Yesterday, the national park service turned 100. Happy birthday, best part of America!
(This blog is always in for a centennial. Can’t believe Olivia DeHavilland is older than both her right to vote and the National Park Service.)
I encourage you to go read learned people write about why we need to love and keep the National Parks. Here, I’ll simply present a personal, subjective listicle of my 20 favorite National Parks. My wife and I are huge fans.
(By the way, some of our favorite parts of nature technically aren’t national parks – like Natural Bridges National Monument, Columbia River Gorge, and Antelope Canyon – but today we’re sticking to the theme.)
20. North Cascades National Park, Washington
19. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
18. Redwood National Park, California
17. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
16. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
15. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
14. King’s Canyon-Sequoia National Park, California
13. Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming
12. Glacier National Park, Montana
11. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Carlsbad really has to be seen to be believed. You descend down into this hole in the earth adorned by 1000 bats and all their droppings. The temperature drops, and if you just got out of the hot SE New Mexican sunshine, all your senses become heightened with pleasure. And then…there are caves and there are caves. Probably other countries have better-looking ones, but there’s nothing that comes close to Carlsbad in these United States. Sometimes you’ll think: wait, is that stalactite/stalagmite really that attractive, or did they just light it that way? After a while you just let the experience wash over you, and you never forget it.
9. Zion National Park, Utah
I’m a sucker for football-field-sized red boulders with the straight walls that create nature’s cathedrals. What distinguishes Zion from other such parts of the Southwest is that there are also green trees everywhere. It’s this hardy mix of red-orange-yellow rocks with the trees and the sumptuous rivers that makes Zion worthy of the ancient name. It’s weird how close this place is to Vegas, and yet visitors to Vegas almost always skip it, even though they could make it a (long) day trip. More than worth it.
8. Denali National Park, Alaska
The thing about Denali is that it’s pretty much just Alaska in miniature (“miniature” being used loosely, since it’s bigger than almost any other national park). It’s not that much better than the rest of Alaska, but then again, the rest of Alaska is also amazing. So that’s why Denali deserves to be here at #8, but not higher. Also, us civilians can only see one tiny slice of it, but hey, what a slice, including North America’s tallest mountain. We got lucky on our first day there and saw bears, moose, elk, foxes, and mountain sheep. Just breathing the Alaskan air in Denali feels like a privilege; let’s enjoy the Great White North while it still is.
7. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
The hoodoos!! No one forgets Bryce Canyon, and the only way to explain it to strangers is to ask them to google “hoodoo images.” But that’s still not really enough; it’s also the hikes through the hoodoos and the shockingly shimmering yellow everywhere, up to and including the panoramic views of Utah from the less hoodoo-centric parts of the park. Sometimes it just feels like Bryce IS the Old West meets the Southwest, and that’s just what that part of our mythology is supposed to look like.
6. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
The first national park to be based on something manmade, not something natural, this is where you get to see the 1000-year-old Pueblo houses built directly into the gorgeous Rockies of SW Colorado. Mesa Verde without the remnants of indigenous civilization would still be one of the prettiest parts of half the world’s countries; but the settlements give it a terrific kick, an unforgettable, precious reminder of America before white people.
5. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Would rank higher if one actually got to see things like the above picture, but unfortunately, even if you hike to the end of the best trail, you’ll only see about a tenth of what that image looks like. Still, there’s lava falling into the ocean, enormous craters spewing steam, the crater rims, the walk through the astonishing flumes where lava once flowed…and for Mauna Loa’s sake, you’re in Hawaii, how bad could it be? My actual favorite moment in this park is a strange one: we were driving from the visitor center down to the water, which is like a 2000-foot-dropping series of switchbacks, but before we started I just looked out on a crazily clear day into the Pacific, and I realized I was looking at least 30 miles into the distance. I got that tingly feeling all over that I think only regular national park visitors regularly get.
4. Arches National Park, Utah
This picture does NOT adequately explain why Arches is my favorite of the Big Five Utah national parks. It’s back to that red boulder thing I mentioned that I liked about Zion, but at Arches the boulders are bigger and redder and yellower and just freaking MIGHTIER. And then sometimes the stones also develop into arches as well, and you get to climb around those. With its endless buttes and heart-stopping outcroppings, Arches is basically John Ford’s idea of the West (well, his more famous shots were at Monument Valley, but that’s technically not a national park). You sorta want to take a picture of absolutely everything, and then you realize the pictures aren’t doing anything justice. Must be experienced. As often as possible.
3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
One of the greatest things my mother ever did for me was when I was 13 and we took the weeklong trip through the entire Grand Canyon on a motor-powered river-raft. I knew from that moment that I wanted to present history and beauty to people for the rest of my life. That’s the Grand Canyon in a nutshell: beautiful layers of history, with each ridge representing another million years or so. If you’ve only driven up to the rim, you haven’t really seen the place, and you owe it to yourself to at least take a mule ride down. Better still to take the week, ride the rapids, and take frequent baths in the many gorgeous tributary waterfall-cum-rivers. Ah Grand Canyon, I love you…for sedimental reasons.
2. Yosemite National Park, California
If this park wasn’t in my Top Two, I’d have to give up my California Driver’s License. I feel like I’ve been drinking this park my whole life…yes drinking, because much Bay Area tap water flows from the Sierra Nevada through the granite of Yosemite, and people say that accounts for its unusually terrific taste. Nothing, nowhere, is quite like the valley floor of Yosemite: gather together Half Dome, El Capitan, a dozen other almost-as-great rocks, and a cacophony of waterfalls, and you’ve pretty much got America’s greatest cathedral. And the rest of the park ain’t too shabby either. Every visitor to Yosemite intuitively understands why John Muir used it to make the case that national parks are a Thing We Need. Yosemite remains our first and best example of modern living in harmony with nature, instead of just exploiting it. Go there, breathe it in, and see if you don’t think John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, standing on top of Half Dome, were right.
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone = diversity. Every color, every animal, every kind of topography. (Yes, there’s even beaches at Yellowstone Lake.) Bald eagles roaming near wolves. The Mammoth Hot Springs would be enough for most national parks; here, it’s almost an afterthought. The Continental Divide. The vertiginous mountain air. The constant surge and splendor of a hundred active geysers under your feet. The bison resting for steam baths near some of them. If America ever gets to a point where every other country literally invades our shores and starts taking all of our land for themselves, we need to back everyone up to near Yellowstone. I mean, sure, it would become too crowded, but we’d work that out. The point is that Yellowstone would have to be the last thing we defended. Whatever else happens, we can’t lose that sanctuary of sanity and sanguinity. To you, Yellowstone, we shall always be Old Faithful.