While the first national park in the U.S. (and the world) was created in 1872, it wasn’t until 1916 that a branch of the U.S. government — the National Park Service — was created to manage and care for the country's parks and monuments. Today, there are 409 sites that the NPS operates. They range from the crown jewel national parks to historic sites, battlefields, monuments and even an arts venue.
During the course of my travels, I’ve had the pleasure to visit more than a third of these 409 NPS sites, including many of the 59 sites with a national park designation. In fact I’m currently on a quest to visit every site with a national park designation in both the U.S. and Canada — including all of the six parks visited by our National Parks of the American West tour. Here are some of my favourite U.S. national parks.
1. Death Valley NP, California
Death Valley is a park of superlatives. It is the largest US National Park outside of Alaska, and is home to the lowest point in North America. It was also the location of the hottest air temperature ever recorded on Earth (56.7 °C or 134 °F). It is a two-hour drive from Las Vegas; if you go, make sure to bring plenty of water and fuel!
2. Grand Canyon NP, Arizona
The Grand Canyon is a must-visit. One of the natural wonders of the world, it is by far the largest canyon on Earth. Most people visit the south rim of the canyon, but the north rim is also accessible as well. In fact, you can even walk from rim to rim if you are prepared and able to do it. It is something that everyone should see once in their life.
3. Yosemite NP, California
There is so much to this park: the vistas are incredible, the waterfalls are among the highest in the world and the giant sequoias are among the largest trees in the world. This park made American photographer Ansel Adams famous. Only a three-hour drive from San Francisco, a visit here makes for an easy day trip. Be mindful of the large crowds in the summer months.
4. Theodore Roosevelt NP, North Dakota
One of the most underrated national parks in the system, Theodore Roosevelt is near where the former president spent time during his youth. The rolling hills and grasslands provide one of the best places to observe large wildlife in any park. You an easily see bison, mule deer and wild horses from your car window.
5. Yellowstone NP, Wyoming
Yellowstone NP is the world’s first national park and still one of the greatest. Here you can see elk and bison, as well as some of the largest geysers on Earth, including the world-famous Old Faithful. Yellowstone is a massive park, so make sure to spend a few days there during your stay.
6. Dry Tortugas NP, Florida
If you drive as far as you can go down the Florida Keys all the way to Key West, you still have to go farther to reach Dry Tortugas, but it’s worth it. This park includes the very last of the Florida Keys, as well as historic Fort Jefferson. It is the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere, and was used as a prison during the Civil War. To get there you will have to fly in on a float plane or take a ferry. Fort Jefferson also has the best beaches in the Keys.
7. Isle Royale NP, Michigan
Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior and the least visited park in the continental US. It is mostly made up of wilderness area, so backwoods camping is a very popular option. As with Dry Tortugas, you can only get there by boat or float plane. Unlike other parks, however, it is closed during the winter. Despite technically being in Michigan, it is actually closer to Minnesota’s mainland and the easiest ferry to catch is from Grand Portage, Minnesota.
8. Bryce Canyon NP, Utah
Bryce Canyon isn’t a large park by any means, but it is incredibly stunning. The showcase of the area is the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater, which is known for its colourful hoodoos (rock formations). The best time to see them is during sunrise. After the sun is up you can spend several hours walking around the hoodoos and getting close-up photos.
9. Carlsbad Caverns NP, New Mexico
There are several caves in the NPS, but by far the greatest of the group is Carlsbad Caverns. The stalagmites and stalactites as seen from the main cavern are incredible, and it is the only cave in the park system where you are allowed you to bring in a tripod, which means you’ll get great photos. It also is adjacent to Guadalupe Mountains NP in Texas, which is a worth a visit, too.
10. Mesa Verde NP, Colorado
Mesa Verde holds the distinction of being the first site to be declared a national park for cultural reasons. Home to one of the best preserved Anasazi cave dwellings in the world, this park is located near the town of Cortez, Colorado, in the southwest corner of the state, near the Four Corners region.
Get out to see some of U.S.A's best on the National Parks of the American West tour. G Adventures runs a number of departures in the United States encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.