The National Park system is America’s greatest contribution to the world. The first National Park in the world, Yellowstone, was set aside by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872 for the enjoyment of future generations.
The idea spread. There are 58 National Parks in the U.S. alone and 1,842 worldwide and continues to grow each year.
Below are five National Parks (or Monuments) in the American West. I’ve chosen not to include the Grand Canyon because everyone knows about it (and in my opinion is somewhat overrated).
#1. Bryce Canyon National Park; Topic, Utah
Bryce Canyon is simply one-of-a-kind. Nowhere else can you find a giant canyon filled with strange, bright orange rocky outcrops. The outcrops (called hoodoos) are shaped like totem poles and rise from five feet up to a ten story building.
You can enjoy Bryce in relative peace. Over five million people flock to the Grand Canyon each year. Bryce Canyon, on the other hand, receives just over one million people, and offers a wider selection of hiking trails.
What to see: Pick up a map at the visitors center and walk down to the canyon floor. There are many interconnecting trails which bring up close to the hoodoos.
Another popular attraction at Bryce is star-gazing. Each night there is a free ranger-led astronomy class, and afterwards you’re encouraged to look through their powerful telescopes. This should not be missed: due to its remote location and high elevation, Bryce Canyon has some of the clearest skies in the world.
photo credit: fortherock
#2. Zion National Park; Springdale, Utah
Zion National Park is just a two hour drive from Bryce. But don’t let the distance fool you: they are wildly different in terms of geology, wildlife and attractions.
Zion is Utah’s oldest and most popular National Park. Spend a few days enjoying its collection of rivers, canyons and hikes and you’ll understand why.
What to see: Zion offers two excellent day hikes. The first is Angel’s Landing, a five mile (8km) round trip hike which takes between 3 – 5 hours. It’s a strenuous hike, made all the more so as you climb to the top.
The final leg is mentally taxing. As you reach the top, you walk along an oh-so-narrow sandstone fin, with 1,500 foot drops all around you. The views here of Zion Canyon are the best in the park.
The second day hike is the complete opposite. The Narrows – one of the most amazing hikes in America – winds through a slot canyon. You’ll be wading through the Virgin River during most of this hike (the full hike is 13 miles (20 km) though most people just hike the first few).
The water ranges from ankle deep to chest high. Depending on when you visit, you may have to swim a bit. Waterproof everything before you go!
Keep in mind Zion National Park gets very hot between June – September. If visiting during these months, consider hiking Angel’s Landing first thing in the morning, and hit the Narrows to cool off.
photo credit: fortherock
#3. Monument Valley; Navajo Nation Park, Utah
Monument isn’t a National Park. Technically speaking, it’s not even part of the U.S. (it’s owned and operated by the Navajo Nation).
Regardless, Monument Valley is an incredible collection of sandstone buttes – some standing as high as 1,000 feet (300m) – along the Utah/Arizona border.
What to see: While most people merely stop off the highway for a quick view, I highly recommend you hire a Navajo guide for an overnight stay in the valley. They drive you through the valley and let you approach each of the buttes up close.
Monument Valley is indeed beautiful, but it’s how it feels that really stands out. Some places in the world have a certain energy – such as the Great Pyramid at Giza or Easter Island – which cannot be accurately described. You simply have to experience it yourself.
photo credit: emilio labrador
#4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
With 117 caves to explore, Carlsbad Caverns can keep you busy for a long time. If you decide check them out on your own, remember to bring comfortable walking shoes and a high quality flashlight.
What to see: The Big Room is Carlsbad’s most popular attraction. There are two ways to access the cave: the Big Room Route (which takes you underground via an elevator) and the Natural Entrance Route which, unsurprisingly, lets you walk into the cave.
If you arrive in the morning or early afternoon, take the Natural Entrance Route into the cave, then take the elevator out.
At sunset, over 400,000 Mexican free-tail bats emerge for their nightly feeding. Sit outside the main cave entrance and watch this incredible daily routine.
photo credit: bensonk42
#5. Yosemite National Park; Yosemite, California
Yosemite is affectionately known as a Crown Jewel of the National Park System, and rightfully so. It’s the second oldest National Park (behind Yellowstone) though it was first set aside by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
Most people visit Yosemite Valley for its iconic Half Dome – a large granite dome cut in half by glaciers – and Yosemite Falls.
What to see: Hiking Half Dome is a full day, strenuous hike. The final climb requires handrails to pull yourself to the top. It’s stressful for many, but the rewards are worth it: spectacular views of the entire valley spread out before you.
If you have an extra couple days, head out to Tuolumne Meadows (an hour drive from the valley). It’s a collection of sub-alpine meadows, rivers and granite domes to hike or climb. There are plenty of day hikes, or you can hike 27 miles (43km) back down to Yosemite Valley.
(Note: Tuolumne is only open during the summer months; it’s completely snowed in during the other eight months a year.)
photo credit: Nimish Gogri
These five National Parks are among the best in the U.S. You can see all five in as little as a two week road trip (though three weeks is better). Your best bet is to purchase a National Parks Annual Pass ($80) which lets you visit as many National Parks in a year for one price.