The Splendor of the U.S. National Parks

Thanks largely to the foresight and dedication of geologists, activists, planners, the general public, and U.S. presidents, the United States National Parks are a treasured part of our national heritage. The Parks are extremely well-managed and make a visit comfortable or difficult, depending on whether you wish to drive or hike to a summit. There are currently 63 national parks in the United States.

The first U.S. national park, Yellowstone National Park, was founded when President Ulysses S. Grant signed The Yellowstone Act on March 1, 1872. Although Yosemite preceded Yellowstone as a park when it was established in 1864, the former was considered to be a “state” park at that time.

Listed in alphabetical order, the following is a brief account of my 10 best-loved National Parks, followed by 10 Tips for Visiting U.S. National Parks.

Acadia National Park

The Acadia National Park is my favorite national park in the United States. Located in Maine, the Acadia National Park is a 47,000-acre recreation area on Mount Desert Island.

I recommend that you begin your visit at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. You will have to climb 52 steps to get to the Center from the parking lot. However, there is access through a back entrance for those with special access needs. The Center has a film that runs every 30-minutes and you should plan on this viewing.

Drive up to Cadillac Mountain to watch a sunrise or sunset, hike the paths, or take a carriage ride. Tip: Drive the Park Loop twice; scout out and plan the places to stop on the first drive, and then on the second drive make your stops. For the more adventurous, I recommend the Precipice Trail. Not for kids or those with a fear of heights. If the "intimidator obstacle" [boulder outcropping with a couple of iron rungs] intimidates you, I suggest you turn around as you are close to the start of the trail. I also hiked the Beehive Trail [highly recommended] but the Precipice Trail is longer and designated as strenuous.

Arches National Park

Located in Utah, the striking red rock features you see at the Arches National Park were once buried thousands of feet underground. Geologic forces led to the folding of the sandstone and the region began to rise from sea level to thousands of feet in elevation. Water now shapes the environment at the Park wherein small recesses have been transformed into fins and fins to arches [a 3-foot opening in any direction]. There are over 2,000 arches inside the Park. These arches collapse over time which gives them the nature of impermanence that I am constantly drawn to.

Traffic jams are not uncommon in Arches National Park between March and October. Get there early and you can also beat the crowds at the Delicate Arch. Take your time at the Park and wear hiking shoes. The Park is open year around, 24 hours a day. Summer temperature at the Park can exceed 100° F [37° C]. From spring through fall, the Park offers guided walks and evening programs. Devils Garden is the only campground [23 miles from Moab] in Arches National Park. Get your reservation in advance and make sure you have supplies with you.

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park in South Dakota is open year around, 24 hours a day. In winter, some of the roads going through the Park are closed due to weather conditions. Stop by the Visitor Center to pick up a map or speak with a park ranger. If you are interested in frontcountry camping, there are two official campgrounds. Backcountry camping is permitted anywhere in the Park as long as you are .5 miles from a road or trail but not visible from a road or trail.

I recommend the sunrise and sunset hours to enjoy the splendor of the Badlands National Park. The Park has an Open Hike Policy, which means you are allowed to hike off trail. The Door Trail and Window Trail are easy hikes. The 10-mile round trip Castle Trail passes through a few badlands formations. Bicycles are permitted on designated dirt, gravel, and paved roads within the Park. If you would rather drive, take the paved loop road. The Loop State Scenic Byway is 31 miles one way and has 10 overlooks.

Bryce Canyon National Park

You may have seen photos of the crimson-colored hoodoos [rock formations due to physical and chemical weathering] of Bryce Canyon National Park located in southern Utah. The most famous hoodoo in the Park is Thor’s Hammer. Hoodoos are found all over the world but the ones at the Bryce Canyon National Park “are the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth.”

The Park is open year around, 24 hours a day. Check out the Ranger Programs board at the Visitor Center that lists programs for the day and week. If you want a short and easy hike, take the Mossy Cave Trail or Bristlecone Loop Trail. If you happen to be at the Park on a full moon night, I recommend the Full Moon Hike. (Photo credit: Kelsey Johnson)

Denali National Park and Preserve

Six million acres and a road! Yes, that is Denali National Park and Preserve waiting for you in Alaska. Remember that your mobile phone might not have service depending on where you are in the Park. Disconnect; that’s the point. Plan to spend 3-4 days at the Park.

The first thing you need to decide is when you wish to visit the Denali National Park and Preserve—spring is short, a matter of days; summers [early June to mid-September] are short too and it gets crowded; winters are harsh but beautiful. Please note that there are no National Park Service-run accommodations in the Park and Preserve. There are six campgrounds—three for tents and vehicle camping and three for tents only.

I recommend the 92-mile Denali Park Road. You can drive up to Mile 15 on the Park Road and then take the National Park Service bus. Better yet, book a narrated bus tour with a trained naturalist. If you can, take a fixed-wing plane ride. It is worth the price. If you want to land on a glacier, remember to book a ski-equipped airplane.

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon National Park is probably one of the most famous landmarks in the world. Plan to arrive early or late afternoon because visitor traffic gets quickly overcrowded at the Park. The same is advisable if you plan to hike in the Park because summer temperatures can exceed 111° F [44° C]. The South Rim [most popular with tourists] is open year around, 24 hours a day. Approximately 10% of visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park travel to the North Rim and this might appeal to some. Please note that there are fewer viewpoints from the North Rim and the Grand Canyon is not in all its splendor from there. The North Rim is closed during winter.

The Park offers several activities—air tours, biking, hiking, mule trips, white water rafting, etc. The lines for these activities are long and paperwork for permits take time. If you prefer a 4-5 day guided backpacking tour, the Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute offers several possibilities. Tip: If you are driving, I recommend the Desert View Drive, which is a 25-mile scenic route along the South Rim. There are six viewpoints and four picnic areas, including a Tusayan ruins site and museum. Desert View lookout is at the end of the drive. A 70-foot watchtower provides great views of the canyon, Colorado River, Painted Desert, and San Francisco Peaks.

Mt. Rainier National Park

Located in Washington, Mt. Rainier National Park is open year around. Remember to check on road conditions during the winter months. Summer is a busy time at the Park and I recommend visiting mid-week. The Park has two inns and there are several lodging options outside the Park. There are four National Park Service campgrounds in the Park.

If you are driving from Seattle, you will arrive at the Nisqually Entrance that will take you to Paradise village on Route 706. The Visitor Center at Paradise is an ideal place to get more information about a hike [pick up a Trail Map] or to take part in a Ranger Program. Since this area is popular, I recommend getting here early in the day or visiting during the shoulder season as I do for my travels. There are several trails. Choose one that fits your activity level. You don’t need a permit for day hiking. Pack a picnic lunch. Carry a mosquito repellent. I went on the 5.5-mile [moderately strenuous clockwise loop] Skyline Trail from Paradise, which climbs 1,700 feet in elevation. The view from Panorama Point is worth the hike. (Photo credit: Vlada Karpovich)

Saguaro National Park

A symbol of the American west, the giant saguaro [pronounced sa-wa-roe] is protected by the Saguaro National Park in Arizona. A drive through the park gives you the opportunity to see these enormous cacti. According to the U.S. National Park Service, "the average lifespan of a saguaro cactus is 150 years, but some plants may live more than 200 years. A 20 foot tall saguaro weighs approximately 1 ton (2000 pounds)."

Saguaro National Park offers guided walks and informative talks. The winter season—November through March—is busy. The informational programs vary from easy strolls to strenuous hikes. Carry water. Wear a hat. March and April are the best months to view wildflowers in the Saguaro National Park. In late April, the Saguaro begins to bloom and by June the fruits begin to ripen.

There are several trails in the Park. The lower elevations of the Saguaro National Park encompass Sonoran Desert vegetation. The higher elevations contain desert scrub and desert grassland. Common wildlife in this area include the desert tortoise, coyote, and Gambel’s quail. You can bike around scenic loop drives to enjoy the park: a) Cactus Forest Loop Drive is an 8-mile paved loop, and b) Bajada Loop Drive is a 6-mile gravel loop.

Yosemite National Park

Located in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite National Park is a 3-hour drive from San Francisco. Open year around, reservations [for vehicles, not number of people] are required to enter the Park and there is an entrance fee. If you plan to stay at a lodge, camp, or just backpack, make your reservations in advance. Permits are required if you plan to hike to the top of Half Dome.

The diverse landscape of the park supports over 1,000 plant species. The giant sequoias in the Park can live up to 3,000 years. The Yosemite Falls is made up of three separate falls—Upper Yosemite Fall, middle cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall. There's a lot to do at Yosemite National Park and a 1-day visit will probably feel rushed. Make use of the free shuttle buses. Some tour operators offer overnight stay packages.

Zion National Park

The Zion National Park in Utah has plenty of visitors year around. If you plan an overnight visit to Left Fork [The Subway] and/or Mystery Canyon, there is an advance online lottery system for permits. Check the National Park Service website for details.

I recommend hiking The Narrows, the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. This hike requires hiking in the Virgin River. If you prefer a paved path, use the Riverside Walk [from the Temple of Sinawava], wheelchair accessible. The Virgin River water is cold and the rocks can be slippery. If you plan to hike downstream, you will require a permit and also arrange transportation. My favorite hike at the Park is the 6.5 mile Lower Subway Hike. Zion National Park is also a great place for canyoneering and you will also need a permit. Advanced skills are highly recommended [or a technical expert with you] to pass through some areas of the canyon that are barely wide enough for a human to squeeze through.

10 Tips for Visiting U.S. National Parks:

Based on their respective locations, the U.S. national parks offer a wide range of activities for the visitor. The following are some tips to help you plan your visit:

  1. Decide when you plan to visit a national park. I prefer a quieter experience at the parks, which is why I visit during early fall or late spring.
  2. Plan how much time you wish to spend at a park. Some parks are huge! Research to build an itinerary and plan activities. Remember to share your itinerary with family members or friends.
  3. Most national parks have camping and/or lodging facilities. Make your reservations well in advance.
  4. Entrance fee to national parks can add up. Therefore, I recommend purchasing the U.S. Park Pass if you plan to visit a few during a period of 12 months. In addition to the national parks, the Park Pass provides access “to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country.” There are also Free Entrance Days at participating national parks.
  5. Stop by the visitor center at a national park. They have plenty of information to share. There are short films that run every half-hour or so. I recommend viewing these films because they provide valuable information about the park—how the efforts began, what it has to offer, etc.
  6. National parks have free programs and activities. Some of these are for children only while others are open to all ages.
  7. Chat with a Park Ranger. They are a source of excellent information regarding the park.
  8. Bring a daypack and carry an extra bottle of water. Please don’t leave traces of your visit.
  9. Maintain distance from and be respectful of the park’s animals.
  10. Explore travel ideas on the National Park Foundation website. The National Park Service website is also a good source of information.

2 Replies to “The Splendor of the U.S. National Parks”

  1. Wow. Impressive photos. I’ve visited a couple of these parks and look forward to continue visiting some others. Nice story.

    1. Thanks, Dan. I’m glad you liked this Pxley story. I hope you are able to visit a few more of the parks.

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