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homespun webRISMEDIA, September 11, 2009—(MCT)-In August 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating the National Park Service. Since then, 391 destinations have been designated as national parks, monuments, seashores, battlefields and other recreational and cultural sites under the control of the National Park Service. Here we focus on the largest, smallest, oldest, newest and least- and most-visited of the system’s 58 national parks.

The Oldest: Yellowstone National Park

Established in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone is the oldest in the National Park System and is located in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. From Old Faithful to the Mammoth Hot Springs, geysers and waterfalls, the natural beauty of the park envelops visitors from the first glance. Native bison, elk, wolves and other wildlife wander freely in abundance throughout the park.

The Newest: Great Sand Dunes National Park

With a promotion from a national monument to a national park in 2004, Great Sand Dunes National Park near Mosca, Colo., became the newest park in the system. Spectacular dunes hundreds of feet tall contrast with the surrounding peaks of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains and prairie land. In the spring and early summer, beachlike qualities are found alongside the creeks and rivers that dry up in the summer months. This park welcomes pets and has a special wheelchair available for exploring the dunes. Show up early in the morning to avoid afternoon winds.

The Biggest: Wrangel-St. Elias National Park

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, near Copper Center in Alaska, is the largest national park at 13.2 million acres. Named after the two mountain ranges located within its borders, Wrangell-St. Elias holds nine of the 16 highest mountains in the United States. From fjords to glaciers, rocky slopes and hiking trails, the park has a little bit for everyone. Explore the Kennecott Copper Mine, the Nugget Creek Trail and Chitistone Canyon.

The Smallest: Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is the smallest park at 5,500 acres. Forty-seven thermal springs are intertwined among the scenery and hiking trails. The hot springs were the first federally protected area in the nation’s history. President Thomas Jefferson sent an expedition here in 1804 to study the health benefits of the spas. Bathhouse Row is where many of the historic bathhouses from the early 20th century are located. An observation tower allows visitors to see the entire scenic valley and the Ouachita Mountains that surround the park.

The Busiest: Great Smoky Mountain National Park

The 500,000 acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park welcomes more visitors a year than any other park. Covering parts of Tennessee and North Carolina, the park is a recreation wonderland — if you can get away from the crush of cars, campers and RVs. Fishing, hiking, picnicking, cycling, swimming, camping and scenic drives are just a few of the endless activities available to visitors. An International Biosphere Reserve, the park is home to more than 4,000 species of plants. In the fall, the leaves change color in magical fashion.

The Loneliest: Kobuk Valley National Park

Located entirely north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Kobuk Valley National Park is the least visited park. Only 1,565 visitors made the remote trek in 2008 to this undeveloped wilderness. Within the park’s 1.14 million acres, visitors experience an inland desert, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, Kobuk River and the Onion Portage. The Onion Portage is of special interest as human existence dates back 12,500 years in the region and local Eskimos still hunt caribou that migrate in the region.

The Hottest: Death Valley National Park

On July 10, 1913, at what is now Furnance Creek Ranch, the thermometer topped out at just about 134 degrees Fahrenheit — the highest temperature ever recorded in the United States. Death Valley isn’t just hot, but dry. In 1929, not a single drop of rain was recorded for the entire year. A national monument since 1933 and national park since 1994, it’s a cool place to visit in the winter. But hard-core visitors love the summers. The extreme landscape is home to Scotty’s Castle, Furnace Creek and old ghost towns. In the spring, wildflowers grow in abundance among the vibrant desert landscape. From the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere of Badwater at 282 feet below sea level to the top of nearby Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet, the word extreme describes this park perfectly.

(c) 2009, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.