- A holiday in the US offers the opportunity to experience the Great Outdoors in all its splendour
- US national parks allow millions of visitors to enjoy sweeping vistas, unforgettable terrains, natural wonders, and amazing wildlife
- From Yosemite to the Great Smoky Mountains – here are 10 must-see national parks in the US
There are 61 national parks in the US, areas of outstanding natural beauty that entice more than 300 million visitors each year with their dramatic landscapes, wildlife and wilderness. From Yellowstone to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon to the Grand Teton, holidays in the USA are all the more memorable when you experience the Great Outdoors.
Top 10 US national parks
Kicking off our US national parks list is Yellowstone, America’s first and finest nature reserve that spreads across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Not only can you see amazing wildlife in the park – grizzly bears, black bears, elk and bison – Yellowstone is renowned for its many geysers. Old Faithful is the most famous, but the most photographed is the Grand Prismatic Spring that’s a rainbow of colours due to the heat-loving bacteria that thrive in the warm mineral-rich water. It is at its most vivid between May and September.
Yosemite, in California’s Mariposa County, is one of the most beautiful national parks in the United States. Home to soaring granite rock formations, mighty waterfalls and giant sequoias – the world’s biggest and oldest tree. Visitors can soak up the spectacular scenery while hiking, swimming, cycling, rafting or horse riding. Open 24 hours a day, it’s worth considering exploring the park later in the day when, during the summer, the temperature drops and crowds disperse. The evening shadows make Yosemite all the more magical.
Approximately six million international visitors spend time in the Grand Canyon National Park every year, and more are expected to arrive in 2019 as the UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrates 100 years since its designation as a national park. Located in Arizona, the Grand Canyon itself is one of the most remarkable gorges in the world. Its layered bands of red rock reveal the geological history of the past two billion years. The South Rim is the most popular accessible route and offers fantastic vistas of the Colorado River.
Straddling the Tennessee/North Carolina border, there’s plenty to see in the most visited national park in the US – the Great Smoky Mountains. There’s the chance to spot a black bear (though don’t get too close) and see remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. However, it’s the area’s vegetation that sets it apart from other US national parks. The variation in geology, elevation and rainfall provides the perfect habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants, as well as 100 native shrubs and 100 native tree species such as the red maple and American basswood. As you’d expect, autumn is a strikingly colourful season for a visit.
The Rocky Mountain National Park, in northern Colorado, spans over 265,00 acres of pristine wilderness, making it one of the biggest national parks in the US. Traversing the 48-mile-long Trail Ridge Road (open late May to mid-October), which peaks at over 3,650 metres, is like being on top of the world. People flock to the Rockies to climb magnificent mountains, trek near thundering waterfalls and look out for unique species of birds – the white-tailed ptarmigan is an inhabitant. A circular walk around scenic Bear Lake will also thrill.
One of the US national parks located by the coast, Acadia National Park protects the natural beauty of the high rocky headlands along the Atlantic Sea. While keen walkers come to the park to take advantage of its 158 miles of hiking trails, many of its annual 3.3 million visitors board a boat to go in search of the seals, dolphins and whales that reside in the waters near Mount Desert Island. Head further to Machias Seal Island in the summer to see Atlantic puffins.
USA escorted tours around the country’s great national parks may take you to Mesa Verde, the only national park exclusively devoted to Native American archaeological remains. Here you can marvel at intriguing mud-brick buildings that were the former dwellings of the Anasazi, a civilisation of people who lived in the area between AD 600 and AD 1300. Guided walks around the curious Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House are usually available from May to October.
There’s something incredibly serene about Grand Teton National Park, found in northwest Wyoming. Although the Teton mountain range is small in comparison to those found in other USA national parks, their abrupt sharp-edged peaks are visually awe-inspiring, especially if you can spend a full day in the area and see them change colour as the sun rises and sets. One of the best 360-degree views is from the top of Signal Mountain summit. The best scenic drive is Teton Park Road. Look out for moose in the meadows.
Peregrine falcons, California condors, desert bighorns and ringtail cats are just some of the wildlife you may encounter at Zion National Park in Utah. Over 290 species of birds and around 80 mammal species live here, seemingly relishing the vast wilderness. Zion’s landscape is filled with rainbow-coloured rock layers and its deep, twisting canyons and tumbling Virgin river combine to create an arresting sight. The six-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive through the national park’s centre passes its most impressive landmark – the Great White Throne – and is a memorable road adventure.
The biggest national park in the US, Wrangell-St Elias in Alaska is the equivalent size of six Yellowstone national parks and can be simply described as incredible. With an abundance of high peaks, massive glaciers and some of the largest volcanoes in North America, visitors are blown away by the park’s immense scale and its rugged beauty. Noteworthy as playing a historic role in early 20th-century copper mining, the appropriately named Copper Center Visitor Centre should be your first port of call. There is no entrance fee to the park.
Plan your visit to the best US national parks
On an escorted tour of the Great National Parks of the Western USA, you can explore the Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone and Mesa Verde, and also enjoy guided tours at the iconic Mount Rushmore, the legendary gold rush town of Deadwood and Cody, a town named after the Wild West’s Buffalo Bill. Arches National Park is on the itinerary too, and with its Mars-like, colourful topography it is a photographer’s paradise.
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