National Park Travel

What Will Be the Next National Park? Contenders for the 64th National Park

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As you may know from reading my site at all, I’m a huge fan of the national parks system in the U.S. I, like many, believe it to be one of America’s best ideas – and I love traveling with the specific intent of visiting new national parks. Heck, Mr. V and I took a honeymoon road trip to explore national parks, and I plan an annual pilgrimage to a new park with my friend Marissa.

Every year, I use the visitation data provided by the National Park Service to update a series of posts about the most-visited and least-visited national parks, as well as some fun national park visitation facts I collect from crunching the numbers. When I was doing that for 2023, I realized that it had been a while since a new national park was designated, and it got me wondering: what does it take to become a national park, and where should the next U.S. national park be?

Next National Park Hero

Using my data and a bit more research from my own travels, I’ve put together a list of the contenders I’d put forward to the NPS for the next U.S. national park. These are both data- and experience-backed ideas, based on my own travels. While I might not be spot on, I think you’ll see there are some awesome places that aren’t (yet) national parks that may well be worth a visit if they sound interesting to you. And who knows, maybe one will be the next national park in the U.S.!

In this post, I promote travel to national parks, 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.

What Makes A Place National Park Worthy?

To be honest, the basic definition of a national park is admittedly quite lacking:

National Park (noun): a scenic or historically important area of countryside protected by the federal government for the enjoyment of the general public or the preservation of wildlife.

This definition fails to capture the natural beauty of our national parks, or their cultural significance to both people long passed and those of us who visit today. Using that definition alone, it’s hard to understand exactly why somewhere should (or shouldn’t) receive the designation of National Park.

Based on a bit of research, I found a very handy document from the NPS in 2005, which laid out greater detail for how they select national parks and other units within the system:

To be eligible for favorable consideration as a unit of the National Park System, an area must possess nationally significant natural, cultural, or recreational resources; be a suitable and feasible addition to the system; and require direct NPS management instead of protection by some other governmental agency or by the private sector.

Additionally, there are special criteria for national park designation specifically.

A proposed unit will be considered nationally significant if it meets all four of the following standards [emphasis added]:

  • it is an outstanding example of a particular type of resource.
  • it possesses exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the natural or cultural themes of our Nation’s heritage.
  • it offers superlative opportunities for recreation for public use and enjoyment, or for scientific study.
  • it retains a high degree of integrity as a true, accurate, and relatively unspoiled example of the resource.

What this means is that – while there are lots of amazing places across the U.S. that are naturally beautiful, historically significant, and worthy of protection – most do not qualify to be worthy of becoming a national park. They might have one or even a few of the criteria – but it’s a special combination of all four criteria which makes a National Park so special and worthy of protection at that level.

Now let’s look at recently designated national parks to try and get a sense of which places might be worthy of national park status in the future.

A List of the Newest National Parks

Based on my visitation data, here’s a list of the national parks that have been designated in the last 30 years; these serve as good examples of what is considered “national park worthy” in the 21st century.

ParkAsSize
(Acres)
DesignatedRedesignatedYears Between
Dry TortugasNational Monument (“Fort Jefferson”)64,7011935199257
Joshua TreeNational Monument795,1561936199458
Death ValleyNational Monument3.4 million1933199461
SaguaroNational Monument91,3271933199461
Black Canyon of the GunnisonNational Monument30,7501933199966
Cuyahoga ValleyNational Recreation Area32,5721974200026
CongareeNational Monument (“Congaree Swamp”)26,6921976200327
Great Sand DunesNational Monument149,0281932200472
PinnaclesNational Monument26,60619082013105
Gateway ArchNational Monument911935201883
Indiana DunesNational Lakeshore15,3491996201923
White SandsNational Monument145,7621933201986
New River GorgeNational River72,8081978202042

Looking at this list from the past three decades, I noticed a few clues that might help us identify contenders for America’s next national park:

  • In the past 30 years, none of the parks designated in the past 30 years became parks without previous designation – all parks receive a different designation within the NPS first, before becoming a National Park.
  • 77% of new parks started out as a National Monument designation (10 of the 13).
  • The shortest time between first designation and park designation is 23 years and the longest is 105 years – on average, a site waits 59 years before being redesignated as a national park.
  • Most national parks (60 of 63) are at least 15,000 acres in size; while there are small parks (including Gateway Arch, which most people think doesn’t merit national park status…), most national parks are generally 15,000 acres or more.

Based on these observations, I think it’s safe to say that America’s next national park is likely a national monument and has been for at least a few decades at this point.

America’s Next National Park: Top Contenders

There are lots of other articles out there proposing ideas for where the next national park in the U.S. might be, but I don’t think any of them use data – they look at cool places worthy of protection. Similarly, the National Parks Conservation Association has certain areas they’re working to protect or expand existing protection, but these aren’t necessarily contenders for national park (re)designation.

After doing some research myself and comparing each one to the trends in past parks and the criteria for national park designation, here are the places I think are most likely in consideration for national park status.

Bandelier National Monument

I visited Bandelier National Monument in 2022 as part of a trip to northern New Mexico and loved it. At 33,677 acres, it would be one of the smaller national parks on the list if it were re-designated, but it’s still a decent size to merit the designation.

The primary draw for visiting Bandelier National Monument is the evidence of human habitation dating back to 1150 and 1600AD; it is the ancestral and traditional lands of at least 23 tribal nations. There are 70 miles of trails, and the rest is natural and wild – and thus an essential part of the landscape for local flora and fauna. Additionally, it has been a national monument since 1916, so has the tenure to merit re-designation.

Additionally, while it’s not specifically related to the national monument (or potential national park), the nearest community is Los Alamos, which has a huge heritage for modern scientific American history through the Manhattan Project. (Actually, Los Alamos is home to part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park!)

  • Points in favor of national park status:
    • It has a long tenure as a national monument, two ticks in favor of national park status
    • It’s a culturally and historically significant site
  • Points against national park status:
    • Maybe not unique enough, from a cultural and natural perspective

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Arizona is a decent contender to be the next U.S. national park; it has been a national monument since 1918 (105 years!) and was protected before that as “Casa Grande Reservation” since 1892. It’s certainly a culturally significant historic site, and home to incredible ruins of the Ancestral Sonoran Desert Hohokam peoples including a world-class example of a “Great House” structure.

While the NPCA is working to help expand this national monument (the proposal seeks to double its size), some have proposed it as a contender for the U.S.’s next national park.

  • Points in favor of national park status:
    • Casa Grande Ruins has been federally protected for over a century (106 years!0
    • Has national monument status, which is more likely to be re-designated as a park
    • It’s a culturally and historically significant site
  • Points against national park status:
    • The site is small (too small?) for a national park (473 acres)
    • It lacks the “natural” significance of most parks

Chiricahua National Monument

Located in southeast Arizona, Chiricahua National Monument offers a lot of what makes a place special as a national park: incredible rock formations, historically significant sites, and a solid history of federal protection dating back to its original designation in 1924. (Maybe it’ll be a centennial redesignation in 2024!)

Visitors are typically drawn to Chiricahua National Monument for its natural beauty, as it’s home to extensive hoodoos and balancing rocks – think of it like a mix of Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, but in the dusty rock tones of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. There are 17 miles of day-use trails and an 8-mile scenic drive. All around, it sounds like a great park, right?

  • Points in favor of national park status:
    • 100 years of federally protected status – well long enough compared to other sites that have been re-designated.
    • Currently has national monument status, aka most likely to be re-designated as a park
    • Plenty of natural, cultural, and historical significance
  • Points against national park status:
    • Similar to other parks, might not be unique enough to merit its own park status

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

I’ll be honest, I would love to see Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve become a national park: it would be Idaho’s only national park if so!

First off, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve has been a national monument for over 100 years; President Coolidge protected it way back in 1906, so it’s got lots of longevity to merit such a redesignation. Additionally, it is truly unique among the natural wonders of the country: this volcanic landscape of cinder cones and sagebrush is unlike anywhere on Earth, which brings me to…

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is also a culturally and historically significant site! In addition to its importance to Native American peoples of the region dating back some 12,000 years, Apollo astronauts trained for moon landings here in the mid-20th Century. All around, it’s got lots to offer visitors, is a huge space (410,000 acres), and would help distribute tourism to a new part of the country without any parks.

  • Points in favor of national park status:
    • Truly unique across many criteria
    • Currently a national monument
    • Long-term monument status – 118 years as of 2024!
  • Points against national park status:
    • Honestly, I’m not sure why it’s not a park yet! Can you guess? Let me know in the comments…

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

Next U.S. National Park - Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

While I’ve only included national monuments as contenders up to this point (since the next U.S. national park is far more likely to already be a national monument), I thought I’d include a few non-monuments that might make sense too.

First up is Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which is located in both northeast Pennsylvania and northwest New Jersey. This is a great outdoor playground for people in one of the most densely populated parts of the U.S., and it has some factors that make it a decent contender for national park designation too.

First off, it has been federally protected since 1965, so it has the tenure and management plan to transition to a national park. Additionally, Delaware Water Gap has unique geology which meets the natural criteria; there are some more modern historical events in the area too which might help it qualify on other criteria. Additionally, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a good example of a National Recreation Area receiving redesignation as a national park – so it’s possible!

Even if it never becomes a national park, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is still popular, receiving some 4 million visitors per year on average.

  • Points in favor of national park status:
    • Long tenure as federally protected land
    • unique natural beauty
  • Points against national park status:
    • Too similar to New River Gorge to be a unique park experience
    • National Recreation Areas are far less likely to be re-designated as national parks

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Next National Park - Santa Monica Mountains

New on my list in 2024, I’ve added Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area; while National Recreation Areas are far less likely to receive National Park redesignation, it has happened – just look at my local park, Cuyahoga Valley!

Also like Cuyahoga Valley, Santa Monica Mountains would be an urban national park, comprised of a huge swath of land near Los Angeles. The NRA currently covers 157,700 acres and includes 500 miles of hiking trails, and it’s also an essential area for wildlife in Southern California.

Santa Monica Mountains was originally protected as a National Forest in 1907, and was redesignated as a National Recreation Area in 1978; there was even a proposal in 1925 to make part of it “Whitestone National Park.” However you slice it, it definitely meets the tenure criteria and would be a great addition as the 64th National Park.

  • Points in favor of national park status:
    • Long tenure as federally protected land
    • Unique ecosystems and species would benefit from additional federal support
    • Provides access to essential natural land to a large urban population
  • Points against national park status:
    • Lots of logistics to create a national park with some of the areas currently within the NRA
    • Again, National Recreation Areas are far less likely to be re-designated as national parks

Other Sites I Didn’t Include/Removed

Updating this post for 2024, I decided to remove some of the next national park contenders I originally included as I don’t believe there’s really a chance they could receive re-designation, for various reasons.

  • Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument – This site was only federally protected in 2016 by President Obama; that’s too short of a time to merit re-designation as a national park, based on the data for other parks.
  • Fort Monroe National Monument – Similar to Katahdin Woods, Fort Monroe has only been a national monument since 2011, so it would be unlikely to receive re-designation so soon.
  • Allegheny National Forest – While I originally included it on this list, the “National Forest” parks that have become “National Parks” have always gone through “National Monument” status first.
  • Mount Hood National Forest – Same as above.
  • Tongass National Forest – Same as above, too… even though I said this should be the next national park in a previous version of this article.

There are also other places that other blogs suggest – Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, Shawnee National Forest, plus some local/state parks –, but I’ve got to follow the data: the most likely national park is currently a national monument, and has been federally protected for several decades.

So… What Should Be the Next U.S. National Park?

Great question, right? After all that – are any of the sites truly worthy of national park designation? All have some aspects in favor, and some against. But if it were me in charge of putting that paper in front of the president, there’s one place I would suggest: Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.

As Idaho’s first national park, Craters of the Moon would increase tourism distribution within the system, while protecting a truly unique natural landscape with special cultural significance to American geologic, indigenous, and aerospace history.

Now over to you: which of these sites would you designate as the next U.S. national park, if any? Or do you have another contender you’d suggest? Let me know in the comments below!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

10 Comments

      • Alex Simons

        Craters of the moon 100%. I honestly have no idea how this hasn’t already been made a full on national park. They already have really good infrastructure very little would be needed for this one in comparison to the others. Craters is also so far out from civilization it offers true wilderness in every direction. Geologicaly its of interest as the remains of one of the largest super volcanos the world has ever experienced. You can see the black lands from space. Craters of the moon is unlike any other place on earth it should have been made a nation park long ago, especially before alot of the most recent ones.

        • Valerie

          I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking this is a top contender – if I’m right, I’ll have to plan a community trip so we can all enjoy it!

  • Greg Jackson

    LBL. Land Between the Lakes in TN. Previous designation. Large area. Accessibility. Recreation. Rich in history. No one has ever mentioned it before.

  • Joey

    While I think Katahdin would be my pick (big fan of Maine), my gut tells me the next park will go to a new state, which makes me think it’s Allegheny, Delaware Waters, or Craters. I feel like after the New River, there might be a movement to look west again, and since Idaho doesn’t have one yet but does have a strong infrastructure around Craters, they might get it. And since I live in SLC, I wouldn’t be opposed to another park nearby.

    Or… (controversial opinion) they can remove the Gateway Arch from national park status (make it a monument), and give two of these national park status.

    • Valerie

      Totally agree on Gateway Arch – that doesn’t feel like a national park to me!

      Here’s hoping it’s Craters; I would love to visit and that would definitely get me there.

  • van walter

    Having visited the following National Monument 1n 1986, I would like to see Canyon De Chelly in Arizona considered for upgrading to Park status. It is much smaller than The Grand Canyon, is easily accessed via horseback or 4 wheel open truck tours (which I took), and offers pictographs, ancestral Puebloan ruins and impressive rock formations. It was declared a Monument in 1932. Unlike The Grand Canyon, this valley floor is basically flat, and the walls on either side rise out of flat ground and increase in height to 1,000 feet at the rear of the canyon.

    There is evidence of 5,000 years of human habitation in this canyon, and it is currently occupied by Navajo (they refer to themselves as Dine’) families. This is the only unit of the NPS that is entirely on Tribal Land, so it is jointly managed by NPS and The Navajo Nation. These two conditions might preclude upgrading the Monument, but it would definitely be a great upgrade (my humble opinion) should it happen!

    Re: Joey’s comment above about Gateway Arch: I agree, and, another Park that really should’nt be part of the system is Hot Springs in Little Rock: It’s basically a big Sauna operation – turn it over to the City or County!

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