Author Wallace Stegner once described the U.S. national parks as the greatest idea we ever had. They encompass some of the most awe-inspiring locations in the nation, and they belong to everyone. Showcasing the variety in flora, fauna, geography, and geology of the United States, a total of 423 locations have been designated under the umbrella of the National Parks Service.
The ones that receive the most attention tend to be the big national parks (think Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Badlands, etc.). This in no way should undersell the amazing qualities of the other park designations; these just tend to be the most sought-after locations due to their popularity and uniqueness. Many of these national parks started out with other designations, some of them receiving a change in designation within the past 10 years. We’ve assembled a list of the five newest locations to receive the highest designation within the NPS – national parks. While every location is worth checking out, make sure to put these on your radar for a visit sometime soon!
New River Gorge, West Virginia
The New River Gorge in West Virginia is most famously known for the scenic bridge that towers 876 feet above the river, but there is a lot more to the region than that. The New River was first inducted into the NPS as a national river in 1978 and has been frequented by adventurers seeking to catch some of the harshest white-water rafting rapids in the eastern United States. Rock climbers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts will continue to enjoy this area for years to come now that it has received an upgrade to a national park classification as of December 2020.
White Sands, New Mexico
Another park that has been part of the NPS for quite a while, White Sands, used to be referred to as a national monument. That is, until 2019 when it was upgraded to a national park. This one-of-a-kind landscape is famously known for its beautiful white sand dunes that are made of gypsum. This visual phenomenon presents itself as sweeping colorful landscapes that change throughout the day depending on the sun’s location.
Indiana Dunes, Indiana
Indiana Dunes is one of the most frequently visited of the locations on this list, mainly due to its proximity to Chicago (the skyline is visible from the shores of Indiana Dunes). With an incredibly diverse population of flora and fauna, this region of northern Indiana sits on the shores of Lake Michigan and can make for a great single-day trip. Hiking, sunbathing, bird watching, and swimming are among the activities enjoyed by visitors of Indiana Dunes. Its recent upgrade in NPS designation status has helped to make this a very busy park during summer, so plan accordingly!
Gateway Arch, Missouri
In the years since its construction, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis has come to be known as an icon for the city. It’s more than that, though. Upon visiting, you will quickly realize why this notable architectural structure has been designated as a national park. It represents much more than the city of St. Louis. A museum underneath the arch teaches visitors all about the Louis and Clark expedition, the westward migration, and the history of the nation as those events were unfolding. There is also plenty of space within the park where you can relax and enjoy views of downtown St. Louis, the arch, and the Mississippi River.
The Pinnacles, California
Originally designated as a national monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908, the Pinnacles has clearly been on the radar of the NPS for quite some time. Surprisingly enough, it took over a century before it was upgraded to a national park in 2012. This region of central California is known for its harsh, steep and rocky pinnacles. This sort of terrain attracts some of the most extreme mountaineers and rock climbers. The landscape is also home to a unique type of cave known as talus caves. Birdwatchers are also attracted to the area because of the hundreds of unique bird species that have been seen in the region.