From the vast Alaskan backcountry to the swampy subtropics of southern Florida, the diversity and drama of America’s natural landscape is rivaled by few other nations.
Thankfully, our forefathers had the foresight to preserve our environmental treasures by laying the groundwork for an extensive national park system that continues to expand today. Encompassing mangrove forests, massive glaciers, active volcanoes and towering mountains, these protected areas provide adventurous visitors with a firsthand look at the unique beauty of the untouched American wild.
While all 59 U.S. national parks are worth a visit, Gayot’s picks should provide a good starting point.
1. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Located in a remote area of southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon is world-famous for its vibrant red rock spires that shoot hundreds of feet into the air. Known as hoodoos, these totem pole-like formations are collected in a series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters that are easily accessible and provide breathtaking views. While most visitors experience the scenery by car, Bryce Canyon’s magical beauty is best seen on foot. With eight marked trails, most of which can be hiked in less than a day, there are plenty of areas to explore from within.
2. Denali National Park, Alaska
When it comes to sublime mountain vistas, Denali National Park is tops — quite literally. It's home to Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. The area's myriad landscapes, from deciduous taiga forests to snow-covered summits, change with the seasons. Visitors enjoy mountaineering and backpacking in the warmer summer months, while snowy winters open the park to dog sledding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. A 92-mile road spans the length of Denali, but air taxis are also available to take the most intrepid of explorers deep into the mountains where they can land atop a glacier.
3. Everglades National Park, Florida
The largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, Everglades National Park is in a league of its own. First created to protect South Florida’s fragile wetlands, it is home to 36 endangered species — including the Florida panther, American crocodile and West Indian manatee. Immersing yourself in the wild with a kayak excursion or an airboat safari is the best way to get inside the world of the Everglades. The park also has miles of trails for all skill levels, a 15-mile bike loop and tram tours that operate year round.
4. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
For a truly primordial experience, head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Home to two active volcanoes, the area offers otherworldly scenes of steaming earth, smooth black rock and red hot lava. A helicopter tour provides an overview of the wild landscape, while a boat expedition takes you to the edge of the newest land on earth when molten lava flows right into the water. While you can easily experience the park in one day, we recommend settling down for a few nights at the Volcano House. It offers 33 guest rooms along with cultural events and demonstrations.
5. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Classic destinations always stand the test of time, and Yellowstone certainly qualifies. As the world’s first national park, it’s most notably the home of Old Faithful Geyser. The park features an impressive collection of lakes, mountains, canyons and rivers. Centered over the Yellowstone Caldera — the largest supervolcano on the continent — the park is a singular destination for wildlife viewing in the spring, summer and fall, and is ideal for skiing in the winter. For a first-rate photo opportunity, don't leave Yellowstone without venturing into the Hayden Valley — a prime location for grizzly bear sightings and bison encounters.
Discover more of America’s best national parks.
More on Gayot