Since the 1800s, politicians and conservationists have made great effort to preserve and improve areas of land that were deemed especially beautiful and important, designating the first national park (Yellowstone) in the world in 1872. Today there are more than 420 national park sites in the U.S., with 63 of the being the most elite crown jewels of them all: Congressionally designated National Parks run by the National Park Service. The most recent of these were added from 2013-2020 and are well worth a visit. Each of these five newest National Parks provide splendid scenery and experiences tied directly into the locales, making them just as worthy as the all-time greats like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Great Smoky Mountains. How close are you to these five National Parks? Ready to plan a trip? Read on to find out more.
New River Gorge National Park -- West Virginia (2020)
The Great Smokies get much of the glory in the southeastern U.S., but don't sleep on the country's newest National Park, located in often-overlooked West Virginia. It's not called the Mountain State for nothing, too. It has 1,500 rock climbing routes up limestone cliffs and 53 miles of whitewater rafting (including a wild 13-mile stretch of Class IV and V rapids), plus thrilling mountain bike trails. Explore Kaymoor Miner's Trail, a historical mining site, take a scenic drive through the park, and push your limits zip lining over the heart-stopping 1,000-foot gorge. There is some primitive camping, but the best options are outside the park.
Visitors: 1.2 million/year
Getting there: Fly into Charleston, West Virginia or take a 5-hour road trip from Washington D.C.
White Sands National Park -- New Mexico (2019)
Called a National Monument since 1933, the 275 miles of blindingly white dunes finally gained National Park status in 2019. The gypsum dunefield is the largest on Earth and home to raptors, bobcats, coyotes and more. Beware of Maricopa harvester ants, which have the most toxic venom in the insect world. The park has tons to do, from backcountry camping to horseback riding to surfing the dunes.
Getting there: Fly to El Paso, the closest big-city airport.
Indiana Dunes National Park -- Indiana (2019)
This lakefront park runs for about 20 miles along Lake Michigan's southern shore and has both dunes and wetlands within its 15,000 acres. Cowles Bog Trail is popular for hiking, snowshoeing, and running. Watch for whitetail deer, Canada geese, hawks, and red foxes along the Succession Trail leading down to the beach. The well-equipped Dunewood Campground has room for tents and RVs.
Visitors: 2.2 million/year
Getting there: From South Bend, it's only 43 miles drive; from Chicago, 50-65 miles.
Gateway Arch National Park -- Missouri (2018)
St. Louis's park is unique in that it's smack in the middle of the city and is most famous for the huge arch that was built in 1965 to commemorate the expansion of the West. No camping or hiking here, but you can take a tram ride to the arch's top or see a different perspective from a riverboat cruise.
Fun fact: Welded into the keystone at the top of the 630-foot arch is a time capsule containing 762,000 signatures of the city's students and well-wishers that will never be opened. Some conspiracy theorists believe the arch is a meeting place for extra-terrestrials and it can control the weather.
Visitors: 2 million/year
Getting there: Fly to St. Louis and take a cab!
Pinnacles National Park -- California (2013)
Get away from the crowds of Yosemite and check out this park with spectacular peaks and valleys formed by natural disasters (the San Andreas Fault is visible from some trails and there's an extinct volcano here). You're likely to see varieties of falcon, the California condor, wild turkeys and cougar. A hike called the "Pig Fence" is a strenuous part of South Wilderness Trail that in some parts is so steep, it requires hanging on to the fence put up to keep feral pigs out of the park. Birders can enjoy an easy trek to an overlook on Condor Gulch Trail.
Getting there: Fly to San Francisco or San Jose, about 80 miles north.
Been to any of these places? Got a favorite National Park? Share a photo at our Wide Open Spaces Instagram!
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