The United States is an incredibly diverse country when it
comes to landscapes – probably because the country is so large. From mountains
to deserts to beaches, American has it all. And, for more than 100 years, it's
been understood that this diversity is worth preserving.
The National Park Service was founded in 1916 by an act
signed by President Woodrow Wilson. The U.S. had already been protecting land
deemed to be special, however, for more than 30 years by that point
Today, the national park system includes 401 protected and
recognized areas across the country, including national parks, monuments,
battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores,
seashores, recreation areas, and scenic rivers and trails. Of those 401 sites,
59 are designated as national parks.
If 59 seems too daunting a number, however, here are the top
five national parks to add to your travel bucket list:
Located in Arizona, the Grand Canyon is not only a national
park, but also a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. It's also usually
considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World because of its size
and depth. Having been carved out by the Colorado River over millions of years,
the Grand Canyon itself is visited by millions of people each and every year.
Most people (90 percent) visit the South Rim, which is the
most accessible. Here there's a shuttle to take you around to various
viewpoints, as well as the starting points for activities like donkey rides and
hiking trails. You can also visit the North Rim, however, which has more of a
“natural” feeling and much smaller crowds.
Located mostly in the state of Wyoming (but also spilling
over into Montana and Idaho), Yellowstone was America's first national park,
having been officially designated one by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
It's known for its wildlife and geothermal activity, including the Old Faithful
Geyser. Yellowstone actually sits atop the Yellowstone Caldera, a super-volcano
that is still considered to be active – leading to the park's abundance of
Along with geothermal lakes and geysers, people flock to
Yellowstone each year to see some of its wildlife. The park is home to grizzly
bears, wolves, elk, bighorn sheep, and more, including the largest and oldest
herd of bison in the country.
Located in Colorado in the heart of the Rocky Mountains,
this national park is known for its sweeping mountain views and more than 150
lakes. People come here to hike, fish, and see fauna that includes bighorn
sheep, elk, beaver, and even moose.
If you're visiting during warmer months (i.e. when there's
no snow), be sure to drive the famous Trail Ridge Road that traverses the park
from Estes Park to Grand Lake, Colorado. This is the highest-elevation paved
road in the United States and offers up some great views of the park.
Located in northern California, Yosemite is not only one of
the most-visited parks in the U.S., but also paved the way for the national
park system as we know it. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a park
bill that created the Yosemite Grant, marking the first time that the U.S.
federal government had specifically set aside land for public use. The Yosemite
Grant paved the way for Yellowstone to become the first official national park
eight years later and went on to inspire similar projects in countries around
Today, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, granite cliffs
(very popular with rock climbers), and groves of Giant Sequoia trees. The park
was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. If you go, be sure to take
a ranger-led tour around the Yosemite Valley to learn more about it.
Surprising as it may be, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
is the busiest park in the U.S., drawing upwards of 9 million visitors each
year. Located in Tennessee and North Carolina, the park has very high levels of
both precipitation and humidity, leading to the fog that often blankets the
forests in the mornings and evenings, giving the mountains their “smoky” name.
Great Smoky is popular with hikers and fly fishermen, and is
also known for the thousands of species of plants and animals that call the
park home. Many tourists tie in visits to Great Smoky with visits to places
like Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
If you decide to go on a National Park-heavy trip around
America this year, be sure to look into buying a National Parks Pass. At $80 for the year, this can save
you money if you plan to visit at least three major national parks within a
Note: Available plans and coverages may have changed since this blog was published.
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Graduate student by day and avid traveler and blogger by night (and on weekends and during holidays), Amanda is just a small-town Ohio girl trying to balance a "normal" life with a desire to discover the world beyond her Midwest bubble. Amanda's adventurous nature and inability to say "no" have led her to some pretty amazing adventures all around the world. But she has no desire to stop exploring anytime soon. Read Amanda's blog, A Dangerous Business, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus.
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