7 Former National Parks Across the U.S. Still Worth a Visit
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When most people think of national parks in the United States, they likely envision iconic sites like Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon. However, there are some former national parks that have been demoted or absorbed into other parks for a variety of reasons.
These forgotten parks offer a glimpse into the changing priorities and values of the United States over time, and provide an opportunity to learn about lesser-known corners of the American landscape – some of them are still available for visitors today
In this blog post, I’ve collected a list of the seven former national parks that were once part of the National Park System, including their histories and the stories behind losing their park status; I also included 10 former national monuments that are also no longer part of the NPS system. Even if you never visit these sites, I think they’re still interesting enough to honor in what way we still can. (As a companion to this post, I also have a list of sites I think might someday earn national park status, if you’re curious.)
Ready to dive into the list and see which national parks and national monuments have lost their status – and why? Read on to learn new chapters of American history that even most national park buffs don’t know.
In this post, I promote travel to former national parks and monuments, nearly all of which are the traditional and/or sacred lands of many Native American and Indigenous groups. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Mackinac National Park (1875-1895)
Mackinac National Park was the second national park in the United States and the first established in the Midwest. It was located on Mackinac Island, Michigan, and was in operation from 1875 to 1895.
In the early 1870s, Mackinac Island was a popular tourist destination known for its scenic beauty and historic sites. However, the island’s natural resources were being depleted due to unrestricted logging and hunting. The idea of creating a national park on Mackinac Island was proposed by Senator Thomas Ferry of Michigan; Ferry introduced a bill in Congress in 1874 to establish a national park on Mackinac Island, and in early 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant signed that bill to establish Mackinac National Park.
The park became a popular tourist destination, attracting visitors from across the country who came to admire the island’s natural beauty and historic sites. Visitors could explore the island’s forests, cliffs, and beaches, as well as historic landmarks like Fort Mackinac, which had been built by the British in the late 1700s.
Despite its popularity, the park faced a number of challenges. The Army (which was responsible for enforcing park regulations and maintaining the park’s infrastructure) struggled to manage the park, and there were conflicts between park officials and local residents who resented the federal government’s control over the island. In addition, the park lacked the spectacular natural features that had made Yellowstone and other western national parks so famous.
In 1895, Mackinac National Park was transferred to state control, and the park was renamed Mackinac Island State Park. Today, Mackinac Island is still one of Michigan’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting travelers who come to enjoy the island’s natural beauty and historic sites – no need to be a national park to attract millions of visitors each year!
General Grant National Park (1890-1940)
General Grant is a well-known name in American history, so it’s probably not a surprise that a park was named after him. However, you won’t find it on a map of national parks today; instead, you can visit the land which was once General Grant National Park when exploring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
General Grant National Park was established in 1890 to protect the second-largest giant sequoia in this part of the Sierras; that tree is named General Grant – hence the name of the park. It was quite popular, drawing visitors to see the tree as well as nearby groves in Sequoia National Park (which was established the same year).
As part of expanding access and land acquisitions by the federal government, General Grant National Park was folded into Kings Canyon National Park; today the area that was once a national park is called General Grant’s Grove, and it’s one of the easiest former national parks to visit.
Sullys Hill National Park (1904-1931)
Sullys Hill National Park was a national park located in North Dakota, United States, near the town of Fort Totten. It was established in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt and was named after General Alfred Sully, who led military expeditions in the area during the mid-1800s.
Sullys Hill National Park was unique among national parks in that it was established specifically to protect and showcase the native wildlife of the region. The park was home to a variety of species, including bison, elk, deer, and pronghorn antelope. The park also had a large herd of American bison, which was a major attraction for visitors.
In addition to wildlife viewing, Sullys Hill National Park offered a variety of recreational opportunities, including hiking, camping, fishing, and boating. At its peak of popularity, the park had several miles of hiking trails and a campground with 50 campsites.
Like other former national parks, Sullys Hill National Park faced a number of challenges over the years. The park’s isolation made it difficult to attract visitors, and funding for maintenance and improvements was often inadequate. In addition, the park’s location on the shore of Devils Lake made it vulnerable to flooding, which caused damage to park facilities and infrastructure.
In 1931, the park was transferred from the National Park Service to the (then) Bureau of Indian Affairs and was incorporated into the nearby Spirit Lake Indian Reservation. Today, the area is known as White Horse Hill National Game Preserve and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the preserve continues to provide habitat for a variety of wildlife species and offers recreational opportunities for visitors.
Platt National Park (1906-1976)
Historic photos from the 1950s at Platt National Park, courtesy of the NPS
Platt National Park was a national park located in southern Oklahoma, United States. It was established in 1906, making it one of the earliest national parks in the country, and was named after Orville Hitchcock Platt, a U.S. Senator who had played a key role in establishing the park.
The park covered an area of 840 acres and was known for its scenic beauty and therapeutic mineral springs. The park’s natural resources were protected, and visitors could enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, and bathing in the springs. Platt National Park was also home to a number of historic structures, including the Travertine Nature Center, which was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and several cabins that had been built in the early 1900s.
Despite its popularity with visitors, Platt National Park too faced difficulties. The park’s isolation made it difficult to attract visitors, and funding for maintenance and improvements was often inadequate. In addition, the park’s location in an area that was prone to drought and forest fires made it vulnerable to damage from natural disasters.
In 1976, Platt National Park was combined with Arbuckle Recreation Area to form the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Today, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area covers more than 9,000 acres and continues to attract visitors who come to enjoy the park’s natural beauty, historic structures, and those delightful-sounding therapeutic mineral springs.
Abraham Lincoln National Park (1916-1939)
Historic photos from Abraham Lincoln National Park, dating from 1909 to 1939, courtesy fo the NPS
Unlike today, the national park designation was given rather freely in the early 20th century; any site of natural or national importance could potentially be named a national park by the presidents in the early 1900s. Such was the case for Abraham Lincoln National Park, which was established in 1916 to protect the birthplace and childhood home of our most famous president. There, you could find a visitor center in the president’s childhood home and a replica of the log cabin where he was allegedly born.
(I say allegedly because this birthplace was auspiciously destroyed in 1865; luckily, Lincoln’s legacy lives on.)
In 1939, the park was transfered from the War Department to the National Park Service, and renamed Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park. As the National Park Service matured, greater nuance was given to different types of park units, and today you can visit the same sites under a(nother) new name: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park.
Hawaii National Park (1916-1960)
While there are several national parks that contain different islands today – California’s Chanel Islands National Park springs to mind – Hawaii National Park was a unique park for its time, and for the way it defined a national park.
Established in 1916, the original boundaries of Hawaii National Park were theoretically simple: the summits of Kliauea and Mauna Loa on Hawai’i Island and the summit of Haleakala on Maui. However, if you know your Hawaiian geography, you can probably spot the problem: these three volcanic summits span two islands, and are trecherously inaccessible at times.
In 1961, an attempt was made to make the parks more manageable – literally – and the park was divided into two separate parks: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which encompasses the area around the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes, and Haleakalā National Park, which is located on the island of Maui and is known for its dramatic volcanic landscapes and stunning sunrises. These are Hawaii’s two national parks today.
Fort McHenry National Park (1925-1939)
Similar to Abraham Lincoln National Park, Fort McHenry National Park was one that probably shouldn’t have received national park designation in the first place – it certainly wouldn’t today.
That isn’t to say that the site, which was pivotal in the battle of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would one day become our national anthem, is not important. Fort McHenry certainly has significant historic value, not the least of which because it was a former national park.
After its establishment in 1925, it was just 14 years before Fort McHenry National Park became Fort McHenry National Monument; this was likely the result of the same forces which renamed Abraham Lincoln National Park: transfer from the War Department to the National Park Service, and an increased maturity in the nuance of park unit designations.
Today, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine welcomes visitors including a quarter-million last year alone.
Former National Monuments to Visit, Too
In addition to former national parks, there are a number of former national monuments which have lost their park designation entirely. (There are other former national monuments on this list but not on mine because they became national parks or received other designations.) These sites are also interesting, though many aren’t as worthy of a trip because of the changes that led to their lost status in the first place.
Historic photos credit to D. B. Church (R) courtesy of the National Geographic Society, F. J. Hiscock (L)
- Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument (1908-1937) – Located in western Montana, this was the 15th national monument; lack of access – or park rangers – made it impossible to visit the unlit cave. In the 1930s, Montana requested the site back to become the state’s first state park: Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park.
- Shoshone Cavern National Monument (1909-1954) – Similar to Lewis and Clark Cavern, Shoshone Cavern was hard to reach and had no infrastructure for visitors; after 45 years in the NPS system, the caverns were turned back over to the town of Cody, and renamed Spirit Mountain Caverns. Today, Spirit Mountain Caverns is managed by the BLM and only accessed by experienced spelunkers
- Papago Saguaro National Monument (1914-1930) – Papago Saguaro lays claim to the first national monument to be abolished; despite its unique natural beauty and incredible fauna, the site was poorly funded and even more poorly managed – the large sandstone buttes were graffitied and damaged. Today you can visit the site, including the significant Hohokam site called “Hole in the Rock,” as part of Papago Park near Phoenix.
Historic photos credit to E.W. Merrill courtesy of Sitka National Historical Park
- Old Kasaan National Monument (1916-1955) – I had never heard of this former national monument in Alaska until I started researching this guide – this small Native Alaskan community was home to one of the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles. For that reason, it was named a national monument in 1916; in 1938, the NPS moved some totems to the New Kasaan village. Unfortunately, the loss of these totems made Old Kassan no longer monument quality, and it lost its status in 1955.
- Verendrye National Monument (1917-1956) – Despite having national monument status for nearly 40 years, Verendrye National Monument was eventually determined to lack enough historic significance for the title. It was rename Crow Flies High Overlook, and is now a regional tourist attraction with views of Four Bears Bridge and Lake Sakakawea.
Historic photos credit NPS (R) and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (L)
- Fossil Cycad National Monument (1922-1957) – Initially protected for its incredible fossilized cycadeoids, this national monument in South Dakota’s Black Hills lacked the support and funding to protect itself; by the late 1950s, so many “collectors” had taken souvenirs home that the site was transfered to the BLM.
- Holy Cross National Monument (1933-1950) – Named for its distinctive natural cross shape on a Colorado mountain slope, this national monumentwas transferred back to the U.S. Forest Service, where it probably should have been all along.
- New Echota Marker National Memorial (1933-1950) – Ever heard of New Echota? Probably not, as it was the capital of the Cherokee nation until they were forced to leave Georgia to march the Trail of Tears. While the site was determined to be better managed as a state park, you can still visit it as New Echota State Historic Site.
- Wheeler National Monument (1933-1950) – Now called Wheeler Geologic Area, this incredible geologic formation in southern Colorado has drawn visitors since the wagon travel area. Unfortunately, visitation never grew much beyond those levels due to a lack of roads to the site, which is why the USFS administers the site now. (Speaking of cars and Colorado national parks, I have a road trip guide that will take you to all four!)
- Castle Pinckney National Monument (1933-1956) – While the U.S. isn’t known for castles, we actually have one that used to be part of the National Park Service. Despite a long but unglamorous history, the National Park Service transfered this site back to the state of South Carolina and it now sits abandoned in Charleston Harbor.
Pretty interesting, right? While you can’t visit some of these former national parks and monuments, there are some that are still worth a trip. Have any questions about these national parks and national monuments, even though they don’t bear the title anymore? Let me know in the comments below!
The next national park / Monument should be Miami Marine Stadium which is being remodeled and restored to its Glory
That’s definitely an unusual one to put forward. I don’t see it being made a national park, but there are lots I’m sure would surprise me that are already on the list 🙂
You’re welcome, Patricia 🙂