We live in a land of giants, legends, and ancient history. Early descriptions of the regions that would eventually become our national parks, most often told by explorers or laborers, were so foreign and fantastical to the average person that they simply weren’t believed. Even today, the parks’ grandeur can only fully be comprehended in person. But the majesty of Yosemite, Sequoia, and Yellowstone proved all too real, prompting a radical idea; some say it was America’s best idea ever.
The idea was simple and conceived in earnest: preserve these lands so that they might flourish and feed the human spirit of every generation to come. Thanks to the National Park Service (NPS), more than 14 billion visitors since 1904 have had the chance to do just that: to experience the impressive scale, history, and raw beauty of these environments.
The creation of the national parks as we know them today—over 400 areas, with 85 million acres in 50 states and other territories—was a hard-won achievement. It was a battle fought by pioneers, politicians, scientists, and artists alike to preserve these environments well beyond the scope of their own lives. Individuals like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and countless others were integral in facilitating these protections.
In August 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, which officially established the National Park Service as a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior. The NPS was tasked with protecting the national parks and monuments already established up to that point and any future parks that would be created. A 1933 executive order transferred 56 pre-existing monuments and historical sites to the purview of the NPS. Today, new national parks are created through acts of Congress.
The importance of these lands goes back further than explorations of the Western wilderness, further than the passage of protective legislation. Many of the regions in which the national parks reside are significant cultural heritage sites for the communities of American Indians, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians who have lived and flourished in those lands since time immemorial. The first stewards of these lands lived here long before the NPS; protecting and sharing these histories is an essential duty of the NPS as it attempts to preserve the legacy of its parks.
Using a variety of historical sources such as the National Park Service, Stacker compiled a list of the 25 oldest established national parks in America. The area of each park is current as of 2017. Because 2020 was such an outlier year in terms of visitors because of COVID-19, we included visitor numbers from 2019 as well. Any parks that have been disbanded since their founding or have merged with other national parks are not included in the list.
Read on for an overview of the history and defining characteristics of the 25 oldest national parks.
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