An Insider’s Guide to America’s Best National Parks

From Parade Magazine June 24, 2018

0624_NatParksCvr-FTR

If you want to feel really good about America, pack your bags and take a trip to one of its parks. “The National Park System is one of the first great American inventions,” says QT Luong, who has spent 25 years photographing all 60 parks. “We had a unique opportunity to preserve pristine land before it saw any development.” Luong and others who know the parks well—writers, rangers, photographers, scientists and conservationists—gave us the inside info on what author Wallace Stegnercalled “the best idea we ever had.” They helped us pick the park that delivers what you’re looking for, whether it’s wildflowers, wildlife, waterfalls or a big dose of peace and quiet.

Quietest

Canyonland-FTR

Washington state’s Olympic National Park is home to the Hoh Rain Forest. “If you hike up the Hoh River trail, you come to one of the quietest places in America,” says Rob Smith, regional director with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “The vegetation, the moss covering everything—there’s a stillness that’s really profound that you can’t find anywhere else.”

iStock

QT Luong/Terra Galleria

On the opposite end of the dampness spectrum, many desert parks offer a different kind of intense quiet. QT Luong cites Utah’s Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks as some of the quietest he’s visited. “I find the silence in the desert striking. There are fewer animals and birds, and the silence can be really eerie.”

Birding

BigBendNatPark-FTR

Texas’ Big Bend National Park is home to more than 360 different bird species, the most of any national park. Its mountains, deserts and rivers—and its location next to a protected natural area in Mexico—provide a range of ecosystems for birds like the Colima warbler that aren’t found anywhere else in the U.S. “And you can see elf owls there,” says biologist David Lamfrom, who directs wildlife programs for the NPCA (and photographs birds, animals and reptiles). The owls, the smallest in the world, are the size of sparrows. “They’re so cute it’s almost painful.”

ElfOwl.BigBend-620X620

Elf owl in Big Bend National Park.  (Art Wolfe Stock/Image Source/MediaBakery)

Best Stargazing

Manish Mamtani

Acadia National Park (Manish Mamtani)

Manish Mamtani grew up in central India, where in summer he and his family often slept under the stars. When he moved to the U.S., he was astonished to learn that 80 percent of Americans can’t see the Milky Way. Now he photographs the national parks at night and posts photos for his 1 million–plus followers on Facebook, such as his pic of the Milky Way rising over Boulder Beach in Acadia National Park (Maine), one of his favorite parks for nighttime viewing. “It’s so beautiful and peaceful if you go to a national park at night,” Mamtani says. “It gives me an idea of how our ancestors saw the night sky. It feels untouched.”

GreatBasin-620X620

Great Basin in Nevada.

Desert parks offer the best stargazing, says Lamfrom, because the dry air and altitude provide a unique clarity. He loves Great Basin (Nevada), where the brilliance and intensity of the stars and Milky Way make for a night-sky experience unlike any other, he says. Great Basin is one of eight U.S. national parks certified as International Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark-Sky Association. The others are Big Bend (Texas), Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Colorado), Canyonlands (Utah), Capitol Reef (Utah), Death Valley (California and Nevada), Grand Canyon (Arizona) and Joshua Tree (California).

Best For Wildlife

Yellowstone-FTR

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone (Wyoming, Idaho and Montana) is most definitely where the bison roam and the deer and the antelope play. With the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, Yellowstone’s 67 species include mountain lions, wolverines, wolves, grizzly bears, mule deer, elk, moose, badgers, river otters, snowshoe hares and pika.
Florida’s Everglades National Park includes such a wide range of ecosystems (freshwater, saltwater, barrier island, pine forest, cypress domes) that it’s “truly remarkable in terms of profound diversity of wildlife,” says the NPCA’s Lamfrom. You can see barred owls, alligators, crocodiles, manatees, dolphins, whales, six species of sea turtles, wood storks, egrets and a host of migratory birds. “Speaking as a wildlife photographer, it’s an outstanding park.”For fewer crowds, bring your binoculars to North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “I knew it had badlands, I knew it had wildlife, but it has lots of wildlife,” says Becky Lomax, author of Moon USA National Parks (coming October 2018). “I saw wild horses, coyote and prairie dog towns everywhere, and bison, hawks, golden eagles and even longhorn steers,” a reminder of 1880s cattle drives from Texas to the green pastures of Dakota Territory.

iStock

Lowest, Driest, Hottest

Hottest.DeathValley-FTR

Death Valley (California and Nevada) is the park where the mercury once registered the hottest temp (134 degrees F) ever recorded on Earth. It’s also the lowest (282 feet below sea level) and driest (an average 1.9 inches of rain per year) park. Yet Death Valley encompasses an incredible diversity of flora, fauna and geology, from arid salt flats, sand dunes and 11,000-foot mountains to more than 1,000 plant species (including a “superbloom” of wildflowers every 10 to 15 years) to 400-plus wildlife species, including mountain lions and bighorn sheep. “I feel incredibly light-hearted and free when I’m in Death Valley,” says Abby Wines, park management assistant, who has lived and worked there for 13 years.

Most Scenic Drives

RockyMtnNatPark-FTR

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) climbs 4,000 feet, from mountain meadows through forests of aspen and ponderosa pine and then fir and spruce and up into tundra, where 200 species of tiny alpine plants cover the ground. “It’s one of the most spectacular drives in the country,” says Luong.

iStock

Glacier National Park 

Some 900 miles north in Montana, Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road offers one of the most iconic views in any park, says Lomax. On Logan Pass, the road’s highest point (6,646 feet), you find yourself  “in gorgeous wildflower meadows surrounded by jagged peaks right on top of the Continental Divide.”

iStockShenandoah

Back east in Virginia, the 105 miles of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive offer nearly 70 scenic overlooks. The drive runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the 480-million-year-old Appalachian chain. It’s a great destination for roadside photographers, says Luong. (You can see his photos in his book Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, Cameron Books, 2016.)

Best Fossils

BadlandsNatPark-FTR

Badlands

Death Valley (California and Nevada) offers ranger-led tours out to see footprints from the Pliocene epoch of 5 million years ago. “You can take a hike and see this assemblage of footprints made by ice age creatures” including mastodons, camels, horses and cats the size of leopards, says Lamfrom.

DeathValleyFossil-620X620

South Dakota’s Badlands National Park houses mammalian fossils from the Eocene (56 million years ago) and Oligocene (34 million years ago) epochs, as well as fossils of large extinct marine lizards found in the Pierre Shale.

iStock

Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park has one of the world’s largest collections of petrified wood, as well as plant and animal fossils that date back over 200 million years (and a few dinosaur fossils too).

Best for Big Adventure

GlacierCalving.Alaska-FTR

iStock
Gates of the Arctic is so incredibly remote you have to fly in and get dropped off,” she says, “and a week later you’re picked up by your pilot.” Hiking, river rafting, backpacking, wildlife viewing—you can do it all, including watch glaciers calve [when large pieces of ice fall off] from a boat in Glacier Bay or climb the highest peak in North America (20,310-foot Denali) in Denali National Park (for experts only).

Best Swimming Holes

GreatSandDunesNatPark-FTR

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Home to the tallest dunes in North American, Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park also has one of the USA’s best swimming holes. Snow from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains melts and pours down into the dunes, creating Medano Creek, with underwater sand ridges that produce actual waves. Because it’s shallow it’s best for wading or gentle tubing. “It’s what I’d imagine it feels like to stumble upon an oasis,” says author Michael Joseph Oswald (Your Guide to the National Parks, Stone Road Press, 2017), who traveled more than 55,000 miles while visiting 51 national parks. (Get info on current creek conditions here)

For a more traditional “swimming hole” feel, try the south fork of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, which offers sandy beaches, shallow waters and views of El Capitan.

Back east, the forests of Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks hide some A+ swimming holes, such as Virginia’s Whiteoak Canyon (which includes six waterfalls ranging from 35 to 86 feet) and North Carolina’s Midnight Hole.

<img src="https://static.parade.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/AcadiaNatPark-FTR-1.jpg&quot; alt="iStock"

If your idea of “swimming hole” includes the cry of seagulls, salty air, sun, sand and waves, head to Sand Beach, nestled onto a curve of Mount Desert Island in Maine’s Acadia National Park. Its pink-white sand (made up of millions of finely crushed shells) and turquoise waters look like the Caribbean; but the chilly (55 degree) water temps will remind you you’re in Maine.

Virgin Islands National Park

Trunk Bay Beach in Virgin Islands National Park is “one of the most beautiful beaches in the world,” according to the National Park Service, with white sands, aqua blue waters and an underwater snorkeling trail.

With any swimming hole or beach, don’t overlook safety, says Oswald. Never swim alone, watch kids closely and check with park rangers about water conditions. Even calms waters can hide swift currents.

The Most Surprising Parks

Congaree-FTR

“I’ve had a lot of surprises in the parks but nothing like Congaree,” says Lamfrom. Twenty-five champion trees (the largest of their species in the country) live in the South Carolina park, part of a deep, old-growth bottomland forest that vividly conveys how “beautiful and haunting” the American South was 500 years ago. “The rich smell of soil and all these flowers blooming, those dark water rivers running through the swamps and forests—I wasn’t prepared for what a visceral experience it was going to be.”

iStock

QT Luong, who has visited all 60 parks more than once, says Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park astonished him. “It’s located in the desert and I didn’t expect to find that much vegetation and fall foliage color—it’s as colorful as in the East.” The steep walls of Guadalupe’s McKittrick Canyon protect an oasis filled with chinkapin oak, velvet ash and bigtooth maple trees.

Parks Every American Should See

iStock

There’s nothing like seeing the biggest trees in the world in Sequoia National Park, Lamfrom says. “It’s humbling and profound.”

Yosemite and Glacier are kind of on a level of their own,” says Oswa. “In terms of pure beauty, those stand out.” NPCA’s Mark Wenzler agrees: “Yosemite is stunning. You almost want to cry, it’s so beautiful.”

Great Smoky Mountains National Park runs a close second, Wenzler says: “The biodiversity there exceeds that found almost anywhere else in the world. There are more species of trees than in all of Europe. And you get important cultural stories about the people who lived there before the park was established and the Native Americans who lived there before that. It’s an amazing experience.”

Download a full-size version of our National Parks map here.

US Map Parks 2018 AR_letter

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: