The National Park system offers amazing natural wonders all over the country. Many travelers were disappointed in 2013 when the U.S. government shutdown closed the parks for several weeks. Now that budget deals have been signed, it appears that there won’t be another shutdown in the near future. That makes this coming year a great time to visit one of the 58 National Parks in the USA. This is short list of parks in various parts of the country that are great for family, couple or solo trips.
Arches NP, South Dakota
The high desert of Utah is home to one of the most unique parks in the country. Arches National Park boasts over 2,000 naturally occurring stone arches. The arches form when wind and water erode away the softer stone below a harder top, leaving an arch, sometimes called a natural bridge. The arches here range from a couple of feet across to the 290 foot long Landscape Arch. Hiking trails abound throughout the park. The Fiery Furnace Trail is one of the most intense. The visitor is required to either check in and leave their itinerary at a ranger station or go with a Park Service guide. The nearby town of Moab offers additional outdoor activities like mountain biking, Jeep rentals and white water rafting.
Badlands NP, South Dakota
Anyone who has traveled west along Interstate 90 has seen the nearly ubiquitous signs for Wall Drug. While this is one of the most notorious tourist traps in the west, Wall is also the jumping off point for a visit to Badlands National Park. The Badlands feature some of the most amazing rock formations in the western United States. Centuries of wind and water have eroded the flat topography of southwestern South Dakota to reveal multicolored stone formations. The mounds and spires of the park are striped in red, gold, yellow and orange. It resembles a giant children’s sand painting. There are hiking trails galore, but be advised. This is a beautiful, but difficult, landscape to cross. That being said, there are plenty of hikes that are short and easy enough for the kids, plus many more strenuous hikes for those looking for a little more adventure.
Great Smoky Mountains NP
Atop a ridge in the Appalachian Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. This is the most visited National Park in the country, with over nine million visitors a year. Don’t worry about feeling crowded, the park boast over 520,000 acres of land. The mountains get their name from the “smoke”, really a thick mist, which rises from the trees. A great vantage point for seeing the park is from the top of Clingman’s Dome, the highest spot in Tennessee. Black bears make their home in these woods and backpacker’s should plan on sleeping in the bear shelters in designated areas of the park. Speaking of backpacking, the Appalachian Trail runs through the park.
Olympic NP, Washington
The far northwest corner of the continental United States is taken up by Olympic National Park. Part mountain range, part rain forest and part seashore, this park truly has something for everyone. One great excursion is to go to the top of Hurricane Ridge in the late spring. The mountain range is over a mile in the sky. There will more than likely still be snow on the ground. Put on your boots and hike through the snow, then drive down the mountain, ending up at the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Now take of those boots and wade in the Pacific Ocean. Olympic is one of the few places in the country where you can go from snow to seashore in an hour.
Yellowstone NP, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
The oldest and arguably the best of the U.S. National Parks, Yellowstone is located mainly in the northwest corner of Wyoming. However, the iconic Yellowstone entrance arch is in Gardiner, Montana. The park has mountains, geysers, lakes, rivers, and wildlife. In fact there are so many animals that it’s almost like going to a large zoo, except there are no fences. Instead of being at the zoo, the visitor is inside the zoo. Care is encouraged for those up-close encounters with bison, elk and moose. Bear, wolves and coyotes can also be seen, but usually at a distance. There are more geysers in Yellowstone than anywhere else in the world. In all, over 10,000 thermal features encompassing geysers, steaming pools, mud pots and fumaroles cover the park. The best known is Old Faithful, which erupts every 60 to 90 minutes and draws some of the biggest crowds in the park.