By Matt Meltzer
For many of us living in big cities, the sad truth is that the only time we remember there are parts of this great nation not covered in condos and fast-casual restaurants is when we’re Instagramming them from 36,000 feet. Which is also when we think to ourselves, “Wow, I wish there was a way I could see all that beauty up close and without a plane wing in my way.” Well, turns out, there is! And it’s called our National Parks System.
And as a reminder of the scope of America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty (and its 59-strong park system created by Teddy Roosevelt), we thought it’d be fun to take the 20 most visited national parks in 2014, add some glorious photography, and rank them in order of how much you’ll be blown away when you get there.
20. Hot Springs National Park
The top tourist attraction in The Natural State (fitting nickname, right?) is the 15th-most visited national park in the country, hosting nearly a million and a half visitors every year. And while the historic “Bathhouse Row” – where you can bathe in the healing natural waters of the hot springs – might make for a rejuvenating weekend getaway, you gotta admit it still smells kinda like Bart Simpson pulled a prank in the middle of the street. And for that, it’s number 20.
19. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Is anyone surprised that a national park with the same name as a river that once caught fire includes an old Superfund site? And we’re not talking about the former location of the Richfield Coliseum, which housed the perpetually toxic Cleveland Cavaliers, although it’s actually in the park too. No, we’re talking about the old Krejci dump. But why focus on 47 acres of toxic waste, when the CVNP boasts 33,000 acres (!!) of gorgeous waterfalls, caves, biking/horse trails, and historic sections of the Ohio and Erie canal.
18. Badlands National Park,
The only National Park so awesome Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it (that’s what that song is about, right?) is also the place where you’re most likely to find ancient dinosaur bones. The 28-37 million-year-old fossil deposits make this one of the most treasured archaeological sites in America. Although if fossils aren’t your thing, perhaps unusual rock formations and sprawling prairies full of bison and bighorn sheep are, ‘cause the Badlands has those too.
17. Haleakala National Park
If “climbing an active volcano” is at the top of your bucket list, well, it probably shouldn’t be – since, ya know, it involves climbing an ACTIVE VOLCANO. But if you still insist, the 10,023-foot Haleakala Mountain in the southeastern part of Maui Island is your spot. It’s got tons of hiking trails that are open to the public, and is home to more endangered species than any other U.S. park.
16. Olympic National Park
Credit: Flickr/Ralph Arvesen
We’d like to think this is the fifth-most-visited national park in the nation for reasons other than the fact that it borders the Twilight fan-mecca that is Forks, Wash. Like, oh, maybe because it contains the ONLY temperate rainforest in the contiguous U.S., plus active tide pools and the Olympic Mountain range. But that’s probably just a bonus for people coming to see La Push.
15. Rocky Mountains National Park
Credit: Flickr/Dave Soldano
No, this park doesn’t encompass the ENTIRE Rocky Mountains, but rather a 415-square-mile section of the Colorado Front Range. Split by the Continental Divide, it’s almost two parks in one; the western side is the green paradise of vegetation, while the eastern half is the arid, mountainous region. In addition to encompassing 150 lakes and 359 hiking trails, RMNP’s also a peak bagger’s paradise – there are over 60 mountains taller than 12,000 feet.
14. Acadia National Park
The oldest national park east of the Mississippi (and the largest tourist attraction in Maine), Acadia is by far one of the most picturesque spots in all the land, offering spectacular panoramic views of Somes Sound, Frenchman Bay, the Porcupine Islands, and Bar Harbor from the top of Cadillac Mountain. Located on Mount Desert Island, the park offers beaches, campgrounds, and 125 miles of hiking trails.
13. Arches National Park
Give whoever named this park credit: they didn’t mince words. This 120 square miles national treasure outside Moab is all about arches, 2,000 of ‘em in fact. All formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion. The most famous is the Delicate Arch, a 65-footer that you might recognize from playing the license plate game – it’s on the Utah tag.
12. Sequoia National Park
Credit: Flickr/John Fowler
If you ever wondered what your pet iguana feels like when he looks up at you, visit the second-oldest national park in America. Here, outside Visalia, Calif., not only can you look up at the biggest tree in the world (the 275-foot-tall, 60-foot-wide General Sherman) but also at five of the 10 largest trees IN THE WORLD. They’re not easy to get to though: 84% of the park doesn’t have roads, and is only accessible on foot or horseback.
11. Mt. Rainier National Park
Part of why Seattle has the best skyline in America is because of this snow-capped beauty that sits about 80 miles south of the city. And unlike its ornery cousin Mount Saint Helens, Rainier is a dormant volcano whose surrounding park of lava fields have been covered with vibrant vegetation, waterfalls, old-growth forests, and 25 glaciers. In addition, some of the best climbers in the world use the 14,000-foot peak to practice for Everest, as the conditions at Rainier are the closest you’ll find to the Himalayan hill in the contiguous U.S.
10. Grand Teton National Park
Credit: Flickr/Frank Kovalchek
The massive peaks of the Teton Range are the emblematic symbol of this park, which also includes Jackson Hole and the signature 13,775-foot Grand Teton mountain for which the park is named. GTNP measures 485 square miles and welcomes 2.7 million visitors each year.
9. Joshua Tree National Park
Credit: Flickr/Daniel Peckham
If you’ve ever found yourself in the bro-iest neighborhood in America and thought, “I wonder where Joshua Tree WEST is?” – well, this is it. The park draws just as many bros but admittedly, more of the rock-climbing variety since it boasts perhaps the best collection of faces in the U.S. The nearly 800,000-acre park also has 501 archaeological sites, and is home to the lower Coachella Valley.
8. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee, North Carolina
Credit: Flickr/Tom Bricker
The most visited park in America spans four counties across two states, and runs through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Accessible from both Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Cherokee, N.C, the park has over 1,660 kinds of flowering plants – more than any other national park in the country. Its highest point is Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck allows visitors to soak in some spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding beauty.
7. Glacier National Park
Credit: Flickr/Mark Stevens
Glacier is another park whose name tells you everything you need to know. The mountains and lakes were formed by glaciers and make for possibly the best scenery of its kind in the United States… and in Canada! That’s right, this park is so spectacular that it stretches to British Columbia and Alberta – spanning over a million acres between the two countries. And, even with global warming and all, there are still 25 active glaciers on park land.
6. Bryce Canyon National Park
Credit: Flickr/faungg’s photos
Technically, Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon, but a collection of naturally formed amphitheaters. But since “Bryce Collection of Amphitheaters” sounds like chain of corporate-owned music venues – and doesn’t look as good on a postcard – these natural geological formations that sit a mile high are referred to as a canyon. Every year, this park hosts a four-day astronomy festival where stargazers are rewarded for their trip to the desert with some insane views of the skies.
5. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Credit: Flickr/Howard Ignatius
Not to be outdone by its Hawaiian counterpart at Haleakala, this 500-square-mile park has not one, but TWO active volcanoes, including one of the world’s most active, Kilauea. However, lava fields and eruptions from one of the world’s most active subaerial volcanoes, Mauna Loa, make this park a major worldwide geologic research site.
4. Zion National Park
Credit: Flickr/Jim Trodel
No, you won’t find Morpheus, Trinity, or Neo walking around anywhere. That Zion was fake. This one, however, is a very real 15-mile canyon that sits at the crossroads of the Mojave desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin. What that means is you’ll find red rocks next to tropical waterfalls next to sprawling deserts, as well as species of wildlife that don’t typically cohabitate. If you don’t like all that dry desert heat, you can enjoy this park from the comfort of a free air-conditioned shuttle.
3. Grand Canyon National Park,
Definitely the most recognizable national park in America, the Grand Canyon is a lot more than just a big hole in the ground. Sure, you can make the daylong trek to the North or South Rim, soak it all in from the Skywalk observation deck, and spend the rest of the day figuring out what to do in the middle of the desert. Or, you can take a two-day hike from the top to the bottom (bring tons of water!!!), hop a mule so that you don’t have to carry said tons of water, or even raft some of the world’s most challenging rapids on the Colorado River – just be sure to book that trip WELL in advance.
2. Yosemite National Park
Drought? What drought? It’s hard to think of any “water shortage” when you’re staring at the 2,425-foot-tall Yosemite Falls, or any of the other waterfalls for which this park is famous. Then again, Yosemite also offers visitors giant sequoias, behemoth glaciers, and destination hikes like El Capitan and Half Dome.
1. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
Credit: Flickr/Esther Lee
Not only was it the inspiration for Yogi Bear’s Jellystone (as if that wasn’t enough), but the nation’s oldest national park – which spans three states – is also home to Old Faithful, the legendary geyser that was discovered in 1870 and erupts every 35-120 minutes. The park also boasts the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring, the largest hot spring in America, and over 3,400 square miles of wilderness. Plus, like, a million chances to see buffalo and bears up close.
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