What Are the Oldest National Parks in the United States?

by Jon D. B.

Journey back through American history to the oldest U.S. National Parks, the first four of which were founded in the 1800s.

If you love our national parks, then you know where this list is heading. But the journey there is a fascinating – and surprising – one. For instance, some of our most visited National Park System parks are far younger than the firsts listed below. Each of these 9 parks, in fact, is well over 100-years-old.

#9: Rocky Mountain National Park (1915)

Views while ascending and descending the Rocky Mountain NP’s Alpine Visitor Center, in Grand Lake, Colorado, on July 18, 2017. It is the highest visitor center in the NPS. Views from the Alpine Visitor Center include the Mummy Range, the Fall River Valley, Trail Ridge, the Never Summer, and Medicine Bow range. (Getty Images)

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson would sign Rocky Mountain National Park in as the 9th U.S. National Park. It remains one of America’s premiere backcountry camping destinations.

Rocky Mountain National Park is also older than the National Park Service itself, which wouldn’t come into existence until President Wilson signed the NPS act the following year in 2016.

#8: Glacier National Park (1910)

View of Bearhat Mountain above Hidden Lake at Logan Pass in Glacier NP, Montana, United States, one of the oldest national park sites in America. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

5 years prior, President William Howard Taft would sign Glacier NP into existence. A showcase of melting glaciers, alpine meadows, carved valleys, and spectacular lakes, the park gets its name from it’s geological formation – which was caused by glaciers receding in the last Ice Age.

Thrilling hikers since 1910, Glacier is one of the most breathtaking places in the world, let alone Montana. Which is exactly why over 3 million people flock to Glacier every single year.

#7: Mesa Verde National Park (1906)

Colorado, Cortez, Mesa Verde NPs Cliff Palace. (Photo by: Bernard Friel/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There’s no denying the historical significance of what Mesa Verde protects. President Theodore Roosevelt knew this, declaring the land a U.S. National Park in 1906.

But Indigenous North Americans inhabited this land as early as 600 AD. Ancestral Puebloans carved the park’s unbelievable Cliff Palace – one of the park’s 5,000+ archaeological sites.

#6: Wind Cave National Park (1903)

The sun sets behind a herd of bison in Wind Cave NP in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800”s. Recovery programs, however, have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Earlier in his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt would also declare Wind Cave NP in 1903. Interestingly, the titular cave (the 6th longest on the planet) would become the first in the world to receive designation as a national park.

It’s the park’s surface prairies, however, that have made incredible progress with North America’s indigenous bison herds (see above), something several of America’s oldest NPS sites continue to prove instrumental in.

#5: Crater Lake National Park (1902)

Wizard Island and the deep blue waters of Crater Lake in Crater Lake NP Oregon on a clear summer day. (Photo by: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In a state as ripe with American history as Oregon, it remains surprising that Crater Lake NP is the state’s only national park – and has been since 1902. It was also the first U.S. National Park to be created in the 20th century.

But it would be Indigenous Americans that witnessed the lake’s dramatic formation 7,700 years ago. A violent volcano eruption triggered the collapse of a tall peak, creating Crater Lake. Today, it remains the deepest lake in the USA and one of the most pristine on the planet.

#4: Mount Rainier National Park (1899)

Hiking the Pinnacle Peak trail in Mount Rainier NP with Mount Rainier in the background, Washington State, USA. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler, also LightRocket via Getty Images)

Declared a national park by President William McKinley in 1899, Washington State’s Mount Rainier NP would be the last signed into existence before the turn of the century.

A sprawling landscape capped by the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, Mount Rainier peaks at an astounding 14,410 feet above sea level – and is also an active volcano. Subalpine wildflower meadows ring the icy volcano, and ancient forest cloak abundant wildlife below.

#3: Yosemite National Park (1890)

A view of Yosemite Falls on June 11, 2020 in Yosemite NP, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“Not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra.” – Yosemite NP

Not only is Yosemite one of the oldest national parks in the world, but it was actually first protected by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. It would take until 1890, however, for it to officially become Yosemite NP.

Yosemite Valley remains one of the most remarkable vistas in all of North America. But the park at large shines through multiple enormous waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more.

#2: Sequoia National Park (1890)

Hiker climbing a giant sequoia tree in Sequoia NP, California, USA. (Photo by Marji Lang, also LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Our ancient giant sequoias may seem invincible, but they, too are vulnerable.” – Sequoia NP

Sequoia NP, the second-oldest national park in the world, exists to protect the world’s largest trees. If not for its designation in 1890, logging operations would have completely decimated the species of Sequoia trees that inhabit the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

Thankfully this was not the case, and Sequoia’s conservation efforts would go on to inspire many more NPS ventures throughout the next 100+ years.

#1: Yellowstone National Park (1872)

The Lower Yellowstone Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA. (Photo by: Jon G. Fuller/VW PICS, also Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Here she is, folks: the park that started a movement. The park that started it all: Yellowstone National Park.

As the world’s oldest national park, Yellowstone is celebrating it’s 150-Year anniversary in 2022. The park would be signed into existence on March 1, 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Inside Yellowstone’s wildly diverse 2.2 million acres, visitors observe wildlife in some of the only intact ancient ecosystem left in North America. Geothermal areas that contain about half the world’s active geysers also thrill millions each year. But there’s few marvels matched by the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

To explore more NPS history, check out Outsider’s Quick History of the National Park Service next.