In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, I’ve put together a list of my favorite National Park Service sites:
#1: Glacier National Park, Montana
I’m probably always going to be biased towards my home state, but I think just about anyone would agree with me that Glacier is one of the most beautiful places in the country. How can you top big blue skies, crystal clear waters, rugged mountains, and powerful glaciers? Not to mention the thousands of wildflowers, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, and the largest grizzly bear population in the Lower 48. Glacier has been dubbed the Crown of the Continent, due to both its ecological importance and its natural beauty, and I can’t think of a more accurate nickname for such a special place.
#2: Yellowstone National Park, Montana/Idaho/Wyoming
Because how could it not make this list? USA’s first national park, and by far the most unique. In a comparatively small area, there are geysers and hot springs, waterfalls and canyons, mountains and valleys, lakes, rivers, and so much wildlife. There’s no one photograph that can truly encompass the majesty of Yellowstone, so instead I’ve selected a photo of my favorite spot in the park. Calcite Springs Overlook provides a little bit of everything. From this vantage point, you can look down upon the Yellowstone River as it winds through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Mountains rise in the background and forests surround you. On the near wall of the canyon, steam rises from colorful hot springs. And on the opposite side of the canyon, you can often catch a glimpse of pronghorn, deer, or bighorn sheep.
#3: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
An enormous volcano that’s covered with glaciers. That’s the short description of Mount Rainier. But a more accurate description of the highest peak in the state of Washington would also consider the ecosystem that the mountain supports. Multiple rivers originate from Rainier’s glaciers, while the base of the mountain is surrounded by a luscious rainforest. All of these features are protected within the national park boundaries and make for some wonderful scenery. The forests are green, the waters are unspoiled, and the mountain itself rises prominently from the surrounding landscape. A loop trail on the southern face of the mountain travels through fields of wildflowers and across lingering patches of snow, all while providing incredible views in every direction. It’s one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done!
#4: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Crater Lake is a magnificent depiction of the incredible power of nature. The lake was formed when the volcanic Mount Mazama erupted violently, blowing off the top 2500 feet of the mountain and subsequently forming a giant crater. Over hundreds of years, the caldera filled with water; Crater Lake is now the deepest lake in the United States and home to some of the clearest water in the world! But the other reason Crater Lake makes it onto this list is because of my experiences in the park. When I visited, I hiked down to the shore, took a boat ride around the lake, climbed to the top of an island in the center of the lake, and went for a (very brief) swim in the cold, clear water. Not an experience I’ll be forgetting anytime soon!
#5: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado
Sand dunes in Colorado. Not usually the first thought that comes to mind. But here, geology and weather meet in the perfect combination to form a large dune field that contains the tallest dune in North America. We climbed it, and it was the most difficult hike of my life. To be honest, I expected to be somewhat disappointed when I visited this park. I figured the dunes wouldn’t really be that large. But they are, and to top it off, they lie in the shadow of the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A very unexpected national park, but one that I enjoyed immensely.
#1: Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho
I’ve obviously never been to the moon. If I had, I wouldn’t be blogging about my earthly pursuits. But Craters of the Moon does somewhat resemble what I imagine the moon looks like. It’s very desolate. You can stand on a high point and for miles in each direction, all you can see is black volcanic rock and the mirage of heat waves. But a closer look will reveal the hearty plants that manage to find a home in this barren landscape. There are also different formations of volcanic rock, ranging from smooth and glassy to rough and full of holes. And beneath the surface are many caves formed by ancient lava flows. It’s very other-worldly. And I love it!
#2: Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah
I’ve never been able to pinpoint exactly why Cedar Breaks is on this list. But I’ve always loved it. It’s not the largest national monument – in fact, it’s fairly tiny. It looks similar to Bryce Canyon, but on a much smaller scale, so it’s not the most unique place I’ve ever been either. To be honest, there’s not much at Cedar Breaks that can’t be found somewhere else. But maybe it’s the fact that it is so small that makes me love it so much. You can stand in the middle of a field of wildflowers and look out and see the entire amphitheater in all of its colorful glory. It’s as though part of the hillside just fell off one day, revealing the reds and purples and yellows of the rocks beneath. And because Cedar Breaks is so small and relatively unheard of, crowds are minimal and the lack of light pollution makes for some of the best stargazing in the country!
#3: Washington DC
Yes, I realize Washington DC is a city. But it’s a city full of monuments rich with history and culture. I visited DC for the first time a few years ago, and I’m glad that I was an adult when I saw it for the first time. I was still appropriately awestruck by the Washington Monument and I still took lots of pictures. But I was old enough to actually learn about the people and the history that the monuments represent. I was old enough to truly understand the trials and tribulations that our country has faced through the years. And I think that gave me a more thorough appreciation for the importance of preserving the history and culture of the United States.
In reality, I could probably place every national park and monument I’ve ever visited on this list for one reason or another. Be it natural beauty, historical value, ecological importance, or just sheer magnificence, America’s national parks preserve the best of our nation, and I’m so glad these areas have remained protected for us all and for future generations.
Happy 100th birthday, NPS!