My favorite national park in the United States is Acadia National Park. Occupying a large portion of Mt. Desert Island in northern Maine, this beautiful park offers a little bit of everything: hiking and cycling trails through the forest, a stunning coastal ring road and even a beach (although the water is a bit chilly!).
The historic carriage road system within the park was built by John D. Rockefeller as a unique way for visitors to experience the park. Head to the park early in the morning to watch the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain – the first place to see daylight in the continental United States. Driving around the ring road at dawn rewards you with breathtaking views and few other visitors.
Utah has more National Parks than any other state in the US but it’s Arches National Park that will blow you away! Easily accessible from Moab, Arches National Park is a photographer’s dream – orange sandstone cliffs, rocks and arches framed by brilliant blue sky. It’s easy to spend a whole day at this park.
One of the best things about Arches National Park, beside the fact that it’s stunningly scenic, is that there are many short hiking trails throughout the park. You don’t need to be super fit to enjoy Arches as many of the walks to the structures are short and gentle. It’s also amazing how close you can get to the ancient sandstone arches. In many cases you can walk right up and sit underneath them. Stop in at the visitors’ center at the park entrance on the way in to learn how these arches formed over time.
I’ve been to a lot of national parks around the world and while all of them offer unique beauty and splendor, nothing truly beats Banff National Park. Canada’s oldest national park is also its most beautiful and is a wonder to behold. Snow-capped Rocky Mountains towering over clear glacier-feed rivers leads to turquoise lakes and endless vistas of pine-tree valleys. Whether you’re looking to catch a glimpse of a bear, ski the world-class slopes, hike the backcountry, or stay in a castle-like hotel, Banff has something for everyone.
I love superlative places, and any description of Death Valley National Park is loaded with superlatives — it is the hottest, driest, and lowest spot in the U.S. Claims are even made that the sun shines every day here and that rain is rare. One thing I especially enjoy about visiting this desolate area is the drive through the desert via two-lane highway. As you get closer to Death Valley, the highway becomes more and more lonely and desolate–just like those endless roads in the movies.
And once in the park, there are plenty of sights to see. Zabriskie Point is particularly well-known because director Antonioni titled a movie after it. It is a very lonely place with an overlook of the park’s picturesque canyons. Nearby, at Twenty Mule Team Canyon you can drive your car through a very tight and scenic pass. And who would want to miss Badwater, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere?
Spending the night in this park is essential. You don’t want to miss the star show, which is spectacular because of the remoteness from city lights. For lodging, I adore The upscale Inn at Furnace Creek. The area’s Panamint Indians built it of adobe bricks in 1927, and the vintage rooms are adorned with fireplaces featuring brick arches and with colorfully tiled bathrooms. It is worth a splurge to stay if you can, because that permits taking a dip in the hot spring-fed pool—a memorable event on a warm desert night with the stars blazing overhead. But if you can’t stay, you should absolutely stop by for a drink or meal.
About 70 miles west of Key West, Florida is a small collection of island that make up Dry Tortugas National Park. Dry Tortugas is only reached by boat and sea plane. The island are uninhabited except for the small park staff and the day visitors and campers. I spent four days camping on the island and exploring Fort Jefferson. I loved at before 10 am and after 3 pm the island is basically deserted.
The island is yours to explore and enjoy in peace and quiet. The coral reefs around the sea wall and island are great for snorkeling. The evenings should be spent on the top of the fort watching the sunset. I learned some great ghost stories from park ranger. After the sunsets, it is the perfect time to hunt for the ghosts of the prisoners. Once the fort closes for the night, stay away and watch the starts come out. Due to the remote location, there isn’t any light pollution. Dry Tortugas is one of my favorite parks due to the remoteness and lack of tourists. It is still unspoiled by technology and tourist attractions.
We’d passed the sign for Fort Union National Monument for years without getting off the Interstate. One warm summer day as we drove home to Santa Fe, NM from Colorado we decided to stop. The sign at the exit said it was eight miles. We had second thoughts but decided to go for it. As you approach this mid-19th century army fort and supply depot you see the ruins of the fort’s old adobe buildings silhouetted against New Mexico’s Sangre de Christo Mountains to the west. It’s a beautiful sight.
Walking around Fort Union on the trail takes an hour to 90 minutes, depending on your pace. I highly recommend reading the signs posted at each ghostly building – only the walls of the adobe or stone buildings still stand – to absorb the history of this once remote place. Picture women and children, uprooted from homes in more civilized outposts, living at the edge of the high desert prairie where weather can be extreme: too hot in summer, fiercely windy and snowy in winter and dusty year ‘round. It was a hard life punctuated by rare luxuries like a piano. Don’t miss the wheel ruts from the historic Santa Fe Trail at the north end of the site. There is something about Fort Union and its eerie beauty that still haunts me, maybe it will enchant you, too.
One of the most unique national parks we have visited is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Being up close to one of the worlds most active volcanos really is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Kilauea, located at the park, is the most famous of the volcanoes on the Big Island, and rightly so! It has been erupting continuously since 1983, and is one of your best chances to see lava flowing in person.
Erase the images you have of the quintessential cone shape volcano looming over head. Here you will see jagged and rolling land with steam popping up here and there. Visiting Jaggar Museum, you will learn about how the volcano has collapsed on itself forming this massive crater, defying expectations of what a volcano looks like.
Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park provides ample opportunities for exploration and lets you gain new perspectives on how so much of the land we live on was formed. It really is mind blowing. Go back in time with a walk through the Thurston Lava Tubes where lava once flowed underground. It’s amazing to know that even today, lava flows through tubes like this around the island.
If you have time for only one hike, it must be the Kilauea Iki Trail that takes you through lush rainforest, across jagged lava rock and through the middle of a lava lake formed in 1959 where steam vents line your path. Clocking in around 4 miles, it is a doable hike for most people and is one of the most remarkable hikes we have completed.
Depending on the activity of Kilauea, you can see active lava flows with your own eyes. At times, you can hike to see the lava or if there is no access by foot, you can always opt for a helicopter to fly you over the flowing red masses. Either way, don’t miss the glow of the bubbling lava at Jaggar Museum every night. The red hot lava at the Halema’uma’u crater creates an eerie red glow across the sky even before you approach the viewpoint.
A visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is nature at it’s best. It will leave you mesmerized, searching the globe for more opportunities to witness the world’s majesty with your own eyes.
I have never experienced anything quite like Mesa Verde National Park. The spectacular mountainous views throughout the park are enough in themselves to put me in awe, but the most interesting part of the park is the cliff dwellings. Carved into large overhanging cliffs, the Ancestral Pueblo people built and lived in these dwellings between AD 600 to 1300. It is incredible to see the detail and hard work that went into building the dwellings all with their own hands. The dwelling that is pictured is the Spruce Tree House and is just one of 600 that can be found around the park. After a visit to Mesa Verde National Park, you will learn all about the Ancestral Pueblo people, what life was like for them, the tools they used, and much more. If you have the chance to visit southwestern Colorado, a visit to Mesa Verde National Park is a truly unique opportunity unlike any other national park!
From scaling the notorious rock wall of El Capitan to white water rafting to hiking near-vertical Half Dome, Yosemite offers excitement for every type of adventurer. Leisurely hikes through green meadows and up to waterfalls can be done in one day, or you can spend weeks deep inside of the park navigating through the panoramic John Muir Trail.
Despite visiting Yosemite a countless number of times, I still feel like I haven’t experienced everything that the park has to offer. There’s simply too much to do. I’ve seen mother bears teach her cubs to climb (from a safe distance of course!) and silent deer leave no trace but a few hoof-prints as they browsed for food. A little known fact, Yosemite is just a few miles away from gorgeous lakes that are perfect to splash around in after a long day hiking. No matter your age, fitness level, or interests – there’s something for everyone to love at Yosemite.
Editor’s Note: I loved my day and a half in Yosemite. When I wasn’t being terrified by bears, I was being amazed by the stunning sunset from Sentinel Dome, thrilled by swimming in waterfalls, and being blown away by the park’s sheer beauty.
South & Central America
The age-old question–beach or mountains? If, like me, you just can’t choose, I highly recommend a visit to Costa Rica, where you can spend some time in both locations.
Arenal Volcano National Park, located about three hours north of the capital of San Jose, was quite possibly my favorite national park experience, simply because it was so very not national park-like. After a long-ish drive down a very, very potholed dirt road, you will turn into a parking area guarded by a kind man in a small shelter who will take your money and hand you a very, very basic paper map. You will then park and head onto the park’s main trail, which will take you as close to Arenal Volcano as you should ever be. It’s all volcano-y and right there. There’s an additional loop trail that winds through the forest and features what I’m calling the coolest tree ever. Along this trail you will find beautiful giant birds, flotillas of cutter ants looking like tiny sailboats marching down the sides of trees, and one giant-ass flying hippopotamus beetle which will scare the living crap out of you. Or maybe that was just my experience.
Five hours south-west of Arenal is the uber-touristy town of Manuel Antonio, which is home to Manuel Antonio National Park. The park’s several beaches are the stuff of beach dreams, monkeys roam freely, and giant boa constrictors lounge around tree limbs (what? You don’t consider giant snakes to be an attraction? What’s wrong with you?) If you arrive early and skip the $50-per-person guided tour, you may even find yourself all alone on the most beautiful stretch of beach you’ve ever seen. I highly recommend arriving early and skipping the tour.
Doing both of these parks on the same visit requires transporting yourself from mountains to beach, and to me, that may be the actual highlight of the trip. The countryside between Arenal and Manuel Antonio is not to be missed, and the drive should be considered as much of an attraction as either of the parks. I’ve never met anyone who has visited Costa Rica and been like ‘meh’. Now I understand why.
Torres del Paine national park; to get there you can either fly, take a 4 day boat ride, or drive many hours (days) through Argentina. This special place in the South of Chilean Patagonia is one of the wildest places imaginable. The nearest town is over 2 hours away and the park see’s little to no satellite service due to its remote location. The weather in the national park is of the most unpredictable in the world. It can change from hot sun to 5 minute torrential downpours, then snow, sleet and hail may make an appearance. All this in the same day! It has it all, including some of the world’s toughest winds, reaching 150km/h on a regular basis.
A five day walk in this park takes you through wonderful vistas, including passing the massive Glacier Grey and the high jagged rock peaks of the French valley. Eventually the rolling hills end at the spectacular torres, the parks namesake. This park and trek is my personal favorite because of the extreme variety in everything from weather to scenery. The park itself is difficult to reach and a pack-in pack-out trek takes a little planning but the satisfied feeling you get on the 5th day sitting in front of the three towers at sun rise is one of accomplishment, accompanied by sore feet. One of my favorite moments from this park has me sitting at one of the mirador’s in the French Valley watching huge chunks of the hanging glacier come crashing down the mountains causing mini avalanches. Certainly one of the most beautiful places I will ever see. Every photo taken here seems like it originates from a travel magazine. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to explore this wild region of the earth in its pristine state.