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Explore Why These 7 Oldest U.S. National Parks Still Reign Supreme

All right, fellow adventurers, gather around our virtual campfire while we spill some insider tea on the oldest national parks.

Being the unofficial rangers we are, having trekked through more national parks than we can count on our fingers (fine, we can, it’s 18), just imagine the tales we’ve got on the oldest parks in the good ol’ US of A.

So, if you’re scratching your head trying to figure out which parks are practically the grandparents of the National Park Service, worry not. We’ve got the dirt (and by dirt, we mean a treasure trove of wisdom and insight, not the kind that gets in your hiking boots).

1. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

one of the bath houses stands tall filling the frame with a front overhang and large pillars out front at hot springs national park
© Depositphotos
  • Established: March 4, 1921

Before there were fancy spas and wellness resorts, there was Hot Springs National Park, affectionately dubbed “The American Spa.”

Picture this: you’re wandering through Arkansas, minding your own business, and boom, you stumble upon natural hot springs that have been a chill-out zone since before it was cool (or hot, technically). Home to historic Bathhouse Row, it’s where people have been getting their spa on since the 19th century. And here’s a kicker – it boasts an impressive 47 hot springs. That’s right, forty-seven!

And here’s a pro tip straight from the school of hard knocks (or should we say, hot rocks?): Avoid visiting in the scorching middle of July, as we did. Maybe try April instead. Trust us, when it’s 90+° F out, the last place you want to be is stewing in nature’s hot tub. It’s not so much a relaxing dip as it is a reality check in sweat.

To Do On A Visit To Hot Springs:

  • Take a Dip in the Quapaw Baths & Spa: Because nothing screams “I’m living my best life” like soaking in the same waters that have been stewing humans for centuries. It’s like a time machine, but with less clothing and more relaxation.
  • Hike the Sunset Trail: Strap on those boots (or whatever foot prisons you prefer) and hit the longest trail in the park. It’s only about 10 miles of pure Arkansas wilderness, so if you start complaining about your feet hurting, remember that pioneers did this without smartphones to distract them from the pain.

Wait What? That’s Not The Oldest Park!

a close up of a hot spring in hot springs national park with water bubbling from the rock
© Discover Parks & Wildlife

Right now, you might be squinting at the screen, thinking, “Hold up, isn’t Yellowstone supposed to be the geezer of the National Park family? Why did these people put it first when it clearly wasn’t established first?”

Well, my dear Watsons of the wilderness, here’s where it gets juicy. Cast your minds back to 1832 (or don’t, because none of us were around, but work with us here). It was a time when the concept of a national park was as alien as Wi-Fi in the wilderness.

But the big brains in the government, probably while sipping on some 19th-century equivalent of pumpkin spice lattes, decided that the hot springs in Arkansas weren’t just any hot springs. They were special. Like, federally protected special.

That’s right. A whole 40 years before Yellowstone got its fancy “First National Park” ribbon, Hot Springs was already basking in the glow of legislative love. Yup, it’s the elder statesman in the room, the one that’s been around the block, making it our list’s crafty old-timer and technically the first national park in our eyes.

2. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

at river running thru yellowstone national park with steam coming off the water in the early morning light
© Depositphotos
  • Established: March 1, 1872

Yellowstone National Park, stepping into the spotlight as America’s official first national park, is the stuff of legends and, frankly, the odd supervolcano nightmare.

This vast expanse of wilderness sprawls across Wyoming like a nature enthusiast’s dream, sprinkled with geysers, wildlife, and enough thermal features to make you wonder if the Earth is just showing off at this point.

Among its many claims to fame, Yellowstone houses the iconic Old Faithful Geyser and the largest supervolcano on the continent. And if that’s not enough to pique your interest, the park’s got over 2,000 earthquakes a year – it’s practically its own natural theme park ride.

To Do On A Visit To Yellowstone:

  • Explore the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone: Not to be overshadowed by its Arizonaian cousin, this breathtaking slice of geological wonder offers jaw-dropping views and colors so vibrant they look photoshopped.
  • Watch Old Faithful Erupt: It’s cliché for a reason. Park yourself (pun intended) in front of this geyser legend and watch it spout off steam like it’s gossiping about the other geysers. It’s a spectacle that’s both timely and timeless.

3. Sequoia National Park, California 

tall sequoia trees rise up from a bugs eye perspective on the ground in sequoia national park
© Depositphotos
  • Established: September 25, 1890

Sequoia National Park is where trees go to show off. It’s like the red carpet event of Mother Nature, where the celebrities are ancient and really, really tall.

Home to giants, this park boasts some of the largest trees in the world. General Sherman, the largest tree by volume, stands proudly here, making humans look like ants in comparison. And these aren’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill big trees; Sequoias are so massive, driving through one (shoutout to the Tunnel Log) is on many a bucket list.

But it’s not just about size. The park’s age is just as impressive, with some trees ringing in at over 3,000 years old. Can you imagine the stories they’d tell if they could talk? Probably a lot about the weather and how, back in their day, they had to photosynthesize uphill both ways.

To Do On A Visit To Sequoia:

  • Climb Moro Rock: Lace up for a stairway to heaven that offers panoramic views you’ll post about on your socials to make your friends jealous.
  • Explore Crystal Cave: Go underground for a change of scenery and gawk at formations that look like they belong on another planet.

4. Yosemite National Park, California

half dome along with the other mountains under a pink sky in yosemite national park
© Depositphotos
  • Established: October 1, 1890

Yosemite National Park, located in the wild heart of California, is like the famous influencer of the national park world – it’s got the looks, the followers, and an endless stream of stunning photos.

This natural masterpiece, famed for its breathtaking waterfalls, towering cliffs, and sequoia trees that have seen more history than our entire account, covers a whopping 747,956 acres. That’s a lot of unfiltered beauty!

Among its natural treasures, Yosemite is home to Half Dome and El Capitan, two of the most famous rock formations on planet Earth, challenging climbers and mesmerizing onlookers with their sheer grandeur.

To Do On A Visit To Yosemite:

  • Stroll through the Mariposa Grove: Get up close and personal with ancient giant sequoias and feel instantly humbled.
  • Capture the magic of Tunnel View: Because if you didn’t snap a picture with El Capitan and Half Dome in the background, did you even visit Yosemite?

5. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

a waterfall in mount rainier national park falls beneath a stone bridge
© Discover Parks & Wildlife
  • Established: March 2, 1899

Mount Rainier National Park is home to the magnificent Mount Rainier, the poster child for postcard-perfect mountains and, possibly, celestial beings’ favorite ski slope. This awe-inspiring behemoth isn’t just any mountain; it’s a volcanic marvel that dares adventurers to scale its snowy peaks while taunting weather gods around it.

Rising about 14,410 feet above sea level, it’s the highest mountain in the Cascade Range and an absolute dream for climbers and glaciologists, given the 26 major glaciers veiling its slopes. But the park isn’t all ice and altitude. It also offers a rainbow of wildflowers in meadows in the summer that probably inspires every single nature wallpaper for your phone.

We traipsed into the park at the tail end of May, ready for spring vibes, and got a winter wonderland instead. Just imagine snow piles taller than your favorite NBA player lining the roads. So, if you’re chasing wildflower selfies, maybe don’t follow in our frosty footsteps—aim for late July or August instead.

To Do On A Visit To Mount Rainier:

  • Discover Reflection Lakes: Where the mountain photobombs every picture with its stunning reflection on crystal clear waters.
  • Wander through Grove of the Patriarchs: A stroll here feels like stepping into a Tolkien novel, surrounded by ancient, towering Douglas firs and western red cedars.

6. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon 

crater lake national park at sunset, with the island in the middle of the lake surrounded by trees along the edges of the frame
© Depositphotos
  • Established: May 22, 1902

If you thought a lake could never be boujee, think again. Crater Lake National Park basically said, “Hold my purified artisanal water,” and became the deepest lake in the United States. Cause why settle for less?

This Oregon gem is not your average pond; it’s a collapsed volcano that decided to reinvent itself into a picturesque photo spot. The lake’s shockingly blue water isn’t a filter—it’s the real deal, thanks to its depth and purity.

And for those into spooky bedtime stories, it’s also home to the legendary Old Man of the Lake, a full-sized tree that’s been bobbing vertically in the water for over 100 years. Bet you can’t top that tale!

To Do On A Visit To Crater Lake:

  • Take a Scenic Drive around Rim Drive: Experience awe-inspiring views without the legwork.
  • Go for a Dip in Phantom Ship: Check out the natural rock formation that resembles a ghostly pirate ship. Arr!

7. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

above ground, wind cave national park is full of rolling hills with green pine trees and the occassional buffalo (not seen here)
© Depositphotos
  • Established: May 22, 1902

In the land of “Why would Mother Nature even hide this here?” Wind Cave National Park is a masterclass in subterranean coolness.

Boasting one of the world’s longest and most complex caves, it’s a spelunker’s dream with over 140 miles of explored passageways, just to make sure you really get that “lost underground” vibe. But surprise, surprise, it’s not all dark and claustrophobic down there; the cave showcases rare formations known as Boxwork, a kind of calcite that decided to go all avant-garde on us.

Above ground, the park switches gear to a serene prairie and ponderosa pine forest, home to bison that roam as if they own the place (because, well, they kind of do).

To Do On A Visit To Wind Cave:

  • Hike the Rankin Ridge Nature Trail: For sweeping views that make you question whether you’re still in South Dakota.
  • Join a Candlelight Cave Tour: Nothing says adventure like exploring a cave in flickering candlelight, right?

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