Raise your glass to the USA's National Park Service for over a century of maintaining the nation's finest landscapes, for communities past and present.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
Yellowstone is the national park that spoils its guests. So much so, by the time you’ve spotted your umpteenth bison, elk or antelope, you’ll be tempted to roll your eyes; the terrain is that abundant with nature. Of course, we exaggerate, Yellowstone is far from boring. As the world’s first national park, it’s like all great originals; an absolute treasure. Bursting at its 2,219,789 acre seams with canyons and alpine rivers, over 10,000 thermal wonderments and an astounding 300 geysers, the real issue is where to look first.
There are bald eagles soaring above its high mountain plateau and yellow-green hillsides that swirl with gushing alpine rivers. Bison thud across a landscape that’s restless with volcanic activity and the dark rocks that (at first glance) look like bears, station themselves between lush forest and rippling mountainside.
Yellowstone’s nature, whether it moves on four-paws or two wings provides endless jaw-dropping imagery. Only two per cent of Yellowstone is developed so you’d be wise to trundle across its terrain as slow and as laborious as the bison; admiring every spectacle, inhaling every scent and listening to the chorus of crickets; a chatter that seemingly rings out forever.
In Alaska’s Denali National Park everything looks fluffy, from the mountain-nudging clouds to the spongy green grass, even the brown grizzly bears look cuddly. But don’t let the illusions deceive you, here lies 6 million acres of untamed wilderness; a land where the clouds turn to storms and the bears aren’t renowned for their cuddles.
Inherently wild, Denali is still the most accessible of Alaska's national parks and home to North America’s highest peak, Denali Mountain (Mount McKinley), but you’ll probably want to use the 150km road to see it. With a single track, of which only the bus is allowed to travel, minimal traffic allows for uninterrupted views across a breath-taking panorama, a dense carpet of grass merges into thickets of brown and thorns of red, while ice-white glaciers carve a pathway through both. Towering granite spires melt into snow-topped peaks, their slopes reflected in startling glacial lakes.
Look closely and you’ll spot caribou, moose, dall sheep, the odd fox and snowshoe hares bounding across sheets of untouched snow. And if that’s not enough to have your face flat-pressed against the window, the opportunity to see golden eagles, wolves and cinnamon-coloured grizzlies surely will.
THE MIGHTY 5
Star-gazing from Mars, now made possible in Utah. Or so it’ll seem if you lie across the sandstone plateau of The Mighty 5®’s craggy savannah-coloured stone. Bathing in sunshine that penetrates a desert soil, the five national parks that make up this other-worldly terrain include Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. Collectively the five parks are an expansive, seemingly limitless mass of natural creation, an abstract panorama of domes, cliffs and arches, 300-foot towers and arid humidity; a sizzling desert of brilliant, barren orange.
Arrive a little earlier and experience sunrise over red rocks and jutting formations that spike, twist and curve. Stay a little later and watch as shadows from the setting sun give way to a glowing night sky; the transformation of light and colour, pink through to navy seeping into every pocket and fold. Time your visit to witness the full moon cast a silvery glare over the deep canyons and towers, or arrive late autumn and you’ll be presented with the Milky Way, its streaks smeared across the sky like an extra-terrestrial firework display. Nothing short of spell-binding, there’s never a bad time to explore Utah’s aptly-named Mighty 5®.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS
Diverse ecosystems & extensive species of wildlife As America’s most visited national park (and one of few that doesn’t charge an admission fee) you’d think the Great Smoky Mountains would be heaving with sightseers, but with 521,896 acres of wilderness and over 12,000km of back-country trails, you needn’t venture too far to find solitude. Trek eight kilometres off-grid and you’ll be in the thick of the world’s oldest mountain range, the Southern Appalachians. From afar they bathe in a milky blue haze, the colour of plant’s breath, it’s literally the result of respiration. Once inside the dense canopy, you’ll bear witness to an entire kaleidoscope of colour. From hammering woodpeckers to waterfalls where mist and rainbows hang suspended in the air, thanks to heavy annual rainfall the entire park is replete with lush greenery and a beguiling luminosity.
You’ll be grateful for backpacks jammed with energy-boosting snacks and water refreshments but keep your tasty treats to yourself, the park’s also home to 2000 black bears. Avoid leaving your pack unattended and always utilise the bear-proof rubbish bins. Instead of bears, seek out the synchronous fireflies, a phenomenon that occurs in late May or early June (reservations required), they’re the only US species to blink in synchrony as part of their mating ritual.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
This splendid area has been protected for a few hundred years, since 1864. Famous for its cascading waterfalls, there are a plethora of hikes nature lovers can embark on throughout the staggering 1,931 square kilometres of the park's boundaries. For the ultimate tranquil experience, stay in a tent here overnight at one of the many designated camping grounds.
Catch a glimpse of the uninterrupted starry night sky before you slumber with the soothing sounds of the park lulling you to sleep. Must-see natural wonders in the Yosemite Valley are the Vernal and Nevada Falls, both spectacular waterfalls that can be fairly easily accessed through clear hiking trails. The top of the Vernal Falls has a concrete viewing platform looking down towards the rocky pools at the base of the waterfalls, so be sure to take a camera with a large lens if you have one for some excellent photography.
If you're after views that will make your jaw drop, hike towards the cliff-top edge of Taft Point. There is a railing-secured viewing platform here, built right onto the edge of the cliff to offer a spellbinding view of the deep Yosemite Valley and El Capitan vertical rock formation in the distance. California greening can take on a whole new meaning as you wander through these woodlands, making the most of your time in the sunny state's natural bounty.
MUIR WOODS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Kiss technology goodbye as you venture through these incredible trees, some of the tallest on this planet. Proudly known as California's giants, the redwood trees can reach the dizzying heights of 116 metres. The redwoods forests stretch along the 64-kilometre coastline of the state, with the picturesque Big Sur beach front in the north towards the border of the state.
Ideal places to see these trees are the Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Muir Woods National Monument. The first is a great place to see nearly three quarters of the globe's 100 tallest trees, according to Lonely Planet. While the best way to admire the trees at Humboldt Redwoods State Park is to walk beneath their cathedral-esque canopies, any travellers pressed for time can still drive past these beauties by heading along the Avenue of the Giants road. This two-lane 51-kilometre road runs parallel to the iconic Highway 101, and allows you to see these magnificent trees from the comforts of your car on your quintessential Cali road trip.
Now, that's not to say that the Muir Woods National Monument doesn't have its own charm. "This is the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world," said John Muir, legendary naturalist and the namesake for this monument. This special landmark was legally made a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. Located only 19 kilometres north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, it's easy to visit.