With 59 amazing national parks from which to choose, it became a monumental task to narrow down which parks to put on my bucket list. Thankfully, the beauty of a bucket list is that when you check something off, you can add something else back on. With that in mind, while the five parks listed below represent the first five national parks on my bucket list, they are just the beginning of my quest to visit them all.
Why am I so crazy about national parks this year? Because the National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday in 2016. The Park Service stands for far more than recreation, conservation, and historic preservation. It is our heritage, our American legacy. It is people and nature, memories old and new. It is where adventure begins, where you become a kindred spirit with the earth, and a place to for you to wander and wonder.
For me, it has sparked a deeper and more personal connection to my family. Growing up, it was my father’s mission to take my mom, brother, and me to as many national parks as he could so we could walk in the footsteps of famous historians and bring history to life. My dad purchased a motor home and off we went on weekends and school vacations to see the United States of America.
Not only did we get to see our country, but we experienced it first-hand. My childhood memories of visiting Manassas National Battlefield Park, Harper’s Ferry, and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park are just a few of the many extraordinary recollections I have of traversing the country with my dad at the helm of “Winnie” the Winnebago. The experience stirred in me a curiosity to learn more, see more, and travel more. My dad’s nomadic spirit and pursuit of adventure lives on in me today.
Grand Canyon National Park
If you’ve ever visited the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty or the White House then you’ve experienced a national park. The parks can be as small as the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania (at 0.02 acres) or as grand as the largest one of the bunch, the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska (which comprises a staggering 13.2 million acres).
I decided to begin my national park bucket list with parks that spanned the states, starting in the northeast and heading west.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park is located along the coast of Maine on Mount Desert Island. It has more than 120 miles of historic hiking trails, 45 miles of carriage roads, two beaches, kayaking, canoeing, and some spectacular views of Bar Harbor and the Cranberry Islands from the top of Cadillac Mountain. There also is a brand new campground located on lesser-known Schoodic Peninsula, two campgrounds on Mount Desert island, and accommodations (ranging from quaint bed-and-breakfasts to family-friendly hotels and luxury inns) in Bar Harbor.
Everglades National Park
The Everglades National Park encompasses 1.5 million acres and spans three south Florida counties. It has three entrances; one in Homestead connecting to the Royal Palm and Flamingo areas; one in Miami dubbed the Shark Valley entrance; and one in Everglades City, which is referred to as the Gulf Coast entrance. If you are a lover of mammals, this is the perfect national park for you. There are more than 40 species of mammals that live in the park: fox, deer, racoons, otters, bats, bobcats, and dolphins are among them. But the most well known Everglades resident has to be the alligator, with more than 200,000 of the reptiles calling the Everglades home. When you visit, commune with nature while hiking, canoeing, biking, or camping. Everglades National Park also is a designated a World heritage Site, an International Biosphere reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance.
Viewfinder Tip: Do your part to keep America beautiful, and “leave no trace” when you visit national parks. This means you carry out what you carry in.
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park features 1,904 square miles, more than 1 million acres of land, and 277 river miles. Simply put, the place is massive. It would take you two days to hike to the bottom of the canyon and back. Rim to rim hikes can take three days just to go one way, and a Grand Canyon river-rafting trip could take you two weeks or longer to complete. There also is plenty to do for those of us who are less adventuresome or agile. You can fly into Phoenix, Flagstaff or Las Vegas, rent a car, and enjoy scenic drives throughout the park, take short or modified hikes, backpack, attend a free ranger program, or visit one of the museums. Guided tours are available, but if you want a memory to last a lifetime, experience the canyon on the back of a mule.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park comprises 1,200 square miles of jaw-dropping cliffs, valleys, waterfalls and wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California. Yosemite musts: Take a leisurely drive along the Tioga Road or Glacier Point Road for breathtaking scenery, hike to Yosemite Falls (one of the world’s tallest), watch a meteor shower after dark, and feel dwarfed by the towering sequoias.
While there are a multitude of choices for accommodations in and around Yosemite, everyone’s bucket list should include a stay at The Ahwahnee. A National Historic Landmark, this grand hotel was constructed in the 1920s from 5,000 tons of stone, 1,000 tons of steel, and 30,000 feet of timber. Back then it was one of the best hotel experiences in the world. It still offers a 4-star experience to this day. The hotel boasts views of Glacier Point, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls that are nothing short of magical. If that’s not enough to wow you, consider this: Presidents, moguls, and Hollywood royalty all have stayed here as well.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site in the southeastern Alaskan wilderness. It has 3.3 million acres of massive glaciers, fjords, rainforest, unspoiled coastline and mountainous terrain. The majority of visitors arrive by cruise ship, but the Alaska Marine Highway also has regular service between Juneau and Gustavus, the park’s gateway community. You can stay in the Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove, the only accommodations within the park.
Glacier Bay will take your breath away. Look out for moose foraging in the wild, otters swimming at your side as you kayak in the icy water, and brown bears lumbering along the shoreline. If you go out and about in the park, you likely will breathe more fresh-clean air than your lungs can hold. Glacier Bay allowed me to find a peaceful center, a stillness where I was indeed one with nature. I’ll never forget it.
What are your favorite national parks and why?