Theodore Roosevelt, the president who essentially created the National Park System in the early 1900s said, “The ages have been at work on the national landscape and man can only marvel at it. What you can do is keep it for your children and your children’s children.”
The national park system comprises nearly 400 areas of special importance in the United States—a system that includes exceptional natural, historical, scientific, and recreational sites, including lakeshores, battlefields, monuments, canyons, and seashores. Here are the best of the system.
1. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California
The work of giant glaciers during the ice age, Yosemite National Park is a famous natural wonderland in the Sierra Nevada showcasing waterfalls, meadows, and forests of giant sequoia. Half Dome and El Capitan, rock formations towering above Yosemite Valley, are virtually American icons. Try to visit Yosemite Falls, the tallest in North America; hike to Mirror Lake; kayak along the Merced River; visit the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove; and then relax at the Ahwahnee, the park’s grand old Arts and Crafts-style lodge.
2. HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Hawaii
Eager to get close to an active volcano? Then this is the place for you. Located on the Big Island Kilauea and Mauna Loa are two of the most active volcanoes in the world. The first is more than 3,999 feet high and still growing. It abuts the second, a monster mountain that towers some 13,678 feet above the sea. The park stretches from sea level to Mauna Loa’s snowy summit.
3. GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona
Stand on the edge of this immense gorge—more than one mile deep and up to 18 miles wide—and you will experience nature’s grandeur. The Colorado River carved the chasm over millennia. Hiking, rafting, and viewing opportunities are outstanding. To rest your feet while you take in the grandeur, let a mule do all the work on a day trip or an overnight ride to Phantom Ranch.
4. GETTYSBURG NATIONAL MILITARY PARK, Pennsylvania
Only cannon, stone walls, and countless monuments recall the horrors that unfolded on these bucolic fields on July 1, 1863. Here Union and Confederate soldiers fought the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Three days later, 51,000 men were dead, wounded, or missing. Take the 19-mile self-guided battlefield driving tour; you’ll pass McPherson Ridge, where the fighting began, and Little Round Top, strategic high ground. Don’t miss seeing Evergreen Cemetery, where President Abraham Lincoln gave his stirring Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. To further enrich your drive, use an audio tour, hire a Licensed Battlefield Guide to ride along with you, or take a bus ride that includes a guided tour. Start your visit at the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War, with multimedia presentations, interactive exhibits, and the restored Cyclorama depicting Pickett’s Charge.
5. SEQUOIA & KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS, California
While both of these parks have groves of giant sequoias, Sequoia—the southernmost of the two—is more accessible for casual visitors. To appreciate the rugged splendor, you should hike a trail; we recommend Congress, Big Baldy, Zumwalt Meadow, and the Moro Rock Trails. If you have time only to drive, then follow the Generals Highway for 17 miles from the Ash Mountain Entrance to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest sequoia. Named for a Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, the tree is a towering 276-feet tall.
6. ALAGNAK WILD RIVER, Alaska
This pristine river begins within the Katmai National Park & Preserve at the head of the Aleutian Peninsula. From there, it rushes along for 67 miles past boreal forests and wet sedge tundra before joining the Pacific Ocean. Otters, moose, brown bears, and ospreys are just a few of the creatures that call this wilderness home.
7. SANTA FE NATIONAL HISTORIC TRAIL, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma
Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was the main link between St. Louis, the gateway to the West, and Santa Fe, one of the West’s most prosperous cities. Families in covered wagons, soldiers, and prospectors bound for glorious gold (they hoped) all took the trail. When the railroad came to Santa Fe in 1880, the trail became obsolete. About 15 percent of the original trail remains. Parts are on privately-owned land, but you can still carve a trip out of it and drive past the forts and sights those early pioneers passed. Fort Osage in Missouri is a must-see, as is the quaint Lake Chance Store in Council Grove, Kansas. Cyclists, hikers, and equestrians can follow the course of the trail for 19 miles in the Cimarron National Grassland in Kansas.
8. STATUE OF LIBERTY NATIONAL PARK, New York
The 151-foot-tall green woman who stands as a graceful sentinel of Upper New York Bay has become an international symbol of freedom. Given to the United States in 1886 as a gift from the people of France, Lady Liberty has been one of the first—and certainly the most welcoming—sights in the United States for millions of immigrants. Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi sculpted her, perhaps in the image of his mother, and Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) devised an iron frame for the enormous copper sheets.
Visitors take ferries from Battery Park to Liberty Island. From there, the best way to truly get a feel for this marvelous piece of art is to take the elevator to the top of the pedestal and then climb the 354 steps to the top of her crown.
If you had any family who came to the U.S. and entered through Ellis Island, this is a must-see educational and emotional experience.
9. BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY, North Carolina, Virginia
Showcasing the age-old beauty of the southern Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited unit within the National Park System. The 469-mile, two-lane road connects Shenandoah National Park in the north to Great Smokey Mountains National Park in the south. You’ll ride along the crest of the Blue Ridge, as well as other mountains, dipping into deep hollows then rising up above the valleys as high as 6,001 feet. Plenty of remnants left by the mountain people who once lived here exist along the way.
10. NEW ORLEANS JAZZ HISTORICAL PARK, Louisiana
When Congress passed legislation that created this park in 1994, the intention was “to preserve the origins, early history, development, and progression of jazz.” And what better place to do this than New Orleans, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where the uniquely American art form was born.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this young park is evolving more slowly than planned. According to the original plans, the park eventually will consist of four buildings in Louis Armstrong Memorial Park. Until all of those buildings are restored, the park’s headquarters is located in the famous French Quarter. In June 2011, Perseverance Hall in Louis Armstrong Park, which is home to concerts and exhibits, was reopened. The park also offers two self-guided jazz audio tours, the Jazz Walk of Fame in Algiers Point, and an 11-stop tour of jazz history sites around the city.
And there’s more—Utah is Special
Zion National Park, Southwestern Utah
A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile park of scenic wonders is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to 2,640 feet deep. The hiking and sightseeing are spectacular. Follow the paths where ancient native people and pioneers walked. Gaze up at the massive sandstone cliffs of cream pink and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Southwestern Utah (not far from Zion)
Unbelievable, like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s really not a canyon, but a collection of natural amphitheaters. The red, orange and white colors provide spectacular views. It covers 56,000 square miles.
Descending into the valley on horseback is a bit scary, but a glorious ride into another world.
Arches National Park, East Central Utah
Four miles north of Moab, discover a red-rocked landscape of contrasting colors land forms and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks.
It will amaze you!