The 15 Best National Parks In America

There are 59 national parks in the United States, created to protect the country’s stunning natural beauty, plants, animals, and in some cases, diverse ecosystems. It’s been said their existence is the best idea we ever had. To have to choose the best among them is a terribly difficult thing. In their own way, each one is the best. But this wouldn’t be America if we were equal, so we’ve gone ahead and made our selection. Choosing was never going to be easy, but we did it anyway. So here they are, the 15 best national parks in the United States, chosen for their eloquence in the face of turmoil, for their bravery, for standing tall amidst history’s great upheaval. Go ahead, debate us if you wish, but these are the best. We know, cos we took a peek last night.

Yellowstone National Park Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

640,000 years ago a massive volcano purged its contents over the Midwest, an event that when things cooled off helped to create Yogi Bear, who is purported to have lived somewhere close to Yellowstone. The park is home to the majority of the earth’s geysers. Not those found in bars, but geothermals like Old Faithful. They signal the presence of one of the world’s largest active volcanoes. Yellowstone is the first and oldest of America’s parks, its protection signed into law by President Grant in 1872. The landscape is varied. Visitors encounter mountains, waterfalls and lakes, as well as every species of native large mammal, including the last free-ranging bison herd. John Giorgis, President Emeritus of the National Park Travelers Club, thinks you should go. Actually, he says: this is the one place that every able-bodied American should plan to go once before they die. [Details]

Nankoweap View, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

By sheer coincidence, the main feature of Grand Canyon National Park happens to be the Grand Canyon, widely considered to be one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Its measurements are impressive. 277 miles long, 18 miles wide in places, and a mile deep. Most of the five million visitors each year view the Canyon from shuttle buses or from their car parked at different vantage points along the South Rim. But you’ll find fewer people at the North Rim, probably because it’s harder to reach. Perhaps the best way to view the Grand Canyon is to hike down and see it from inside. None of the trails are easy, but day hikes are more manageable, and maybe more enjoyable for most people than an overnight. Either way, you could still meet a scorpion or a rattlesnake. Or a mountain lion. Black widow. Tarantula. A few species of scorpion. Three to be precise. You know, there are some pretty good National Geographic videos available. [Details]

Badlands National Park South Dakota

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands was once the territory of Smilodon, which is a saber-toothed cat that lived in the area around 10,000 years ago and not, as we were originally led to believe, a brand of toothpaste. Actually the cat’s full name is Smilodon fatalis, which presumably means if you ever got close enough to see this thing grinning, you’d pretty much had it. Badlands in general refers to an area of land heavily eroded that is difficult to do much with and difficult to travel through. Unless you happen to be a paleontologist, in which case you probably can’t wait to get there. Heavy erosion likely means lots of fossils, and the Badlands of South Dakota are one of the world’s richest sources of fossils. [Details]

Yosemite National Park California

Yosemite National Park, California

Ninety five percent of Yosemite is designated wilderness, one that in addition to granite cliffs, waterfalls and streams includes Giant Sequoias, the world’s largest living things. Mariposa Grove, near the South Entrance has hundreds of them, and not only are they big, they’re old. Some of them were saplings when Tutenkhamun was running things in Egypt. Most visitors find themselves in Yosemite Valley, or looking at it from spectacular vantage points like Glacier Point. The Valley gets crowded during summer. For a more personal adventure, take the back roads and trails, or visit during winter. [Details]

Glacier National Park Montana

Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National was established in 1910, but its more than 1 million acres have been knocking around way before then, some 170 million years before, give or take a few million. Things were much flatter at that time, but then ancient rocks started shifting their shoulders, a kind of geological shrug, and mountains formed. Fossils have been found in these rocks that are considered to be some of the best examples of early life anywhere on earth, before life was doing very much of anything. In the mid nineteenth century there were roughly 150 glaciers in the park. As of 2010, there were twenty five. At this rate of climatic change, it’s estimated those will be gone by 2020. [Details]

Denali National Park Alaska

Denali National Park, Alaska

It’s one of the wildest places on earth, six million acres fenced off to create a wildlife preserve. 92 miles long, Denali Park Road is the only way in, and it’s only paved for the first fifteen miles. For you and your car, that’s the end of the line. To venture further, it’s shuttle buses, tour buses, or for a more hands-on experience, courtesy buses are available that let you get on and off anywhere along the road. McKinley, America’s highest mountain, can be seen on clear days from 70 miles away. For practical purposes, you’ll only want to visit Denali between May and September when it’s relatively warm and light out. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see America’s Big Five and not be pawed, speared, gutted or filleted. That’s moose, grizzly, wolf, caribou, and Dall sheep, not to be confused with Masoor Dal, which is an Indian soup made with lentils, and pretty tasty if you don’t mind it hot. To get some sense of this vast tract of land, go up in a small aircraft. It’ll give some perspective over how insignificant you are. It’s nothing personal. [Details]

Everglades National Park  tourism destinations

Everglades National Park, Florida

Everglades is a series of wetlands and the third largest of the national parks in the lower 48 states, behind Death Valley and Yellowstone. It’s also the largest subtropical wilderness in the US. Everglades is unusual among our national parks in that it was created to protect an ecosystem. Here’s why that was seen as important. Most important breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America – those are the ones with skinny legs and their pants rolled up. Home to the largest mangrove system in the West, and home to 36 rare, protected, or endangered (and sometimes lethal) species, such as the American crocodile, the West Indian manatee, and the legendary Florida panther. It supports 350 species of birds, 300 species of fresh and saltwater fish, 40 species of mammals, 50 species of reptiles. Most of South Florida’s fresh water is recharged in the park. Amazingly, the park itself protects only one fifth of the Everglades. [Details]

Death Valley National Park Californi Nevada

Death Valley National Park, California/Nevada

It pays to be tall in Death Valley. Every thousand feet lower, the temperature goes up 3-5 degrees. For the hundred years between 1911 and 2011 the hottest recorded temperature was 134F in July. In the summer, it’s regularly above 120F. Sure, but it’s a dry heat. Really, it’s a wonder anyone visits Death Valley. Everything about it suggests you shouldn’t. There’s Furnace Creek Campground – is anyone really in a tent in this kind of heat? Badwater Basin – great, let’s go for a drink there. Death Valley got its name during the goldrush year of 1849, when a group of pioneers decided to take a short cut out of Salt Lake City to reach California. The problem with this shortcut was that it led straight through the middle of Death Valley. People died. Two members of the group walked 300 miles for supplies, loaded up, and walked back again. We can’t walk over to the tv to change the channel. Wonder what they would have thought about this guy running through it in dressed as Darth Vader? Star Wars and Return of the Jedi both have scenes shot in Death Valley. [Details]

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Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Instead of dragging yourself down to Mordor this summer to peer over the edge of Mount Doom, head over to Hawai’i Volcanoes Park. Not only are Kilauea and Mauna Loa real, they are two of the world’s most active volcanoes, largely responsible for Hawai’i’s continued physical growth. Volcanoes Park is vulcanism in action, and scientists study the processes closely here to find out why the ears are so pointy. From the northeast rim you can get a good look, and also make an offering to Pele, the goddess of Brazilian football, which is what ancient visitors used to do. The 1790 Footprints are still visible, but nothing to worry about as it’s unlikely the lid will blow off while you’re there like it did back then. As well as the tallest, Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on earth, taking up about 20,000 cubic miles. For an idea of how big that is, consider that more than 3,000 Mount St. Helens’s could fit inside. [Details]

Bryce Canyon National Park Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce is the canyon that’s not a canyon, and is a protected area mainly because of its hoodoos, rock spires born from limestone erosion by ice and rain, which have created formations known as amphitheaters – because they look like amphitheaters – though it’s unlikely Shakespeare or any of the Greek classics were ever performed here. For scientists, Bryce is geological porn, transcending three climate zones to create a diverse habitat for many species of plants, birds, and mammals. The park is in a remote location, so unlike Yellowstone or Grand Canyon, it’s relatively free of visitors. [Details]

Petrified Forest National Park Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

If you visit the Petrified Forest expecting a forest of trees that have been scared out of their pants and frozen in place like something from a Harry Potter movie, you’re going to be disappointed. This is a late Triassic forest, some 225 million years old. It’s fossils. Tree fossils, true, but hardly a forest by today’s standards. If it’s lush jungle forest you’re after, we suggest heading south a few thousand miles. But if it’s petrified wood you’re after, this is the place. Paleontologists find new species of plants and animals every year. The fossilized kind. [Details]

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Redwood National Park, California

Visitors to Redwood go for one reason, to witness firsthand the tallest trees on earth. In the 1850s there were over two million acres of old-growth redwood forests. Within sixty years, that number had dropped to hundreds of thousands of acres. By 1920 preservationists had bought up around 100,000 acres to protect them from logging. Outside this area, logging continued until ninety percent of the original forests were gone. In 1968 Lyndon Johnson signed Redwood National Park into law. This is why if you visit the park today, you still get to see giant redwoods. [Details]

Joshua Tree National Park California

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Aside from being the title of U2’s fifth studio album, Joshua Tree is a park comprised of two deserts, bringing together two different ecosystems separated by elevation. Below 3,000 feet at the east end of the park lies the Colorado Desert, whose specialty seems to be growing creosote bushes, which is what your dad painted the garden fence with to protect it from the rain. Good question, what is the Colorado Desert doing in California? Vacation? At the west end and the higher elevation is the Mojave Desert, where the Joshua tree grows. It sounds cool, but it’s basically a Yucca plant. A group of Mormons are supposed to have named it when they were crossing the Mojave. They thought it looked like Joshua raising his hands to heaven in prayer. Maybe the heat had got to them at this point. [Details]

Grand Teton National Park Wyoming

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Over two hundred miles of trails, the winding Snake river and black as well as grizzly bears, the park is named for the 40-mile long Teton mountain range that dominates the landscape. In winter, this is a tough place. In the summer you can hit the trails and keep a look out for bison, diving osprey, or a soaring golden eagle. Alternatively, you could  take the 42-mile Scenic Loop Drive and view it all from the safety of your air-conditioned car. [Details]

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennesse/North Carolina

America’s most visited national park is not only diverse in plant and animal life, it’s also diverse in mountain. The Smoky Mountains, named for the blue, mist-like clouds that hang among the ridges and valleys, are part of the Blue Ridge mountains, which in turn are part of the larger Appalachian Mountain range. There are over 850 miles of unpaved roads for hiking, including a 70 mile section of the Appalachian Trail. The Smokies are among the world’s oldest mountains, formed some two to three hundred million years ago. If you like cherries, eat them before you go. Some trails are closed right now because of black bears snacking on cherries. [Details]

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