Exploring the Largest National Parks & Recreation Areas

Interest in national parks has soared in recent years. In fact, total visits to U.S. national parks exceeded the population of the nation in 2016 alone. Exploring the majestic scenery, hiking the trails, and camping in your RV are just some of the experiences visitors to national parks can relish.

With over 14 official designations and several unique titles, the National Park Service is very specific when it comes to defining their parks. Generally, the smaller national parks tend to have a greater connection to the country’s history, such as Boston and San Antonio Missions national historic parks. The larger parks are places of refuge and stunning natural beauty, like the Grand Canyon or Death Valley National Park.

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk onto the crusted salt flats at Badwarwe Basin for a short distance to enjoy the expansive views up and down the valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alaska, the nation’s largest state, has four of the country’s 10 largest national parks. These four parks combined account for 18 million acres—about the size of South Carolina.

To identify the largest and smallest national parks and recreational areas, we reviewed the area (in acres) as of 2016 from the National Park Service. The Park Service aggregates land area data for various different government land designations.

Of these, only national parks, national recreational areas, and national historical parks are included. Privately owned land figures and annual visitation data for each area from 2011 through 2016 also came from the National Park Service.

Dante’s View, a 5,450-foot overlook near the edge of the Black Mountains on the eastern border of Death Valley, affords the best overall views of the southern half of the national park including Badwater. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dante’s View, a 5,450-foot overlook near the edge of the Black Mountains on the eastern border of Death Valley, affords the best overall views of the southern half of the national park including Badwater. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parks included below have been explored and photographed by Vogel Talks RVing.

Death Valley National Park 
Total land area: 3,373,063 acres
Size ranking: 3rd largest
State: California-Nevada
Privately owned land: 9,716 acres
5-year change in tourism: +37%

The largest national park in the continental U.S. is also one of the lowest points on earth. Despite its gloomy name, given by pioneers who were lost in the valley during the California Gold Rush, an indigenous population has lived in what is now the park for around 7,000 years.

Lake Mead is impressive: 1.5 million acres, 110 miles in length when the lake is full, 550 miles of shoreline, around 500 feet at its greatest depth, 255 square miles of surface water, and when filled to capacity, 28 million acre-feet of water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead is impressive: 1.5 million acres, 110 miles in length when the lake is full, 550 miles of shoreline, around 500 feet at its greatest depth, 255 square miles of surface water, and when filled to capacity, 28 million acre-feet of water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Total land area: 1,495,806 acres
Size ranking: 7th largest
State: Arizona-Nevada
Privately owned land: 22,368 acres

5-year change in tourism: 12%

Lake Mead is one of 12 national recreation areas centered on large reservoirs. Not surprisingly, Lake Mead is a great place to engage in water activities, such as sport fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing, and scuba diving. A rare fish species called razorback suckers can be found in both Lake Mead and Lake Mohave, and each year biologists make efforts to save newly hatched razorback suckers from predators.

Encompassing over 1.25 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Encompassing over 1.25 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area 
Total land area: 1,254,117 acres
Size ranking: 9th largest
State: Arizona-Utah
Privately owned land: No private land
5-year change in tourism: +43%

Established in 1972, this national recreation area was created for the purpose of leisure rather than conservation. As a result, there are various ways to get there — even by commercial airline. Once there, visitors can launch their boats, fish, swim or camp on the beach of Lake Powell.

“Grand” doesn’t begin to do this canyon justice. Measuring approximately 277 miles in length, up to 18 miles in width and a mile deep, this massive chasm in northern Arizona is truly a natural wonder. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Grand” doesn’t begin to do this canyon justice. Measuring approximately 277 miles in length, up to 18 miles in width and a mile deep, this massive chasm in northern Arizona is truly a natural wonder. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park
Total land area: 1,201,647 acres
Size ranking: 10th largest
State: Arizona
Privately owned land: 9,136 acres
5-year change in tourism: +39%

Of all the national parks in the country, the Grand Canyon may be the most famous. The Grand Canyon was first granted federal protection in 1893, but was not designated a national park until 1919. In that year 44,173 people visited the park. Nearly 5 million people travel to the Grand Canyon each year.

Worth Pondering…

Man has created some lovely dwellings—some soul-stirring literature. He has done much to alleviate physical pain. But he has not…created a substitute for a sunset, a grove of pines, the music of the winds, the dank smell of the deep forest, or the shy beauty of a wildflower.

—Harvey Broome

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