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It’s easy to think of national parks as untouchable—grand, immovable fixtures in our natural environment. But in reality, they come and go: some, while others are added.
New Mexico’shit the big leagues in December 2019, becoming the country’s 62nd national park. It protects the largest gypsum dune on Earth, a remnant of bygone lakes and seas, a 275-square-mile basin that glitters white and stays cool to the touch. Visitors come to cruise the eight-mile Dunes Drive, hike one of the five established trails, or see the soft, translucent sand glow blue-white under a full moon.
December 2019 Recipes
Recipes from this month’s issue, including five easy dinners and better-for-you latkes.
But White Sands’s current 600,000 annual guests could prove merely the calm before the storm. The former national monument’s shiny new moniker might now draw the kind of crowds thatafter its January 2019 designation. And Marie Sauter, White Sands’s superintendent, explains that visitation increased by an average of 21 percent among eight national monuments in the five years after their redesignation as parks.
So what does this mean for travelers? Get there before the bucket-listers descend—or beat the crowds entirely by visiting parks-to-be. More than a dozen preserves and pristine areas have begun campaigns for national park status, and while the process is far from simple, it likely won’t be long before White Sands is no longer the newest kid in town. These five beautiful spots could one day be national parks—but they’re open for visitors now.
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Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, Idaho
Six national, wild rivers (including the Alatna, pictured here) flow through this east-west stretch of the Rocky Mountains, where granite peaks soar over 7,000 feet in elevation. Temperatures remain frigid in winter, but it’s the perfect time for dogsledders to take advantage of the naturally sculpted playground.
Strap on a set of snowshoes and follow a ranger along the trails through Grand Teton’s snow-filled mountain meadows. Photographers flock here come winter for sunset shots of the pristine peaks, as well as prime wildlife viewing of elk and moose migrating to the valley.
Ice fishing is one of the highlights of winter in Acadia National Park, where shacks along Eagle Lake look out to Cadillac Mountain—the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard—rising in the distance.
Over one-sixth of Denali National Park is covered with glaciers. While hundreds go unnamed, the upper Ruth Glacier (pictured here) is one of the most impressive sites in the park, sitting almost three vertical miles below Denali.
Three different herds of caribou make their way through Gates of the Arctic National Park, where Alaska Natives have lived for the past 11,000 years. Cross the Arctic Circle exploring the state’s sub-Arctic landscape and local Nunamiut Eskimo culture with a visit to the authentic Anaktuvuk Pass Village.
Speed through Dixie National Forest on snowmobile, cruising along over Bryce Canyon National Park’s 20-plus miles of dedicated trails like Badger Loop and Dave’s Hollow.
Snowstorms may cause routes around the park to shut down, but this is when outdoor adventures like ice climbing and winter mountaineering begin. Head to the Estes Park side for cross-country skiing or to Hidden Valley Snow Play Area for family friendly sledding and tubing. (Check out our guide to Rocky Mountain National Park.)
From Pinnacles—one of the 66 overlooks crowning Skyline Drive—you’ll have panoramic views over Shenandoah National Park. One of the best vistas lies a seven-mile hike away at Marys Rock, whose summit perches at 3,514 feet.
Capture the morning light streaming through the Tetons on a sunrise photography tour. Winter is when wildlife spotting is at its best, thanks to the lack of cars and leafy coverage.
The Grand Canyon glows at sunrise—especially as the light hits the snow. Soak up the scenery from Yavapai Point, which offers sweeping views over the gorge.
From the Exit Glacier Area, take off on the 8.2-mile roundtrip Harding Icefield Trail, which leads to a horizon of ice, a nod to ancient ice ages. (Here's our guide to Kenai Fjords National Park.)
Carved by Utah’s Green and Colorado rivers, Canyonlands’ rugged terrain is a sea of cascading cliffs and sandstone spires in shades of fiery red and orange—a sharp contrast when covered in stark-white snow.
Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) is the tallest peak in North America, towering over 20,000 feet high. The West Buttress, which starts at 23,000 feet, is one of the most common routes to the top; for something more challenging, try one of the world’s most technical climbs—Cassin Ridge.
You may recognize this iconic view from your Windows background. Capture the shot yourself on the easy hike to Mesa Arch, perched on the edge of a 500-foot cliff that drops down into Buck Canyon. Tip: Take a few steps back from the arch and you’ll be able to frame the snow-topped La Sal Mountains in the distance. (Don't miss our guide to Canyonlands National Park.)
Scaling the Tetons’ second-highest peak, Mount Owen, requires a mix of mountaineering and rock climbing, but it’s worth the challenge for the stunning views you’ll get from the summit.
One of the regular stops on tours through Denali is along the highest stretch of the road—the 3,695-foot-high Polychrome Pass, with an overlook that doubles as a popular grizzly bear hangout.
Once a railroad grade used to haul lumber during the logging era of the early 20th century, Big Creek Trail is one of the easier hikes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park. When you reach the 2.1-mile mark, keep an eye out for a short side trail on the left, where you’ll find a resting point with views over the 45-foot Mouse Creek Falls.
Summer is high season in Denali National Park, but visitors can still camp throughout winter (which starts in mid-September) or the hit the trails by dog sled.
The third-largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde (after Cliff Palace and Long House), Spruce Tree House contains about 130 rooms and eight kivas, or ceremonial chambers. The dwelling, discovered in 1888 by two local rangers, was constructed by ancestors of the Pueblo peoples between 1211 and 1278.
Most of the thousand-plus glaciers in the aptly named park are huddled high in the mountains, but some sit closer to the sea. For those arriving by boat, mile-wide Margerie Glacier is one of the main attractions. Stretching 21 miles long, the tidewater glacier starts in snow fields in the Fairweather Range, which reaches elevations over 9,000 feet high, and extends to Tarr Inlet.
The tallest sand dunes in the country take on a different look when covered with snow. If hiking trails are snowed over, you can still explore the forests above the dunes with snowshoes or skis. Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for long-tailed weasels, whose white, winter fur is camouflaged by the snow. (Here's our guide to Great Sand Dunes National Park.)
Hike along the paved path of the Rim Trail from Sunset to Sunrise Point, one of the main overlooks that is crowned by the Limber Pine, whose exposed roots rise from the rim. (See our guide to Bryce Canyon National Park.)
Blankets of snow cover the Badlands’ steep canyon floors and staggering spires, whose signature stripped rock layers were formed tens of millions of years ago.
Most of the park’s roads close in early November for the winter season, so the main mode of transport to hotspots like Old Faithful is by snowmobile or snow coach.
For some of the best wildlife watching, cruise the 28-mile roundtrip Scenic Drive through the North Unit’s badlands, where you’ll encounter bison and one of the canyon’s camera-worthy views—River Bend Overlook. (Discover more to see in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.)
The 2.2-million-acre park’s surge of summer tourists makes Yellowstone the fourth-most visited in the country, but the scenery is just as picture-perfect in winter, with miles of snow-blanketed trails best explored on skis.
Back in the 19th century, French trappers nicknamed the trio of peaks in western Wyoming “les trois tétons,” or three breasts, a name that stuck and extended to the entire range. The Tetons’ peaks—many of which stagger more than 12,000 feet high—are some of the most popular in the country for climbing.
Located in southern Oregon in the Cascade Mountains, Crater Lake National Park is home to the ninth-deepest lake in the world—and one of the cleanest (its water comes solely from melted snow). In winter, the park fills up with over 30 feet of snow, enticing snowboarders and skiers with a 30-mile, 3-day loop around the ring of Crater Lake, created by a collapsed volcano over 7,500 years ago.
Advanced skiers up for a challenge can hit Great Basin’s backcountry runs, where you’re likely to spot mule deer pouncing through the snow-topped pinyon pines.
Winter is one of the best times to soak up views (sans tourists) from Bryce Canyon National Park’s four Main Amphitheater overlooks: Bryce, Inspiration, Sunset, and Sunrise Points. If you plan on skiing or snowshoeing, Fairyland Road and Paria View Road are both left unplowed for this very reason.
The largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century (which went on for 60 hours) inspired the name of Katmai National Park’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, where the collapsed volcano created the lake-filled caldera pictured here.
Located on the edge of the Mount Baker Scenic Byway, Mount Shuksan (whose name comes from a Lummi word meaning “high peak”) is the second-highest summit in North Cascades National Park and features a route listed on American Alpine Institute’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.
The ideal way to get a sense of Bagley, North America’s largest subpolar icefield, and the endless series of glaciers spanning across the largest U.S. national park is from above, flying over mountains that are covered year-round with snow.
Most of the park’s roads close in early November for the winter season, so the main mode of transport to hotspots like Old Faithful is by snowmobile or snow coach.
Utah’s Arches National Park is dotted with over 2,000 rust-red natural stone arches, but Delicate Arch is one of the park’s—and world’s—most famous. Described as "the most delicately chiseled arch in the entire area,” the trek here in winter is anything but. The view, however, is worth grabbing a trekking pole and venturing down the ice-topped trails.
Since the Tetons run from north to south, sunset shots can be hard to capture. A few places to photograph the sun dipping behind the snow-topped peaks are Snake River Overlook (made famous by Ansel Adams), Schwabacher Landing, and Signal Mountain Summit Road.
As biodiverse as Yellowstone—though only about a third its size—this monument belies its alien name. Its caves, lava flows, cinder cones, and sweeping sagebrush won over President Calvin Coolidge, who created Craters of the Moon in 1916 and who reportedly intended for it to become a national park, says Rose Bernal, Butte’s county commissioner.
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But things haven’t quite turned out that way. Though a measure passed unanimously in the state senate, “the speaker of the house wouldn’t assign it to a committee for discussion,” says Bernal, describing opposition from the Idaho Farm Bureau. “In the end it boiled down to an ideological argument, and we decided to halt our efforts.”
Whatever the future holds, Craters of the Moon is worth a lengthy stop. Its 1,100-mile, lava-carved landscape contains plenty of opportunities to hike, cave, and camp “on the moon.”
Driftless Region, Wisconsin/Iowa/Illinois
Over 10,000 years ago, mile-thick ice scraped, scoured, and flattened most of the Midwest—but portions of the Upper Mississippi River Valley survived unscathed, or “driftless.” Here, Paleozoic bluffs, limestone caves, forested ridges, and riparian wetlands provide an unmistakable contrast to the surrounding Plains. The region’s 20,000 square miles also preserve Woodland-period petroglyphs, hundreds of effigy mounds dating back to 500 B.C., one of the world’s oldest rivers, and portions of the unparalleled Great River Road Scenic Byway.
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Should Driftless Rivers National Park ever come to fruition—the nonprofitis leading the slow-moving campaign—millions would suddenly find themselves within driving distance of national park territory. For now, Wisconsin’s 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail welcomes any “driftless” hikers to trace its glacial remains.
Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, Louisiana
Ancient live oaks and cypress tunnels. Catfish, crayfish, and braided bayous. Native American, African, Caribbean, and European influences. The country’s largest river swamp is a world unto itself.
Pronounced uh-CHA-fuh-lie-uh (“long river” in Choctaw), Atchafalaya encompasses 14 parishes in south-central Louisiana and shelters two dozen endangered species. Though national parks are absent in both Louisiana and the Gulf region at large, visitors flock to Atchafalaya to paddle, bike, bird, and camp.
Whether national parks are intended to protect valuable ecosystems, culture and heritage, or vulnerable species, Atchafalaya seems to fit the bill. Theis championing the area’s protection, one measure at a time.
Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania/New York
The Allegheny region—the Appalachian foothills of Pennsylvania and New York—is one of the least densely populated areas east of the Mississippi. Countless trails already pass through these hills and waterways, including over 100 miles of the, a path that stretches from New York to North Dakota.
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The 500,000 acres of protected forest may appear undisturbed at first glance, but few pockets of old-growth forest survived an unbridled logging history. “Allegheny is among the most resource-extracted national forests,” explains Zack/Cora Frank,founder. “Locals rely on the oil, timber, and natural gas that comes from the land.” With technology changing, the campaign hopes to see a national park designation in the coming decades.
Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon
A volcano capped by glaciers, a river gorge sporting 90 waterfalls—these are scenes usually spotted in the country’s best national parks. Just east of Portland, this million-acre forest needs no upgraded designation to attract more than 4 million annual visitors (a number rivaling Yellowstone). On Mount Hood’s flanks, the opportunities for hiking, camping, climbing, biking—maybe even—are limitless.
Some may argue that national park status would only spell trouble for the pristine landscape, spreading resources thin with even larger crowds, damaging the land with even more footsteps. Others—like those leading—may argue that it’s simply logical and, perhaps, a matter of time.
Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer, photographer, and amateur historical geologist. Find her onand on her .
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