On August 25, 2016, US national parks celebrate their centennial. The story began in 1872, with the establishment of Yellowstone as a “public park”, managed by civilian and later military authorities. But it wasn’t until 1916 that the national government decreed that America’s vast natural treasures needed proper supervision and centralised control. Some 84.4 million acres are now managed by the National Park Service, including many iconic mountain ranges, waterfalls, canyons and trails – providing a model for national park systems around the world.
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Choosing which parks to visit is a conundrum. Do you want the beauty of the Badlands, or the mass appeal of the Grand Canyon? If you’re a hiker, what about the Appalachians – but will you head for Shenandoah or the Smoky Mountains? Or are you a lone ranger happier in a smaller park like, say, Big Bend in Texas’s Chihuahua desert?
Perhaps you want to see all of them? In March 2015, PhD student Randy Olson devised an algorithm to find the shortest route between 50 major national landmarks, national parks, historic sites and monuments. His route would require 13,699 miles on the road, or 224 hours of driving. Add a few days in each park and we’re talking a seriously long – or seriously tiring – holiday. And the parks in Alaska and Hawaii and several others were excluded!
But how about ticking off a top ten top of US national parks, a mix of classics and less obvious stunners, and working them into a fabulous coast to coast drive? Here’s a more doable trip for those with 2-4 weeks free and the urge to see some of the world’s greatest natural sights.
We kick off in the cool heights of Olympic National Park, on the coast of Washington state in the far northwest. Mount Olympus was named by a British fur trader in 1788, dazzled by the divine beauty of the peak. But only the most intrepid ever came to this wild corner of snowcapped mountains, temperate rainforest and rugged shoreline, and the park is largely unspoiled by human development. Some eleven major rivers flow through the park, fed by teeming waterfalls and occasionally spilling in to trout-filled lakes. Huge ferns and old-growth trees populate the dripping rainforests: a star attraction is the Gatton Goliath, a 295-foot Douglas fir. Look out for bald eagles, seals and sea lions and Roosevelt elk.
We go east now to Glacier National Park, where Montana meets Canada. Of course we see glistening glaciers, but we also see mountains soaring above steely blue lakes, as well as gorgeous spring wildflowers. There are more than 700 miles of trails for hikers, with chalets and campsites dotted around the park – with only mountain goats and grizzly bears for company.
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These are two big ones. The first stop is Yellowstone, mainly in Wyoming. It’s another high-altitude park with extreme winter temperatures – it’s often -20C or colder in January and February. The mountains are a spectacular backdrop to lush meadows, dense forests, rivers and geothermal areas – clouds of vapour floating up to the passes and bison standing in the steam to keep warm. The same wildlife roams these rugged redoubts as when Europeans first arrived, and lucky visitors will get to see bears, moose, grey wolves, elks and even wolverine and lynx.
A day’s drive through Idaho and the Nevada desert gets you to Yosemite, a United Nations World Heritage site that boasts five of the seven continental life zones (major eco-systems) found in the US. Famous for El Capitan, the largest exposed granite monolith in the world, and its 3,000-year-old sequoia trees, it’s also full of subtler delights such as the exuberant flora and shrub-based, relatively rare chaparral scrublands.
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Our next three stops have a desert-drifter feel about them, as we enter the realm of the Wild West, a frontier land of buttes and canyons, wind-sculpted pinnacles and arid plains.
Grand Canyon hardly needs an introduction. Stop at the main visitor centre at the Grand Canyon village on the South Rim or find a lonelier spot on the North Rim; if you need a fix of adrenaline, jump in a chopper and get deep down in that dark cleft.
Though not as well-known as Monument Valley, Utah’s Arches National Park is a similar dreamscape carved from warm reddish sandstone, comprising of more than 2,000 arches – the handiwork of a millennia of water and wind – including the fantastically photogenic Delicate Arch, a landmark seen on Utah registration plates. Other formations include steeples, bridges and rocks balanced on the edges of cliffs, with trails winding around them so you can treat the park as a natural art gallery whose curator has a taste for the surreal. Classic Westerns were shot here, including Cheyenne Autumn and Rio Conchos – as well as scenes from Thelma & Louise and Indiana Jones.
Rocky Mountain is only 320 miles away, but plunges you into a landscape affected dramatically by the seasons. The so-called Front Range of the Rocky Mountains contains glaciated peaks with permanent snowfields in its high cirques, swathes of tundra, montane forests dominated by ponderosa pine and lush wetlands. Go in summer and it’s paradisaical and easily accessed, especially round popular Bear Lake; go in winter and you’ll need snowshoes and a big shovel.
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Now comes the long drive, 1,400 and a bit miles across the great plains of Kansas and Missouri and the central Midwest to the Great Smoky Mountains, which – perhaps surprisingly – are America’s number one visited national park. This is partly because of the scenic highway that cuts through this end of the Appalachian range, but it’s also because of the great hiking – along mist-shrouded ridges – and vast deciduous forests as well as 1,600 species of flowers and flowering plants. The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia are, of course, celebrated – not least in the famous Laurel and Hardy song – but they stray across several states and thanks to its popularity and infrastructure, this park boasts myriad ways of accessing them – by car, on foot, by bike, or on a horse.
Shenandoah, the next national park, has also appeared in songs – a famous folk tune as well as John Denver’s ‘Country Road’ and is the far north-eastern end of the same Appalachian “blue ridge” formation. The 105-mile Skyline drive is an easy, slow (a 35mph speed-limit applies) introduction for car-users with lots of lookouts en route. Deer, black bear and wild turkey routinely cross the road. With 190 resident and migratory species, the park is great for bird watching. A network of cabins and lodges means you can sleep over in the wilds.
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Our national park odyssey ends in the Everglades National Park, a precious tropical habitat for alligators, white-tailed deer and bobcats and majestic waders like anhinga, wood stork and roseate spoonbill. With 6,000-plus new miles on the clock, it’s time to get out of the car and go kayaking and canoeing in this ever-shifting waterworld, soak up the sultry heat of the south, and marvel at the biodiversity and sheer beauty of this protected wilderness – and all the others you’ve seen on the way here.
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ROUTE MAP left to right.