Great national parks are set apart by the pristine, unique, or otherwise breathtaking scenery, the abundance of wildlife, and the availability of accessible hiking trails to make for a perfect group outing. Each of these parks rises above and beyond the mark of greatness.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park was first signed into being by President Grant in 1872, making it the first national park in the country. Situated in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, Yellowstone is a geothermal wonderland with the world’s largest collection of geysers, over 300 to be exact. Old Faithful, the park’s most famous gushing geyser, erupts regularly in a spectacular display of natural grandeur. Wildlife continues to abound in Yellowstone including two species of bear, grey wolves, 67 other mammals, and 322 species of birds. See the largest high altitude lake on the continent, a 308-foot tall waterfall, and more in the park that is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Yosemite National Park
More than 3.5 million visitors choose Yosemite every year, making it one of the most popular national parks in the country. The scenery and geological wonders make this park special among its competitors. Half Dome peak rises over 8,000 feet in the air, a cliff face of Plutonic granite shears the mountainside seemingly in half while the hiking to the top of El Capitan offers the brave incomparable views of the Yosemite Valley and the neighboring mountains. The Horsetail Falls is visible from the El Capitan picnic area at the mountain’s base and offers photographers a captivating shot of the falls seemingly turning red as it is lit by the setting sun. Cross paths with bobcats, coyotes, mule deer, and marmots and perhaps even black bears or mountain lions, preferably at a distance.
Everglades National Park
While the Everglades cannot compete with the other parks on this list for scenery, this national park’s multiple ecosystems make it a cornucopia for flora and fauna. Only one hour away from Miami, Everglades National Park is composed of 1.5 million acres of Florida wetlands. There are five distinct habitats in the park, protecting wildlife such as the American crocodile, alligators, manatees, tree frogs, Key deer, otters, and the elusive and endangered Florida panther. Visit Shark Valley or Eco Pond to catch sight of alligators and crocodiles or wade into Chokoloskee Bay to see a plethora of birds take flight from the water.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Home to two of the world’s most active and volatile volcanoes, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a goldmine of scenic views, natural wonders, hiking trails, and exotic wildlife. Mauna Loa and Kilauea continue to emit burning, glowing lava giving scientists and visitors a unique insight into the formation of the Hawaiian islands. Historic trails and sites including the 1790 Footprints, Kilauea Crater, the Volcano House, and Ainapo Trail preserve geological formations and wildlife for the sake of Hawaii’s natural beauty. Hawaii’s tropical climate is home to unusual animals like a carnivorous caterpillar, the largest butterfly in the U.S., and endangered sea turtles. Only one mammal, the bat, is native to Hawaii.
Acadia National Park
Maine’s natural beauty is magnified by the deep blue of the crashing sea, the rocky cliffs, and verdant forests crossing the glacier-cut lands. Acadia was the first national park on the east coast, donated by naturalists and later decorated by John D. Rockefeller with carriage roads of broken stone. Over 15,000 years ago, the land of Acadia National Park rose from the receding glaciers, and evidence of the last ice age is still visible. Explore the rugged cliff trails, search for butterflies in the wetlands and marshes, climb granite ridges, hike evergreen forests, and see the sunset behind the Cadillac Mountains in an array of deep gold, orange, and blue.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Appalachian culture, history, and quintessential American beauty make the Great Smoky Mountains the nation’s most visited park. Set in the hills and valleys of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Smokies house an incredible diversity of life with over 17,000 species of plants and animals documented. While Yosemite has drastic peaks and pointed mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains are gentle, cascading, lightly rolling summits tinged cobalt blue in the early morning light and deep purple at twilight. This indelibly old mountain range has year-round hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities along with horseback riding, auto touring, fishing, and historic buildings open for public viewing along the trails.
Pinnacles National Park
Other parks on this list have the prize for being the oldest parks or the first on respective coasts. Pinnacles National Park is the country’s newest park, located on the Californian coast and composed almost entirely from the remnants of volcanic activity which took place roughly 23 million years ago. The most visually captivating feature of this park is the eponymous pinnacles, finger-like rock formations jutting forth from the sand in multiple towering structures. Several volcanic and sedimentary rock formations may be found along the trails and in the caves. During the summer, this park may be dangerous to hike because of extreme heat. This is a relatively small park, however, and may be seen in a single day.
From volcanic landscapes and bison covered plains to lush wetlands teeming with wildlife, the national parks of the United States are home to nearly every type of ecosystem. Come see the wild, the preserved American frontier, on your next group road trip.