By Michael Lanza
Yellowstone. Yosemite. Grand Canyon. Glacier. Zion. Grand Teton. These names are iconic to people who love exploring America’s national parks. And beyond those flagship parks are dozens more units of the National Park Service (53 more, to be precise) creating infinite opportunities to hike, backpack, kayak, canoe, climb a mountain, fish, or just gape in blissful awe at the scenery. But where do you begin, and what should you or your family do?
In 2016, the centennial of the National Park Service, national parks saw a third consecutive year of record visitation—331 million people. That’s actually greater than the entire population of the United States. And that record came on the heels of two previous high marks: 307.2 million visitors in 2015 and 292.8 million in 2014. That many people can’t be wrong.
Will you visit at least one park this year? It’s time to think about which one to put on the calendar for 2017.
For your inspiration, I’ve assembled here 10 inspiring photos from 10 national parks, with links to stories (and more photos) about great adventures in each one. Many of these places grace my lists of my top 10 adventures ever, top 10 family adventures, and my 25 favorite backcountry campsites. Any one of them will provide an experience of a lifetime. All of them deserve a spot on your to-do list.
Now get busy. You have your fun cut out for you.
1. Yellowstone National Park
Visiting Yellowstone should be a requirement of U.S. citizenship—period. Erupting geysers, natural hot springs (like Grand Prismatic Spring in the photo above), bubbling mud pots, whistling fumaroles, waterfalls, rivers, wildlife you can’t see in most parks and wilderness areas… it’s impossible to summarize the experience in a few words. I’ve visited many times, with my kids and before I had a family, in every season. It’s wonderful for everyone, at any stage in life, partly because so many of its highlight features can be seen on short walks. See my stories “The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone,” “Ask Me: The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone,” and all of my stories about Yellowstone.
2. Olympic National Park
My kids were nine and seven when we backpacked this three-day, 17.5-mile traverse of Washington’s southern Olympic coast several years ago, and they still rank it among their favorite trips. Any why not? For them, it was all about playing for hours in tide pools, exploring a massive boulder wallpapered with mussels, sea anemones, and sea stars, and having a wild coastline almost entirely to ourselves. For us adults, it was all about the abundance of sea life and birds—we saw seals, a sea otter, and a great blue heron, among others—the beauty of the sea stacks rising straight out of the ocean, giant trees, and having a wild coastline almost entirely to ourselves. Need more convincing—or just ready to plan it? See my story from that trip, and all of my stories from Olympic National Park.
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3. Grand Teton National Park
Few destinations or trips that I’ve written about at The Big Outside generate as much visitor traffic or as many reader emails to me as backpacking in Grand Teton National Park (lead photo at top of story), especially on the Teton Crest Trail. Little wonder. It’s step for step one of the most gorgeous mountain walks in America, a true classic offering all the elements of an unforgettable adventure: incomparable views of the Tetons skyline, wonderful campsites, wildflowers, mountain lakes and creeks, and a chance of seeing moose, elk, marmots, pikas, mule deer, and black bears. See my story “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail,” and all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail and Grand Teton National Park.
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
and my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”
4. Glacier Bay National Park
When John Muir visited Alaska’s Glacier Bay in 1879, he wrote that, at night, “the surge from discharging icebergs churned the water into silver fire.” On a five-day, guided sea-kayaking trip in Glacier Bay’s upper West Arm, my family saw sea otters, seals, sea lions, mountain goats, bald eagles, puffins, and countless other birds, and a brown bear wandering the beach (as well as bear scat that convinced us to choose another campsite). We listened to the concussive explosions of enormous chunks of ice calving from giant glaciers into the sea. See my story “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay.”
5. Grand Canyon National Park
One. That’s how many places there are on the entire planet like the Grand Canyon. Seeing it from the South Rim—as most visitors do—is certainly pretty grand. But to really appreciate the Big Ditch, you gotta go down into it. See my story about hiking across the canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim and back (photo above) and my numerous stories about the Grand Canyon, including a four-day, family backpacking trip from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail, a three-day hike I took with my 10-year-old daughter from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point, and backpacking the remote and rugged Royal Arch Loop.
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6. Bryce and Capitol Reef National Parks
On any visit to southwest Utah, Bryce Canyon is a must-do stop for a dayhike beneath its hoodoos. Capitol Reef has natural beauty to match anyplace in southern Utah, without the crowds. And they’re close enough to one another to hit on the same trip (as well as Zion; see below). See my stories about the best dayhike in Bryce (as well as hikes in nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a hike in Capitol Reef); and exploring a slot canyon and backpacking in Capitol Reef. Bonus: Highway 12, the route between Bryce and Capitol Reef, is one of the most scenic byways in the country.
Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best gear duffles and luggage and 6 favorite daypacks.
7. Yosemite National Park
Sure, Yosemite Valley is overcrowded with tourists. But don’t let that dissuade you from seeing those magnificent cliffs and some of the tallest waterfalls in the world—and certainly Yosemite’s vast wilderness. Check out all of my stories about Yosemite National Park, including these stories about a glorious, 65-mile backpacking trip south of Tuolumne Meadows, an 86-mile backpacking trip in northern Yosemite, “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” and two of my favorite dayhikes in The Valley, Upper Yosemite Falls (photo above) and the Mist Trail-John Muir Trail loop. And here’s a little tip for avoiding the crowds: Start up the Mist Trail at daybreak, way ahead of the crush of hiker traffic; and if you’re a strong hiker, start up the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in early afternoon, so that most hikers are coming down as you’re going up (and you get more shade than hot sun—but bring a headlamp, just in case you have a late return). Each hike will be a completely different, more solitary experience.
Get the right gear for your next adventure. See all of my reviews of backpacks and backpacking tents, and a menu of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
8. Glacier National Park
For backpackers, Glacier is the major leagues. You will probably see mountain goats, there’s a good chance of sighting bighorn sheep and moose, and you might even spy a bruin of the grizzly or black variety. But above all, the scenery every day will blow you away. And the glaciers won’t be there for many more years (as I write about in my book about family adventures in national parks), so what are you waiting for? Looking for a really big adventure of a lifetime? Check out my story about a 90-mile trek in the park. Prefer to start smaller? Read about my family’s three-day hike on the spectacular Gunsight Pass Trail, plus see all of my stories about Glacier National Park.
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this post, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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9. Zion National Park
Southern Utah’s wealth of canyon-country riches certainly doesn’t begin and end with this park. But there’s a good reason Zion is the best-known of the numerous national parks and other public lands gracing Utah. The trails below and that scale Zion Canyon’s half-mile-tall, gold and white monoliths are a good place to start. But don’t stop there: Treat yourself to the incomparable vistas from the West Rim Trail and in the Kolob Canyons by repeating this family backpacking trip in Zion. Are you a seriously ambitious hiker or trail runner? Read about an ultra-dayhike across the park and a descent of The Subway. Watch for my upcoming feature story about backpacking Zion’s Narrows, and see this photo gallery from all the hikes I’ve done in Zion, and all of my stories about Zion.
10. Mount Rainier National Park
No matter how many times you see it, The Mountain will take your breath away. Hiking at the foot of it offers the finest perspective on Rainier’s unfathomable scale, but also treats you to one of the best wildflower shows in the Northwest, views of some of the biggest glaciers in the Lower 48, foaming rivers, waterfalls, and lush temperate rain forest. Check out my story about a three-day, 22-mile family backpacking trip from Mowich Lake to Sunrise, my Ask Me post describing my favorite dayhikes at Rainier, and all of my stories about Mount Rainier National Park.
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