The moment you roll up to a national park kiosk you feel it. You're entering someplace special. Maybe it's the mountain air or the smell of trees. Most likely it's because you're about to see something big. Something indescribable. A canyon so deep you can see two billion years of geological history in its walls. Trees so massive you could fit buildings inside them. No wonder our skin tingles upon entry to a national park. Behind those entry kiosks lie landscapes that are vastly beautiful, histories that are inspirational and idea that was, as novelist Wallace Stegner famously put it, America's best. And if you can only sample a taste of what these parks have to offer, these are the top sites and activities that can’t be missed.
1. Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park
In Yosemite Valley, the national park system’s crown jewel, massive granite rock formations tower thousands of feet over the Merced River. Wild creeks plummet from the cliff tops, creating a spectacle of waterfalls unlike anywhere on earth. And presiding over it all stand the iconic and mighty sentinels of rock, including El Capitan, Half Dome, the Royal Arches, the Three Brothers and Cathedral Rocks. No matter what people tell you about the summer crowds, the sights of Yosemite Valley are so astonishing that almost nothing can detract from the experience.
2. Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park
One of America’s most spectacular roads is in Glacier,Going-to-the-Sun Rd offers steely-nerved motorists the drive of their life. Chiseled out of the mountainside and punctuated by some of the sheerest and most vertiginous drop-offs in the US, this 50-mile, vista-laden strip of asphalt offers drivers access to some of the most astounding sights in the Rockies. Although it only climbs to 6646ft (at Logan Pass), it feels as if you’re driving on the roof of the world. Who knew second gear could be so much fun?
3. Sunset, Grand Canyon National Park
When Bob Dylan wrote of God and Woody Guthrie, he said ‘I may be right or wrong/You’ll find them both/In the Grand Canyon/At sundown.’ Of all the places to watch the sunset in the world, few can measure up to the Grand Canyon. Lipan Point is one of the finest spots to do it. But if you’re feeling leisurely, simply grab a drink and a porch swing on the patio of El Tovar lodge, where you can watch the sunset in style.
4. Wildlife Watching at Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park
No matter how many nature shows you’ve seen, nothing can prepare you for the first time you spot a moose in the wild. And in Yellowstone, if you don’t see a moose – or a bison or a herd of elk or a bear – you probably have your eyes closed. On par with the Galápagos, the Serengeti and Brazil’s Pantanal, Yellowstone is one of the world’s premier wildlife-watching destinations. Big mammals are everywhere. The knowledge that grizzlies, wolves and mountain lions are among them simply adds to the rush. Also don’t miss the opportunity while you’re here to travel just down south to experience all the dramatic mountain scenery, and crystal blue water that Snake River, Grand Teton has to offer.
5. Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park
Whether you hike to the top of its 14,259ft summit or just ogle its glaciated slopes from below, Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountains is truly a feast for the eyes. Given it’s the highest peak in the park, it should be. Those who attempt the ascent via the Keyhole Route must first brave the hair-raising Ledges, before conquering the Trough and inching across the Narrows, which finally give way to the (whew!) Homestretch. The views from the top are mind boggling.
6. The Narrows, Zion National Park
Check your claustrophobia at the door and prepare to get wet on this hike up the Virgin River into a 2000ft-deep slot canyon. As you make your way upriver, the cliffs press inward, towering higher and higher until, finally, you reach Wall Street, where the canyon narrows to under 30ft wide. Here, the river is bound by massive cliffs, and no matter how many times you’ve checked the weather, it’s impossible to get the thought of flashfloods out of your mind. The beauty of the place in Zion is otherworldly, and the adventure is unforgettable.
7. Sunrise, Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park
Catching the country’s ‘first sunrise’ from the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia is, hands down, one of the finest ways to kick off a day. At 1530ft, Cadillac Mountain is the highest point on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, and the views over the Atlantic are sublime. The island is one of the easternmost points in the USA, and, while it’s technically not the first place that catches the morning sun, we prefer to do what everyone else up top is doing at sunrise: ignoring the technicalities and blissing out.
8. Bryce Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park
Proof that nature has a wild imagination, hoodoos are one of the strangest formations on the planet. From the rim of southern Utah’s Bryce Amphitheater, you can look down upon thousands of these bizarre, ancient rock spires as they tower out of the so-called Silent City, a conglomeration of hoodoos so vast you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d landed on another planet. Sunrise over the amphitheater is one of life’s treats.
9. Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park
Embrace the rain! It’s what makes this temperate rainforest in Olympic, in all its Tolkienesque beauty, one of the greenest places in North America. With an average rainfall of up to 170in (that’s 14ft), it is also one of the wettest. This tremendous amount of water creates a forest covered in mosses, lichens and ferns, with a canopy so dense the forest floor seems trapped in the perpetual low light of dusk. Pack your rain shell and watch for the Roosevelt elk.
10. Paddling, Everglades National Park
The country’s third-largest national park is a paddler’s paradise, with kayak and canoe ‘trails’ meandering through mangrove swamps and freshwater marshes that teem with wildlife. Crocodiles, alligators (no, honey, that’s not a floating log), turtles, cormorants, herons, egrets and fish are just some of the wildlife boaters come across while paddling around this subtropical park. Thanks to Everglades National Park's handy (and free) kayak and canoe trail maps, navigating the waters is fairly straightforward. Remember to pack the binoculars!
Golly, a short list of 10 isn't nearly enough to cover the breadth of amazing experiences in the parks, is it? For that you'll need Lonely Planet's Discover USA's Best National Parks