Covering about 51.9 million protected acres, America’s national parks feature some of the most diverse natural beauty on Earth. And with the National Park Service’s 100th birthday coming up in 2016, there’s no better time to visit. From glaciers, waterfalls, and canyons to forests, lava fields, and mountains, here’s the best of our wild places.
At more than 20,000 feet, Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) is so gargantuan that only about half of the hikers who set out for the summit make it to the top. The tallest mountain in North America, Denali is part of the Alaska Range, where glaciers, tundra, and forests lure hikers, campers, cross-country skiers, and dog-sledders from all over the world.
Grizzlies, caribou, wolves, and moose make their home in Denali National Park’s 6 million acres of backcountry. Set out early along Denali Park Road for your best chance of seeing the animals in their natural habitat.
Hawai’i Volcanoes: Hawaii
Hawai’I Volcanoes National Park is home to the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. The park’s landscape is otherworldly—there’s black lava fields, red-hot fiery flows, Hawaiian flora and fauna, and the wild Pacific. The challenging 11-mile Crater Rim Trail is worth doing; it circles Kilauea’s summit caldera and takes hikers among (dormant) steam vents and along steep cliffs.
Rocky Mountain: Colorado
Located in the northern part of Colorado’s Front Range and split by the Continental Divide, Rocky Mountain National Park has a drier, more arid side and a lush, deeply forested side. There are 72 mountain peaks of more than 12,000 feet here; at 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is the highest.
Within the park you can go camping, fishing, mountaineering, and hiking, but the easiest and most popular way to enjoy the scenery comes simply from driving around. Check out the Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park to Grand Lake; it starts above the tree line and winds down through evergreen forests and vast tundra.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison: Colorado
While the Grand Canyon National Park steals the limelight as far as canyons to see in the west go, the relatively little-known Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is just as majestic with its 12-by-48-mile ravine stretching along the Gunnison River. Due to its steepness, the gorge itself only receives 33 minutes of direct sunlight a day, hence the Black Canyon’s name. The most scenic drive around the park is along US Highway 50 and Colorado Highway 92.
Viewfinder Tip: The National Park Service offered nine free entrance days in 2015. Stay tuned for their 2016 calendar.
Great Smoky Mountains: North Carolina and Tennessee
Covering more than 500,000 acres, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the United States. It’s home to roughly 1,500 black bears (that’s the highest concentration of black bears in the east). Elk live in the park, too; to see them, bring your binoculars and head to Cataloochee Valley at dawn or dusk.
A classic day hike in the Smokies is to Ramsey Cascades, a 100-foot waterfall that visitors reach after an 8-mile round-trip hike (with a 2,000-foot elevation gain) from the trailhead of the same name.
Glacier National Park still has 25 active glaciers of its original 150 left, but they’re predicted to melt by 2030 if current climate patterns continue. So basically, go now.
The 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road is a classic drive (or cycle!) that takes you through some of the best scenery in the park. The highlight for many is the view from Jackson Glacier Overlook between Logan Pass and St. Mary, but one of the coolest things about Glacier is that if you look up at just about any high, craggy ridge in the park for a few minutes, you’ll likely see a mountain goat or two. Glacier’s also a good place for spotting moose and grizzlies.
Badlands National Park
Badlands: South Dakota
Badlands National Park protects 242,756 acres of prairie and eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spirals that contain the most complete fossil preserve in North America. A lot of what we know of the America’s distant past is due to the park’s fossils—camel, rhinoceros, and even marine fossils dating back 75 million years have been found here.
Yosemite National Park made headlines this year after rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson were the first to successfully free climb the Dawn Wall of the El Capitan rock formation. One of the hardest climbs in the world, it took Caldwell and Jorgeson 19 days of living on the wall’s face to reach the top.
Located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, Yosemite’s beauty is perhaps best summed by late photographer Ansel Adams, “Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”
Yellowstone: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
The world’s first national park, Yellowstone is located on a volcanic hotspot and extends from Wyoming into Montana and Idaho. Here you’ll find a vast collection of forests, waterfalls, geysers, steam vents, valleys, and lakes.
Yellowstone National Park
Two of the park’s most iconic features are Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful geyser (which erupts like clockwork every 91 minutes), but Yellowstone is also a showcase for America’s megafauna. Home to grizzlies, wolves, and mountain lions, the national park hosts the largest free-roaming public herd of bison in the United States.
Located on a salt bed from a sea that flowed more than 300 million years ago, Arches National Park has more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, rocks, and spires formed by millennia of erosion.
A few standout formations include Balanced Rock, a 128-foot formation topped with a 55-foot “balancing rock” the size of three school buses, and Delicate Arch, a 65-foot freestanding natural arch.
Imagine a place where water travels from snowcapped peaks, through old-growth temperate rainforest, and down to meet the Pacific Ocean. Now you have a good idea of what Olympic National Park is like.
Exploring the temperate rainforests is a look into a protected and dwindling population of some of the world’s biggest trees, many of which are hundreds of years old. With 73 miles of protected coastline, Olympic National Park also is made for exploring tide pools, beaches, and cliffs, and for spotting local wildlife, including bald eagles, from sweet camping spots such as Shi Shi Beach.
Which national parks are your favorites and why?
This post was written by Jill Kozak, a frequent contributor to Matador Network. Read more of her work by clicking here. Jill shot the photos of Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park that accompany this piece.