3 March 2016 by Patrick Griffin
The vision of 19th century artist, George Catlin, America’s National Parks Service has grown from humble beginnings, starting with just one park. The veritable grandfather of it all – Yellowstone – was once protected from poachers and misuse by the U.S. Army, a trend that continued to the second national park – Mackinac – whose army garrison was charged with supervising and improving the island. Over the years, this role has morphed into the park rangers, today the proud custodians of over 400 sites.
On August 25, 2016, the much-celebrated service hits its 100th birthday. To celebrate, its 127 ticketed parks are opening their doors, free of charge, for 16 days this year:
- January 18: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
- April 16–28: National Park Week/Birthday
- September 24: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
It’s also worth noting that MLK, Veterans and National Public Lands Day offer free entry each year along with a weekend for National Park Week and Presidents Day, the latter of which falls in mid-February. With such a range of dates on top of the hundreds of sites to choose from, we’ve compiled a list of the best national parks in the USA and when to visit them.
No park bucket-list could be without this national treasure. With its carpeted valleys framed by granite cliffs, it’s easy to forget that you’re in California, just an afternoon’s drive from the coast. Over 800 miles of hiking trails criss-cross its dramatic landscape, streaked with waterfalls feeding into crystal clear lakes. For the more adventurous, book ahead to summit the majestic Half Dome.
What’s more, Yosemite is at its most beautiful when it’s opened up for 12 days in April. Spring’s melted snow boosts spectacular waterfalls and ranging hikes take visitors past blooming wildflowers and greening leaves. However, it’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with all parts accessible in summer and autumn as well. Check weather forecasts around winter when certain roads and passes are shut and snow chains are often recommended.
Yosemite National Park
For something equally spectacular and a bit different, head to Mesa Verde where the ancient Anasazi people carved impossibly sheer houses out of towering cliffs, over 1,600 years ago. It's unique among the country’s national parks in its anthropological focus with dwellings immaculately preserved and detailed in the excellent Chapin Mesa Museum. Get hands on at Spruce Tree House with wooden ladder climbs bringing you into the settlements themselves.
Although the park is always open, avoid the scorching summers and look to the temperate shoulder seasons. You should also check ahead for the opening dates and hours of the park’s facilities. For instance, the aforementioned archaeological museum is shut each Sunday.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
This unassuming western state is home to five of the country’s most impressive parks. Perhaps head to the lush greenery of Zion Canyon, beset on both sides by rising red-and-white cliffs or walk among distinctive, almost alien, dirt-red spires of Bryce Canyon. Then there are the 2,000 naturally formed eponymies of Arches National Park – the densest collection of its kind in the world – and Canyonlands National Park where 1,000-foot high cliffs loom over the Colorado River. You can also hop over the state border into Arizona to visit the fabled Grand Canyon, the largest of its kind the world.
As with Mesa Verde, look between March and May or September and October for thinner crowds and temperate weather. For information on the excellent Zion Shuttle bus click here (opens as PDF), while, if you’re travelling to Bryce Canyon in winter, be sure to take a look at the road conditions. At Arches, the visitor centre is open year round, save Christmas day, while its Canyonlands counterpart is shut through winter. All of the above are entirely open year round save the Grand Canyon whose North Rim is shut for the winter with the more accessible South Rim kept open.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
With the collective consciousness focused on grand valleys and imposing mountains, Florida’s swamps, undeservedly, don’t often feature in people’s imagination of America’s national parks. However, dig just beneath the surface and you’ll find that the country’s largest collection of wetlands is a veritable haven for wildlife. Bright greenery is knitted together by intertwining waterways, home to manatee and crocodiles, making for exciting boat cruises.
This being the Sunshine State, you’ll find the park open to the good weather year round. While most facilities are open in the dry winter season – when the park is at its most popular – some close down for the wet summers when things get decidedly humid.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Return to where it all began with Yellowstone National Park where only blue-ribbon rivers and thundering waterfalls dare to make a mark on its mountainous landscape, dotted with lakes and covered in pine forests. It’s also a true record-setter, home to half the world’s geysers, America’s largest high-altitude lake and possibly its most diverse collection of wildlife. As you try to spot antelope, bison and elk be sure to stay on the lookout for bears and wolves.
The summer months offer the best weather – it’s warm enough to camp – and bring the most crowds. While park roads between the north and northeast entrance are open twenty-four hours a day, every day, heading further into the park in winter is often tricky with frequent road closures. However, you’ll find that plenty of weather-dependent cross-country skiing and hiking is still accessible.
Morning Glory Pool, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming