Arches National Park has the greatest concentration of natural formations in the United States. It’s just one of many exceptional sites administered by the National Park Service. PHOTOGRAPH BY BABAK TAFRESHI, NAT GEO IMAGE LIBRARY

The National Park Service is 106 years old. While that number is impressive, many other figures relating to the 424 units—including 63 national parks—the Park Service administers are more astonishing.

National Park units vary in size, from a small house in Pennsylvania (Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial) to a park in Alaska that’s larger than Switzerland (Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve.) The system encompasses over 85 million acres; includes 85,000 miles of rivers and streams; 7,035 square miles of reservoirs, lakes, or ocean; more than 43,000 miles of shoreline; 21,000 buildings; 27,000 historic structures; over 18,000 miles of trails; and nearly 9,000 miles of roads.

These federal properties—from battlefields to national seashores—are chosen for the protection of their natural, historic, and cultural values and are specially designated by an act of Congress (or in some cases, an executive order), and maintained for public use. In 2020, visitors logged 1,054,952,540 recreation visitor hours.

Today the National Park Service performs environmental advocacy in a time of climate change; acts as a guardian of diverse recreational, cultural, and historical resources; and serves as an ambassador to park preservation around the world—inspiring other countries to follow suit. Since 1916, the mission—to preserve these treasured sites for the education, enjoyment, and inspiration of this and future generations—has not changed.

A pair of people walk along a path that cuts through a huge opening within the Mammoth cave system


Hidden under hills and hollows in Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park contains more than 400 miles of caves, including 10 miles of passages for guided tours.

As a result, visitors reap the rewards. As the Milky Way burns across the dark skies of Death Valley and the northern lights finish shimmering above Denali, the first sunbeams hit the continent at Acadia. Bats wing their way back into Mammoth Cave, the bison herds stir at Yellowstone, and the Colima warbler trills its first song at Big Bend. Priceless national treasures, parks were created for these creatures, the land and its waters, and a rekindling of the human spirit.

You can learn more about these sanctuaries in the National Geographic Atlas of the National Parks, which takes readers on an epic journey through the extraordinary and unique features that distinguish these wilderness areas.

This world of wonders includes countless superlatives, from the world’s largest gypsum dune field to the highest peak in North America. Here are a few of our favorite wild places. Click through for travel reference pages that will help you plan your next epic excursion to a national treasure.

Zoom out to see more of the extreme national parks mentioned in the article.

Only national park south of the equator

Located roughly 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, American Samoa is home to the National Park of American Samoa. Often overlooked, this park (on U.S. territory) comprises 10 volcanic islands (five inhabited), five distinct rain forest communities,  and two coral atolls (one inhabited).

Oldest national park

Tucked up on the northwest corner of Wyoming with parts spilling over into Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone National Park—established March 1, 1872—is still one of the most imposing, a blend of land and water, forest and field, wildlife and geothermal features that often seem to be living things. Rather than a single focus, Yellowstone has five main hubs—Old Faithful, Grant Village, Lake Village, Canyon Village, and Mammoth Hot Springs—each of them linked to a unique geological or geographical phenomenon.

Smallest national park by area

The United States’ 60th national park doesn’t resemble other parks. In the half-century since its construction began, Missouri’s Gateway Arch National Park has been many things: a monument to Thomas Jefferson’s historic frontier, a commemoration of Lewis and Clark’s epic expedition—and, most recently, a national park. After a $380 million renovation, the miniature park features a waterfront green space laced with walking trails, an amphitheater, and a top-tier American history museum.

Newest national park

Spreading across more than 72,000 acres of wooded hills, deep ravines, and Appalachian plateau in rural West Virginia, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve offers sweeping views of a centuries-old oak and maple forest that stretch for miles along steep sandstone cliffs. Along with its stunning topography, its vast array of socially distanced outdoor activities—rafting, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking—make the U.S.’s newest national park, opened in 2020, a pandemic-era destination par excellence.

World’s longest known cave system

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981, Mammoth Cave National Park consists of more than 400 miles of caves, with new caverns discovered all the time. Black guides were instrumental in the early mapping of the cave—first working as enslaved people, later alongside whites as paid guides. The ancestors of the seven tribes associated with the historic use of the parklands—including the Cherokee Nation and Shawnee Tribe—once used the cave system to mine minerals like gypsum with mussel shell scrapers harvested from the Green River.

America’s largest barrier reef

Before it became a national park in 1992, Dry Tortugas National Park was an area steeped in legends of swashbuckling pirates, turbulent waters, and stolen treasure. Now the seven-island archipelago, located in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles off the coast of Florida, is known for sheltering the third-largest coral barrier reef in the world (99.8 percent of the park is underwater) and the only tropical reef in the continental U.S.

Greatest density of natural arches in the world

Perched high above the Colorado River, Arches National Park is part of southern Utah’s extended canyon country, carved and shaped by weathering and erosion. There are more than 2,000 arches in the park; the largest is Landscape Arch, which spans 306 feet (longer than a football field) base to base. New arches are constantly forming, while old ones occasionally collapse—most recently Wall Arch, which fell in 2008.

Hottest recorded temperature in the world and lowest point in North America 

The largest national park south of Alaska, Death Valley National Park is known for extremes: It is North America’s driest and hottest spot (with fewer than two inches/five centimeters of rainfall annually and a record high of 134°F), and has the lowest elevation on the continent—282 feet below sea level. Even with these harsh conditions, the park still receives nearly a million visitors each year.

Largest canyon in the world

Large enough to fit 19 Statues of Liberty stacked on top of each other, the Grand Canyon National Park is a sprawling gorge of layers in pink, red, and orange hues, revealing millions of years of geological history. Given the absence of roads, there are only three ways to explore below the rims: hiking, mule trips, river rafting trips. 

World’s largest gypsum dune field

New Mexico’s White Sands National Park hit the big leagues in December 2019, becoming the country’s 62nd national park. It protects the largest gypsum dune on Earth, a remnant of bygone lakes and seas, a 275-square-mile basin that glitters white and stays cool to the touch. Visitors come to cruise the eight-mile Dunes Drive, hike one of the five established trails, or see the soft, translucent sand glow blue-white under a full moon.

Highest point in North America

Larger than the state of New JerseyDenali National Park and Preserve is a vast wilderness that is mostly untouched by human hands, save for the one park road and a few scattered services. It is known for extraordinary wildlife and big adventures, from backcountry camping to mountaineering. And on a good day, the park’s famous—and often notorious—clouds will part to reveal the great massif of Denali itself, the tallest peak in North America at 20,310 feet high.

One of the nation’s most beloved parks, Acadia protects a patch of coastal Maine where the north woods tumble down to meet the wild Atlantic. The first national park east of the Mississippi River sprawls across half of Mount Desert Island, with small portions on smaller islands and the mainland. For generations, it’s been the place where New Englanders escape into nature and learn to cherish the wild side of Down East.

Named after the French settlers who were expelled from Atlantic Canada by the British, Acadia is the nation’s easternmost national park and one of the first places in the United States to see the sunrise each day.

Can’t-miss experiences

After starting life as a colonial fishing village, Bar Harbor gradually evolved into a Victorian-era getaway for the affluent, artists, and “rusticators” trying to get back to nature. Today the island town is the park’s main tourist hub, a port of call for whale-watching and sailing tours, lobster shacks, and lodging.

At low tide it’s possible to walk the Bar Island Land Bridge to a tiny portion of the national park on Bar Island. During the summer, a passenger ferry runs between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor and the park’s Schoodic Peninsula. Located near the Village Green in Bar Harbor, the Smithsonian-affiliated Abbe Museum is dedicated to the Wabanaki Alliance of Native American tribes that once lived along the Maine coast. Bar Harbor’s other great collection is the Dorr Museum of Natural History at the College of the Atlantic with its displays of Maine wildlife and touch pools of live sea creatures.

Many of the park’s major features are within easy reach of Bar Harbor, including Hulls Cove Visitor Center, the start of Acadia’s scenic Park Loop Road, a sinuous 27-mile route that includes a steep drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain. One can also hike from town (via several trails) to the 1,530-foot summit for a view that takes in much of the park and nearby islands. Located just south of town, the park’s Sieur de Monts area features the Wild Gardens of Acadia, the park’s Nature Center, and an older branch of the Abbe Museum.

After looping around Cadillac Mountain, the one-way Loop Road reaches the coast at Sand Beach. Protected by the Great Head peninsula, this is probably the best place in the park to take a dip in the ocean. The 4.7-mile stretch between Sand Beach and Hunters Head is Acadia at its best: a rugged, rock-strewn shore carved by wind and water over millions of years. The rush of water through Thunder Hole—and the roar it makes—epitomizes the forces that shaped the Acadia coast.

Loop Road curls inland to Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake, navigable by kayak, canoe, and low-horsepower motorboat. The lake area is laced with hiking trails and crushed-stone carriage roads, which were funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., between 1914 and 1940. Most of the park’s carriage roads are open to foot, bike, and horse traffic.

Much less visited than the heart of the park, the area west of Somes Sound features trails along the shore of Long Pond (1 mile) and up Bernard Mountain (3.2 miles). Down along the coast are Ship Harbor Nature Trail (1.3-mile return) and the clifftop Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.


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