It’s National Park Week over in the USA – and with the exception of a couple of pretty awesome cities, the national parks are my absolute favourite thing about America.
Sadly nobody can visit the national parks at the moment, but I wanted to do a round up of the ones I’ve been to – I’ve been to eight!
When we started planning our American road trip in 2018, the focus was on national parks, and we managed to hit up six in our time on the road (I always forget that Monument Valley isn’t actually a national park, which I can’t get my head around for some reason). The other two I visited a decade previously in 2008 on a Trek America coast to coast tour.
In keeping with my last post, I’m going to put them in alphabetical order, because I don’t feel like I can fairly rate them – although I do have two firm favourites! Here’s the list of all the parks I’ve been to.
Arches National Park, Utah
I really didn’t have any expectations for Arches National Park, one of the smaller of Utah’s big five. I knew I wanted to hike out to Delicate Arch, and that was about it.
So when we drove into the park and were faced with monumental rocks and an alien-like landscape, I was gobsmacked. I really enjoyed exploring Arches, and it’s hard to take photos that do it justice because everything is GIANT. We were constantly stopping and looking up.
Because it’s a smaller park, it’s pretty easy to do in a day, even if you want to do some hiking.
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
I visited Carlsbad Caverns back in 2008 as part of my Trek America tour – I’d never even heard of this national park before! Unfortunately I hardly have any photos of it, as back then I didn’t have a camera that held up well in low light (and I wasn’t the great photographer that I am today, har har). Obviously, caves don’t have much light and most of my five photos came out like the one above.
What I do remember is it was incredibly impressive; by far the biggest caves I have ever seen, let alone the fact there are over 100 of them. Really cool!
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
There are a couple of national parks on this list that I’ve been to twice, and this is the first of them.
I visited in 2008 with Trek, and by this point on the tour we were knackered and when a handful of people in our group went for a hike, I didn’t join them. But we did enjoy the views and a stellar sunset, which we did again in 2018. This time, we walked all along the south rim (well, obviously not ALL along it) and also hiked the Kaibab trail out to Ooh Aah Point (I promise you I didn’t ONLY do it for the name!).
I also recreated a photo from my first visit!
The Grand Canyon is kind of funny because it’s so, so famous that you sort of feel it’s overrated. Ash had never been before, and to him it felt like a “we might as well go here” because we were passing, rather than “we are specifically going to this bucket list destination”. The second we arrived at the rim, he went, “…wow. Okay, that’s really impressive.” Again, it’s one of those places where I don’t think ANY photos do it justice because you can’t see just how astoundingly vast it is.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Oh, Grand Teton. Although it’s a tiny understated national park, I was really looking forward to seeing it on the way up to Yellowstone. Those magical meadows with snowy mountains in the background? Sign me up!
…and then the southern road into Yellowstone closed the day before we got there due to bad weather. We decided to drive up into Grand Teton anyway, even though we couldn’t go all the way through to Yellowstone so we would have to turn around. But we were faced with grey skies and practically zero visibility of the mountains for most of the journey.
We DID see a moose though! So there’s that.
If we get back to Yellowstone, I DEFINITELY want to come back to Grand Teton – all the photos of it always blow me away.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
On my Trek America tour in 2008, we were scheduled to spend a couple of days in the deep south, in New Orleans. Then a hurricane was announced. This was only three years after Hurricane Katrina, so our tour was swiftly diverted to Memphis, Tennessee instead (a sound alternative, I have to admit! Ha! Sound! It’s funny ’cause music).
What the hell does this have to do with Mesa Verde? Well, with the disruption to our schedule, we wound up with an extra day later on in the tour, so we took another diversion into Colorado, a state we weren’t even supposed to visit, and visited another national park I’d never heard of.
Mesa Verde is fascinating; an ancient dwelling occupied by Ancestral Puebloans, and estimated to have been used since 7500 BC! For a country that’s not used to a lot of history, that is mindblowing.
Even cooler? It’s built into the side of a CLIFF!
I think this place is really underrated because I’ve never even heard anyone mention it since. I met a couple from Colorado a few years ago and I told them I’d been there, and they were like “REALLY?! That’s amazing!”
If you haven’t been, this is one to add to your list.
Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite is my absolute favourite national park!
It is PHENOMENAL. If you only ever visit one American national park, make it this one.
The craziest thing is, I didn’t even know anything about it. I’d heard it was nice and I wanted to go, but it wasn’t at the top of my list. Even once I started researching it, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite as spectacular as it is in the sprawling valley or from the rocks above.
We did a couple of short hikes, but there are so, so many you can do. The waterfalls had also mostly dried up, so I am desperate to go back in the spring one year. But even without them, the entire national park is something pretty special.
And of course it’s California, so the weather is usually great.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana
…unlike Yellowstone. We’d already had the weather warning for Yellowstone, but it was only open for another two days before closing to prepare for the winter season, so we had no choice but to go.
In fairness, Yellowstone is pretty incredible. After all, it’s a geological phenomenon.
We drove through snow, we saw bison by the edge of the road, and we watched Old Faithful erupt with about ten other people. There were no traffic jams. It would be a VERY different experience in summer.
On the flipside, we could barely see the Grand Prismatic Spring amongst the steam, and we couldn’t really hike up to the viewpoint above it, especially knowing that we still might not see anything. We also couldn’t get along the road to Yellowstone Canyon, so we missed the iconic waterfall.
This is definitely somewhere we plan to go back to (in nicer weather!), probably from Canada the next time we are there.
Zion National Park, Utah
My second favourite national park, Zion is pretty small compared to other parks, but packs an absolute punch. In fact, I reckon the size:wow ratio of Zion is probably the best.
This is the other national park I’ve been to twice, and funnily enough I accidentally stayed at the same campsite both times!
Back in 2008, I was too lazy (and frankly not confident enough) to do the Angel’s Landing hike, something I have regretted ever since. Well, I did NOT make the same mistake in 2018!
Angel’s Landing is possibly the best hike I’ve ever done, and one of the most rewarding. I didn’t find it difficult despite its notoriety, but I do see why it has its reputation with the last half mile of chains and drops.
In fact, I went through my videos recently and found this!
Read more: Hiking Angel’s Landing In Zion National Park
Other National Park Service properties
Of course, it’s worth noting that the National Park Service looks after much more than the actual national parks (side note: I think I upset the lady selling me the national parks pass at the Golden Gate visitor centre, because I said the Golden Gate isn’t an “actual national park” – whoops!).
It turns out I’ve been to a whole bunch of their other properties, too. I didn’t even know some of them were run by the NPS, especially as some of them have free admission – or no admission at all, like statues and monuments – but here are some of the ones I’ve visited:
Oh man, I wanted to visit Alcatraz for so long! I really enjoyed exploring it, and learning about the fascinating history (and comparing some of the stories to Shawshank Redemption!). Definitely one of the highlights of our stop in San Francisco.
Golden Gate National Recreational Area
The feeling I got when I saw the Golden Gate bridge for the first time? THAT’S why I travel. That giddy moment when you’re finally seeing something in real life. We didn’t cross the bridge, but we did take a walk, and I was thrilled that the weather was so great – because it often isn’t!
Pearl Harbor National Memorial
A sad reminder of the events of 1941, this tribute was an important visit on our trip to Hawaii. There is a lot more to see than just the memorial, but it was eerie to see remains of the shipwreck of USS Arizona under the water.
The White House
While Lincoln Memorial is far more impressive than the White House, and is also (unbeknownst to me) a NPS property, we visited at night and my only photos are barely recognisable (see also: Washington Monument). The White House? I’ve got to be honest: I was completely underwhelmed. I do have an awful photo of me on the other side, but it was this side that I got a better photo of.
Statue Of Liberty
Another infamous American sight – I do enjoy seeing Lady Liberty in all her glory. I think it’s just so iconic that it gives me that feeling of “wow, I’m here!”. And I love it when something has that effect.
I have to admit, there are so many more US national parks I’d like to visit – we missed quite a few on our road trip that we passed or came close to, like North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Glacier and Bryce Canyon. All of those look beautiful, although it was definitely the wrong time of year for Glacier. We could have made detours to go to Olympic, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Sequoia (that one was high on Ash’s list!) and Capitol Reef. I’ve never been to the Great Smoky Mountains, America’s most visited park.
I am always amazed by the beauty and diversity of America’s wilderness. It’s what draws me back to the country as much as anything else.
I have a feeling it’ll be a while yet before anyone can travel there, but when we can, the national parks will be waiting!