The 30 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 large predators.

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. There are now 60 official national parks and this list includes the biggest 30. How many can you name? You’ll probably be surprised by some of the entries on this list.

Want more parks? See my extensive National Parks page with links to every national park article ever published on this site!

All photos were taken by Quirky Travel Guy. If you’re into national parks as much as I am, I highly recommend picking up the National Geographic Guide to the Parks below. It has super in-depth information, maps, and tips for every park:

The 30 largest national parks in the United States:

mount rainier largest parks

Typical autumn view of Mount Rainier engulfed in clouds.

 

#30: Mount Rainier
State: Washington
Size: 236,381 acres
Established: March 1899

Rainier is one of the only U.S. national parks visible (on a clear day) from hundreds of miles away. That’s because of Mount Rainier, the active volcano with a 14,411 elevation that towers over its surroundings. There’s nothing like flying into Seattle and looking out the window to see the peak at nearly the same height as the airplane! Visitors to Rainier on the ground can choose from a ton of great summer hikes and snowshoeing in the winter.

#29: Capitol Reef
State: Utah
Size: 241,904 acres
Established: December 1971

Capital Reef NP has the same cliffs, monoliths, and canyons that many of Utah’s parks are known for. But this park is unique for a couple of reasons. One, its oddly narrow shape – the park measures 60 miles long (north to south) but only six miles wide, on average. Two, it has massive fruit orchards that were established by early settlers and are now operated by the NPS. Depending on the time of year, visitors can pick cherries, apricots, peaches, or apples, and pay for them by the pound.

badlands national park sign

Badlands NP has a landscape like no other park.

 

#28: Badlands
State: South Dakota
Size: 242,755 acres
Established: November 1978

Badlands NP is a unique environment home to huge sections of rock pinnacles and other sections of seemingly endless grass prairie. A great way to experience the park is by spending a couple days in one of the campgrounds. You’ll feel like you’re fully immersed in nature when you have to avoid piles of bison poop and prairie dog holes as you walk.

#27: Channel Islands
State: California
Size: 249,561 acres
Established: March 1980

One of the newest national parks on this list, the Channel Islands (off the California coast not far from Los Angeles) joined the park system in 1980. Of the eight islands, five are part of the national park, serving as a protected area for the 145 animal species that are found here and nowhere else in the world. Half of the park area consists of ocean waters, where visitors engage in kayaking and whale and dolphin watching.

rockies-hike-view

Kicking back on the Deer Mountain Trail in Rocky Mountain NP.

 

#26: Rocky Mountain
State: Colorado
Size: 265,795 acres
Established: January 1915

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road is one of the few places in America where you can drive above 12,000 feet elevation. A full third of the park is above the tree line. Find stunning views at places along the way, like the Forest Canyon Overlook. Bring a jacket because it gets windy up there! The park is known for its bighorn sheep and its variety of ecosystems, from alpine meadows to forests to tundra.

#25: Grand Teton
State: Wyoming
Size: 310,044 acres
Established: February 1929

Yellowstone gets all the headlines, but many national park buffs consider the views of neighboring Grand Teton even more, shall we say, grand. The massive Jackson Lake and the smaller Jenny Lake are both popular spots for hiking, picnicking, and viewing the impressive peaks. Grand Teton has all of the amazing wildlife that Yellowstone does – grizzlies, elk, bison, bighorn sheep, and wolves.

grand teton park

The views of Grand Teton’s peaks are stunning!

 

#24: Hawaii Volcanoes
State: Hawaii
Size: 323,431 acres
Established: August 1916

Only one park on this list offers the chance to watch active lava flows. Hawaii Volcanoes NP has so much to see, including Kilauea Caldera, which has been constantly erupting since 1983. Guests can approach within a mile to see the glow of lava at night. Other highlights include Holei Sea Arch, Pu’u Loa Petroglyph Fields, and Alanui Kahiko, a former main road through the park that got buried by lava in 1972. You can walk right to the spot where the hardened lava meets the road and take a selfie.

kilauea-crater

The nighttime glow of the lava flow at Kilauea Caldera in Volcanoes NP.

 

#23: Canyonlands
State: Utah
Size: 337,597 acres
Established: September 1964

Of Utah’s five fabled parks, Canyonlands is the largest in area, but it draws the fewest people, with roughly 700,000 annual visitors. The Colorado and Green Rivers run through the middle of the park and split it into three distinct sections. Each section has its own entrance, and they must be visited separately, as no roads connect them. A big draw is the park’s geology, which features canyons, arches, buttes, and spires.

#22: Sequoia
State: California
Size: 404,062 acres
Established: September 1890

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks border each other in the Sierra Nevada region of California, and they also border each other on this list, ranking as #22 and #21 largest national parks in the United States. Sequoia was founded first, back in 1890, and is known for its namesake giant sequoias, including “General Sherman,” which stands 274 feet tall to rank as the world’s tallest recorded sequoia tree.

#21: Kings Canyon
State: California
Size: 461,901 acres
Established: March 1940

Carved by ancient glaciers, Kings Canyon National Park contains deep valleys, several 14,000-foot peaks, and a whole lot of unexplored wilderness. Its splendor was noticed by famed naturalist John Muir, who once called the park “a rival to Yosemite.” Because of the mountainous terrain, only a handful of roads exist in the park, and none cross the entire park from east to west.

north cascades national park

North Cascades NP on a rainy autumn day.

 

#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.

#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 2025, so make your plans to visit sooner rather than later. Have your camera ready as you travel on the famous Going to the Sun Road.

#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.

Not many people make it all the way up here, but if you’re a true national park enthusiast, you’ll want to add Wrangell-St. Elias to your bucket list!

Which of these large national parks would you most like to visit?

*Data on annual visitors courtesy of the NPS.

VIDEO: Hermit Crabs Playing in Dry Tortugas National Park

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About Quirky Travel Guy

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based freelance writer & fan of indie rock, road trips, ice cream, squirrels on power lines, runaway shopping carts, and six-way intersections. Looking for a hotel? I always recommend Booking.com where you can easily compare hotel rooms, prices, and availability. Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, which may earn me a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase.

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28 Comments

  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.

    2. The Narrows is an amazing hike. Was in Zion with my wife in May and we just spent a few days in Acadia (September). We’re from NY and have just started out N.P. tour. Our next stop is Wyoming to see Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Can’t wait!

  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. 🙂

  9. Isn’t the Ozark National Scenic Riverways a National Park ? They are about 132 miles of protected river system in Missouri . Thanks seems huge . The rivers are the Current River and it’s tributary the Jacks Fork River

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