The United States has some 63 national parks and these range from being tiny to as large as some of the world's smaller countries (like Belguim). America's national parks preserve much of the country's natural (and sometimes historic) heritage and offers some of the country's most dramatic and extreme landscapes. So what are the largest and smallest of the United States' park systems? It turns out, the answer has changed in the last few years.
The most and least popular national parks in the United States are Great Smokey Mountains and Gates of the Arctic National Parks prespectively, but these are not the largest or smallest. The largest national parks are in Alaska, and the most popular national park in Alaska (and the most accessible) is Denali.
The Largest National Park: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska
It should come as no surprise that the first four of the top five largest national parks in the United States are in Alaska.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest of all and covers an impressive 13.2 million arces or 33,600 km2 - that's larger than the state of Maryland. Wrangell-St. Elias is six times larger than Yellowstone and is home to the country's largest glacial system.
The expanse of Wrangell-St. Elias is an unspoiled wonderland with 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. Over a quarter of the national park is covered by glaciers and is about as wild as one could hope to get. Notable glaciers include tidewater Hubbard Glacier, piedmont Malaspina Glaciers, and valley Nabesna Glacier.
Wrangell-St. Elias Records:
- Largest: America's Largest Piedmont Glacier
- Longest: The Longest Tiderwater Glacier
- World's Longest: Interior Valley Glacier
Despite its massive size and unspoiled natural beauty, it is not a very popular national park on account of its incredible isolation. Still unlike many of Alaska's other national parks, it does have road access. While the Great Smoky Mountains National Park receives around 14 million visitors annually, Wrangell-St. Elias gets less than 100,000 visitors. In 2018 it only had 80,000 and in 2021 (during the pandemic) it was down to only 50,000 visitors.
- Located: 200 Miles East of Anchorage
- Visitors: 50,000-80,000
- Protects: The Convergence of the Alaska, Chugach, Wrangell, and Saint Elias Ranges
- When to Visit: In the Summer
The best time to visit this great national park is summer. Remember Wrangell-St. Elias is deep in Alaska and snow often arrives in the park by the end of September. The park's only two state roads into the park are not regularly maintained in the winter.
Smallest National Park: Gateway Arch In St. Louis
The Gateway Arch is a massive 630-foot (192 m) wide and high arch that was built to commemorate the Lewis and Clack Expedition under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. It commemorates the westward expansion of the United States and was formerlly part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
In 2018 the Gateway Arch was promoted to a National Park and became the smallest national park in the United States. Today one can take a tram ride to the top of the arch's observation deck and enjoy a stunning view of the city of St. Loius. While there, take time to explore the museum at the Gateway Arch and learn about the history of the Arch and the Westward expansion of the United States.
- Located: St. Louis, Missouri
- Built: Completed 1965
- Commemorates: The Lewis and Cark Expedition and American Westward Expansion
- Size: 192.83 acres (0.8 km2)
- Smallest: The Gateway Arch National Park is the Smallest National Park in the United States
Honorable Mention: Hot Springs National Park
While Yellowstone National Park is the oldest national park in the United States, it isn't the oldest federally protected area. Hot Springs National Park in Arkanses is both the oldest area managed by the National Park Service and was the smallest national park until 2018. It is 2,400 times smaller than Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
It preserves the natural hot springs from the Ouachita Mountains and the stunning 19th-century architecture of the Barthouse Row.
- Oldest: Oldest Area Managed By The National Park Service (since 1832)
- Protects: The Hot Springs From The Ouachita Mountains
- Smallest: Smallest National Park Until 2018
- Size: 5,550 Acres