From the mountain ranges of Alaska to the watery marshes of Florida’s everglades, the United States has some of the most incredible National Parks in the world.
The history of protecting wilderness areas began with John Muir, 150 years ago.
Through his writings, “John of the Mountains”, Muir relayed stories of the west to the then predominantly eastern seaboard-based population.
Known today as the father of national parks for his early advocacy of the wild, the author, naturalist, environmental philosopher and glaciologist, was instrumental in having the spectacular Yosemite protected by law and designated as the first National Park in the US.
Today, the National Park Service (NPS) oversees 59 different park areas across the country.
Offering incredible diversity from the towering cliffs of the Grand Canyon, to the lakes and prairies of the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone, or the forested ranges of the Great Smoky Mountains, each park offers something unique.
Yosemite National Park
With 95% of the park designated as wilderness, Yosemite attracts more than 4-million visitors annually.
Known for its imposing granite cliffs, deep narrow canyons, waterfalls, clear rivers and lakes, giant sequoia groves and glaciers, outdoor enthusiasts can spend weeks admiring its many natural features.
Located in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite is about a four-hour drive east of San Francisco.
Bryce Canyon National Park
In the southeastern corner of Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park was originally settled by Mormon pioneers in the 1850s.
Named after Ebenezer Bryce, the area achieved National Park status in 1928.
Despite its name, Bryce is not a canyon but a collection of giant natural amphitheatres along the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
The distinctive rock features found in the park are known as ‘hoodoos’, thin spires formed by weathering and natural erosion over the millenia. The hoodoos can reach heights of up to 45-metres tall (148-feet). Balancing precariously, the rock formations come in all shapes with hues of red, orange and white providing a spectacular, changing display of colour.
Volcanoes National Park
National Parks are not just found on the US mainland though. On the Big Island of Hawaii, Volcanoes National Park is a world away from the tranquil beauty of a lush forest.
Volcanoes are prodigious land builders and responsible for the entire chain of Hawaiian Islands. Two of the world’s most active, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, are still slowly extending their footprints as the constant molten flow meets the cool ocean waters and solidifies into craggy rock.
The Big Island of Hawaii, is easily navigated by car. A fascinating look into volcanoes can be found at the Kīlauea Visitor Centre. Just a five-minute drive from the centre is Steam Vents, where ground water seeps down to the hot volcanic rocks below returning to the surface as steam.
You can take an easy hike to Kīlauea Iki Crater where it’s easy to imagine you’re on another planet given the incredible landscape that appears. The steam escaping from vents in the rock only adds to the bizarre vista. Park rangers offer guided tours most days, which can be booked at the visitors centre.
From flat, arid landscapes, to America’s largest subtropical wilderness, the Florida Everglades are an “International Biosphere Reserve”, a “World Heritage Site”, and a “Wetland of International Importance” and one of only three locations in the world to appear on all three lists.
While most National Parks are designated to preserve unique geography, the Everglades were declared to protect a fragile ecosystem.
The park area is an important reserve for various species of wildlife, most notably wetland birds, manatees, American crocodiles and the elusive Florida panther.
The optimal wildlife viewing season is the winter months of December to April when water levels are lowest meaning wildlife congregate around the limited available waterholes.
For the best viewing of alligators, wading birds and other freshwater wildlife, visit Shark Valley, the Anhinga Trail (at Royal Palm) and Eco Pond (one mile past the Flamingo Visitor Centre).
For the more adventurous, consider renting a canoe and paddling into Snake Bight (near Flamingo) or Chokoloskee Bay (Gulf Coast).
During low-tides, expect to see large numbers of water birds in the shallows and on mud flats. Nine Mile Pond and adjacent Borrow Pits (11 miles, or 18 km from Flamingo) are other popular spots.