When the Yellowstone Act of 1872 was signed, it was the first legal doctrine protecting an area of land as a “public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” After Yellowstone was passed, the federal government continued preserving land for the protection of its beauty, and in 1916 Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the official National Park System that we know of today.
His intentions were to ensure the enjoyment for future generations of the blossoming park system that was coming to be, and today there are 394 National Parks and growing, with numerous monuments and military sites protected by the National Park System as well. With so many to choose from, it’s hard to say which one is best, and perhaps they all share the number one spot in certain categories. The best way to figure it out is to explore them yourself, and to get you started here are 5 Fantastic National Parks to consider heading to first:
Arches National Park | Moab, Utah
Head out to eastern Utah to see some of the most amazing spectacles of geology on this planet. Almost literally a whole other world, Arches National Park is a red rock cathedral garden where some of the most unique formations grow from the Martian landscapes. Not only does Arches have arches, over 2,000 of them in fact, but sprawled out through this visitor-friendly park are pinnacles, spires, pedestals, fins, and balanced rocks. Because it is a desert climate, with temperatures above 100° in the summer and below 32° in winter, the best time to visit Arches is in the spring or fall. A popular destination for sure, but because many of the major attractions (Ribbon Arch, Delicate Arch, Double Arch, etc.) can be found right off the road, it’s easy to ditch the crowd if you put on your hiking shoes.
Olympic National Park | Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Open 365 days of the year, it might just take that much time to explore the near million acres of Olympic National Park. From windswept shores to alpine glaciers, Olympic National Park contains three separate ecosystems and perhaps the oldest section of forest still standing in the United States. Effectively contained by mountains and water from all sides, this gigantic peninsula of a park also has the wettest climate in the U.S. and contains one of the few temperate rain forests in the world. This Pacific Northwest area of land is so secluded that it even hosts its own indigenous animals such as the Olympic Marmot. Available to visit all year, expect some closures and small crowds in the winter and traffic in the summer. But with 910 different campsites, you might be able to sneak in despite the Seattle rush.
Redwood National Park | Northwestern California
Welcome to the groves of the old-growth. The trees in Redwood National Park have surpassed all of American History by a long shot and continue to stand tall today. With bark 8–12 inches thick, these massive monoliths can withstand certain levels of fire, which has contributed to their 1,000+ year ages. And not only are these trees old, but they are tall as well. With Redwood National Park containing the three tallest trees in the world, including the front runner Hyperion at 379 feet (roughly a 37 story skyscraper), prepare to be amazed as you strain your neck up to see the tops of these giants. Redwood National Park sees a lot of crowds between June and September when most schools are out, so try and plan a trip in the fall while the roads are still clear and leafs the size of catchers mitts are falling.
Yellowstone National Park | NW Wyoming, SW Montana, and Eastern Idaho
With Yellowstone being the first National Park, it should be granted that it is a special place for natural beauty and magnitude. And that same beauty and magnitude attracts over 3 million visitors a year, making for an occasional traffic jam or overcrowding. But with over 2 million acres stretching out between three states, the chances of finding some solitude are common. Stick to the 142 mile Grand Loop Road to check out some of the scenes from the roadside, including Old Faithful geyser and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Truly a remarkable piece of land, even from the road it isn’t unheard of to see the free-roaming grizzly bears, bison, and the occasional wolf as they go about their animal business. Yellowstone is open all year, but with limited access, during the winter unless you own a snowmobile.
Shenandoah National Park | Northern Virginia
Only 75 miles away from our nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park offers the east coast a retreat from the normal hustle and bustle and step back into our natural planet. With over 1,100 native plants, the foliage and forest of Shenandoah National Park massage the senses and lift the spirit. With Skyline Drive, one of the nation’s most scenic byways, bisecting the entire park, access issues are no problem. Driving along Skyline is an extremely aesthetic affair itself with the 35 miles per hour speed limit and multiple picturesque turnouts, but get out of the car in Shenandoah and explore the 100’s of miles of trail, numerous waterfalls, and dazzling scenery. Shenandoah is best experienced in the wildflowers of the spring or the turning foliage in the fall, but plan for possibly crowded conditions.
It’s not the case if you’ve been to one National Park you’ve been to them all. Each magnificent area of land hosts its own history, habitats, and cultural meanings. From the first National Park to rainforest conditions, and symbolic monuments of Mother Nature, every National Park offers its own unique life-changing view. So now the question is, which one are you going to visit next?