Your Guide to America’s National Parks

The national parks system in the U.S. is a wonderful example of how the preservation of land can be beneficial on multiple fronts. The land and its natural resources are saved for biologic and geologic study, the outstanding natural wonders are saved from degradation, and the general population is able to experience and appreciate these spaces. There are 48 national parks in the U.S., located in 16 states, and I intend to visit them all at least once! My experiences with the national parks system only began in the fall of 2014, and so as I visit more of these parks, I will update this user guide to America’s National Parks.

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DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK

In this, the largest, driest, lowest US National Park, there is much to see and experience at Death Valley, which straddles the US-Nevada border.

Best time to visit:

Spring or Fall

It’s far too hot in this desert in the summertime and in fact it’s quite cold in the winter, so the best time to visit would be the spring or fall.

Known for:

The Racetrack

In this dry lakebed, a mystery unfolds where rocks and boulders are sliding, making their way hundreds of feet across the desert over the years. The path left behind by the rocks is visible on the ground, showing their progress without revealing their mechanism for movement. A recent eyewitness report prompted a scientific inquiry that may have finally solved this mystery.

Must-see while there:

In addition to seeing the Racetrack, visit the Badwater Basin, which is a salt flat and also the lowest point in North America. See the Mesquite Valley sand dunes, where part of Star Wars was filmed, and keep your eye out for the cacti-like Joshua trees. Try to visit the Golden Canyon, Devil’s Golf Course, Natural Bridge, Titus Canyon, Eureka Dunes, and Darwin Falls.

Best way to see the park:

Travel in an air-conditioned vehicle along the desert roads here, and be sure to pack plenty of water. Camping is available in-park, and hiking offers beautiful views beyond what is seen from the roads.

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EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK

Spanning 1.5 million acres, this park protects the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River and tons of endangered animals like the manatee, American crocodile, and Florida panther. The Everglades are the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S., offering much for the visitor to experience.

Best time to visit:

Any

In the southern tip of Florida, this park offers good weather year-round, though the summer can become quite hot.

Known for:

The Wilderness Waterway

This 99-mile stretch of waterways are navigable by canoe or kayak, and offer beautiful views of the park and opportunity to view birds and other wildlife.

Must-see while there:

A trip down the waterway and bird-watching are key to experiencing the park, but you should also try to do the tram ride through Shark Valley and bike ride on Snake Bight Trail. You can try your hand at fishing in this park, or go on an outdoor treasure hunt by geocaching. Trust the rangers to show and teach you about the park through tours and guided activities, then check out the views with hikes on the park’s many trails.

Best way to see the park:

Much of what you would expect and hope to see in this park is reachable only though the mangroves, swamps, and waterways. A canoeing, kayaking, or boating trip will take you right up close to the action!

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GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK

It’s not the largest canyon in the world but the Grand Canyon is certainly the most well-known because of its beautiful, stratified, colorful rock facades that are easily viewable and accessible to visitors.

Best time to visit:

Summer

The rim of the canyon is situated at elevation so it is cold in most of the year, but in summer you will be most comfortable to view this sight.

Known for:

South Rim Views

Open year-round, easily accessible by car, and user-friendly with a geology museum and visitor accommodations, the South Rim is the most-visited part of the park

Must-see while there:

If you visit in the summer, go beyond the South Rim to the North Rim where you’ll have fewer people impeding your view. For those looking to interact with and experience the canyon more, plan an excursion down into the Inner Canyon. Hiking down the canyon takes 8 hours and back up takes 16. Once down to the bottom, you can stay in Phantom Ranch, or go camping if you acquire a backcountry permit. Some people will also take rafting tours on the Colorado River through the canyon, or get a bird’s eye view on a helicopter tour.

Best way to see the park:

The Grand Canyon offers something for every type of visitor. Many will drive up to the South Rim and see the canyon on foot, while some may opt for a helicopter tour, and the more adventurous souls will explore the Inner Canyon on foot or raft. The decision is yours, but all are excellent options!

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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

Offering expansive miles of wilderness, waterfalls, mountains, and valleys, Yosemite National Park is a mecca for nature enthusiasts. It’s one of the oldest and best-known national parks in the U.S., and it captivates millions of visitors each year.

Best time to visit:

Late spring / Early fall

It’s no secret that this park is magnificent, so crowds come in droves during the summer. In order to avoid the car and foot traffic, while still enjoying pleasant temperatures, try to visit in the early autumn or late spring.

Known for:

Half Dome

This enormous rock formation rests in Yosemite Valley, and is the most iconic sight in the park. It’s not only the symbol of The North Face clothing company, but also a challenge conquered by seasoned climbers and hikers. You can see it nestled in the Sierra Nevadas from Tunnel View point.

Must-see while there:

In addition to Half Dome, from Tunnel View you can see Bridalveil Falls. This is just one of the many waterfalls in Yosemite, all of which are supplied by glacial melt, making them visible for only part of the year! Yosemite also houses tons of giant sequoia trees, which are located most densely in Mariposa Grove. Be sure to view El Capitan up close and bring your binoculars to try to spot climbers making their ascent up this challenging rock. If you visit in the warmer months, take a drive along Tioga Road for spectacular views.

Best way to see the park:

The ways you can experience Yosemite are endless. Hiking, biking, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, horseback riding, birding, or driving, Yosemite is an enormous playground! The park is expansive, but even if you aren’t driving, the bus system within and to the park will help you to experience all of what it has to offer. Budget plenty of time, because no matter how long you’re at Yosemite, you won’t want to leave!

 

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