National Parks We Love – Our Top Five* List

(With guest contributor, KJ Swan of swantrek.com.)

"On the Surface of Mars" [Death Valley National Park, California]

National Parks are the greatest destinations in the United States of America. From the 8.3 million acre Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska to the tiny 91 acre Gateway Arch in Missouri, National Parks preserve and protect over 130,000 square miles of American soil. There are 64 areas designated as National Parks; KJ Swan and I have visited 37 of them between us. We drive the loops, take easy and occasionally moderate but short hikes, and camp from time to time. We are not hiding in the bushes at the crack of dawn waiting for the elusive Jackalope to appear, and we don’t hike for five miles to watch the sunrise through that one sandstone arch that’s in just the right place for a beam of light to emerge and illuminate that one cactus. We consider ourselves to be “the average visitors.”

When we decided to put together a list of our top ten National Parks, we limited it to places designated as “National Parks” by the National Park Service. That means no National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, or other National Park units would make the list. We rated each park on three criteria: Scenery (the “wow!” factor), sights to see in the park (how many places to go explore and what’s there), and wildlife (quantity and variety that we actually saw.) We based our ratings on our own personal experience – I don’t care how many websites say that Jellystone Park is great for seeing bears, if we only saw a ground squirrel it got one star. Judging the scenery was kind of like picking which is better, Cocoa Krispies or Froot Loops – both are yummy in their own way! After scoring all the parks we had visited, I plugged the numbers into a spreadsheet and averaged the scores to get the top ten. But the unexpected happened. Instead of a top ten list, we ended up with a lot of ties that left us with eleven parks split into five groups. It was close enough to the top ten list we were after, so we decided to go with a top five list with each “place” sharing the parks tied for that position. Finally, we each picked two honorable mentions that didn’t make the top, but that we didn’t want to leave off the list.

So with that in mind, here are our top rated United States National Parks.


Fifth Place

Two parks were tied for the number five position.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Dates Visited: April 4 & 5, 2009, May 1 & 2, 2010, and September 23 & 24, 2016

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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Cholla Cactus Garden [Joshua Tree National Park, California]
Photo by KJ Swan – SwanTrek.com

Joshua Tree National Park is a unique desert environment. The high and low deserts come together within the borders of the park, and as a consequence you get a variety of botanical and geologic features that are beautiful and distinctive to Joshua Tree. On the west side you have the Mojave Desert, and on the east is the Sonoran Desert. The convergence of two deserts make for an interesting display. The forest of spiky Cholla cactus, incredible boulder fields, and of course the Joshua Trees put this national park in a tie for the number five position.

Scenery

It’s hard to classify the vistas at Joshua Tree. The 50-plus mile park road crosses from the Mojave Desert in the north to the Sonoran Desert in the south, and in that space you can see just about forever in every direction. On the Mojave side you’ll see the park’s namesake Joshua Trees springing from the desert and keeping a fair distance away from their neighbors. Rocky hills rise up in the distance. As you descend into the Sonoran side of the park, the Joshua Trees go away and you’ll see expanses of desert scrub that go on for miles.

Sights to See

Getting out of your car is when you get to appreciate the details that Joshua Tree National Park has to offer. The namesake Joshua Tree looks like a botanical transplant from a distant planet, with its bare trunk and branches with spiny balls of knife-like leaves at the tips. There are massive sandstone formations that rise from the desert, inviting you to climb over boulders that look like they’ve been neatly shaped and stacked. At the transition zone between the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts you’ll find the Cholla Cactus Garden, where the spiky and deceivingly named “teddy bear cholla” grow. But there’s nothing soft and fuzzy about these plants – they are so quick to attach their balls of painful spines to anyone who brushes against them that they have (erroneously) been said to jump at passers by. There are several oasis’ in the park, Cottonwood Spring being the easiest to reach as it is just a short walk from a parking lot. You’ll find ruins of an ore crushing mill and abandoned vehicles on the Wall Street Mill trail, a lake on the Barker Dam loop, and if you have a four-wheel drive there are plenty of Jeep trails to explore as well.

Wildlife

Being a desert, there wasn’t much wildlife to be seen when we were there. We did see some lizards, and the Cottonwood Campground did get visited by some jackrabbits and desert cottontails.


Arches National Park, Utah

Dates Visited: Sometime in 1989 and 1991, and August 27, 2014

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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"Stone Skyline" [Sandstone Rock Formations in Arches National Park, Utah]

If you want to experience the American Southwest that you watched Wile E. Coyote chase the Roadrunner through, it doesn’t get much closer than this. The massive rock fins, sandstone arches, and other strange formations had me in awe when I visited on my very first road trip back in 1989, and subsequent visits have had me feeling the same way. Arches Scenic Drive goes 18-miles into the park, with short and long hiking trails along the way that lead to the park’s most famous formations. Were it not for the desert shrubs and blue sky, standing on the red soil might have one feeling as if they were standing on the surface of Mars.

Scenery

The rocky orange landscape of Arches National Park is among the most unique that we have encountered. The drive through the park on Arches Scenic Drive features panoramic views of desert scrub and strange sandstone formations. Fields of distant rock give the landscape an odd bumpy texture, albeit made of incredibly large bumps. Enormous red cliffs stand high above the desert floor, and green desert shrubbery provides a beautiful contrast to red landscape.

Sights to See

The stone arches are, of course, the most famous type of formation in the park. Many are just a short walk away and some will take a bit of a hike to get to. The Windows Section is the first group of arches you’ll see as you drive the park road, and they’re an easy half-mile walk from the parking lot. Even if you’ve seen photos of people standing under these arches, you really don’t get an idea of how big the formations are until you’re actually standing beneath a 100-foot high stone arch. If you have the time and are up for a difficult trail, take the mile and a half hike out to Delicate Arch – that’s the one you see in all the pictures. We also recommend you view Delicate Arch from afar to see how it fits into the overall landscape. There’s a viewpoint that’s just a 100 yard walk from the overlook parking lot.

Arches are far from the only worthwhile features to see at this magnificent park. Your introduction to Arches National Park is likely to be Park Avenue, a set of massive sandstone fins that rise high above the desert floor like giant sails. There are long and short trails throughout the park that lead past monoliths, walls of stone, and balanced rocks. If you look closely you’ll see hidden treasures that only walking the trails can offer, like minerals and crystals embedded in the sandstone – details that thousands of visitors walk right by without noticing.

Wildlife

Like the other desert parks, you really have to be looking for wildlife to see it. On one trip I found a green lizard on the hike to Delicate Arch, and on a later trip a red lizard whose color blended in perfectly with the sandstone.


Fourth Place

This was the most popular position, with four parks sharing fourth place.

Everglades National Park, Florida

Dates Visited: February 4 & 6, 2016

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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Sticking Your Neck Out [Great Egret At Everglades National Park, Florida]

“Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it.” — President Harry S Truman

If Arches is like the dry surface of Mars, then you’re definitely back on Earth where water abounds at Everglades National Park in Florida. But don’t call it a swamp, the Everglades is largely made up of rivers that spread across thousands of acres and flowing at only one-hundred feet per day over south Florida to the Atlantic.

Scenery

You’re deep in the wetlands at Everglades National Park, so it doesn’t have the sweeping vistas of the Western parks. You’re usually surrounded by trees and shrubs, but when the scenery does open up you get beautiful views of marshes filled with islands and grasses poking out from the water.

Sights to See

There are many trails off the main park road. Some are easy short walks on a boardwalk over fresh water slough that’s covered in water lilies or through palm forests, others may be long hikes through canopies of tropical hardwood hammock that end at a viewpoint overlooking a bay. You’ll find trails that overlook the coastal prairie, and that meander through species of vegetation that are not found anywhere else in the world. The variety of plant life is astonishing, and you may even find a prickly pear cactus along the way. If you brought or rented a canoe, you’ll be able to explore one-hundred miles of water trails.

Wildlife

The wildlife in Everglades National Park is varied and astounding. In fact, there are only two other parks on this list that matched The Everglades for wildlife viewing. The raised boardwalk of the Anhinga Trail near the park entrance let us safely photograph a wild American Alligator from just a few feet away – we couldn’t have been any closer at a zoo. We also saw an American Crocodile, beautiful pink Roseate Spoonbills, Purple Gallienules with their enormous yellow feet, White Pelicans, a variety of egrets and herons that were surprisingly tolerant of people being nearby, and the ever-lovable West Indian Manatee. Make sure you take plenty of mosquito repellent, because even in the dry season the most abundant form of wildlife in the park are mosquitos.


Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Date visited: May 24, 2012

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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"Water and Stone" [Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska]

Cruising into Glacier Bay is an incredible experience. While you’re surrounded on all sides by snow-covered mountains, an on-board naturalist might announce the presence of a Humpback Whale. As you go farther into the bay, your ship pushes chunks of ice aside as it approaches Margerie Glacier. For most people, the only way to see Glacier Bay National Park is by cruise ship, and that is both the biggest advantage and simultaneously the biggest drawback to the park. The advantage, of course, is that your hotel is sailing up through the beautiful scenery. The disadvantage is that there’s no way to see it on your own. You come with the cruise ship, you stay on the cruise ship, and you leave with the cruse ship. It’s an astounding half day of scenery, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate there’s no way to come back when the sun comes out.

Scenery:

Snow-covered mountains soar straight out of the waters of Glacier Bay into the sky, and the still water reflects them with such clarity that a mirrored scene is formed that stretches into infinity in both directions. Farther in the distance are more and more snowy peaks, and the immensity of it all makes your 120,000 ton cruise ship seem like a rowboat in a pond.

Sights to See:

Sightseeing in Glacier Bay National Park is different than anywhere else. There’s no pulling off the road at an overlook, no hiking out on a mile-long trail, and so the sights are limited to what you see from the ship. As you cruise through the bay, the ship passes icebergs and smaller growlers and bergy bits (yes, that’s what icebergs smaller than fifteen feet across are really called) that float all around. These chunks of ice come in a range of color from snowy white to translucent blue to black, depending on their composition. As the ship gets closer to the glacier, the chunks of ice become so dense that they cover the water completely. Every so often there’s a cracking sound, then a rumble as chunks of ice fall off the glacier and into the sea. The trip culminates with the arrival at Margerie Glacier, a mile-wide, 200-foot high wall of ice, and being in its presence is an unnmatchable experience.

Wildlife

A distant Humpback Whale greeted our ship as we entered Glacier Bay. As we sailed deeper into the park we encountered a pair of Bald Eagles standing on a small iceberg that took flight as we passed, and a Golden Eagle flew across the surface of the bay. A flock of gulls was also in the vicinity. We cheated and bumped the wildlife score up a bit because I saw another Humpback and an Orca just outside the park border, and I figured that since the only way in and out of Glacier Bay National Park is by ship, I wasn’t going to let an artificial boundary count against it.


Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Dates Visited: March 15, 2008 and August 23-25, 2014

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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Bryce Amphitheater [Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah]
Photo by KJ Swan – SwanTrek.com

Bryce Canyon is the smallest National Park on this list, but unlike the sprawling Arches to the northeast, Bryce packs a lot into a relatively small space. The road is only 20 miles long from the park entrance to Rainbow Point on the south end, but that road has more than a dozen different viewpoints for you to get out of your car and revel in the spectacle. The park has been called “a forest of stone,” and when standing at one of those overlooks looking down at thousands of stone spires sticking out of the desert floor, it’s not hard to see why.

Scenery:

Bryce Canyon National Park is a place of overlooks. From just off the road you’ll have views of wilderness out to the horizon. Spires of rock fill the amphitheaters below which are decorated in layers of browns, oranges, and tans that are uniform across the entire landscape, visually joining the individual hoodoos into a single structure. There are some areas where the rock has been eroded into smooth hills, giving contrast to the rough texture of the hoodoos. In the distance, the spires seem to transform from stone to trees where the rock gives way to the evergreen forest.

Sights to See:

The hoodoos are the stars of the show being presented in the Bryce Canyon amphitheaters. These fascinating structures look almost as if a giant had taken a bucket of wet sand and slowly dripped it into piles as if building an enormous sand castle. While you can see a lot from the overlooks, be sure to make some time to take at least one hike among the forest of spires. You’ll get a completely different perspective as the stone monoliths tower over you and you make your way through the narrow spaces between the structures. Some trails will take you to overlooks that are a bit farther off the road, where you’ll find strange trees whose roots come out of the ground to join with the trunks just above the surface. Be careful when selecting a trail, you’ll be walking downhill into the amphitheater which means a long walk back up at the end of the hike.

Wildlife

Aside from a Red-Tailed Hawk soaring overhead, the most common form of wildlife were the ever-present ravens hoping for a handout at the overlooks.


Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Dates Visited: Sometime around 1974, May 2004, and September 18, 2016

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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Carlsbad Caverns [Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico]
Photo by KJ Swan – SwanTrek.com

You stand at the maw of the cave looking down the paved path of switchbacks that descend steeply into the Earth. You’re at the natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns, the primary attraction at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Walking down the winding path takes you past formations such as the Devil’s Den, Baby Hippo, and Whale’s Mouth. A mile and a quarter later, you’re at the elevator doors 750 feet beneath the visitor’s center. This is where most people start their tour of the Big Room, a 4,000 foot long cavern of fascinating limestone formations 265 million years in the making. There’s a quiet, yet loud quality inside the cavern. Quiet because there’s no artificial noise, but at the same time voices can carry a quarter mile inside the cave so there’s always the murmur of other visitors. Don’t forget to take your tripod – unlike many indoor attractions, tripods are allowed in all parts of the cave that are open to self-guided tours, a fact we wish we’d have known on our visit.

Scenery

Carlsbad Caverns National Park proves that you don’t need miles and miles of visibility to have incredible views. With the Big Room occupying the space of over six football fields, nature’s incredible construction stretches into the distance. Draperies, soda straws, and countless other features hang from the ceiling, are attached to the walls, or come up from the floor. Stalactites hang from as high as 225 feet overhead, stalagmites on the cave floor reach up to meet them. Where they do, huge columns connect the roof to the floor. This breathtaking scenery is all lit by white LEDs, which the National Park Service wisely installed to show the off the features in their natural colors.

Sights to See

Because of the nature of the the park, much of the spectacular scenery is within walking distance. You can get a close-up view of features with such colorful names as the The Witches Broom, The Bashful Elephant, and the Bottomless Pit. Look up and you may see the intimidating sight of a hundred stone daggers pointing directly at your head, or find a stalactite nearly touching the stalagmite below. The underground world is one of textures. Nodes of minerals called popcorn, thin hanging cloth-looking draperies, and smooth rounded domes called flowstone are just a few. Most people enter the cavern by elevator, but if you’re up for a one-mile hike then take the trail down the natural entrance.

Wildlife

It’s a cave full of people so you’re not going to see too much wildlife, but every night at dusk you can experience the unforgettable bat flight. Sit in an amphitheater at the cavern’s natural entrance and experience a cloud of thousands of bats as they fly out and over you on their nightly search for food. You’re required to be silent, and cameras, cell phones, even mp3 players, are forbidden to prevent even the tiniest amount of artificial light from disturbing the nocturnal animals.


Third Place

Third place was shared by two parks.

Death Valley National Park, California & Nevada

Dates Visited: October 6 & 7, 2007, October 9 & 10, 2010, and November 3 & 4, 2016

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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"Sunrise at Zabriskie Point" [Amargosa Mountains in Death Valley National Park, California]

Death Valley National Park is a place of colorful rock, sandy dunes, and landscapes made of salt. A place where stones sneak secretly across the earth, leaving their telltale tracks behind them to baffle explorers and scientists for generations. It’s a land so desolate and strange that it has been both Tatooine and the Twilight Zone. You feel a sense of isolation like nowhere else when standing on the desert floor in Death Valley. There’s a peaceful quietness to your surroundings that clears your mind and let’s you find whatever your recipe for peace entails.

Scenery

As the largest National Park outside of Alaska, there’s no shortage of scenic views in any direction at Death Valley National Park. The Black Mountains to the east rise up over 6,000 feet from the desert floor. The Panamint Range, with it’s 11,000-foot high Telescope Peak, forms the western border of the valley. Badwater Basin’s strange lumpy landscape spreads forty square miles across North America’s lowest point. You’ll need a jacket for the drive up to Dante’s View, where the temperature drops 25 degrees as you climb 5,000 feet above the valley floor to the amazing views of the whole valley that stretches out below you.

Sights to See

Mesquite Sand Dunes is easily accessed on the valley floor, and where you can follow strange tracks in the sand in hopes of finding the desert dweller that left them. You won’t need your clubs at Devil’s Golf Course, a peculiar place where a rock salt bed has been eroded into lumps by centuries of wind and rain. Hold onto your hat at Badwater Basin, where the boardwalk crosses a salty pool at 282 feet below sea level and a trail leads past tiny mountain ranges made of salt just a few inches high. Artists Drive takes you to Artists Palette, where minerals have painted the landscape in pinks, yellows, greens, and reds. A short hike from the parking lot, Zabriskie Point offers stunning views of eroded golden badlands. If you have a high-clearance SUV you can get to spectacular out-of-the-way places, but make sure you have good off-road tires because sharp rocks on the roads can be brutal. Titus Canyon Road is an adventure past abandoned mines, jagged rock formations, and a narrow canyon. Twenty-five miles of rough road lead to The Racetrack’s famous moving rocks, some bigger than basketballs, with their flattened trails in the lake bed behind them. If you’re really feeling adventurous, take Hunter Mountain Road at Teakettle Junction. Hang an old teapot in the one place on a National Park where “littering” is not discouraged, then drive forty miles past abandoned mines and Joshua trees to exit the park on the west side via the remote Saline Valley Road.

Wildlife

Our wildlife encounters at Death Valley National Park were limited to small lizards, though tiny tracks on the sand dunes were evidence that some kind of creature had traveled them before us.


Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Dates Visited: 1990, August 16-18, 2016, and September 10, 2018

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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"Breath of the Devil" [Steam Vent at Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California]

High mountain peaks, bubbling mud pots, and steaming boiling landscapes greet you at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Stellar Jays, chipmunks, and if you’re really lucky a family of bears just might drop in to visit you at your campsite. Drive on a scenic road on the edge of the world’s largest dormant volcano and hike through flowering meadows and to hidden waterfalls. Experience fascinating geologic landscapes of yellow soil and blue ponds surrounded by billowing clouds of steam. But you’d better check the weather before your visit – Mount Lassen is known for getting the most snowfall per year in California, and the roads are only open from July through October. Scenery

The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway winds across the western half of Lassen Volcanic National Park between the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitors Center at the southwest entrance and the Manzanita Lake entrance in the north. The 28 mile drive climbs to 8,500 feet and has marvelous views of dense forest, distant mountains, and of course the 10,440-foot Lassen Peak.

Sights to See

At Lassen Volcanic National Park, the devil is in the details. Bumpass Hell’s sulfur-covered basin hisses and pops as boiling mud, water, and steam rise from cracks in the surface of the Earth. Its beautiful blue pools look inviting, but the boiling acidic water can dissolve flesh off the bone. This bubbling landscape, the largest geothermal area in the park, is accessed by an easy hiking trail that ends at a boardwalk that traverses the hazardous terrain. Devil’s Kitchen is similar to Bumpass Hell, but smaller. It has its own entry into the park that’s sixty miles away from the park’s southwestern main gate. The trail to Devil’s Kitchen is a pleasant but moderately difficult 4.2 mile round trip hike through a meadow and along a stream. Because of its lower elevation, the trail to Devil’s Kitchen is open for more of the year than the one to Bumpass Hell. The easiest geothermal area to reach is Sulfur Works. Its yellow hills, steam vents, and large boiling mud pot are directly beside the main road. Other worthy stops along the road are the blue Lake Helen and the incredibly green Emerald Lake. You’ll also find trails to hidden waterfalls, flowering meadows, and lakes where bubbles rise like a carbonated soda.

Wildlife

We were delighted to see several Columbian Black-Tailed Deer on the trail and among the sulfur landscape of Bumpass Hell. There were Cascades Frogs at Cold Boiling Lake and pikas in the rocky hills beside the road. Birds, chipmunks, and other woodland creatures were easy to see, as were dragonflies and other insects. Our most exciting encounter, though, was a mama Black Bear and her three cubs as they foraged in the woods at the Southwest Campground.


Second Place

Two parks were tied for number two.

Yosemite National Park, California

Dates Visited: Sometime in the 1970’s & 80s, June 25, 1990, December 22, 1992, September 3, 2007, April 23 & 24, 2012, and September 13, 2018

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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Half Dome from Olmsted Point [Yosemite National Park, California]

Let’s face it – not much compares with the scenery of Yosemite National Park. The iconic Half-Dome towering over it has become a symbol of the astounding scenery to be found in the United States National Park System, and the Yosemite Valley is one of the most recognized landscapes in America. Instagram estimates it to be the most photographed National Park in the United States, but looking at the gorgeous scenery on a computer screen is like comparing a 9″ black and white TV with rabbit ears from 1973 to a five-story IMAX theater.

Its convenient California location, just a few hours north of Los Angeles and east of San Francisco, make Yosemite a very busy park. Be sure to visit in the off season if you want to avoid the crowds. In winter the park gets covered in snow, so make sure to check the road conditions and carry chains in case they’re required.

Scenery

Entering the park from the south, you pass through the near mile-long Wawona Tunnel. Then suddenly, and without any warning, the incredible Yosemite Valley with its sheer granite cliffs, beautiful waterfalls, and tree-filled floor, appears before you. The drive from the east is less dramatic, but equally scenic as you go through woodlands and pass lakes and meadows as the granite landscape is slowly exposed around you. Many of Yosemite’s natural wonders are best viewed from a distance, and there are several overlooks where you can stop and take in this incredible landscape.

Sights to See

El Capitan. Half Dome. Yosemite Falls. There’s not much for me to say about these landmarks that hasn’t already been said over and over again. You’ve probably already heard of them whether you’re from California or Ohio, and for good reason – the glacier carved landscape of Yosemite National Park is astounding. The tree-filled Yosemite Valley, the park’s most popular destination, is flanked by sheer granite cliffs rising thousands of feet up and is filled with streams, waterfalls, and trails. The scale of Yosemite Valley is never more obvious than when looking down from Glacier Point, an overlook 3,200 feet up a nearly vertical rock face from the valley floor. Away from the valley, Tioga Road takes you to the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows and Olmsted Point, where you can see Half Dome from an entirely different perspective.

Wildlife

I don’t think I’ve ever been to Yosemite without seeing at least a few Mule Deer. These animals have a high tolerance for the humans that come and visit their park, so they’re very easy to see as they forage at the side of the roads and trails. You can also expect to see plenty of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and other woodland critters.


Denali National Park, Alaska

Dates Visited: May 21 & 22, 2016

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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Alaska Range [Denali National Park, Alaska]
Photo by KJ Swan – This photo is available at SwanTrek.com

Full of spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife, Denali National Park should definitely be on everyone’s bucket list. As you travel the only road into Denali you’ll skirt the edges of mountains, travel along wide valleys, and go through narrow mountain passes. Thousands of acres of wilderness surround you as you make your way along the route as far as the snow allows. Get there too early in the year and it will be a short trip. As it gets later, snow is removed and the road opens in stages until eventually the entire 92 miles of gravel road opens up. You won’t be driving your own car unless you’re one of the lucky few who win the “Road Lottery” and get assigned to one of four available days each year. Everyone else will be making the trip on one of the several daily buses. Buses stop at scenic overlooks and for wildlife along the route, and round trips range from eight to twelve hours. Were you lucky enough to win that lottery? Great, but be sure you find a local car rental company that allows you to take your car off-pavement because the major companies will certainly forbid it.

Scenery

Anyone who says “everything’s bigger in Texas” has never been to Alaska. The Alaska Range has some of the most scenic mountain landscapes in the world, and the Denali Park Road passes right through it. Snow-covered peaks rise thousands of feet into the sky and rivers flow through wide valleys. Look in any direction just about anywhere and you will be awed by the scale of the scenery around you. We’ve seen the tallest trees and deepest canyons, but nowhere have we felt so small as in the midst of the Alaskan landscape in Denali National Park.

Sights to See

There are many overlooks on the Denali Park Road, and they all have amazing scenery. It’s the only road in the park, and you’ll almost certainly be traveling on a school bus style bus. The only exceptions are to beat the 1 in 10 odds of winning the road lottery, or if you have a disability that makes it impossible to travel by bus. We strongly suggest signing up for the lottery. We were able to drive ourselves, and it was a hugely different experience than we saw others having on the park buses. We were able to travel at our leisure, and stop and go as we pleased. The reason this park only got 2 stars in this category is that everything is an incredible scenic and wildlife can be anywhere, so there aren’t that many specific “sights to see” as compared to other National Parks.

Wildlife

Wildlife abounds at Denali National Park. Before we even left the visitor’s center we saw a moose with her 3-day old calf that was born under some trees next to the parking lot. Along the park road we encountered a Snowshoe Hare, herds of both male and female Caribou, Dall Sheep, and Willow Ptarmigans. All of these were right next to the road, so we would have seen them even if we were on one of the park buses. The highlight was a Grizzly Bear, who walked along a riverbank until it reached the road, then led the way with us slowly driving behind until it left the road to continue along the river once again.


First Place

There was one clear winner.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho

Dates Visited: September 3-7, 2019

Scenery:

Sights to See:

Wildlife:

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"Bottomless" [Abyss Pool in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming]

Clouds of steam rise from a distant hill. An American Bison grazes in a meadow just a few yards off the trail. Soon you’re walking atop a boardwalk surrounded by milky blue pools of steaming water. A nearby geyser explodes, sending water and steam into the air. It’s just another morning at Yellowstone National Park.

Of all the National Parks we have visited, only Yellowstone got a perfect score in each of the three categories. Sweeping vistas, incredible mountains, and beautiful lakes make for some of the most breathtaking scenery in America. Amazing geysers, colorful pools, and fabulous waterfalls are just a few of the sights to be found just a short walk from the road. And finally, the incredible wildlife viewing opportunities are unmatched anywhere in North America, if not the world.

Scenery

The roads though Yellowstone National Park traverse as varied a landscape as you’d expect to find in two-million acres of National Park. Each section of the Grand Loop Road has its own unique character. Rocky mountain passes on the northwest section separate the wonderland that is Mammoth Hot Springs from Norris Geyser Basin. From the intersection at Madison south to Old Faithful, the road travels through an alien landscape of rising steam. Between West Thumb and Fishing Bridge, you’ll follow the north shore of Yellowstone Lake. And as the road turns north at Fishing Bridge, it follows the Yellowstone River through the wide meadows of Hayden Valley.

Sights to See

Of course, you can’t talk about things to see at Yellowstone National Park without mentioning its most famous feature, Old Faithful. This iconic geyser sprays water over 150 feet into the air on an almost regular 90-minute schedule. What isn’t as well-known is that Old Faithful is just one of about 150 geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin, a steamy land where water boils up from the depths of the earth. The West Thumb area of the park is a place of crystal-clear pools on the edge of Lake Yellowstone. Grand Prismatic Spring is a spectacular pool of blue water surrounded by yellow and orange mats of cyanobacteria. Beyond the expected geysers, mudpots, and boiling pools, you’ll also find the incredible formations of Mammoth Hot Springs, the spectacular Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone headed by the 308-foot Lower Yellowstone Falls, and countless rivers, waterfalls, and trails.

Wildlife

We expected to see a bison or two in Yellowstone. We did not expect so many that it would be like cow spotting on a Texas ranch. There were herds of hundreds crossing the roads, at times there was just one resting in a meadow, but they were everywhere. We also saw several coyotes, elk, Bighorn Sheep, Pronghorn, Gray Wolves, and a Black Bear and her cubs. All of these were seen from the road with no hiking required, although we did need a long lens to see the wolves and bighorn sheep.


Darin’s Honorable Mentions

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Dates Visited: 1989 and March 16, 2008

Cliff Palace [Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado]

If I wasn’t picking this list by scoring, I probably would have put Mesa Verde National Park in the top three. The ruins and human history here are unparalleled in the United States. Is there incredible scenery? Not really. Abundant wildlife? I think I may have seen some squirrels. But the eight-hundred year old ruins scattered around the park made Mesa Verde the most emotionally impactful of all the National Parks. When I visited in 1989, the park’s slogan was “Where the spirits rise,” and it was fitting because I could almost feel the Native American presence in the air. If I had seen this place in 1977, I would have had much more interest in learning about Native American history as a kid. That’s probably the best reason for National Parks, Monuments, Battlefields, etc. It’s one thing to read about something in a history book, but when you’re standing where it actually happened, it somehow makes it much more real.

Kings Canyon National Park, California

Dates Visited: August 29, 2009, July 23, 2011, and August 5, 2016

"Turbulence" [Roaring River Falls in Kings Canyon National Park, California]

I’ve had a special appreciation for Kings Canyon National Park ever since I first visited. The park road winds along the edge of the granite canyon for about twenty miles, a spectacular drive past caverns, waterfalls, and strange granite formations. I think of it as a “mini Yosemite” with granite cliffs, a river, trails, and waterfalls to hike to, but without the crowds. There’s an area of National Forest land between Kings Canyon and the neighboring Sequoia National Park, and so there is a little BLM campground just outside the park’s boundary where you can pitch your tent in a less crowded place than inside the park border.

KJ’s Honorable Mentions

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Date Visited: September 20, 2016

Standing surrounded by snow-white sand dunes under the hot New Mexican sun was surreal – and blinding. The smooth, rounded grains of white gypsum stay cool in the desert which made my toes happy. White Sands offers a unique oasis for wildlife who have adapted to the dunefields of this “Place like no other on Earth.” Walking over the dunes, there are tiny intricate patterns zig-zagging across the landscape. It was evidence that, under the stars, there’s an active ecosystem. I enjoyed trying to identify who or what made the various tracks found throughout the dunes. There were picnic table/barbeque areas and interpretive trails but I found the real beauty of this park lies in it’s simplicity, white dune under blue skies. Advice: Bring sunglasses.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Date Visited: August 25 & 26, 2014

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Photo by KJ Swan – SwanTrek.com

Capitol Reef National Park offered a desert oasis of a different kind. It’s a quiet, “off-the-radar” park with plenty of rich orangy-red slot canyons, cliffs, domes, bridges and a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles. There were hiking trails easily accessed from the peaceful campground where we pitched a tent on a manicured lawn. It’s also the only park I’ve visited with orchards used to make pies for sale. Lying between Arches and Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure. Often overlooked, it’s a peaceful place to explore some of the best that Utah offers.


Conclusion

Did your favorite park not make the list? That’s OK, either we haven’t been there yet or our interest and yours just aren’t the same. There’s also a bit of California bias – someone from Switzerland might not be as impressed by spectacular mountains and find Pinnacles National Park amazing.

To see the ones we had to choose from, have a look at my blog post The Places I’ve Been, The Things I’ve Seen.

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