Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. – John Muir
While I enjoy the world’s great cities, I love being outdoors and seeing the natural wonders of creation. With more than 400 protected places, the USA’s National Park System provides amazing opportunities to experience nature at an excellent value. But with so many options, how do you choose which to explore? Below are my favorites – the parks I would never tire of seeing again. For this list, I have chosen not include the Alaska and Hawaii parks, not because they aren’t worthy, but because they are special enough to warrant a list of their own.
5. Grand Teton National Park
Though not as famous as its big brother to the north, this park makes the top five because of its sheer beauty. The panorama of bucolic plains set against a backdrop of majestic mountains is wonderful in any season. Top experiences includes wildlife watching (moose, grizzly bears, bison), rafting, hiking and snowshoeing. For the less adventurous, enjoy a picnic or meal overlooking Jackson Lake, a perfect table-setter before driving north into Yellowstone.
4. Acadia National Park
Located along Maine’s ragged shore, Acadia’s diversity makes it so special. Rocky seaside cliffs include fascinating viewpoints like Thunder Hole, where incoming tides roar and spout like a geyser. Visitors rightly rave about sunrise views atop Cadillac Mountain, but I also loved the peaceful serenity of sunset at Pretty Marsh. It was so quiet there we heard dolphins breathing before we spotted them. A wide variety of lodging on Mt. Desert Island allows a holiday experience to fit different budgets. Sampling fresh lobster is a must, as well as blueberry pancakes in Bar Harbor.
3. Glacier National Park
My wife rightly calls this place “puzzle country,” because virtually everywhere you look appears to be an award-winning mountain vista worthy of a jigsaw puzzle image. Located along the Canadian border in northwest Montana, Glacier Park is one of the country’s oldest. A dazzling landscape of glaciers, lakes and mountains, hikers will especially enjoy it. Top experiences include driving the Going-to-the-Sun road and touring in one of the vintage 1930s red buses. Dining in one of the “parketechture-style” lodges is a throwback to an earlier era, when railroads courted eastern tourists to “see America first.” Amtrak’s Empire Builder train provides direct service from Chicago and Seattle.
2. Bryce Canyon National Park
An early artist, when asked to paint a scene of this red rock canyon’s fantastically shaped pinnacles, simply stated, “It can’t be done!” The dazzling array of colors on display make a visually stunning vista. Unlike nearby Zion, where you follow the gorge gazing up, driving to Rainbow Point is a completely different high-elevation experience that will leave you breathless. We enjoyed a short morning hike on the Queens Garden trail followed by a bountiful breakfast buffet at the lodge. A special highlight was visiting in October, where a fresh snowfall contrasted with the golden aspen leaves, reddish-orange rocks and bright blue sky.
1. Yellowstone National Park
Visiting the world’s first national park is truly like being on another planet. Most people go for the geysers, one of nature’s rarest spectacles, but there’s much more than Old Faithful. The wildlife is spectacular, whether watching wolves, bear, bison or bald eagles. From colorful hot springs to bubbling mud pots, the variety of geothermal formations is amazing. Yellowstone canyon and the magnificent Lower Falls are legendary. My personal favorite is Grand Geyser, which sloshes and froths like a dancing fountain, often finishing in a spectacular super burst. Don’t miss Mammoth Hot Springs in the northwest corner, and I highly recommend entering or exiting the park through the northeast entrance via the jaw-dropping Beartooth Highway.
- Purchase a souvenir National Park Passport and enjoy collecting color-coded cancellations and stamps from your various visits.
- Like many popular travel spots, the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) are less crowded and have more pleasant weather, but realize the high elevation parks are closed or inaccessible for much of the long winter.
- Book park lodging or campsites well in advance for the unique opportunity to be inside the parks overnight, allowing a head start for morning excursions.
- Book special excursions (such as Glacier’s Red Bus Tours) well in advance and then build your itinerary around those activities. Also allow time for relaxing and adjusting to the slower pace of outdoor life.
What’s your favorite national park? Why?