The 20 Largest National Parks in the United States

The view from Hidden Lake at Glacier National Park.

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.

See also: The 10 Least-Visited National Parks in America

As always, all photos were taken 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. Visit here during the summer, because the main roads are often closed due to heavy snowfall in the winter.

north cascades national park

North Cascades on a rainy autumn day.


#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 moose live without human interference. Wolves lived here too, but by the end of 2017, they had almost completely died off. The park offers hiking and camping and is closed from November to mid-April.

kayaking isle royale

Isle Royale is a great place for kayaking.


#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. If you’re really motivated, you can see many of the park’s highlights in a single day.

joshua tree

The morning sun at Joshua Tree National Park.


#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 immigrants crossing the Rio Grande and wandering around here, it’s no wonder that only the most dedicated national park fans make the trip.

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

Olympic National Park 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. And it’s one of the best places in Washington state to see whales from shore.

humpack whales olympic

I saw several humpback whales from shore in Olympic National Park.


#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.


#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.”

inerior grand canyon

Looking into the Grand Canyon from the North Rim.


#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 and rises to scan the nearby landscape in Denali.


#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

wrangell st elias park

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 for being the king and/or queen of obscure national park trivia!

Wrangell-St. Elias 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.

Which national park would you most like to visit?

*Data on annual visitors courtesy of the NPS.


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About the Author

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based journalist and blogger who seeks out offbeat attractions and awesome destinations around the world. He has been featured in Travel + Leisure, Connect Magazine, Matador Travel, and the Washington Post.

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  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.

          1. Oh… Gotcha I see this now I just read Adirondack Park- sort of sad I live smack dab in the center in never realized that. Sorry for my confusion.

  2. Great summary. I would’ve never guessed that Yosemite was bigger than Yellowstone, and Isle Royale felt so small. The Smokies always break my heart. We started going when I was a kid and the decline of them over the last 40 years just brings tears to my eyes.

    1. Yosemite is smaller than Yellowstone. As far as the national parks are concerned these are the national parks that I have worked in Big Bend Isle Royale Death Valley and Yellowstone. The national parks that I have visited are; Joshua Tree ,Kings Canyon ,Mount Rainier, North Cascades ,Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Yosemite, Badlands, Grand Canyon,Crater Lake, Olympic, Smoky Mountains and Everglades N.P.

  3. Heard of a few of them before! A great list, would love to see them in person if and when I get a chance to visit USA.
    Have a fantastic day Scott 🙂

  4. Great info! I was sure Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon are the most visited. Out of this list, I’ve only been to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Yellowstone and Glacier and everything Alaska are way high on my to-experience list. I’d also love to see Yosemite and Olympic. Which park would you love to visit most?

  5. There is a national park pass that you can buy for like $80 which is good for the whole year. Hiking the Narrows in Zion is listed as one of National Geographics top hikes around the world. Great compilation!

    1. 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.

  6. We love Denali and Glacier National parks. The huge space inGlacier is almost over powering! It is the 3rd largest park in the USA. The first two are in the state also. Well worth seeing asma y national parks one is able to see.

  7. Thought the same thing, and Scott gave me the same answer. It’s because NY. Created the park not the federal government.

  8. Great info! I would love to visit all of them. Only been to 4 parks (Yellowstone, grand Teton, grand Canyon and everglades ( which is almost my backyard) and I’m fascinated by their beauty. I think next on my list is Smokey. 🙂

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