Not a comprehensive guide but rather a springboard for inspiring your next adventure.
The purpose of this article is less aimed at sharing a personal tale and is instead designed to provide a quick glimpse into each National Park contained within the Lower 48 states. In no way is this to be considered a fully comprehensive guide to any single one of these forty-seven parks. Nor is this to be a slight to the Parks in Alaska, Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands, or American Samoa. This is more just a crash course for those found in the Lower 48.
Ok so lets be honest, if you are anything like me, sometimes a picture is all you need to ignite a spark of inspiration. So hopefully, for anyone who is interested in exploring more of the United States' National Parks, let this be a stepping stone to learning more about them and even as a source of inspiration to visit them, maybe yourselves. Hell, before I had the opportunity to Spend a Year Alone in the Wilderness of the National Parks, I hadn't even heard of most of these places. In fact, before my journey, I had really only heard of the big shots - you know, Yosemite, Glacier, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, etc. But it was those lesser-known ones like Isle Royale, Voyageurs, Great Basin, Channel Islands, etc. that would have otherwise remained regrettably ignored. Throughout that journey, I would quickly come to realize that notoriety and a park's "brand" value had little influence on the experiences guaranteed in any one park.
Anyway, to avoid my habitual tendency to labor on, I'll get to the point. Behold! I present the National Parks of the Lower 48...and in no particular order. (Oh one more thing - my apologies for my backpacking-centric biases).
Glacier National Park - Montana: You better get there before its too late! At this rate, the park will have to change its name. Lakes, mountains, Grizzley Bears, perpetuating forests, sweeping vistas, and yes...Glaciers. Going in the fringe season allows you to explore an otherwise crowded park, in near-complete solitude. Beware of avalanches! While this park provides plenty of front country activities, the backcountry is a true wilderness, with both animals and nature that are more than willing to take advantage of the amateur backpacker. This park offers the spectrum of activities for those seeking peaceful serenity to those wanting to scratch their high-adventure itch.
Yosemite National Park - California: You're not going to make me describe the awesomeness of Yosemite, are you? I mean, really. Who hasn't heard of Yosemite? What's that, John Muir? Oh nobody, because your famous quote about the Yosemite "mountains calling" is plastered on every single piece of "merch" these days? Ah! Ok fine. Yes. Yosemite and its mountains and valleys inspired my hero, John Muir's obsession, to convince our country's leaders to help further protect these national landmarks. It won't be a surprise to you, once you go there, to see how not little convincing was needed. The Yosemite Valley floor can host any and all walks of life. Casual marveling at the unparalleled beauty of this valley can leave even the most experienced wilderness elite dumbstruck. I mean Half Dome and El Capitan alone are reason to travel there. Travel into the backcountry with your bootstraps tightened to feel like you are walking alongside John Muir himself. But if you're going to do that in the wintertime...don't forget sunglasses. Take it from me. Unless snowblindness is something you're after that is... Check out this Beautiful Print from Yosemite's Glacier Point
Channel Islands National Park - California: How many times had this East Coaster heard of the Channel Islands before preparing for his year-long sojourn? Zero times. How quickly did it become one of his favorite places on the planet after setting foot on it? About 15 minutes. I am not kidding. This place is un-freakin'-believable! I mean, if you're trying to feel separated from society, taking a boat miles out into the ocean and then backpacking across an island that you ALMOST have to yourself will undoubtedly bring you closer to that goal. Instantly you feel transported to those books you read as a kid..being stranded on a deserted island but without the sense that you'll be stuck there forever...even though you might wish you could be. Now I know backpacking isn't for everyone, but if I had to recommend one place to try it, it'd probably be here. Though get an early start because the days can get hot. Not only that, but backpacking in the morning allows you to hike through the mist-covered island trails with the majestic sound of crashing waves muffled in the distance. Did I mention kayaking? Bring your own packraft or sign up for a guided tour around the island. If you're lucky, you might be joined by a curious harbor seal who will be your best friend your entire time in the water. Though be careful, because they tend to be a prime meal ticket for the Great Whites in the area. Don't say I didn't warn you. Either on foot or by paddle, the coast/cliff line of these islands cannot, nor should be, ignored.
Isle Royale National Park - Michigan: A 50+ mile stretch of unforgiving land in the northern limits of Michigan's Lake Superior. Merely reaching the island requires visitors to board sea-faring vessels to ferry them across the vastness of the Great Lakes. Might I recommend the Voyageur II. Unnavigable if based on looks alone, however, its steadfastness brought fellow adventurers and me across the cold waters unscathed. To those who want to dive deep into all the island has to offer, the Greenstone Trail stretches the full length of the island, and with its many side trails, you could create your own adventure each time you go! You'll be buried in a forest of the most vibrant greens and most supple soils imaginable. Occasionally you get glimpses of Canada from atop the ridgeline, so be sure to wave to our friendly northern neighbors. You'll also get opportunities to dip your feet into the cold waters of Lake Superior. Unlike me, if you are brave enough to jump all in, you'll get my instant respect. If backpacking isn't your thing, stay the night at the lodge at Rock Harbor and sit along the coastline as you listen to the lake lap up against the shore. Or take out one of the kayaks to explore its many internal waterways. I can't wait to go back!
Check out this Beautiful Print on board of the Voyageur II
Saguaro National Park - Arizona: When you think of a cactus, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it that type of tall cactus with the outstretched arms? Yeah, me too! Though my whole life had passed by and I'd never seen one like that. Thanks, cartoons! That is until I got to Saguaro National Park. These Saguaro cacti (also didn't know their names) are all over the place in this Clint Eastwoody national park. Day hike your boots raw, exploring these natural beauties. I even saw some folks riding horses along the trail...might want to look into that as well. The summers are going to be hot here, but if you manage to sneak in during one of the fringe season, you can treat yourself to a cool breeze up in the mountains, with sweeping vistas, cacti sights, and just the most beautiful and continuously changing landscape. Oh, and don't be a jerk by vandalizing these fantastic cacti. You might think you're cool, but pretty much everyone else will hate you...soo...
Grand Teton National Park - Wyoming: Not just a clever, albeit PG-13 name. This range of mountains just seems to pop out of nowhere. Almost as if one of the neighboring farms had accidentally sprouted an enormously tall set of mountains by accident. There simply does not seem to be the wrong time to visit this park. Catch the summer and experience the mountains in their perhaps most climbable form, or wait for the winter to add a bit of an extra challenge. Or don't climb them at all. You're not hurting my feelings. From a landscape perspective, this place really has it all. Mountains, forests, rivers, valleys, and sweeping plains. Its almost as if the park grabbed some of the best aspects of the other parks and put them all together.
Congaree National Park - South Carolina: Have you ever kayaked through a forest? No, I don't mean along a river surrounded by a forest, I mean THROUGH a forest. Well, if you catch this park at the right time (try early on in the year), you might be lucky enough to get there when the flood plain rises. Then you'd get your chance to actually kayak through the forest thanks to some of the cyclical floodwaters. Might I caution you against using an inflatable kayak? It may seem evident to almost all of you not to kayak through a flooded forest with all its poking branches on a balloon boat, but not all of us think clearly sometimes...like...my friend. Definitely not me. Anyway, this park promises boardwalk passage through the flooded forests as well. Stick to the higher ground to backpack deeper into the forest. But beware of the wild hogs. As big as bears but in a much noisier and meaner pack.
Great Sane Dunes National Park - Colorado: Ever play in the sandbox as a kid? Well, how about playing in a sandbox you could spend a week in and still not see every part of it? As amazing as this natural phenomenon is, it always seems SO out of place. I mean, you'll be driving along with the occasional mountain range passing by, and all of a sudden, there is this massive pile of sand. What?! I won't ruin the geology lesson for you because I don't want to steal the Ranger's thunder, but it worth picking their brain about how this pile of pre-glass got there. Just because these dunes aren't "mountains" in the traditional sense - you know, like hard granite towers - the climb up to the top of them is SO much more exhausting. Think of them being the poster child for the expression, "two steps up, one step back." That being said, every step (even if you've made the same one over and over again) is well worth the burning in your calves. There are several points on the dunes that are considered the high points once you walk past Medando Creek. The first one you approach - unoriginally monikered "High Dune" - is impressive in its own right but still not the tallest point. It is, however, probably the most crowded because it being the closest and all. If you want to reach an even higher point with the chance of being on top alone, walk a fair bit further to Star Dune. Once the sound and view of people is far beyond you, you'll start to feel like you're lost and alone in the Sahara. Not only do you have the pleasure of solitude, but you'll also be on the tallest dune in North America. NBD. Ok, you probably expected all this with a name Great Sand Dunes, but the park also offers many non-sandy trails up into the surrounding mountain- mountains. Also, if you brought along your rugged 4x4 vehicle, be sure to check out the off-road trails and let your Jeep feel like part of your backcountry experience with you!
Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona: I mean, do I really need to put anything here? By a show of hands, has anyone here really never heard of the Grand Canyon?... One guy? Ok, fine, I'll do this for you. Imagine a scar on the surface of the Earth so big that you can see it from space. A hole so deep that it takes several hours just to hike to the bottom of it. And at the bottom of this hole? A river that can be bright blue one second and dirty brown the next. Why not raft through you! Because you can! Again, the choice is yours to either peer across the canyon at its endless array of rich earthy colors or challenge yourself to hike the Rim to Rim (to Rim) trek. There is a whole 'nother world down there just waiting for you to explore it. For me, I like keeping my feet firmly on the ground, but you may want to ride a mule down...think about it.
Mount Rainier National Park - Washington: Ok, I might be biased by my love of the Pacific Northwest, so I'll try to look at this park from an objective point of view. I mean, you probably guessed what the main attraction of the park is based on its name. However, don't think mountain climbing or oogling is all you can do there. There are plenty of day hikes for all difficulty levels. Looking at the picture above, you can probably guess that I went in the winter...so therefore I can personally attest to the awesome snowshoeing opportunities this park holds. Also, if you have the time and endurance, you may want to look into the Wonderland Trail. It was on the top of my list of things to do when I got there, but the weather changed my plans. Its a massive trail that circumnavigates (is that only a nautical term?) the entire Mount Rainier. Going in the spring also helps to guarantee you'll see the jaw-dropping wildflowers too!
Hot Springs National Park - Arkansas: Even I had my reservations about this place at first. At first blush, you wonder, "How is this a National Park? It's in a city?" But with a bit more patience you come to realize that 1) The natural hot springs are an earthly miracle and 2) there is plenty of surrounding wilderness to get lost in (especially in the autumn...BEAUTIFUL!) But lets be honest, if you go to this park and don't treat yourself to a well-deserved hot springs spa day, then you are missing out my friend. Embrace your pruny skin and jump into the naturally warm baths and try to relax those long-exhausted backpacking muscles. You deserve it!
Joshua Tree National Park - California: If Dr. Seuss created a National Park, this would be the one! The landscape appears to be pulled right from one of his famous cartoons. The Joshua Trees alone are reason enough to travel to this psychedelic park. Often that is the main pull for the park, but if you are a rock climber, this is one of the country's meccas for such activities. The odd boulder formations are one of a kind. Beautiful weather, off-roading trails, rock-climbing, day-hiking, backpacking, and some weird nature. This park has it all!
Pinnacles National Park - Pinnacles: Aw cute little Pinnacles National Park. The newest member of the now 59 total National Parks. I better hurry up and publish this article before we get a new one, making this article obsolete. This former National Monument boasts acres upon acres of fascination geologic features. From the surrounding farmland and foothills, the jutting rock formations catch you off guard as they seem to appear out of nowhere. Explore caves that seem to be created by rocks tipping onto one another. Picnic by the lakes or hike up into the jagged peaks as you make your way along the ridgeline.
Acadia National Park - Maine: Thank you, Maine. Thank you! In my dreams, I had always hoped that a place like Acadia existed, and until I arrived there, this heaven-on-earth remained a figment of my imagination. (NB: Did you know you can only have a "figment" of an imagination and not of anything else. I thought that was interesting enough to share. Anyway.) This rustic terrain allows you to imagine yourself in an America during its early settlement days. The mountainous landscape weaves in and out of pristine shorelines and is blanketed by a ne'er disappointing cover of evergreens. Just reminiscing of this park puts me at peace. Tranquility at its finest. Though if you are looking for a true challenge, try to climb the park's seven tallest 1,000+ footer peaks all in one day (adding up to 14,000 feet in cumulative elevation change throughout the day). Though you'll need to start early if you want to have a good chance. I'm not sure if this is a "thing" people do, but it's possible...take it from me. Also, might I recommend starting your day and ending on top of Cadillac Mountain - giving yourself the chance to be the first person to see the sunrise in the United States if you have a boat...bring it. These shorelines are just begging to be explored! I wish I had a boat...
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park - Colorado: Seriously? Do you see the name of this park? With the exception of Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park, this place wins the prize for most epic name. The name isn't misappropriated either! This park does not disappoint and fully earns its titanic title. If you're trying to take a picture of the canyon, be sure to hold onto your camera nice and tight, or else you might drop it. However, if your steady-handed, then you should have a disappointment-less experience. You don't HAVE to climb down to the bottom of the canyon, but you might just want to. I can't promise anything, but I'd say there's a good chance you'd be the only one at the bottom. Unless this article gains traction, and people decide to heed my sage wisdom. BCOTG is not one of the more popular parks, but that is probably because of its less convenient location rather than for having a lack of activities to do. Hike along the Rim or hike to the bottom. No way to be disappointed with either choice. It does not require any technical know-how to reach the bottom, but surefootedness is absolutely required.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park - Texas: When I was in Big Bend National Park, I thought I had climbed to the top of Texas' tallest mountain. It turns out I was wrong. If you want to summit the BIGGEST point of BIG Texas, you'll have to go due north from El Paso and test your mettle on Guadalupe Mountain. Not unlike many of the mountains in the US' southwest, this tuft of mountains seemingly pops out of nowhere. And by pop, I mean SOARS. A fantastic mountain to climb that does not require technical skill, rather only determination. Especially if you are facing gale-force winds like some of us had to. I assure you the view from the top is well worth the windburn. And since you're up there, why not spend the night. There are several backcountry sites along the way that provide for one hell of a view to which you can fall asleep and wake up.
Badlands National Park -South Dakota: Probably because Goodlands didn't sound tough enough. The first thing I thought of when I stumbled through this park was what it must have been like for the first person to come across these geologic formations. There is this odd sense of warmth and cold you feel from these features. Perhaps it's that same desert-like quality of hot-by-day, cold-by-night type of feeling. You'll know what I mean when you go there. Just like so many of these parks, it seems to be like a hike through another world. The NPS does a great job of making many of the spectacular views available for any level of activity. To the disabled, to the drive-by visitors, to those exploring the backcountry. No view is wasted.
Zion National Park - Utah: The Mormons got it right! This place is heaven on Earth! Where do I start? I mean it's just not fair. Utah has some of the most spectacular parks in the country. Five of them, in fact. And consider Zion as probably the most popular. I'll start by mentioning that several Zion hiking adventures can be seen on my profile page here at The Outbound. In fact, many of the individual day hikes can be combined to make the ultimate Trans-Zion Trek where you can march through the consistently changing terrain...grasslands, towering red walls, lush valleys, and one of a kind natural phenomenons. If you have ONE day...I recommend either the hike up Angels Landing (foot confidence is a must!) or the Narrows! Two completely different adventures in terms of perspective. No matter how you engage the park, you will not leave the same.
Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming: Ever heard of it? This place is a ticking time bomb of an Earth-clearing supervolcano. For those reading this, I feel comfortable saying you probably will not suffer the wrath of Yellowstone volcano. Though you will not likely witness this catastrophic wipe-out, you can enjoy the precursor wonders that the seismic park has on display. Spectacular geothermal activity on an unprecedented scale. The Earth is alive here! Steam. Geysers. Boiling lakes. Oh...and the wildlife. I also need to mention that seeing Old Faithful in person brings full credence to the old adage of pictures doing no justice. When you're not mesmerized by the earth's rumbling, you can explore the parks less active (though no less extraordinary) backcountry. Beware of grizzlies. These guys can HAUL ass...a terrifying reminder of how powerful nature can be.
Lassen Volcanic National Park - California: For a less active volcano, let's move over to Lassen Volcanic. The shell of what was once a mighty volcano still commands this active landscape. Not quite as spectacular as the geothermal activity found at Yellowstone, but you can still witness the Earth's sulfuric aftertaste in its many sulfur pools. For those less interested in the Earth's underworkings, strap on the boots and start the long march to the top of Lassen Peak. For an added challenge, do the same hike in the snow! Regardless of when you summit the peak, the view will not disappoint. With views of the neighboring peaks, you will feel a sense of empowerment that is otherwise difficult to describe. Lets not also forget that you would be standing on an old volcano. And it looks the part too. The old blast crater can still be seen and with just a bit of an imagination it's not a far stretch to visualize its tumultuous past.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Tennessee: Each time I spell this park, I spell it wrong. Where is that extra "E?" Maybe I'm just dumb. Regardless of the state of my literacy, the important thing is to highlight what makes this the most visited park in the country. It could be its central-ish location in the East. It could be that it stretches across more than one state. It could also be that Clingman's Dome is the tallest point in Tennessee. Or it could simply be that this park is shrouded in awesomeness. That's right. That's not smoke that covering these ancient mountains...its awesomeness. Whatever the reason that makes this the country's most visited park, you will have fun discovering your own reasons.
Petrified Forest National Park - Arizona: Welcome to Ancient Mars. Yes. I am not convinced that this park isn't a to-scale replica of Mars. Especially out in the backcountry, the terrain is equal parts soft and tough. Underfoot, the soil is smooth and soft, but the petrified wood leaves an unmistakable impression of durability and resilience. The NPS did a great job of making the petrified wood accessible to all who visit the park...whether by trail or by vehicle. Even those interested in going off the trail can explore the backcountry for another worldly experience under the stars in a park that seems other than Earth itself.
Shenandoah National Park - Virginia: This park holds a special place in my heart. It was the last park visited on my year-long sojourn. Its also the closest park to my home, so in a sense, I kind of considered this park my Shire, if you'll permit me to nerd out for a second. But really, it kind of feels like you're safe at home here, regardless where you normally hang your hat. Walking through these historic forests allows you an opportunity to feel connected with an ancient power. I'm not totally loopy, but there really is this tangible power you gain from walking through these woods. The air is clear. The black bears are curious but respectful (as long as you are mutually respectful). The landscape is always different. Seasons change, and so does this park. Even if you had a lifetime to explore the maze of trails in this park, you could hike them once during the Spring and again through the Fall and feel yet as if you were in a completely different park. Plenty of campgrounds for Front country lovers and 100 miles of Appalachian Trail for backpackers to play around on.
Great Basin National Park - Nevada: A Dark Sky Park. Want to feel small? Look up during a new moon when visiting Great Basin. Your place in the Universe will never seem so insignificant. Want to explore further ways to feel small? Mountaineer your way to the top of Wheeler Peak and gander at the diminishing landscape below. Or meander your way through Lehman Caves to feel disconnected from the outside world altogether. Make no mistake; this park is far off the beaten path. If you arrive here by night, you might be surprised by the awesome force of nature before you when the sun rises. Located between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains, this park preserves one of the largest natural phenomena across the country.
Crater Lake National Park - Oregon: Would anyone be surprised if I told you the main pull for this park is the giant, crystal clear blue lake in the middle of a former volcano? Well, in fact, this time, the name does say it all. While you could backpack through the vast, sparse forests without wasting your time, you would be remiss if you lost a chance to gaze upon the park's namesake. If you are lucky enough to explore the park during the winter months, you'll get the chance to see how the white blanket of snow can boost the contrast of an already stunning landscape. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to peer 144 feet down into a liquid void? Well, Crater Lake boasts having the most crystal clear water, and the facts don't lie. Wizard Island makes a scenic home in the middle of the lake, but you don't have to appreciate the lake from the middle. Walking along the Rim or hiking to the top of Watchman Trail gives a commanding view of one of our country's most unique landscapes. Check out this beautiful print from along the Crater Lake Rim
Everglades National Park - Florida: Another appropriate name for this park? Mosquito National Park? No, that's not fair. I shouldn't speak ill of this un-freaking-believable locale. During the night, it is the mosquitoes you have to watch out for (putting it lightly), but by day, you better keep an eye on your fingers and toes...there be gators in them thar waters. Plenty to explore on a daily basis. Even an evening to spend on one of the many southern islands may be for you. I cannot urge you to bring enough mosquito repellent. It's not for everyone, but for those who are comfortable with discomfort, take the plunge and test your tempered mettle on the 100 mile Wilderness Waterway, and spend 9+ days weaving through the mirage of mangroves. I caution you to know your way around a nautical chart, because if/when your GPS fails, you're going to want to know read charts to avoid being eternally lost. #alligatorfood For more information on the Wilderness Waterway, click that thar link. Check out this beautiful print of the southern coast of the Everglades.
North Cascades National Park - Washington: Mountains! MOUNTAINS! The North Cascades National Park in Washington state! Jagged, pointed peaks that pierced the sky while dually protecting anything surrounded by their strong arms. There are points in people's lives that are so definitively altering to one's existence, and the experience of the North Cascades was, for me, so defining. Countless switchbacks, black bears, Bambi, emerald-like evergreens, and the ear-splitting crack of earth-shaping glacial movements were only a fraction of the elements that brought the North Cascades to life. Hiking isn't the only activity available at this park...paddling through the astonishing lakes may also prove to be an unforgettable adventure. Check out this beautiful print from the North Cascades along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Death Valley National Park - California: Lush, cool, and full of trees! SO much water! Oh, wait...I meant the exact opposite of that. Bring some water because it is redonkulously hot in this park. One surprise for this park was how unexpectedly diverse the terrain was throughout. Yes. It is hot. But its heat makes the park so unique. Another unique fact is that the park is home to the lowest point in the United States. This low point is ultra-interesting with its razor flat salt floor. Hiking. Rock climbing. Off-roading. Mountaineering. And...wait for it... snowshoeing? Yup, that's right. Climbing the ridgeline of Telescope Peak will put you through a grueling fight to reach the summit in the snow! Fun fact. You can start the day at 100 degrees and -200 feet below sea level, and within 24 hours, you can be sitting in the snow at 11,000+ feet. Check out this mystifying print from Death Valley's Race Track.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park - Ohio: Perhaps not what you would consider a National Park in the traditional sense. A sea of trees, swamps, and grass fields that dot the side of the meandering Cuyahoga River is what you will experience walking along the lengthy tow-path of the Ohio-Erie Canal. Keep a close eye to your left, right, and ahead of you because you will see a wild array of wildlife - from herons, snakes, and turtles. What you might be lacking in sweeping mountain views, you'll make up with your sense of walking through history. Be sure not to miss the waterfalls either!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park - New Mexico: Of all the cave system National Parks that we have, this was probably the best well-known one to me prior to my journey. In that, my expectations for this park were certainly high and quickly met! This park hits every mark that you expect a cave to be. I won't even try to spell the technical terms for all these cave features, but just take my word for it...they're there. But get this...this park also has a backcountry. No, it's not IN the cave, but once you get good and muddy in the cave, you can get nice and dusty in the backcountry. Try not to sleep on a cactus though...haha...only stupid people do that...ha..ha..err *facepalm
Dry Tortugas National Park - Florida: A castle in the middle of the ocean! How and why did this fortress of solitude get here? Regardless of how this sandcastle got here, thank God that it did. Whether you arrive by boat or floatplane, the park will marvel at every visitor. Crystal clear seas gives you the opportunity to see the exotic sea life - borrow a snorkel and goggles for free or bring your own. The history here is also not to be overlooked. Whether you imagine yourself as a prisoner or a solider keeping the seas safe. Either way, I sure wouldn't mind being a prisoner OR stationed here. My biggest regret is that I did not sleep on the island. That's it! I have to go back!
Canyonlands National Park - Utah: Where do I even start? First of all, the park is divided into three separate and distinct districts - the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze. In each district, you will feel as if you are visiting an entirely different park. One might send you on an epic 100-mile 4x4 adventure along the White Rim Trail. Another might afford you the chance to see unique geo features like the Druid Arch, while the other might test your land navigation skills in one of the most confusing landscapes in the country. Can you guess which district that might be? I cannot hype this park up enough. I have tried to be fair and unbiased in my snapshots but
...ahem...you might want to put a bit more weight in considering your visit to this one. Check out this rugged print from Canyonlands' White Rim Trail.
Biscayne National Park - Florida: BYOB! Bring your own boat. When I was last there, the primary concessionaire responsible for shepherding the good people over to the island chains was disbanded. Don't be discouraged, though. You can still bring your own boat to the islands. From what I've been told, however, the real gift of the park is found underwater. As is the case with the majority of our planet, the world under the sea houses an environment more expansive than our drier places. If you have a snorkel...bring it!
Arches National Park - Utah: You can probably guess how this park got its name. A podiatrist named it. Heyo! Jokes! Obviously, nature was overly generous with its willingness to bless this region of Utah with an enormous collection of natural arches. Just on the outskirts of Moab (a freaking awesome city that should be the subject of exploration in its own right), Arches NP does offer backpacking opportunities, but extra care should be taken as the environment is particularly fragile. Don't worry, all you hardcore backpackers, there are plenty of day hiking trails that beg to be explored. If you're looking for a place to sleep outside of the park boundaries, there are plenty of Bureau of Land Management spots to pitch your tent. Many of the arches, like Delicate Arch above, are increasingly iconic throughout the entire country, so you can imagine these sites pack quite a crowd. Its harder to get these locations to yourself, but that shouldn't prevent you from seeing them. It's a good thing that people are getting out and reintroducing themselves to nature.
Capitol Reef National Park - Utah: Have I expressed my Utah bias yet? It's not quite as strong as my blanket persuasion for backpacking in general, but this park hits both marks for me. It's not until you get the tires and the boots dirty that you really discover just how big this place it. Have you ever heard of a water pocket fold? Yeah, I hadn't either. If you want to see the earth fold over top of itself over a span of 100 miles than what better way to check it out than by walking on top of it. After you have spent a day exploring the Cathedral Valley, the orchards, and dark skies, you'll want to stretch your legs and explore the backcountry. There are no shortages of spectacular views from any point within the park. Chimney shaped rocks, strange black boulders, and a maze of 4x4 trails ensure that you will not soon run out of adventures.
Mammoth Cave National Park - Kentucky: Spookiest woods I have ever slept in...and I have slept in MANY. Honestly, I wasn't even expecting an opportunity to backpack in a park called Mammoth Cave, but I was once again proven wrong (I'm starting to get used to this). The pull for this park is obviously not the woods, but it would be a shame to pass them by without giving them a good walking through. I found the Fall to be a spectacular time to visit this park. Plenty of leaves to crunch underfoot. Hiking aside, let's move indoors for a second. Well, not indoors so much as underground. Can you guess how the park earned its name? You guessed it! A MASSIVE cave network. Explorers and cavists (word?) still have so much cave to explore. That just blows my mind. Maybe its time for you and me to strap on a headlamp, get our hand dirty, and crawl through and expand our underworld.
Redwood National Park - California: Quick, grab 11 of your closest friends, and go hug ONE of these trees together. I'm not kidding. Any idea of how big you think these trees are will not compare to the reality of their actual size. You could be hiking through the forest and think you've seen the biggest tree of your life, then BAM...theres an even bigger one. There is this sense of mysticism tied to this forest. I don't know what they put in the water here, but these trees are about as tall as a football field is long. And guess what, you can sleep right up next to one. Ok enough about the trees for a second...I'll leave you with this tip: Check out this epic Roosevelt Elk print from within the Park.
Sequoia National Park - California: Its the battle of the titans! Redwood Vs. Sequoia. Which will reign as the king of the big trees. I think it boils down to the age of question of which is better: length or width? What? Oh, get you're mind out of the gutter! While exploring the network of trails that weave through the Sequoia forests, be sure to put on your tourist hat and check out General Sherman. No, not the tomb of a great American warrior...rather the biggest tree in the WORLD! Yeah, your imagination will even give it respect when it sees it for the first time. Don't spend all your time in the more tourist-centric areas. The backcountry will allow you to explore the peaks of the High Sierras. Beware of mountain lions and big ol' bears...there are PLENTY!
Olympic National Park - Washington: I well-suited name for such a place. It is unavoidable to think that you truly are walking among the gods as you traverse the high alpine mountain regions of this park. However, be sure not to cut yourself short from the other two distinctive ecosystems located within the park's boundaries - the coastline and the US' only rainforest. The old-growth in these forests make you feel as if you are walking further and further back in time. An ancient environment. In the span of one trip, you can feel equal parts Robinson Crusoe, Tarzan, and Edmund Hillary. You won't feel like your in the same park from one corner to the next. I mean its a Rain Forest! And that mountain is called Mount Olympus! And are those sea stacks in the ocean? YES! All of that is here! GO!
Mesa Verde National Park - Colorado: Mesa Verde, Spanish for a "Whal..." Wait, not that? Oh...Spanish for "Green Table." The National Park Service not only aims to preserve our natural treasures but also our historical ones. Case in point? Mesa Verde. The interesting thing about the ruins of Mesa Verde is that much of its history remains a mystery. A Pre-American history I might add. Pueblo cliff-dwellings dating all way back from 600AD that is. When you go, just imagine how the country must have been before...it was a country. In fact, you might not be able to avoid feelings of spiritual transformation when you step where others had stepped centuries prior...without their own hiking boots or sneakers. Don't you feel soft now?
Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado: I know there is a lot that makes Colorado awesome. Though when I was growing up in Maryland, I always associated Colorado with one thing - the Rockies. Maybe it was all the Coors Lite commercials, who knows? For you, if all you know of the Rockies is an association to mass-produced light beer, do yourself a favor and supplant those ties with tales of towering grey mountain peaks, endless seas of evergreen trees, wild moose (meese), and an unforgiving terrain you will not find east of the park. With nearby cities and plenty of campgrounds, you don't have to backpack to explore Rocky Mountain NP, but you might just want to. Sorry its hard for me to hide my backpacking bias; forgive me. I will say that if wildlife spotting is your forte, this place has what you're looking for. In a span of 15 minutes, I walked through a herd of 30 heavily-coated deer, a moose, and a turkey. And that's not mentioning the majestic winged creatures that can be spotted. You'll have to go for yourself to see what you can spot!
Wind Cave National Park - South Dakota: Part cave, part expansive prairies, and rolling hills. This South Dakota park boasts its majesty both above and below ground. Of course, the name might suggest that all to see here is the park's network of caves that beckon further exploration. Though while you would be disadvantaged to miss the caves, the open wilderness of the parks above-ground expanses holds the park's muted glory! I mean, check out that Coyote above this text! Am I Right?! That guy was following alongside a prairie deer (technical term unknown) as if they were buddies and not enemies! Did I mention a buffalo joined them later? What!? Do we have any animal scientists in the building? Is that supposed to happen? Anyway, yes, the open prairies and rolling hills of this park are NOT to be missed. You don't even need to be a hardened backpacker to handle this terrain, so I encourage all to at least step foot out into it, if only just for the day.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park - North Dakota: Is there any way we can bring this President back? No? Ugh FINE! Well, since we can't bring back our President who spearheaded our national conservation movement, I suppose the next best thing would be to celebrate his legacy in a park named after him? The Buffalo-obsessed man would feel in paradise in a park such as this...where the buffalo roam wild and free among the beautifully painted buttes. While there are plenty of places to explore on foot, I also recommend the 28-mile (round trip) vehicular odyssey (the Oxbow Overlook Scenic Route - check out my adventure of the same name) into North Dakota's only National Park and namesake of the world's conservation movement mastermind - Theodore Roosevelt. A park divided, this is the scenic route that cuts through the Park's North Unit - the answer to its southern sister unit's scenic loop. Admire the route's numerous overlooks, all while imagining a personally guided tour by one of our nation's greatest conservation heroes.
Voyageurs National Park - Minnesota: Do not show up to this park without something that floats. Now I won't knock any of you who cheat and use a motorboat (because a family in a motorboat basically saved me there), but you will definitely earn some street credit points if you tackle this park the way the Voyageurs once did...manpower! *grunt* Grab a paddle and get out there! Load up the canoe or kayak and explore this wet park in an authentic style. It might rain...but you're tough, and you won't melt. Think of the hardened stories you'll get to tell when you brag to your friends about how you paddled through the seemingly endless waterways offered by Voyageurs National Park. Granted, you will certainly cover more area more quickly in a motorboat...but still. Just consider the alternative.
Kings Canyon National Park - California: Full disclosure: There is more to this park than I was able to explore. I mean, I could always say that about these huge parks. But due to weather conditions, I was limited in my exploration options. So that being said...how about I leave this one open for surprises to you, the mob. I will impart one bit of advice...check out the trees. You can't miss em!
Big Bend National Park - Texas: I do not have enough space or time to describe to you appropriately the breadth of activities Big Bend offers the adventure junky. In short, mountaineering some of Texas' tallest peaks, kayaking through otherworldly river canyons, backpacking among silent isolation, and off-roading through miles of awe-inspiring views that gives Texas its "BIG" reputation. The Chisos Mountains afford you the view to see our neighbor to the south. Heck, if you want to walk on Mexico, just kayak down the river and take a pit stop in Mexico. Disclaimer: I am not promoting unauthorized border crossings! I'm just saying you could! Have you ever had that dream where the walls were closing in on you? Well, you might have some dream PTSD when you kayak through the Saint Elena Canyon. If you are able-bodied enough and have at least a floaty...don't pass up this opportunity. Of if 4x4ing on terra firma is your thing, you will find no shortage of off-road trails in the expansive backcountry of this park. Long live adventure!
Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah: "Oh, I saw something like this somewhere else," said no one ever about the geologic formations at Bryce Canyon National Park. This endless array of hoodoos is unique world-round. A network of interweaving trails allows hikers to explore the bizarre and unforgettable wonder enclosed within these park boundaries. Walk on geologic masterpieces! Good luck trying to count the towering orange/white spires because you'll hurt yourself trying to grasp the vastness of their reach. If I had to vote for a Mars Mission training ground, this would be a top contender as well.