The United States is huge, but more than that, the United States is diverse. From coast to coast, there are more than 58 national parks and countless hundreds of state and municipal parks protecting the landscape from human invasion. Unlike parks in many countries across the world, it seems that every U.S. park offers vastly different flora and fauna, creating a landscape quite dissimilar to anything else on Earth. If you are looking for a travel challenge to round out your bucket list, try to reach as many American national parks as you can; at the very least, check out these five stunning parks that range from sea to shining sea.
1. Everglades, Florida
Home to more than 700 plant species, 300 bird species, and a plethora of fascinating ground animals including the endangered Florida panther, American crocodile, and manatee, the Everglades are an incredibly diverse mix of temperate and tropical landscapes. In fact, this national park was the first in the country to be founded for its biodiversity and unique natural resources, rather than to preserve gorgeous views (though the scenery is particularly jaw-dropping during sunrise and sunset).
Visitors can tour the park by foot or via bicycle, tram, or boat. Unfortunately, it seems the Everglades’ days are numbered. The abundance of resources in the region means human influence continues to press in from all sides. This one-of-a-kind biosphere is shrinking fast, so you should look for an inexpensive flight to Florida on Flights.com or Bookingwiz.com as soon as you can to check the Everglades off your list.
Editor’s Note: I was lucky enough to not only visit, but cycle through the Everglades in 2012 and even got to see a baby alligator basking by the road.
2. Glacier National Park, Montana
While it isn’t the only place to find glaciers in the United States, Glacier National Park certainly lives up to its name, containing dozens of individual glaciers that carve their paths roughly into the landscape. Sharp spires of mountain surround verdant valleys filled with more than 700 glinting lakes; it is no wonder that naturalist John Muir judged the park as having “the best care-killing scenery on the continent.”
The park is teeming with life, which is why the land has such a deep cultural history with natives and colonists alike. Both groups tracked bison over Montana’s hills and valleys and took advantage of the plentiful fish in the region’s streams. However, today, the park’s 60 mammal species (including the highly endangered gray wolf) and 260 bird species are protected. Visitors can traverse the 1,800 square mile park on any of its 700-plus hiking and horse trails.
3. Yellowstone, Wyoming
Just to the south is America’s favorite and first national park, Yellowstone. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant established the park for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.” This meant that the American people were prohibited from damaging the park in any way, including poaching animals or vandalizing scenery with construction or mining. More than 140 years later, Grant’s declaration, and the efforts of countless naturalists and conservationists have preserved Yellowstone as one of America’s most stunning national parks.
Initially, people became captivated by Yellowstone because of the natural phenomena around the park. Filled with geysers and hot springs, the landscape was very much unlike the surrounding regions, despite the similarity of flora and fauna. Still, Yellowstone’s volcanic activity makes it especially fertile, and while human development elsewhere in the West eliminated habitats, fantastic creatures like bighorn sheep, bears, moose, mountain lions, beavers, and more flocked to the park in droves. Visitors continue to have close encounters with wildlife, and if you follow your park rangers’ instructions, your experience should be safe and exciting as well.
4. Grand Canyon, Arizona
The Grand Canyon holds firm as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and once you stand on the rim and look out at its expansive canyons and colorful rock, the wonder certainly becomes overwhelming. While more than five million people visit the canyon every year, most of the park remains untouched wilderness. Dense evergreen forest shelters the rims from further erosion of the canyon and provides much-needed habitat for Arizona’s native animal species, including coyotes, bears, and elk. The clean, cool air provides excellent views, and on a sunny Arizona day, most visitors can see more than 100 miles in the distance.
Even if you aren’t interested in seeing the rest of America’s national parks — though you should be — you absolutely must hop on a plane to Arizona and see the Grand Canyon in person at least once in your life.
Editor’s Note: My visit to the Grand Canyon in 2009 offered up some spectacular photo opportunities, but I’d love to go back someday and hike in the canyon itself.
5. Zion National Park, Utah
Walking though the red rock canyons of Zion National Park, visitors can easily feel transported to another world. Views of the park from above are rather unimpressive, but looking up at the sky through the cracks in the canyons is utterly fantastic.
Like the mighty Colorado River in Arizona, Utah’s humble Virgin River is responsible for the astounding beauty in Zion. After millions of years, the streams cutting through Utah’s vast deserts have carved narrow canyons more than 2,000 feet deep in some places. While there is little flora or fauna to observe, the breathtaking colors and shapes of sandstone are more than enough to sate one’s appetite for views.
Have you been to any of the above national parks?
Do you have a US national park that you think deserves a place in a top five or top ten?
Featured image and Zion National Park images care of the below. All other images are my own.