celebrating national parks in December - mountain goats in an Alaska national park

This National Park Turns 88 in December

December is renowned for cold weather, gift shopping, and holiday celebrations. However, we have something else to celebrate this month. We say happy birthday to a whopping total of thirteen national parks in December. One park turns 88 this year. Do you know which one?

Let’s honor our national parks with December birthdays, starting with the youngest.

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

New River Gorge Bridge, WV
New River Gorge Bridge. Photo credit: appalachianview via Deposit Photos

Established December 27, 2020

America’s newest national park, turning 3 this month, harbors one of the continent’s oldest rivers. Over many years, the park’s namesake river has carved rugged canyons through the beautiful West Virginia Mountains. Its white water rapids attract guests from across the globe to experience a legendary rafting excursion. The park has quickly earned a reputation as one of the country’s best east coast national parks.

Beyond rafting, New River Gorge National Park & Preserve offers hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and scenic driving. The park is famous for its Bridge Day celebration, where experienced guests either parachute jump or rappel from a bridge 876 feet above the canyon. At 3,030 feet, the overpass is the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

White Sands National Park

Mountains on the horizon in White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Established December 20, 2019

One of America’s youngest national parks, the White Sands National Park, turns 4 this December. The park, wedged between two mountain ranges in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, preserves over half of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. 

You may swear you see snow rather than sand with mountains on the horizon. To further confuse your brain, sand sledding is a favorite activity among guests. The park offers everything from a leisurely boardwalk stroll to an intense hike where you trudge up and down steep dunes of loose sand. Unlike most beach sands, gypsum does not absorb heat, leaving it cool to the touch.

Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve

Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Photo credit: NPS

Established December 2, 1980

One of Alaska’s eight national parks, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, turns 43 this month. The entire park is north of the Arctic Circle and is America’s northernmost national park. It likely will not surprise you that it was our second least-visited national park in 2022, with under 10,000 recreation visits.

Those who brave the elements to make the epic journey get rewarded with unforgettable views of snowy mountains, blue glaciers, and wild rivers winding through glacier-carved valleys. The region also boasts unique wildlife, including polar bears, moose, muskox, arctic foxes, and snowshoe hares.

Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Turquoise waters, mountains, and blue skies in Glacier Bay
Mountains and blue skies in Glacier Bay. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Established December 2, 1980

Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve covers over 3 million acres along the state’s Inside Passage and features dynamic glaciers, snow-capped mountains, temperate rainforests, and turquoise waters. The surreal park, part of a 25 million-acre World Heritage Site, turns 43 this year.

Most visitors see the park as part of an Alaskan cruise, where park rangers board the ship to provide a guided experience. Cruise passengers regularly spot unique wildlife, such as sea otters, humpback whales, sea lions, mountain goats, and bears. The ship provides a front-row seat to one of Earth’s greatest shows.

Katmai National Park & Preserve

Brown bears feeding on salmon at Katmai National Park
Katmai National Park and Preserve. Photo credit: NPS

Established December 2, 1980

Resting on the Alaska Peninsula near Kodiak Island, Katmai National Park & Preserve is famous for bear viewing and sport fishing. The park turns 43 this year and has nearly 4 million acres of pristine forests, mountains, tundra, and lakes. Although the park promises a unique experience, it is only accessible by plane or boat.

Katmai National Park & Preserve is teeming with salmon. Accordingly, more than 2,000 bears hang out to feed on salmon as they swim up the Brooks River. Visitors eagerly flock to the Brooks Camp viewing platforms to watch the bears catch salmon jumping from the water. 

Kenai Fjords National Park

most beautiful places in the world - Kenai Fjords
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. Photo credit: ArtTower

Established December 2, 1980

Kenai Fjords National Park appears to be something from the ice age, but it was established as a national park 43 years ago. It sits on the Kenai Peninsula near Seward in south-central Alaska. The park houses the Harding Icefield, nearly 40 glaciers, icy waters, lush forests, and coastal fjords.

Kenai Fjords National Park boasts a wide range of wildlife, including bald eagles, puffins, whales, bears, moose, and wolves. The park shines with its one-of-a-kind experiences, such as ice climbing, glacier hiking, flightseeing tours, kayaking in front of a glacier, and boat tours between its namesake fjords.

Kobuk Valley National Park

Kobuk Valley National Park
Kobuk Valley National Park. Photo credit: NPS

Established December 2, 1980

Kobuk Valley National Park, established 43 years ago, is about 25 miles above the Arctic Circle in northwestern Alaska. The park is a vast wonderland of untouched tundra, boreal forest, and dunes. Although dunes may seem out of place in an Arctic ecosystem, they are essential to the half-million caribou that migrate annually across the region.

Popular activities include backpacking excursions, fishing, and floating down the slow-moving Kobuk River in a collapsible canoe or kayak. Some visitors hope to catch a glimpse of the spectacular northern lights. The park is one of the most challenging to reach and typically requires multiple flights and a flexible schedule due to unpredictable weather and a lack of roads and services.

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Photo credit: NPS

Established December 2, 1980

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve comprises 4 million acres of varied landscapes about 100 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula. The park, turning 43 this year, welcomes guests to explore its alpine meadows, hot springs, soaring mountains, rushing streams, and crystal-clear lakes.

Popular activities include sport fishing, hiking, camping, kayaking, and brown bear viewing. Like Katmai National Park & Preserve, bears gather here to feed on the abundant salmon. It is also an excellent birding area due to the different landscapes and wide variety of trees.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve

Mountains in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Photo credit: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park/Bryan Petrtyl

Established December 2, 1980

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in southeastern Alaska is America’s largest national park. It may be challenging to comprehend, but Wrangell-St. Elias could hold six Yellowstone National Parks. The park, turning 43 this December, stretches over 13 million acres, showcasing mountains, volcanoes, glaciers, and historic sites.

Visitors are regularly mesmerized by the park’s size and scope. It houses nine of America’s sixteen highest mountains. Mount Wrangell is one of the country’s largest active volcanoes, while Mount St. Elias is America’s second-highest peak at 18,008 feet. Beyond the breathtaking scenery and wildlife, the region houses the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, commemorating the mines for producing copper ore worth millions of dollars.

Capitol Reef National Park

Cathedral Valley, Utah
Cathedral Vally in Capitol Reef National Park. Photo credit: muha04 via Deposit Photos

Established December 18, 1971

One of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef National Park, turns 52 this December. Although often overshadowed by some of the state’s more iconic destinations, Capitol Reef offers a unique and rewarding experience. 

Waterpocket Fold, the park’s highlight, is a nearly 100-mile-long buckle in the Earth’s crust. Guests are regularly fascinated by the area’s stunning landscapes, which include arches, slot canyons, and hoodoos. A stark contrast to the rugged, red terrain, the park also houses a verdant oasis comprising an orchard of nearly 2,000 fruit trees. Guests can pick fruit, including apples, peaches, pears, apricots, and plums, when it’s in season.

Petrified Forest National Park

Blue Mesa Trail in Petrified Forest National Park.
Blue Mesa Trail in Petrified Forest National Park. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Established December 9, 1962

Being a national park in Arizona is challenging when your name is not the Grand Canyon. Petrified Forest National Park turns 61 this year but continues to live in the Grand Canyon’s shadow. The overlooked park is easy to explore by driving the primary road, a 28-mile loop. 

Petrified Forest offers surreal scenery with colorful striated mounds reminiscent of South Dakota’s badlands. Visitors mainly come to see the stone logs scattered across vast prairies, the remnants of an ancient forest. The park also houses petroglyphs and a section of historic Route 66.

Everglades National Park

a large alligator is in the water with its mouth open
Alligator in Everglades National Park. Photo credit: Max Harlynking

Established December 6, 1947

Southern Florida’s Everglades National Park turns 76 this month. Many think of the Everglades as a swamp when, in reality, it is a slow-moving river of grass. The unique ecosystem harbors animals such as alligators and snakes that instill fear. Ironically, the park has many creatures that induce a sense of calm, like birds, turtles, and manatees.

Guests can explore the park by driving, hiking, biking, kayaking, and tram rides. One of the most thrilling adventures is zipping through the river of grass on an airboat tour. No matter how you explore the park, the zoo without barriers is a unique experience.

Shenandoah National Park

View from Stony Man along Skyline Drive
Enjoying the view from Stony Man in Shenandoah National Park. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Established December 26, 1935

Nestled in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park turns 88 this year. The park’s most famous attraction, Skyline Drive, spans its length, providing 75 scenic overlooks along its 105 miles. Visitors regularly enjoy breathtaking views of forested mountains and valleys by driving leisurely. 

Shenandoah National Park offers excellent hiking for those who prefer to explore on foot. You will discover more than 500 miles of trails covering all ability levels. The scenery includes forested paths, waterfalls, and majestic mountains. Whether you drive or hike, deer and squirrel sightings are common. Visitors occasionally spot black bears as well.

Celebrate Our National Parks in December

Deer often blend in with the environment in Shenandoah National Park
Deer in Shenandoah National Park. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Thirteen national parks have a birthday in December. Let’s honor these beautiful parks, young and old. Consider planning your next vacation to one of these unforgettable destinations.

Featured image credit: sunsinger via Deposit Photos

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Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey

Scott And Julie McConkey

After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!
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