPicturesque Trunk bay on St John island, US Virgin Islands. Photo: Shutterstock


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