The National parks have been called “America’s Best Idea,” and with good reason. Each year, millions of visitors travel from around the world to experience the natural wonders that are contained inside the parks, including amazing wildlife and some of the best, most unspoiled, wilderness on the planet. In all, there are 58 national parks in the U.S. park system, each with its own unique character and charms. They all hold a certain allure to the adventurous traveler, offering an opportunity to connect with nature in a way that few other places can match. With that in mind, and with the busy summer travel season just around the corner, here are five fantastic national parks that should be on everyone’s list of “must see” places.
The world’s first national park is still one of its best. Established in 1872, Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres of pristine wilderness spread out across the stunning landscapes of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The region is punctuated by snow-capped mountains, dense forests, and crystal clear streams, and with more than 1,100 miles of hiking trails inside the park, visitors will find plenty of ways to explore the amazing backcountry.
One of the best reasons to visit Yellowstone is for the wildlife. The park boasts the most diverse collection of animal species in the lower 48 states, which has earned the Lamar Valley region a reputation as “North America’s Serengeti.” You’ll find plenty of elk, sheep, and buffalo roaming the park freely, and sharp-eyed visitors will even spot wolves and bear as well.
Yellowstone’s many geothermal features, including its numerous geysers, fumaroles, and mud pots, make it a popular destination as well. The most famous of those attractions is Old Faithful, of course, a geyser that earned its name thanks to the regularity of its eruptions. But there are more than 300 other geysers sprinkled throughout the region, making Yellowstone the best place in the world to see so many geological wonders on display. You may feel a bit like a common tourist while waiting for Old Faithful to go off, but when it does, you’ll be glad you hung around to experience it.
Yellowstone Tip: Want to spot wolves while you’re in the park? Keep an eye out for the yellow Nissan Xterra driven by Park Ranger Rick McIntyre. Rick follows the wolves on a daily basis, and usually has a good idea as to where they are hiding.
Located in east-central California, Yosemite National Park is a wilderness experience that has to truly be experienced to be fully appreciated. The 1,200 square mile park has something to offer just about everyone, including hundreds of miles of hiking trails, excellent whitewater rafting, and some of the best rock climbing routes on the planet.
The park is well known for its breathtaking scenery, which includes towering granite cliffs, hundreds of thousands of acres of unspoiled wilderness, and dozens of waterfalls, including the tallest in North America. Yosemite Falls is a staggering 2,425 feet in height and is visible from a number of vantage points throughout Yosemite Valley. Add in three separate and distinct groves of Sequoia Trees, and you have plenty of natural wonders to entertain and amaze visitors.
Perhaps Yosemite’s biggest attraction is Half Dome, a giant slab of granite that rises 4,737 feet above the valley floor. There are a number of climbing routes that go up the sheer rock face, but the most popular way to get to the top is along an 8.1-mile trail that incorporates a series of wooden planks and cables to assist hikers along. The route has become so popular however, that the park service now requires a permit just to walk the trail. If you’re planning on hiking Half Dome, you’ll need to plan well in advance. You’ll be glad you did however, as the views from the top make it all worthwhile.
Yosemite Tip: The vast majority of visitors to Yosemite stay in the valley itself. But the park has far more to offer than just that. I recommend heading to Glacier Point, which is a 30-mile drive, but rewards visitors with a spectacular view at the end.
Big Bend National Park
One of the best parks in the U.S. system is also one of its best-kept secrets. Big Bend stretches for more than 240 miles along the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas and offers up something that can be in short supply in some of the other parks – solitude. Big Bend is larger than Yosemite, but due to its remote location, it gets less than a tenth of the visitors each year, making it the perfect destination for travellers looking to escape the crowds.
Big Bend is a unique environment in that it offers visitors a chance to experience mountains, deserts, and rivers all in one location. Emory Peak, the highest point in the park, is more than 7832 feet above sea level. Far below is the Rio Grande River, which flows for 118 miles through the park. In between are a number of towering canyons, a dizzying array of diverse wildlife and the vast expanse of the beautiful, colorful Chihuahuan Desert.
As wild and untamed as Big Bend is, and believe me it is wild and untamed, it is also a surprisingly rich treasure trove for archaeologists and paleontologists. The often hot, arid landscape has revealed an abundance of fossils, and man-made artifacts have been discovered in the area that date back over 9,000 years. A number of tribes have made the Rio Grande Valley their home over the centuries, and the remnants of those civilizations can still be seen while hiking through the park.
Big Bend Tip: The Outer Mountain Loop may be the best known of the Big Bend trails, not everyone has time to make a 30-mile hike. For a shorter, yet still rewarding trek, I recommend the Chimneys Trail, a desert walk of just five miles that ends at a group of prominent volcanic rock formations that are decorated with ancient Native American art. The hike is relatively easy, but bring plenty of water, and be sure to stop and listen to the sound of silence in the desert.
Rocky Mountain National Park
If you’re looking for a true alpine experience, look no further than Rocky Mountain National Park, located in north-central Colorado. The park’s 265,000 acres is filled with breathtaking scenery that includes serene mountain lakes, lush, green forests, and peaks that are crowned with snow year round. Add in a plant and animal population that is diverse and varied, and you have a perfect wilderness escape for all but the most jaded of travelers.
One of the more interesting aspects of Rocky Mountain National Park is that it sits directly on the Continental Divide, a mountainous ridgeline that separates the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. This unique geographic phenomenon has created two diverse ecosystems inside the park itself, with the east side remaining drier, and more open, while the west side is home to dense alpine forests brought on by the wetter conditions found there. The contrast between the two regions is clearly evident to visitors, who regularly cross back and fourth from one zone to the other while making their way through the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a high altitude playground, with much of the terrain falling above 8,000 feet. In fact, there are more than 60 mountains inside the park that rise above 12,000 feet, with Longs Peak being the most prominent amongst them. Standing 14,259 feet in height, the summit of Longs Peak is the highest point in the park, and a popular training ground for high altitude mountaineers. The route is choked with snow for most of the year, only opening up for non-technical climbers during the height of summer.
Rocky Mountain Tip: One of the most spectacular areas of Rocky Mountain National Park is also one of its most challenging to reach. Paradise Park, located in the southern area of RMNP has no trails and camping is prohibited there. But those that do make the 6+ mile trek are treated to a valley filled with green meadows, clear mountain streams, unnamed lakes, and plenty of trees. The hike is 10-12 hours round-trip, but well worth it for the more adventurous traveler.
Badlands National Park
With its twisting canyons, towering rock spires, and eerie, otherworldly landscapes, Badlands National Park, located in the southwestern corner of South Dakota, can be a surprising destination for many travelers. Wind, water, and the passing of time have carved away the earth, revealing layers of stratification, which tell the geological tale of our planet. Those layers also reveal a stunning array of red and orange colors that give the Badlands an unexpected beauty that has to be seen to be believed, especially in the fiery glow of sunset.
The Badlands have a stark and rugged beauty that is evident to all who pass through the park. But to truly experience the wonders there, visitors need to get out of their cars and see the place on foot. There are a number of trails, mostly short in length, that run throughout the park, each of which reveal a bit of the historical, geological, and archaeological mysteries that are hidden within. Door Trail, for instance, is just .75 miles in length and shows off a detailed geological record of the region, while Fossil Trail, just a quarter mile in length, reveals the fossilized remains of now extinct creatures that once roamed the area.
The park is often perceived as a barren, arid, wasteland, with very few living things residing there, but in actuality the Badlands are alive with all kinds of plants and animals. Much of the park consists of open prairie, which stands in sharp contrast to the colorful buttes that dominate the horizon. Wildlife includes bison, cougars, deer, prairie dogs, and both bighorn and pronghorn sheep. The Badlands are also home to the elusive and endangered black footed ferret as well, although spotting one is a rare sight indeed.
Badlands Tip: After enjoying an amazing sunset over the colorful, yet alien landscapes of the park; be sure to head over to the Cedar Park Amphitheater to enjoy the Night Sky Program, where you’ll be treated to amazing views of distant galaxies as well as our own. Rangers and local astronomy buffs conduct this tour of the night sky Friday through Monday, all summer long, delivering an experience that is both awe inspiring and incredibly humbling at the same time.
This is just a small sample of what the national parks in the U.S. have to offer. There is literally a lifetime of adventure to be had inside these parks, and with dozens more to choose from, you’re likely to never run out of great destinations to visit. Perhaps you’ll consider one of these fantastic outdoor playgrounds for your next escape and begin to see just how magical the national parks can be.