35 Surprising Facts About America's National Parks

National Park of American Samoa

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Horsetail Firefall In Yosemite National Park, California

Fascinating Facts

How well do you know America's national parks? Aside from their captivating natural beauty, the parks are equally fascinating and rich in history. We've curated 35 interesting national-park facts so you can discover what makes them so special before booking your next adventure, including the lowdown on a stunning natural phenomenon that's about to make its dazzling yearly appearance at Yosemite. 

Related: Stunning Photos of Every National Park in America

Horsetail Firefall
Michael Castaneda/istockphoto

A waterfall at Yosemite looks like lava.

California’s most popular national park, Yosemite National Park, is known for its striking rock formations and towering waterfalls, including one that looks like fiery lava cascading off the side of a cliff. Horsetail Fall, which flows over the eastern edge of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, is famous for appearing to be on fire when it reflects the orange glow of sunset. Tentative dates for this year's Firefall are Feb. 10-28. No reservations are needed, but you'll have to wear a mask.

Related: 30 Stunning Photos of Iconic Landscapes in the American West

Mount McKinley (Denali)

Denali boasts North America’s highest mountain.

Located in Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve, Denali is the tallest mountain in North America, even taller than Everest if you measure it from base to summit. At 20,310 feet above sea level, Denali towers over the surrounding mountains and the park's six million acres of wild land. It's also one of the most challenging mountains for climbers to summit, and can take up to a month to reach the top due to adverse weather — more than 46,000 people have attempted to summit Denali since 1903, but only half have reached the top.

Related: 18 Under-the-Radar Mountain Towns Across America

man resting in an hot spring in oregon

Hot Springs is the oldest protected area in the park system.

While Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas didn't become a national park until 1921 (nearly five decades after Yellowstone earned the designation), it was actually the first federally protected piece of land and the first park chosen and minted for the national park quarter series. Originally established by Congress as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832 to preserve the local waters due to the rising popularity of its geothermal spring water for therapeutic bathing, it's the oldest protected area in the National Park System. At 5,500 acres, it's also the smallest natural national park, so small it could fit into the largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, nearly 2,400 times.

Related: 44 Natural Hot Springs to Shake Off Winter’s Chill

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Posnov / istockphoto

The average visit at Isle Royale is 21 times longer than other parks.

In the heart of Lake Superior, Michigan's remote Isle Royale National Park gives visitors a true backcountry experience. Because it's only accessible by boat or seaplane, it's one of the least visited U.S. national parks. But it's also one of the most revisited national parks and visitors typically stay on the rugged island for three and a half days. That's 21 times longer than the average four-hour visit for other national parks. The park's 132,018 acres of wilderness is only open from late May through September — since it's also the only national park to shut down entirely for the winter season.

Related: 18 National Parks You Have to Visit This Winter

Dawn over Bryce Canyon

There are more hoodoos in Bryce Canyon than anywhere else in the world.

While nearby Arches National Park boasts world-famous sandstone arches, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah holds the title for containing the largest concentration of hoodoos on the planet. The fiery red rock spire and pinnacle formations can be found on every continent, but there are over 28,000 cataloged in this park, so you won't find as many of the visually striking geological formations clustered in one spot elsewhere. Millions of years of erosion and weathering have helped create the park's trademark bizarrely-shaped rock spires, which range in size from the height of the average human to a 10-story building.

Related: 31 Bucket-List Experiences in America’s National Parks

National Park of American Samoa
Wikimedia Commons

National Park of American Samoa is the only national park south of the equator.

One of the most remote national parks in the U.S., National Park of American Samoa, is the only park south of the equator. In the heart of the South Pacific, some 2,600 miles southwest of Hawai'i, this remote park stretches 13,500 acres across three tropical volcanic islands (Tutuila, Ofu, and Ta'ū) — most of which is rainforest on land while almost 4,000 acres is coral reefs underwater.

Related: 22 Beautiful Island Vacations Worth Budgeting For

Grand Canyon, Arizona, United states of america.

Grand Canyon is one of the natural wonders of the world.

As one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it's no wonder that Grand Canyon National Park, home to much of the immense canyon in Arizona, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in North America. The park's unmatched views from the rim of the colorful, winding canyon on the Colorado River attracted an estimated 2.9 million people in 2020 (down from 5.9 million in 2019), making it one of the 10 most visited national parks.

Related: 33 Historic National Park Photos for Vintage Views

Desert Death Valley
Magu Directors/istockphoto

Death Valley is the hottest place on earth and driest in North America.

Death Valley National Park in California has the distinction of being the hottest, driest, and lowest place in the U.S. It holds the official record for the hottest place on the planet — the hottest surface temperature, 134 degrees, was recorded in 1913 at Furnace Creek Ranch. It's also home to the lowest point in the western hemisphere thanks to Badwater Basin, located 282 feet below sea level.

Related: 15 Desert Vacation Spots to Heat Up Your Fall

Black Canyon with Gunnison River
Black Canyon with Gunnison River by Hogs555 (CC BY-SA)

Sun only hits the floor of Black Canyon of the Gunnison for 33 minutes a day.

Portions of the canyon in Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park are so deep and narrow — spanning just 40 feet at its narrowest point, “The Narrows,” and reaching its greatest depth of 2,722 feet at Warner Point — that sunlight only reaches the very bottom of the gorge for 33 minutes each day. With such little sunlight shining into this deep, steep, and narrow vertical wilderness carved by the Gunnison River over 2 million years, some parts appear completely black, giving it the name "Black Canyon." 

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Biscayne National Park
Wikimedia Commons

Biscayne's most interesting attractions are underwater.

Located just outside downtown Miami, Biscayne National Park in Florida is a watery wonderland protecting a stretch of the Florida Reef for outdoor enthusiasts to explore. In fact, 95 percent of the national park's 173,000 acres is covered with water, comprising 40 small barrier coral reef islands and a mangrove shoreline. In addition to vibrant aquatic life, hundreds of centuries-old shipwrecks are hidden underwater. Six are mapped along an underwater trail for divers and snorkelers.

Related: 21 Eerie Photos of Shipwrecks Around the World

Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave has the longest cave system in the world.

Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the longest known cave system in the world. The five-level cave system stretches for 400-plus mapped miles — and new caves are continually being discovered — under nearly 53,000 acres of forest and about 80 miles of above-ground trails. Cave tours are the best way to explore the park's massive chambers and astonishing rock formations, not to mention more than 130 wildlife species and 5,000 years of human history.

Group of brown bears fishing for salmon by a  waterfall

There are more bears than people at Katmai.

Alaska's Katmai National Park is a vital natural habitat for salmon and thousands of brown bears. In fact, bears outnumber people here, and it's one of the best areas to witness brown bears in the world. You can even watch live streaming footage of the park's estimated 2,200 brown bears in their element fishing for salmon and even mother bears teach their cubs survival tactics from the park's many webcams. 

Related: 20 Free Adventures at National Parks

Early morning on a stone beach

Acadia is the first place in America you can spot the sunrise for much of the year.

Visit Acadia National Park in Maine between October and March, and you'll be the best place for greeting the sunrise before anyone else in America. Atop the park's 1,529-foot Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak on the east coast, explorers will have a terrific vantage point for witnessing the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean and bathing the rocky coastline in light.

Detail of a fire salamander lying on green moss in European nature

The Great Smoky Mountains are the salamander capital of the world.

America's most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, has an unusual claim to fame as the "salamander capital of the world." The mountain and forest area straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is renowned for its beautiful, ancient mountains as well as its biodiversity, including more than 30 species of salamanders (commonly called "spring lizards" in the southern Appalachians). 

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone national park

Yellowstone's hot springs are so acidic they can dissolve a body.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming became the world's first national park in 1872, and is known for its unique hydrothermal and geologic wonders as well as its broad array of habitat types (it's the only place in the U.S. where buffalo have roamed continuously since the prehistoric era). The park contains more than half of the world's active geysers, and extremely acidic hot springs that can dissolve a human body overnight. The Yellowstone Caldera, sometimes referred to as the Yellowstone Supervolcano, event caused three of the world’s biggest volcano eruptions.

beautiful of narrow in the afternoon  in Zion National park,Utah,usa.

Zion has its own 'subway'.

Experienced thrill-seekers can traverse The Subway in Utah's Zion National Park. While it's not a mode of transit, the park's tubular landmark looks and sounds like an actual subway with fault line tracks and roaring water — and does require a permit to travel its complex system. Depending on the chosen route, this strenuous 9.5-mile day hike entails extensive route finding, swimming through deep pools of cold water, rappelling, and scrambling over boulders. It's recommended that hikers travel with someone who has successfully completed the journey.

Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park, Washington, USA.
Sean Pavone/istockphoto

Olympic's Hoh Rain Forest gets more rain than the Amazon.

Olympic National Park in Washington is known for its remarkable range of precipitation and elevation thanks to several distinct ecosystems — from glacier-capped mountains to lush rainforests to wild coastline. Hoh Rain Forest, one of few remaining temperate rainforests in the U.S., is an oasis of old-growth mosses, ferns, lichens, and Sitka spruce due to moisture from the Pacific Ocean. It receives over 12 feet of rain every year, which is more than the Amazon rainforest's average annual rainfall of 10 feet.

Sunset at Great Sand Dunes
Views of the New River Gorge Bridge from the Endless Wall trail
Tim Pennington /istockphoto

The New River Gorge bridge has its own designated holiday.

The newest U.S. national park, New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia, celebrates its namesake bridge with its own holiday. Crossing the second oldest river in the world, commonly referred to as "The New," the bridge speeds travel time through the Appalachians and is home to the annual Bridge Day in October. One day of the year, pedestrians, base jumpers, parachuters, and rappellers can enjoy the epic bridge and its views of the gorge plus plenty of entertainment at the state’s largest festival. On other days of the year, visitors can explore the underbelly of the bridge by booking a Bridge Walk tour.

Wizard island at Crater Lake National Park

One World Trade Center could fit underwater at Crater Lake.

Crater Lake National Park's namesake feature was formed 7,700 years ago when a violent eruption triggered the collapse of a volcano. Long revered as a sacred site by Native Americans, Oregon's Crater Lake is the deepest lake in America, bottoming out at 1,943 feet. To put it in perspective, New York City's One World Trade Center, which is the tallest building in the U.S. at 1,776 feet tall, would be completely submerged (with room to spare) at the lake's deepest point. Plus, it's completely fed by rain and snow, making it one of the most pristine lakes in the world.

National Christmas Tree in Front of White House, Washington DC

The 'Nation's Christmas Tree' can be found at Kings Canyon.

The "Nation's Christmas Tree" can be found at Kings Canyon National Park in California. Not to be confused with the "National Christmas Tree," which is decorated annually in Washington, D.C., it is the country's only living national shrine. For almost a century, hikers have gathered in the park for a special service held around the base of the General Grant Tree — the largest giant sequoia in the park's General Grant Grove section and the second largest tree in the world. This tradition began in 1925 and was designated the "Nation's Christmas Tree" by President Calvin Coolidge a year later. 

Congaree National Park fireflies
National Park Service

Congaree fireflies put on a synchronized light display.

Congaree National Park in South Carolina is one of the only spots in North America where people can witness the rare and majestic light display of synchronous fireflies. Every year, for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June, thousands of fireflies blink in unison while searching for their mates. The "snappy syncs" illuminate the park's renowned forest of old-growth trees for a truly magical natural show. 

Grand Teton National Park
National Park Service

Grand Teton has some of the youngest mountain ranges in North America.

They might look ancient, but the 40-mile stretch of mountains in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park are the youngest range in the Rocky Mountain chain and one of the youngest mountain ranges in North America. Compared to most other mountains in the Rockies (50-80 million years old) and the Appalachians (more than 300 million years old), the Tetons are relatively young (less than 10 million years) and still rising. French-Canadian trappers apparently called the three highest peaks in what is now the national park "les trois tétons," which translates to "the three breasts" or "the three teats," making the tallest peak, Grand Teton, the biggest of the female form.

Grand Teton National Park
National Park Service

Badlands contains one of the world's richest fossil beds.

On the fringe of the Great Plains in South Dakota, the 244,000-acre Badlands National Park's eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blend with protected mixed-grass prairie. While its rugged, stunning landscape and wildlife like bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs attract visitors, you might not know that its striking geologic deposits contain one of the world's richest fossil beds. Scientists have studied and traced the evolution of the mammal species — from horses to rhinoceros to saber-toothed cats — from fossilized remains unearthed at the park. You can explore the many fossil collections at the visitor center and even on hikes.

National Park Service

Big Bend was home to the world's largest flying creature.

Big Bend National Park in Texas was once home to the world's largest flying creature of all time, Quetzalcoatlus, an ultralight, airplane-sized pterosaur with an estimated wingspan of 36-39 feet. Over 90 dinosaur species, including some previously unknown to science, as well as fossils of plants, fish, lizards, crocodiles, early mammals, and more have been discovered at the park. It's played a pivotal role in the world's paleontological research, giving us one of the most complete pictures of a prehistoric ecosystem. 

underwater trail in Virgin Islands National Park

There is an underwater trail in the Virgin Islands.

Millions of National Park Service acres can be found beneath the waves, and Virgin Islands National Park in the U.S. Virgin Islands is certainly a paradise worth diving into. Much of this national park is on the island of St. John, and features a beautiful beach with tropical hiking paths around the cay plus an incredible, 225-yard-long underwater snorkeling trail at Trunk Bay. Follow the colorful coral reef path to learn about the hidden marine life, including the local fish and sea turtles, by reading the plaques along the trail.

Lightning during summer storm

A Shenandoah ranger was struck by lightning seven times in his career.

They say that lightning never strikes twice, but one national park ranger reportedly tells a different tale. Roy Sullivan worked at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia between 1942 and 1977, and claims he was struck by lightning seven times during the span of his career, and miraculously survived all of the shocking events. His legacy as "Lightning Man" and the "human lightning conductor of Virginia" — not to mention a world record — might make him one of the most famous park rangers in national park history.

Pu 'u 'O 'o vent on the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii

Mauna Loa at Hawaii Volcanoes is the largest active volcano on the planet.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii is home to two of the world's most active volcanoes — Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. While it doesn't erupt as frequently as its younger neighbor Kilauea, Mauna Loa (meaning "Long Mountain" in Hawaiian) is the largest mountain and active volcano in the world. It's even bigger than Mt. Everest, rising more than 56,000 feet above its base at the sea floor to summit (and 13,680 feet above sea level). Hawaii's volcanoes have even played a vital role in NASA’s space exploration programs — the Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Mauna Loa and other barren volcanic landscapes.

Related: The Biggest Volcanic Eruptions in Human History

Longs Peak from Trail Ridge Road

Rocky Mountain has the highest continuous paved road in the U.S.

Trail Ridge Road runs through Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park from east to west, connecting Estes Park and Grand Lake. Completed in 1933, the “Highway to the Sky” is the highest continuous paved road in America, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet. Visitors can drive the 48-mile scenic and historic byway, and take advantage of countless turnouts and unparalleled views of the park's snow-capped peaks, forests, tundra, and deep valleys along the way from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October.

Related: 22 Bucket List Roads to Drive Around the World

View of Lake Michigan over the dunes at Indiana Dunes National Park
Jon Lauriat/istockphoto

Indiana Dunes has more plant and animal species than Hawaii.

Did you know that Indiana's first national park, Indiana Dunes National Park, is one of the most biodiverse areas in North America? While the area has been a federally protected national lakeshore since 1966 and is most famous for its tall sand dunes, it's also known as the “birthplace of ecology” thanks to the field work of botanist Henry C. Cowles. The 15,000-acre Lake Michigan shoreline park is home to savannas, prairies, woodlands, and wetlands featuring more plant and animal species than Hawaii (even boasting more orchid varieties here than the tropical state).

Reticulated Python
Mark Kostich/istockphoto

The Everglades has a python problem.

Florida's 1.5 million-acre Everglades National Park is North America's largest subtropical wilderness reserve and also home to the biggest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere. The park protects an important habitat for many rare and endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile, and elusive Florida panther. But invasive species like Burmese pythons, introduced by exotic pet owners releasing unwanted snakes into the wild, are threatening the Everglades ecosystem. Studies show that pythons, which have a competitive advantage over native species, are responsible for the sharp decline in the park's mammal population. Federal and state agencies are trying to combat this threat through public education and detection programs and humane removal and elimination efforts, even upping the ante with incentive programs and competitive "python challenges." 

Looking towards the Gates of the Arctic National Park from Galbraith Lake in Alaska.
Shelley Wales/istockphoto

Gates of the Arctic is the least-visited park.

As the northernmost and least visited national park in the U.S., Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska has remained largely unchanged, except by forces of nature, as its remote landscape of wild rivers, sweeping tundra, and vast valleys doesn't contain any roads or trails. Located completely above the Arctic Circle, it draws a smaller number of visitors annually than the Grand Canyon attracts in a single day, and only experienced wilderness travelers venture here.

Related: Jaw-Dropping Ice Caves to Inspire Your Inner Explorer

General Sherman Giant Sequoia

Sequoia is home to the world's largest tree.

To find the largest trees on earth, look no farther than California's giant sequoias. Sequoia National Park is home to "a giant among giants," General Sherman. As the largest living single-stem tree in the world, it rises approximately 275 feet tall above the forest floor and is over 36 feet in diameter at its base — its trunk even remains wide at 17.5 feet in diameter 60 feet up. It spurred the creation of the first national park established to protect a living organism.

Related: The Best of California for Budget Vacations

The Gateway Arch of St Louis, Missouri, taken from the sky

The arch at Gateway Arch is as exactly as tall as it is wide.

Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri makes for an unusual official national park since it's not located in a flagship wilderness setting. The man-made urban park in the heart of downtown St. Louis features the iconic Gateway Arch, known mostly as the St. Louis Arch, which marks the city's role in the 19th century westward expansion. But did you know that the monument is exactly as wide as it is tall? It might not look like it from a distance, but the arch is 630 feet tall (more than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty) by 630 feet wide, and gives the illusion that it's much taller than it is wide.

Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

Glacier is the world's first international peace park.

It's hard to beat the awe-inspiring landscape of Montana's Glacier National Park, which preserves one million acres of glacier-carved peaks and valleys, dense ancient forests, wildflower-filled meadows, and turquoise alpine lakes. In 1932, it became part of the world's first international peace park, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, with Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park as a symbol of cross-border goodwill to celebrate and preserve their shared biodiversity and history. You can even cross the border at Goat Haunt and receive a special mountain goat-shaped stamp in your passport.