Although the National Park Service oversees more than 400 significant sites, only 59 have reached national park status. These include some of the most beloved places in the United States: its loftiest mountains, its grandest canyons, its most important cultural treasures. Each year all national parks that charge entrance fees waive their admission for a set number of days. In 2019, 5 days have been designated fee-free days, including National Park Week, April 20-28, and National Park Service Birthday Weekend, August 25.
Here, we highlight three of the newest national park additions that you should consider adding to your next vacation itinerary.
America’s Industrial Revolution kicked into gear along New England’s Blackstone River. The turbulent waterway powered Slater Mill, the nation’s first successful water-powered cotton-spinning factory, in 1790, and fueled a growing industry of steam-powered textile mills in the 1800s.
Because of its pivotal role as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the National Park Service named a 46-mile stretch of the Blackstone River Valley—from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Providence, Rhode Island—a “National Heritage Corridor” in 1986. The Park Service elevated Blackstone to national park status in 2014, reflecting a trend to preserve and interpret more of the nation’s cultural history.
Rather than a traditional national park with entrance gates, Blackstone is what the National Park Service calls “a living landscape.” Its restored mills, museums, historic villages and other cultural sites are scattered across 24 cities and towns in the valley. Get your bearings at the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center just north of Providence in Pawtucket. Across the street, tour the restored Slater Mill and other historic structures.
Fifteen miles north in Woonsocket, the Museum of Work and Culture tells the story of textile-mill workers and the rise of trade unions. Also in Woonsocket, board the Blackstone Valley Explorer riverboat for a narrated tour along the historic waterway. Nearby, hop on the Blackstone River Bikeway, a paved bike path that follows the river and will eventually run the length of the national park.
In Uxbridge, Massachusetts, River Bend Farm anchors a 1,000-acre natural area. Hike along the historic Blackstone Canal towpath or slide a canoe into the water for a paddle trip through the 19th century.
An excursion into Congaree feels otherworldly, where coffee-colored waters bleed through dim forests of old-growth cypress and tupelo. These low-lying floodplains and salt marshes preserve the nation’s largest remaining tract of southern old-growth bottomland forest in North America. Timber companies logged most of the Deep South’s old-growth trees in the 19th and 20th centuries. This last significant tract was threatened with logging, too, when Congress preserved it as a national monument in 1976. Congaree became an International Biosphere Reserve in 1983 and a national park in 2003.
Congaree’s watery world lies just 20 miles southeast of Columbia, South Carolina. Start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center for orientation films, natural and cultural history exhibits, and information on trails. Pick up an interpretive brochure for the Boardwalk Loop, a 2.4-mile elevated walkway that lets you comfortably explore the wetlands and woodlands that naturally flood several times a year. The nutrients carried by the waters nourish the lofty forest that towers overhead. The park is renowned for its “champion trees,” including the nation’s largest loblolly pine, water hickory and swamp tupelo.
Several other hiking trails wander through the nearly 27,000-acre park. To really experience Congaree, paddle along the Cedar Creek canoe trail. The marked, 15-mile route slips through dense forest draped with Spanish moss, humming with hammering woodpeckers and hooting owls. (Book early for the park’s occasional ranger-guided canoe tours.) You’ll feel worlds away, yet you can be back in Columbia in time for dinner.
America’s newest national park got its start more than 23 million years ago, when eons of erupting volcanoes, flowing lava and shifting tectonic plates created a 30-mile-wide volcanic field of rocky spires, canyons and caves. Located about 70 miles south of San Jose, the unusual landscape was first protected as a national monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. President Obama signed it into law as a national park in 2013. More than half the park is designated as wilderness, which helps protect the highly endangered California condor, which has been reintroduced there.
The imposing rock formations divide Pinnacles National Park in half. No roads connect the east and west halves; only hiking trails penetrate the park’s wilderness interior. Rock climbers and visitors seeking the most dramatic views head for the West Entrance (although CA-146 leading to the park is too narrow and winding for RVs and large vehicles).
The East Entrance offers better road access and more facilities, including the Pinnacles Visitor Center and the park’s only campground. Several of the park’s 30 miles of hiking trails depart from the nearby Bear Gulch Day Use Area. The Moses Spring to Rim Trail loop weaves past rock formations and through Bear Gulch Cave, formed when huge boulders wedged into a narrow gorge. (To explore the park’s caves, bring a flashlight and check ahead for cave closures that protect bat colonies.) Whichever entrance you choose, avoid the summer months and carry water—this desert wilderness is best explored in spring and fall.
Lodging and dining options:
Less than an hour’s drive north of the park, the Hollister area offers several inns and restaurants. Visit the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce website for more information.
Get more national park tips with this insider’s guide on how to avoid crowds, discover hidden treasures and get coveted reservations.