There are a lot of ways to segment out the national park system—largest, smallest, most visited, least visited, etc. This is not that kind of list.
As national park junkies who wholly embrace the assertion that the national park system is indeed “America’s best idea,” we are major proponents of visiting as many national parks as possible. However, we realize that many people will only be able to visit a small number of national parks in their lifetime. Understanding that, we challenged ourselves to “pick our favorite kids” and select five parks that we feel provide the best understanding of the diversity and breadth of the national park system.
1. Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone National Park is the quintessential national park, not just because it is the first national park, but because it is a perfect representation of the idea of a national park. With iconic prismatic pools, towering waterfalls, and active geysers, there is no question why this place would be deemed hallowed ground and preserved.
Yellowstone National Park
2. Denali National Park. Denali National Park is far from the top of the pack when it comes to annual visitors, which is one of the reasons it makes this list. The park reminds us that ease of access and number of visitors are not defining elements of an outstanding national park. Instead, qualities like grandeur—perfectly represented here by the 20,310 ft. Denali (North America’s tallest peak) and nearly 9,500 square miles of pristine wilderness—trump more pedestrian measures.
3. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. On the resplendent island of Hawaii stand the active volcanoes Kilauea and Mauna Loa. It might actually be more precise to say that the island of Hawaii is growing beneath these volcanoes, since the rivers of molten rock that flow from these unsettled mountains are constantly expanding the island’s footprint. Here you can trek across fields of black lava rock to witness rivers of fiery lava cascading into the Pacific Ocean, a spectacle that represents the kind of awe-inspiring natural phenomena that one can only find in a national park.
Viewfinder Tip: For just US$80 you can get an annual Interagency Pass to access “more than 2,000 recreation areas […] with up to 100% of the proceeds being used to improve and enhance visitor recreation services.”
4. Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the least-visited parks in the Grand Circle, a chain of national parks that spreads out across Utah and Arizona like a jewel-studded necklace. Regardless, it makes the list for its geographical uniqueness, another common denominator within the national park system. In Bryce Canyon National Park, the rust, rose, and pink desert is punctuated by hoodoos: thin stone spires holding up larger stones like upside down exclamation points.
5. Olympic National Park. Covering one million acres with several distinct regions—rugged coastline, temperate rain forests, and glaciated mountains—Olympic National Park is an outstanding representation of the sheer diversity of the National Park Service in one single park. In one day you can go from windswept peaks blanketed in glaciers to ancient old-growth forests festooned in moss abutting the rocky Pacific coastline.
Which national park do you feel should have made the list?
Interagency Pass information courtesy of www.nps.gov.