Theodore Roosevelt National Park was my first national park. Indeed, a trip to the western-North Dakota park is one of my earliest childhood memories and probably my first family vacation.
I remember piling into the car with my sisters and parents and driving for what seemed like days. Actually, it was a four-hour drive from our home. But from that packed backseat, the flat terrain along Interstate 94 had an endless quality.
Once we arrived, though, I was transfixed by the park – its herds of buffalo, the adorable Prairie Dog Town, and the endless rolling hills of the Badlands.
Later family trips would take me to Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Redwood national parks – all gorgeous and remarkable in their own ways.
I believe those family trips planted the seed for my love of the outdoors. They also made me appreciate the natural beauties that have been preserved all over the country. As an adult, I have gone on to visit many more national parks.
But I’m glad my first park was one that paid tribute to Theodore Roosevelt, the father of so many of America’s national parks, reserves, and national forests. Considered the “conservationist president,” Roosevelt is said to have shaped his views about preservation during his time ranching in the Badlands of North Dakota.
Although I have always loved national parks, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has cut off access to so many of the parks has made me appreciate these national treasures even more.
So, during this National Park Week of 2020, I am highlighting my favorites. Here are 9 national parks that are truly knockouts.
1. Grand Canyon
For much of my adult life, I have lived within a few hours of Grand Canyon National Park – in my mind the epitome of all U.S. parks. While every national park has its share of wondrous features, the Grand Canyon stands alone in its distinction as an actual natural wonder of the world.
I have visited both the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon numerous times over the years, and I’ve hiked down into its depths on several great day trips. Still, every time I go, I see some new delights in this northern-Arizona treasure.
Highlight: Although a drive along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is a wonderful way to spend a day, there’s nothing like hiking into the Canyon, even if it’s just a short day trip. If you’re physically fit and unafraid of heights, I recommend heading to the South Kaibab Trail and hiking the 1.8-mile roundtrip to Ooh Aah Point, or the 3-mile roundtrip to Cedar Ridge. Both points offer unbelievable views of the canyon. But remember, hiking out is tough despite the short distance. Expect to spend at least double the time climbing out as you did on your hike in, and carry more water they you think you’ll need.
I remember thinking as I drove into Glacier National Park that these were mountains like every other state only wished they had.
Later, when I re-read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, I realized I may have channeled his views about Montana. “I am in love with Montana,” he wrote. “For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” And of the state’s glorious mountains, Steinbeck said, “The mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda.”
I couldn’t agree more. I also completely understand Glacier’s motto, “The Crown of the Continent.” While I loved the nearby Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, Glacier is the one I long to return to.
Highlight: There are so many great hikes in Glacier, ranging from easy lakeside jaunts to strenuous treks that require special snow-hiking equipment to get to remote glacial areas. But for a moderate hike that has a bit of everything, I recommend the Iceberg Lake Trail, a 9.5-mile round trip that gets you to a small lake with a real iceberg. Along the way, you will be among the wildflowers – stands of fluffy bear grass and fields of purple, yellow, and red blooms.
I have visited only one East Coast national park, and it was a whopper. For an ocean/mountain lover like me, Acadia National Park features the perfect convergence of the two. Frothy white waves crashing into granite cliffs are common scenes along the park’s loop road.
Time it right at the park’s Cadillac Mountain and you’ll be able to catch the first light of day in the U.S., thanks to its far-eastern location in northern Maine.
Highlight: For a hike that includes not just a lovely soft-sand beach, but spectacular granite overlooks as well, I recommend the Great Head Trail. The 1.7-mile round-trip trail passes by Sand Beach before following a coastal headland that offers sweeping ocean views interspersed with shady wooded sections.
If you’re looking for magnificent views AND several bucket-list-worthy hikes, Zion National Park is the place to get it all. Multi-colored sandstone peaks soar all around you, and the deep-blue sky seems bigger than usual in this southern-Utah wonderland.
The splendors of Zion tend to bring lots of crowds, though, so expect to ride shuttle buses to get to many of the popular hiking trails. It is so worth it, though, with famous hikes such as The Narrows and Angel’s Landing awaiting you.
Highlight: It’s hard to pick a favorite hike at Zion, because there are so many that are noteworthy. I love The Narrows for its route that takes you right into the Virgin River, with massive cliffs rising around you. But for perhaps the most iconic hike of all, head to Angel’s Landing, a thrilling 5.4-mile round route that follows a steep narrow ridge to a summit with 360-degree views. Caution: Angel’s Landing is not for those with a fear of heights. It requires the use of chain hand-holds to ascend several steep sections that feature sheer drops on both sides. And with an overall elevation gain of nearly 1,500 feet, it’s a tough climb as well. My personal recommendation: Don’t look down until you get to the top!
5. White Sands
White Sands National Park hasn’t been a national park for long, but it has always been amazing. For decades the 275-square-mile cluster of white-gypsum sand dunes in southern New Mexico was designated as a national monument. Then, in December 2019, White Sands was elevated to a national park, finally earning the recognition that this phenomenon deserves.
For me, part of the charm of White Sands is the contrast of the winter-wonderland appearance with the hot breezy climate of southern New Mexico. Wander into those glistening dunes on a sunny day, and you will be engulfed in endless white against the deep-blue New Mexico sky.
Highlight: For total immersion in the White Sands, consider hiking the Alkali Flat Trail, a “black diamond” trail that takes you deep into the dunes. But remember that although the dunes might look gentle, the 5-mile loop includes plenty of a steep climbs through shifting sands.
Rock formations have always fascinated me, and I’ve taken in quite a few over my years of living in Arizona. But nothing can prepare you for the massive rocks of Yosemite National Park. From Half Dome to El Capitan to the Three Brothers, Yosemite’s granite rock formations will wow you.
And who could forget about the waterfalls that often flow from those rocks? Or the meadows spread out below the rocks? Or the endless views from overlooks high above it all? More than any other park, Yosemite really does seem to have it all.
Highlight: For a taste of some of the Yosemite’s best, I recommend the Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall (Mist Trail) trails. Starting with the beautiful tree-and-moss-lined Mist Trail, the route transitions to a steep climb involving 600 steep granite steps. All of that work results in an amazing payoff: The 317-foot-high Vernal Fall. Although water flow was fairly low during my autumn trip, a visit in the spring or early summer is said to yield a full waterfall crashing over the granite cliff.
8. Death Valley
A drive through Death Valley National Park is eye-opening in so many ways. Not only will you traverse the lowest, hottest, and driest of the national parks, but you will experience overlooks that offer a birds-eye view of it all.
The park website describes Death Valley as “a land of extremes,” with each extreme having a striking contrast – ranging from rugged peaks topped with winter snow to rare rainstorms bringing fields of wildflowers.
I recommend taking the slight detour off the main park road to Zabriske Point, where the badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation will be spread below you.
Highlight: Another must-stop point in Death Valley is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, an eerily beautiful area that features rippled sand and twisted mesquite trees.
8. Theodore Roosevelt
For years, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was my home-state national park, and I visited countless times over the years. I even lived and worked for one summer during high school in the park’s quaint western-themed town, Medora.
I simply love the barren-looking, but still colorful, terrain of the Badlands. The rolling buttes and grazing bison never cease to amaze me.
And the fun town of Medora is a great stopping point – not just for the western atmosphere of its saloons and restaurants, but also for the excellent Medora Musical that takes place in a Burning Hills Amphitheater located high above the town.
Highlight: Although the 36-mile South Unit drive is beautiful and easily accessible, visitors should make a point to get to the North Unit as well. There, an off-the-beaten-path 14-mile paved drive takes you deep into the Badlands, featuring beautiful views at the River Bend and Oxbow overlooks. Herds of bison are also often visible along the route.
Bryce National Park has many distinguishing features – not the least of which is its plentiful hoodoos. The slightly spooky columns of colorful rock seem to be everywhere in the southern-Utah park.
In fact, Bryce’s website notes that although hoodoos exist on every continent, “Here is the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth.” The concentrations of hoodoos are joined by an array of amazing red-rock formations, pink cliffs, and endless views.
Highlight: For views of an amphitheater unlike any other, head to the Rim Trail, where the main hoodoo field is spread below. I recommend walking as far as you can along the 11-mile roundtrip from Fairyland Point to Bryce Point.
Having visited fewer than half of the national parks in the U.S., I have many others on my must-list. Because I live in the western U.S., most of my current favorites are located west of the Mississippi.
But once the coronavirus is behind us, I would love nothing more than to venture into some of the eastern-U.S. icons as well, such as Florida’s Everglades and and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains.
And from experience, I know that each national park has a special appeal. Who knows which of the parks I visit in the future will land on my “favorites” list?