With buttes and prairies, canyons and deserts, forested groves and waterfalls, hiking, camping and kayaking opportunities aplenty, the USA’s 59 national parks contain more bizarre geological properties, unique ecosystems and adrenaline-inducing outdoor activities than you can poke a stick at.
Covering some 211,000 square kilometres, it can be hard to know where to start. Well, we’ve done the research for you. If you’re keen to visit some great national parks on your next trip to the States, here are four of our favourites:
1. The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon was carved by the mighty Colorado River approximately six million years ago. At 450 kilometres long, nearly 30 kilometres wide, and just under two kilometres deep, you certainly don’t want to ‘get off the beaten track’ here. While there are many hiking trails, including a camp ground at the base, there are numerous signs warning you not to partake in one of these unless you are physically at your best. And remember: going down is much harder than hiking back up!
Fun fact: The Grand Canyon National Park contains multiple major ecosystems. There are said to be seven life zones on Planet Earth, of which the Grand Canyon has five; it even boasts three of the four desert types.
Feeling lazy? Skip the hiking trails and take a helicopter ride over the canyon. It’ll be the best 45 minutes of your life.
2. Joshua Tree National Park
Feast your eyes on giant prehistoric boulders, jagged mountain ranges and lonesome desert flats, freckled with solitary but fascinating Joshua Trees. With their thick, twisting limbs, and spiky leaves, the Joshua Tree looks a bit like a child’s unfinished art project. Neither a tree nor a cactus (though it looks strangely like both), it’s part of the yucca genus, native to the arid deserts of southwestern USA.
Even though Joshua Tree wasn’t officially given national park status until 1994, its fame began back in 1987 when U2 famously named their fifth album after it. Legend has it that it was the Mormons who named it Joshua Tree after making their way across the Mojave Desert in the 19th century; the tree’s strange shape looked a little like Joshua reaching up to the heavens in prayer. Whichever way it reached its notable status, the scenery in the park is like no other, and, at 3200 square kilometres in size, it’s to be taken seriously. The two most popular hikes are Warren Peak and Hidden Valley (they both take around 3 hours to complete).
3. Death Valley
Have you landed on Mars? It certainly feels like it here. Death Valley, almost 14,000 square kilometres in size, is a geological and mineral wonderland, with streaks of iron, magnesium and sulphur running through the valleys, as well as salt flats, volcanic craters and – strangely – an outdoor art museum. And unlike the name suggests, there’s quite a bit of life flourishing here: bobcats, desert mice and coyotes to name a few. Temperatures here can get up into the mid-50s, so make sure you’ve got plenty of water (take twice as much as you’d normally expect to drink) and a vehicle with good air conditioning.
Be sure to check out the Badwater Basin Salt Flats and the Goldwell Open Air Museum.
4. Yosemite National Park
Anyone with a MacBook will be familiar with Yosemite’s most famous vista; El Capitan was the computer’s default wallpaper on its 2015 iOS update. But the granite monolith is even more incredible when you see it in real life, so be prepared to jostle alongside fellow nature lovers for the perfect photo (especially in summer).
Yosemite is one of the U.S.A’s biggest tourist hotspots, attracting around 4 million visitors a year. And it’s no wonder; the national park is famous for its biological diversity including lakes, mountains, glaciers and forests. Pair the natural wonder of towering grey granite cliffs and dramatic waterfalls with the chance to encounter deer, squirrels and (if you’re lucky) a black bear or two, and you’re in outdoor heaven.
Fun fact: Twenty percent of California’s 7000 plant species live and thrive in Yosemite, including the magnificent giant sequoia. Giant sequoias are the largest trees in the world, growing to around 80 metres tall.
In the mood for an active adventure? The Half Dome hike is incredible (but challenging); the Valley Floor loop is also great (and much easier!).
Stretch your legs in a few of our favourite US national parks on a small group adventure with Intrepid.
All images C/O Phoebe Escott-Kenny, Kaptain Kenny Travel.