Here are twenty of the best National Parks, large and small – see for yourself why they’re North America’s “best idea”, for all to enjoy.
In the heart of Yosemite Valley you’ll spy more natural wonders in a minute than you will anywhere else in an entire day. California’s Yosemite sparkles as a crown jewel of the national parks, showcasing not just glacier-carved beauty but a panoply of superlatives: North America’s highest waterfall (Yosemite Falls); the world’s tallest uninterrupted granite monolith (El Capitan) and mountains that Ralph Waldo Emerson dubbed “unmatched on the globe.” It’s all that and more. Tioga Pass Road takes you into Yosemite’s high country, including Tuolumne Meadows and its fabulous hiking trails (try the short climb to the top of Pothole Dome). Glacier Point Road leads to perhaps the most spectacular vista in any national park, looking down on Yosemite Valley from 3,200 ft. Wawona, near the southern entrance, provides a starter for the famous Mariposa Grove of sky-scraping sequoias. There’s hiking, rafting, fishing, big-wall rock climbing, camping and simply lounging at the Ahwahnee Hotel, a valley-floor mainstay since 1927. Conservationist John Muir wrote about Yosemite c. 1902: “Everyone needs beauty … places to play and pray in, where Nature may … give strength to body and soul alike.” Indeed.
Top spot: Avoid Glacier Point’s crowds, but enjoy a similar view, from Sentinel Dome, an easy one-mile hike from the valley floor.
Every morning, in the predawn darkness, a crowd gathers on Cadillac Mountain, part of Mount Desert Island along the Atlantic seaboard, peering expectantly to the east. As soon as the sun peeks over the horizon they cheer — the first in the country to see the sun’s rays. And thus begins a brand-new day at Maine’s Acadia National Park. Indeed, from its ragged shoreline and sheltered coves, to offshore rocky isles, to the serrated mountains of Mount Desert lording over swaths of pines and marshy meadows, there is much to applaud at this nearly 50,000-acre park. Twenty-mile Park Loop Road is the best way to take it all in, teetering high above the sea with spacious coastal views before careening inland through mountainous forest and meadow-carpeted valleys. Be sure to hike or bike along the park’s 57 miles of serene carriage roads — built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr, an early park proponent, to showcase the best Mount Desert vistas. Then back by the sea, take a boat cruise or, better yet, rent a kayak, to see seals sunning themselves on rocks and, if you’re lucky, whales.
Top spot: The Precipice Trail takes you up Champlain Mountain’s sheer cliff face, with rungs and ladders to grab onto. At the top are breathtaking top-of-the-mountain views of the sparkling Atlantic and Frenchman Bay.
Channel Islands, California
Though Channel Islands lies just 11 miles off the southern California coast, less than an hour away by boat, few people actually venture to this undeveloped, eight-island chain (five comprise the national park). What they’re missing: a sublime throwback to California of yore, where craggy arches, spindly spires and grassy hills jut up from the Pacific, without a car or mobile phone in sight. What makes Channel Islands even more special are its plants and animals – more than 150 endemic or unique species have earned it the nickname “North American Galapagos.” This is the only place in the world you’ll see, for example, island fox, island deer mouse and yellow-blooming coreopsis clinging to exposed cliffs. Just as amazing is the life in the surrounding waters: More than 30 species of sea animals – sea lions, elephant seals, whales – cavort about. Of special note: The largest aggregation of blue whales in the world convenes here every summer. So you can imagine the silver platter of outdoorsy activities available – kayaking through sea caves, camping on lonely bluffs, hiking to a pinniped rookery, diving to explore giant kelp beds. The list goes on and on.
Top spot: San Miguel Island’s Point Bennett is extra special for the 50,000 northern elephant seals and 70,000 California sea lions that hang out there.
One second you’re driving along a two-lane road just two hours south of San Francisco, enjoying pretty, chaparral-carpeted hills. The next, out of nowhere, looms the sky-high castle of jagged, red-rock spikes and monoliths belonging to America’s newest national park. Upgraded from national monument to national park in 2013 due in part to its important condor recovery program, Pinnacles is little trekked and little known – one of the best reasons to visit. Its postage-stamp size, just 26,606 acres preserving ancient volcanic remnants, makes it manageable in a day. Strike out on more than 30 miles of trails ranging from easy to arduous, through fairyland forests and green valleys, past serrated spires and precariously balanced boulders, and into pitch-black, bat-inhabited talus caves (take a headlamp). Tackle its hundreds of crowd-free rock-climbing routes. And always keep an eye out for condors, those prehistoric-looking raptors with wingspans reaching up to 10 ft; their favorite haunts include High Peaks in the early morning or early evening, or along the ridge just southeast of the campground.
Top spot: Explore the park’s eponymous rock spires, best admired along the High Peaks Trail. It’s at its most beautiful March into May, when fields of California poppies, purple bush lupine, and 50-odd other species of wildflowers burst into bloom.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Nearly everyone has seen photographs of Arizona’s famous gorge, measuring a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide. But nothing prepares you for its vastness, or intense beauty, as you stand on its edge, peering far, far down to the Colorado River. That snake of a river is responsible for carving the canyon’s many layers, the different colors hinting at their age; the oldest, the pink-and-white-veined granite along the bottom, dates back 1.8 billion years. Grand Canyon ranks as the second most visited national park, with some five million people every year, mostly along the South Rim. Avoid them by hiking down one of the park’s many trails on foot or by mule — even a mile or two will give you a new perspective. The flat, paved Rim Trail is the easiest, while the classic 9.3-mile Bright Angel Trail is more strenuous but worth every step (remember it’s all uphill on the way back). Or focus on the pine-forested North Rim, which receives 10 per cent of park visitors. You can also hop on a raft and admire the canyon from the bottom up; sleeping along the riverbank under the dark, starry sky will be an experience you never forget.
Top spot: Yavapai Point, near the South Rim visitor area, offers a stunning, unobstructed, up-and-down panorama of the inner canyon, Bright Angel Canyon, and Colorado River with very little effort.
Grand Canyon: Trip of a Lifetime
Only one road accesses six-million-acre Denali, a single, mostly unpaved, 92-mile strip that opens up dramatic views of the subarctic wilderness — and perhaps offers the best chance to experience wildlife of any national park. No cars are allowed beyond Mile 15; everyone must jump aboard a shuttle bus. This is a good thing, given the road’s precipitous, winding nature (and the temptation to keep peering at the ever-more-dramatic landscape). A constant companion on the southern horizon are the massive, snowcapped peaks of the Alaska Range, topped by the surreal, 20,320-ft Denali (aka Mount McKinley), North America’s tallest mountain. Along the way, keep an eye out for sightings of the park’s “big five,” Alaska style: moose, caribou, sheep, wolf and cinnamon-color Toklat grizzlies. At the end of the road awaits loon-inhabited Wonder Lake, with stunning reflections of Denali on clear-sky days. If an all-day road trip isn’t for you, there are other ways to explore the park: hoisting a backpack for some of the best backcountry hiking anywhere; white-water rafting on the Nenana River; flightseeing around Denali itself; and, for the truly ambitious, climbing Denali’s icy slopes.
Top spot: Stony Hill Overlook, at Mile 61.95 on Denali Park Road, offers supreme photo ops of Denali from majestic base to peak, weather-permitting. Stony Hill is also the spot to see the nearby Toklat wolf pack; during migration periods, some 2,000 caribou pass through here as well.
Kenai Fjords, Alaska
From the massive Harding Icefield, huge glaciers grind their way slowly but surely to the sea, leaving behind jagged headlands, rocky peninsulas and rough-hewn fjords. Hence is born the wild setting of Alaska’s smallest national park. The best way to explore this icy wonderland is aboard a boat (or kayak) on Resurrection Bay. From your front-row seat you’ll be dazzled by smoky fjords, remote outlying islands and the chance to view blue tidewater glaciers up-close. At calving Aialik Glacier, watch huge chunks of ice plummeting into the sea. Perhaps even more bedazzling is the abundance of sealife: humpback whales, orcas, harbor seals, sea otters and Steller sea lions, to name a few local denizens. Bald eagles float along towering cliffs, and seabirds (including cute puffins) congregate by the thousands. With more time, seek out Northwestern Lagoon, quiet and serene, ideal for camping in solitary splendor. For landlubbers, the Harding Icefield Trail is a sublime walk from the face of Exit Glacier to Harding Icefield, with the chance to spot black bear along the way.
Top spot: Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, accessible only via four-hour boat ride, sits on Pedersen Lagoon in the heart of the national park, offering guided hikes, canoeing and relaxing on the porch.
Hawai’i Volcanoes, Hawaii
Watch land being born before your very eyes at Hawai`i Volcanoes, one of the world’s most volcanically active spots. Comprising two active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, the park stretches from the palm-fringed coastline south of Hilo to Mauna Loa’s steaming, 13,677-ft summit. Get a volcanic primer along Crater Rim Drive, which circles the oft-billowing Kīlauea caldera, passing by sulphur banks, eerie lava tubes and the very active Halema’uma’u crater, the legendary home of Pele, not the footballer, but the Hawaiian goddess of fire. The famous surface lava flows about 12 miles east, at the end of Chain of Craters Road. The park provides daily updates of where the lava is flowing — in this capricious landscape it may be a mile from the road, several miles over dicey terrain … or unreachable. At the very least, you can hear the scraping, dragging flow of the brittle, glassy lava as it makes its way to the sea; in this way, more than 500 acres of new land have been added to the Big Island since Kīlauea’s latest eruption began in 1983.
Top spot: The park isn’t all lavascape. The Kīlauea Iki Trail winds through lush native, bird-rich rain forest before descending into the still-steaming Kīlauea Iki crater.
Triply blessed with spellbinding ecosystems, Olympic amazes with an abundance of pristine beauty. Much of the park’s landscape, whether it’s mountain, rainforest, or coastline, remains as it has for hundreds of years. Above all rises Mount Olympus, named by a British fur trader who, upon viewing the mountain at sunset in 1788, thought it could be nothing else but the dwelling place of the gods. In this innermost realm, snowcapped mountains tower more than 7,000 ft, punctuated with 11 major rivers, waterfalls, flower-laden meadows and trout-filled lakes. Then you have the damp, dripping rain forests, both Hoh and Quinault – among the nation’s finest remaining examples of temperate rain forest, thriving with more than 12 feet of rainfall a year. This mossy, ferny realm, showcasing soaring old-growth trees more than 20 stories high (some 500 years old) is so dark and wet it appears under water. Keep an eye out for the Gatton Goliath, a 295-ft Douglas-fir, as well as the resident Roosevelt elk. And then you have the Pacific coastline — 73 miles of wild, wave-battered, driftwood-strewn beaches, domain of sea lions and seals. Peek into tide pools, stroll past offshore sea stacks and watch for bald eagles and Western gulls.
Top spot: Glorious views from 5,200-ft Hurricane Ridge take in the Olympics and Strait Juan de Fuca. Among the numerous trailheads here, Hurricane Hill wanders beside alpine meadows overlooking views, views, views. Watch out for rambunctious mountain goats.
Standing guard over the Sonoran Desert with uplifted arms, the saguaro cactus has been dubbed the desert monarch. With reason. Some may reach over 50 feet tall and last up to 200 years – the biggest may have 40 twisting arms. Beloved symbol of the Old West, this prickly giant is the linchpin of Saguaro National Park, which comprises two units straddling Tucson, Arizona. You’ll find the largest concentration in the park’s hotter, drier Tucson Mountain District unit, to the west of Tucson. In the Rincon Mountain District, 30 miles east, the higher, slightly wetter “high desert” environment, you may also spot white-tailed deer, javelinas, Mexican spotted owl, black bears, and, if you’re lucky, the elusive kudamundi. While the saguaro get most of the limelight, you’ll see plenty of other cactus too, including staghorn, barrel, fishhook, prickly pear and teddy bear. If you can, visit during the summer wildflower display – Mexican gold poppies kick off the show, followed by penstemons, lupines, desert marigolds and brittlebushes. The saguaros bloom late May through to June — beautiful white flowers that open at night and last for merely 24 hours.
Top spot: Drive through thick forests of saguaro along the scenic, six-mile Bajada Loop Drive, in the park’s western unit. Among several hiking trails, one leads to ancient petroglyphs.
You may be familiar with Utah’s Arches already, without having been there, as this striking park, with its 2,000-plus sandstone arches, has served as a backdrop to countless Hollywood flicks, including Indiana Jones, and Thelma & Louise and many of those starring John Wayne. Nowhere in the world will you find such a large array of natural arches, patiently whittled over the eons by water and wind. The pièce de résistance, proudly displayed on Utah license plates, is Delicate Arch — with iconic redrock that’s at its most sublime at sunset. All that said, there are more than arches here: thin fins, towers, bridges, balanced rocks, and spindly needles add to the otherworldly, high-desert sculpture garden, all with whimsical names that somehow perfectly describe them: Courthouse Towers, Parade of Elephants, and Balanced Rock are some of the favorites. Hikers wander around this stone fantasyland on short and long trails, while rock climbers rejoice in the surrounds.
Top spot: Park Avenue is a one-mile trail through a line of giant rock monoliths, looking every bit like a stony version of its New York City namesake.
In a state blessed with a profusion of national parks, Utah’s Zion — the state’s first national park and its most popular — overextends itself with orangey-red rock walls, slickrock peaks, slot canyons and hanging valleys towering more than 2,000 feet above the centerpiece Zion Canyon. This is a park to see from the bottom up, and with your pick of different trails winding up from the valley floor, this is easy to do. Songs could be sung about 5,785-ft Angels Landing, reached via a steep, arduous trail with scary drop-offs — the reward: a breathtaking aerial view up and down the sandstone canyon as if you’re flying high above. For the less adventurous, there are plenty of other choices, including the short trek to a trio of Emerald Pools, and Weeping Rock, with water seeping from the cliff like tears. Or hop in the car and drive scenic Highway 9 along the Virgin River and into the Checkerboard Mesa area, with its cracked sandstone grid. It goes without saying, with all of this rock, Zion is beloved for its big-wall climbs as well as spectacular canyoneering routes; just be sure you know what you’re doing.
Top spot: If you arrive at Canyon Overlook just as the sun begins to set, the whole canyon glows with effervescent light; it’s a short, moderate hike to the overlook.
Given its name, you’d expect glaciers at Glacier — the Montana portion of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park that straddles the USA-Canada border. But there’s so much more: tiptop peaks rising abruptly from the plains, 762 turquoise alpine lakes, plunging waterfalls, a dazzling spring wildflower display — not to mention, mountain goats and grizzly bears. The world-famous, white-knuckle Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only road that penetrates deep into the park, provides 52 miles of peak-and-valley views as it teeters atop the Continental Divide, each vista more impressive than the last. Bikes are allowed in mornings and evenings. Or leave the driving to someone else and hop aboard one of the famous roll-top tour buses known as “red jammers,” dating from the 1930s. Historic wooden boats ply the park’s sapphire lake waters (guided hikes optional). And then there are the glaciers — 25 remaining active ones, including the relatively accessible Grinnell and Sperry. Some believe that Glacier’s glaciers may dwindle to a mere trickle by 2020 — consider yourself warned.
Top spot: Experience the park the way earlier visitors did, at Swiss-themed Many Glacier Hotel, with its broad verandas overlooking peak-encircled Swiftcurrent Lake; the hike to Grinnell Glacier begins near here.
Theodore Roosevelt’s beloved Badlands celebrate everything the great conservationist and 26th President loved about the Wild West: spectacularly corrugated cliffs, eroded buttes, steep gullies, craggy ravines and dome-shaped hills, striped with layers of rock and sediment in magnificent shades of purple, yellow, red and orange. Indeed, in this isolated corner of North Dakota a young, spectacled Teddy showed up in 1883 to hunt bison, kicking off a love affair with the land that would influence his conservation policy as president — and that of the nation forever. In this seemingly empty, isolated landscape you’ll spot a surprising array of wildlife, most of which Roosevelt knew (and hunted), including bison, elk, deer, antelope, wild horses and the quintessentially cute prairie dogs. What he may not have known is that Badlands preserves the world’s greatest fossil beds of animals from the Oligocene Epoch of the Age of Mammals; remember that if you spy the skeleton of an ancient camel, three-toed horse, or sabre-toothed cat, leave it where you found it. One of the best ways to experience this special place is as Roosevelt did — on horseback. The 96-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail connects the north and south units of the park, with four designated campsites.
Top spot: Castle Trail provides the perfect perspective from which to enjoy the dramatically changing colors of the Badlands wall as the sun creeps across the sky.
A vast volcanic playground in northwest Wyoming, Yellowstone flaunts the world’s most amazing concentration of thermal features — more than 10,000 — including mud pots, hot springs, fumaroles and, of course, geysers. Iconic Old Faithful is the most famous landmark, a cone geyser that’s actually not so faithful; it spouts every 35 to 120 minutes. But there’s more than volcanic wonder here — which is probably why in 1872 Yellowstone became the first national park, not just in the United States but in the world. The magnificent V-shaped Canyon of the Yellowstone; the grandiose peaks of the Rockies; Yellowstone Lake, North America’s highest altitude lake; and vast forests, including one of the world’s largest petrified forests, all add up to its singular majesty. And then there’s the wildlife. Nicknamed the American Serengeti, Yellowstone has the largest concentration of mammals in the continental USA, with excellent chances to see them all: grizzly and black bears, mule deer, moose, elk, bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn, to name some of the 67 species. The most abundant number of grey wolves in the Lower 48 (400 to 450), introduced in 1994–1996 after being extirpated by the 1920s, are also found here; look for them in Lamar Valley.
Top spot: Artist Point on the Grand Canyon’s south rim commands a 700-ft vista down the Yellowstone River. Between 9.45 and 10 am every day, with the right amount of sun, the bottom of the falls becomes a luminous spray that transforms into a shimmery rainbow.
Yellowstone travel guide
You must truly desire solitude to strike out for Isle Royale, a remote archipelago consisting of one narrow, 45-mile-long island and more than 450 smaller isles in Lake Superior. The park gets fewer visitors in a year (18,000) than Yellowstone sees in a day (26,000-plus). First off, the only way to get here is by boat or seaplane (ferries leave from mainland ports in Michigan and Minnesota, 56 miles and 15 miles respectively). There are no roads — even bicycles aren’t allowed. There’s one place to stay —Rock Harbor Lodge. Other than that, you’re on your own, with backpack and camping gear, obliged to pack in what you need and carry out your refuse. The rewards are supreme isolation in an untamed wilderness of jagged peaks and surf-crashed shoreline. Trails winding beneath the moss-draped spruce and fir of classic boreal forest, a haven for moose and wolves. Quiet bays and inland lakes luring kayakers and anglers alike. And, in a unique twist, Isle Royale is a top draw for scuba divers. The lake bottom is littered with ships that have fallen prey to Superior’s treacherous waters, and the lake’s clarity makes them easy to explore.
Top spot: Tobin Harbor’s calm waters and scalloped shoreline is the spot for canoeists, kayakers, and nesting loons.
Just 1.5 hours north of Denver, Rocky Mountain showcases 72 named peaks higher than 12,000 dizzying feet. No wonder they call it the “roof of the world.” Indeed, nowhere else in the United States can you access such gorgeous alpine scenery with such ease. Wildlife watching is primo as well — keep your eyes out for moose, bighorn sheep, and elk (famed for their fall rutting, when the valleys fill with their bugling cry). You probably won’t see black bear, mountain lions, or bobcats, but they’re around as well. An absolute must is a drive along 48-mile Trail Ridge Road, a twisty, winding, vertiginous route across the Continental Divide. Along the way you’ll peer out on stream-crossed valleys, forests of spruce and fir, and majestic, snowcapped peaks. The high point is an exalted 12,183 ft, deep in the heart of the alpine tundra, where tiny wildflowers, including alpine forget-me-nots, bloom tenaciously in late June or early July. Driving is fine, but to really appreciate this gorgeous scenery, get out on some of the park’s 355 miles of hiking trails, be it an easy lakeside stroll or the arduous slog up Longs Peak.
Top spot: Catch sunrise at Dream Lake; even better, snowshoe here in winter and admire the ice formations amid blessed quietude.
Rocky Mountain travel guide
To date, more than 365 miles of passages have been charted in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, a five-level labyrinth hidden beneath the state’s rumbled hills and hollows — and the end has yet to be found. With its concert-hall-size chambers jam-packed with lofty stone columns, snaggle-toothed icicles, shimmering draperies, frozen waterfalls and crystal-clear pools, it’s no wonder that Jules Verne, upon visiting in the 1800s, was inspired to write A Journey to the Center of the Earth. This subterranean fantasyland can’t help but to awe with its geological triumphs, but here too you’ll touch on the American story. Woodland Indians used mussel shells more than 5,000 years ago to shave gypsum off its walls; 19th-century slaves processed saltpeter; outlaws hid out; foreign visitors prioritised it in their USA Grand Tour. And if that’s not enough, you have the entire aboveground aspect of the park to explore as well: Trails wander beneath oaks and hickories, the languid Green River flows past cliffs and valleys. Seek out River Styx Spring Trail, where water spouts from the cave and enters the Green River — a surprisingly subtle hint at what lies beneath.
Top spot: The largest known room in Mammoth is Chief City, topping out at an enormous two acres. See it on the themed Historic Tour.
Great Smoky Mountains
It’s true that Great Smoky Mountains is the nation’s number one visited national park — in part because of the busy scenic highway that cuts through its middle, offering bumper-to-bumper views in summer as people drive straight through. That said, with 521,896 wild acres beckoning from beyond, there’s no excuse to get stuck in traffic. Instead, follow a quiet byway — there’s 584 miles of them — to one of the park’s many hidden corners. Perhaps an overview taking in undulating misty-blue ridges, a hiking trail wandering beneath one of the world’s finest examples of deciduous forest (simply shimmering in autumn), or any number of wooded coves or burbling streams. Chances are you’ll be the only one around. While the venerated mountain scenery is the blue-chip draw, the wildflower parade is nothing short of stupendous: More than 1600 species of flowering plants, more than any other North American national park, begins with trillium and lady’s slipper orchid in early spring and ends in fall with goldenrod, wide-leafed sunflower, and coneflower. And, if you think you’ve seen it all, seek out the synchronous fireflies in June, the only species in America that blinks in synchrony in an age-old mating ritual (reservations mandatory).
Top spot: The tower atop Clingsmans Dome is the park’s highest point: 6,643 ft. From here, the jaw-dropping mountain panorama takes in no less than seven states.
At first glance, Florida’s Everglades does not impress. Its centerpiece is a miles-wide river at most just a few inches deep that creeps through expansive green-brown sawgrass from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. That’s not the grandeur one might expect from a national park. But take a closer look and you’ll discover that this seemingly nondescript, low-lying, subtropical land, actually comprising several different ecosystems (sawgrass prairie, junglelike hammock and mangrove swamp), is not quite so lacklustre. Here an alligator soaks in the sun, there a roseate spoonbill spans its pink wings and takes off in elegant flight. West Indian manatees frolic in a saltwater bay, and an endangered panther stalks beneath live oaks. Indeed, these million-plus acres of wetlands harbour 200 types of fish, 350 species of birds, 120 different kinds of trees and more than 1,000 kinds of plants — and that’s just for starters. Everglades was founded in 1947 to preserve this unique jumble of ecosystems, the first national park established for the sake of flora and fauna rather than geologic scenery. Drive the main 38-mile road through the park’s heart for a primer, making sure to stop along the way to hike the various trails.
Top spots: You’re virtually guaranteed to see alligators along the Anhinga Trail, along with tri-colored herons, turtles and much more. Along the nearby Gumbo Limbo Trail watch for the unusual eponymous tree; it’s also called the Tourist Tree for its peeling red bark.
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