The 7 Newest National Parks You Need to Add to Your Bucket List
Even after 105 years, there are still unmissable sites being added to the system.
Ever since the federal government established it 105 years ago, the National Park Service (NPS) has provided visitors with access to some of the most coveted natural beauty within the U.S. Over the past century, destinations such as Yosemite and Yellowstone—which actually predate the NPS itself—have become synonymous with an appreciation for the great outdoors and preservation. But just like nature, the NPS has also changed over time, with other locations being added to the system or redesignated in recent years. And while the beauty of these places may be timeless, the newest additions to the National Parks system include some sites you may want to check out. Read on to see which places should be added to your bucket list immediately.
Congaree National Park
First recognized as a national monument in 1976, then established as a national park just 20 years ago in 2003, Congaree National Park, just about 18 miles outside of Columbia, South Carolina, is still considered a hidden gem. It's known for its bottomland hardwood forests, as well as having one of the highest tree canopies in the world. Bryn Culbert, a travel expert at Wanderu, describes it as a little marshy wonderland that makes for a perfect getaway.
"The park has several hiking trails, including the accessible Boardwalk Trail and the more challenging Oak Ridge Trail," Culbert says. "If you prefer to take to the water, rent a canoe and navigate the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, where you might catch a glimpse of deer, turtles, and even alligators."
Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes boasts the tallest dunes in North America (a towering 750 feet!), the main attraction at the national park and preserve in Colorado, which was officially established in 2004. The park has an incredibly diverse landscape including grasslands, wetlands, forests, and tundra, according to the NPS.
"This natural juxtaposition of ecosystems has created a one-of-a-kind destination that captures the heart of all its visitors," Adam Marland, a writer and photographer for We Dream of Travel, told Best Life.
He adds that "the most popular activity at Great Sand Dunes involves sledding down the powdery-soft dunes, though it is also a very popular place for stargazing having been recognized as a dark sky reserve."
Pinnacles National Park
Established as a National Park in 2013, Pinnacles gets its name from its unique geological formations that are the eroded remains of a volcanic eruption that took place 23 million years ago. But besides caves and forests that are perfect for exploring, there's another unique feature that can be considered a major draw.
"One of my favorite bird species is the formerly-extinct-in-the-wild California Condor," Jennifer Melroy, writer and founder of National Park Obsessed, tells Best Life. "Pinnacles is one of the release sites for the California Condor Restoration Project. Due to this, it's one of the best national parks to see them in the wild," adding that a hike along the High Peaks Trail is a great place to spot the birds.
Gateway Arch National Park
The Gateway Arch has been an iconic symbol of the St. Louis skyline and American monument architecture in general since construction finished on the site in 1965. But it wasn't until 2018 that the NPS designated the 91-acre site a National Park commemorating the westward expansion of the United States. Its rare status as a site located within a major city also makes it an accessible park you can visit in just a day.
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Indiana Dunes National Park
Before Indiana Dunes National Park earned full-fledged National Park status in 2019, it was designated as a national lakeshore within the NPS. But visitors have enjoyed the splendors of this waterside wonder since long before it got its upgrade.
"Whether you're going to hike the picturesque sand dunes, bird watch, or simply enjoy a relaxing day on the beaches of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park is the perfect park for a quick getaway," Brooke Bergen, a travel blogger and founder of Brooke in Boots, previously told Best Life. "It's also located between Michigan City and Gary, Indiana, making it less than an hour's drive from Chicago."
White Sands National Park
Sometimes, the majesty of the desert can be just as mystifying as an old-growth forest or set of mountain peaks. And since even before the NPS upgraded its title in 2019, White Sands National Park has served as a major draw for visitors looking to take in the desolation of the world's largest gypsum dune field that covers more than 275 miles of terrain.
"In 2019, the once-obscure White Sands National Monument became a major destination when it received a title upgrade in the form of National Park designation. That same year, White Sands was officially certified as an International Dark Sky Park, furthering its notoriety and popularity," Marland tells Best Life.
"White Sands National Park is the most-visited park in New Mexico, and for good reason. This natural wonder provides a playground for day and night photography, sand boarding, hiking, and general exploration that is unmistakable from any other location in the world," he adds.
New River Gorge National Park
Despite being the youngest National Park in the system since earning its title in 2020, the New River Gorge itself is actually home to one of the older rivers on the continent, according to the NPS. The West Virginia site is renowned for providing some of the best whitewater rafting options in the U.S. and is home to other notable landmarks such as the ghost town of Thurmond and the scenic Sandstone falls.