A Guide to the Geography of U.S. National Parks

Caitlin Dempsey


Which state has the most U.S. National Parks?  Which National Park is the driest, the wettest, the hottest, the coldest? Find out the answers to these geography trivia questions and more in this article about the geography of U.S. National Parks.

Related:  browse this map of the 63 U.S. national parks and see statistics about park size and visitors.

What is a National Park?

In the United States, a National Park is a federally protected area of land set aside for conservation purposes.  

A National Park is just one of the designations under the National Park Service. These designations can be confused as there are different designations. The National Park Service has a page that names and explains the different park designations.

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The first National Park created was Yellowstone National Park by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.  This act set aside over two million acres of land from Wyoming and Montana.  The National Park system was created by an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916.  

The National Park system now includes 414 areas covering more than 84 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

National Parks like Yosemite offer stunning views. Upper Yosemite Falls has a total plunge of 1,430 ft (440 m). Yosemite Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls within Yosemite National Park. Photo: Alex Demas, USGS. Public domain.
National Parks like Yosemite offer stunning views. Upper Yosemite Falls has a total plunge of 1,430 ft (440 m). Yosemite Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls within Yosemite National Park. Photo: Alex Demas, USGS. Public domain.

How Many National Parks are there in the United States?

According to the National Park Service, there are currently 63 areas specifically designated as National Parks.  These are areas specifically chosen for conservation and natural recreation.  National Monuments, in contrast, are typically selected for architectural or historical significance.

How Many States Have a National Park?

There are currently 28 states which have a National Park. In addition, the territories of American Samoa and the United States Virgin Islands also have National Parks.

Which State Has the Most National Parks?

California holds the title with nine national parks: Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Redwood, Sequoia, and Yosemite.  

Alaska has the second most national parks with eight: Denali, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, and Wrangell–St. Elias.

Which States Have No National Parks?

There are 20 states with no National Park.  In addition, the District of Columbia also does not have a National Park.

Keep in mind that these states, while they don’t have National Parks, may have other National Park Service designations such as National Monuments, National Historical Parks, National Preserves, and National Recreation Areas.

The  list of states with no U.S. National Park are:

  • Alabama
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin

How Many States Have National Parks?

30 states have at least one U.S. National Park.  Two territories also have national parks: American Samoa and the United States Virgin Islands.

Which State Has the Largest National Park?

The largest National Park in the United States is Wrangell–St. Elias in Alaska which contains over 8 million acres (32,000 km2).  Alaska is home to the next three largest National Parks: Gates of the Arctic (7,523,897.74 acres, 30,448.1 square kilometers), Denali (4,740,911.72 acres, 19,185.8 square kilometers), and Katmai (3,674,529.68 acres, 14,870.3 square kilometers).

What is the Smallest National Park?

The smallest park is Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri which has an area of about 192.83 acres (0.7804 km2).

What is the Northernmost National Park?

Located entirely north of the Arctic circle, the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the northernmost U.S. National Park.

Map of Gates of the Arctic, Alaska. Source: NPS
Map of Gates of the Arctic, Alaska. Source: NPS

What is the Southernmost National Park?

View of the Manu'a Islands with the volcanic islands of Ofu and Olosega (background), and Ta'u (foreground). Image, NPS, public domain
View of the Manu’a Islands with the volcanic islands of Ofu and Olosega (background), and Ta’u (foreground). Image, NPS, public domain

The southernmost national park is the National Park of American Samoa.  This park covers three islands, Tutuila, Ofu, and Ta‘ū,  which are home to protected coral reefs, rainforests, volcanic mountains, and white beaches.  American Samoa is the only U.S. national park located part south of the equator.

Map of the American Samoa islands. Source: NPS
Map of the American Samoa islands. Source: NPS

Hottest, driest, wettest, and coldest U.S. National Parks

Driest National Park: Death Valley National Park in California and Nevada is the driest, receiving less than 2 inches of rainfall annually.

Wettest National Park: Olympic National Park in Washington is the wettest, with parts receiving over 140 inches of rainfall each year.

Hottest National Park: Death Valley National Park also holds the record for the highest recorded temperature on Earth at 134°F (56.7°C) in 1913.

Coldest National Park: Denali National Park in Alaska is the coldest, with winter temperatures dropping below -40°F (-40°C).

The Most Visited U.S. National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee is the most visited with 11,421,200 visitors in 2018 and 12,937,633 visitors in 2022.

Cataloochee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: NPS / Victoria Stauffenberg, public domain.
Cataloochee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: NPS / Victoria Stauffenberg, public domain.

The Grand Canyon was the second most visited National Park in 2015 with 5.5 million visitors and 4,732,101 in 2022.

The Grand Canyon is the second most visited National Park in the United States. Wintery scene: Canyon Rim Trail near Grandeur Point, January 2016 NPS/Clayton Hanson.
The Grand Canyon is the second most visited National Park in the United States. Wintery scene: Canyon Rim Trail near Grandeur Point, January 2016 NPS/Clayton Hanson.

The Least Visited U.S. National Park

With no roads anywhere within its borders, the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the least visited national park. In 2018, the park recorded 9,591 visitors and 9,457 in 2022.

More Geography Trivia About U.S. National Parks

The tallest mountain on The Atlantic Coast is within Acadia National Park located in Maine.  With an elevation of 1,530 feet (466 meters), Cadillac Mountain is the highest mountain within 25 miles (40 km) of the shoreline of the North American continent between the Cape Breton Highlands, Nova Scotia and peaks in Mexico.

Arches National Park contains the highest density of natural arches in the world.

Badlands National Park contains the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States.

Big Bend National Park is one of the largest, most remote, and one of the least-visited national parks in the contiguous United States.

Ninety-five percent of Biscayne National Park is water which includes the northernmost region of the Florida Reef, one of the largest coral reefs in the world.

The Gunnison River drops an average of 34 feet per mile (6.4 m/km) through the entire Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, making it the 5th steepest mountain descent in North America.

Despite its name, Bryce Canyon National Park is not a canyon, but a collection of giant natural amphitheaters along the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.

The landscape of Canyonlands National Park was eroded into a maze of canyons, buttes, and mesas by the combined efforts of the Colorado River, Green River, and their tributaries, which divide the park into three districts.

Found in Capitol Reef National Park, the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the earth’s crust that is 65 million years old, is the largest exposed monocline in North America.

The Big Room, a large limestone chamber in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is the fifth largest chamber in North America and the twenty-eighth largest in the world.

The Channel Islands contain over 2,000 species of land plants and animals, of which 145 species are unique to the island chain.

The Congaree National Park in South Carolina is home to the largest portion of old-growth floodplain forest left in North America.

Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, measuring 1,949 feet (594 m) deep at its deepest point.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the only national park that originated as a national recreation area.

Death Valley in California is the hottest, lowest, and driest place in the United States, with daytime temperatures that have exceeded 130 °F (54 °C). More: Geography Facts About Death Valley

Denali National Park is home to the tallest mountain in North America.

Fort Jefferson, located at Dry Tortugas National Park, is the largest brick masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.

Everglades National Park is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States, and the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River.

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the northernmost national park in the United States, situated entirely north of the Arctic Circle.

The Gateway Arch, known as the “Gateway to the West”, is the tallest structure in Missouri.

No roads lead to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, most visitors arrive via cruise ships.

Glacier National Park has almost all its original native plant and animal species and is home to more than 1,000 different species of plants, and hundreds of species of animals as well as over 130 named lakes. Glacier national park is nicknamed “Crown of the Continent”.

Grand Canyon National Park‘s central feature is the Grand Canyon, a gorge of the Colorado River, which is often considered one of the Wonders of the World.

Grand Teton National Park is an almost pristine ecosystem and the same species of flora and fauna that have existed since prehistoric times can still be found there.

Great Basin National Park is notable for its groves of ancient bristlecone pines, the oldest known nonclonal organisms.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve contains the tallest sand dunes in North America.

Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the United States with over 11.3 million recreational visitors in 2016.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is in the Guadalupe Mountains which includes Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas at 8,749 feet (2,667 m).

Haleakalā National Park protects the greatest number of endangered species within a U.S. National Park.

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park contains two active volcanoes: Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive shield volcano.

Hot Springs National Park was established before the concept of a national park existed, it was the first time that land had been set aside by the federal government to preserve its use as an area for recreation.

Indiana Dunes National Park is the newest national park in the United States, having been designated on February 15, 2019.

Isle Royale National Park is the only known place where wolves and moose coexist without the presence of bears.

Joshua Tree National Park occupies an area slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Over 2,000 grizzly bears come to Katmai National Park and Preserve each year to catch spawning salmon.

Kenai Fjords National Park contains the Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the United States.

Kings Canyon National Park is home to several giant sequoia groves and the General Grant Tree, the world’s second largest measured tree.

Twice a year, half a million caribou migrate through the dunes and across river bluffs that expose well-preserved ice age fossils in Kobuk Valley National Park.

The Kvichak River, located within Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, is the world’s most productive watershed for sockeye salmon.

Lassen Volcanic National Park features Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world and the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range.

Mammoth Cave National Park encompasses portions of Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system known in the world.

Mesa Verde National Park protects some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States.

Paradise, an area on the south slope of Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, is the snowiest place on Earth where snowfall is measured regularly.

New River Gorge, located in West Virginia, features one of the oldest rivers on the continent. Despite its name, the New River is estimated to be between 10 and 360 million years old, making it one of the geologically oldest rivers in the world. The river cuts through the Appalachian Mountains, creating the New River Gorge, which is over 1,000 feet deep in places. 

North Cascades National Park has one of the earliest and longest lasting research programs dedicated to studying climate change, primarily through examining the effects of glacial retreat.

Situated within Olympic National Park in Washington,  the Hoh Rainforest and Quinault Rainforest are the wettest area in the contiguous United States.  The Hoh averages almost 12 ft (3.7 m) of rain every year.

The Petrified Forest National Park is known for its fossils, especially fallen trees that lived in the Late Triassic Epoch, about 225 million years ago.

Pinnacles National Park is home to the endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and one of the few locations in the world where these extremely rare birds can be seen in the wild.

Redwood National and State Parks protect almost half of all remaining coastal redwoods, the tallest trees on earth.

The eastern and westerns slopes of the Continental Divide run directly through the center of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Saguaro National Park gets its name from the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), a large cactus that is native to the Sonoran Desert and that does not grow naturally elsewhere. The Saguaro Cactus is the largest cactus in the United States.

Sequoia National Park contains the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet (4,421 m) above sea level. It is also home to the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world.

Shenandoah National Park is long and narrow, with the broad Shenandoah River and Valley on the west side, and the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont on the east.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only U.S. national park named directly after a single person.

Bats are the only native land mammal in Virgin Islands National Park.

Voyageurs National Park is located on the Canadian Shield, with the rocks averaging between 1 and 3 billion years old.

White Sands National Park, located in southern New Mexico, is home to the largest gypsum dune field in the world, covering 275 square miles. Unlike most sand dunes, which are composed of silica, the dunes at White Sands are made of gypsum crystals. This gives them their striking white color. The park’s unique geological formation resulted from the evaporation of an ancient sea, which left behind gypsum deposits that were later shaped by wind and water into the dunes seen today. White Sands National Park is situated within the Tularosa Basin, surrounded by the San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges.

Wind Cave National Park is the first cave, one of the longest and most complex caves in the world, to be designated a national park anywhere in the world.

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park in Alaska is the largest park with an area over 8 million acres (32,375 km2).

Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the U.S. (making it the oldest U.S. National Park) and is also widely held to be the first national park in the world. Yellowstone National Park also contains over half of the world’s geysers, including the famous Old Faithful, as well as hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles.

Yosemite Falls, located in Yosemite National Park, is one of North America’s tallest waterfalls at 2,425 feet (739 m) high.

Located at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert regions, Zion National Park has a unique geography and a variety of life zones that allow for unusual plant and animal diversity.

Virtual Parks

If you’ve ever aspired to visit some of the world’s greatest natural parks but haven’t been able to get to them, the site VirtualParks.org can help you virtually explore some of the parks found in the western portions of Canada and the United States. 

The site was created by Erik Goetze who has shot thousands of panoramic photographs.  You can explore the site through a ranges of options including drilling down through a map of North America, sorting by theme, or in alphabetic order.  Also available are Fullscreen panoramas.  This site also offers a tutorial on how to make your own panoramas.


This post was originally written on December 24, 2020 and has since been updated.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.