May 12, 2020
We are talking about a trip to a U.S. National Park—national treasures enjoyed by millions of American and International visitors annually. We have certainly enjoyed the 24 that we have visited, some multiple times. The Park System was established in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt and since then, the list has grown to the present 61.
Most lists rank the parks by annual visitors and as a result, those closes to metro areas rank highest. We do not question the beauty and enjoyment you will experience from any of them, but our list is a little different since we tell you why we rank them in the following order.
Yosemite National Park. We were sold on this park long ago by a portfolio of black and white photos taken by Ansel Adams. They capture every bit of the incredible beauty and excitement of the park. Yosemite is our favorite because of the variety of natural wonders. Dramatic mountains and dense forests. Massive waterfalls and gorgeous valleys. Reflective lakes and ginormous trees. Unbelievable rock formations and top it all off with a variety of animals lucky enough to call Yosemite home. The park has it all and is presented in such a magnificent way that it’ll remain in your mind forever. If your budget allows, a night or two at the Ahwahnee Lodge, if available, will be frosting on the cake. Travel warning to people who do not like heights. We mistakenly flew to Oakland and drove along miles of pleasant valley. And then we hit the switchbacks that lead to the park. Switchback like I had never seen before. It is hard to drive with white knuckles. Tip, if you share the fear. fly instead to Fresno (FAT) and flat! You’ll enjoy the huge sequoia trees on the southside of the park as you approach the center of Yosemite.
Yellowstone National Park. The pools, geysers, streams, steam, vegetation and animals are all unique and beyond your wildest imagination. You must see this place to believe its splendor. During winter it is a totally different, yet equally exciting experience. Crowds are down and it has a personality quite different from the summer edition. We are certain you will enjoy both and any return visits down the road,
Grand Canyon National Park. Let’s face it. Where else can you see a sheer wall over a mile deep? The expanse, colors and formations are hard to comprehend. And when you realize (from well over a mile away) it is all because of a 300 foot- wide ribbon called the Colorado River, it is even more amazing. Imagine how wide the river must have been thousands of years ago! Today the canyon is up to 18 miles wide. There is no close second to this wonder.
Denali National Park. As deep as the Grand Canyon is (6,093 feet), Mount McKinley, highlight of the park, is 3.3 times higher (20,308’). Wow. The display of snow and glaciers adds to the incredible elegance. Save up before your trip and, weather permitting, tale a plane “tour” to the top of McKinley and see if it doesn’t knock your socks off. Back on the ground, the Denali bus tour (lots of sheer drop-offs, so if you are squeamish, keep your eyes closed) will amaze you with the beauty and wildlife. Hard to fall asleep after these adventures.
Teton National Park. This was a great place to visit. Then when we looked at the photos that recorded the beauty, we were even more impressed. Kinda like when your Mom used to say, “it tastes better the next day.” We can only guess that our mind overloaded on a real time basis and we couldn’t comprehend the vast experience. It has such an overwhelming variety of color, vegetation and picture- perfect mountains that any position or time of day produces a perfect image—rain or shine. Teton precedes arrival at Yellowstone for most visitors which may diminish the immediate satisfaction but over the many miles of wonderment, this is a keeper. And the fact that you can visit two incredible parks in a single trip is an additional bonus.
Volcanoes National Park. Depending on your timing, this park can have dual personalities. When active, it is like nothing you have ever seen before. Stream of lava flow continually into the ocean. The result? Intense heat. Vivid colors. Furious noise. Massive pillars of steam. The park is far and away the best example of something that man can only experience, never control.
Haleakala National Park. From the Big Island to Maui, this park is a huge crater, the result of ancient volcanoes, described above, which formed the Hawaiian Islands. If you travel to Maui, this is a must see.
Katmai National Park. This is the only national park inaccessible by car. You either boat in or fly. We chose the latter which weather didn’t allow on the first day. The next day brought good weather and the visit proved it was worth waiting for. From the seaplane, landing on a huge body of water, you go directly to “bear school” where you are taught how to behave if you encounter one of the 800# beauties. Make lots of noise. Don’t look them in the eye. Don’t run because they are 0-30 mph in a matter of seconds. (Only time to run is if you are faster the next guy.) After receiving your diploma, it is a mile and a half walk on a blacktopped sidewalk to a viewing platform on the Brooks River to see, in person, what we have seen in a multitude of documentaries and television commercials. Brown bears are snatching salmon that are spawning in the falls. According to the Rangers, the bears consume 10-12 whole salmon a day and then eat only the skin of any additional salmon they are lucky enough to snatch, The skin has the vitamins and protein that gets them through the long winter sleep. Supposedly they will not bother humans if they follow the rules learned in bear school. We didn’t test them.
Glacier National Park. We visited on Memorial Day and most facilities, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road were not opened for the season. Nonetheless, the part of the park we saw is pristine and dramatic and we were able to visit the Canadian portion of the park (Waterton). Both should be a stopover when you are in the area.
Everglades National Park. This one is in a class all its own, unlike any part of another park. It’s similar but not matching to swampland and home to some animals not found elsewhere on earth. Some you’ll see, especially with the boat tour. In Everglades you’ll spend more time driving and boating, far outnumbering your hiking hours.
Here are the other parks we visited, in our order of enjoyment:
Big Bend National Park, TX
Redwoods National Park, CA
Badlands National Park, SD
Saguaro National Park, AZ
Mesa Verde National Park, AZ
Sequoia National Park, CA
Wrangle Saint Elias National Park, AK
Virgin Island National Park, USVI
Acadian National Park, ME
Everglades National Park, FL
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Hot Springs National Park, AR
Guadalupe National Park, TX
Biscayne Bay National Park, Fl
Gateway Arch National Park, MO
Last thought. The Park System has great hotels and other accommodations in a wide range of prices. Staying in a park gives you more time to explore it. But you must book early. Rooms are limited and last-minute bookers are generally disappointed.