So many parks. So little time. Here are some favorites to get you started experiencing our outdoor national treasures.
It’s one of the great truths this country has come to hold as self-evident: that its wildest, loveliest, most awe-inspiring corners have been endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. The right to be protected. The right to be preserved. The right to be enjoyed and marveled at in their natural state by us and future generations. And, of course, the right to be compiled into a “Top 15” list honoring an anniversary issue of a certain (wild and lovely in its own right) magazine.
So how does one single out 15 national parks in a country with nearly 400 natural, cultural, and recreational gems under the auspices of a 92-year-old National Park Service — the first organization of its kind on the planet? With much gnashing of teeth.
Drawing a big circle around the Western United States (and North Dakota) helped narrow the job of choosing down some. So did confining the list to “national parks” (sorry “monuments,” “memorials,” and “recreation areas”) and one “national seashore” for good measure. So did assuring Zion, Sequoia, Olympic, Joshua Tree, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison national parks that we’ll definitely include them in any “Top 20” story we run five years from now.
You’ll agree with some of these picks and send letters about some glaring omissions and oversights. Undeniably though, the following Top-15-worthy parks are places to be cherished, preserved, protected, and, most important, seen (if not believed) with your own eyes. Enjoy them. They’re all yours.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Central California • Established: 1890 • Acreage: 761,266
What’s even more subjective than listing the Top 15 national parks in the West? Mentioning that if you could only see one of them, you really ought to put right at the top this certified Shangri-La of glacial-carved granite peaks, half-mile-long waterfalls, ancient sequoia groves, glassy lakes, blooming alpine meadows, and instantly recognizable High Sierra images from that old Ansel Adams calendar you can’t bring yourself to throw out. Sure, Yellowstone is technically the first national park in the system. But there’s something about Yosemite that makes it the first in the heart. This is, after all, the incomparable setting that sparked the whole concept of a national park (during the Civil War no less) when President Abraham Lincoln’s grant of Yosemite Valley to the State of California marked the first time a federal government authorized the protection of lands too scenic to be squandered by rabid gold miners. Years later, legendary naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir would further sanctify these grounds that had been occupied by local Native groups for eight millennia prior to the writing of grants, the brokering of deals, and the feasting on precious metals in these parts. Today, about 3.5 million visitors make the annual pilgrimage to Yosemite — mainly to its seven-mile-long valley hub, where that mandatory pull-off on the far side of the Wawona Tunnel stuns all eyes with 3,000-foot El Capitan rising on your left, Bridalveil Fall spilling on your right, Half Dome hulking dead ahead, and, if you’re really lucky, a reservation at the world-famous Ahwahnee Hotel waiting just down the road. Of course, that’s only the beginning here. Dodging the crowds by seeking out Yosemite’s lesser-traveled backcountry — laced with more than 800 miles of hiking trails — will convince you that much of this hallowed place is still a well-kept secret.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Southwestern Texas • Established: 1944 • Acreage: 801,163
Apache lore has it that the Great Spirit used this colossal alpine-desert wilderness huddled against a 90-degree curve in the Rio Grande to store all the rocks that were left over during the creation of the world. The determined few who make it all the way out to Big Bend, the final frontier of West Texas and one of the most timelessly remote outbacks on either side of its riverine (and international) border, may just subscribe to that theory. Here, man mingles rather minutely with nature’s massiveness and magnificence: 1,500-foot gorges, old Comanche trails, abandoned mercury mines, the odd pterodactyl fossil site, 200 miles of hiking routes, interminable back roads that will test the worthiest pair of jeep shocks, desolate rock ranges that rise over a mile vertically to the park’s prize hike — the stony summit of 7,832-foot Emory Peak in the Chisos Mountains. Here it is — the old, unbridled West the way nature would frame it. There are mountain lions and black bears, coyotes and roadrunners, scavenging gray foxes and javelinas. And about 20 species of bats. There is the nearby historic ghost town of Terlingua, reviving itself as the most out-there river-rafting mecca in the country. But in one of the largest and most undervisited parks in the lower 48, mostly there are space and distance. And the deep satisfaction that the Everest of drives leads to a hauntingly immense place like this. Just don’t forget your extra gas can.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
Northwest Wyoming (extends into Montana and Idaho) • Established: 1872 • Acreage: 2,221,766
Never mind that attention-stealing geyser. The many extraordinary features besides Old Faithful encompassed in the country’s oldest national park could fill their own book of “Top 15” lists. Home to half of the world’s geothermal features (about 10,000 at last count and hundreds of geysers) and the largest “supervolcano” on the continent, Yellowstone also contains its own Grand Canyon, about 1,500 archaeological sites, 1,000 miles of backcountry hiking trails, the largest alpine lake in North America, the finest megafauna habitat in the lower 48 (home to roaming grizzlies, elk herds, bison, bighorn sheep, and a successfully reintroduced gray wolf population), 290 waterfalls over 15 feet, one of the world’s largest petrified forests, and an equally staggering next-door neighbor (Grand Teton National Park) that would also be on this list if it weren’t so close. Of course, some come only to check off Old Faithful. Let’s keep the rest of this place our little secret, shall we?
GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE
Southeast Alaska • Established: 1980 (1925 as a national monument) • Acreage: 3,224,840
Parks in Alaska defy all sense of scale — not to mention any rating system singling out the best one. Take your pick. There’s the ultimate final frontier that is Denali National Park & Preserve, home of North America’s highest mountain (Mt. McKinley). There’s the so-called mountain kingdom of North America that is Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest unit of the national park system. There’s the fiery outpost of Katmai, stuffed with volcanoes and one of the world’s largest protected brown-bear populations. And then there’s the orca- and humpback-whale-inhabited fiords of Glacier Bay — our blue-ribbon winner and the best reason not to schlep all the way over to Norway. Wedged between two peninsulas in southeast Alaska, this 65-mile-long portal of snowcapped ranges, iceberg-filled lagoons, and the most rapidly retreating glacial system on earth was barely a dent on the coast when Capt. George Vancouver sailed past about 200 years ago. Today, gliding up its pristine and thunderous tidal waters by cruise ship, smaller tour vessel, or — better yet — kayak, you’ll pass a dozen active glaciers calving massive hunks of icy matter into glassy tidal waters. It’s the best journey into the last Ice Age on the planet you’re going to get. Hurry. It’s going fast.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Northern Colorado • Established: 1915 • Acreage: 265,800
If there’s a better-loved mountain range that inspired an unofficial American anthem — and now an official one with the Colorado General Assembly’s decision last year to finally make John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” a state song — we don’t know about it. The late singer’s ode to the magical grandeur of the Rockies doesn’t seem like exaggerated emotionalism when you’re in the thrall of this relatively small national park. One-eighth the size of Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts 107 named peaks over 10,000 feet and some of the most photogenic alpine terrain between the Continental Divide and the Swiss Alps. True, commercial tourism threatens to overrun the serenity and solitude Denver drew from his Rockies, but it doesn’t have to overrun your experience. Most of the 3 million annual visitors here take it all in via Trail Ridge Road (a.k.a. “the nation’s highest continuous paved road”) and a quick side trip up to the park’s definitive vista point at Bear Lake. But for the real Rocky Mountain high, you have to get out of the car and stake your claim — along with your tent — at one of the park’s five campgrounds. Even better, snag one of the 200 backcountry sites, hike in, and dissolve into that parallel universe of silver clouds, cathedral mountains, and clear blue mountain lakes. In no time, you’ll be humming right along in spirit with Colorado’s own John boy.
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Southern Utah • Established: 1924 • Acreage: 35,835
Picking a greatest national park in a state that includes the red-rock Eden of Zion, the mesa mazes of Canyonlands, the bone-dry depths of Capitol Reef, and the open-air rock cathedral of Arches is like choosing a favorite child. But — envelope please — this year’s Oscar goes to audience-pleasing Bryce, the quirkiest and most imaginative production of the bunch. Southwestern Utah’s overambitious geology crescendos in this faux canyon (technically, it’s an insanely weatherbeaten plateau slope) named after local homesteader Ebenezer Bryce, who famously quipped, “It’s a helluva place to lose a cow.” The park’s centerpiece is an amphitheater of multihued spires featuring the impossibly top-heavy-looking hoodoos (thin columns of rock, many with bulbous heads). A trifecta of viewing areas called Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, and Inspiration Point might scream “tour bus crowd,” but the views really are busload-worthy. Lose the crowds along more than 50 miles of hiking trails, where private close-ups of Utah’s biggest rock stars are hiding just below the rim.
POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE
Northern California Coast • Established: 1962 • Acreage: 71,070
Any park headquarters equipped with its own seismograph and educational Earthquake Trail can’t be much of a commute from San Francisco. Just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge and right smack on the San Andreas Fault, Point Reyes is a very close neighbor to the Bay Area by Mapquest standards, but otherwise it’s an entire world — and lithospheric plate — away. A few million people visit Northern California’s most stunning coastal preserve annually, some arriving at the main Bear Valley trailhead on horseback or mountain bike. Here, quiet green sanctuaries along the park’s 15-mile Coast Trail come furnished with groves of Douglas fir and Bishop pine, wildflower meadows, and — the showstopper — sublime ocean vistas. No matter where you stop for a gorp moment or a picnic throw-down, you’ll be reminded that some of the loveliest corners of the earth lie on major fault zones. What’s beneath all the breathtaking geology? The park is on the Pacific Plate, which is grinding its way northwest of the American Plate at a pace of about two inches per year. Translation: This whole batch of mobile seashore is scheduled to pull into the Aleutian Trench in about 50 million years — so better get a move on.
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
Southern Arizona • Established: 1994 • Acreage: 91,445
Threatened animal species aren’t the only living things honored and protected by national parks. Take the saguaro cactus. Contrary to what most Westerns and Old El Paso brand food labels would have you believe, this iconic emblem of the Southwest doesn’t grow in Texas. Or New Mexico. Or southern Colorado. Or practically anywhere else beyond a select patch of Sonoran Desert in Mexico and the lower reaches of Arizona, which for years suffered at the hands of trampling cattle and — yes, there is such a thing — cactus rustlers. Saguaros grow slow, an inch or so a year at best. And tall, up to 50 feet. And heavy, more than two large elephants. And old, a couple centuries if treated right. And nowhere more bountifully than in these dual tracts of land flanking Tucson, where a literal forest of grand, green, spiny pitchforks shares space with more than 1,000 species of other native Southwestern desert flora. Net: Even if the desert isn’t necessarily your thing, this stately saguaro-plus spectacle is well-worth the drive from El Paso.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK
Western North Dakota • Established: 1978 (1947 as a memorial park) • Acreage: 70,448
An off-the-radar preserve in America’s badlands named after one of the greatest American icons in history? No, this isn’t a misnomer. Hiding in these vast prehistoric hills of sun-baked rock and bison-studded prairie is the exact place Teddy Roosevelt invoked when he said, “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” Years before assuming the highest office, the lifelong conservationist lit out for this very territory, honing his cowboy persona during a short but meaningful cattle-ranching stint in the mid-1880s, and calling this place “a land of vast silent spaces, of lonely rivers, and of plains where the wild game stared at the passing horseman.” It’s an observation that remains about as accurate today as it was then. Celebrating the 150th anniversary of its namesake’s birth this year, the park’s main South Unit — with its 36-mile scenic loop and horse-friendly trails — draws the bulk of its guests to Roosevelt’s preserved Maltese Cross Ranch cabin (just behind the visitors center) and Painted Canyon for a quick sunset photo-op. Lose the “crowd” altogether by driving 70 miles to the park’s remote North Unit, where several self-guided nature hikes are populated mainly by squeaking prairie dogs and punctuated by the staggering scenery of that same immutable American outback that could humble and inspire a president.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Northwest Montana • Established: 1910 • Acreage: 1,013,572
Ever since being marketed as “America’s Switzerland” in the 1910s, when the park and its first wave of Euro-style chalets and lodges were established, Glacier has made just about every Best Parks shortlist in print. There’s a pretty good reason for this. It begins with the otherworldly terrain itself — an Ice Age-sculpted block of billion-year-old sedimentary stone teeming with forested valleys, chirping meadows, trickling waterfalls, six 10,000-foot mountains, and more than 700 glacial lakes that are as clear as Caribbean turquoise and as cold as a penguin’s toe. Mountain lions, bighorn sheep, elk, and lynx call this Edenic wilderness home. So do more than 260 species of birds and one of the only healthy populations of the American grizzly bear outside of Alaska. So did a number of Salish, Kootenai, and Blackfeet — the last of 100 centuries of Native American residents in the park — who still refer to this hallowed ground as the “Backbone of the World.” Straddling the Continental Divide, Glacier’s rugged spine is traversed by the famous 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road, an engineering landmark and one of the world’s most spectacular mountain drives. And the glaciers? More than three-quarters of them have disappeared since 1850, and the remaining ones are estimated to disappear by 2030. Thankfully, their legacy remains beautifully, if precariously, intact.
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
Southwest Colorado • Established: 1906 • Acreage: 52,121
Designating a national park on a plateau sliced by sheer canyons in a remote corner of Colorado “to preserve the works of man” (as the designator President Theodore Roosevelt put it) may sound a tad strange. But it won’t seem so strange when you drive through the gates of Mesa Verde and meander through its resident Anasazi ghost town. The only park in the system wholly dedicated to cultural resources, this stumbled-upon cache of 4,000 Ancestral Puebloan sites inhabited between A.D. 550 and A.D. 1300 inspires an awe usually reserved for Nature’s architecture. Tucked into sandstone alcoves in steep canyon walls, these stone shelters once housed thriving communities, which mysteriously abandoned the place after some 700 years, leaving us to ponder the richness of our pre-European past and leaving archaeologists to map more than 600 cliff dwellings that make up this masonry masterpiece. The World Heritage Site isn’t all small pre-Columbian condos. There’s the 150-room Cliff Palace, the intricate Long House, and the acrophobia-inducing Balcony House, all open for guided tours between spring and fall. Complementing the local real estate are some of the finest collections of prehistoric artifacts at the park’s Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
Southeastern California (extends into Nevada) • Established: 1994 (1933 as a national monument) • Acreage: 3,340,911
You gotta get past the forbidding name and that grim legend about a lost band of California Gold Rush-bound ’49ers taking a “shortcut” through here and dying of thirst. Death Valley’s immense, unpeopled moonscape of mountain ranges, salt flats, sand dunes, desiccated lakebeds, vacant caves, and ancient canyons autographed with the odd Shoshone petroglyph will confirm that the world is large and often lonely and that the gas tank is small and often too near empty for comfort in a place like this. While gas is sold at several places, in this hottest, driest, lowest place surrounded by mountains called Funeral and Black, you’ll still compulsively check your gauge with eerie thoughts of those ’49ers. In fact, all but one survived the ordeal, but history and mortality still blow down deserted roads in this otherworldly valley. Drive-by highlights include Badwater (the lowest spot in North America — 282 feet below sea level), 50-mile views from Dante’s Peak, and a 30-room Spanish villa called Scotty’s Castle built truly in the middle of nowhere by an eccentric former resident. But Death Valley’s biggest commodity remains its ungaugeable silence and stillness. Stopping to feel all the huge, quiet emptiness and witnessing the giant sepia landscape fade to a silent black under blinding stars is the greatest draw of all.
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Western Washington • Established: 1899 • Acreage: 235,625
Though long known to Native Americans as Tahoma (or variations of), meaning “mother of waters,” Mount Rainier was later named by Capt. George Vancouver (for whom the Canadian city is named) in honor of a rear admiral friend — one of the perks of being the first European to see the commanding peak. Seattle’s hill-next-door already receives more attention than Washington’s two other stellar national parks, Olympic and North Cascades, but Mount Rainier gets the nod for, among other things, staging one of the greatest park comebacks ever after being ravaged by floods in late 2006 and still reopening the following spring through heroic volunteer efforts. Reaching the top of the park’s namesake 14,410-foot peak — a glaciated volcano encased in 35 square miles of snow and ice — has become a rite of passage for Himalayan dreamers. But beneath Rainier’s vaunted summit and austere upper slopes is some of the most stunning federally protected backcountry just 50 miles from a major city you could ever hope to find: old-growth forests of Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock; alpine meadows carpeted in avalanche lilies, lupine, and Indian paintbrush; torrential glacier-fed rivers. All that and one of the planet’s world-class treks along the aptly named Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile journey around the famous mountain’s circumference.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Northern Arizona • Established: 1919 (1893 as a forest reserve, 1908 as a national monument) • Acreage: 1,217,403
The Pueblo people considered the Grand Canyon (Ongtupqa in Hopi) a holy site worthy of pilgrimages. Now it’s more about vacations than pilgrimages, but the mystical quality of the place remains. It’s been said that the odds of finding a private South Rim sunset spot here aren’t quite as good as winning the World Series of Poker in nearby Las Vegas. But gaping down with those 4.5 million other dumbstruck annual visitors gravitating to this perspective-busting, wide-angle-lens-defying, mile-deep, 277-river-mile-long, 18-mile-wide abyss is still one of the most privately mesmerizing experiences on earth. The work of the not-so-lazy Colorado River, which is about as thick as an eyelash from the top, the Grand Canyon is one gorgeous gorge. However you do this geologic splendor — along the Bright Angel Trail with the mule-riding groups, on the quieter North Rim by automobile, on the canyon floor with a camping permit or prized Phantom Ranch reservation — one thing is certain: Your brain will never quite get over that first impression from the edge of this hallowed hole in the ground. That’s how it should be. That’s why we come.
CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK
South Central Oregon • Established: 1902 • Acreage: 183,224
It’s the kind of blue reserved for Renaissance oil paintings and spring-water commercials, the shade of this centerpiece lake occupying Oregon’s only national park. It’s also one of the most exquisite reminders anywhere that intense beauty can spring from hellishly violent events — in this case the eruption and resulting collapse of a 12,000-foot mountain that blanketed at least parts of five states and three Canadian provinces in volcanic ash during a blast 42 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens. Native Americans who witnessed the calamity turned it into legend. The Klamath people recounted it as a battle between the chief of the world above and the chief of the world below. But that was 7,700 years ago. Today, the snowmelt-fed caldera at ground zero has blossomed into the envy of every other lake in the United States. Crater Lake is the country’s deepest (and bluest and most mystifyingly symmetrical) aqueous geological wonder. It’s also a great place to fish for rainbow trout, take a narrated boat tour, or even scuba dive. Trekkers will find one of the most gorgeous legs of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail right here. Cyclers (and drivers) can circumnavigate the caldera along the park’s 33-mile Rim Drive, which is dotted with no fewer than 20 scenic overlooks. Idlers can kick back at a historic lodge perched on the rim and stare down at that lake with an unopened book on their laps — and rightfully conclude that volcanoes aren’t so nasty after all.
From the July 2008 issue.
See more of our favorite national parks here and here.