One of the best things about America is the great outdoors, and the best places to get outside are the National Parks. The National Parks have been dubbed America’s best idea because they took huge swaths of the American wilderness, protected it from development, and kept it open to the public for their enjoyment.
Yellowstone situated in Wyoming. Established in 1872, Yellowstone was the first natural park in the entire world and certainly one of the greatest national parks in the United States. Located mostly in Wyoming, Yellowstone spans the Rocky Mountains into neighboring Idaho and Montana, combining alpine lakes and rivers with wildlife such as bears, bison, and wolves. It also sits on top of the geothermal hot spot, making it the world’s largest concentration of geysers.
California’s Yosemite Valley became a National Park, its the efforts of the legendary naturalist John Muir. Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome, a mecca for rock climbers who believe that the 3,000 foot base of El Capitan is one of the most technical and challenging rock climbs in the world. But even if you don’t climb, you can still hike to the top of El Capitan. You just have to apply for a permit. Yosemite is beautiful, but it does get crowded.
Just three hours from Los Angeles and located in the southern section of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia National Park is a gem. It’s famous for its extremely large, sequoia trees, including General Sherman, over two thousand years old, 275 feet and four million pounds of hardwood, it is the largest tree on earth.
In the far northwestern corner of the state, you have Redwood National Park. The redwoods are super cool, it is a coastal temperate rain forest, and it has the tallest tree on earth, which was only recently discovered in 2006. It’s 379 feet tall, that’s 115 metres tall. There really is something magical about the redwoods and that may be why George Lucas chose it as the location for The Return of the Jedi, the forest moon of Endor. So if you like Ewoks, you might want to head to Redwood National Park.
Joshua Tree, a beautiful stretch of desert just east of Los Angeles, named after its indigenous tree, the Joshua Tree. It is an easy 2-hour drive from L.A., and it’s super popular for camping, for rock climbing, for photography or for going on a vision quest, if that’s what you’re into.
A lot of people come here right after or before Coachella because that takes place just down the road. But it’s a lot better in the winter when it’s not that crowded or in springtime when the Joshua tree is blooming. Just make sure you avoid it in the summertime because it’s just going to be way too hot.
The Channel Islands
For unspoiled California coast, head to the Channel Islands National Park, five wild and remote islands off the coast of Santa Barbara that only recently became a National Park. These Islands are the ancestral home of the Chumash people and they are best explored by either hiking or kayaking. But to get there, you’re going to need to take a ferry, which leaves from Ventura and Santa Barbara.
This is the most popular park in the United States. And that’s because it’s really easily accessible by car, and it’s also the gateway to the Appalachian Mountains. There are 95% forests, which means there are tons of places to camp, to hike. If you really want to get after it, you can actually hike sections of the Appalachian Trail, which stretches 2,000 miles from Georgia in the South all the way up north to Maine.
Maine’s only National Park is the oldest national park east of the Mississippi and is supposedly one of the best on the East Coast. It’s home to Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the eastern seaboard, but it’s famous for its trail system, which is the oldest trail system in any national park. It has recently restored historic carriageways that are now great for hiking and walking. Also, it’s in Maine which means there’s going to be great craft beer and incredible seafood. While you’re out there, you’re going to have to eat a lobster.
In the Midwest head to the Isle Royale in the Great Lakes. It’s one of the least visited national parks of the entire country. That’s because it’s super isolated Island in the middle of Lake Superior, essentially three to five hour ferry ride from Upper Peninsula, Michigan. I have not been in this part in particular, but the Great Lakes are super beautiful and if you want some unplugged time, it seems to me like the perfect option.
In this place, you can get a tan in the morning and photograph molten lava at night. There are two volcanoes in the park, but don’t worry Kilauea Volcano is constantly erupting. So, you’re going to have lots of opportunities to watch the earth literally growing an Island.
It is the most popular site in Alaska, and that’s for good reason: it contains Mount McKinley, which is the tallest mountain in North America at over 20,000 feet means that’s over 6200 meters, and it’s also the third most isolated mountain in the entire world after Mount Everest in the Himalaya and Aconcagua in the Argentinian Andes. So, the mountain has recently been renamed to Denali. It was named Mount McKinley by a gold prospector in the 1890s, but it’s been called Denali by the indigenous Coe Yukon people for thousands of years. So, Denali is its name now.
But even if you’re not going to summit the peak, it’s the perfect place to get off the grid and into the wild which oddly enough is where Chris McCandless, the person from the book and movie “Into the Wild”, actually went into the wild and lived in that abandoned school bus until his untimely death in 1992. The bus is still there for those of you who are willing to trek in.
Alaska’s other major National Park, Glacier Bay, is on the coast. 3.3 million acres of unspoiled glaciers, mountains, temperate rain forest, and deep fjords. Part of Alaska’s inside passage is one of the last places where you can actually see a tidewater glacier; that’s a glacier that goes all the way down to tideline and sadly in the era of global warming, they’re becoming less and less common.
If you’re planning on visiting Glacier Bay National Park, check out the nearby town of Gustavus. It’s a beautiful little fishing town with tons of great breakfast, not to mention some of the best halibut and salmon fishing in Alaska.
Glacier & Waterton Lakes
Another great spot to see glaciers is Glacier National Park in Montana. It’s the only national park that spans two countries, it’s connected to the Waterton Lakes National Park on the other side in Canada. These two parks were joined together to create the International Peace Park founded in honor of International Peace Building.
Creation of the parks is actually kind of funny because it was actually built by this railroad magnate. He built a hotel in the National Park, connected the railroad and then petition for the park to become a national park. And there’s actually a ferry that goes to Canada because, in the days of Prohibition, you couldn’t drink in the U.S. But you could drink in Canada, Waterton National Park. If you want to see glaciers, you shouldn’t wait because there’re 25 remaining of the original 150 that there were in the 1800s, and it’s estimated that by 2030, all those glaciers will disappear.
Across the country, Florida’s Everglades National Park is perhaps the most geographically distinct park on my list. This 1.5 million acre wetland is made up of mangroves, and it basically consists of the entire bottom tip of the Florida Peninsula. There’s tons of wildlife from manatees to turtles and alligators, which means you probably shouldn’t go swimming, but it’s perfect for an airboat tour, and supposedly the fishing’s not bad either.
Another distinctive park is the Badlands, named for the unique geographical formation that spans from South Dakota to Alberta and Canada. I’ve not been to this part, but I have been it’s equivalent in Alberta, and the entire area is beautiful.
These formations were created by erosion where basically the prairies were peeled back to reveal all the different layers of history dating back 75 million years to the age of the dinosaurs, which means in addition to amazing places for your photos, there are also legitimate fossils from this was like the dinosaur Garden of Eden.
The epicenter of the park is Crater Lake, a collapsed volcanic Caldera, which forms America’s deepest lake with water so blue you have to see it to believe it.
You’ve got everything from the Pacific Coast where you’ll see big beaches full of driftwood up to snow caps alpine peaks and even a temperate rain forest, all within one park.
North Cascades has some of the best backcountry backpacking in the States, pure undeveloped wilderness of mountains, forests, and glaciers.
If you’re going down Mexico way in Texas, check out Big Bend National Park, which has some of the best preserved Chihuahuan. Chihuahuan desert in the United States. It’s right up against the border with Mexico, it goes right along the Rio Grande River. It contains natural hot springs, ancient pictographs that have now been taken over by wildlife.
Also, in the Chihuahuan Desert in nearby New Mexico are the Carlsbad Caverns- Over a hundred caves full of incredible limestone stalactite and stalagmite formations.
If you’re closer to Kentucky, you could check out the Mammoth Caves National Park with over 400 miles of caves to explore. It’s actually the world’s largest cave system.
It is located in Utah. Arches has the world’s largest concentration of sandstone arches, over 2,000 of them, resulting from the salt left over from a 300 million-year-old sea. This is where a Devinsupertramp film that crazy rope swing video shot. It’s just north of Moab, Utah, which is the birthplace of slick rock mountain biking.
Canyonlands is all about dramatic, colorful landscapes carved by the Colorado River. It’s possible to drive, canoe, bike or hike some seriously remote wilderness.
It is famous for its canyon is pinkish red sandstone that makes it one of the most picturesque National Parks in the Southwest.
Grand Canyon, which is over a mile deep, it so wide that at no point can you see its entirety. The views are incredible, especially from Horseshoe Bend where you’ve got take that obligatory Selfie. But if you really want a full experience, get up close by hiking down. You could stay at Phantom Ranch at the bottom or if you’re really doing some cool, you could canoe or raft the Colorado River, which would be excellent.
Black Canyon at Gunnison
A less crowded version of the Grand Canyon is the Black Canyon at Gunnison National Park, which is insanely steep, gorgeous and receives less than 2,00,000 visitors a year.
Also, in Colorado is Rocky Mountain National Park, which is within day-trip distance from Denver as the single best place to experience America’s best mountain range. Other parks on this list are also in the Rockies, Glacier, among others. But none are as high as Rocky Mountain National Park.
It’s famous for its thirteeners or mountains over 13,000 feet or 4,000 meters. If you’re ambitious, hike up to 14,000 foot longest peak, but you can also do a car ride, can see them from a distance.
The Chaco Culture National Park, the ancestral home of the Hopi and Pueblo people with a wide variety of historical sites. It’s also a dark sky park, which is perfect for astrophotography and for getting a good glimpse of the stars behind the local legend.
This is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places in the entire national park system. It’s the ancestral homeland of the Pueblo Tribe. Basically houses they built into the cliff face over 700 years old. You can take a tour of all the houses, even go into some, and it’s a great place to visit any time of year. But, in the wintertime when the snow was falling over the whole area making it look just beautiful.