President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill 100 years ago directing the Department of the Interior “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Thus began the organization that would be known as the National Park Service (NPS). Yellowstone was the first and, over the years, more than 50 parks have been added.
In 2015, the NPS established seven new national parks, bringing the total number to 58. These new parks include a desert on the edge of Las Vegas, a supervolcano and the birthplace of America’s 16th president. The addition of these seven parks adds 250,000 acres of protected land to the total. The last significant addition prior to this was during the Carter presidency; 1,974,005 acres were added with the adoption of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978.
This year, to celebrate the centennial anniversary of U.S. national parks, make plans to visit the newest additions. While these parks are new to the NPS, they’re not totally brand-new sites. However, with the new funding (and title of national park), these lesser-known gems won’t remain under the radar for long.
Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico
Perhaps one of the oldest parks in the country, Valles Caldera was formed more than 1.2 million years ago when the volcano erupted, creating a 12-mile-wide caldera (a crater formed when the mouth of the volcano collapses). Located about 56 miles (90 kilometers) north of Santa Fe, Valles Caldera (which translates to “valley of boilers”) is the perfect destination for those who love the outdoors. Keep an eye out for elk, coyotes, wild turkeys, bears and other wild animal friends. From exploring on cross-country skis and snowshoes in the winter to tackling trails on foot or bike, Valles Caldera is a shining example of New Mexico’s outdoor playgrounds.
Go for: Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking, hiking and fly fishing.
First State National Historical Park, Delaware
History buffs, rejoice — the new national park in Delaware is all about celebrating firsts. After being the first state to ratify the Constitution, Delaware claimed the official nickname of “The First State.” Established in 2014, the First State National Historical Park is comprised of seven locations scattered around the state. You can soak in history in areas like New Castle and Dover, and there are also plenty of places to enjoy a bit of outdoor beauty, like the Beaver Valley along the Brandywine River near Wilmington, extending into Pennsylvania. Explore by bike or kayak, on your own two feet or the four feet of an equine ride through this slice of country which remains much as it did in the early 20th century.
Go for: the chance to see where the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, Massachusetts and Rhode Island
It can be difficult to pinpoint the location of a revolution — unless, of course, it begins with a shot. However, the Blackstone River can claim the honor of being the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. This area was the site of the first successful water-powered cotton-spinning factory, which started operations in 1790. Fast-forward 225 years and the area is dotted with cultural and historical sites like restored mills and historic churches in a bucolic setting. You can explore by car, hop on a bike and utilize the 20 miles (32 kilometers) of greenway or paddle the 46 miles (74 kilometers) of the Blackstone River. Mark your calendars: A 48-mile (77-kilometer) bikeway is slated to open in 2017, letting you ride from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Providence, R.I.
Go for: tasty, historical vistas, like the Chocolate Mill Overlook, and the Class III rapids.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Just when you thought Washington, D.C., had reached its limit of monuments, the city opens one more. In 2011, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial took its place in the nation’s capital in the northwest corner of the National Mall. Featuring a 30-foot tall granite statue of the civil rights activist, the memorial offers opportunities to learn with guided tours and a bookstore including information about the life and legacy of King.
Go for: the ability to stand in the shadow of greatness, just a stone’s throw from where King delivered his seminal “I have a dream” speech.
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, Nevada
Sure, Las Vegas has plenty of fossils (sitting at the slot machines at 8 a.m. on a Monday), but now Nevada’s oldest fossils have their own national park. Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument is located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of the bright lights of the Strip, but the colors here are shades of sunsets and wildflowers. You’ll see the imprints of ancient animals like giant sloths, mighty mammoths and the early ancestor of that other desert dweller, the camel. Plans call for walking trails and plenty of signage in the future, but visitors who get here now can wander among the excavation sites at their leisure — just leave the fossils where you found them.
Go for: the possibility to play Indiana Jones without the menacing bad guys.
Pinnacles National Park, California
While Teddy Roosevelt established Pinnacles National Monument in 1908, it didn’t become a national park until 2013. Pinnacles National Park, located southeast of San Francisco, was formed by multiple volcanoes which erupted more than 20 million years ago along the San Andreas Fault. The resulting landscape is punctuated by rock spires and pitted with talus caves, home to 13 different species of bats. Lace up your hiking boots to explore the rock formations of both the east and west sides (there’s no through road) or rope up for some rock climbing adventures. Just make sure to book your visit for spring or fall — summer is a scorcher.
Go for: the chance to see California condors, a highly endangered bird that’s released into the wild here.
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, Kentucky
What does it take to raise a president? A visit to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Kentucky can answer that question, to some extent. You’ll get a look at our 16th president’s humble roots in a log cabin which looks much like the one in which Lincoln spent his childhood. Though the Lincoln family only lived at Knob Creek for five years, these early frontier moments helped shape the man who would change the United States forever. Bring a picnic to enjoy after wandering the homestead and be sure to allow enough time to explore the places that young Abe did, like Sinking Spring and the Boundary Oak.
Go for: the opportunity to wander through Lincoln’s early years.