Seven Must-Visit U.S. National Parks
The National Parks began in 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law setting aside more than 1 million acres in the American West as a “pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” With a swoop of his pen, he created Yellowstone National Park, marking the first time in history that land was set aside not just for royalty or the rich, but for everyone.
Theodore Roosevelt, the “conservationist president,” would greatly extend that legacy, protecting millions of acres of public land, including five national parks. By 1916, 35 sites were under federal protection, and that summer, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act establishing the National Park Service as their official steward.
Today, there are 62 national parks – along with more than 350 other protected areas, totaling some 84 million acres.
Here are some top parks to visit and the best ways to see them!
Yellowstone National Park – Wyoming
The world’s first national park, Yellowstone is known as the “Serengeti of the West” for its abundant wildlife, including bison, bears, wild horses, and elks. It is the only place in the U.S. where bison have roamed freely since prehistoric times. The World Wildlife Fund is working with Native American tribes to protect the park’s herd. The reintroduction of wolves during the 1990s restored the park’s delicate natural balance, making it one of the largest intact temperate ecosystems on earth. Its 2.2 million acres contain some 300 geysers and 10,000 thermal features – more than New Zealand and Iceland combined – as well as one of the world’s biggest petrified forests and its own 4,000-foot-wide, 1,200-foot-deep Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Insider Tip: Head beyond Old Faithful to the less visited Lower Geyser Basin and its Fountain Paint Pot Nature Trail, lined with gushing geysers, hot springs, steam vents, and mud pots.
Acadia National Park – Maine
Comprising 47,000 acres along the Maine coast, Acadia was the first national park created from private land donated by individuals, most notably John D. Rockefeller. The park encompasses rocky shorelines, spruce and pine forests, lakes, and peaks – including Cadillac Mountain, which, at 1,530 feet, is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard. Between early October and early March, Cadillac Mountain is where the first light of day strikes the U.S. each morning. Some 125 miles of historic hiking trails make it easy to explore. Insider Tip: For a nice hike, follow the Bar Island Trail, a ‘land bridge’ from behind the Bar Harbor Club that takes you out to the island. The hour-long hike offers great views of Bar Harbor. Make sure to plan your walk with the tide, though, or you’ll get stuck on the island until the next one!
Glacier National Park – Montana
Humans have inhabited Montana’s glacier region for more than 10,000 years, and Native American tribes consider its soaring peaks, vast prairies, and glacier-carved valleys to be sacred ground. Spread across 1 million acres, the park’s diverse habitats remain the only place in the continental U.S. to harbor all of the predators that were present when Europeans first arrived. Experience its spectacular landscape on the 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road, a National Historic Landmark in its own right.
While some 150 glaciers were present in 1850, just 25 remain today. Scientists predict that, under current conditions, the last icy mass for which the park is named will disappear by 2030. Insider Tip: While you’re in Glacier Country, take advantage of nearby Flathead and Whitefish lakes to go stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, jet skiing, tubing, and waterskiing. The Whitefish Trail offers great biking opportunities.
Denali National Park & Preserve – Alaska
Denali gets its name from the Athabascan people’s word for “the high one” – apt given that the 20,310-foot peak is North America’s tallest. The mountain is so massive, it generates its own weather, and the 6 million preserved acres surrounding it comprise a complete subarctic ecosystem that supports more than 850 species of flora and fauna, including grizzlies, Dall sheep, moose, and wolves. President Carter designated the park’s taiga forest, frozen tundra, and glacial lakes an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976. After a 40-year effort by Alaska’s native people, President Obama signed an executive order in 2015 restoring the name Denali to the mountain from its former moniker, Mount McKinley. Insider Tip: The park sees 20 hours of daylight during summer months. Take full advantage with free daily Park Ranger-led activities, including guided hikes and sled dog demonstrations.
Zion National Park – Utah
Some 12,000 years ago, humans hunted woolly mammoths, giant sloths, and camels across this region of southern Utah. The Anasazi farmed here as recently as 800 years ago, while Mormon pioneers thought it to be heaven on earth. Today hikers consider Zion’s hypersaturated canyons, plateaus, pools, and monoliths, carved over millennia by the Virgin River, to be – as the 148,000-acre park’s name implies – the “Promised Land.” Zion’s narrowest gorge – aptly named The Narrows, with walls up to 1,000 feet high – is considered one of the world’s best slot-canyon hikes. Note: You’ll be sloshing through the Virgin River, so wear waterproof shoes. Insider Tip: Try to enter or exit through the park’s east entrance instead of the more common Springdale one. It reveals an incredible landscape, with all sorts of checkerboard patterns in the rocks.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park – North Carolina & Tennessee
America’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains covers 522,427 acres and is home to at least 17,000 species of flora and fauna – more than any temperate climate area of equal size on earth. Southern Appalachian culture is on display as well, with the largest collection of historic log buildings in the eastern U.S., including a working grist mill. Anglers find more than 500 miles of fishable streams in the park, including a wild trout habitat. Insider Tip: During springtime, hike up to Andrews Bald to see the mountain laurel blooming. In the fall, Cades Cove is a must-do with miles of trails.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – Hawaii Island
Set along the southeastern coast of Hawaii Island, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park gets its name from two of the world’s most active volcanoes: Mauna Loa, which last erupted in 1984, and Kilauea, which has been erupting continuously since 1983 (a major eruption in 2018 closed the park for months). The park’s 333,000 acres contain seven ecological zones, endangered plant and animal species, and archaeological sites held sacred by Hawaii’s indigenous people. Insider Tip: A must-see is the Thurston Lava Tube, a stop along the Crater Rim Drive Tour. The weather can be unpredictable, so bring a light jacket. Also, leave the lava rocks where you find them so as not to upset Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire!
-Adapted from Virtuoso 2020
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