The United States of America is blessed with incredible natural beauty which has been lovingly preserved in the form of its national park system. America created the first national park, Yellowstone National Park, in 1872, and, since then, has set aside millions of acres as part of the most comprehensive and largest national park system in the world. This blog entry attempts to highlight the best of these fantastic areas. Many of them are must-sees for all Americans and all world-travelers. Sit back and learn about these marvelous places, then make plans to visit as many as you can!
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park is not only America’s first national park, but is probably the premier national park in the US. It combines dramatic scenery, exemplified by the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with incredible thermal areas, e.g. Old Faithful, and a great variety of wildlife which is extremely accessible to visitors. The park consists of two circular routes (a northern, 112 km or 70 mile loop, and a southern, 150 km or 96 mile loop) which meet and share a common east-west road across the middle of the park. Each of the loop roads requires at least a day, so a minimum stay in the area should last two full days (keep in mind that it is better to stay longer to allow more time at the various sights). Yellowstone requires a considerable amount of walking in order to fully appreciate the thermal and scenic areas since many of the sights are along trails or elevated boardwalks above the thermal areas and are some distance from the roads.
There are numerous must sees in the park. The following is a list of the major sights:
Old Faithful geyser (in the Upper Geyser Basin, the largest concentration of geysers in the world) is the unofficial symbol of the park. It is called Old Faithful because it reliably erupts every 78 minutes on average and its eruptions spray heated water over 100 feet in the air.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (at Canyon Village) offers views of yellow, orange, red and white canyon walls above the blue-green Yellowstone River, 330 meters (1000 feet) below. Yellowstone Falls, at one end of the canyon, adds more beauty to the scene. Stop at the various overlooks, such as Artist Point and Inspiration Point, to get different perspectives.
Mammoth Hot Springs (in the northernmost region of the park) features colorful terraces of superheated water flowing over a kind of limestone called travertine. The end result is a colorful (shades of white, yellow, cocoa, and pink), steaming staircase.
Norris Geyser Basin includes Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest, among others as well as colorful (shades of blue, yellow, orange and green) pools and other thermal features.
Wildlife, such as, Bison, Elk, Bears, Wolves, etc, are common throughout the park (although wolves are seldom seen near the populated areas) so be prepared to stop at traffic jams which begin as soon as significant wildlife is spotted, because people just stop their cars in the middle of the road to take pictures and to watch. Instead of getting upset, just relax and enjoy the experience.
Fountain Paint Pot (in the Lower Geyser Basin area) is extremely different from the other thermal features and is interesting and entertaining. Here multi-colored mud boils and spouts.
Many other attractions are spread throughout the huge park. There are numerous walking trails which lead to waterfalls, other thermal areas, etc.
An interesting and memorable experience is to take a swim in the Firehole River, a cold, mountain stream which is warmed considerably as it travels through the thermal areas, becoming comfortably warm. Access is just off Lower Loop Road, just south of Madison (check with a Ranger at any of the Visitor Centers to get more specific directions and to make sure swimming is still permitted).
2. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park is so beautiful and spectacular that people who see it have difficulty expressing themselves. Because the area is so huge (it can be seen from outer space) it defies description and is hard to capture adequately in photographs because of the immense scale. However, it is, without question, one of the most, if not the most, significant natural landscape on the planet and, for that reason, a must-see for all people of the world who value travel! It is basically a gigantic gash in the earth’s crust, carved by a river or successive rivers over millions of years. What today’s visitors see are layers of multi-colored sandstone lining the walls of the canyon and huge mesas and buttes rising from the depths to fill much of the space. At the bottom of it all is the thin, muddy Colorado River which winds its way through (it defies imagination to realize that this tiny river has helped to create this masterpiece although geologists know that it was significantly larger in the past).
Considering the immensity of the Grand Canyon (over 300 km or 200 miles long, 16 km or 10 miles wide and a mile deep) the park area which can be visited is remarkably compact (only about 32 km or 20 miles long on both the North Rim (less accessible and less crowded) and the South Rim (the major visitor area and extremely crowded during the summer months).
Looking down into the canyon means looking back over almost 2 billion years of earth history and is a geological bonanza for scientists. But the average person is unaware of that and is just able to appreciate the incredible beauty of the place.
Different overlooks, such as Mather Point, Hopi Point and Grandview Point on both West Rim and East Rim Drive give the observer different views and even different perspectives on the canyon. There are many such overlooks, so be sure to check them all out.
Try to be around until evening to see the area’s transformation as light diminishes and shadows creep across the abyss.
See the IMAX presentation before heading to the viewing areas to better understand what can be seen.
Acrophobics beware! The newest attraction at the canyon is a glass platform which protrudes 70 feet (24 meters) beyond the canyon rim and affords very unusual views of the canyon floor directly below. This attraction, called the Grand Canyon Skywalk, is located at the Hualapai Indian Reservation, which, unfortunately, is inconvenient to get to. Although only about 90 miles (150 kilometers) west of the South Rim Visitor Center, it requires a drive of almost 250 miles (400 kilometers) because of the lack of roads in the area. Once on the reservation, there is an additional 14 mile (20 kilometer) drive on windy, unpaved roads to reach the attraction. The tribe offers a variety of tour packages which include access to the skywalk. Don’t fret too much about the possibility of the glass breaking since it has been built to withstand over 70 million pounds of weight, winds of over 100 miles per hour, and an earthquake of magnitude 8.0. In addition, the number of visitors on the glass bridge is restricted to 120 at a time.
3. Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite National Park is another park whose images are extremely familiar to everyone. From the writings of John Muir to the photographs of Ansel Adams, the park’s vistas are legendary. Yosemite represents glacial landscape at its best. From El Capitan’s monolithic face to Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America, to an alpine meadow called Tuolumne, to Glacier Point, a breath-taking overlook, Yosemite’s beauty is stunning. The price paid for all this, however, is slow-moving traffic and hordes of visitors which severely diminish the average person’s enjoyment. But, if the traveler can put up with some of the inconvenience, Yosemite is a true treasure. Incidentally, there are shuttles available in the valley floor area in the summertime, which is a good way to avoid the aggravation of the traffic, and also to reduce the pollution caused by so many cars. There are even stands of Redwoods, two of which date back to a time when tunnels were dug through the trunks so that cars could pass through, although one of these trees is now dead.
Another way to minimize the congestion and crowding is to walk several of the numerous trails within the park.
The view of Yosemite Valley from the Valley View overlook is particularly beautiful because it encompasses many of the “famous” landmarks of the park, including El Capitan, Half-dome, and Bridal Veil Falls.
Other exquisite viewing areas include Glacier Point and Washburn Point, which are both high above the valley floor and look down at Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, truly showcasing the glacial nature of the landscape.
4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the premier cave destination in the world. Imagine descending over 250 meters (750 feet) into the dark depths, but finding lighted pathways through chambers of stalactites, stalagmites and many other formations. There are numerous tours offered, some of which are more strenuous, but reservations are a must during the busy summer season.
The most popular tour is the Blue Tour which begins at the Visitor Center and descends into the cavern through its natural entrance. Be aware that this walk is fairly strenuous and includes numerous stairs.
The Scenic Rooms, such as the King’s Palace, Queen’s Chamber, and the Papoose Room contain remarkably exquisite formations.
There is even a post office, gift shop, and snack bar in the “Big Room”. Return to the surface is via elevator. Because the cave is a constant 55o F, appropriate clothing is recommended.
A Ranger-led tour is the best way to see the caverns since park rangers are usually extremely knowledgeable about the geology and ecology of the area and are happy to answer questions.
Every evening from late spring to early autumn, there is a Ranger talk and viewing of the daily exodus of hundreds of thousands of bats from their roosting sites inside the cave. The National Park has created an amphitheater to facilitate the viewing and to discuss the natural history of these fascinating mammals.
5. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, located in the southwestern corner of Colorado, is the premier Native American archeological sight in the USA. The highlights for most visitors are the striking cliff dwellings which date back to about 1200 AD. These are stone communities in the alcoves of the sheer walls of the canyons which probably housed over 100 people (Cliff Palace).
Mesa Verde is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is recognized the world over for its cultural and historic importance. There is great mystery here, since the culture that built the dwellings disappeared in the late 1200’s and little is known about why they left or where they went.
Note that the Far View Visitor Center is 15 miles (23 kilometers) from the park entrance. It offers information about the park and daily activities which are available.
The most important attractions are Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House. Keep in mind that descent into the ruins is only possible on a Ranger-led tour and these may involve steep paths, stairs, and metal ladders.
Cliff Palace, one of the most popular of the cliff dwellings, requires a ticket for a Ranger-guided tour (worth whatever is charged) which takes visitors into the cliff dwelling to discover the intricacies of its construction and the uses of its various sections.
Stop at the overlooks along Ruins Road in Mesa Verde for scenic views of the dwellings and the canyons.
A great base of operation for an exploration of the park is Durango, Colorado. This quintessential western town had its heyday during the gold and silver booms, but now serves as a gateway to several spectacular tourist areas. The downtown area has many Victorian buildings which herald its earlier prominence and the town still hosts rodeos as a reminder of its cowboy days.
6. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the Big Island of Hawaii, allows visitors an up-close and personal look at the wonder and devastation associated with volcanoes. Mauna Loa and Kilauea are the two volcanoes featured in the park. There are landscapes and exhibits to visit which illustrate the power and destruction of these and other volcanoes (don’t miss the film at the Visitor Center prior to venturing out into the park).
A trip along Crater Rim Drive reveals many different aspects of Kilauea’s history. Definitely take the fairly short walk to and through the Thurston Lava Tube for an interesting and eerie perspective.
Also drive down Chain of Craters Road to see, first hand, some of the devastation wrought by Kilauea in the past. Notice also the steam rising from Mauna Ulu and Puu Oo which indicate the continuation of Kilauea’s current eruption.
This park offers an opportunity to see fresh lava flowing to the edge of the island and into the ocean. For people interested in geological phenomena, this is a chance of a lifetime, since most volcanic eruptions are unexpected and too violent to approach. To get this unparalleled view, take the Chain of Craters Road to its end (there is a small Ranger Station at the blockade, so cars must be parked somewhere along the road in that vicinity). Then walk several miles over very uneven terrain with no path (except for the very beginning of the stroll) until there is an area where new continental crust is being formed by the hardening of lava. Break open the surface of the rock, to see fresh lava oozing toward the ocean. Veering toward the coastline, visitors may see the steam and gases at the interface where hot magma meets cold ocean water. It is an unforgettable experience, well worth the exertion. (Don’t be too discouraged by Park Rangers who seem to be constantly reminding people of the dangers of getting too close). However, do be extremely careful since the walk traverses areas where the volcanic crust may be only hours old!
7. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming combine to create an area of great scenic beauty, just south of Yellowstone National Park (see #1 above). Follow Routes 89 and 191 which wind parallel to the Teton range and afford excellent views of these majestic mountains, among the youngest on the continent, south from Yellowstone or north from the town of Jackson. They are probably the most photographed mountains in the US because they seem to jut skyward abruptly from the valley (Jackson Hole) below.
Be sure to check out the views of the Teton range from the John D Rockefeller Memorial Drive (Routes 89 & 191) and/or from Teton Park Road, which runs parallel to the highways. There are great photo opportunities at the Snake River Overlook, on Routes 26,89,191 and also at Oxbow Bend which lies between Jackson Lake Junction and Moran Junction.
The town of Jackson has become a destination in itself, due to its scenic location as well the ambiance of an upscale cowboy town, complete with hundreds of discarded elk antlers. There are numerous activities in the vicinity, including horse-back riding, skiing in winter, white-water rafting, and float trips along the Snake River, which flows through the park. Numerous Dude Ranches compete for the tourist’s attention.
Walk the wooden sidewalks the town of Jackson and check out the cowboy and other finery in the shops along the street. The village recalls the quintessential old west.
8. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah, is a fantasy land of shapes and colors. The visitor looks down, or walks down, into a bowl of spires, called hoodoos. Each hoodoo is layered with colors, primarily red, orange, yellow, brown, and white, and rises from the amphitheater below in weird shapes or formations. Most of these pillars are narrow and fingerlike, but others are wide, forming small buttes. The colors change over the course of the day, due to shadows and lighting, but the views are always spectacular.
Ride along the rim road stopping at each of the overlooks to appreciate all areas of the park. Particularly beautiful views are found at Inspiration Point, Rainbow Point, Bryce Point, and Fairyland Point.
While in Bryce Canyon National Park, hike at least one of the park’s trails to get an up-close and personal look at the hoodoos, and a different perspective on the area. Many trails are fairly strenuous because of the elevation changes as you descend into the amphitheater, but there are easy trails as well.
9. Olympic National Park, Washington
Olympic National Park, in the northwestern corner of Washington, is a park with something for everyone. It has snow-capped mountains; it has wild, unspoiled beaches; it has eerie and unusual Temperate Rain Forests; and it has abundant wildlife because so much of the park is truly wilderness. The best way to visit is by car, a significant day trip from Seattle or, better, an overnight stay on the peninsula. Route 101 which loops around most of the park and allows access to the best sights, is, itself, around 300 kilometers (200 miles), so leave early and plan to be gone for the entire day.
Hurricane Ridge in the northern area of the park offers views of striking snow-capped peaks and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north. There are a number of walking or hiking trails available as well.
Ruby Beach, on the western edge of the park, is wild and strange, with its many sea stacks and driftwood. It’s not a beach for swimming, but just to stroll and admire the photogenic scenery or to explore tidal pools to observe the many small sea creatures which inhabit them, such as pacific coast sea anemones, sea urchins, and starfish.
The Hoh Rain Forest, inland from the Ruby Beach area, invites the visitor to observe an extremely uncommon ecosystem, a temperate Rain Forest. Don’t be surprised if it rains during the visit, since this area gets 150 or so inches of rain (almost 400 cm) per year. This environment is characterized by mosses which drape the tree branches and give them an otherworldly look.
Take the Hall of Mosses Trail, an easy self-guided walk, to experience the lush, eternally green Sitka Spruce Forest.
10. Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park is located in Northern Montana and is associated with Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, the two together comprising Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, an interesting concept involving cooperation of two separate countries to preserve an area of exceptional beauty. The area is, of course, known for its glaciers (which, by the way, are receding significantly), but there are other attractions, such as, wildlife, lakes, hiking trails, etc.
Going-to-the-Sun Road, a spectacular 50 mile (80 kilometer) scenic drive, bisects the park and offers breath-taking vistas throughout. Stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, roughly halfway across, at the Continental Divide, for information and access to several trails. Nearby, the road hugs the cliffs of deep, steep valleys allowing unobstructed views of mountains and glaciers. Be on the lookout for Rocky Mountain Goats which are quite common at the high altitudes. There are many other hiking trails but few other roads.
The two major lakes of the park, Saint Mary Lake, on the eastern side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, and Lake McDonald, on the western side, offer aquatic activities.
11. Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park, in Utah, is a another monument to the forces of erosion and their effect on the landscape. The difference between Zion and other parks such as the Grand Canyon, is that here, the visitor is at the bottom of the canyon, looking up at all the creations. The park, as its name suggests, has a religious theme since it was discovered by Mormons who applied various religious epithets to the park’s landmarks. A shuttle service operates to reduce or eliminate traffic on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, the most popular part of the park.
Zion Canyon is the most spectacular and most frequented area with prominent features such as, the Great White Throne, the Three Patriarchs, Angel’s Landing, etc., greeting the visitor at every bend of the 5 1/2 mile (8 kilometer) scenic drive.
Walk the trails to Weeping Rock and to Emerald Pool for some different types of terrain and environments.
Other parts of the park require motor travel. For instance, the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, which cuts across the southern part of the park, is a state highway and frequently congested because of through traffic. The highway allows access to some very different and unusual landscapes. This area is characterized by smooth, sculpted mounds, interspersed with evergreen trees, known as checkerboard mesas. Geologically, this area was once a series of sand dunes which have now been transformed into rock.
Another area of the park (Kolob Canyons) is accessible via Interstate 15 (about 50 miles from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center). A five mile (8 kilometer) scenic drive provides spectacular views of red sandstone cliffs surrounding a verdant valley — very beautiful. This area, because it is isolated from the major area of the park has considerably less traffic and crowds.
12. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Crater Lake National Park, in southern Oregon, contains America’s deepest lake (almost 700 meters or 2000 feet in depth) which is known around the world for its beautiful, deep blue color. The crater is actually the caldera of Mount Mazama which erupted about 7,700 years ago leaving this steep-sided bowl which eventually filled with water. A 53 km (33 mile) road (Rim Drive) encircles the lake and offers numerous overlooks and access to walking trails. Boat rides to Wizard Island, an attractive, conical land mass within the crater, are available during the summer season and leave hourly from Cleetwood Cove. However, access to the boat dock requires a very strenuous walk from the parking area.
Head for “The Watchman” overlook for breathtaking views of the lake, Wizard Island, and the surrounding countryside.
13. Death Valley National Park, California
Death Valley National Park is an eerily beautiful area with considerable contrast in its geology. The park is huge (the largest in the contiguous United States) and the sights are many miles apart so one visit may not be enough to see the entire park. Summertime is not the time to go since it is easily the hottest spot in North America. The many stops along the highways offer interesting insights into the formation and evolution of the area.
Particular sights which should not be missed include Badwater, the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere (282 feet/93 meters below sea level), the Devil’s Golf Course, an unusual landscape of rock salt spires, Dante’s View for a panoramic view of the Valley, and Scotty’s Castle, an interesting ranch house in the middle of nowhere.
Be sure to take a side trip along Artist’s Drive to admire the strikingly beautiful colored rocks.
14. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Glacier Bay National Park preserves the wilderness on either side of a major coastal waterway on Alaska Sound. Many glaciers flow into the bay, providing both a living laboratory of glacial geology and dramatic, exciting scenery for the visitor. Most people see Glacier Bay from the deck of a cruise ship or ferry. Some offer excursions to the glaciers for the adventuresome. The Inside Passage is the water route taken by most cruise ships which visit Alaska. It is the area between the continental shore of Alaska and the offshore islands, so the water here is not as rough and unpredictable as it would be beyond these islands. In addition, this route allows easy access to coastal communities such as Ketchikan, with its Native Indian culture and many totem poles, Juneau, capital of Alaska and home of the Mendenhall Glacier, one of the state’s most accessible glaciers, and Skagway, the town associated with the Klondike gold rush of 1897.
15. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border, offers accessible wilderness and wildlife viewing to travelers in the populous eastern part of the US. Because of this fact, it is one of the most visited national parks in the country. Park roads allow access to most of the major sights, but, to truly experience the wilderness, the visitor should sample the many trails. On the roads, similar to the situation encountered in Yellowstone, expect traffic delays when wildlife is spotted, especially bears.
The major areas of the park include Newfound Gap Road, which bisects the park from north to south. This route connects the Oconaluftee Visitor Center with the Sugarlands Visitor Center and travels through Newfound Gap, a major pass through the mountains. The road also allows access to Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Smoky Mountains and the third highest east of the Mississippi. Cades Cove, a beautiful valley in the western part of the park, contains numerous historical buildings and is a fantastic wildlife-viewing area. The road through Cades Cove is a one-way 18 km (11-mile) loop, so traffic jams are common and can be a bit frustrating.
Within Smoky Mountains National Park, take the Roaring Brook Motor Nature Trail for an interesting, educational tour. It’s a 10 km (6-mile) one-way trip.
The Laurel Falls Trail is a 4 km (2.5 mile) hike along a paved path to one of the Smoky Mountains many waterfalls and well worth the exertion.
16. Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii
Haleakala National Park gives the visitor a look at the otherworldly landscape of a volcanic crater and even allows a descent into the valley created by erosion at the top of the mountain. An interesting activity involves watching the sunrise from the top of the mountain (be advised that this requires a very early start since the drive up the mountain is over thirty miles and is steep and winding in parts). Another common park activity involves renting bicycles, being trucked up the mountain and riding down (not for the faint of heart, but there are numerous stops along the way for rest and recuperation).
Must sees while in the park include the Silversword plant, which grows only on the summit of Haleakala and lives for fifty years before flowering and dying. Look closely at the plants on display at the Summit Visitor Center. Also be sure to take a walk on one of the trails at the summit for great views of cinder cones and for panoramic views of Maui. The adventuresome should definitely bicycle down the mountain. Tour groups are abundant.
17. Rocky Mountains National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park includes a portion of the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Mountain scenery is spectacular as Trail Ridge Road leaves Estes, Colorado, and rises to the Continental Divide (an imaginary line which pertains to the movement of rivers — rivers to the east of the divide travel to the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico, rivers to the west travel to the Pacific) and beyond. Notable locations on the highway include Berthoud Pass and Grand Lake. Wildlife sightings are usually frequent.
18. Sequoia & King’s Canyon National Parks, California
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are adjoining parks which feature the world’s largest tree, the giant Sequoia. Sequoias in the park reach to over 300 meters (200 feet) tall, with trunk diameters over 10 m (30 feet). The “Giant Forest” is the largest grove of sequoias in the parks and houses the General Sherman Tree, the largest known sequoia, over 2,000 years old, which is almost 100 meters (275 feet) tall, with a circumference of 35 m (103 feet). Stop first at the Visitor Center for a map and information. There are numerous hiking trails and scenic roads throughout the parks.
The most popular drive in the area is the General’s Highway, a scenic route which winds through the parks and provides access to the major attractions.
19. Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park, in southern Florida, preserves a vast wetland complete with an incredible variety of wildlife, including alligators, crocodiles, manatees, Florida panthers, and a tremendous number of birds. A boat cruise is the only way to see much of the park, because water predominates. There are also many walking trails. Don’t visit in the summer since the mosquitoes are ubiquitous and extremely aggressive.
20. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Saguaro National Park is composed of two separate districts. One (Rincon Mountain) is just east of Tucson while the other (Tucson Mountain) is just west of the city. These two locations preserve stands of the Saguaro cactus which grows only in this general area. The eastern district is larger and offers a 13 km (8-mile) scenic loop drive. Both areas have numerous walking trails which identify the various cactus species encountered. Watch out for rattlesnakes along the trails!