The 20 largest national parks in the United States

biggest national parks usa

The biggest national parks in the U.S. range from the frozen tundra of the Arctic to the hottest and driest areas of the California deserts. Some are visited by millions of people a year, while others see only a few thousand guests.

I’ve been suffering major national park withdrawal in recent weeks. Though trips to big cities are fun, there’s nothing like mountains, backcountry camping and hiking through forest surrounded by scary animals.

With that in mind, it’s time to get back into national park mode and count down the largest parks in the United States by size. How many can you name? You’ll probably be surprised by some of the entries on this list.

As always, all photos by Quirky Travel Guy.

The 20 largest national parks in the United States:

#20: North Cascades
State: Washington
Size: 504,781 acres
Established: October 1968

North Cascades is a mountainous park in northern Washington featuring a handful of peaks above 9,000 feet and several glaciers, though not nearly as many as there used to be. North Cascades borders Chilliwack Lake and Skagit Valley Provincial Parks in British Columbia, Canada.

#19: Great Smoky Mountains
States: Tennessee, North Carolina
Size: 521,490 acres
Established: June 1934

Many people aren’t aware that the Smokies are the most-visited national park in the United States. With over 800 miles of hiking trails, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail, it’s easy to see why visitors flock to the Smokies. The park is 95% forest and offers some great camping areas.

climbing rocks

Shuffling up a rock face in the Smokies.

 

#18: Isle Royale
State: Michigan
Size: 571,790 acres
Established: March 1931

Way on the upper tip of Michigan, out into lake Superior, sits Isle Royale, a 45-mile-long island with no permanent residents and no roads. Isle Royale and about 400 other smaller islands make up the national park, which is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Its remoteness results in a serene environment where wolves and moose live without human interference. The park offers hiking and camping and is closed from November to mid-April.

#17: Kenai Fjords
State: Alaska
Size: 669,983 acres
Established: December 1980

Kenai Fjords is a prime spot for a glacier- and whale-watching cruise, where you may see killer and humpback whales, sea lions, and porpoises. Though most of the park requires boat travel to reach, the park can be accessed by trails from the Exit Glacier off the Seward Highway, making it one of only three Alaskan national parks that can be reached by road.

Glacier crashing

A huge chunk of glacial ice crashes into the water in Kenai Fjords National Park.

 

#16: Yosemite
State: California
Size: 761,266 acres
Established: October 1890

Yosemite is one of the most well-known parks in America, thanks to its waterfalls, giant sequoias, and scenic biking and camping areas. Wildlife includes foxes, deer, cougars and small mammals. If you plan to visit, be aware of bear safety, since the black bears can aggressively seek food and may even break into cars.

#15: Joshua Tree
State: California
Size: 789,745 acres
Established: October 1994

A national park dedicated to a single tree? That’s pretty much the case in the desert of southeastern California. Many of the park’s annual visitors are no doubt drawn by the musical significance of the park, since U2 shot the cover of their classic 1987 album The Joshua Tree here. You can bike or rock climb, but be careful of snakes and bring plenty of water.

national park subway map

A unique national parks map, if they were connected by a fictitious subway system – graphic by Sierra Club.

 

#14: Big Bend
State: Texas
Size: 801,163 acres
Established: June 1944

The southern Texas park is one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S., mainly because it’s so remote – the park borders Mexico and is a six-hour drive from the nearest large city, San Antonio. With a daunting desert and mountain landscape, as well as occasional reports of illegal immigrants crossing the Rio Grande and wandering around here, it’s no wonder that all but the most dedicated national park fans tend to stay away.

#13: Olympic
State: Washington
Size: 922,651 acres
Established: June 1938

Olympic National Park in northwestern Washington state provides more different types of ecosystems than most national parks: sub-alpine, coastal, lowland forest and temperate rainforest. From campgrounds along the Pacific Ocean to glaciers high in the mountains, this is one of the most geographically diverse parks in the U.S.

#12: Glacier
State: Montana
Size: 1,013,572 acres
Established: May 1910

Gorgeous hiking and camping sights can be found in Montana’s Glacier National Park, which still has more than a dozen active glaciers. Three-quarters of the glacial ice in the park has melted over the past 100 years or so, and it’s estimated that all of the glaciers could be gone as soon as 2020, so make your plans to visit sooner rather than later.

inerior grand canyon

Looking into the Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

 

#11: Grand Canyon
State: Arizona
Size: 1,217,403 acres
Established: February 1919

Not much needs to be said about the Grand Canyon, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Besides enjoying the incredible views, those up for a challenge can hike down into the Canyon. President Theodore Roosevelt said it best in 1903: “The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world.”

#10: Everglades
State: Florida
Size: 1,508,537 acres
Established: May 1934

More than half of the Everglades’ 1.5 million acres are water or swamp. Only a couple of roads go into the park, but those that do will allow you to get up close and personal with alligators. The national park protects a number of threatened species as well as the fragile Everglades environment itself.

everglades gator

Close encounters with alligators are possible in the Everglades.

 

#9: Kobuk Valley
State: Alaska
Size: 1,750,716 acres
Established: December 1980

On December 2, 1980, seven new national parks were created in Alaska, adding 43 million acres of land to the NPS system. Located in remote northwestern Alaska, Kobuk Valley offers caribou and sand dunes to those who make the trek. It’s one of the least-visited U.S. national parks, with an average of only 3,788 annual visitors over the past five years.

#8: Yellowstone
States: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho
Size: 2,219,791 acres
Established: March 1872

The first national park in the world, Yellowstone attracts more than 3 million guests every year, eager to see the Old Faithful geyser, the throngs of bison, and the rest of the abundant wildlife, which includes black and grizzly bears, wolves, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, elk and more.

hot springs yellowstone

Scalding hot springs reveal geothermic activity in Yellowstone.

 

#7: Lake Clark
State: Alaska
Size: 2,619,733 acres
Established: December 1980

Looking for solitude and seclusion? In 2011, Lake Clark National Park saw only 5,158 visitors to its 2.6 million acres. The park is located not far from Kenai Fjords in southern Alaska and is only accessible by plane or boat. What’s here? Three mountain ranges, extensive wildlife, and a pair of active volcanoes.

#6: Glacier Bay
State: Alaska
Size: 3,224,840 acres
Established: December 1980

Glacier Bay is a popular cruise destination for those traveling through Alaska’a inside passage. Ice and glaciers abound, as do whales, dolphins and bears. Though many see the park solely by boat, wilderness activities and ranger tours are available.

#5: Death Valley
States: California, Nevada
Size: 3,372,402 acres
Established: October 1994

Many people are surprised to learn that Death Valley is the largest national park in the continental U.S. Another surprise: While the park is home to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the nation at 282 feet below sea level, nearby is Telescope Peak, which boasts an elevation of more than 11,000 feet. Temperatures in the park range from more than 120 degrees in the desert to below freezing in the mountains.

badwater basin

Standing in the vast emptiness of Death Valley’s Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level.

 

#4: Katmai
State: Alaska
Size: 3,674,530 acres
Established: December 1980

The four biggest national parks are all found in Alaska, starting with Katmai, a nearly 4-million acre park in the southern part of the state, just south of Lake Clark National Park. Many visitors here come to Brooks Camp to the bear-viewing platforms, where they can watch 2,000 brown bears feed on salmon. (Watch a live Brooks Falls webcam right now!)

#3: Denali
State: Alaska
Size: 4,740,912 acres
Established: December 1980

Most nature lovers who visit Alaska end up at Denali, one of the most-popular national parks in the state. It’s an easy 250 mile ride from Anchorage and offers incredible wildlife viewing opportunities, whether you’re seeking bears, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, and caribou. Denali also provides opportunity to see Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet.

bear denali

A sleepy, rain-soaked bear yawns as he rises to scan the nearby landscape.

 

#2: Gates of the Arctic
State: Alaska
Size: 7,523,898 acres
Established: December 1980

Only about 10,000 people make it to Gates of the Arctic each year. As its names implies, the park sits entirely inside the Arctic Circle, making it the most northerly national park (along with its neighbor, Kobuk Valley.) The park does not have a single visitor center, road or campground, though you can reach it by taking a five-mile hike from the Dalton Highway. As with most Alaska parks, the draw is wildlife, seclusion and mountainous scenery.

#1: Wrangell-St. Elias
State: Alaska
Size: 8,323,148 acres
Established: December 1980

Give yourself a big pat on the back if you knew that Wrangell-St. Elias was the largest national park in the United States. Seriously, stop reading and pat yourself on the back. WSE occupies more than 8 million acres along the Canadian border. Unlike many Alaskan national parks, Wrangell-St. Elias is accessible by vehicle, though most of its roads are gravel, so don’t try to bring a rental car into the interior of the park. In addition to wildlife and huge peaks, the park is known for Kennecott, an abandoned mining town that attracts plenty of tourists.

wrangell st elias park

Which national park would you most like to visit?

*Data on annual visitors courtesy of the NPS.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

15 comments on “The 20 largest national parks in the United States

  1. No surprise that most of them are in Alaska or the west coast. I’ve only been to three of them but at least three more have been on my to-visit list for a while now.

    • I’ve read about those passes… I would definitely get one if I was visiting several parks in the same year. Zion is at the top of my list since I haven’t been there yet.

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