In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant established the first national park, Yellowstone National Park. Since then, United States’ national park system has preserved more than 83.6 million acres of land, including natural and historic landmarks in rural and urban areas.
These parks rank high on the lists of popular destinations, not just for Americans but for travelers from around the world. It’s a testament to the natural wonders within our borders — active volcanoes, steep canyons, mile-high mountains and dense forests — that so many visitors consider visiting a national park as a treasured American experience.
From north to south, here is a rundown of national parks considered “must-see” by many.
Eastern charm: Acadia National Park
Hugging Maine’s Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park was once the summer playground for the very wealthy, many of whom helped preserve the land that eventually became this popular destination. A bicycle or horse-drawn carriage is the perfect vehicle for a tour of the 45-mile carriage road system, but you’ll need a car to scale Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak on the East Coast. Whale watching is best from boats that can be picked up in nearby towns. End your day with an Acadia tradition: Tea and popovers at Jordon Pond House.
Geysers galore: Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park spans three states — Idaho, Wyoming, Montana. Featuring some of the most famous features of American landscape, the park is home to the majority of the world’s geysers. Old Faithful is the most celebrated, erupting in a boiling, 90- to 184-foot spray of water about every 35 to 120 minutes. Seasonal activities include fly fishing, skiing and hiking, and the ever-changing limestone travertine formations of the Mammoth Hot Springs provide a sight to behold.
Rocks of ages: Grand Canyon National Park
In Arizona, it’s impossible to miss the Grand Canyon National Park, which contains 2,000 million years of geological history. The canyon itself bisects the park: The South Rim is open year-round, while the less-developed North Rim is only open from mid-May to mid-October. Raft, hike or take a mule to the bottom of the canyon where you can stay at Phantom Ranch, the only lodging below the canyon rim. Bright Angel Trail is a well-maintained trail along the South Rim. For something more challenging — and breathtaking — climb to Toroweap Overlook on the northwest rim of the canyon.
Enchanting prairie: Badlands National Park
There nothing bad about the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, home to 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie. Covered by a shallow sea 69 million years ago, the area is a paleontologist’s dream, with new fossil mammals — like saber-tooth tigers —being discovered even today. Currently, bison, prairie dogs and bighorn sheep roam the plains and are visible by car, bicycle or on foot. The night sky is particularly fantastic, with more than 7,500 stars twinkling directly above.
Incredible ecodiversity: Everglades National Park
The flora and fauna that reside in the 1.5 million acre Everglades National Park in Florida are not found anywhere else on the planet. Called a subtropical wilderness, tall grasses are most easily maneuvered via airboat, where you can catch sight of alligators, wild birds and other native critters. Or take a canoe through the slow-moving river, keeping your eyes peeled for endangered wildlife like the southern bald eagle, Florida panther and the famous mule-ear orchid.
Letting off steam: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
With two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island is a hotbed of activity. Peer into the mouth of a volcano and walk through the Thurston Lava Tube along 150 miles of trails. Crater Rim Drive is an 11-mile, paved road encircling the summit of Kilauea volcano — perfect for an afternoon drive. Or take the longer Chain of Craters Road, which drops 3,700 feet in just 20 miles and may offer opportunities for viewing active lava flows. (Lava views are best at night or early in the morning.) Bring along drinks and a picnic lunch, as there are no spots for a meal along either road.