Tossing and turning about how to stop the ravage of commercialism, great minds sparked an idea that spread across the world: proclaiming Yellowstone the first ever national park in 1872, the United States created a space that was deemed precious and worthy of protection. Fast-forward to 1916 and the National Park Service (NPS) was founded, charged with the great responsibility of overseeing all aspects of these wildernesses. Congratulated as the “best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst” by writer Wallace Stegner, the NPS turns 100 on August 25th this year and to celebrate a new IMAX movie, National Parks Adventure, has been released, which takes viewers on a 3D trek throughout the country’s fascinating parks.
All things great, like the highest roaring waterfall and the tallest monolithic peak, and small, such as perfectly tiny forget-me-nots and sure footed goats, we have sifted through the largest and smallest, oldest to youngest of the 59, to find you some of the best national parks. Hikers: lace up your boots, photographers: clean your lenses, and sightseers get ready for a day of superb adventure, as you see for yourself why they are North America’s ‘best idea’:
A vast volcanic expanse of bubbling geysers, hot springs and mud pots, Yellowstone National Park flaunts the world’s greatest concentration of thermal features- more than 10,000. Claiming the title of the first national park in the world, you can still see Old Faithful spout every 35 to 120 minutes, roam through the 50-million-year-old petrified forests and marvel at the vivid colours of the Grand Prismatic Spring. Nicknamed the American Serengeti, there’s more to Yellowstone than just volcanic activity. With a fantastic mountain wilderness, there are excellent chances of seeing grizzly bears, wolves, moose, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep, to name a few of the 67 different mammal species. Best spots? Lamar Valley is the single best place in Wyoming to watch these beautiful creatures roam.
Rocky Mountain, Colorado
With a backbone formed by the incredible Rocky Mountains, the Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses a 415 square mile world of alpine forests, hiking trails, tundra wildflowers and an abundance of wildlife. Only an hour and a half from Denver, you will be hard pressed to access such gorgeous scenery with such ease anywhere else. With an impressive 72 named peaks all higher than a dizzying 12,000 feet, the park offers anything from flat easy hikes around a mountain lake to challenging multiday climbs up Longs Peak, making it a perfect destination for a leisurely family day out or for lone hikers looking to escape into the “roof of the world”. Spanning the width of the park, take the winding drive along the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road across the Continental Divide to have the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions. At its highest point, park the car at Rock Cut and find the site of the Tundra World Trail- a fantastic window into the ecosystem equivalent to that of the Arctic Circle, with miniature wildflowers and tiny forget-me-nots that bloom tenaciously in late June and mid-July.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Like a sunset imprinted into rock, the mighty Grand Canyon has been cut into and worn down by the Colorado River for nearly 6 million years, leaving exposed geological colours and erosional forms that beautifully decorate the 277 mile long canyon. Overwhelming the senses with its sheer size, many consider a trip to the United States incomplete without a visit to this colossal canyon, especially to peer over the edge of the South Rim to see the pink and white veined layers of granite that date back to 1.8 million years ago. Go to Yavapai Point, near the South Rim visitor area, for stunning and unobstructed panoramic views of the inner canyon, or if you are willing to forgo the popular South Rim, focus on the north, which only receives 10% of the park visitors. Hitting the Grand Canyon at just the right time makes all the difference, and as the crowds start to dwindle in late September, winter makes for a perfect time to hike down below the rim for truly breath-taking views.
Resembling the stark reddish landscape of Mars, Arches National Park has a mind-boggling 2,000 natural arches, which only adds to the grandeur of its alien scenery. With balancing rocks, spires, pinnacles, domes and vibrant red petrified sands dunes, it’s no wonder the park has been used as the backdrop to countless Hollywood films, including Indiana Jones and Thelma & Louise. Whittled away by eons of weathering and erosion, Arches National Park was covered with an inland sea that evaporated and re-formed more than 29 times, leaving behind incredible salt beds thousands of feet thick that caused layers of rock to thrust up to the surface. Proudly depicted on Utah's licence plates and postage stamps, Delicate Arch is a 65-foot tall freestanding arch and has become one of the state’s most famous icons. To get there, there are many trails ranging from easy to difficult, so decide how challenging you want the trip to be and go for magic hour, either sunrise or sunset, to watch the light break and set over the dramatic horizon- this is also a good time if you want to beat the crowds, though you might bump into a photographer or two.
Claimed by Ralph Waldo Emerson to be “unmatched on the globe”, Yosemite, made a national park in 1890, is the third-oldest in the US, as well as the third most visited. Nearly four million people make the pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park every year, and as it features North America’s highest waterfall (Yosemite Falls) and the world’s tallest granite monolith (EL Capitan) as well as towering giant sequoia groves and serene glass-like lakes, there is something for everyone in this mammoth park. Feel dwarfed amongst the colossal trunks of the Sierra redwoods, set your foot on one of the 800 miles of trails or head up to Glacier Point for staggering views over the Yosemite Valley. Try your hand at rafting, fishing or rock climbing in the mile-wide valley or for those accustomed to outdoor adventures, take the serious challenge and hike Yosemite’s icon, the Half Dome.
With each panoramic view more impressive than the last, navigate the hairpin turns of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only road that leads into the depths of Glacier National Park. For 52 miles, enjoy the sights of cascading waterfalls, alpine lakes and precariously perched mountain goats and bounding grizzly bears. A 1,583 square mile wildness area in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, there are still 25 glaciers remaining, including the relatively accessible Grinnell and Sperry. Roam the park by bike, boat, foot or horse, travelling through the glacier-carved valleys and peaks, passed the moss-draped cedars to finally rest in the alpine meadows strewn with lichen-covered boulders.
An echoing mass of hanging valleys and sheer drops, Zion National Park is a photographer's dream with epic red canyons, steep mesas, monolithic cliffs and prismatic stratas. Formed by incessant ancient winds, the geological heart of the canyon started out as a vast desert millions of years ago. Bathing in the warm southwestern climate, the exquisite beauty of Zion is only paralleled by the wealth of activities available. Unlike the Grand Canyon, Zion is a park to see from the bottom up and with trails winding up from the valley floor, this is easily done. Follow the path of ancient natives and pioneers to Angels Landing, reached via a steep trail with thrilling drop-offs but which offers tear-worthy views up and down the sandstone canyon. Shout until your lungs give way atop the high cliffs, go on a short water trek to Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock,or hop onto Highway 9 towards Checkerboard Mesa to see the criss-crossed mountain.
A landscape seemingly created by a mad Viking, this forest of stone encloses Thor’s Hammer, monstrous rock spires and a Sinking Ship in a horseshoe-shaped amphitheatre, scattered with red, orange and pink layers. Pocketed by hoodoos, odd-shaped pillars of rock left standing from the forces of erosion, Bryce National Park has fantastic scenic drives with access to thirteen viewpoints along the way. However, Bryce Canyon’s magical scenery is best seen on foot and with eight marked trails that can be hiked in one day and two that require overnight stays, there are plenty of winding tracks to be discovered. Especially beautiful when baked in golden light, catch the park in the early morning hours or at sunset for photographs that your friends won’t believe are real.
The first park established for the sake of flora and fauna rather than geological scenery, the Everglades National Park harbours 200 types of fish, 350 species of birds, 120 different kinds of trees and more than 1,000 kinds of plants across its million and a half acres of wetlands. Established in 1947 in Florida’s southern tip, the Everglades is a mix of freshwater, mangroves, marshland, pine forests and islands, famously called the “river of grass”. Take the main road through the heart of the park for a primer, as it passes through every major natural habitat, but because the park is so vast, choose an entry point based on what you want to see. Spot alligators sunning themselves along the Anhinga Trail boardwalk, go kayaking into Snake Bight for a bird-rich day trip, wallow into the Wilderness Waterways to see manatees and sea turtles or dive into Florida’s coral necklace, to get close to the first undersea park in the US.
Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee
Famous for being the busiest park drawing more than nine million visitors a year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on a typical weekend, sees twice the number of people of any other park crawl bumper-to-bumper along the mountain-skimming highway. Luckily, the highway that cuts through the middle of the park is not the only route as around Great Smoky, the area is laced with 384 miles of mountain roads that byway to some of the best hidden corners. Dominated by ridge upon ridge of forests, a day in the park can take the form of watching the mist settle along the blue ridges, hiking beneath the peaceful canopies, which are simply stunning in autumn, or waiting to catch fireflies blink in synchrony in an age-old mating ritual between May and June. With very few taking the road less travelled, chances are you will be the only one around.
In 1788, British explorer, John Meares, stumbled upon a mountain at sunset, and thought it could be nothing else but the home of the gods, consequently naming it after the Greek pinnacle. Rising above all else, Mount Olympus is the heart of Olympic National Park contoured by 13 rivers that spiral out towards the park’s borders. There are no roads that cross the park, only about a dozen spur roads that lead in from US Route 101, so once you’ve entered, park the car and stroll through the meadows at Hurricane Ridge to admire the peaks and glaciers in the distance. A realm of trout-filled lakes, dripping rain forests, and mossy trees more than 20 stories high, take a dip at in the Sol Duc Hot Springs, picnic around the pristine waters of Lake Crescent and end up on the Pacific Ocean for a walk along the beaches at La Push, the largest community within the Quileute Indian Reservation.
Grand Teton, Wyoming
Linked to the nearby Yellowstone National Park by the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, Grand Teton National Park works very well as part of a greater Wyoming parks holiday. Rising majestically above the Jackson Hole valley floor, the towering peaks of Grand Teton National Park have no foothills so other than the small gleaming lakes around the range’s base, there is nothing between you and the rocky summits. Stretching fifty miles south, taking in the jagged tooth-like centre piece as you try and spot the resident elks, bears and bald eagles that call this park their home.
With only one road through the six-million acre Denali National Park and no cars allowed beyond Mile 15, you will be very grateful for the shuttle bus through the park as it always you to keep your eyes glued to the subarctic wilderness that unravels around each corner. With the constant beacon of the snow-capped Mount McKinley in view, North America’s tallest mountain, you will be driven along the 92-mile strip for the best chance to see Alaska’s ‘Big Five’ (grizzly bear, moose, caribou, wolves and Dall sheep). At the end of the road, you will be able to see the 20,320ft mountain reflected in Wonder Lake on clear-sky days, but if an all-day bus tour is not for you, zip on your jacket, hoist up your backpack and leave the car behind as you tread some of the country’s best hiking, white-water rafting and flightseeing, all circled around the giant mountain itself.
If you find the idea of kayaking through ice-choked waters toward creaking sapphiric glaciers absolutely thrilling, then Kenai Fjords National Park should be your next stop. Sadly bearing witness to the effects of the changing climate, the glaciers within the park are shrinking; however, what still remains is an icy wonderland with jagged headlands, rocky peninsulas and blue tide-water glaciers. Alaska’s smallest national park, Kenai National Park’s crowning glory is the Harding Icefield, a vestige of the ice sheet that covered much of Alaska in the Pleistocene era. The ancient icefields carved out Kenai’s fjords, creating habitable areas for a throng of sea animals and birds, such as the clown-faced puffins, bald eagles, Steller sea lions, sea otters, black bears and wolverines. With Harding Icefield feeding at least 38 glaciers, visit the park’s wintry wonders with front-row seats, as you watch chunks of ice fall off into the sea, humpback whales breaching the cold waters, and seabirds congregating in the thousands.
Awed by the raw beauty of the area, 20th century visionaries donated the land that became Acadia National Park, after fearing the dangers of over-development. A place where sea and mountain meet, Acadia National Park reserves much of Mount Desert Island, and other smaller islands off the Atlantic shoreline, meaning whether by sight, smell or sound, you will always be aware of Maine’s beautiful coast. The national park is home to a range of 40 mammal species, but locals and tourists alike don’t wake up before sunrise and climb to the top of Cadillac Mountain for the wildlife- instead in predawn darkness, hikers wait patiently facing east every day on the mountaintop to be the first to see the sunrise break over the United States. After catching these first sun rays of the day, shake off the chill by exploring the island on the 27-mile Park Loop Road, which hugs the coast before venturing inland through forests and carpeted valleys. Once you emerge from the forests, keep an eye out for seals sunning themselves on rocks and the tell-tale signs of water-spurts on the horizon, which if you are lucky, could provide a whale of a time.