The United States of America is one of the most diverse countries on earth, with landscapes ranging from snowy tundras and soaring peaks to red, dusty deserts and leafy green forests. There are 61 protected areas operated by the National Parks Service, and 29 of the 50 states hold at least one park, which together have a whopping 84 million visitors a year. Whether you prefer the white flurries of the Rockies, the scorching heat of the Mojave or the wide open expanses of the prairies, there’s an all-American National Park out there for you.
Best for waterfalls and panoramas: Yosemite National Park
California’s Yosemite National Park is one of the most visited National Parks in the United States, especially in the summer months when the waterfalls are in full flow and the valley is bright and full of life. Though the park had over four million visitors last year, you’ll still manage to find a spot of peace and quiet in this vast valley. The Mist Trail is one of the park’s most popular hikes, and for good reason – taking you past not just one but two cascading falls; Vernal and Nevada. It’s a seven-mile round-trip to Nevada Falls, and you should prepare to get a little wet, especially at the top of Vernal Falls where mist fills the air. If you’re a serious hiker, there’s only one hike you should plan on doing: the Half Dome. Not for the faint-hearted, this incredible 10-hour trek takes you to the top of the park, traversing gnarly climbs on the way – including an ascent via cables – for entirely unparalleled, panoramic views across the whole valley.
Best for crystal-blue lakes and glaciers: Glacier National Park
Somewhat lesser known than its compatriots, this sprawling park runs through Montana all the way into Canada, and is perfect for those who love a bit of snow, some beautiful lakes, and glaciers for days. In the winter, you’ll find ice-climbing, skiing, and snowy peaks aplenty in this winter wonderland. If you make the journey here, the one thing you should be sure to do is go and hunt out Hidden Lake. This azure wonder sits at the foot of Clements Mountain, and if the weather is on your side, the blue-sky backdrop of Clements will match the colour of the lake, affording some truly magnificent shots. Follow the Going-to-the-sun Road through the park to discover more hidden wonders, lakes to rival Banff and hanging bridges over rushing rivers.
Best for tree-lovers: Sequoia and Redwood National Parks
Any tree-huggers out there should head straight to Sequoia or Redwood National Parks, both in the golden state of California – though anyone actually expecting to be able to hug the trees will be disappointed, since these towering giants are far too large to cuddle. Sequoia National Park is home to General Sherman, the largest tree on earth (that we know of). He measures an astounding 31 metres in circumference, dwarfing anyone or anything that stands next to him. For the tallest tree in the world, head to Redwood where you’ll find Hyperion. At a whopping 113 metres tall, this beauty is five stories taller than the Statue of Liberty – just let that sink in for a moment. These immense forests are worth a visit for any nature-lover, and even those who aren’t so outdoorsy will feel humbled by the sheer size of these magnificent beasts.
Best for escaping into the wilderness: Denali National Park and Preserve
If you’ve ever seen Into the Wild and wished to escape the world (without meeting the same end as Chris McCandless, of course), then Denali in Alaska is the place for you. With six million acres (that’s almost 9,500 square miles) of government-classified wilderness and only one road running through it, you can guarantee you will have never felt further from the bustle of the city, or the stresses of your day-to-day life. America’s tallest peak, the park’s namesake, lives here too, and you’ll find miles and miles and miles of forests, snowy tundra, mountains and more here, as well as a guarantee of solitude and tranquillity.
Best for otherworldly landscapes: Grand Canyon National Park and beyond
The landscapes of Arizona, from the Saguaro Desert to the pine forests of Flagstaff and everywhere in between, are nothing short of incredible. The state’s most famous National Park is, of course, the Grand Canyon – one of the natural wonders of the world. The views from the rim defy words, and form a sight you truly have to see to believe – but Arizona isn’t all about the GC. Beginner hikers should follow the Bright Angel trail as far down as they fancy, to get a real experience of this indigenous spiritual mecca, while expert hikers might want to tackle the whole thing. The rim-to-rim hike can be done in a day without a permit, but those who want to savour it should get one and stay overnight at Phantom Ranch. Though not National Parks per se, Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are also worthy of a mention, thanks to their magical red rock formations.
Best for wildlife galore: Everglades National Park
The Everglades is best known for its alligators and swampy marshland, but there’s so much more to this National Park than that. It is the largest expanse of subtropical wilderness in the United States and provides a home to many rare and endangered species. Alongside crocodiles and alligators, you might get lucky enough to see river otters, manatees, dolphins, turtles and even the elusive Florida panther. These wetlands can be explored on foot, by bike, or by paddling amongst the mangroves. Those who want to get a real feel for the area – and have the best chance at spotting wildlife – should sign up for a week-long canoe trip, during which you’ll have the chance to camp along the 99-mile-long Wilderness Waterway.
Best for striking volcanic displays: Volcanoes National Park
Encompassing the bubbling centres of two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Kīlauea and Mauna Loa – this majestic park is one of the most unique in the United States. In this awe-inspiring Hawaiian wonderland, you’ll find hiking trails that take you through craters, deserts and rainforests. This is a very spiritual place, which links in seamlessly with Hawaiian mythology: Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire is said to be the creator of the Hawaiian Islands, and many believe that Kīlauea is inhabited by Pele and her family, who control its lava flows. Kīlauea produces enough lava each day to resurface a 20-mile long road and, since 1994, 875 acres of new land have been created on the island thanks to Pele’s unpredictable nature. Highlights undeniably include witnessing Kīlauea, the Halemaumau Crater (Pele’s home) and the Puu Oo Vent, which has been erupting since 1993, as well as visiting the point where Kīlauea’s lava reaches the sea.