From colossal trees to majestic vistas, the National Park System captures some of the most extraordinary destinations on Earth. Of the more than 400 units within the system, there are 59 national parks, preserved to showcase America’s greatest natural, cultural and historic treasures for future generations to enjoy. From the highest and lowest points in North America to the world’s largest living things and largest living carnivores, each of the national parks has something unique to offer. Here is a look at five must see national parks that all outdoor enthusiasts should visit at least once in their lifetime.
Denali Park, AK 99755
Although it’s not one of the most visited national parks in the system, Denali is a dream destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Lying on more than six million acres, this vast park deep in the Alaskan wilderness, north of Anchorage, is rich with native animals like grizzly bears and caribou and spectacular views from lush forests, shimmering glaciers and the snow capped mountains. The top attraction is Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America and taller than the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, from base to summit. Although there are lodging options in Denali National Park, reservations must be made well in advance and reservations for camping in the summer began last December. Nevertheless, visitors who make it to Denali will experience one of the most amazing places in the world.
Related: Under The Radar National Parks
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
Measuring an astounding 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and up to a mile deep, the Grand Canyon is truly one of the great natural wonders of the world. Marked by prominent layers of sedimentary rocks etched and carved over millions of years by the rushing waters of the Colorado River, the monumental canyon is home to an abundance of plant and wildlife. A wealth of activities like hiking is among the most popular things to do, particularly at the South Rim, where visitors can take in sweeping views of the vast inner canyon. However, the national park staff advises backcountry campers who expect to be hiking for an extended time to be well prepared for changing trail conditions and weather. Other popular activities at the Grand Canyon include commercial and noncommercial rafting trips, mule rides through the North or South Rim and guided bicycle tours.
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
Larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, Yellowstone National Park is the world’s first national park and second largest in the country. It’s home to Old Faithful, the world’s most famous geyser and more than 300 other geysers. But the park, encompassing nearly 3,500 square miles, has so much more to offer for visitors, including a chance to see some of the approximately 290 waterfalls, one of the world’s largest active volcanoes, flourishing wildlife population, along with hiking, camping and some of the best fly-fishing on the planet. With nine lodges and 12 front-country campgrounds, Yellowstone provides plenty of options for overnight trips, but advance reservations are absolutely essential.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite, CA 95389
One of the oldest and certainly one of the most spectacular nature preserves in the country, Yosemite is most definitely a place that should be visited at least once in a lifetime. Known for its timeless natural beauty marked by clear waters, evergreen forests and towering granite monoliths, the park is unquestionably among the most beautiful places on Earth. Plenty of activities are afforded to both casual visitors and outdoorsmen alike. Among the best things to do are backpacking and hiking, fishing, horseback riding and rock climbing. One exceptional yet challenging hike is the cable route from Yosemite Valley to the top of Half Dome. Several options are available for lodging and camping, including some sites that are first-come, first-serve. However, reserved accommodations must be made well in advance for the high season between April and the end of September.
Springdale, UT 84767
Named after the Hebrew word for “a place of peace and relaxation,” Zion is Utah’s oldest national park as well as the most visited. World famous for its breathtaking red sandstone formations, the park near the northern Arizona border is acclaimed for providing some of the world’s best canyon hikes. There are a significant number of hiking trails suitable for hikers of all levels, but the ultimate experience in Zion is an incredible jaunt through The Narrows, casting visitors through the Virgin River amid towering sandstone walls. To complete what may be a once in a lifetime visit to Zion, visitors should also consider visiting some of the many freestanding arches within the park, most notably Crawford Arch and Kolob Arch, in addition to hiking Angels Landing. Zion only has one lodge within the park and fills up quickly during the summer. Other options include three campgrounds and lodging from neighboring communities, such as Springdale and St. George.
Related: Guide To Yellowstone National Park
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.