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Introduction & Places by Name Places by State  Places by Type  Road Trips!

Places I've Been... National Parks

Rocky Mountain.jpg
Rocky Mountain National Park, September 14, 2008...
The premier tier of publicly owned parks in the U.S. are the National Parks. They require an Act of Congress, which means (well, hopefully means) that a National Park deserves to be a National Park without any political agenda. (cough, cough.) Of course, being the cynic I am, I do sometimes think that it has to do with a politician from that state gets high enough in the food chain to... I'm digressing again.

With very few exceptions, the National Parks are stunning places to visit. Many are, however, becoming victims of their own success. Grand Canyon, Zion and Glacier, among others, are becoming almost un-visitable during the summer tourist season. I would highly recommend trips in the one to three weeks following Labor Day, though you run the risk of snow in the Western Mountain parks. You can read more about that in my section How I plan a Road Trip.

Included in the National Parks list are Congaree Swamp and Great Sand Dunes National Monuments, which are now National Parks, but weren't when I was there. (Their pages live in National Monuments, so if you click on the link, you'll find yourself in National Monuments, rather than National Parks.)

Most National Parks are the top tier in terms of landscape photography as well, though it seems the Parks become more photogenic the further West you go, all the way to the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain parks. Back to Top

My picks for the must visit National Parks:

  1. Yellowstone National Park. Accessible wildlife, extreme diversity in geologic features, from Mountains to Glacial and River Valleys, hundreds of waterfalls, geothermal features such as hot springs, geysers and mud pots.
  2. Bryce Canyon. Amazing sandstone hoodoos and vistas, surrounded by some of the most stunning landscapes I've seen.
  3. Arches National Park. The sandstone alien landscape is unsurpassed, and this park has the highest concentration of stone arches in the world. Its locale is very close to a couple other very scenic parks, and some of the most scenic roads in the US.
  4. Glacier National Park. The mountainous glacial valleys transverse by The Going To The Sun road, and absolutely gorgeous mountain vistas definitely puts this park into the top 6.
  5. Olympic National Park. The home of the Thunderbird was a very impressive place, from its mountain peaks to the rain forests that line the Pacific Ocean.
  6. Yosemite National Park. Its granite monoliths, sequoia forests and mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada's is truly a must visit. Back to Top

Here are the National Parks I've been to, in alphabetical order. Clicking on the image or the name links will take you to that park's page. The links in "Visited" will take you to the trip report(s) for that park.

Arches National Park
Arches Link Arches National Park is a unique park, a sandstone desert with a unique geology that allows the formation of stone arches. Arches National Park has the greatest density of stone arches in the world.

Although it's only a few dozen river miles upriver from Canyonlands, the two parks are completely different in character and content.
Near Moab, Utah / 58 Images. Visited Sep 1997, Sep 2005

Badlands National Park
Badlands NP Link Should you be East or Westbound on I-90 through Western South Dakota, Badlands National Park is a no-brainer stop. It's close enough to Rapid City and the sites and attractions around there, to make Badlands a day trip should you be based there.

And be sure to stop in at Wall Drug for lunch, if it's possible. Be prepared to be there for a couple of hours just looking around.
Near Wall, SD / 134 Images. Visited Sep 1996, Sep 1998, Jul 2006.
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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon Link Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was a surprise, a narrow, deep river canyon with two thousand foot drop-offs just beyond the railing.

There is also a steep drive down to the Gunnison River, where you can see the East Portal of the Gunnison Tunnel that was dug through the mountain to supply the city of Montrose with water.
Near Montrose, CO / 44 Images. Visited Sep 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon NP Link Bryce Canyon is just magnificent. The park isn't really a canyon, but a series of amphitheaters of sandstone formations, carved by erosions into pillars that look more like sculptures.

It's on my list of must visit parks. Unfortunately, it's also on many other people's list of must visit parks, too. Located a dozen miles from US-89 on Utah-12, it sits on top of the Grand Staircase that descends to the South.

At Utah-12 and Utah-63 / 156 Images. Visited Sep 1997, Sep 2008.
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Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands Link Canyonlands National Park is proto-Grand Canyon, and in my opinion even more impressive in many ways. It is the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, a major contributor making the Colorado the powerhouse river of the Southwest. Once the Colorado enters Canyonlands, it doesn't leave Federal land until the river reaches the California.

I've only been to the Island In The Sky District, since it was the most accessible.

Near Moab, UT / 49 Images. Visited Sep 1997, Sep 2008.

Capital Reef National Park
Capital Reef Link Capital Reef National Park protects the Waterpocket Fold, the edge of a geologic upthrust long since eroded away over the last 60 million years. Give or take a few million.

The first time I was at the park, the Scenic Drive was washed out due to some flash flooding, so the sights along Utah-24 were the only ones accessible. When I was there in 2008, I had some magnificent weather, a much better planned trip, and spent the entire afternoon in this park.
Near Torrey, UT / 95 Images. Visited Sep 1997, Sep 2008.
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Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns Link Carlsbad Caverns National Park was my first visit to a major cave, and it was impressive, indeed.

We could have walked down the 75 stories to the main part of the cave, but we were just starting a major vacation, and would need our legs for the next two weeks. :-) The best thing next to the cave here are the elevators. Heh.

Near Carlsbad, New Mexico / 67 Images. Visited Sep 2005.

Congaree Swamp National Monument (Now a National Park)
Congaree Swamp Link Congaree Swamp National Monument's initial impression on me was the tall thin trees that bend like crazy in the wind. The second thing that impressed me was they actually had a mosquito meter on the Ranger's Cabin.

I was there during the winter and the Mosquito Meter was on "Low", so I can't tell you what it's like during June when they attack in squadrons. If it's anything like the border lakes in Minnesota, you might want to bring that insect repellent.

Near Gadsden, South Carolina / 8 Images.
Visited Mar 2000.
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Death Valley National Park
Death Valley Link Death Valley National Park is the poster child for the term "Hostile Environment". We were there in September, and it was still 105 degrees (41 for you Celsius types) in the shade.

In the rain shadow of three mountain chains and depressed into a large basin, Death Valley is it the driest place in the northern hemisphere, and the lowest point in the western hemisphere. That was enough tourist bait to get me there!

Near Lone Pine, California / 45 Images. Visited Sep 2005.

Everglades National Park
Everglades Link Here's a quote about Everglades National Park in The Complete Guide to America's National Parks:

"Mosquitoes and other biting insects make camping and backcountry use during the summer rainy season virtually unbearable by all but the most dedicated outdoors person."

'Nuff said.

Southern Florida / 32 Images. Visited Oct 2003.
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Glacier National Park
Glacier Link Glacier National Park is one of the premier parks in America, named after the carved valleys the glaciers in the last Ice Age dug out. It's a majestic mountain park, complete with one of the best drives in North America, the Going To The Sun Road.

It's in my list of must visit parks, but it is one of those parks far enough out of the way that you really have to want to go there. But it's worth the trip...

Near Kalispell, Montana / 263 Images. Visited Sep 2001, Jul 2006.

Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon Link Grand Canyon National Park is the premier National Park in America, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and many consider the park bucket-list-worthy.

In addition to the South Rim, there is a North Rim, which is 10 miles as the crow flies, but over 200 miles by car.

I won't mention the crowds. If there was ever a need to plan ahead for a trip, Grand Canyon is it.

Near Tusayan, Arizona / 163 Images. Visited Sep 1997, Sep 2008.
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Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton NP Link Grand Teton National Park got the short shrift the first two times I was there. It was just a transit between someplace else and Yellowstone.

That changed in 2006 when I spent three days in the park, and it impressed enough to make me give it equal time with Yellowstone if I ever get back there...

Near Jackson, WY / 194 Images. Visited Sep 1998, Sep 2001, Jul 2006.

Great Basin National Park
Great Basin Link I visited Great Basin National Park only because I was on my way back from Yosemite and driving The Loneliest Road In America. (US-50 in Nevada.)

The Great Basin Desert stretches from the Sierra Nevada mountains to halfway across Utah. Great Basin National Park is actually a small island of life in the middle of the desert, whose plant life became captive at higher elevations on a mountain when the surrounding area changed from a sub-tropical sea to an almost lifeless, arid desert.

Near Ely, Nevada / 10 Images. Visited Sep 2005.
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Great Sand Dunes National Monument (Now a National Park)
GSDNM Link Great Sand Dunes National Monument is now a National Park, but it was a National Monument when I was there, so it's still referred to here as a Monument. It's also supposed to be haunted, but I can't attest to that.

These dunes exist because the sand blown into this pocket of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains can't make it over the peaks, and drop out into the dune field.

Near Alamosa, Colorado / 18 Images. Visited Sep 1997.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Great Smoky Mountain Link Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in America due to its location in the East. It's a scenic park, with the tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge just outside the entrance on one side, and the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of my favorite roads in America on the other.

It is a hugely popular park for fall colors.

North Carolina, Tennessee / 67 Images. Visited Mar 2000, Oct 2007, Sep 2011.
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Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs Link Hot Springs National Park was the 18th National Park designated in 1921, during a health craze in the US. It was actually declared a reservation in 1832, making it the oldest park in what would become the National Park System. It's a huge fresh water aquifer that spits out 850,000 gallons of water per day.

It's I swear I had pictures of the bath houses somewhere, but I'm not sure where they are...

Hot Springs, Arkansas / 16 Images. Visited Jun 1998, Sep 2002.

Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde Link Mesa Verde National Park is different from most National Parks, in that the subject of the place is human history of a (mostly) vanished civilization.

The ruins of the cities of the Anasazi are remarkable, and impressive, considering they were built a thousand years ago. Also here are pit dwelling of an even earlier civilization of some 1500 to 2000 years ago.

Near Cortez, Colorado / 92 Images. Visited Sep 1997.
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Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier Link Mount Rainier National Park probably would have been much more majestic had it not been hidden by clouds while I was there. I mean, it was nice the day before, but not on the day I could visit the park.

As a matter of fact, I saw the volcano only once, when entering a rest area in Washington on I-94. But never again the entire trip...

Near Ashford, WA / 72 Images. Visited Jul 2006.

Olympic National Park
Olympic NP Link Olympic National Park's centerpiece is Mount Olympus, home of the Thunderbird. Its peak is an honest 8000 feet (well almost), and by honest I mean the base of Mt. Olympus is at sea level. Even better, the Western edge of the park is the Pacific Ocean, so there are true rain forests which gets more than 12 feet of rain per year.

With postcard worthy scenery that can be found anywhere in the park, it belongs in my must visit park list.

Northwest Washington / 85 Images. Visited Jul 2006.
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Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain Link Rocky Mountain National Park is pretty much the very definition of the phrase "Purple Mountain Majesty". The views in this park are mind-boggling as you try to wrap you head around the scale of the scenery you're looking at.

And more than that, it's the birthplace of the Colorado River, and two of the most scenic roads you'll ever want to drive.

Let me also say that I've encountered snow twice in this park, in September.

Near Estes, CO / 177 Images. Visited Sep 1997(1), Sep 1997(2), Jul 2005, Sep 2008.

Saguaro National Park
Saguaro NP Link Saguaro National Park provides the iconic view of the Desert Southwest, featuring dozens of different types of cacti, including the towering, Saguaro Cactus. The park is split into two units, (East and West), with Tucson in-between.

It's also only an hour's drive from Tombstone, which attempts to preserve another iconic view of the West.

Near Tucson, Arizona / 23 Images. Visited Sep 2005.
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt NP Link Theodore Roosevelt National Park preserves parts of the Little Missouri Badlands, but it's named after TR because TR actually lived and ranched here early in his life. You can even visit the cabin he lived in, which was relocated to the South Unit of the park.

The South Unit is right off of I-94, which makes it very easy to stop in and take a look around. The North Unit takes a little more effort (it's 50 miles to the North), but it has its own history and geology.

Near Medora, North Dakota / 143 Images. Visited Sep 1996, Sep 2001, Jul 2006.

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave Link Wind Cave National Park was originally created to preserve Wind Cave, but was expanded to almost 30,000 acres, preserving the grasslands and other wildlife habitat of the area. There is a sizable bison herd here, as well as the obligatory prairie dogs...

The cave tour (the general tourist one) is very easy and either level or downhill, and best of all there's an elevator at the end.

Near Hot Springs, South Dakota / 40 Images. Visited Sep 1996, Jul 2006.
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Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone Link Yellowstone National Park tops my list of favorite parks. It doesn't matter if you want waterfalls, lakes, geysers, hot springs, river canyons, glacial valleys, mountain scenery, abundant wildlife, or interesting roads to drive, Yellowstone has all if it.

Its world famous icons, such as Old Faithful, the Lower Falls and Mammoth Hot Springs, all point to a very angry Earth below the surface, a super volcano which has the potential to wipe out much of America. So enjoy the park while you can!

Northwest Wyoming, Idaho, Montana / 555 Images. Visited Sep 1998, Sep 2001, Jul 2006.

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Link Yosemite National Park actually turned out to be a more impressive park that I thought it would be when planning the trip. That's what you get for watching the Travel Channel.

The park is full of superlatives, from granite mountains to the waterfalls to the peaceful meadows to the truly immense sequoias. This park is definitely in my must visit list...

East Central California / 77 Images. Visited Sep 2005.
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Zion National Park
Zion NP Link Zion National Park is another victim of its own success. It's a decent sized park, but its premier attraction, Zion Canyon, is narrow and confined. During certain times of the year (which might be all year now), you can only get in via a shuttle bus.

That said, it is a beautiful park. And don't forget there's another entrance to the park, the Kolob Canyons.

Near Virgin, Utah / 81 Images. Visited Sep 1997.
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Revisions:
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