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A national park is a reserve of natural or semi-natural land, declared or owned by a government, set aside for human recreation and enjoyment, animal and environmental protection and restricted from most development. While ideas for national parks had been suggested previously, the first one established, in 1872, was the United States' Yellowstone National Park. An international organization, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and its World Commission on Protected Areas, has defined National Parks as its category II type of protected areas. The largest national park in the world meeting the IUCN definition is the Northeast Greenland National Park, which was established in 1974. According to the IUCN, there are about 7000 national parks worldwide (2010 figure).
The United States has 58 protected areas known as national parks, which are operated by the National Park Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior. National parks must be established by an act of the United States Congress. The first national park, Yellowstone, was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, followed by Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890. The Organic Act of 1916 created the National Park Service "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." National parks usually have a variety of natural resources over large areas. Many of them had been previously protected as National Monuments by the President under the Antiquities Act before being upgraded by Congress. Seven national parks are paired with a National Preserve, six of which are in Alaska. While administered together, they are considered as separate units and their areas are not included in the figures below. The newest national park is Great Sand Dunes, established in 2004.
Twenty-seven states have national parks, as do insular areas American Samoa and the United States Virgin Islands. Alaska and California have the most, each with eight, followed by Utah with five and Colorado with four. The largest national park is Wrangell – St. Elias, at over 8,000,000 acres (32,000 km²), followed by three more in Alaska; the smallest is Hot Springs, at less than 6,000 acres (24 km²). The total area protected by national parks is approximately 51,900,000 acres (210,000 km²), for an average of 895,000 acres (3,620 km²) but a median of only 317,000 acres (1,280 km²). The most-visited national park is Great Smoky Mountains, with over nine million visitors in 2008, followed by the Grand Canyon, with over four million. Fourteen national parks are designated World Heritage Sites.
1. Wrangell – St. Elias
Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a United States National Park in southeastern Alaska. It was established in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The park area is included in an International Biosphere Reserve and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the largest national park in the United States by area, covering an area of 20,587 mi² (53,321 km²), or over 13 million acres (53,000 km²). In fact, it is larger than nine U.S. States, and its size is comparable to the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
Mount St. Elias is situated on the border of Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Canada's Kluane National Park and Reserve. At 18,008 feet (5,489 m), Mt. St. Elias is the second highest mountain in both Canada and the United States. In all, nine of the 16 highest peaks on U.S. soil are located in the park, along with North America's largest subpolar icefield, glaciers, rivers, an active volcano, and the historic Kennecott copper mines. The vast majority of the park is designated as wilderness, and the Wrangell – St. Elias Wilderness is the largest designated wilderness in the United States.
The park is accessible by highway from Anchorage; two rough gravel roads (the McCarthy Road and the Nabesna Road) wind through the park, making much of the interior accessible for backcountry camping and hiking. Chartered aircraft also fly into the park. Wrangell – St. Elias received 61,085 visitors in 2007 and is quickly gaining popularity through its combination of size, remoteness, and accessibility.
2. Gates of the Arctic
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is a U.S. National Park in Alaska. It is the northernmost national park in the U.S. (the entirety of the park lies north of the Arctic Circle) and the second largest at 13,238 mi² (39,460 km²), about the same size as Switzerland. The park consists primarily of portions of the Brooks Range of mountains. It was first protected as a U.S. National Monument on December 1, 1978, before becoming a national park and preserve two years later in 1980 upon passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. A large part of the park is preserved as a wilderness area; some 11,321 mi² (29,322 km²) of wilderness which with the adjoining Noatak Wilderness Area forms the largest contiguous wilderness in the United States.
The park's name dates to 1929, when wilderness activist Bob Marshall, exploring the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, encountered a pair of mountains (Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain), one on each side of the river. He christened this portal the "Gates of the Arctic."
Unusual for a U.S. national park, some 1,500 people reside in ten small communities in the park's "resident subsistence zone" where they rely on park resources for survival.
There are no established roads, trails, visitor facilities, or campgrounds in the park. However, the Dalton Highway (Alaska State Highway 11) comes within five miles (8 km) of the park's eastern boundary. The National Park Service maintains a small visitor center in nearby Coldfoot on the highway.
The geography contains the arête-peaked Brooks Range and rolling valleys of wild tundra. Fauna include moose, barren-ground grizzlies, Dall sheep, black bears, wolves, and caribou.
Denali National Park and Preserve is located in Interior Alaska and contains Denali (Mount McKinley), the highest mountain in North America. The park and preserve together cover 9,492 mi² (24,585 km²).
The word "Denali" means "the high one" in the native Athabaskan language and refers to the mountain itself. The mountain was named after president William McKinley of Ohio in 1897 by local prospector William A. Dickey, although McKinley had no connection with the region the name is only used by those outside of Alaska. Charles Alexander Sheldon took an interest in the Dall sheep native to the region, and became concerned that human encroachment might threaten the species. After his 1907-1908 visit, he petitioned the people of Alaska and Congress to create a preserve for the sheep. (His account of the visit was published posthumously as The Wilderness of Denali, ISBN 1-56833-152-5). The park was established as Mount McKinley National Park on February 26, 1917. However, only a portion of Mount McKinley (not even including the summit) was within the original park boundary. The park was designated an international biosphere reserve in 1976. A separate Denali National Monument was proclaimed by Jimmy Carter on December 1, 1978.
Mount McKinley National Park, whose name had been subject to local criticism from the onset, and Denali National Monument were incorporated and established into Denali National Park and Preserve by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, December 2, 1980. At this time the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain back to "Denali," even though the U.S. Board of Geographic Names maintains "McKinley". Alaskans tend to use "Denali" and rely on context to distinguish between the park and the mountain. The size of the national park is over 6 million acres (24,500 km²), of which 4,724,735.16 acres (19,120 km²) are federally owned. The national preserve is 1,334,200 acres (543 km²), of which 1,304,132 acres (5,278 km²) are federally owned. On December 2, 1980, a 2,146,580 acre (8,687 km²) Denali Wilderness was established within the park. The national park is located near Denali State Park.
Denali habitat is a mix of forest at the lowest elevations, including deciduous taiga. The preserve is also home to tundra at middle elevations, and glaciers, rock, and snow at the highest elevations. Today, the park hosts more than 400,000 visitors who enjoy wildlife viewing, mountaineering, and backpacking. Wintertime recreation includes dog-sledding, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling where allowed.
Katmai National Park and Preserve is a United States National Park in southern Alaska, notable for the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and for its brown bears. The park covers 7,383 square miles (19,120 km²), being roughly the size of Wales. Most of this is a designated wilderness area, including 5,288 square miles (13,700 km²) of the park. The park is named after Mount Katmai, its centerpiece stratovolcano.
Established in 1918, the park is located on the Alaska Peninsula, across from Kodiak Island, with headquarters in nearby King Salmon, about 290 air miles southwest of Anchorage. Originally, on September 24, 1918, the area was designated a national monument to protect the area around the major 1912 volcanic eruption of Novarupta, which formed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a 40-square-mile (100 km²), 100-to-700-foot-deep (30 to 210 m) pyroclastic flow.
Activities at Katmai include hiking, backpacking, camping, backcountry skiing, fishing, kayaking, boat tours, and interpretive programs. There are at least fourteen active volcanoes within the national park, most recently Fourpeaked Volcano, which became active September 17, 2006 after more than 10,000 years of dormancy. This park contains numerous archaeological sites which indicate a long history of prehistoric occupations from the Paleoarctic tradition up to the Thule tradition.
Katmai is also well known for brown bears and the salmon which attract both bears and people. Katmai contains the world's largest protected brown bear population, estimated to number in excess of 2,000. Bears are especially likely to congregate at the Brooks Falls viewing platform when the salmon are spawning, and many well known photographs of brown bears have been taken there. The coastal areas such as Hallo Bay, Kukak Bay and Chiniak host the highest population densities year-round, due to the availability of clams and edible coastal sedge as well as salmon and other fish. The saltwater coast of the area is the eponym for Katmai Bay (CGC 101), a United States Coast Guard cutter tugboat icebreaker.
The vast majority of Katmai visitors come to Brooks Camp, one of the only developed areas of the park, and few venture further than the bear viewing platforms. Rangers at the park are extremely careful not to allow bears to obtain human food or get into confrontations with humans. As a result, bears in Katmai Park are uniquely unafraid of and uninterested in humans, and will allow people to approach (and photograph) much more closely than bears elsewhere.
5. Death Valley
Death Valley National Park is a national park located east of the Sierra Nevada in the arid Great Basin of the United States. Parts of the park are in southern Inyo County and northern San Bernardino County in Eastern California, with a small extension into southwestern Nye County and extreme southern Esmeralda County in Nevada. In addition, there is an exclave (Devil's Hole) in southern Nye County. The park covers 5,262 square miles (13,630 km²), encompassing Saline Valley, a large part of Panamint Valley, almost all of Death Valley, and parts of several mountain ranges. Death Valley National Monument was declared a U.S. National Monument in 1933, placing the area under federal protection. In 1994, the monument was redesignated a national park, as well as being substantially expanded to include Saline and Eureka valleys.
It is the hottest and driest of the national parks in the United States. The second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere is in Badwater Basin, which is 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. The park is home to many species of plants and animals that have adapted to this harsh desert environment. Some examples include creosote bush, Bighorn Sheep, Coyote, and the Death Valley Pupfish, a survivor of much wetter times. Approximately 95% of the park is designated as wilderness. Its wilderness area covers 4,774 square miles (12,360 km²), making it the largest in the Lower 48 states, and the sixth largest in the United States overall. Death Valley National Park is visited annually by more than 770,000 visitors who come to see its diverse geologic features, desert wildlife, historic sites, scenery, and clear night skies.
6. Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay National Park is a national park in Alaska. The area around Glacier Bay in southeastern Alaska was first proclaimed a U.S. National Monument on February 25, 1925. It was changed to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on Dec. 2, 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a United States National Park in the southeastern part of Alaska west of Juneau. The park area was included in an International Biosphere Reserve in 1986 and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park covers 5,130 mi² (13,287 km²). Most of the park is a designated wilderness area which covers 4,164 mi² (10,784 km²) of the park.
No roads lead to the park and it is most easily reached by air travel. During some summers there are ferries to the small community of Gustavus or directly to the marina at Bartlett Cove. Despite the lack of roads, there are over 300,000 visitors per year, most on cruise ships.
Glaciers descending from high snow capped mountains into the bay create spectacular displays of ice and iceberg formation. In the last century the bay’s most famous glacier was probably the Muir Glacier, at one time nearly 2 mi (3.2 km) wide and about 265 ft (81 m) tall. The Muir Glacier has receded and since the 1990s is no longer tidewater. Most visitors today see the Margerie and Lamplugh Glaciers. All of Glacier Bay was glacier-bound as recently as 1750.
The explorer Captain George Vancouver found Icy Strait, at the south end of Glacier Bay, choked with ice in 1794. Glacier Bay itself was almost entirely iced over. In 1879 naturalist John Muir found that the ice had retreated almost all the way up the bay, a distance of around forty-eight miles. By 1916 the Grand Pacific Glacier was at the head of Tarr Inlet about 65 mi (105 km) from Glacier Bay's mouth. This is the fastest documented glacier retreat ever. Scientists are hoping to learn how glacial activity relates to climate changes from the retreat.
7. Lake Clark
Established in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is a United States National Park in southwestern Alaska. The park includes many streams and lakes vital to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. The park allows a wide variety of recreational activities year-round.
Lake Clark has been called "the essence of Alaska", for it concentrates in a relatively small area of the Alaska Peninsula, Southwest of Anchorage, a variety of features not found together in any of the other Alaska Parks: the junction of three mountain ranges, (the Alaska Range from the North, the Aleutian Range from the South, and the park's own rugged Chigmit Mountains), two active volcanoes (Iliamna and Redoubt), a coastline with rainforests on the East (similar to South East Alaska), a plateau with tundra on the West (similar to Arctic Alaska), and turquoise lakes.
No roads lead to the park and it can only be reached by small aircraft, floatplanes being the best method. The park, one of the least visited in the National Park System, averages just over 5,000 visitors per year.
The documentary film "Alone in the Wilderness" (2003) is set in what is now the park. Most of the film was taken in 1968 and shows the Twin Lakes portion of the park.
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