This past month was the 100th Anniversary of the US National Park Service, which was created in August 1916 through the National Park Service Organic Act. The NPS now manages 59 separate parks throughout the United States, encompassing 84.4 million acres!
When I was a kid, my parents made a point to take my brother and I to a new National Park once a year (when possible), so I have many wonderful memories hiking through these beautiful wilderness preserves. To this day, my “bucket list” includes every single US National Park I haven’t had the chance to explore yet. To celebrate the Centennial (a little bit late), I wanted to share some of my favorite National Park trips:
- Glacier National Park (Montana) – While I’m not ranking this list per se, I have the fondest memories of visiting Glacier. The massive mountains, bright blue sky, crystal clear lakes, and pristine glaciers set a spectacular backdrop for a week of hiking and exploring with my family. Definitely don’t miss a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the 10-mile roundtrip hike (it’s worth it!) to Iceberg Lake.
- Olympic National Park & Mount Rainier National Park (Washington) – This was our very first National Park trip and I still treasure the amazing photo of my brother and I in front of Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range. Both parks are an easy trip from Seattle. If you have extra time, I also recommend a visit to the Mt. Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, where the 1980 volcanic eruption took place.
- Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) – While the majority of visitors to Yellowstone arrive in the summer months, I highly recommend visiting in the winter. A few years ago, I was skiing in Jackson Hole over Christmas and we decided to take a day trip to Yellowstone to go snowmobiling. It was an incredible day that I’ll never forget. Not only did we get to zip through the pristine winter wilderness with nary another soul around, but we also saw plenty of bison, thermal pools, and even a pack of wolves far off in the distance.
- Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), Zion National Park and Bryce National Park (Utah) – The Grand Canyon is indeed grand and an amazing natural wonder to see. On the South Rim, El Tovar is one of the top National Park lodges you’ll find and well positioned for a perfect sunrise viewing over the canyon. But, don’t skip exploring the less popular North Rim, which is much greener and still offers amazing hikes and magnificent vistas (with fewer crowds). A trip to the Grand Canyon can also easily be combined with two Utah parks – Zion and Bryce Canyon. My two favorite hikes in Zion National Park are The Narrows, where you actually hike through water (great for a hot day) and Angel’s Landing, a strenuous 5 mile hike that leads you to the precipice of a cliff for an awesome view. And while Bryce is much smaller than the Grand Canyon, the hoodoos are such a unique geographical phenomenon that it’s well worth the hour plus drive from Zion.
- Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii) – A must-see if you’re visiting the Big Island of Hawaii. A full day trip to Volcanoes National Park includes great hiking through rainforests and along the lava fields. But for a true volcanic experience, you can stay in the park past nightfall, when the lava in the caldera emits a bright orange glow and the night sky dazzles with The Milky Way. Unfortunately my camera didn’t do it justice!
- Denali National Park (Alaska) – A cruise along the Inside Passage is a great way to see Alaskan wildlife, glaciers and coastal towns inaccessible by land, but if you have some time to head inland, Denali National Park is just spectacular. When I visited Alaska a few years ago, we didn’t quite have enough time to head into the park on foot, but from our base at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, just south of the park, we booked an aerial tour. The eagle’s eye view of the park from our tiny plane really put the grandness and jaw-dropping beauty of Alaska into perspective. We even flew directly over Denali, the highest peak in North America reaching 20,310 feet at its summit.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina / Tennessee) – Surprisingly, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park, boasting 10 million visitors annually, almost twice that of the park in the #2 spot (Grand Canyon). A perfect time to visit is in the fall, when the leaves are changing and you can hike amid brilliant autumn colors. In 2001, the National Park Service, reintroduced elk into the park which had been absent since the 1800s due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Now the elk are thriving in the Smokies and are relatively easy to spot in the meadows early in the morning or in the evening. (While I have only visited the NC portion of the park, a dream of mine is to return and stay at Blackberry Farm, a luxurious, yet rustic Relais & Chateaux property just 15 miles from the park’s border in Tennessee).
- Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) – Only an hour and a half from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the easiest parks to visit! I wrote more about my visit to Rocky Mountain in my Denver post. I definitely recommend a stay at the Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park, Colorado (where the Shining was filmed).
There are so many more National Parks on my list, but the top parks I am dying to visit are:
- Yosemite National Park & Joshua Tree National Park (California)
- Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
- Katmai National Park (Alaska)
- Arches National Park (Utah)
- Badlands National Park (South Dakota)
What are your favorite National Parks?