It’s crazy to think that over a century ago, there were no national parks in the US or anywhere in the world. Mother Nature and its magnificent, mostly unexplored landscapes didn’t seem to need a reason for conservation. After all, it’s nature in its raw, pristine state.
But, when iconic natural wonders like Niagara Falls began to be ravaged by commercialism in the late 1860s, the idea of conservation gained momentum to restore and preserve not only those natural sites already affected, but protect those that still maintain their pristine state.
It was in 1872 that Yellowstone became the first of currently 59 National Parks in the US that show the best the country has in natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and recreational opportunities. While visiting all 59 national parks can be a challenge, you should at least consider visiting these five at some point in your life.
Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming, Montana and Idaho
Not only does Yellowstone hold the distinction of being the first National Park in the world, but its 2.2 million acres offer a dynamic natural experience that includes dramatic mountains, deep canyons, pristine lakes, buffalo-filled valleys, and of course, its famous hot springs and geysers. Truly an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise.
Hiking is one of the best activities to do here and depending on the season; you might share the trails with permanent residents like the elk, buffalos, and even grizzlies.
Not to be missed are the famous Old Faithful geyser and the multicolored hot springs, which are the main attraction of the park. Also worth visiting are the Yellowstone Lake and Mammoth Hot Springs, which are less crowded than Old Faithful. And if you want to explore even further, you can venture out to the hot springs in the West Thumb Geyser Basin and the Lewis River Channel, among other places.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park - North Carolina and Tennessee
The Great Smoky Mountains, or The Smokies, is home to one of America’s oldest mountain ranges –the Appalachians– as well as its famous Appalachian Trail that spans 14 states. In fact, with more than 10 million visitors a year, this is the most visited national park in all of the United States.
The Smokies’ 520,000-plus acres extend across the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, in an area rich with lush forest, creeks, and waterfalls. The Appalachian Mountains have a long history of human settlers that dates back to the prehistoric Paleo Indians and extends all the way to 19th-century European colonists. You can enjoy scenic drives to Cades Cove, where you can see part of this history; head to the Roaring Fork Motor Trail where you can do outdoor activities like hiking, biking, and fishing; or hike to Abrams or Rainbow Falls.
Grand Teton National Park - Wyoming
This park is often overlooked for its famous neighbor, Yellowstone, but don’t make that mistake, as Grand Teton is quite a stunning national park. The park offers all kinds of activities for all seasons, including skiing and snowshoeing during the winter months; and hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, and more during the warmer months.
Still, like with most national parks, hiking its over 200 miles of trails weaving across prairies, lakes and jagged, snowcapped peaks is one of the most popular activities here. If you have to pick just one trail, go for the 11-mile Cascade Canyon Trail that showcases the best topography found in the park.
Besides outdoor activities, Grand Teton also offers the opportunity to see evidence of North American tribes that date back 11,000 years. There are also historic districts like Menors Ferry and Mormon Row where you can vividly see the 19th-century history of the Western Frontier. If wildlife is your thing, you’ll have the chance to see black bears, grizzlies, moose, antelope and bison, and golden aspens.
Yosemite National Park - California
This is California’s most visited park thanks to iconic landscapes that include the granite rock formations of Half Dome and El Capitan, and the stunning Vernal Falls and Bridalveil Falls. You can get a glimpse of most of these together from the Tunnel View Outlook, where you can get a postcard-worthy shot of the park.
Another exciting feature of Yosemite is the millennia-old Sequoia Trees, which are the world’s largest single trees, towering up to 280 feet and grow as thick as 26 feet in diameter. Also, Yosemite is also home to the impressive Yosemite Falls, which is North America’s tallest waterfall.
Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona
Compared to the other parks on this list, the Grand Canyon stands out for the iconic, massive canyon that comprises it. The unique rock formations, incredible depth, and the ochre hues that form this vast canyon cannot be compared to anything else in this world.
Whether you see it from the air on a plane or helicopter ride, down below rafting on the waters of the Colorado River, or right on the rim looking down the precipice, you’ll be impressed by its beauty, its complexity, and natural might. Additionally, the Grand Canyon is a photographers paradise, where you can find several vantage points that are equally or more impressive than the last.
With 4.5 million tourists a year, the Grand Canyon can get a bit crowded, especially if you head to the South Rim – where you’ll find the Grand Canyon Village and Bright Angel Trail. But if you’re looking for a more secluded experience, you can head to the North Rim where you can go camping and hiking on more challenging trails.
What’s your favorite national park?
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