The Best of America’s National Parks
Spot a manatee… hike down a canyon… see how early Native Americans lived… go deep inside a vast cave… just plain get away from it all, with great adventures in 10 of America’s best national parks.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Best for watching wild waves and serene sunsets
Toward sunset, a long line of cars roll up to the summit of 1,530-feet-high Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s coast-hugging Acadia National Park, where visitors traditionally gather to toast the setting sun (champagne preferred). Acadia is a gracious, gentlemanly national park, created on land donated by John D. Rockefeller, who also paid for construction of more than 50 miles of carriage roads, part of a larger network of 125 miles of park paths. If you have to pick one, the six-mile bike trail around Eagle Lake, dotted with colorful canoes and kayaks, is lovely. Save time for lunch at pretty Jordan Pond House, circa 1870, and famous for its creamy lobster stew and popovers. Book a park-ranger-narrated boat cruise. Head to Bass Harbor, also part of the park, on Mount Desert (the locals pronounce it “dessert”) Island’s southwest shore, for great lighthouse photos. Watch the lobster boats roll in. Campsites sell out far in advance, but Bar Harbor, the island’s biggest town, offers rooms at a wide range of prices. The Harborside Hotel, Spa & Marina ranks high for luxury.
In summer, the temperature in the 3.3-million-acre Death Valley National Park regularly tops 100 degrees, but, as the locals like to say, it’s a dry heat. Famous for fabulous contrasts, Death Valley is below sea level at Backwater Basin, yet also boasts towering snow-capped mountains. There are long stretches where nothing grows, and then sand dunes give way to fields of fuchsia, purple and yellow flowers. Visit Rhyolite, the valley’s most accessible ghost town, once home to 10,000 people and 50 saloons. Stop at the Harmony Borax Works, where borax (used in making soap) was hauled out by the “20-mule teams” of TV’s “Death Valley Days” fame. Book a room at the Inn at Furnace Creek for unexpected luxury (open mid-October to mid-May). The Ranch at Furnace Creek, open all year, even has a swimming pool (the water is very hot in summer), as well as restaurants and a general store. Don’t miss Scotty’s Castle, a white Spanish-style mansion in the middle of an oasis called Grapevine Canyon. The National Park Service guides bring history—including Scotty’s rather eccentric character— to life.
American school children learned to call it Mount McKinley, but today North America’s tallest mountain goes by its native Athabascan name of Denali (“The High One”). The mountain, like a wise old sentinel, totally dominates the six-million-acre wilderness park that surrounds it. Many park roads are closed to private cars, so book the 90-mile, 12-hour-long Kantishna Wilderness Trails Tour (a bus ride through the park, including a stop at an old mining town), well in advance. Sharp eyes can spot big grizzly bears, moose, caribou, Dall’s sheep and lively little red foxes. Splurge on a flight-seeing tour that lets you get up-close looks at glaciers and a different perspective on wildlife moving across the landscape below. Whitewater rafting, in a wet suit for warmth, is another option, as is hiking the handsome Savage River Trail. In summer, it’s possible to see as many as 167 different species of birds flutter in front of your binoculars. It’s pleasant to camp in the park, but a good alternative might be to book rooms at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge (outside the park), or Kantishna Roadhouse in the park.
That the Everglades National Park—the largest tract of true wilderness east of the Rockies—exists at all is a major miracle in over-developed south Florida. In fact, the park is thought to be so important that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Once inside, highways and tract homes are forgotten, as you paddle your own canoe, hike, bike, and perhaps join a park ranger on a bird walk, seeing everything from massive anhingas to a graceful white ibis to the rare roseate spoonbill. Birds are just the beginning. The looks-like-old-men West Indian manatees, slightly scary alligators, and American crocodiles may also join your walk on the wild side. The adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve, protecting 729,000 acres of swampland, is a great place to kayak. The Oasis Visitor Center there lets you view massive alligators from a wooden observation deck. Take a naturalist-narrated tram tour, and in winter, catch the 50-minute Anhinga Amble around Taylor Slough (from Royal Palm Visitors Center), or the Early Bird Special, a 90-minute bird walk starting at the Flamingo Visitor Center.
There are as many different ways to experience the Grand Canyon as there are visitors. For some, the best choice is to book a room at the classic El Tovar Hotel, which has perched on the canyon’s South Rim since the railroad started bringing in passengers in the early days of the last century. For many guests there, strolling along the canyon rim and attending ranger-led interpretive programs are sufficient pleasures. Bright Angel Lodge is the place to stay if you have booked a mule ride down to the canyon floor, since it is the check-in point for the journey. Folks who choose to hike down to the canyon floor also tend to favor the Bright Angel Trail, as water is available en route, and you can rest under the shade of cottonwood trees at the pretty Indian Gardens Campground about halfway down. Some very tame deer there are likely to try to befriend you (rangers request that you not feed them). The Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch offer rustic accommodations on the canyon floor. Phantom Ranch provides separate, 10-bunk-bed dorms for women and men and 11 private cabins.
A lot of history is hidden in the half-million-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee and offers a good look at 19th-century mountain life. Cades Cove, the heart of the park—and still home to deer and wild turkey—is now also a vast open-air museum. You can drive past original pioneer homesteads, barns, churches, and mills, but also save some time to amble through fields thick with wildflowers. Some eight to 10 million people pass through this most-visited national park each year. Many folks camp, and spend pleasant hours fishing, horseback riding, or looking for deer, elk, or black bear. From mid-March to late November, travelers who book in advance can hike the Trillium Gap Trail (watch out for the llamas hauling in groceries) for a stay the rough and remote LeConte Lodge. Sixty guests sleep in bunk beds in rough cabins or lodges complete with wash basin and bucket, kerosene lamps, propane heaters, and porch rockers. Family-style meals are simple and good. The privvy now has flush toilets. And the silence is so thick you can almost hear it.
Millions of years ago, five fire-spewing volcanoes created the Big Island of Hawaii. One of these, Kilauea, is still at it, making it a leading contender for largest active volcano on earth. Another, the more sedate Mauna Loa, ranks as the world’s biggest volcano, rising a mighty 56,000 feet above the ocean floor. Visitors can meet both of these powerful wonders with a visit to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Start with the exhibits and films at the Kilauea Visitor Center, and ask about scheduled ranger walks. Jagger Museum, a few miles from the park entrance, is a good place to see volcano ash and monitoring gear. Just outside the museum, you can actually peer into a caldera, seeing volcanic ash and smoke at work. Drive or bike the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive (sometimes closed by eruptions). Chain of Craters Road gives a good overview of volcanic activity, taking visitors down to where hot lava crossed the coast highway in 2003. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is hiker and camper friendly. Rangers are up to date on where to go to see smoke pour out of vents in rock and red molten lava flow. Guided bike tours of the national park and Kilauea are available. A helicopter tour gives you a bird’s-eye view of the steamy action.
Mammoth Cave, deep underground in western Kentucky, is, to date, the longest cave system ever discovered. Every year, some half a million people come to experience what it is like inside this vast limestone complex. About 392 miles of the caverns have been explored, and many more await investigation. Some visitors choose a short walk, typically the easy Mammoth Passage Tour, entering the cave in the same place that early Native Americans did 4,000 years ago. Frozen Niagara, with its lovely limestone formations is another favorite. The truly daring don helmets, headlamps, boots and knee pads to climb cave walls and crawl through narrow (some nine-inches-high) spaces, on the “Wild Cave” or “Introduction to Caving” tours (book in advance). Above ground, savor the quiet of the forest while going horseback riding, canoeing on the Green River, or birding. Families enjoy the evening campfire programs at the Visitor Center, and later, amateur spelunkers tuck into tents on 105 separate campsites, in rooms at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, or in motels in nearby Cave City.
While most of America’s national parks focus on natural wonders, Mesa Verde provides a rich dose of Native American history along with its splendid scenery. In fact, the park’s cliff dwellings—one might almost call them precursors to today’s high-rise apartments—are glorious examples of the ingenuity of the Ancestral Puebloan People. No one knows why the residents abandoned Mesa Verde about 800 years ago, but the site was forgotten until a couple of cowboys literally stumbled on it in 1888. If you have time to visit only one dwelling, take the guided tour through Cliff Palace, the largest complex, and the one that dominates most of the postcards (check for possible closings for repair this summer). The beautiful Balcony House, also only available with a guide, requires climbing a 32-foot ladder, crawling through a 12-foot tunnel and making it up a 60-foot rock face. It is definitely scary, but worth it. (You must purchase tickets at the Visitors Center for these two tours.) The handsome Spruce Tree House, the best-preserved dwelling, is accessible via a 32-foot ladder, is open all year, and doesn’t require a guide.
Yosemite National Park, California
Best for granite gazing (or climbing) and grand hotel stays
Yosemite National Park, in central eastern California, is one of the most visited parks in the entire system. Credit for that goes to its rich natural beauty; its nearly 1,000 miles of trails, some taking travelers deep into back country; and its lovely Ahwahnee Hotel, as grand as it gets. Add to that the immense popularity of rock climbing in this granite-rich park; the countless ribbons of waterfalls cascading over rock walls, and begging to be photographed; and the lovely green-and-gray scenery that has drawn visitors since before Ansel Adams snapped his iconic Yosemite photos. Visitors can also ride horses through Yosemite Valley, go on photo and art walks from spring through fall (pretty Bridalveil Falls is a favorite stop), and in winter can master cross-country skiing. Observe the tradition of watching the sun set over Half Dome, turning the granite into shimmering gold. Save time to savor the quiet elegance of the Ahwahnee Hotel, or book into the classic Wawona, a white clapboard inn harking back to the 19th century, with its old-fashioned long verandas. It is also possible to rent cabins and tents.