With the aim of protecting, preserving and showcasing the country’s most impressive scenery, archaeological sites and spectacular natural landmarks, the US National Park network is a wonderful way to experience and explore the best of America.
While Yellowstone was the first US National Park designated in 1872, there are now 62 protected areas and each one has a National Park Service Visitor Centre full of invaluable advice and maps to enhance your trip.
Here we’ve shortlisted some of our favourites.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Carved by the powerful Colorado River, the timeless beauty of the Grand Canyon stretches across an endless landscape of colourful rock layers that line the mile-deep gorge. The South Rim is well-developed with a shuttle bus, adventure activities and guided tours, while the North Rim offers a more intimate experience. Stay at least one night to witness the amazing sunrise and sunset over the canyon and do take a guided tour to appreciate the area’s geology, history and wildlife.
Joshua Tree, California
Named by the Mormons in the 1850s, the spiky Joshua trees populating this magical desert are a type of yucca. The park includes two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, both with distinct ecosystems and desert-adapted wildlife including jackrabbit, coyote, kangaroo rat and rattle snake. Enjoy some of California’s best hiking and horse trails and with no light pollution the stargazing is world-class. Do not miss the otherworldly sight of the stark trees set against early morning and night skies.
Rocky Mountain, Colorado
Just 90 minutes from Denver, the Rocky Mountain National Park is a bucket list destination for adventure enthusiasts. A vast natural playground of hiking trails, mountains, lakes and wildlife, there is plenty to suit all ages and tastes. Take one of the spectacular scenic drives, enjoy the stunning nature trails on foot or horseback or relax with a spot of fishing. Wildlife lovers can also scout for elk, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain birds including Mountain Chickadee and Clark’s Nutcracker.
The world’s first national park (1872), Yellowstone dazzles with natural beauty. Host to active geysers, bubbling mud-pots, colourful hot springs, gushing waterfalls, verdant forest and serene lakes, Yellowstone is also home to abundant wildlife. Look out for bison, moose, elk, bear, wolf and bald eagle. The main attractions can be explored from a network of boardwalks and trails. For fabulous views of the Upper and Lower Falls, hike the South Rim Trail (2.8km) for a show-stopping view from Artist Point.
For off-the-beaten-track beauty and fewer crowds, we recommend the glorious rugged landscape of Alaska’s Denali National Park. Named after North America’s tallest mountain, the mountain views, alpine forest dotted with lakes and flora and fauna are magnificent. As vehicles can only enter a short way into the park, take the shuttle bus and enjoy a wildlife safari scouting for caribou, moose, grizzly bear and wolf. This is wonderful hiking country with a diverse range of trails to choose from.
Hawaii Volcanoes, Hawaii
Protecting some of the planet’s most distinctive geological, biological and cultural landscapes, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park includes two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Located on the Big Island, the elevation soars from sea level to 13,500 feet with landscapes ranging from desert, to rainforest to arctic. Known as the world’s only ‘drive-in volcano,’ highlights include Crater Rim Drive, Puu Puai Overlook, Kilauea Iki Crater Overlook, Halemaumau Crater, Chain of Craters Road and Volcano House, where Mark Twain once stayed.