The moment you roll up in the national parks you feel it – you’re entering someplace special. Maybe it’s the mountain air or the smell of trees. Most likely it’s because you’re about to see something big. Something indescribable.
A canyon so deep you can see two billion years of geological history in its walls. Trees so massive you could fit buildings inside them. If you can only sample a taste of what these parks have to offer, these are the top sights and activities that can’t be missed in the USA’s national parks.
1. Yosemite Valley – Yosemite National Park, California
In Yosemite Valley, the national park system’s crown jewel, massive granite rock formations tower thousands of feet over the Merced River. Wild creeks plummet from the cliff tops, creating a spectacle of waterfalls unlike anywhere on earth. And presiding over it all stand the iconic and mighty sentinels of rock, including El Capitan, Half Dome, the Royal Arches, the Three Brothers and Cathedral Rocks. No matter what people tell you about the summer crowds, the sights of Yosemite Valley are so astonishing that almost nothing can detract from the experience.
2. Going-to-the-Sun Road – Glacier National Park, Montana
One of America’s most spectacular roads is in one of its most spectacular national parks – Glacier. Going-to-the-Sun Road offers steely-nerved motorists the drive of their life. Chiseled out of the mountainside and punctuated by some of the sheerest and most vertiginous drop-offs in the US, this 50-mile, vista-laden strip of asphalt offers drivers access to some of the most astounding sights in the Rockies.
Although it only climbs to 6646 feet (at Logan Pass), it feels as if you’re driving on the roof of the world. Who knew second gear could be so much fun?
3. Sunset – Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
When Bob Dylan wrote of God and Woody Guthrie, he said “I may be right or wrong/You’ll find them both/In the Grand Canyon/At sundown.” Of all the places to watch the sunset in the world, few can measure up to the Grand Canyon. Lipan Point is one of the finest spots to do it.
But if you’re feeling leisurely, simply grab a drink and a porch swing on the patio of El Tovar lodge, where you can watch the sunset in style.
4. Snake River – Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Spilling down from Jackson Lake beneath the mighty Teton Range, the wild and scenic Snake River offers some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the country. Not only are its waters the perfect place to gawk at the Tetons themselves (including the 13,775ft Grand Teton), but they’re prime for wildlife watching.
Numerous outfitters offer float trips ranging from gentle to giant water. No matter which you choose, prepare to be awed.
5. Rock climbing – Joshua Tree National Park, California
Whether you’re a rock-climbing novice or a bouldering goddess, you’ll find heaven above earth when you take to the granite in Joshua Tree. With more than 8000 established climbing routes, this is truly one of the world’s rock meccas.
There are classes for beginners, and the 400-plus climbing formations offer endless fun for seasoned enthusiasts. Amid the giant boulders and sweaty climbers, the bizarre Joshua trees themselves lend the scenery an otherworldly character.
6. Longs Peak – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Whether you hike to the top of its 14,259-foot summit or just ogle its glaciated slopes from below, Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountains is truly a feast for the eyes. Given it’s the highest peak in the park, it should be.
Those who attempt the ascent via the Keyhole Route must first brave the hair-raising Ledges, before conquering the Trough and inching across the Narrows, which finally give way to the (whew!) Homestretch. The views from the top are mind-boggling.
7. The Narrows – Zion National Park, Utah
Check your claustrophobia at the door and prepare to get wet on this hike up the Virgin River into a 2000-foot-deep slot canyon. As you make your way upriver, the cliffs press inward, towering higher and higher until, finally, you reach Wall Street, where the canyon narrows to under 30-foot wide.
Here, the river is bound by massive cliffs, and no matter how many times you’ve checked the weather, it’s impossible to get the thought of flashfloods out of your mind. The beauty of the place in Zion is otherworldly, and the adventure is unforgettable.
8. Wildlife watching – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho
No matter how many nature shows you’ve seen, nothing can prepare you for the first time you spot a moose in the wild. And in Yellowstone, if you don’t see a moose – or a bison or a herd of elk or a bear – you probably have your eyes closed. On par with the Galápagos, the Serengeti and Brazil’s Pantanal, these parks are some of the world’s premier wildlife-watching destinations.
Big mammals are everywhere. The knowledge that grizzlies, wolves and mountain lions are among them simply adds to the rush. Yellowstone is definitely the more popular of the two national parks, but don’t miss the opportunity to experience all the dramatic mountain scenery and crystal blue water that Grand Teton has to offer.
9. Sunrise – Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine
Catching the country’s “first sunrise” from the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia is hands-down one of the finest ways to kick off a day. At 1530 feet, Cadillac Mountain is the highest point on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, and the views over the Atlantic are sublime.
The island is one of the easternmost points in the USA, and, while it’s technically not the first place that catches the morning sun, we prefer to do what everyone else up top is doing at sunrise: ignoring the technicalities and blissing out.
10. Bryce Amphitheater – Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Proof that nature has a wild imagination, hoodoos are one of the strangest formations on the planet.
From the rim of southern Utah’s Bryce Amphitheater, you can look down upon thousands of these bizarre, ancient rock spires as they tower out of the so-called Silent City, a conglomeration of hoodoos so vast you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d landed on another planet. Sunrise over the amphitheater is one of life’s treats.
11. Hoh Rainforest – Olympic National Park, Washington
Embrace the rain! It’s what makes this temperate rainforest in Olympic, in all its Tolkienesque beauty, one of the greenest places in North America. With an average rainfall of up to 170in (that’s 14ft), it is also one of the wettest.
This tremendous amount of water creates a forest covered in mosses, lichens and ferns, with a canopy so dense the forest floor seems trapped in the perpetual low light of dusk. Pack your rain shell and watch for the Roosevelt elk.
12. Paddling – Everglades National Park, Florida
The third-largest of the country’s national parks is a paddler’s paradise, with kayak and canoe “trails” meandering through mangrove swamps and freshwater marshes that teem with wildlife.
Crocodiles, alligators (no, honey, that’s not a floating log), turtles, cormorants, herons, egrets and fish are just some of the wildlife boaters come across while paddling around this subtropical park. Thanks to Everglades National Park’s handy (and free) kayak and canoe trail maps, navigating the waters is fairly straightforward. Remember to pack the binoculars!
13. Cliff Palace – Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
This grand engineering achievement in Mesa Verde, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, has 217 rooms and 23 kivas, and once provided shelter for 250 to 300 Ancestral Puebloans. To access Cliff Palace, visitors must climb down a stone stairway and four 10ft ladders, as part of an hour-long ranger-led tour.
It’s a great place to puzzle out the clues left by its former inhabitants – who vacated the site in AD 1300 for reasons still not fully understood.
14. Kayaking – Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Blue-water paddling – kayaking in Alaskan coastal areas, which are characterized by extreme tidal fluctuations, cold water and the possibility of high winds and waves – is the means of escape into areas such as Muir Inlet in Glacier Bay.
Everywhere you turn, a tide-water glacier seems to be calving in this grand park, where you may also see humpback whales, black bears, seals and bald eagles.
15. Wildflower Season – Mt Rainier National Park, Washington
Mt Rainier is covered in glaciers, and the high meadows are blanketed in snow for nearly nine months of the year. Once the snow finally melts and the meadows are exposed, wildflowers explode into bloom. Avalanche lilies, beargrass, bog orchids, wood nymphs and dozens of other flowers turn the slopes of the Cascade’s highest mountain into a rainbow of color.