The national park system is America’s best idea. Ken Burns agrees, so it’s a fact! America protects 423 different national park sites; of those, 62 are full national parks. I’ve been to most of them, especially those west of the Mississippi River (which separates the beautiful parts of the United States from the less attractive parts).
Of America’s western parks in the Lower 48, I’ve visited all but five — Channel Islands, Pinnacles, Mt. Baker, Petrified Forest, and Big Bend.
Without further ado, here are my top five:
Honorable Mention: Redwoods
“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always.” — John Steinbeck
Those trees…they are something else. With these goliaths, pictures are worth thousands of words. I had to take vertical panorama shots to get the full length of these trees.
But the fun doesn’t end when you stop craning your neck. Redwoods live in rainforests, after all. And in a rainforest, the fun only begins when your eyes return to ground level.
This park is full of life everywhere you look. It doesn’t have sweeping vistas like Yosemite or Grand Canyon, but it’s just cool. The air is always cool (it hardly ever gets too hot or cold here), and the sights are cool too. From the famous trees to expansive meadows to the Pacific Ocean, Redwoods has something for everyone.
This corner of California is far from big cities; Portland and San Francisco are both a healthy day’s drive away. While that might complicate your planning to visit Redwoods, it makes the park more charming than most. You can easily have stunning hikes right off the main road with no one around.
Of all the national parks I’ve visited out West, Redwoods may have exceeded my expectations the most.
Pro Tip: The trees are jaw-dropping, but there’s more to see and do around here. Get off the beaten path and enjoy the fresh air!
Sunrise/Sunset Tip: Any of the nearby beaches would make a decent sunset spot. But Northern California isn’t known for its sunrises or sunsets. Keep reading for national parks whose sunrises and sunsets will take your breath away.
“With its incredible range of precipitation and elevation, diversity is the hallmark of Olympic National Park. Encompassing nearly a million acres, the park protects a vast wilderness, thousands of years of human history, and several distinctly different ecosystems, including glacier-capped mountains, old-growth temperate rain forests, and over 70 miles of wild coastline.” — The National Park Service
One of my favorite characteristics of a national park is versatility: how many different things can I see in the park?
This is why the Grand Canyon isn’t in my top five. Sure, it’s impressive. But as a friend of mine once described to me, the Grand Canyon is basically a big hole in the ground with a river coursing through the bottom. You can call that an exaggeration, but it’s not a huge undersell.
(Brief tangent: Grand Canyon is so congested that the visitor center area has parking lots named after different animals. It sometimes feels more like a theme park than a national park.)
Olympic, in contrast, has a lot to see and do. Beaches? Check. Rainforests? Check. Waterfalls? Check. Mountains? Check. Skiing? Check.
And yes, it rains a lot in the Pacific Northwest. Olympic bears the brunt of winter storms rolling off the Pacific. But summers in the PNW are downright magical.
A delightful secret for those of you interested in visiting any part of the West Coast of the United States: summers are rain-free! If you’re anywhere within say 300 or 400 miles of the Pacific Ocean during the summer months, odds are you’ll have a cloudless day — all sun, no rain. Even the rainy Pacific Northwest clears up during the summer.
And for weather/geography/photography nerds like me, that is great news. Why? Well, you get the benefit of all that rain — i.e. lush landscapes — without the rain itself. Nothing beats a rainforest on a rainless day.
(Even a rainy day in a rainforest is fantastic, by the way.)
Ok, I’ve used the word ‘rain’ enough!
Pro Tip: This is a big park but since most of it is backcountry, the crowded parts get crowded. So plan ahead; Olympic is remote, and between the weather and the crowds, you’ll want to ensure you make the most of your visit.
Sunrise/Sunset Tip: Rialto Beach for sunset. It’s pretty famous (and thus crowded), and it’s remote, but Rialto is worth it when the sun makes an appearance.
“You cannot describe Zion, you can only experience it.” — Unknown
I happened to get lucky when I visited Zion (along with another great nearby national park, Bryce Canyon). It was late February, and Zion had just received snow, but it wasn’t that cold.
I had high expectations, and Zion delivered. The main tourist area is small, but the canyon walls pack a punch — for hiking and overall scenery.
Zion is perhaps most famous for the Angel’s Landing hike, but if you don’t want to risk your life for a gorgeous view, there are plenty of tamer hikes.
If you visit Zion during the summer, keep your midday activities to a minimum. It gets hot here in the desert, which means more sweat and less wildlife. Plus, given the combination of the park’s popularity and layout, Zion Canyon gets jam-packed. For most of the year, the park uses a shuttle system in the canyon to keep the crowds manageable. During these times, you can’t drive-in, so plan accordingly!
If you go to Zion and have time, try to visit the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. Not only is it an engineering marvel; the views from both sides of the tunnel are indescribable (see above).
Pro Tip: As mentioned, avoid midday crowds and heat during the summer months. Try to go offseason when the weather is nicer and there’s less people.
Sunrise/Sunset Tip: Court of the Patriarchs for sunrise. Beyond words (see below)!
#3: Grand Teton
“The Teton Mountains are, to my way of thinking, quite the grandest and most spectacular mountains I have ever seen.” — John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Grand Teton isn’t the biggest national park, but pound for pound, it might be the most majestic. The views of the 13,000-foot Teton Range are sensational. The mountains rise high above the Teton Valley, and the topography affords perfect views.
If you so choose, the Tetons have some of the best hiking in the world. You can grab some of America’s most scenic wilderness all to yourself.
For the less adventurous, the park’s got plenty of forests and rivers to spot wildlife and enjoy some good hiking. And Grand Teton lies adjacent to one of the world’s great mountain towns: Jackson Hole.
Pro Tip: Sleep near the park. I spent a night huddled in my car just outside the north entrance so I could make my way to my intended sunrise viewing spot bright and early.
I paid the price for that choice. That evening, the thermometer dipped to -7°C (19°F). I’ve never felt that cold for that long. At one point in the middle of the night, I turned my car on and drove just to warm up. After 20 minutes with the heater at full blast and then turning my car off when I arrived at my sunrise spot, it didn’t take long for the cold to rattle my bones again.
But damn was it worth it. That was the sunrise of a lifetime, my friends.
Sunrise/Sunset Tip: Oxbow Bend for sunrise. See above!
“Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things. Nearly all the park is a profound solitude.” — John Muir
As I was walking along a boardwalk in Yosemite Valley, I heard some ruffling in the grass. I looked up and saw something most people might not want to see in that scenario: a bear!
Maybe 20 feet to my right, a young black bear was prancing around in the grass, smelling it and eating it while having a good old morning. The bear likely knew I was nearby long before I knew the bear was there, but it didn’t care at all. That’s likely because the bear was used to humans; Yosemite Valley is always packed, and the bear had a collar around its neck.
After the bear and I looked each other in the eye (as you can see above), it kept going about its business for a few minutes. It got up on its hind legs. It jogged through the tall grass. A bit later, it slowly drifted away from the boardwalk and toward the river.
Those moments make me feel truly alive and incredibly grateful to be able to visit national parks. You don’t get the chance every day to watch a wild bear 20 feet away.
As cool as my encounter with the bear was, it wasn’t even the highlight of my time in Yosemite. The valley has nice hikes and breathtaking views, but the crowds can ruin the experience.
3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, there’s a place called Glacier Point with spectacular views of Yosemite Valley and Half Dome straight ahead with the Sierra Nevada in the background. Glacier Point might be the best national park vista I’ve ever seen, and most Yosemite visitors don’t even know it exists.
Well, they should. Look below at the sunrise I witnessed. This was the most stunning sunrise or sunset I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been lucky to see some great ones).
Glacier Point is an hour-long detour on high mountain roads, and it won’t reopen until 2022 due to construction. But if you find yourself in Yosemite and have the courage to get up early, don’t miss it. You won’t regret it!
Pro Tip: Get in and out early. Yosemite gets congested!
Sunrise/Sunset Tip: Glacier Point. No words are necessary :)
“However orderly your excursions or aimless, again and again amid the calmest, stillest scenery you will be brought to a standstill hushed and awe-stricken before phenomena wholly new to you.” — John Muir
America’s first national park, and deservedly so. I’ve been three times, all at different times of year. No matter when you visit Yellowstone, you won’t be disappointed.
Yellowstone isn’t quite as scenic as some other national parks. Most of the tourist attractions aren’t a 10 on the scenery scale. But in terms of versatility, Yellowstone takes the cake. There’s just so much to see and do here.
For half the year, Yellowstone becomes a winter wonderland. It’s one of the coldest areas in the United States, but in some ways, the park comes alive when the temperatures fall. Some wildlife are more active, and it’s easier to see them with a white snowy background.
For the other half, Yellowstone is a Garden of Eden. It’s called America’s Serengeti for good reason; I’ve seen bears, wolves, coyotes, bison, elk, pronghorn, and more in this beautiful corner of the world. You don’t need binoculars or luck to see amazing creatures up close; you’ll almost certainly have bison or elk come right up to your car.
Yellowstone is always jam-packed during peak season, but the park’s size allows you to get away from people. And if you’re going for the first time, I recommend spending at least a couple of days here.
Pro Tip: Patience! Crowds might force a change of plans, so be flexible. The other reason for patience in Yellowstone? Wildlife. The more time you give yourself, the better odds you’ll have of getting those creature photos for the Gram. And if that’s your goal, keep your eyes peeled at dawn and dusk, when animals are most active.
The other key to making the most of a Yellowstone visit? Ask around. Park rangers and fellow park visitors will know where the creatures are. And if you see a bunch of cars pulled over, you either have wildlife nearby or you just missed a sighting.
Sunrise/Sunset Tip: Lamar Valley for sunrise. You’ll get some snowy mountains in the background with a treeless valley in the foreground. But if you’re already in the Greater Yellowstone area, head south to Grand Teton for better sunrise/sunset views.
So there you have it! If you want to learn more about my national park experiences, hit me up :)
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