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My Favorite National Parks of the West
It is no secret that I love the national parks of the United States. I make it a point to go to as many as I can each year, driving to most thanks to my parallel love of road trips. And after seeing so many impressive places through the years, I figured it was high time I put together a list of the locations in the western United States which touched me the most. The impressive natural beauty, peaceful nature, and uniqueness of these spots make them my favorite national parks.
As a disclaimer, it should be noted upfront that I have not traveled extensively in the northwest or Alaska. So, while I have visited the majority of the parks, monuments, and historic sites west of the Mississippi River, I am missing a number of parks; Glacier, Olympic, and Denali still escape me and would likely make this list if I were to see them. This list is comprised of the parks which I have visited to date:
One of the first stops in my book, The Drive North, was at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. I had never been in caves before, so I was unsure of what to expect. Although I had never experienced it before, I had feared for a certain level of claustrophia. It thankfully never occurred, since I was too busy marveling at all of the fantastic rock formations.
During my travels on The Drive North, I also stopped at Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota. Both locations were also incredible, but Carlsbad Caverns had set a lofty mark; I constantly compared the locations and how the Carlsbad Caverns had so many different formations compared to the other stops. And for that, I give it the ten spot on my list.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a national park from my home state of Colorado. But, it is not for that simple reason alone that Rocky Mountain National Park makes the list. It earned the spot with its incredible mountain scenery, opportunities for wildlife viewing, and amazing hiking trails. And for those reasons, it is always the first place I take family and friends when they come to visit me.
I drive to Rocky Mountain National Park several times each year. But with each visit I learn that there is so much more to discover and that I have only touched the tip of the mountain. I would like to brag and say that in my eleven years in Colorado I have thoroughly explored the park and could qualify as a guide, but I believe that to be a virtual impossibility with over 265,000 acres to explore.
Many people would be surprised to find Yellowstone National Park so low on a list of favorite national parks, particularly when it is narrowed down to only those in the western United States. After all, Yellowstone has everything a park enthusiast wants – stunning scenery, unique geological formations, incredible wildlife encounters, and so forth and so on. It is a virtual cornucopia of national park goodness.
Unfortunately, Yellowstone National Park is also bounty of tourists who, in turn, bring with them so much of the misery a traveler is looking to escape. I saw a great many wonderful sites and had more than my fair share of incredible experiences on my visit to the park, but I also encountered as much rush hour traffic on my daily commute. And it is for this reason that I place Yellowstone so low on my list, while also leaving off the Grand Canyon (top) altogether.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Yellowstone National Park is North Dakota’s Teddy Roosevelt National Park. Sure, the southern unit sits just off an interstate, thus drawing a fair amount of traffic, but the northern unit is an island of peace and tranquility. On the whole, the park receives less than 500,000 annual visitors – or approximately an eighth of Yellowstone’s traffic.
Teddy Roosevelt National Park’s scenery, the North Dakota badlands, is easily more memorable than its southern cousin in the Badlands National Park – the rough, rolling hills seem to have no end. The Little Missouri River, which runs through all three sections of the park, also makes it a virtual impossibility not to leave with a frame-worthy photo. And when it comes to wildlife, the park is jammed full of more favorites – elk, bighorn sheep, and particularly bison – than anyone could ever imagine.
Nearly 3.5 million acres make Death Valley National Park the largest national park in the continental United States. And with only about one million annual visitors, there is little worry about over crowding or traffic jams – and that’s even after squishing them all into the more moderate winter months, since the summer is simply too hot at 120F. So, with so much open space to explore, I quickly fell in love with Death Valley National Park.
Due to the heat, there is little in the way of wildlife. Those that do live there, though – like the salt water pupfish – are most certainly survivors. In general, the greatest of attractions are the history and stunning scenery. There is no shortage of either, as the area has been inhabited for approximately 10,000 years and the geological history goes back many of millions of years further; incredible formations crowd the park like traffic does in others.
When I got my first good look at Zion National Park, high atop a trail connecting a series of waterfalls, I understood that there was no question I would one day return to better appreciate the park. I had very little time available during my drive, so I was unable to give the park the respect it deserved. But, without a doubt in my mind, it was one of the most stunning examples of natural beauty I had ever witnessed – which was saying something after my travels to Antarctica and New Zealand.
It is a small area at less than 150,000 acres, and it can be crowded with more than 2.5 million annual visitors, so the key is to visit in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Places like Yellowstone National Park don’t always afford such opportunities, since much of the park can be snowed in and essentially inaccessible. But Zion, also receiving a fair amount of snow cover, opens up a little easier due to its southern desert location.
I will never forget the first time I set eyes on the Yosemite Valley. My jaw dropped and my head almost cracked open on my steering wheel as I slammed on my car’s brakes, thankful no one was behind me as I emerged from the tunnel. It was simply unparalleled majesty. It was grandeur on an elite level. And my eyes needed time to adjust to take it all in.
I would not consider my time lost or wasted if I continued to wax poetic about the beauty that makes up Yosemite National Park. After all, there is a reason it was the first parcel of land set aside by Congress; technically Yosemite is not the first designated national park in the world – that honor belongs to Yellowstone National Park. But, the distinction most certainly would not have been lost on the beauty that Sierra Club founder John Muir so loved.
I had explored stunning canyons, majestic mountains, and so many other incredible opportunities in the national parks that I never thought I’d find anything different. And then I arrived at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. Never before had I seen anything like it, lava creating new earth right before my eyes, and experienced so much variety. From driving through the rain forest-surround entrance, to arriving at the edge of the ocean and the Holei Sea Arch, I fell in love with the park at first blush.
The only disappointment I felt in leaving the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was that I did not have more time to explore everything it had to offer. Over 1.5 million people visit the park each year, and I’d be the vast majority of them spent even less time there than I did – only dropping in on the way from Kona to Hilo, or vice versa, to see a couple of the highlights. In truth, the park needs several days, not a handful of hours, in order to be properly explored – sadly something the average traveler to the islands can’t always afford with so many other amazing things to see and do.
I rarely become overly emotional on my travels, but I wanted to run right up and hug a tree when I arrived at the John Muir National Monument on the north side of San Francisco. I was overwhelmed with indescribable feelings of joy and wonder when I pulled into the crowded parking lot – all the while worrying I’d get in an accident as my gaze was averted to the lush canopy of redwood trees high above. Once again, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before, trees so huge they are measured as the largest living things on the planet.
Despite the difficulty in finding a spot to park, I did not have any issue with the crowds in the park; people spread out easily enough and enjoyed their surroundings in an overall peaceful manner. This made it obvious that it wasn’t just me the trees were affecting in such a manner, but every visitor to the national monument. And suddenly, through this revelation, I understood the importance of what writer William Stegner called, “America’s best idea” – the national parks.
The 1,000-foot-high walls of the Santa Elena Canyon dwarfed the river and seemed to wrap me in a warm blanket. I sat contentedly on a large boulder at the end of a short trail watching the Rio Grande roll by on the edge of Big Bend National Park. Deep in the heart of Texas and on the border of Mexico, literally where the river makes a big bend to form a notch in the topography, sits Big Bend National Park – as large as the Grand Canyon or Rhode Island, but far less noticed.
No park I have ever visited kept me in the here and now moment like Big Bend National Park. In every other park I visited I was looking to the future, to what was next on my trip, but in Texas I only looked at life in that moment. And when it was over, I looked to spending more time in the park. Sadly, though, all of the rooms were booked and I had to continue on my way.
I left knowing I encountered the perfect storm in Big Bend National Park – stunning scenery, small crowds, and a fanastic list of possibilities – and would likely never find its equal. But, it wasn’t all bad; I continued north on the journey to write my first book. And truly, Big Bend National Park was the impetus which launched me to the Canadian border with North Dakota on The Drive North.