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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?
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.
|Dry Tortugas||1935||National Monument (“Fort Jefferson”)||1992||57|
|Joshua Tree||1936||National Monument||1994||58|
|Death Valley||1933||National Monument||1994||61|
|Black Canyon of the Gunnison||1933||National Monument||1999||66|
|Cuyahoga Valley||1974||National Recreation Area||2000||26|
|Congaree||1976||National Monument (“Congaree Swamp”)||2003||27|
|Great Sand Dunes||1932||National Monument||2004||72|
|Gateway Arch||1935||National Monument||2018||83|
|Indiana Dunes||1996||National Lakeshore||2019||23|
|White Sands||1933||National Monument||2019||86|
|New River Gorge||1978||National River||2020||42|
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.
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 just 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.
Avi Kwa Ame
Avi Kwa Ame, also called Spirit Mountain, is a large mountain in southeast Nevada, near the town of Laughlin and the Arizona border. It currently sits within the huge Lake Mead National Recreation Area, but some groups – including the National Parks Conservation Association – are working to seek additional protections for this area.
This is in part because Avi Kwa Ame is home to “some of the most visually stunning, biologically diverse, and culturally significant lands in the entire Mojave Desert.” This certainly meets the criteria for natural preservation, but Avi Kwa Ame is also culturally significant: “[t]he entire area is considered sacred by ten Yuman speaking tribes as well as the Hopi and Chemehuevi Paiute.”
Protecting this mountain as a national park would generate lots of public interest and draw visitors – generally a good thing. It would also raise awareness of the significance of this site, so I hope Avi Kwa Ame will become a national monument soon at a bare minimum. (I’ve signed the petition to support the movement, and you can too!)
- Points in favor of national park status: Avi Kwa Ame is a naturally and culturally significant place; already federally protected as part of Lake Meade NRA
- Points against national park status: The current proposal seeks to gain national monument status, rather than park status – it’s very unlikely it would immediately become a national park.
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; it’s a culturally and historically significant site
- Points against national park status: The site is small (too small?) for a national park, and 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: Long-time national monument with natural, cultural, and historic 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; long-term monument status
- Points against national park status: It hasn’t been made a park yet, maybe there’s a reason?
Fort Monroe National Monument
If the National Park Service is looking to add a new site that’s much more culturally focused than nature-focused (kind of like Gateway Arch National Park), there’s one great condenser: Fort Monroe National Monument.
Designated in 2011, Fort Monroe National Monument protects the last moat-encircled and largest stone fort ever built in the U.S. It’s also near the site where Captain James Smith landed his ship in 1607, and the site has cultural significance to the Native American peoples whose lands this area once used to be.
While it would be an unconventional national park in the sense that most people think of sweeping scenic vistas and hiking trails, Fort Monroe National Monument is certainly historically significant enough to merit its federal protection.
- Points in favor of national park status: Historically and culturally significant; a one-of-a-kind site
- Points against national park status: Has only been a national monument for about a decade, which makes it unlikely to be redesignated so soon.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
I’ll admit, I was delighted to see some people put forward Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument as a contender for the next U.S. national park. I know of Katahdin Woods and Waters from my work in dark sky preservation reporting: this area of Maine received designation as a Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2021, making it one of the best-protected and darkest areas in the country.
That alone seems worthy of making it a national park in my book, but Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument also has plenty of natural beauty during the daytime: rivers, trails, and wildlife abound in this 87,563 acres site.
One point against Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is that it only became a national monument in 2016 during President Obama’s celebrations to mark the centennial of the National Park Service.
- Points in favor of national park status: Natural beauty and unique dark sky resources
- Points against national park status: Short tenure of federal protection makes it unlikely to be redesignated so soon.
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 which 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
Allegheny National Forest
There are a few national forests that might also make good contenders as national parks; after all, Pinnacles National Park started out as Monterey National Forest (before gaining national monument designation status in 1922 and then becoming a park in 2013) and Olympic National Park was established to include part of Mount Olympus National Forest (after passing through national monument designation).
Allegheny National Forest is one such contender that might someday become a national park. This huge forest covers 514,029 acres in northwest Pennsylvania and has plenty of natural beauty to justify its protection, including lakes, rivers, endless trees, and native wildlife. There is also evidence of Allegheny National forest as a working forest dating back to pre-colonial times with Native American inhabitants in the area.
However, it is not currently administered by the National Park Service (it’s part of the U.S. Forest Service), so it’s unlikely that Allegheny National Forest will become a park right off the bat; it might need to become a national monument first.
- Points in favor of national park status: Sprawling natural beauty, cultural history.
- Points against national park status: No National Forest has ever become a National Park straightaway.
Mount Hood National Forest
If you’ve ever been to Portland, Oregon, you’ve seen Mount Hood towering in the east; this picturesque Cascade volcano is a silent sentinel over the city and is surrounded by a huge, beautiful Pacific Northwest forest. This is Mount Hood National Forest, some 1.1 million acres of protected land with recreation access all around.
Mount Hood National Forest was actually put forward as a contender for national park status way back in 1940; the land had been protected for almost 50 years at that point (since 1892), but the campaign wasn’t successful. Since then, the forest has remained much the same in most areas – logging in the forest has been significantly reduced, and the unique ecosystems of the Cascade Range are well-protected here.
Unfortunately, Mount Hood is quite similar in both geology and ecology to Mount Rainier, its sister to the north. As Mount Rainier is already a national park, it’s unlikely the NPS would name two parks so alike.
- Points in favor of national park status: Natural beauty and cultural significance to Native American peoples
- Points against national park status: Quite similar to other protected areas of the Cascade range, including Mt. Rainier National Park
Tongass National Forest
If there’s one national forest on this list to which I’m partial as a contender for national park status, it’s Tongass National Forest in Alaska. (I mean, come on, you know I love Alaska!)
Tongass National Forest is massive, some 16.7 million acres in all – if it became a national park, it would be the largest, by a lot (even bigger than Wrangell-St. Elias at 13.2 million acres!). Huge areas of Southeast Alaska would be federally protected – and naturally protected too, since most of the forest is hard to reach even by boat.
The Tongass is obviously an incredible natural wonder: it’s home to seemingly endless swaths of old-growth trees, towering fjords, and crawling glaciers – both marine life and wildlife call its waterways home too. Additionally, Tongass National Forest is culturally significant; the Tlingit people primarily call this area home, as well as the Tsimshian and Haida peoples.
While I am sad to guess that the Tongass will probably never become a national park as it’s already well-protected, I would be wholly in support of such an effort if it was ever made.
- Points in favor of national park status: Unique natural, historical, and cultural value unlike any other park in the country; long history of protection (dating back to 1902).
- Points against national park status: Its current National Forest status makes it unlikely to become a National Park straight away, and it includes several national monuments (like Misty Fjords) that would complicate the redesignation process.
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, here are the ones I’d recommend:
- Avi Kwa Ame – This is a culturally and naturally significant place that is already protected, and could be opened to provide greater opportunities for visitors to learn and engage with our Native American legacy in this country.
- 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 aerospace history.
- Tongass National Forest – It would be very uncommon to craft a national park from a national forest, but the Tongass is unique in our country – both naturally and culturally – and unique on our planet.
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!