Up Next: America’s Prospective National Parks

Looking to plan your next road trip? Check out these 5 national parks-to-be.

National parks are a quintessentially American birthright. As public lands, they’re places that every citizen in the nation has a right to visit and enjoy. Right now, the U.S. has 63 official national park units (including the New River Gorge, which was designated just last year). In total, that’s more than 80 million acres of land to explore. 

The even better news? There’s more on the way. Here’s a brief recap on why that matters, plus five landscapes we can expect to see designated next. 

Who Decides on New National Parks? 

There are a few different paths to achieving national park status. Sometimes, a city, state, or private owner will donate land to the federal government, which will then turn that land over to the National Park Service (NPS) to manage. Other parks start as federal lands and are leveled-up via Congressional vote. But no matter how a national park gets formed, it requires buy-in from Congress. That means national parks are harder to establish than national monuments and other types of federally managed land, which can be designated by the president alone. It also means that when a national park does get established, it comes with a whole lot of buzz. 

Why Does National Park Status Matter? 

All this begs the question: If national parks are so hard to designate, why bother? After all, new national monuments receive a lot of attention and protection, too. So why not just stick with those? According to Kristen Brengel, VP of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, many monuments fall under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which was originally created to manage land for mining, oil and gas development, and grazing. While the BLM does oversee some wilderness areas, its specialty is managing for multiple uses—including OHV and off-road vehicle use. NPS, on the other hand, exists expressly for conservation. 

“The 1916 law establishing the National Park Service says it must manage land to a conservation standard,” Brengel (she/her) explains. “And because NPS has a conservation mission at its core, it brings in wildlife biologists, historians, and archaeologists who are paid professional staff helping to protect these places.” 

Stairs up Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Meet Your Next 5 National Parks 

Because national park status is so important for giving landscapes the protections they deserve, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and a host of other environmental organizations work tirelessly to convince Congress to establish new ones. We talked to Brengel about the places NPCA has in the pipeline. These are five of the most exciting prospects. 

1. Mojave Desert, California 

Environmentalists spent years fighting a new landfill in the California desert. In 2013, they finally won. Now, NPCA is looking to make this section of the Mojave a new national park unit. That would protect miles of serene Joshua tree forest, granite ridges, and stark desert from future threats. 

“[With this designation], someone could travel through the entire Mojave Desert and have a really continuous landscape,” Brengel explains. That’s a win for outdoor adventurers and for wildlife: The designation would protect critical habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise

2. Cahokia Mounds, Illinois  

The Cahokia Mounds are a system of massive earthen structures reminiscent of the Mayan pyramids. Built by the ancient Mississippian people, they were a part of the oldest and most complex prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico. Cahokia’s sprawling site hosts more than 15 miles of hiking trails in addition to a comprehensive interpretive center that goes deep into the mounds’ cultural history. According to Brengel, Cahokia is one of several sacred Indigenous sites that the National Park Service is currently studying for potential national park nominations. Others include Swamp Cedars in Nevada (see below) and the Ocmulgee Mounds in Georgia. 

3. Katahdin Woods and Waters, Maine  

First designated a national monument in 2016, Katahdin Woods and Waters contains the famed Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It’s also the ancestral home of the Penobscot Nation, which viewed the mountain with great reverence and still has cultural ties to the land. Right now, there’s a bill floating through Congress that would expand Katahdin Woods and Waters by a whopping 43,000 acres. That would open up a new entrance to the park, making it more accessible than ever before. It would also extend NPS protection to miles of trail and woodland habitat that deer, black bears, and other wildlife rely on.

Because Katahdin Woods and Waters is so culturally important and recreationally iconic, we can likely expect it to be considered for national park status within the next few years. 

4. Swamp Cedars, Nevada 

This grove of massive, sacred juniper trees on the Nevada-California border was a ceremonial meeting place for the local Shoshone people, as well as the site of three separate massacres. The federal government is currently considering either national monument or national park designation for Swamp Cedars. The designation would protect the final resting place of the Shoshone ancestors who lie there, and spare the unique trees from the pipeline development projects that have been threatening them for decades. 

5. Guadalupe Mountains, Texas

While Guadalupe Mountains National Park isn’t new, there’s a new bill working its way through Congress that would massively expand its boundaries. 

“If you’re a hiker and you love the outdoors, you’re completely missing out if you don’t go to this place,” Brengel says. Once the homeland of the Nde people (sometimes called Mescalero Apaches) the Guadalupe Mountains’ seemingly endless trail systems are now a paradise for backpackers. In the summer, its high-elevation summits provide hikers and trail runners a welcome respite from the heat. In the fall, the hardwood trees turn orange and yellow, a vibrant contrast with the dusk-blue silhouettes of the volcanic peaks. 

“The rivers and creeks that run through [Guadalupe Mountains] are all crystal-clear and have rainbow trout in them, and you can absolutely see the fish,” Brengel says. Right now, Guadalupe Mountains is one of the nation’s lesser-known national parks—but if this expansion bill passes, they might not stay that way for long. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.