10 National Park Treasures

Read our picks for five essential national parks to see before you die, and five worthy ones that are under-the-radar.

National parks exert a primeval pull on visitors from around the world, who come by the millions to drink in their natural wonders. The astounding beauty of these wild places, preserved for the benefit of future generations, is almost spiritual for many. In addition, they offer limitless possibilities for outdoor adventures like hiking, rafting, kayaking, fishing, camping, rock climbing, horseback riding and wildlife spotting.

There are 391 national parks in the United States. Each offers a unique experience, and a visit to any is a worthy trip. But, some parks are worthier than others. Here are my picks for five essential national parks, followed by five under-the-radar ones that should be on your trip list.

5 National Parks to See Before You Die

1. Yosemite National Park

For scenery that will take your breath away, Yosemite National Park in central California is unmatched. Iconic granite cliffs like the picturesque Half Dome and El Capitan, expansive vistas of glacier-carved valleys like Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley, and the thunderous waters of Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall act like balm to city-weary souls.

One of the best ways to see these jaw-dropping scenes is aboard a raft, floating along the gentle Merced River. Bring your own or rent small inflatable boats at the Curry Village Recreation Center from late spring through mid-summer. [Read more about Merced River Rafting.]

Landlubbers can rent bikes to explore the paved pathways that follow the river’s route, or hike one of the dozens of trails that crisscross the park. Avid rock climbers know that Yosemite also offers world-class climbing opportunities. And camping enthusiasts will find a handful of campgrounds, which, while often crowded, offer better proximity to Yosemite attractions than the somewhat pricey in-park lodges. www.nps.gov/yose

[Read our full Yosemite National Park coverage.]

2. Yellowstone National Park

This geological hotspot that stretches across the western portion of northern Wyoming and southern Montana is the best place in the world to check out the spewing geysers, bubbling mud pots and gently stewing hot springs. In addition to the park’s superstar, Old Faithful, geyser gazers will find hundreds of thermal features in the surrounding Upper Geyser Basin and nearby Midway Geyser Basin, site of the gloriously colorful nearly 370-foot-wide Grand Prismatic Spring.

Yellowstone is also one of the best places in the lower 48 to spot wildlife. Bring binoculars or telescopes to one of the dozens of roadside pullouts overlooking the majestic Hayden Valley—known as the Serengeti of the United States—to look for massive buffalo herds moving slowly across the grasslands (and sometimes across the roadway, resulting in a memorable “buffalo jam”), lone grizzly bears galumphing along the mountain ranges, stealthy wolves hunting beside waterways and rival elk bucks crashing their massive antlers. www.nps.gov/yell

[Read our full Yellowstone National Park coverage.]

3. Grand Canyon National Park

A mile-deep gorge that stretches nearly 300 miles across northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon is ablaze with the fiery colors of eons’ worth of rock layers that hold the secret to the history of the geological world. Brightly hued rock outcroppings, ethereal stone spires, massive plateaus and innumerable hidden interior canyons offer hikers a lifetime of exploring via one of the several trails that lead into the heart of the abyss from either the popular South Rim or the less-traveled North Rim.

But for real adventure, book a multi-day white-water rafting tour that takes hearty guests through virgin stretches of the Colorado River as it courses along the floor of the canyon. Thanks to stunning hidden waterfalls and deserted stretches along the river, the park has a cult-like following among backpackers as well. www.nps.gov/grca

[Read our full Grand Canyon National Park coverage.]

4. Redwood National Park

Stand in awe alongside the tallest living organisms in the world at Redwood National Park, in coastal northern California. This lush park (which also encompasses three state parks) preserves the remnants of what was once a 2-million-acre forest of giants. The peaceful and otherworldly atmosphere here makes it difficult to get a sense of time: Its deeply shaded interior looks to be out of the Jurassic age. It’s almost impossible to get a sense of scale, too, because the titular trees are so massive.

One famous redwood, known simply as Big Tree, is at least 1,500 years old and stretches more than 300 feet high; if you were to hug this tree, you’d need to link arms with a crowd of friends to encircle its circumference of more than 60 feet.

Don’t miss the chance to hike the Coastal Trail, in the Prairie Creek State Park section, a day hike through redwoods that offers spectacular views of the ocean. Take a shortcut to Hidden Beach to walk along the rugged coastline, which is often dotted with pretty gnarled driftwood and almost always serenely deserted. www.nps.gov/redw

5. Denali National Park

The crown jewel of Denali in central Alaska is the perpetually snow-capped Mount McKinley (named Denali by Athabaskan tribes), the tallest mountain in North America, which stretches more than 20,000 feet skyward. Visitors will find this park wilder and less congested (and less accessible) than most other national parks in the system.

The beautiful yet rough terrain and inhospitable climate (which is prohibitive for humans in all seasons except summer) and limited roadways (most of which are accessible only via park-operated tour buses) encourage wildlife to claim the park as their own. Mother grizzlies frolic with cubs within yards of humans; snow-white Dall sheep with whimsical whorling antlers scramble along rocky cliffs; caribou graze on the tundra; plump ptarmigan (pure-white birds in winter and mottled in summer) scatter on the roadside—all seemingly oblivious to the presence of people.

For a peek at tamer animals, visit the park kennels, which house the sled dogs that make winter transportation possible for park rangers. During the summer, animal handlers conduct three demonstrations a day with these Alaskan huskies. www.nps.gov/dena

[Read our full coverage on Denali and visiting Alaska.]

5 Under-the-Radar National Park Gems

1. Grand Teton National Park

In the shadows of its more famous next-door neighbor, Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming, offers singular scenery. The rugged peaks of the Teton Range rise straight from the valley floor, with no intervening foothills, and unlike other alpine areas of the world, the mountaintops don’t usually hide themselves behind cloud cover. Here, deciduous trees mix with evergreen stands, which in turn blend with meadows and valleys. Springtime brings a profusion of wild mountain flowers.

The park encircles a series of lakes, the largest of which is Jackson Lake, popular for fly-fishing. Another beloved body of water is the smaller, picturesque Jenny Lake, home to numerous moose and pronghorns.

For a fun and easy hike, take a small passenger boat from the visitor center across Jenny Lake to Cascade Canyon Trail, which, after a half-mile uphill, leads to the stunning Hidden Falls. Another half-mile on the trail will take you to Inspiration Point, which offers a lovely vista of the lake and a great site for picnicking. (Watch yourself during berry season, when bears come off the mountains to nibble on the abundant fruit. The memory of a too-close growl near a stand of overflowing blackberry bushes at Jenny Lake still raises the hair on the back of my neck.) This park is also a spectacular place to cross-country ski in the winter. www.nps.gov/grte

2. Shenandoah National Park

A little more than an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah in northwest Virginia is a favorite destination of seasonal leaf-peepers. During the peak of autumn color (usually the last two weeks of October), the scenic Skyline Drive that runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the park is bumper-to-bumper.

Visit any other season of the year, however, and experience solitude and panoramic views from dozens of Skyline Drive overlooks. Better still, hike the Appalachian Trail that runs the full length of the park, alongside a thriving population of friendly (and fearless) white-tailed deer.

The park also boasts 180 miles of horse trails, including easy pathways that wind near waterfalls, along streams and past the remains of former pioneer homesteads. Guests can bring in their own horses (trailer parking is available in several locations within the park) or rent one for the day from the park’s concessionaire. www.nps.gov/shen

3. Petrified Forest National Park

For a glimpse into the distant past, check out the fossils of this stark national park in northeast Arizona. It might as well be on Mars, given the scarcity of vegetation, the strange mineral formations and the otherworldly colors of the earth.

The Petrified Forest is divided into two distinct sections. The northernmost portion encompasses the Painted Desert, a desolate yet striking wilderness that is washed with vivid shades of red, orange, yellow and blue-gray. Look for Pintado Point, a high spot along the rim of the desert that offers expansive views during the daytime and a spectacular vantage from which to stargaze at night.

The southernmost portion of the park is home to one of the largest concentrations of fossilized wood, remnants of ancient conifers that were once buried in silt and ash. After thousands of years, the wood tissue was gradually replaced with brightly hued quartz. The unusually beautiful petrified wood can be found in massive logs or in small bark-like chunks, which sadly are the target of many sticky-fingered tourists, who are said to (illegally) remove tons of the stuff every year. To see some of the finest specimens that remain, take the half-mile Giant Logs Trail, an easy hike that takes you past the largest fossil log, the familiarly named Old Faithful. www.nps.gov/pefo

4. Everglades National Park

The Everglades National Park is only a portion of the Everglades ecosystem, a subtropical habitat in southern Florida punctuated by mangrove swamps, sawgrass meadows, ponds and lakes, all of which are home to a bewildering number of species of plants and animals, including more than 365 kinds of birds. Other notable inhabitants include the endangered manatee, crocodiles, alligators and the elusive Florida panther.

The best way to explore this park is on the water, either by kayak or canoe. Because of the extensive (and potentially dangerous) wildlife along the waterways, it’s best for visitors to employ a boating guide. A list of tour providers in the Everglades is available from the National Park Service. If you visit this park in the “wet” season (May through December), bring plenty of insect repellant—the mosquito population can be horrific. www.nps.gov/ever

5. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico comprises 113 underground caves, formed some 200 million years ago when percolating sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone. In the intervening years, stalagmites (rising from the floor of the caves) and stalactites (growing from the ceiling) slowly took shape as a byproduct of the dissolving stone and created a collection of evocative natural sculptures that have a surprising amount of personality—like the sinister Witch’s Finger, the charming Doll’s Theater or the ponderous Cave Man.

Visitors to the park can take self-guided walks or ranger-led tours through a series of caves. First-timers should start out with the hour-long Big Room Tour, which begins with a nearly 800-foot descent by elevator, follows a paved and lighted pathway, and culminates in a viewing of the largest cave “room” in the park, which is roughly the size of six football fields. The largest formations are here as well, including the 62-foot stalagmite called Giant Dome, part of the impressive Hall of Giants grouping. To see evidence that the cave is still a work in progress, check out the Crystal Spring Dome, an active stalagmite that grows infinitesimally with each mineral-laden drop of water that washes over it.

True spelunkers should try the Slaughter Canyon for a more authentic experience—or for those who have no trace of claustrophobia and want to wriggle and crawl through tight quarters, the Spider Cave Tour is a favorite. Don’t miss the nightly exodus of bats from the Natural Entrance: At twilight, nearly 400,000 resident bats swarm the skies every minute as they begin their nocturnal feeding routine. www.nps.gov/cave

Destinations: Denali National Park and Preserve, Petrified Forest National Park, Redwood National Park, Everglades National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park

Themes: Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Fishing, Horseback Riding, Sightseeing, Caving

User Comments

America’s first National Park- Yellowstone National Park, fabulous nature’s gift, Wyoming’s flagship attractions, and a natural cornucopia. In brimming sun, with perfect blue sky and mountains sticking and rising high up as background Yellowstone National Park is amazing destination for exploring the plethora of nature, wildlife, geology and loads of adventure and thrill seeking adventures.

Great article!