However stunning the pictures, they just can't do justice to these must-see destinations - our pick of the world's top 10 parks and preserves.
1. Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia
The steaming sands of Namib-Naukluft National Park are the most perfect stretch of desolate desert – even photographs of the windswept ridges elicit thirst. The dunes at Sossusvlei, commonly believed to be the oldest in the world, are the preserve's biggest draw. The forceful winds that swerve through the terrain have carved out dunes as high as 300m. Strong thermal winds also make hot-air ballooning a popular way to discover the preserve from a different angle. From up in the air, the undulating terrain almost looks like the curling waves of an orange ocean. If you don't have a 4WD, shuttles can take you to Sussusvlei Pan.
Campsites exist throughout the park except at Sandwich Harbour, where camping is not allowed. See www.namibweb.com.
In a country so incredibly large, it comes as no surprise that everything at Banff National Park is supersized: foxes are foxier, bears are grizzlier and moose could be mistaken for furry school buses. The idyllic region was discovered in the late 1800s, during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and was quickly transformed into a nature preserve. Spanning 6641 sq km, the park is a natural wildlife corridor in the seemingly impenetrable Rocky Mountains – visitors will often be treated to a parade of Canada's iconic beasts. At Banff , bear hugs are taken literally.
Over the last few decades, several places in Australia's legendary outback have become the top spots on many tourists' to-do lists – Alice Springs, the Blue Mountains, even Uluru. Mungo National Park has somehow managed to fly under the radar. This quiet preserve, sheltered around clay mounds known as the Walls of China, whispers with a rich history of ancient lakes and roaming megafauna. Skeletal remains prove that humans thrived within the park's boundaries over 40,000 years ago but today, Mungo's desert-like expanse is so… well… deserted, that it's possible to glimpse the curvature of the earth.
Feed on bush tucker and learn from a local by taking an indigenous guided tour of the park; book through www.harrynanyatours.com.au.
Like a '56 Chevy or a Big Mac, the Grand Canyon is an American classic and undoubtedly the biggest 'kick' on Route 66. The Grand Canyon's endless vistas of gorges and chasms are a favourite locale for geologists: the delicate history of the earth is locked in these myriad shelves of colourful rock. Those who descend into the wide earthen scars will uncover a semi-arid terrain punctuated by hundreds of secret grottos. At the canyon's ultimate depth (1800m) the planet's prehistoric landscape is revealed.
Everything you need to know about the park, planning your trip and what not to leave home without is available at www.nps.gov/grca.
Welcome to Jurassic Park – you can almost hear the theme song playing in surround sound while you venture between the soaring limestone karsts. Add a prancing Tyrannosaurus rex and Thailand's first protected preserve would be a dead ringer for Crichton's prehistoric Disneyland. This dripping, juicy jungle is part of the oldest rainforest in the world, where snakes, monkeys and tigers lurk within the tangle of lazy vines. The park also features the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia kerrii, which can reach over 80cm in diameter. It has no roots or leaves of its own; instead it lives parasitically inside the roots of the liana plant.
The air-con bus from Bangkok takes 10 hours and costs around 450THB; a minibus from Phuket is about 4000THB. For more information see www.khaosok.com.
6. Northeast Greenland National Park, Greenland
In an age troubled by pollution and threatened by melting icecaps, Greenland's national park proves that the planet's glaciers haven't disappeared just yet. The biggest national park in the world, measuring roughly twice the size of France, is an unspoilt hinterland home to the polar bears and walruses that cavort between crystalline icebergs. The tiny town of Ittoqqortoormiit (try saying that three times fast!) is the unofficial gateway into the silent, frigid kingdom. For now, visitors are limited to surveying scientists and extreme adventurers (tours are available).
Access is by plane or helicopter only and a permit is required. Either head to Ittoqqortoormiit and try your luck, or book in advance; for more details visit www.eastgreenland.com.
7. Iguazu Falls National Park, Argentina/Brazil
Home to a series of chutes so beloved that two nations have claimed them, Iguazu Falls National Park is a photographer's dream. A fault line near the junction of the Parana and Iguazu Rivers is responsible for the shift in depths causing the river water to careen over a cliff in a dramatic fashion. But the park features far more than the oft-visited waterfalls – the subtropical forests, which provide the cascades with a lush backdrop, are home to over 450 species of bird and uncountable rare butterflies.
8. Saba Marine National Park, Netherlands Antilles
It's hard to believe that this island paradise is but a 15-minute flight from the garish casinos and condominiums of nearby Sint Maarten. And just when you thought that nothing could be more beautiful than Saba's jagged volcanic landscape, a trip below the ocean's surface reveals a colourful kingdom of neon coral that teems with fat reef sharks, sea turtles and slippery fish. These pinnacle dive sites rank among the top scuba spots in the world and are fastidiously protected by the well-established national marine park.
If the thought of hanging here long term takes your fancy, consider doing a two- to three-month volunteer placement with the Saba Conservation Foundation; check out www.sabapark.org.
After 10 seconds at Tongariro National Park, it's easy to understand why the region was chosen as the backdrop for Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. The park's three dormant volcanoes, immortalised in the films, rise high above the cool, clear waters of Lake Taupo. Now that the swell of post-movie hobbit hunters has subsided, New Zealand's oldest national park is once again a serene realm of geological anomalies. The highlight of Tongariro's ethereal sights is the so-called Craters of the Moon – a steamy stretch of burping mud and smoke-spewing craters.
Visit in January for your chance to leg it across this beautiful terrain with other fitness fanatics in the annual Land Rover Tussock Traverse Mountain Run/Walk; see www.nationalpark.co.nz.
10. Galápagos National Park, Galápagos Islands
Our top 10 list would be incomplete without this old favourite – Darwin's legendary stomping ground. The far-flung archipelago, a testament to evolutionary theory, features 19 large islands formed by soaring volcanoes. Each land mass hosts a different batch of critters, from the gentle leather-faced tortoises that trudge along braids of hardened lava, to the curious blue-footed boobies that peck at sunbathing iguanas. Although tour boats regularly putt around the park, the semi-stringent environmental regulations (important because of the impact of tourism) have ensured that there's still plenty of space to live out your Robinson Crusoe fantasies.
Entry to the islands costs US$100; diving and multisport adventure tours can be booked through www.galapagosonline.com.
This article was updated in March 2012.
Ready to go?
Inspired by nature's most stunning works? These tours and activities take you into the heart of the world's best parks and preserves:
- Trek the high trails of of the Canadian Rockies.
- Explore the national parks of the western USA, including the Grand Canyon.
- Discover amazing wildlife, on land and underwater, in the remote Galapagos.
Read all about it
For more of the planet's unmissable sights, check out Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Experiences.