I’m a little bit ashamed to admit this, but prior to this year, I didn’t have a real appreciation for our national park system. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Yosemite was always peripherally there, but my only conscious thoughts about that park were to avoid it in the summer! We did have a couple of lovely visits to this park in the winter though.
Boy was I wrong.
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Taking this year off to explore part of the United States in the RV has been a real eye-opener as to just how SPECTACULAR our national parks are. I have had the privilege to visit 15 national parks (or monuments) and as I write this we are making final preparations to visit our 16th national park in Montana!
I am still not a fan of visiting the more popular ones in the summer (which is why we did the Oregon coast for most of the season) but I can say, if you have ever thought about visiting a national park, get out there and do it!
I highly recommend the annual pass, if you plan on visiting a couple of parks or visiting for more than a week, it will pay for itself quickly. In addition, we have been pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of state parks and BLM-managed areas accept the NPS pass as well, bonus!
If you don’t know where to start, browse through the amazing parks we’ve been to, pick one and go!
Arches National Park
Located near Moab in Utah, Arches National Park has stunning rock formations, and you guessed it, arches. You are (nearly) totally alone at sunrise and early morning is a great time to do one of the numerous hikes.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
This park was a recommendation from our friends Esther and Jacob of Local Adventurer. They had just left it right before meeting up with us in Grand Junction, Colorado, and were impressed by its steep cliffs and canyon trails. We only spent a day here and because of the weather we didn’t do any hikes, but Esther and Jacob wrote a great post about their visit.
Bosque de Apache National Wildlife Reserve
We visited here while staying in Las Cruces, New Mexico. If you like to watch birds, you will love Bosque de Apache. There are thousands of birds. If you go for sunrise you can see them take off in magical flights around the water as they dry off their wings from a cool evening. I saw three bald eagles as well!
Bryce Canyon National Park
We visited this park in Utah in March and let me tell you it was cold, but seeing the canyons in the snow is spectacular! Bryce Canyon is also great for hiking, the sun is out in the afternoon but it doesn’t get too hot from the physical exertion because of the snow.
Canyonlands National Park
Just down the street from Arches (near Moab, Utah) Canyonlands has got something for everyone: water, offroad trails, hikes, rafting, and more. There are three parts to this park and I don’t think you can see it all in a lifetime! We saw a little bit of all three parks and know that we will definitely be back to see more!
Capitol Reef National Park
I was very surprised by this park, the off-road trail to Cathedral Valley still remains one of my favorites we’ve done all year. This is another very large park with so much to see, although most of it is best accessible with a 4×4. Capitol Reef has a lot of canyon trails and family-friendly camping. They also have something I haven’t seen in other national parks…pie! They have a living history area where you can experience what it was like to be a Mormon settler and taste delicious fruit pie from their orchards.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park
I’m not going to lie, getting to Chaco is not easy (it was quite a drive from where we were staying in New Mexico). But it is well worth it! I was so impressed with how close we could get to some of the oldest pueblos in the US. It is fascinating to see how much is still intact thousands of years later. There are great trails that will take you around and through the prehistoric village.
Colorado National Monument
We visited this park near Grand Junction, Colorado with our friends Esther and Jacob of Local Adventurer. It is a very small park that you can visit in a day. We didn’t have great weather, so we didn’t take a lot of photos, even though we tried. There are some great climbing rocks and hiking trails and an outstanding view of the valley.
Crater Lake National Park
Okay, this is one park where we need a do-over! I don’t have a single good photo because getting out of the car for more than 30 seconds meant getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I understand late summer and early fall are the best times to visit. The view is absolutely stunning and we will go back!
Grand Canyon National Park
This is a must-do park and a lot of people from around the world definitely make this park the park to see while visiting the United States. Given the fact that my parents live in the Phoenix area, we’ve had the opportunity to visit several times. We spent a couple of days there this year and enjoyed a beautiful, albeit freezing, sunset!
Grand Teton National Park
This is the most beautiful park I’ve been to and if I was ever going to live near a park, I’d choose Grand Teton. The mountains are stunning and the wildlife is manageable (in comparison with Yellowstone where it is just so much it can be overwhelming). I could look at the vistas every day.
John Day Fossil National Monument
This park in Central Oregon was quite impressive. You can visit the Painted Hills (one of three parts of this park) in one day. You should stay the whole day so you can see these magnificently colored layers of earth in a different light: morning, mid-day, and evening. If you can visit after a storm, it’s even better!
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument
We were really close to these mountains when we stayed in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It’s a newer park having only been designated as such in 2014. I am not sure what took them so long because these were some of the prettiest mountains we have seen. I loved the particular hues of green and brown they displayed at sunrise and sunset, breath-taking!
White Sands National Monument
Another park we visited while in Las Cruces. We were disappointed in not being able to do sunrise or sunset photos, but we loved the park. It was super cold given it was February and while we don’t want to visit in the summer, we think that it would be nice to visit in the fall and do a sunset walk with the rangers so we can get some good photos. Also, I secretly want to try sledding!
Yellowstone National Park
The big one. In Mr. Misadventures mind the best one! I never had any desire to visit here, but I was way, way wrong. It’s fabulous! We got to the highlights in a week, but are already trying to figure out when to go back. The wildlife is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. The geysers are a bonus. Yellowstone National Park is THE park to visit if you had to only visit one. In my book at least!
Hopefully, that gives you an understanding of just how fantastic the National Park System is. All of the parks above are in the western part of the United States, that’s only half the country! There are 59 national parks so there is likely something in your state, which is a good place to start!
Happy Birthday, NPS, here’s to 100 more years!
How about you? Have you visited a national park? Which one is your favorite? Or which one do you really want to visit?