Top Five National Parks You Need to Visit
In honor of the US National Park Service’s 100th birthday, I wanted to share my top five national parks. In the last two years, I’ve visited 20 of these gorgeous destinations but a few of them reign supreme in my mind. Glacier National Park
Even if you only drive through and stop at the scenic viewpoints, this park will astound you. The “Going to the Sun Road” is a winding, cliff-side route that takes you from the southern entrance to the Canadian border. This curvaceous beauty isn’t to be taken lightly and your passenger will probably have a white-knuckle grip on the “oh-sh*t” handle the whole way.
My favorite stop was at Lake McDonald, where the rocks under the surface of the water really are as colorful as they look in pictures.
Driving under the water of the Weeping Wall was also a blast and I highly recommend taking advantage of this free car wash when you go!
Yellowstone National Park
I know this choice isn’t super surprising, but hear me out. While I definitely think you should go to Yellowstone in the summer and see the hot springs, geothermal pools, Old Faithful, and flowing waterfalls, I also want to point out that as cool and sciencey as all that is, to me, the park is 100% more magical in the winter.
Picture a snow-covered landscape making the blue of the sky especially vibrant. Then remove your idea of the traffic jam you normally find yourself in when visiting this popular of a tourist destination. Instead, imagine having the place practically to yourself. The shy animals and the predators that are nowhere to been seen during summer, walking boldly down the road in broad daylight just steps away from you. At the end of your day of exploring, you retire to a cozy cabin and light the wood-burning fireplace while sipping a warm mug of hot chocolate through the thick layer of whip cream you’ve topped it with.
In short, it’s the perfect winter wonderland experience. You can read about my winter trip to the park here.
Canyonlands and Arches National Parks
Lumping these two into one is basically cheating, but since they’re right across the road from each other, I’m allowing myself this cop-out so I don’t have to pick a favorite. If you’re a rule follower and demand that I narrow it to one for the sake of having only five in this list, then I choose Canyonlands. But really, I think rules are made to be broken and that you’ll just have to deal with there being six. Tough cookies!
Now, back to the park(s). Canyonlands is an absolutely breathtaking experience. I caught it during a storm and this made the landscape even more incredible. Peering through Mesa Arch at the rock formations and sheer canyons behind it is an amazing sight. Most of the trails in this park are less than a mile long and offer views that will have you gaping like a slack-jawed farmer at a blonde in overalls. Sorry, my redneck is showing (blushes furiously so my face camouflages my neck).
Arches National Park has trails that are a bit longer and a lot more to see that Canyonlands. Hint: it’s called “Arches” for a good reason--there are arches everywhere you look. My favorite was Double Arch (because I’m clearly not good at picking just one of anything).
My suggestion for visiting these parks is to do Canyonlands in the morning so you can get the iconic photo of Mesa Arch at sunrise and of Delicate Arch at sunset. Camp at the campground right by Mesa the first day and then at Devil’s Garden on the second (reserve this in advance because it sells out). Read my article about Canyonlands here.
Zion National Park
Dear Utah, how about laying off with the national parks, eh? You’re such a hoarder of natural wonders and have claimed two (technically three) of the spots on my list. Anyways… the colors of Zion are what make it so marvelous. It shows off massive gorges, canyons, and rock formations like other nearby parks (Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, etc) but it is also flecked with green everywhere you look. The contrast is remarkable and even the red-paved roads contribute to the effect.
With easy pull-offs, you can enjoy this park as a standard tourist. If you’re hiking inclined, this place is a wonderland of amazing hikes year-round. I was there in the dead of winter and the minuscule amount of snow on the ground didn’t inhibit driving or trekking through the park.
If you’re in this area, make sure you also make the detour to Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona. They’re not technically in a national park or they’d be on this list.
Grand Canyon National Park
Choosing the last park wasn’t easy and despite its “Grand” appeal, the Grand Canyon almost didn’t make the cut. Don’t get me wrong, it is truly one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever seen--nothing can really compare to the first time you look over the rim and see the great divide with its walls seemingly painted in layers. However, the average temperature of my two trips to the Grand Canyon was 2° Fahrenheit (-17° C). Standing still to watch the sun rise or set in that kind of weather is absolutely painful.
If you want to be truly wowed by all this park has to offer, go in the spring or fall when the weather is more moderate (I’ve heard that during summer, putting your head over the rim is equivalent to sticking your head into an open oven). Whenever you go, make sure to bring plenty of layers!
My biggest regret with the Grand Canyon is that I’ve yet to hike down to Havasu Falls (actually located in a Native American reservation and not within park boundaries), so put it on your to-do list and don’t live with this sort of remorse.
There you have it, my favorites out of the 20 parks I’ve visited. Now I want to hear from you, what are your top five national parks?