By Hal Amen
How would you go about designating, managing, and protecting the prime wilderness areas of the United States, a country of 3.8 million square miles and many of the most spectacular natural features in the world? Despite the enormity of the task, the U.S. National Park Service has done a phenomenal job.
Americans and those who visit the U.S. from abroad have access to 59 different national parks, whose characteristics and opportunities, taken together, are more diverse than those of anywhere else in the world. From glaciers to mangroves to waterfalls to canyons to towering forests — if you visited all 59 of America’s national parks, you would have a pretty thorough understanding of our planet’s geology and ecology.
Many of these park names will be familiar to you. Some you may be hearing for the first time. But whether they see 10 million annual visitors or barely 1,000, all are worth a trip. Here’s some inspiration to get you planning.
Wrangell–St. Elias National Park
The largest park in the country, Wrangell-St. Elias (top photo) lies in a corner of southern Alaska, adjacent to the Yukon’s Kluane National Park just over the border. Its 20,000 square miles make for a whole lot of potential exploration; pictured above is a hiker on the Skookum Volcano Trail.
Shenandoah National Park (Photo: Brandon Atkinson/Flickr)
Shenandoah National Park
Encompassing a long strip of both the Blue Ridge Mountains and adjacent Shenandoah River Valley, this Virginia national park gets super popular during the fall, when leaf peepers arrive to complete the 105-mile Skyline Drive.
Yellowstone National Park(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Yellowstone National Park
The world’s first national park is also one of its most unique and well visited. The 3,400 square miles of Yellowstone hold geysers, mountain lakes, forests, river canyons, waterfalls, and many threatened species. Above is an aerial shot of the Grand Prismatic Spring, the third-largest hot spring in the world.
Death Valley National Park (Photo: Chao Yen/Flickr)
Death Valley National Park
Low and hot—Death Valley is home to both the lowest elevations and hottest temperatures in the U.S. But the landscape in this part of California is actually incredibly diverse, ranging from saltpans like the Devil’s Racetrack, pictured above, to snow-capped mountains reaching 11,000ft.
Bryce Canyon National Park (Photo: Srikanth Jandhyala/Flickr)
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce sits in southern Utah and features a massive collection of natural amphitheaters covered in rock formations known as hoodoos. Find this particular view on the Queen Mary trail.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photo: Red Wolf/Flickr)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky is surrounded by kitschy tourist towns and is the most visited national park, thanks to its location near the East Coast and free admission. Still, once you’re there, you can see scenes like this.
Grand Teton National Park(Photo: Sandeep Pawar/Flickr)
Grand Teton National Park
Named for the largest of its three signature peaks, Grand Teton National Park also contains lakes, forest, and a section of the Snake River. It sits just south of Yellowstone in western Wyoming, and together they represent one of the largest protected ecosystems in the world.
Great Sand Dunes National Park (Photo: Larry Lamsa/Flickr)
Great Sand Dunes National Park
One of the country’s newest national parks (designated in 2004), Great Sand Dunes lies in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Featuring the tallest sand dunes on the continent, backed by multiple 13,000ft mountains, this is also one of the few places in the country where you can try sandboarding.
Arches National Park (Photo: Joe Parks/Flickr)
Arches National Park
This aptly named park in eastern Utah, just north of Moab, is home to some 2,000 sandstone arches that come in all shapes and sizes. Above is one of the most photographed, Delicate Arch.
Gates of the Arctic National Park (Photo: Paxson Woelber/Flickr)
Gates of the Arctic National Park
As its name suggests, this is the northernmost park in the U.S., and is also one of the largest. Its predominant geographic feature is the Brooks Range. With zero road access, you have to hike or fly in, but once there, you’ve got pretty much an endless list of wilderness hiking and camping options.
Joshua Tree National Park (Photo: Dan Eckert/Flickr)
Joshua Tree National Park
The iconic Joshua tree gives this desert park in southeastern California its name. Fun fact: It’s larger than the state of Rhode Island.
More from Matador Network