Isabel Conway looks at the 10 most breathtaking National Parks to visit in the US on the centenary of the service found to protect them.
From vast wildernesses that shelter trees so huge you could fit buildings inside them to erupting sky high geysers and towering mesas and canyons deep enough to view two billion years of geological history within their walls, they represent some of the most spectacular and surreal landscapes on our planet earth.
The US national parks have been described as “the best idea America ever had” numbering no less than 59 majestic national parks and hundreds more state parks and significant protected landmarks throughout the United States.
Enormous natural boundaries, so expansive they managed to defy alternation, looking much as they did in the 1800s when an insatiable appetite to acquire land for buildings, farming and mineral wealth was swallowing up huge tracts of wilderness across North America, their survival is nothing short of miraculous.
Realising that Native American tribes and wildlife were in catastrophic danger, conservationists began canvassing support in high places to have such precious wildernesses legally protected and set aside for man and beast.
Over many decades the unstoppable surge of shopping malls, theme parks and ever more freeways has stopped short of some 84 million acres.
The National Park Service, which is celebrating its centennial this year, was created by President Woodrow Wilson, crowning a movement put in motion back in 1872, with a decision to protect the eco legacy of Yellowstone.
Among my top ten list of national parks are those fabulous places I am lucky enough to have explored: the Everglades (Florida) the Grand Canyon (Arizona) Bryce Canyon (Utah) Death Valley (California) ,Olympic Peninsula (Washington State) and Zion (Utah).
Four more national parks on my bucket list are spectacular: Yellowstone, Yosemite, with its awesome Sierra Nevada mountain scenery and waterfalls, Badlands and Custer Park of South Dakota and the gentler east coast beauty of Acadia national Park, New England.
They all deserve to be on your trip of a life time list also.
America’s first and largest national park, set aside by federal law as far back as 1872 is spread over much of Wyoming and smaller tracts of, Montana and Idaho.
It is made up of wild rugged terrain reminiscent of The Revenant starring Leonardo di Caprio.
America’s largest herd of wild bison roam it, as do elk, coyote, moose, wolves, and black and grizzly bears.
For wackier tours try snowmobiling in winter time, explore on horseback or back country camping with a llama ( www.yellowstonesafari.com ).
THE GRAND CANYON
Stupendous views and monstrous canyons and cliffs that are tens of millions of years old literally took my breath away last autumn.
The whole spectacle, stretching for more than 200 miles, can be viewed on walks and drives or by small plane and helicopters dipping deep inside the canyons.
More adventurous visitors hike or mule ride while thrillseekers may want to rappel or even bungee jump, admiring the palette of crimson, purple and orange cliffs and sunsets of unimaginable beauty.
On the doorstep of Florida’s famed theme parks and sizzling Miami we were gently paddling alongside a maze of Mangroves when my son pointed to the huge moving ‘log’.
A giant alligator had been sunning himself as we kayaked (somewhat nervously) past.
The country’s third largest national park is a paddler’s paradise meandering through mangrove swamps and freshwater marshes that team with wildlife including an estimated 2 million ‘gators’.
FABULOUS FAMILY FUN
Yosemite National Park, northern California was recently voted one of the 10 best child friendly destinations by USA Today readers.
Dodge the crowds by entering the park’s pristine scenic expanse of Tuolumne Yosemite gold country, 133 miles east of San Francisco.
Gold was discovered here in 1848 and the kids can try their luck at panning, ride a steam engine locomotive train that was in the movie Back to the Future or go on rafting, zipline and lots of other outdoor adventures through spectacular terrain. See www.yosemitegoldcountry.com
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
Travel only an hour out of Seattle (birthplace of Boeing, Starbucks and Microsoft) dominated by Mount Rainier considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, and you arrive in this pristine wilderness landscape of rare temperate rainforest, mountains, lakes and deserted pacific coastline.
Twin Peaks, Twilight and other TV series and movies were filmed here in the far northwestern corner of the US.
South Dakota is where the fast disappearing old west landmarks that defined native American culture still survive with traces of the pioneer era and where you can relive Custer’s Last Stand.
The bison pass five feet from your car and native American sites run for hundreds of miles through tribal homelands.
At Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills, the heads of various US Presidents are chiselled into the cliffs. Go fossil hunting (the world’s richest fossil beds lie here) or cycle along an old railway line called Old Mick, listed among the world’s 10 best bike rides. www.travelsouthdakota.com
This national park in Utah is one of America’s smallest parks at just 20 miles long but manages to be one of its most extraordinary.
Here bizarre Gaudi meets Disney as totem pole rock formations in orange sunset shades stretch as far as the eye can see.
These towering amphitheatres of oddly shaped monoliths known as hoodoos had a mesmerising effect as we hiked to a lookout spot called Sunset Point, passing other tourists on horseback descending a scary narrow trail.
A vast desert wilderness stretching from Nevada into California, famous for its searing summertime heat and ‘beauty’ spots like Badwater and the Devil’s Golf Course.
We feel lucky cosseted in our comfortable tour bus with the air conditioning at full blast and plenty of bottled water compared with those wagon trains of old, lost forever in this parched hostile desert.
Yet Death Valley’s lunar like landscapes are truly seductive, with eccentric Scotty’s Castle and the wonderful Furnace Creek Ranch and visitor centre welcome stop-offs. See www.visitcalifornia.com
ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
Maine’s main park first at tained park status back in 1919. With rugged granite cliffs and wild islands dotting the north Atlantic, Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the US to see the sun rise.
Parts of the park’s ancient forests and beautiful coastline appear untouched by people while others have been developed for centuries, such as Bar Harbour, where some of the wealthiest people on the east coast built their vacation mansions.
Boston is the wonderful gateway city for discovering Acadia and other national parks.
See www.massholiday.ie and www.insightvacations.com
ZION NATIONAL PARK
Driving through impossibly narrow roads chiselled out of looming vertical rock, the guide rattles off the names of Zion’s mountains and valleys: Tabernacle Dome, The Pulpit, the Great White Throne, Angel’s Landing and so on.
Utah takes its name from the Mormon settlers who made this state their own.
Just over two hours by car from Las Vegas, Zion National Park is the terrain of mountain lions, bighorn sheep and endangered California condors, who soar above its awesome peaks.
Those with a good head for heights can walk to the top of Angel’s Landing, a rocky spine less than two metres across, with a 400-metre drop on either side. See www.insightvacations.com
Why go now
The US offers stunning natural scenery embodying the spirit of the American frontier, within its extraordinarily diverse national parks, and they celebrate their centennial in 2016.
Insight Vacations USA takes you to Yellowstone and Custer Park on its American parks 9-day trail from €2,863pps.
Its Best of California, which includes Yosemite from €2,937pps is also on its menu of national parks.
Isabel Conway visited five national parks of Arizona and Utah on Insight Vacations Enchanting Canyonlands by luxury coach.
American Holidays ‘Best of the West’ fly drive tour includes Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Death Valley.
Take direct Aer Lingus flights to San Francisco, north of Yosemite. Also from this summer, a new AL route to Los Angeles is convenient to parks in Utah and California.
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