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Background Info

What do these places have in common: George Washington’s Virginia birthplace; the fossil beds of the South Dakota Badlands; the geyser Old Faithful; Alaska’s Kenai fjords; the site of the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York; and a history of New Orleans jazz? All of them are—or are located in—one of the hundreds of parks managed by the United States National Park Service. When people think of national parks, they may think of places with beautiful vistas or impressive landforms. As you can see from the gallery images, geographic features of national parks include canyons, glaciers, islands, lakes, mountains, and volcanoes. But the image of the Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde demonstrates the greater variety of the parks and their purpose.

The United States National Park System is a treasure of nearly 400 precious places, including 58 national parks and many other protected areas such as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan in Indiana or Boston National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Some have been preserved for their natural beauty, some for their unique ecosystems, some for their archaeological value, and others because of historic significance. Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. Yosemite and Rock Creek Park soon followed, as did the creation of military parks at the Civil War battlefields of Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Gettysburg. President Roosevelt signed an act in 1906 that allowed presidents to establish national monuments without having to pass legislation in Congress. Devils Tower in Wyoming became the first that same year. In 1916 the government established the National Park Service to conserve and protect the parks. In 2009, more than 285 million people visited national parks to experience nature’s beauty and learn about our nation’s history. Camping, hiking, boating, skiing, swimming, and watching wildlife are just some of the many recreational activities the parks offer.

Satellite images in the gallery are courtesy of GeoEye Foundation.

Fast Facts

  • One of the deepest caves in the United States drops to nearly 1,600 feet below the surface at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The longest cave system in the world is in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
  • The life and works of great American writers, artists, activists, and inventors are preserved in national parks honoring Clara Barton, Linda Brown, Thomas Edison, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Eugene ONeill, Edgar Allen Poe, and Wilbur and Orville Wright, among others.
  • The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is commemorated at Manzanar National Historic Site in California.
  • Thanks to efforts of the National Park Service and many volunteers, endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles have a protected nesting beach: Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. After the turtles lay their eggs, Park Service employees dig them up and care for them in a lab where they are safe from people and predators. The hatchlings are returned to the beach where they make their way into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • The most visited stretch of parkland is the Blue Ridge Parkway. This scenic highway runs for 469 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.


Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

active volcano


volcano that may erupt or has erupted regularly over time.

archaeological site


place where evidence of the past is being studied by scientists.



a group of closely scattered islands in a large body of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: archipelago



large depression resulting from the collapse of the center of a volcano.

Encyclopedic Entry: caldera



deep, narrow valley with steep sides.

Encyclopedic Entry: canyon

Carlsbad Caverns


network of caves in the U.S. state of New Mexico.

Cascade Range


mountains extending along the northwest coast of North America.



underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.



large cave.

coral reef


rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.



a place to live.



act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

Encyclopedic Entry: erosion

Florida Keys


chain of small islands off the southern coast of the U.S. state of Florida.



natural hot spring that sometimes erupts with water or steam.

Encyclopedic Entry: geyser



mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

Encyclopedic Entry: glacier

Grand Canyon


large gorge made by the Colorado River in the U.S. state of Arizona.

hot spring


small flow of water flowing naturally from an underground water source heated by hot or molten rock.






small, low island on a coral reef, also known as a cay.

Encyclopedic Entry: key



body of water surrounded by land.

national monument


federal land set aside to protect objects of scientific and historical interest.

national park


geographic area protected by the national government of a country.



the very top.



large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.

Encyclopedic Entry: plateau



division of a country larger than a town or county.

Encyclopedic Entry: province



elevation of the Earth's surface due to tectonic or other natural activity.



an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

Yellowstone National Park


large national park in the U.S. states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.


Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.


Rhonda Lucas Donald


Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society


Sean P. O'Connor, National Geographic Society

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