What to do in the Smallest National Parks
Sunday, 1 Oct, 2023

What to do in the Smallest National Parks

These pint-sized parks offer outsized fun.

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NNational parks come in all shapes and sizes. Roughly 2 percent of the United States is national parkland with the National Park Service managing more than 85 million acres of protected land across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and a handful of US territories. That parkland is represented by a wide range of individual national parks. The largest is the sprawling Wrangell–St. Elias National Park in Alaska, which at 13.2 million acres is larger than Massachusetts and Vermont combined, and the smallest is Gateway Arch National Park, encompassing only 192 acres.

Size isn’t everything, though. It’s possible to have big outdoor adventures—complete with gorgeous hikes and breathtaking views—in even the smallest national parks. Here are some exciting activities we recommend for the five smallest US national parks.

Rock climbing is a popular activity in Pinnacles National Park.

Pinnacles National Park

  • Location: Northern California (two hours south of San Francisco)
  • acres: 26,685

When people talk about the most beautiful national parks in California, names like Joshua Tree and Yosemite often top the list. A protected land area that doesn’t have the name recognition but should be a marquee attraction based on its scenic landscapes is Pinnacles National Park.

The pint-sized park packs a big punch. For hikers, there are myriad trails, but one of the most popular and easier paths is Bear Gulch Cave Trail. The 1.5-mile out-and-back trail features boardwalk pathways that lead through the canyon to its namesake cave. Alternatively, another winner is the Hike Peaks Loop. This six-mile trail offers some of the best views of the volcanic rock spires that inspired the park’s name (it’s also an excellent place to see the endangered California condor).

For something a little more adrenaline-pumping, there are more than 300 designated rock climbs within the 26,685-acre park.

March through May is a particularly good time to visit Pinnacles—it’s when the wildflowers are at their peak. Juniper Canyon Trail and Balconies Cave Trail are two good places to see the blooms.

How to visit

The East Entrance of Pinnacles National Park is always open, while the West Entrance is open from 7:30 am to 8 pm The vehicle entrance fee is $30 and is good for seven days from the time of purchase.

Congaree is known for two things: old-growth trees and fireflies.

Congaree National Park

  • Location: Central South Carolina
  • acres: 26,476

This South Carolina national park is something of a sleeper hit. Here, you’ll find some of the most ancient old-growth hardwood trees in the South, including cypress trees that have been around for more than 500 years. More often than not, they appear to grow out of the water—the 26,476-acre park sits inside the floodplain of the Congaree River in South Carolina.

One of the best ways to get to know the park is through its trails. For hiking, consider the Boardwalk Loop Trail, a 2.4-mile elevated trail through old-growth forest, and the Kingsnake Trail, a nearly 12-mile route popular with birding enthusiasts. Alternatively, the 50-mile-long Cedar Creek Canoe Trail allows paddlers to explore the park’s rivers and flooded areas.

And for about two weeks in late May or early June, fireflies descend on Congaree National Park to look for a mate. Their synchronized flashing has become such a popular event that the National Park Service has enacted a lottery system to score a viewing.

How to visit

Congaree National Park is free to enter. Hours are from 9 am to 5 pm

There are more than 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline at Indiana Dunes National Park.

Indiana Dunes National Park

  • Location: Northern Indiana (on the shore of Lake Michigan)
  • acres: 15,349

Indiana Dunes can be a bit of a surprise to visitors—primarily because it’s near Chicago and bookended by factories and power plants.

But there’s an important reason it earned the coveted national park status in 2019—its incredible biodiversity. Here, you’ll find everything from wetlands to silky sand dunes, prairies to forests.

Within its 15,349 acres, there are more than 50 miles of trails and 15 miles of shoreline. In the summer, it’s a popular place for Windy City residents to swim, barbecue, or picnic on one of the three separate beaches, ride bikes on designated trails, fish on the Portage Lakefront pier, and trail run. The smaller dunes are also ideal for sandboarding. In the winter, hardy locals bundle up to go snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. (You can rent the appropriate gear from the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education.)

How to visit

Indiana Dunes National Park is open from 7 am to 11 pm It costs $25 per vehicle (one to six persons) to enter.

You can have a traditional bathing experience at the historical Buckstaff Bathhouse in Hot Springs National Park.

Hot Springs National Park

  • Location: Central Arkansas
  • acres: 5.554

Unlike most other national parks, the attraction of Hot Springs National Park is the great indoors.

Roughly 4,000 years ago, rain fell in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas and found its way to more than 7,000 feet below the surface of the Earth. Over time, the boiling water bubbled its way back up and formed a series of more than 40 hot springs. While most are at temperatures more appropriate for cooking than soaking, bathhouses sprung up around those cool enough for relaxing in during the late 1800s and early 1900s; most of those are still in use today.

While “taking the waters” (sitting in the rejuvenating pools) and “quaffing the elixir” (drinking from mineral-rich water fountains) are the biggest draw, the park offers other activities to enjoy.

There are 26 miles of designated hiking trails within the forested park, including Hot Springs Mountain Tower (with memorable views from the summit) and Sunset Trail (a 15-mile trek around the park’s perimeter).

To explore a colorful bit of history, there’s the Gangster Museum of America (appropriate, considering Al Capone famously enjoyed spending time at the hot springs). Additionally, you can visit Superior Bathhouse Brewery, located in a former bathhouse; it is the only brewery within a national park. All of its brews are made with thermal spring water, so you can at least pretend they have healing properties.

How to visit

Although the park is free to enter, soaking in the pools costs $20 per person. The park is open from 5 am to 10 pm

The Gateway Arch is 630 feet tall.  It's also 630 feet from side to side.

Gateway Arch National Park

  • Location: St Louis, Missouri
  • acres: 192

When you think of national parks, chances are you imagine canyons, towering redwoods, prehistoric glaciers, or perhaps sand dunes. At the very least, the image in your mind is a protected area far from city life. Gateway Arch, however, will change your preconceived notions of what a national park is or should be.

Clocking in at just 192 acres, this park sits on the bank of the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis. It’s home to the tallest man-made monument (630 feet high) in this hemisphere—the same structure for which the park is named. The iconic arch, commonly referred to as the “Gateway to the West,” is meant to reflect the city’s role in the Westward Expansion—many people migrating west used the city as a staging hub. It also holds a courthouse that saw two history-shaping trials: that of Dred Scott, the enslaved man who sued for his freedom, and Virginia Minor’s case on women’s right to vote. Usually the courthouse is open for tours, but at present it’s closed to visitors while the National Park Service does renovations that will include new galleries and an elevator to the second floor.

Even though Gateway Arch National Park is the smallest in the nation, it doesn’t mean there aren’t adventures to be had. If you’re daring enough, you can opt to see St. Louis from on high by taking the Tram Ride to the Top. It’s a four-minute ride in one-of-a-kind pods (they rotate 155 degrees, so guests remain upright during the entire ride) to the observation deck at the top of the arch, where you can see much of the city. If you’re not a fan of heights, it’s possible to view the landmark from a 19th-century paddlewheel replica on the Mississippi with Riverboats at the Gateway Arch.

How to visit

The park is open from 9 am to 6 pm Tram tickets start at $15 for adults and $11 for children age 3 to 15.

>>Next: 10 Underrated National Parks You Should Visit in 2022

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