America’s National Parks are amongst this nation’s crown jewels – sites of unparalleled beauty that draw visitors from around the world. There are 59 of these breath-taking places, more than most of us have time to enjoy. So, how should we partake of this embarrassment of riches?
Here’s some pro-level guidance. Former National Geographic photographer Jonathan Irish and NASA employee Stephanie Payne visited all 59 parks over the course of 2017. This wasn’t a whirlwind ticket-punching tour. The couple spent up to nine days in each park, exploring every nook and canyon. Here are the 10 National Parks they say belong on your bucket list:
1. Lake Clark – This seldom-visited park offers the true Alaska wilderness experience. The stunning, glimmering lakes are perfect for kayaking and hiking. Visitors often glimpse brown bears in their natural habitat.
2. Arches – This “red rock wonderland,” located in Utah, is home to 2,000 natural stone arches and hundreds of rock spires. Irish reminds us these delicate formations won’t last forever, which makes them all the more special and beautiful. He recommends the Devil’s Garden trail, a demanding but rewarding hike that takes you past at least 10 scenic arches.
3. Sequoia – An iconic National Park, to say the least. Sequoia is home to some of the world’s biggest trees. One of the top hikes at this California park is the Big Trees Trail, which allows visitors of all physical abilities to get up close and personal with these magnificent trees.
4. Grand Tetons – If you want to see wildlife, this is the place. Visitors to this Wyoming park routinely glimpse everything from elk and grizzly bears to owls and otters. Irish recommends visiting in the fall when the park’s trees explode with color. Check out Oxbow Bend, where you can watch the Snake River wind majestically towards the mountains.
5. Glacier – Montana’s Glacier National Park is hiker heaven. The sprawling preserve is crisscrossed with wilderness trails. Wildlife encounters are so common that you are urged to carry bear repellent and make lots of noise as you amble across the stunning terrain. Put this trip near the top of your schedule. The park’s namesake glaciers are retreating at a stunning pace and are expected to be completely gone in another human lifetime.
6. Yosemite – This hugely popular Northern California park draws huge crowds all summer long. Irish recommends slipping off to Glacier Point—away from the masses—to get a true feel for this cathedral of nature. The Panorama Trail offers some of the best vantage points in the park, including overlooks that allow stunning views of Half Dome, and two waterfalls below.
7. Great Sand Dunes – Where would you expect this park to be located? By the ocean? Try Colorado. North America’s tallest dunes form in the center of the park, which also encompasses wetlands, aspen forests, and alpine lakes. Something for everyone, indeed.
8. Acadia – Located in Maine, Acadia National Park offers soaring granite peaks, rocky coastline, and the tallest mountain on the Atlantic coast. Because of the bright orange color of some of the rocks in the park, when sunlight hits the park just right it creates an amazing pinkish glow.
9. Wrangell-St. Elias – This Alaskan beauty is America’s biggest national park, and one of the least visited. Its remoteness has kept Wrangell-St. Elias untrammeled, even pristine. If you really want to see glaciers, even camp or hike on one, this is the place.
10. Canyonlands – The Utah park is divided by rivers into four sections: The Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. Each area has its own awe-inspiring scenery and experience. The Needles is the best-known area, wowing visitors with an almost alien landscape of sandstone formations that look like Mother Nature’s needle kit.
While every site on this list is impressive, this is hardly the definitive must-see guide. (Did you notice that almost every park on the list is in the western U.S?) Use this as a starting point for planning your own adventure. The 59 National Parks are indeed jewels. String them together as you see fit.
Images: Jonathan Irish
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