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When it comes to America’s national parks, there’s something for everyone. With over 425 individual units (including National Parks, National Monuments, National Historic Sites, and more) and 63 National Parks specifically, you can get out and explore the wonders of this country whether you like the outdoors, our history, or something a bit quirkier (like me – I love old trees!).
Many people aim to try and visit all of the National Parks – if not all of the units in the entire system. One common question I get when talking with travelers like you about National Parks is: Which ones are the newest national parks? Are there any I didn’t hear about and need to visit?
In this post, I’m sharing details of the five most recently established National Parks, which span back a decade. I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard of some of the older parks on this short list, but maybe you missed the announcement for newer ones; either way, this can help you get started planning a trip.
Ready to learn more about our newest National Parks, what makes each one special, whether or not I’ve visited, and how you can do the same? Let’s hit the road together!
New River Gorge National Park (est. 2020)
America’s newest national park surprised a lot of people: Where? West Virginia?
New River Gorge was originally protected in 1978 as a National River within the National Park Service, and was established as a National Park in late 2020.
It turns out, New River Gorge National Park is a fantastic natural playground in the eastern part of the country: some of the top activities include hiking, climbing, and rafting. Prior to becoming a national park, there were around a million visits recorded each year; since then, that number has jumped to 1.5 million – that’s a lot more people coming out to enjoy the area now.
I haven’t had a chance to make it out to New River Gorge even though it’s a relatively short drive from where we live in Ohio. It’s on my list though; rafting is one of my favorite outdoor adventure activities!
White Sands National Park (est. 2019)
As part of our annual national parks trip, my friend Marissa and I have been to a lot of cool places: Joshua Tree (2018), Zion (2019), and then – after an understandable gap – we visited Death Valley (2022) and packed in three parks this year (2023) to make up for lost time: Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands. (That means we are still averaging one per year, go us!)
White Sands was actually Marissa’s idea, as it’s further from the other two parks in this part of the Southwestern U.S., but I’m glad we made it a priority to visit – even if our trip was brief. The gypsum dunes that comprise the bulk of this National Park are truly special, even if it doesn’t seem like there’s much to do on them: in addition to hiking, sandboarding/sledding, camping, and stargazing, the dunes at White Sands are home to the oldest evidence of humans on North America!
To help you plan a trip, I’ve got this post about how to make the most of one day in White Sands National Park, and have a second guide on putting together a Texas-New Mexico National Parks road trip like the one we did.
Indiana Dunes National Park (est. 2019)
I’ve actually been to Indiana Dunes National Park – but long before it was a national park (2019) and long before I started this blog (2013); while living in Indiana for grad school, a friend and I made a camping trip up to the Dunes and further into Michigan too.
In any case, I’m long overdue to return and write about the park for you, my readers; my friend Marissa and I are actually planning this as one of two* national parks that are (relatively) easily reached from Cleveland – we’ll try and do them as our annual national park trip next year (2024) when she comes out to visit me and meet Baby V. (*The other national park is Cuyahoga Valley, which is right in Cleveland!)
When we go – or if you’re curious about going – the top activities on the agenda will be hiking, taking in the historical sites (there are a number of homesteads and other historic buildings), and stargazing. We might even dip in Lake Michigan if we’re feeling brave – I’ve swum in the lake before and it’s cold!
Gateway Arch National Park (est. 2018)
A lot of people aren’t impressed that Gateway Arch was renamed from a National Monument to National Park in 2018, and I have to say I agree. That’s not to say that Gateway Arch isn’t impressive and worth visiting, but it lacks some of the special attributes that I think make a place national park worthy (and what the NPS states in their own resources about it!).
In any case, Gateway Arch is a National Park, and it’s one of the easiest to visit in a single day: it’s located right in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, and only takes a bit of pre-planning to really experience the full effect – including a ride to the top to look out to the East and West and think about the symbolism of Manifest Destiny.
I visited Gateway Arch back in 2010 or maybe 2011… I can’t remember now! In any case, it was long before it was a National Park and I haven’t actually been to the top, so I guess I’ve got to return someday if I want to visit all the parks!
Pinnacles National Park (est. 2013)
Before Gateway Arch, there was a bit of a gap since a national park was named – five years, to be specific. After tireless work by the local community, Pinnacles National Park was established in California in 2013, 105 years after it was first protected as a National Monument (in 1908)!
When we were living in California, Mr. V and I made two trips out to Pinnacles, and I think it’s my favorite national park in the Golden State (actually I included it as #3 on my list and Redwoods National Park is #5). For a relatively small park by size, there’s so much to do: hiking, caving, stargazing, and even spotting the elusive California Condor, which was reintroduced to the wild here and thrives among the towering volcanic formations that give the park its name.
I only have one article resource to help you if you want to plan a trip to Pinnacles, but it covers all the bases: The Best Things to Do at Pinnacles National Park for 1-2 Days
Other New National Park System Units
In addition to these newest National Parks, there are a number of other NPS units that have either received new designations or changed designations. Here’s a shortlist, just in case you’re curious:
- In July 2023, Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument was established in Illinois and Mississippi
- In December 2023, New Philadelphia National Historic Site was established in Illinois, and Pullman National Historical Park (also in Illinois) was renamed from Pullman National Monument
- In May 2022, Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park was established in Kansas
- In January 2021, three units were renamed: Jimmy Carter National Historical Site became a National Historical Park (Georgia), Homestead National Monument of America became a National Historical Park (Nebraska), and Weir Farm National Historical Site became a National Historical Park (Connecticut).
- In November 2020, Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument was established in Mississippi
As you can see, there are lots of changes within the National Park Service system all the time, even if new national parks aren’t common.
What Will Be the Next National Park?
I won’t go into too much detail here, but I spent a bunch of time looking at the data to try and figure out where the next national park might be established.
While I’m not the president and don’t know all the politics, there’s one place on that list that I think is the most likely to be the next national park: Craters of the Moon Monument and Preserve. If it were established 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. What do you think?
Have any other questions about the newest National Parks and how to visit them? Let me know in the comments below!