The American National Park System, which we so often just call the National Parks, is a marvel of modern public land management and policy that has inspired countless of other countries to do the same. They comprise and protect some of our nation’s most biodiverse and beautiful landscapes. And each year, they leave millions of visitors awestruck and inspired. National Park Week might have just ended but there is still plenty to see and experience in our public lands.
An Ode to The American National Parks System
Zion National Park, Utah
Inside the slimmest section, The Narrows, of Zion Canyon rusty oranges and rich reds dance along canyon walls a thousand feet tall. The Virgin river snakes its way along the bottom sometimes twenty to thirty feet wide, creating a gorgeous site for those adventurous hikers. The Narrows gorge can be seen by hiking along the wheelchair accessible and paved Riverside Walk, one mile from the Temple of Sinawava.
If you’re looking to see more, a hike through The Narrows means you will be walking in the Virgin River which means wading and a full days hike ahead. There is no trail that takes you to The Narrows and most people start their hike from the Temple of Sinawava via the Riverside Walk.
Most people hike The Narrows when the water tends to be the warmest in late spring or summer. But be careful! This is also the time of year when storms can easily cause dangerous flash flooding.
Before your trip make sure you read the recommendations and National Park regulations to help protect the park and keep yourself safe while visiting.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Alaska is home to some of the most breathtaking landscapes and National Parks you can find in the United States. Kenai Fjords National Park is no exception. On the Southern side of the state, you’ll find the park, at the edge of the Kenai Peninsula the ice age lingers on the North American continent.
Nearly 40 glaciers can be seen in the park with the best views being from a boat tour. Wildlife, like harbor seals and humpback whales, thrives in icy waters of the north. Kanai offers visitors some amazing programs and options to explore the park. With Ranger-led programs, hiking, kayaking, and public cabins you can stay in, your time in the park is sure to be wonderfully fulfilling.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
In Arizona, the Colorado River has been at work for millions of years. Diligently and patiently carving itself a mile deep into the limestone gifting us the majestic and awe-inspiring wonder that is the Grand Canyon.
Although the park is now synonymous with the National Parks System it wasn’t declared a National Park until 1919, three years after the creation of the NPS we know and love today. The Grand Canyon first saw Federal protection in 1893 as a Forest Reserve which was then followed by National Monument status before being declared a National Park.
Today the park sees close to five million visitors a year, making it one of the most visited National Parks in the country. Compared to the 44,173 the park received in 1919, the park’s visitors are a testament to how the Grand Canyon overwhelms visitors with both its beauty and immense size.
Grand Canyon is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of arid-land erosion in the world. Created by the Colorado River, the canyon is immense. It averages 4,000 feet in depth for its entire 277 miles. At its deepest, it is 6,000 feet and 18 miles at its widest. The park encompasses 1,218,375 acres and contains several major ecosystems. Its biodiversity is just as vast too!
With five of the seven life zones and three of the four desert types found in North America which is, in terms of biodiversity, the equivalent to traveling from Mexico to Canada. There are over 1,500 plant, 355 bird, 89 mammalian, 47 reptile, 9 amphibian, and 17 fish species in the park many of which are endemic to the park.
In addition to the Park’s landscape and ecological importance, there is a rich human history to the area. Archeological remains from Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Basketmaker, Ancestral Puebloan (Kayenta and Virgin branches), Cohonina, Cerbat, Pai, Southern Paiute, Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, and Euro-American populations have been found in Grand Canyon National Park. The oldest human artifacts found date back nearly 12,000 years and archeologist state that there has been continuous use and occupation of the park and the area since that time.
Yosemite National Park, California
Located in the western Sierra Nevada of Central California the park was designated a World Heritage site in 1984, Yosemite is known internationally for its granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant sequoia groves, lakes, mountains, and glaciers. The biological diversity in to be noted as well as almost 95% of the park is designated wilderness.
Yosemite National Park is home to the impressive Yosemite Falls- one of the tallest waterfalls in North America that drops nearly 2,500 feet into the mist-filled creek below. These massive falls, as well as most of the others in within the park, are concentrated in Yosemite Valley. This small section of the park is one of the most visited and is open year around. If you want to see the falls though just make sure you visit in spring before the dry season starts.
“I have seen persons of emotional temperament stand with tearful eyes, spellbound and dumb with awe, as they got their first view of the Valley from Inspiration Point, overwhelmed in the sudden presence of the unspeakable, stupendous grandeur.”
– Galen Clark, guardian of the Yosemite Grant
Yosemite National Park is a shrine to the tranquility of the High Sierra. With nearly 1,200 square miles of land, within the park, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, and ancient giant sequoias among a vast wilderness. There are numerous activities available within the park including nature walks, photography classes, stargazing programs, tours, bike rentals, and rafting, as well as rock climbing classes. Those looking to enjoy short walks and longer hikes can make their way to waterfalls in Yosemite Valley or walk among giant sequoias in the Mariposa, Tuolumne, and Merced Groves sections of the park. If you’re wanting to see some stellar views of Yosemite Valley and the high country, Glacier Point will offer some of the best in the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee + North Carolina
We called the Smoky Mountains home for two years and in that time we completely fell in love with the national park. It isn’t surprising to know that it is the most visited National Park in the country give how many family-friendly activities there are to do. This is one of my favorite National Parks because it is the one I have visited the most over the years.
Wildflowers and wildlife are one of the biggest draws for guests visiting the Smokies. The park is world renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life. With over 1,500 kinds of flowering plants, more than in any other North American national park, blooming flowers can be found year-round in the park it is often referred to as the “Wildflower National Park.”
From the earliest hepaticas and spring-beauties in the late winter to the last asters in the late fall, blooming flowers can be found year-round in the park. The park is known for its displays mountain laurel, rhododendron and flame azaleas so it isn’t just the flowers who put on some color. The trees and shrubs in the park have something to offer too!
The show starts in spring when ephemerals bloom. You’ll see lady slipper orchids, crested dwarf iris, and violets during the peak of the spring wildflower bloom starting in mid-April at the park’s lower elevations and just a few weeks later on the higher peaks. During this time, the park hosts the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, a week-long festival filled with guided walks and hikes that welcome guests to explore the wondrous biodiversity found in the park.
The display continues in the summer with one of my favorite flowers, black-eyed Susans as they join the red cardinal flowers, bee-balm, and small purple-fringed orchids. When fall rolls around goldenrod, wide-leaved sunflowers and asters begin to bloom.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, + Idaho
On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first national park. Today, the park sees millions of visitors who come here each year to camp, hike and enjoy the majesty of the park and its unique hydrothermal wonders. In Yellowstone, you’ll find dramatic canyons, alpine rivers, lush forests, geothermic hot springs and gushing geysers, including the famous Old Faithful. The park is also home to hundreds of animal species, including bears, wolves, bison, elk, and antelope. Though we advocate for visiting all of the National Parks, many will tell you that this one should be at the top of your list!
The Yellowstone Park bison herd is one of the popular sights to see in the park and is the largest public herd of American bison in the United States. The herd has been a big conservation project for the park over the years.
Bison once numbered between 30 and 60 million individuals throughout North America before they were hunted to near extinction but Yellowstone remains one of their last strongholds. Their populations had increased from less than 50 in the park in 1902 to 4,000 by 2003!
Seeing Old Faithful Geyser erupt is one of the main highlights in Yellowstone National Park. One of the many geysers in the park, it teases guests with short spurts before delivering the grand show. And like clockwork, it spews out as much as 8,400 gallons of 200-degree water about every hour. But there are numerous other destinations to explore in the nearly 3,500-sq.-mile boundaries of the park which sits atop a volcanic hot spot. Mostly in Wyoming, the Yellowstone National Park spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho too. This 3 state land dispute is actually what led to Yellowstone being a National Park and not a State Park!
Yellowstone has something to offer visitors every month of the year. Like many other National Parks, summer is the park’s busiest season with more than half of the annual visitation occurring during June, July, and August. For a less busy experience, you’ll want to head to the park in spring (April/May) or fall (September/October), just be sure to read the current conditions before you head to the park since there may be some closures due to weather. If you’re trying to figure out when to travel, make sure you check out the park’s seasonal highlights resource.
A winter visit is unlike any other. It will fill your days with snowy landscapes, steaming geyser basins, and very fewer people. Keep in mind though, access to the interior of the park (Old Faithful, Canyon) is restricted and many facilities are closed, so be sure to plan a winter trip well in advance!
Glacier National Park, Montana
For stunning views and rosy sunsets over icy snow-capped mountains, look no further than Glacier National Park in Montana. The park is home to aquamarine lakes, meadows peppered with elk and other wildlife as well as the two Glaciers that give the park its name – Jackson Glacier and Blackfoot Glacier. This is one of the National Parks that I don’t think you would ever get tired if visiting!
Visitors can experience Glacier’s pristine forests, alpine meadows with gorgeous views, rugged mountains, and spectacular lakes that take your breath away. With over 700 miles of trails, Glacier is a favorite among hikers adventurous visitors. If you’re wondering why this National Park is called the “Crown Jewel of the Continent” I promise you’ll see why the moment you take in all of its beauty.
Throughout our nation’s history, and even before it, people have sought out Glacier National Park’s rugged peaks with beautiful views, crystal clear waters, and glacial-carved valley. The National Park’s landscapes inspire those persistent enough to venture through it, seeking wilderness and solitude along the way. In the park, you can relive the days of old as you make your way through historic chalets, lodges, and the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is a must do! The popular and park destination was constructed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It stretches over 50 miles through hands down some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in North America. The historic Going-to-the-Sun Road offers visitors breathtaking views of glacier-carved peaks, emerald-blue alpine lakes, and lush forests.
Without stopping (but trust me, you will be stopping at the lookouts!) it takes at least 2 hours to drive the full 50 miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Logan Pass is the highest point on at 6,646 feet. When it comes to the best views, Jackson Glacier Overlook affords the best opportunity to see a glacier from the road. The lookout is located on the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road between Logan Pass and St. Mary.
An amazing feature that some of the National Park’s have now are downloadable audio tours! You can now follow along with your favorite device as you drive the historic Going-to-the-Sun Road. Find Glaciers audio tour information here: Audio Tour Files
Acadia National Park, Maine
Of all the National Parks, I feel that Acadia is still one of the more underrated. Even though the park sees millions of visitors a year I don’t think it gets the praise it deserves. Acadia National Park includes mountains, ocean coastline, woodlands, lakes, and wetlands encompassing more than 49,000 acres. The park features an abundance of habitats with high biodiversity. Home to an impressive array of fauna and flora, the park protects black bear, moose, milk snakes, wood frogs, spotted salamanders, rainbow trout, just to name a few. The park’s efforts to preserve and protect wildlife have been seen first hand with the return of peregrine falcons.
In 1991, peregrine falcons successfully nested for the first time since the 1950s. Their return to the National Park has led to more programs to protect them. Today, falcon chicks are banded to study migration and longevity. If you visit in the spring or early summer there may be trails that are close to avoid disturbing the falcon nesting areas.
John D. Rockafeller fell in love with the clutch of islands that make up a section of the park and set out to protect it. In the early 1900s, he bought thousands of acres of what would eventually become Acadia National Park. Even then, one of the wealthiest men in the country who had spent summers vacationing in the area, saw the importance and beauty the area could offer future generations.
Acadia National park protects and showcases the natural beauty of the country’s highest rocky headlands along the coastline of the Atlantic. With 158 miles of trails, 16 stone bridges, and 7 peaks above 1,000 feet there is so much to do in the park! Hiking, bicycling, rock climbing, kayaking, and canoeing are always great things to do while visiting most national parks, but in Acadia, they are just a little more magical. Key sites in the park include Cadillac Mountain which, as Rockafeller once said, is “one of the greatest views in the world.” The tallest mountain on the eastern coastline is a popular sunrise viewing spot.
Redwood National and State Parks, California
Everyone is left speechless who sees these majestic giants. Born from seeds the size of corn kernels, the Giant Redwoods of California can grow up to 35 stories and trunks that stretch more than 20 feet across. And even though most people know this as one of the National Parks in which you can see the tallest trees on Earth, the park offers much more for visitors to see and do.
Redwood National and State Parks are actually a complex of several parks –
Redwood National Park and California’s Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. Their combined 139,000 acres are managed between the National Park Service and California State Parks. Together they are managing and restoring these lands so that future generations can also witness the inspiration, enjoyment, and education that comes with public lands. They protect vast prairies, oak woodlands, wild and scenic river-ways, and rugged coastline that is sure to show you some stunning views and landscapes. And perhaps most importantly the four parks, together, protect 45% of all remaining coast redwood old-growth forests.
In 1850, old-growth redwood forest covered more than 2,000,000 acres of California’s coast. Due to the failed gold rush in the area, men turned to the redwoods for harvesting. After decades of unrestricted clear-cut logging, efforts moved into conservation. By the time Redwood National Park was created in 1968, nearly 90% of the original redwood trees had been logged.
One of the best places to marvel at these stunning beauties is the well-named Tall Trees Grove which can be reached by the four-mile round trip trail. A permit is required but can be obtained at any park visitor center and is well worth it! The trail boasts magnificent views of old growth situated next to Redwood Creek. There are a number of things to do among the redwoods, as is true with any of the National Parks. The most popular options are to take a scenic drive or walk among the trees. There are also wonderful ranger-led programs to do so make sure you check the parks’ websites before your visit to see what is being offered.
Visiting American National Parks
Our National Parks are truly magnificent places filled with natural wonders that will take your breath away. Each is just as beautiful as the other and calling visitors to come explore every year. But how many of us have taken the time to explore our own back yard? I know it wasn’t until Tim and I made a day of going to Everglades and really exploring since neither of us ever had, that we decided to start seeing our public lands.
How many National Parks have you visited? Do you make it a point to vacation there? I’d love to hear about your favorite parks so comment below. We need suggestions for our next exploration!