youtubeEditor's Note: This is Part 2 of a detailed dive into our National Parks. You can read Part 2 here.

Spring is in the air, summer is right around the corner! Each April, the National Park Service hosts National Park Week, a variety of events and programs to celebrate our national treasures.

Over the past 9.5 years of living and working from the open road, and exploring this great continent we call home, we’ve had the joy of exploring all but 2 of America’s National Parks in the contiguous 48 states and Hawaii. And, the parks in Alaska are on our list for this summer! To date, we have explored 51 parks, countless national monuments, lakeshores, rivers, historical parks, battlefields and more.

As both outdoor and environmental educators, we often joke that our travels have become our self-designed PhD program. “Exploring America’s National Parks” is one of our favorite topics to present at RV Shows around the country, so let’s start out by getting our heads around this HUGE topic…

How many parks can you name? Which parks are within 200 miles of your home? Which parks have you visited? and…. which ones did you see in the ViewMaster Slideshow Toy as a child that you have dreamed about ever since? Before diving into this blog, take a few minutes to jot them down.  

We’ll guess that among the parks you just listed are some familiar places: Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Cuyahoga Valley, Acadia, Olympic, & Joshua Tree. Not only are they the top 10 most visited parks (in descending order) representing almost 36 million visitations in 2020 (down considerably from the previous years as a result of the pandemic), but they are absolutely gorgeous places full of wonder and enough adventures that even 5 visits still wouldn’t allow you to see them all. However, these top 10 are also being overly loved, and consequently, heavily regulated. 

We know a lot about these famous parks, but did you know that….

  • White Sands National Park in New Mexico boasts 146K acres of white gypsum sand where you can sled the dunes in flip flops?

  • Mesa Verde is the only National Park solely dedicated to human history and features many of the best-preserved ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings? You’ll find this unique park in SW Colorado.

  • North Cascades National Park claims the most active glaciers in the contiguous 48 states at 306 and is the 2nd most biodiverse park in the system? If you live in the PNW, this one is in your backyard, but many have never visited as it is one of the least visited parks.

There are so many parks, and each is a wonder in itself, but there are so many other sites that the NPS manages and protects across the 50 states and territories.


Lesser Known Parks

NPS…What’s in a Name?

Before we hit the road in Hamlet nearly a decade ago, we had been to a handful of big parks, and a few other areas bearing the National Park Service logo, but knew little about the different NPS designations, what they meant, or how special they actually were.

There are 29 different NPS designations within the Dept of the Interior, each refers to a specific type of public land and indicates how it is managed. Among these different designations are National Monuments (NM), National Historic Parks (NHP), National Lakeshores (NL), National Scenic Rivers (NSR), and of course National Parks (NP). Check out this image from our Nat Geo Road Atlas, Adventure Edition for a complete list of all 29.


NPS Designations

Across all designations, the park service aims to manage and maintain the land and water for scenic and recreational use, and protect the flora and fauna and the historical and archeological sites at each park unit. The goal is to make sure everyone can enjoy them, including your grandchildren’s great grandchildren!

“Context is everything!” as my college history professor used to exclaim. Here are some fun facts and history that will provide some background as you begin your own journey of discovery. Did you know…?

  • Within these 29 different designations, there are 423 park units – amounting to 85 million acres – from the 13.2 million acres of Wrangell-St. Elias in SE Alaska to the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia at .02 acres! Make it a life goal to see each type of park unit.

  • While a US President can sign-in a new National Monument, National Lakeshore, National Seashore, National Scenic River, etc., it takes a Congressional Vote to establish a new National Park. Want to see your local NPS unit become a National Park? Write to your congressperson.

  • Within these 423 park units, there are 63 National Parks. Unless you are an official National Park nerd, there are probably 50 or more National Parks than what you could come up with at the beginning of this article. Get your passport stamped at all 63!

  • On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first national park in the world, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, and recently celebrated their sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) in 2022!

  • During his presidency from 1901-1909, Theodore Roosevelt signed the bills which created 5 new national parks, more than any other president in US history. North Dakota’s only national park is named in his honor.

  • On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act” thereby creating the National Park Service agency as part of the Department of the Interior.

  • Five new parks have been established (reclassified from other NPS designations) in the past decade. They are: Indiana Dunes, Gateway Arch, New River Gorge, Pinnacles, White Sands.

Where are America’s National Parks located?

Now that you know more about the NPS, let’s dive in and focus specifically on our 63 National Parks. Did you know that 30 of our 50 states have at least one national park? Within the contiguous 48 states, there are 39 parks west of the mighty Mississippi River, and 12 to the east – with 5 very special parks located on islands off the coasts of California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota. In addition, you will find 2 national parks in the Hawaiian Islands, 8 parks in Alaska, and 2 additional parks in US Territories – located in the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Do you know which state has the most national parks? If you guessed California, you are correct, it boasts a grand total of 9!  Here’s the most up-to-date map of the parks, including all of the recently named ones.

Map of Americas NPs

Find YOUR Parks!

“What’s your favorite park?”  We get asked this question all the time. That’s like us asking you who is your favorite child or grandchild? We truly love them all for different reasons.

Each national park has an eco or geological focal point, with some special enough to protect many interesting land features, fascinating wildlife, and special designations. If you are just beginning this journey of exploring the parks, we suggest you focus on the environments and ecosystems that you find fascinating and enjoy spending time in, and those might lead to others that you didn’t even know you like. Remember…just because you’ve heard of a park doesn’t mean that it’s going to be YOUR favorite. Do some research to discover what sounds appealing to you.

As outdoor and environmental educators, we are fascinated by the interaction of geology and ecosystems, as well as how time, humans, and wildlife have shaped the land and water, flora and fauna. Once you begin to view the world through this lens, there is simply no going back – your world will be blown wide open. You’ll begin to see how Mother Nature’s narrative is a collection of chapters interwoven into one large fascinating story – giving humans insight into our planet’s complex history.  

As we’ve traveled and explored our parks, we have never seen a list that categorizes our national parks by ecosystem, habitat, or geological features, so we created one to help you get your head around the concept of seeing our national parks through a naturalist’s lens.  See resources section below for details.

National Park Chart 


Resources for Researching National Parks & Planning Your Next Roadtrip

While a great deal of this information can be found online, a comprehensive book that highlights each of the parks is handy to have at home or in your RV. We got this book when we first set out to see our country in 2012, and still use it today.

This helpful resource falls into the category of not your average map! This road atlas is a great complement to any GPS-driven smartphone app. It shows all the NPS units in the US as well as Parks Canada, offers the best regional outdoor adventure areas, shows color-designated public land, notes hundreds of other “visit-worthy” places, and has campground symbols noted in every national forest, national park, and BLM area. Even after nearly 10 years, it’s still one of our go-to resources.

Discover the types of ecosystems, habitats, and geological features which are the focal point(s) of each park, such as caves, dunes, islands, rainforests, canyons, glaciers, volcanoes, deserts, etc. If you have kids or grandkids, the national parks make incredible outdoor classrooms and kids can become Junior Rangers at each park they visit!

If you like historical documentaries, you’ll be hooked on this Ken Burns series from 2016. This series is available on PBS or Netflix. We often hear from folks that after finishing one episode, they simply can’t wait for the next installment!

Written and produced by a couple who is traveling the country with their 3 kids in an RV, each free podcast focuses on the history of a single park.  Prior to exploring the next park on your bucket list, take some time to learn about when and how it was established as well as some current events which have shaped it.

Everything you ever wanted to know and more can be found online at the NPS website. Each NPS unit has its own comprehensive website which is organized in a similar fashion, making it easy to navigate a few of them simultaneously if you are planning a road trip. Plan Your Visit, Learn About the Park, and Get Involved are common headers at each park’s URL.

Relatively new on the scene, this free app is a perfect companion to the NPS website. You can find general information and maps for each of the 423 park units, learn about camping options, visitor center hours, events and programs, hiking trails, and much more. In addition, it has a couple of neat features we love! Offline access allows you to download the database for a specific park before visiting so that when you lose cell service in the park, you can still access the information you need. You can also make a list of all the NPS units you’ve visited, identify your favorites, and even read the news feed from all of the parks (or your selected favorites) so that you can stay up-to-date on the latest alerts, news, events, and more. 

  • The Dyrt PRO Campground Locator app

    America’s #1 Campground Locator app has the largest database of user reviewed and photographed campgrounds in the United States – from campgrounds within each park, to public land around each park, to private campgrounds offering full-service hookups just outside each park…and more. While you can download a free version of this app, we recommend the PRO version at $36 per year, as it will pay for itself on your first trip! We’ve been working with the founders of this app, Sarah Smith & Kevin Long, since 2016 as well as doing reviews of campgrounds all over the nation. 


            The PRO version offers:

  • offline maps to find nearby campgrounds when you lose cell service

  • public land layer to identify free and dispersed camping

  • cellular service layer that shows coverage for Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile

  • filters to find the type of campground you are seeking, water filling stations, dump stations, and more!

  • trip planner that helps you identify campgrounds along your route

  • discounts on camping gear and at various campgrounds across the nation

  • Get a 30-day free trial of The Dyrt PRO!

The Dyrt PRO Features 
Dyrt Pro App

We encourage you to Find YOUR Park beyond just the top 10!  It’s our goal to spark your curiosity and provide some helpful resources to help you find what you love. These parks are our collective national treasure and YOU deserve to explore them.

In Part 2 of this blog (to be published in May), we will discuss tips and tricks for exploring America’s National Parks – when to go, where to go in the park, what to bring, where to camp, how to save money, and even how to volunteer in the parks. So, study up and decide where you want to go and we will be back next month to help you make the most of your next visit!

Questions? Comments? Please add your thoughts below.

Shari and Hutch
Author: Shari and HutchEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
In 2012, Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named "Hamlet." What began as a short break from careers and responsibility quickly turned into a love affair with roadlife. They have parlayed their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking gigs from coast to coast. Known to their friends as simply Shari & Hutch, you can learn more about their full-time, solar-powered adventures on their website at freedominacan.com.

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