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ALT: Close-up on bison head (Shutterstock)
The creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 sparked a great American conservation movement and tradition. The American buffalo, or bison, almost decimated in the 19th century, found a home at Yellowstone. Since then, the U.S. national park system has expanded to include everything from coral reefs and alpine peaks to salt flats and rainforests. Today, the U.S. National Park Service looks after 398 national parks — and their wildlife — so that every visitor can enjoy the United States' rich natural heritage.
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Alt: Rocky shoreline with lighthouse (Doug Lemke)
Credit: Doug Lemke
Acadia National Park, Maine
Located along Maine’s coast, Acadia National Park comprises terrains ranging from oceans and mountains to lakes and forests. The first national park east of the Mississippi River, Acadia also boasts Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast. This varied landscape hosts an array of wildlife including 11 amphibian, 338 bird, 28 fish and 40 mammal species. Once on the brink of extinction, the peregrine falcon now flourishes here after its reintroduction by park staff in 1984.
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Alt: Grassland and rocky promontory (Geoffrey Kuchera)
Credit: Geoffrey Kuchera
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Situated in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park contains 98,743 hectares of eroded buttes and mixed-grass prairie. The park also has one of the world’s richest fossil beds, including the remains of such ancient animals as the saber-toothed tiger. Today, Badlands is home to a different cast of characters: six amphibian, nine reptile, 206 bird, 69 butterfly and 39 mammal species live here. The American bison — the park’s most beloved species — inspired President Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation efforts.
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Alt: Sand dunes and mountains (Doug Lemke)
Credit: Doug Lemke
Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada
Straddling the border of California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park boasts smooth sand dunes, etched canyons, colorful badlands and snow-covered peaks. The park contains North America’s driest and lowest spot, which also happens to be the world’s hottest. Despite these extremes — and its name — Death Valley features a variety of wildlife including three amphibian, 36 reptile, five fish, 307 bird and 51 mammal species. The highly adaptable coyote, for example, can be found throughout the park from mountain top to mesquite thicket.
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Alt: Wildflowers, forest and mountain (Ami Parikh)
Credit: Ami Parikh
Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
In the heart of Alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve protects more than 2.4 million hectares of pristine wilderness. Ranging from boreal forests to alpine tundra to soaring mountain peaks, the park’s landscape is an extravaganza, but its wildlife is the main attraction. Established to protect mammals, Denali supports one amphibian, 14 fish, 169 bird and 39 mammal species. Many visitors plan trips just to see Denali’s “big five” animals: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolf and grizzly bear.
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Alt: Sun shining through pines onto water (Nagel Photography)
Credit: Nagel Photography
Everglades National Park, Florida
Nestled in Florida’s southern tip, Everglades National Park consists of more than 607,000 hectares of whimsical landscapes, flora and fauna. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, Everglades represents the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Its gossamer swamps and enchanted forests shelter 17 amphibian, 50 reptile, 300 fish, 350 bird and 40 mammal species — including 15 federally threatened and endangered species such as sea turtles, West Indian manatees and American crocodiles.
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Alt: Sun setting over forested mountains (Dave Allen Photography)
Credit: Dave Allen Photography
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
Sprawling across the Tennessee and North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains some of the world’s oldest mountains. Unique for their northeast to southwest orientation, these mountains offer a range of altitudes supporting an array of plants and animals. More than 17,000 species have been documented — though scientists suspect some 80,000 more could live here. The tree-cloaked mountains harbor 43 amphibian, 39 reptile, 50 fish, 200 bird and 66 mammal species, including the well-known black bear.
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Alt: Sun rising at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park (Galyna Andrushko)
Credit: Galyna Andrushko
Olympic National Park, Washington
Seated along Washington’s Pacific coast, Olympic National Park bills itself as “three parks in one.” That is because visitors can experience snow-capped mountains, temperate rain forests and ocean tide pools in one day. The park’s 373,000 hectares of diverse terrain allow for an impressive array of wildlife including 37 fish, 300 bird, 64 land mammal and 29 marine mammal species. Whales, dolphins and sea lions feed offshore while black bears and Roosevelt elk dine on land.
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Alt: Wildflowers and rocky promontory (John A. Anderson)
Credit: John A. Anderson
Zion National Park, Utah
Tucked in Utah’s southwestern corner, Zion National Park features sandstone canyons, Technicolor cliffs and the Virgin River. A convergence point for the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin and Mojave Desert, the park provides a plethora of living environments. Its 60,000 hectares of area house seven amphibian, 29 reptile, nine fish, 207 bird and 67 mammal species, including the endangered California condor, the threatened Mexican spotted owl and the elusive ring-tailed cat.