Oldest National Parks in the U.S.
President Woodrow Wilson is credited with establishing the National Park Service in 1916. But this wasn't the first effort to preserve the country's most precious landscapes.
Before that, a handful of national parks were individually managed by the Department of the Interior. The National Forest Service was enacted in the 1890s, and California established the first state park system back in 1864.
Prior to Wilson creating the NPS, earlier presidents and members of Congress also fought to stop settlements and mineral-stripping from degrading some of the country's most beautiful and unique areas.
Thanks to these and other early initiatives, the U.S. is today home to 61 beloved national parks. Here are the first 20 ever created, counting down to the oldest of all.
20. Grand Teton
Established in: 1929
During the 1920s, wealthy travelers and city dwellers began heading to the Grand Tetons in search of a dude-ranch experience. One early visitor was John D. Rockefeller Jr., who came in 1926, fell in love, and promptly purchased 35,000 acres along the Snake River, with the intent of one day giving it to the government for preservation.
The original Grand Teton National Park, including the Tetons and abutting lakes, was created in 1929 by President Calvin Coolidge. Twenty years later, Rockefeller Jr. made good on his promise by gifting his land to the government. The combination of the original property and Rockefeller's land — along with the Jackson Hole Valley — were combined to create the 310,000-acre park that we know and love today.
The road connecting Grand Teton to Yellowstone was named John D. Rockfeller Jr. Memorial Parkway in honor of the man who played such an important early role in the park's development.
Grand Teton Today
These days, Grand Teton is one of the 10 most popular national parks in the U.S. And for good reason.
The gorgeous park is particularly well-suited to backpackers, campers and bird-watchers — more than 300 bird species call the area home. Many visitors also combine it with a trip to the even-older Yellowstone, just 10 miles north.
Annual Visitors: 3.5 million*
*All numbers as of 2018, via the National Park Service
19. Bryce Canyon
Established in: 1928
Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce — the namesake for this spectacular canyon — first created his homestead in the area in 1874. He is perhaps best known for his quote about the canyon's unique maze-like hoodoos: "It's a hell of a place to lose a cow."
Originally established as a National Monument in 1923, Bryce Canyon became a National Park in 1928. It was expanded twice — once in 1931 and again in 1942 — and is now nearly 36,000 acres.
It's still a hell of a place to lose a cow.
Bryce Canyon Today
These days, Bryce's towering red-rock spires remain a draw for visitors from around the world. Park-goers can even still enjoy the scenic Rim Road drive that was built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Don't worry: You are guaranteed not to get lost.
Annual Visitors: 2.7 million
Established in: 1926
Although Congress authorized Shenandoah to become a national park in 1926, it took until 1935 to acquire all of the land to make it. Talks about making the 100-mile stretch of Blue Ridge Mountains into a park were first discussed in 1901, and Virginian landowners had to donate their land to create the park and earn Congress' approval.
If you go by the date on which it actually opened, Shenandoah is technically younger than Bryce Canyon (1928), Grand Teton (1929) and Carlsbad Caverns (1930).
Shenandoah National Park features more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including routes along the Appalachian Trail. But you don't need to be a hiker to enjoy the mountain views — thanks, again, to the Civilian Conservation Corps.
During the 1930s, more than 100 miles were cleared by the Corps to create Skyline Drive, which continues to offer scenic overlooks alongside lovely picnic areas.
Annual Visitors: 1 million
17. Hot Springs
Established in: 1921
Hot Springs was originally a reservation established in 1832, which is why some people consider it to actually be the oldest of the parks.
Also notable about this Arkansas park? It is one of just a few to include a city within its borders.
Back in the 1870s, a town was established to service those seeking the health benefits of the area's rejuvenating springs. Bathhouses and hotels lined the streets, including the famous Bathroom Row on Central Avenue (shown).
Between 1880 and the 1940s, spring-training baseball teams would even come here to soothe their aches!
Hot Springs Today
Bathhouse Row is still around today, and includes eight of the original buildings erected between 1892 and 1923, including Buckstaff (shown).
Central Avenue and Hot Springs' Grand Promenade were designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1987.
Annual Visitors: 1.5 million
Established in: 1919
The place we know as Zion National Park originally had a much different name: Mukuntuweap National Monument. It was renamed, and officially made a national park, in 1919, after Congress added more land.
Like Bryce Canyon, the park's history is closely tied to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; it was a Mormon settler who rechristened the park as Zion, based on the biblical term meaning a place of refuge.
Nearby Kolob Canyons, another national monument, was added to Zion in 1956, bringing the park's size to more than 148,000 acres.
Zion is one of the "Mighty 5," also consisting of Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Seeing these five Utah parks during one vacation is easy and considered the quintessential American road trip.
The tunnel shown in these photos took 10 years to complete. When it opened on July 4, 1930, it was the longest of its kind in the country and connected Zion to Bryce Canyon. (It'll cost you $15 to pass through it today.)
Annual Visitors: 4.3 million
Established in: 1919
This beloved New England park has not always been named Acadia.
From 1916 to 1919, it was a national monument called Sieur de Monts, after a spring in the park that was first discovered by a French Lieutenant in the 1600s.
In 1919, Congress renamed it Lafayette in honor of the Frenchman who fought by George Washington's side during the Revolutionary War. At the time, the Great War was being fought in Europe, and the United States wanted to show support for its French allies.
Finally, in 1929 — after the park was expanded with the acquisition of Mount Desert Island, and the love for all things French had waned — the park was rebranded as Acadia.
It hasn't changed names since.
Acadia touts one of the best gateway towns in the country: Bar Harbor, a quintessential New England resort where visitors can enjoy a quaint waterfront, charming B&Bs and fresh-catch restaurants.
Add in spectacular landscapes — marked by a sweeping coastline and rocky headlands — and it's easy to see why, in modern times, Acadia is among the 10 most-visited parks in the country.
Annual Visitors: 3.5 million
14. Grand Canyon
Established in: 1919
When you are home to one of the world's seven wonders, you of course must protect it.
Originally a national monument in 1908, the Grand Canyon was given national park status in 1919 and remains an icon of the United States and North America.
In 1902, the very first trail crossing from one side of the canyon to the other was created by a pack train through Bright Angel Canyon. Just once, in 1914, a car actually made it down to the bottom of the canyon. (Not by falling off a cliff "Thelma and Louise" style!)
Grand Canyon Today
The very first hotel catering to people visiting the Grand Canyon opened in 1891 and remains to this day as the Grand Canyon Hotel. Considered the "Gateway to the Grand Canyon," it met its match when another hotel, El Tovar, opened right on the rim of the canyon in 1905.
These historic options are still excellent places to stay when exploring this national park that's today the second-most popular in the U.S.
This year also marked the best time yet to explore the park, as it celebrated its centennial birthday with a rousing mix of special events.
Annual Visitors: 6.4 million
Established in: 1917
This park is best known for being home to, and named after, the tallest mountain in the United States — a 20,310-foot wonder that has had a somewhat controversial history.
Originally called Denali, a native word meaning "Great One," the peak was later rebranded Mount McKinley in honor of the assassinated president. Efforts to restore the mountain's original name began in 1975, and 40 years later it was finally named Denali again.
The expansive park is one of the largest in the U.S., extending more than 6 million acres and encompassing not only that epic mountain, but forests, lakes and tundra.
Believe it or not, Denali is not the largest national park in the state; that honor belongs to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which covers an astonishing 13.2 million acres. But it is one of Alaska's most-visited parks, thanks to its (relative!) proximity to the city centers of Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Alaska is home to a total of eight national parks, all of which are expansive, including Gates of the Arctic (8.4 million acres), Katmai (4.3 million acres) and Glacier Bay (3.3 million acres).
Annual Visitors: 594,660
Established in: 1916
While considered one of the oldest parks, Haleakala as we know it today is actually younger than most on this list. That's because it was originally joined with what is now Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as part of what was then called Hawaii National Park.
The two volcanic parks weren't separated until 1961.
Found on the island of Maui, Haleakala means "house of the sun," and locals and visitors alike take to the mountain before dawn to watch the first glimpses of the sun rise over the Hawaiian islands from more than 10,000 feet high.
One of the world's largest dormant volcanoes, Haleakala covers more than 34,000 acres.
Annual Visitors: 1 million
11. Hawaii Volcanoes
Established in: 1916
When Maui welcomed Haleakala as its own national park, the island of Hawaii debuted Hawaii Volcanoes.
The park includes Mauna Loa, 13,287 feet high and the main volcano, as well as Kilauea, which is "only" 3,957 feet but spews lava daily.
Hawaii Volcanoes Today
Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987, Hawaii Volcanoes visitors have the rare opportunity to witness an active volcano in action.
Lava spills into the sea and, as the world was reminded in 2018, Kilauea's eruptions can get dangerous. Although it has been erupting since 1983, the mountain's lava flow in 2018 was one of the most destructive in history.
Annual Visitors: 1.1 million
10. Lassen Volcanic
Established in: 1916
August 9, 1916, was a momentous day for public lands: It's when Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala and Lassen Volcanic all became official national parks.
This park is named after its 10,457-foot Lassen peak, which was christened after Peter Lassen — who, along with William Nobles, pioneered trails to the mountain's top.
Over the years, the mountain has erupted a few times. Shown here is an explosion in 1915 that sent ash flying for 200 miles and destroyed neighboring areas.
One of two active volcanoes in the continental United States (the other being Mount Saint Helens), Lassen Peak last erupted in 1917 and is happily considered quite safe for visitors to explore today.
Nonetheless, somewhat surprisingly, it is among the least-visited parks in the U.S. Those who do make it can enjoy its distinctive volcanic landscapes without battling the hordes.
Annual Visitors: 499,435
9. Rocky Mountain
Established in: 1915
The trails passing through the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains were originally created by Native Americans. Once the Louisiana Purchase gave the land to the U.S. government in 1803, pioneers headed into the hills seeking gold. The Homestead Act of 1862 even gave settlers free land in an effort to populate the area.
Two towns, Grand Lake and Estes, were created to service the area, and in 1915 the land became a national park.
Rocky Mountain Today
The Civilian Conservation Corps brought work to the Rockies with the creation of Trail Ridge Road, a scenic byway between the park's two towns.
More than 500 hiking trails are also available in what is today the third-most popular national park in the country.
Annual Visitors: 4.5 million
Established in: 1910
When this park was established in 1910, its landscapes were thankfully saved from being mined. It didn't take long for tourists to arrive in droves, eager to witness the unusual Mother Earth spectacle of slow-crawling glaciers still carving the land.
At the time of the park's founding, 150 spectacular glaciers could be found here.
Environmentalists fear global warming is diminishing the glaciers found in this Montana national park, claiming only 26 glaciers remain and that there's been a loss of 39 to 85 percent in glacial area. Before-and-after shots show that the changes are indeed remarkable.
The National Park Service estimates the glaciers will be entirely gone by 2030.
Annual Visitors: 3 million
7. Mesa Verde
Established in: 1906
In 1888, while searching for lost cattle, cowboys accidentally discovered the remains of homes and villages built into the sides of cliffs by "Pre-Columbia Indians." Once news was out about the cave ruins, hidden by trees and falling into disarray, looters advanced and took as much as they could.
It took the government's interference in 1906 to protect this site encompassing 4,700 archaeological sites.
Mesa Verde Today
Visitors can actually climb into and explore a sampling of some of the 600 cliff dwellings uncovered at Mesa Verde, where Puebeloans once lived and farmed the land above. Most of the dwellings contain just one to five rooms, but the aptly named Mesa Verde Cliff Palace was once home to an incredible 150 rooms.
Annual Visitors: 563,420
6. Wind Cave
Established in: 1903
Location: South Dakota
Above ground: grassy plains. Below it: one of the world's largest and most complex cave systems, spanning some 142 miles.
The Lakota Indians who called this area home believe the caves are the source of their creation. Of course, once uncovered, miners took to the caves, but they found nothing of value and decided they should be preserved instead. Thankfully, in 1903, that's exactly what happened.
Wind Cave Today
The wildlife manager for Wind Cave National Park during the 1930s and early '40s worked hard to bring back the American bison that had been nearly reduced to extinction. By removing the fencing that encamped the animals and adding more land for them to roam (nearly 30,000 acres), the animal's survival was ensured.
Now, everyone can still witness a home "where the buffalo roam."
Annual Visitors: 656,397
5. Crater Lake
Established in: 1902
When Mount Mazama blew its top (literally) nearly 8,000 years ago, it left a volcanic depression at the top of the 12,000-foot volcano that filled with glacial water to leave behind a stunning lake. Part of the Cascade Range, the park encompassing the caldera was the fifth established under the National Park System, although the area was first discovered by explorers in the mid-1800s.
Crater Lake Today
The lake is 1,949 feet deep, making it the deepest in the United States. It is also one of the top 10 deepest in the world.
To reach the only place where swimming is allowed, visitors follow the park's Cleetwood Cove Trail to the shoreline.
Annual Visitors: 720,659
4. Mount Rainier
Established in: 1899
Mount Rainier is actually a volcano that has grown in size over its 40-million years with lava flow. Although it hasn't erupted since the mid-1800s, it is the northernmost part of the Cascade Range and within the Ring of Fire. Mount Saint Helens, just 50 miles away, erupted in 1980, so there is always a chance Mount Rainier could blow again, although it is considered dormant.
Originally a part of the Pacific Forest Reserve in the late 1800s, the park became the first to transfer from a national forest into a national park.
Home to the continental U.S.' most heavily glaciated peaks, the park is particularly appealing to visitors who like to climb.
At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the tallest peak in the Cascades and offers exceptional views from the top. But it is also deadly. A climber died earlier in 2019, and it is estimated that of the 10,000 people who make the attempt to reach the summit each year, only half make it. Since 1897, more than 400 people have died on the mountain.
Those not wanting to risk their lives can stick to safe (and beautiful) hiking trails instead.
Annual Visitors: 1.5 million
Established in: 1890
The United States' third national park was established less than a week after Congress approved the second.
On October 1, 1890, Yosemite was created after vigorous lobbying from John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson. The two writers were renowned for their love of the outdoors, with Muir establishing the Sierra Club in the late 1800s.
As the "Father of the National Parks," Muir was instrumental in Yosemite's creation.
Renowned for its giant sequoia trees, towering waterfalls and massive granite monoliths within the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the park is one of the top 10 most visited.
Not only did Muir and Johnson fall in love with Yosemite, but other artists have made the park their muse. The acclaimed nature photographer Ansel Adams was given his first camera when he was 12 and visiting Yosemite. The park remained a subject of much of the Sierra Club member's adult work.
Annual Visitors: 4 million
Established in: 1890
Not far from Yosemite, this became the second national park in the United States when it was established just days before Yosemite on September 25, 1890. Deforestation and mining were threatening the area's ancient sequoia trees that had lived on the land for thousands of years, so Muir and Sierra Club members called to Congress to protect the natural treasures.
When the park was established, it became the first dedicated to protecting a living organism.
In the 1940s, FDR incorporated additional land north of Sequoia and named it Kings Canyon National Park. This land absorbed Grant National Park, established a week after Sequoia to protect the trees in General Grant Grove, so some argue Kings Canyon is as old as Sequoia. But the latter is the original.
Today, the two parks are often packaged together, as they're just about 50 miles apart.
Annual Visitors: 1.5 million to the combined parks
Established in: 1872
Location: Wyoming, Montana and Idaho
Yosemite was first rescued as a state park in the mid-1800s, which set the stage for conservationists to protect Yellowstone from settlement via 1864's Yosemite Act.
But it wasn't until 1872, after seeing artists' paintings, sketches and photographs of the area from the Hayden Expedition, that President Ulysses S. Grant decided to fully protect the land by creating the first official national park in the United States.
The 3,500-square-mile park spans across three states and is most famous for its gushing geysers. The most famous, Old Faithful, found in the Upper Geyser Basin, is just one of about 500, but earned its nickname by faithfully spitting up water every 30 minutes.
Shown in the past and present photos is Lone Star Geyser, which erupts about every three hours.