America’s natural heritage

A visitor’s guide to the country’s 63 spectacular national parks

The landscape of Yellowstone National Park. (Brian Flaherty/The Washington Post)

National parks are the “spacious skies” and “mountain majesties” of elementary school choirs. They’re living postcards from adventurers who had the foresight to preserve natural wonders for those who followed.

The 63 U.S. parks are stark and arid, elevated and lush, watery and forbidding. They’re wild. And perhaps most important, they’re common ground. The vast acreage managed by the National Park Service may be the only place where chasms unite us. Park Service lands are as diverse as the visitors they serve and the flora, fauna, ground and water they protect.

National parks are an American superlative — beautiful to the extreme.

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A bus, one of many tours, drives through Denali National Park. (Tim Rains/National Park Service)

Denali, Alaska

  • Size: 6,075,029 acres (park and preserve)
  • Founded: As Mount McKinley Park, 1917; renamed Denali Park and Preserve (and roughly tripled in size), 1980
  • Annual attendance: 601,152

This subarctic wilderness is home to North America’s tallest mountain (Denali, formerly McKinley), as well as glaciers, wildflowers, caribou, moose and Dall sheep. The park’s 92-mile road takes visitors into a place where the summer solstice brings nearly 21 hours of daylight and the winter solstice yields less than five. Park rangers say weather is fickle; average summer temperatures can range from 33 to 75 degrees. Despite the inherent extremes of its remote location, this park is home to 172 species of birds and hundreds of mosses. In addition to viewing the rugged landscape and large mammals, activities include various bus tours and ranger walks. (Cars are limited to the first 15 miles of paved road.) Popular walks include hiking to the kennels, where sled-dog demonstrations are staged. Scenes of the Sean Penn-directed “Into the Wild” were filmed here.

A mountain range at Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. (National Park Service)

Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

  • Size: 8,472,506 acres (park and preserve)
  • Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980
  • Annual attendance: 10,518

Visitors walk or fly into this northernmost park, which is as much sanctuary as it is vacationland. It offers no established trails or visitor facilities; solitude is listed as one of its many assets. The Park Service describes it as a “gaunt beauty” and “a place of profound quiet.” Self-sufficient outdoor enthusiasts who venture into this remote land 240 miles north of Fairbanks, are treated to Brooks Range peaks, six wild rivers and tundra (vast, flat and treeless land with permanently frozen subsoil).

Visitors are encouraged to leave the territory as untouched as they found it. This is a place buffered from change. An indigenous community, Anaktuvuk Pass, lies within park boundaries, and traditional human subsistence uses of the land are allowed. Also at home here are grizzly and black bears, moose, Dall sheep, wolverines, musk oxen and red foxes. The western Arctic caribou herd uses ancient migration routes through this area’s mountains. Humans who venture here are somewhat less mobile, with backpackers often achieving only six miles a day.

For those without backcountry skills, local air taxis provide flight-seeing trips, day trips or overnight campouts at remote locations.

Icebergs stranded at low tide in Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve. (Sunny K. Awazahura/Reed/Alamy)

Glacier Bay, Alaska

  • Size: 3,281,789 acres (park and preserve)
  • Founded: National monument, 1925; national park, 1980
  • Annual attendance: 672,087

No roads lead to Glacier Bay. And the closest town, Gustavus, has no stoplight or fast food. However, camping and accommodations at the Glacier Bay Lodge, as well as bed-and-breakfasts, are available in and near the park. Many tourists simply take in the view from the deck of a cruise ship. The true luxury here, fans might say, is the chance to hear or see glaciers as they crash, along with humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, bald eagles and harbor porpoise.

Although remote by lower-48 standards — access is via sea or air — the maritime climate here is somewhat more temperate than in other northern parks. Summer highs average from 50 to 60 degrees. That said, rangers suggest being prepared for changes in weather. (Think gloves and fleece.) As one Park Service ranger put it: “XtraTuf boots are considered Southeast Alaskan sneakers.”

Newcomers here may gain an expanded vocabulary. “Calving” is the term for great blocks of ice breaking loose from glaciers and crashing into the water. Also, the end of a glacier is a “snout.”

In 2018, the Hoonah Indian Association and the park erected a totem to depict the healing taking place between the National Park Service and the Tlingit People, for whom Glacier Bay is homeland.

Mount Martin is one of Katmai National Park’s active volcanoes. (National Park Service)

Katmai, Alaska

  • Size: 4,093,228 acres (park and preserve)
  • Founded: National monument, 1918; national park, 1980
  • Annual attendance: 84,167

This site of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century (1912) has 14-plus volcanoes. In the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes (the eruption site), volcanic ash is eroding into an “intricately carved badlands,” the Park Service says.

Visitors arrive via boat or float plane to observe the impressive population of brown bears. (The park is home to about 2,200 of them. They can grow to weigh more than 1,000 pounds.)

There are other natural assets in this park, which filmmaker John Grabowska described as a “cloud-cloaked landscape.” Katmai (pronounced “cat-my”) supports moose, caribou, wolves, lynxes, wolverines, river otters, minks, martens, porcupines, snowshoe hares and beavers, as well as sea lions, sea otters and whales.

Here, 290 air miles from Anchorage, the Brooks Lodge offers food, lodging and ranger programs. Other lodgings also are available. Popular park activities include bus tours, fishing, hiking and backcountry adventures.

Bear Glacier, the longest in Kenai Fjords National Park. (National Park Service)

Kenai Fjords, Alaska

  • Size: 669,650 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980
  • Annual attendance: 356,601

The smallest national park in Alaska, it has the largest ice field that is contained totally within the United States. Slightly more than half the land here is covered in ice that is thousands of feet thick.

In this frozen territory with more than 30 glaciers, mountain peaks that pierce the ice are called nunataks. Mountaineering visitors seek out that rugged vista by crossing the ice field. (April is considered the best time for that effort; expertise is a necessity because, as the Park Service advises on its website, there is “the possibility of being pinned down by winds and whiteout for days at a time.”

Also thrilling, but less grueling, are sightseeing-boat excursions that depart Resurrection Bay. They offer views of wildlife and glaciers. Look for pillow-shaped basalt, spires, cliffs and coves in the various surfaces.

Sightseeing from a kayak also is popular. (A guide is strongly recommended.)

Kenai Fjords is reachable via rail, plane, cruise ship and car. The Seward Highway, which is a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road, makes driving there half the pleasure.

Dunes at Kobuk Valley National Park. (Laura Cattrall/National Park Service)

Kobuk Valley, Alaska

  • Size: 1,750,716 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980
  • Annual attendance: 15,766

National parks have the ability to shatter our assumptions. Here, 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun does not set from early June to early July, sand dunes reach as high as 100 feet and summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees.

The dunes (Great Kobuk, Little Kobuk and Hunt River) are Ice Age relics that wouldn’t, as the Park Service says on its website, “look out of place in the Sahara.”

The views provide a glimpse into the planet’s past via the ecosystem of Beringia, the 1,000-mile-wide expanse of grassland that once connected Asia and North America during the last Ice Age. Here, 15,000 years ago, woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats roamed the valley.

Enjoying Kobuk Valley’s vistas doesn’t come easily. There are no roads or visitor facilities here. Plan to fly via a commercial airline from Anchorage or Fairbanks. Authorized air taxis fly into the park, offering the less-arduous option of “flightseeing.” Summer visitors to this park, named for the Inupiat Eskimos’ word for “big river,” may bring their own packable boats and have pilots drop them off for a float through the park.

The home of Richard L. Proenneke on Upper Twin Lake in Lake Clark National Park. (Kent Miller/National Park Service)

Lake Clark, Alaska

  • Size: 4,030,110 acres (park and preserve)
  • Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980
  • Annual attendance: 17,157

Majestic volcanoes and a humble, hand-hewn cabin are among the features that draw visitors to this wilderness park.

Its two active volcanoes are registered as National Natural Landmarks. And the cabin? That was built and occupied by naturalist Richard L. Proenneke, who first came to the upper of the Twin Lakes here in 1962 to visit friends. Six years later, on his own building site, he harvested spruce trees and began construction of the cabin where he lived for 30 years. He became known for his advocacy and journals (available in book form).

The cabin is in a roadless wilderness reachable by backpacking from other areas of the park or via small planes that land on the upper lake. The flight from Anchorage is less than an hour; flying time from Port Alsworth is about 30 minutes.

This park has been continuously inhabited since early prehistoric times and remains sparsely populated. Activities for visitors include hiking, bear watching, kayaking, fishing, rafting and winter biking on fat-tired cycles.

The Crystalline Hills at Wrangel-St. Elias National Park. (National Park Service)

Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska

  • Size: 13,175,791 acres (park and preserve)
  • Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980
  • Annual attendance: 74,518

The wild character of this vast region is due, in part, to its sheer size. This, the country’s largest contiguous wilderness, is the size of Yellowstone and Yosemite combined with an entire country — Switzerland. It has a glacier that’s larger than Rhode Island. It’s also vertically impressive. Mount Saint Elias is the country’s second-highest peak; it also claims nine of the 16 highest mountains in the United States. Within its boundaries are the ghost town of Kennecott, a remnant of copper-mining days; and the town of Yakutat, which is a traditional fishing village of the indigenous Tlingit people. It is reachable by boat or plane. Two roads travel into the park, and they are not regularly maintained during winter months. Drivers should be aware that fuel options are limited. Because the words “rugged” and “remote” define this park, visiting motorists are advised to check road conditions on the Alaska state website.

Camel Rock, near the village of Lauli’i, in the National Park of American Samoa. (Sorin Colac/Alamy)

National Park of American Samoa, Territory of American Samoa

  • Size: 8,257
  • Founded: Authorized, 1988; established, 1993
  • Annual attendance: 60,006

“Samoa” means sacred earth, and visitors to this Polynesian paradise are encouraged to exhibit the implied respect. Here, in the only national park south of the equator, beaches are among the world’s most beautiful. But this is not a cabana-style destination. Those who fly from California to Honolulu to Pago Pago International Airport typically are seeking something more rare.

The effort of traveling 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii is rewarded by rain forests and extensive coral reefs. (Bring your own snorkel or diving gear; air tanks may be rented.)

In contrast to most U.S. parks, the only land mammals here are three types of bats, and the fruit bats have three-foot wingspans. Much more diverse is the underwater population of at least 800 native fish and 200 coral species, as well as rare and endangered sea turtles and humpback whales. In addition to snorkeling and swimming, bird watching and hiking are popular activities.

Visitors are encouraged to learn about the 3,000-year-old Samoan culture in advance. Modesty and humility are advised.

Mather Point, at the South Rim, in Grand Canyon National Park. (Michael Quinn/National Park Service)

Grand Canyon, Arizona

  • Size: 1,201,647 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1908; national park, 1919
  • Annual attendance: 5,974,411

The Colorado River gorge is notable for its depth (one mile, on average), as well as its variegated colors. It’s regarded as one of the seven wonders of the natural world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The organization describes it on its website as “the most spectacular gorge in the world.”

Its dramatic beauty draws visitors from around the world. In a 2005 tourism study, 17 percent of Grand Canyon visitors needed a passport to get to it.

Vistas here have moods. Hues change by time of day and season, and canyon views vary by the perspective from all four directions (rims).

The South Rim (open all year) is the most accessible and offers classic views most associated with the canyon. Wheelchair-accessible bus tours are available. (Reservations are a must.) The Bright Angel Trail is smooth and easy to navigate. The North Rim is smaller, less visited and typically is cooler.

Those who hike to the bottom pass, geologically speaking, through a third of the earth’s existence. At the base of this naturally carved spectacle is the Colorado River, which draws water from seven states and travels 1,450 miles from its Rocky Mountains source to the Gulf of California.

The Jasper Forest Pedestal Logs at Petrified Forest National Park. (National Park Service)

Petrified Forest, Arizona

  • Size: 221,390 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1906; national park, 1962
  • Annual attendance: 643,588

A faded remnant of the historic Route 66 unpaved roadbed here is a mere newcomer within the surrounding context of ancient fossils going back more than 200 million years, Pueblo structures and petroglyphs, which are visible on Newspaper Rock.

The park is best known for having the world’s largest and most colorful collection of petrified wood. The brilliant hues — blue, purple, red, yellow, black and brown — come from the elements that replaced the organic materials. The petrified wood, which weighs about 160 to 200 pounds per cubic foot, was deposited in the park’s various forests more than 200 million years ago.

Although the terrain is challenging, the main park road runs 28 miles, with spurs and viewpoints along the way. Bicycles are permitted in paved and public areas. Among the sites of interest is the 1920s-era Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, two miles from the north entrance. The former Route 66 accommodation, now restored as a museum, overlooks the Painted Desert, the multicolored badlands that stretch nearly to the Grand Canyon.

Cactuses at dusk in Saguaro National Park. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Saguaro, Arizona

  • Size: 92,876 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1933; national park, 1994
  • Annual attendance: 1,020,226

In addition to the famed giant cactuses, much of the park is a vast, federally designated wilderness that includes a desert ecosystem, mountains and Native American cultural traditions.

Among its natural wonders is this: It can take the saguaro 10 years to reach a height of one inch. After a century, it can hit 15 feet and display the beginning of its first arm. After 200 years, a saguaro reaches its full average height of 45 feet. Fully hydrated examples can weigh up to 4,800 pounds.

The park has two separate districts: Tucson Mountain (west) and Rincon Mountain (east), each with its own entry center. The west side has the largest stands of saguaro and the east has sky islands (mountains rising from the desert) with diverse animal life.

Highlights may be viewed via accessible trails, picnic areas and interpretive centers.

Along the Tufa Terrace Trail in Hot Springs National Park. (Stephen Saks/Alamy)

Hot Springs, Arkansas

  • Size: 5,544 acres
  • Founded: Federal protection, 1832; national park, 1921
  • Annual attendance: 1,467,153

The oldest designated area protected by the Park Service is also one of the most colorful. Hot Springs’ therapeutic waters have attracted people since Native Americans called this the “Valley of the Vapors” and bathed here for the reputed healing powers. In 1541, Hernando de Soto became the first European explorer to visit Hot Springs.

Centuries later, Hot Springs became a hotbed of gambling and outlaws. Jesse and Frank James, Al Capone and Charles “Lucky” Luciano all found their way here. Luciano met his not-so-lucky downfall in Hot Springs when a New York City police detective spotted him.

Eight bathhouses, constructed between 1892 and 1923, still stand. They and the brick Grand Promenade were declared a National Historic Landmark district in 1987. The park visitor center and museum are inside the Fordyce Bathhouse.

Nature paths also were laid down early in the park’s history; hiking is a popular pastime.

The water continues to flow at a rate of 700,000 gallons a day, at a temperature of 143 degrees, and may be experienced by visitors at spas and elsewhere. Here, about an hour southwest of Little Rock, tourists may take a traditional thermal bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse, Quapaw Baths and Spa or the Arlington Hotel.

Park visitors may use the fountains to fill bottles with drinking water.

A kayaker navigates around Arch Rock in Channel Islands National Park. (Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Channel Islands, California

  • Size: 249,561 acres
  • Founded: National monument (two islands, Anacapa and Santa Barbara), 1938; national park (all five islands and surrounding waters), 1980
  • Annual attendance: 409,630

Although this park is just off the coast of Southern California, it remains remote. The archipelago, often called the “Galapagos of North America,” enjoys solitude because it’s reachable only by air or sea. (Mainland visitor centers are in Ventura and Santa Barbara.) Once there, sightseers may explore on foot or with boats and kayaks. And they must bring food and water. There are no concessions. Campground facilities are primitive, fires are not allowed and advance planning is recommended.

Such limitations emphasize and maintain the wild beauty and deep history. The park and marine sanctuary comprise five (of the eight) islands and the surrounding waters. The marine sanctuary spans 1,470 square miles surrounding the islands.

The sea life there sustained and protected native dwellers, whose ancestry dates back to some of the oldest-documented inhabitants of North America. Chumash and Tongva people built cultures based on the sea, which they navigated in redwood-plank canoes.

The islands’ past also includes sheep-and-cattle ranching. Hikers may see remaining historic ranch buildings, as well as forests, ocean vistas and such sea life as common dolphins, migrating Pacific gray whales, California sea lions and northern elephant seals.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. (David Walter Banks)

Death Valley, California

  • Size: 3,408,396 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1933; national park, 1994
  • Annual attendance: 1,740,945

The hottest, driest place in North America is surprisingly vibrant. It is the largest national park in the lower 48 states, and within its boundaries are wildflowers, waterfalls, oases, geological color, fish, migrating birds and the human comforts of food, lodging and swimming — even a saloon.

It remains best known, however, for its extremes, including the highest accurate temperature so far recorded on Earth (134 degrees, in 1913). Although its reputation is forbidding, Death Valley is highly accessible by car, mountain bike, on foot or horseback (seasons and weather permitting). This park, which lies primarily in California and partly in Nevada, has more than 785 miles of roads.

Here, there are evolutionary sights as well as wildlife and cultural history. The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, for example, lived in the region, and the village of Timbisha at Furnace Creek is within the park’s boundaries.

Visitors should expect multi-colored rocks, ghost towns, petroglyphs, bighorn sheep, a spring-fed waterfall and dunes. Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level) is a vast array of salt flats. Another area of stark beauty is the Devil’s Golf Course, where rock salt has been eroded into jagged spires.

Its otherworldly landscape has appeared in several films. Among the best known is the first “Star Wars” movie, in which Death Valley poses as the planet Tatooine.

One of many sculpturelike trees at Joshua Tree National Park. (Brian Flaherty)

Joshua Tree, California

  • Size: 795,156 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1936; national park, 1994
  • Annual attendance: 2,988,547

The tranquility, rocks and sculpturelike trees of this arid landscape have attracted recording artists (perhaps most notably the Eagles and U2), prospectors, Native Americans, Mormon settlers and a determined California socialite.

Well before Mormons allegedly named the Yucca brevifolia after biblical figure Joshua because its limbs resembled arms outstretched in supplication, Native Americans used the tree’s tough leaves for making baskets and sandals, and ate Its flower buds and seeds.

Settlers, ranchers and miners saw the territory as ripe for raising cattle and digging for gold. They used the Joshua tree’s limbs and trunks for fencing and corrals. Perhaps they should have named it the “giving tree.” But among those who wanted to give back was Pasadena socialite Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, who advocated for the area’s protection.

Today, this park draws rock climbers, hikers, geologic sightseers and stargazers. Although its land includes two deserts, it is highly accessible via roads (including an 18-mile tour), campgrounds and thousands of climbing routes.

Near Palm Springs and just 140 miles east of Los Angeles, some of the darkest night skies in Southern California are found here. Joshua Tree offers many visitors their first clear view of the Milky Way.

A hiker atop Fin Dome at the Rae Lakes Overlook in Kings Canyon National Park. (Tom Grundy/Alamy)

Kings Canyon, California

  • Size: 461,901 acres
  • Founded: 1940
  • Annual attendance: 632,110

Here, 60 miles from Fresno (California’s fifth-largest city), trees tower and canyons plunge. Nearly 150 years ago, naturalist John Muir called this area a “rival to Yosemite.” Today, that observation applies to Kings Canyon and Sequoia, the national park next door.

Among the highlights here is the 268-feet-tall General Grant tree, the second-largest tree in the world (the largest is in Sequoia, by the way). In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge named it the Nation’s Christmas Tree. Three decades later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated it a national shrine (the only living thing to be so named) in memory of the fallen men and women of the armed forces. Redwood Canyon shelters the world’s largest remaining grove of giant sequoia trees.

Kings Canyon is a wide glacial valley with hundreds of miles of trails that range from easy to strenuous. The Wilderness Society lists the park’s Rae Lakes among its 30 prettiest lakes in wild lands. They note that Rae Lakes is actress Betty White’s “soul place.”

Hiking opportunities here include paved trails that accommodate wheelchair users and strollers. Lodging and food, as well as ranger-led tours and an in-park shuttle, are available. Other activities in this landscape of dramatically disparate elevations include rock climbing and, in winter, snowshoeing.

Fall colors at Cliff Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park. (National Park Service)

Lassen Volcanic, California

  • Size: 106,589 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1907; national park, 1916
  • Annual attendance: 517,039

Devastation is part of the natural beauty here; Lassen Peak erupted in 1915. The volcanic explosion had been the last in the Cascade Range until Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980.

Today, Lassen visitors can easily view fumaroles (steam vents) and gurgling, boiling mud pots.

The Devastated Area interpretive trail is a short, easy walk that highlights the effects of the eruptions. Sights include pink and gray lava rocks.

Touring by car also is easy. The park, 50 miles east of Redding, has vehicle entrances.

The Wilderness Society lists this, probably California’s snowiest place, among its 20 prettiest national parks in winter, citing the vistas of snow-topped volcanoes and smoky steam vents, as well as such activities as sledding (with mountain views), snowshoeing to suit a range of experience levels and backcountry skiing. This park gets double billing from the Wilderness Society, which also puts Helen Lake, formed by a crater at Mount Lassen, among its 30 prettiest lakes in wild lands.

Peaks in the Bear Gulch Day Use Area at Pinnacles National Park. (National Park Service)

Pinnacles, California

  • Size: 26,686 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1908; national park 2013
  • Annual attendance: 177,224

This landscape, created by volcanic eruption 23 million years ago, lies just outside today’s epicenter of modern technology.

In his letter of support, documentarian Ken Burns called this area, about 120 miles south of San Francisco, a “critical record of geological time” that helps visitors “understand the vast tectonic forces that shaped — and still shape — our continent.”

Remarkable on their own, the rocky spires and caves also serve as a setting for hiking trails and as a backdrop for nature. Among the notable inhabitants here are the California condors, which have wingspans as wide as 10 feet. Early-morning visitors to the High Peaks area of the park may see condors roosting in the rock formations or in gray pines before they begin soaring on currents of warm air, the Park Service says. Pinnacles also is home to North America’s greatest concentration of bees, which may be due to the wide variety of wildflowers that bloom here in March and April.

Other sights include views of the San Andreas Fault, which may be seen from some of the 32 miles of trails.

Mouth of the Klamath River at sunrise in Redwood National Park. (National Park Service)

Redwood, California

  • Size: 138,999 acres
  • Founded: 1968
  • Annual attendance: 504,722

Like factors known to contribute to human longevity, there are ingredients that contribute to the life span of redwoods. Fog and tannin are two elements. Here, a six-hour drive north of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast, a quarter of the moisture that sustains the giant redwoods and other plants comes in the form of fog. Winter (October to April) also brings 60 to 80 inches of precipitation.

Tannin in redwood bark makes it resistant to insects. The official status (one national park and three state parks are combined, here) also helps by sheltering the trees from human threats.

One way to experience this area is via bicycle. Although most national parks prohibit backcountry biking, Redwood offers some opportunity on rehabilitated logging roads. Hiking and camping also are popular. More than 200 miles of trails weave through prairies, old-growth redwood forests and beaches.

Cascading stalactite and stalagmite formations in the Dome Room at Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park. (John Walker/Alamy)

Sequoia, California

  • Size: 404,063 acres
  • Founded: 1890
  • Annual attendance: 1,246,053

This second-oldest national park (after Yellowstone) was the first dedicated to protecting a living organism, the giant sequoia. Here stands the largest (by volume) tree on Earth: The General Sherman tree. It stands at 275 feet, weighs nearly 4.2 million pounds and is estimated to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old.

Sequoia is connected to neighboring Kings Canyon by the Generals Highway. Together, they are estimated to possess a third of all naturally occurring giant sequoias.

Although visitors here spend much of their time looking up, one of the park highlights is below ground. The Crystal Cave is a cavern of marble polished by subterranean streams. A tour with a cave naturalist will showcase rare minerals and dramatic formations. Summer visitors may appreciate the cave’s constant temperature of 48 degrees.

Hiking is a popular activity in the park and the Mineral King area offers several days hikes that offer panoramic views of the southern Sierras.

A boy takes in the view at Yosemite National Park. (David Walter Banks)

Yosemite, California

  • Size: 761,748 acres
  • Founded: Grant protection, 1864; national park, 1890
  • Annual attendance: 4,422,861

Yosemite evokes an immediate mental image of Ansel Adams’s famed black-and-white photographs — his “Moon and Half Dome,” among many others. It’s also the focus of much modern-day fascination — think of the attention surrounding the first free climb of El Capitan’s difficult Dawn Wall in 2015 and popular culture (cartoon character Yosemite Sam and the setting of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” for example).

That said, man and this Sierra Nevada landscape have been linked for 3,000 years. There is a deep history of indigenous people here.

Today, this glacier-carved parkland less than three hours from Sacramento is a tourism magnet for recreation, photography, sightseeing, geology and culture.

Many visitors head to the picturesque Yosemite Valley, but that section makes up only 1 percent of the park. This protected land is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as Globally Important Bird Area. More than 60 Yosemite properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They include the Wawona Covered Bridge, the Yosemite Valley Chapel, the Tioga Pass Entrance, the Ahwahnee Hotel (now Majestic Yosemite Hotel) and the Rangers’ Club.

Buildings here reflect the Park Service’s rustic architecture style, which is said to have been born in Yosemite. The Rangers’ Club, which still houses seasonal crew, is one example.

The club building, which opened in 1920, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1985. The style, influenced by architecture of the era, was designed to blend seamlessly with the surrounding natural setting.

The Inner Canyon at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. (Lisa Lynch/National Park Service)

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado

  • Size: 30,780 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1933; national park, 1999
  • Annual attendance: 432,818

Because this canyon is so deep and narrow, it’s often described as a gash or slit in the earth that allows sunlight to fully reach the bottom only at midday.

The Park Service calls this protected area of Southwest Colorado (264 miles from Denver) a “vertical wilderness,” with some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rocks and craggiest spires in North America. The Park Service says the gorge reaches a depth of 2,722 feet. Its narrowest point is 40 feet.

Park visitors may hike, drive and camp. Trails range from easy to strenuous. However, climbing here is for highly experienced experts only.

Driving routes also provide access to views of the chasm.

The seven-mile South Rim Drive has 12 overlooks, most reached by walking a short trail. North Rim access is via a gravel road that includes six overlooks and some of the park’s most impressive views. The East Portal Road into the Curecanti National Recreation Area provides river access.

Medano Creek at Great Sand Dunes National Park. (Patrick Myers/National Park Service)

Great Sand Dunes, Colorado

  • Size: 149,032 acres (park and preserve)
  • Founded: National monument, 1932; national park and preserve, 2004
  • Annual attendance: 527,546

The tallest sand dunes in North America don’t border an ocean or lake, although the 30-square-mile sand-dune field here was once a lake. Instead of the expected beach and surf, these massive, windswept mounds are surrounded by alpine peaks, a desert valley, creeks, mountains and rural range land in Southern Colorado. Atop the tallest dune (750 feet from base to crest), the nearest city, Albuquerque, feels more distant than 246 miles.

Today, on land once roamed by Stone Age people hunting with large stone spears or dart points, park visitors may hike, sand board, sled, splash in Medano Creek or simply wander. (Just note that summertime sand surface temperatures can top 150 degrees.)

Tourists here also may do what the early nomads likely did in this place: look at the night sky.

During a full moon, sky watchers may experience the view and move about without need for a flashlight.

Ancient dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. (National Park Service)

Mesa Verde, Colorado

  • Size: 52,485
  • Founded: 1906
  • Annual attendance: 556,203

Ancient Pueblos built dense and intricate dwellings on this plateau near the modern-day Four Corners junction, where the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet. Just the name Cliff Palace is intriguing enough to inspire interest in this largest archeological preserve in the country.

Protected in this park — also a UNESCO World Heritage site, established by President Theodore Roosevelt as the first to “preserve the works of man” — are 600 cliff dwellings and 4,300 archeological sites from ancestral Pueblo culture, which endured from A.D. 600 to 1300.

Cliff Palace, the most famous of the structures, has 150 rooms and 23 kivas, which are rooms dedicated to ritual and cultural activities. Park visitors may take guided and self-guided tours.

A six-mile driving tour of the park takes in a dozen easily accessible sites.

Hallett Peak is reflected in the water of Dream Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park. (John Marino/National Park Service)

Rocky Mountain, Colorado

  • Size: 265,848 acres
  • Founded: 1915
  • Annual attendance: 4,670,053

It’s no surprise that the Who’s “I Can See for Miles” was on the “Easy Rider” movie soundtrack. It’s an apt road-trip song about the vistas travelers seek. Here, park visitors can appreciate those lyrics by driving the highest paved road in the Park Service. Trail Ridge Road crests at 12,183 feet. It’s designated as an American Byway and All-American Road.

The park’s panoramas also include two bodies of water considered by many to be the prettiest lakes in wild lands: Mills Lake, which offers high-elevation views of Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds (spires that channel wind into unearthly sounds); and Loch Lake, with views of mountain peaks and Glacier Gorge.

Here in north-central Colorado, vacationers may access 355 miles of trails designed for all levels of ability. Hikers can walk valleys and meadows that were trod by native Utes until the late 1700s. Its later visitors included gold miners, followed by homesteaders and sightseers drawn to the lush environment. Today, the Park Service says the landscape is home to a large variety of animal dwellers, including 60 species of mammals and 270 bird species. The park, which straddles the Western Continental Divide, also has 141 confirmed species of butterflies.

Red mangrove trees on Boca Chita Key in Biscayne National Park. (Paul Marcellinii/Alamy)

Biscayne, Florida

  • Size: 172,971 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1968; national park, 1980
  • Annual attendance: 708,522

This park, explorable only by watercraft, is 95-percent underwater.

Here, in the shallow bay one hour from Miami, is a world of shipwrecks, manatees, coral, sea grass, sea turtles and 500 species of fish.

Its protected, in some cases endangered, assets may be discovered via a boat cruise or snorkeling, scuba diving, canoeing or kayaking. Camping also is allowed on two Florida Keys: Boca Chita and Elliott.

On Elliott Key, the park’s largest, hiking is available.

The wrecks of six ships that sank between 1878 and 1966 have been mapped and are part of the Maritime Heritage Trail, where snorkelers may view them.

Canoeing and kayaking also afford exploration of the park’s mangrove-edged shorelines.

Visitors may want to learn about the park’s best-known resident: Lancelot Jones, a man of African American and Bahamian American descent whose family became wealthy as the country’s largest independent supplier of Key limes. He eventually became a sought-after guide to southern Biscayne Bay. He sold his island properties to the Park Service to ensure their protection.

Stiltsville, a part of Biscayne Bay’s history, is within the park. Seven shacks built atop stilts remain from a onetime colorful community of 27 structures. Today, they are protected and preserved by the Stiltsville Trust. Access is by permit only.

The sea wall around Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

Dry Tortugas, Florida

  • Size: 64,701 acres (40 acres above water)
  • Founded: National monument, 1935; national park, 1992
  • Annual attendance: 79,200

The name Tortugas (sea turtles in Spanish) dates from 1513, when explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived here. “Dry” refers to the lack of fresh water on the seven Florida Keys. Those who come (by water or seaplane) should tote their own food and drink.

Although the Tortugas are far-flung, they have a rich history because of their key location along the shipping channel that links the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. That history includes the construction, from 1847 to 1875, of Fort Jefferson on the park’s Garden Key. It’s the largest all-masonry fort in the United States and was positioned to protect the water gateway to heartland America. Also here are 200 sunken ships dating to the 1600s.

Novelist and fishing enthusiast Ernest Hemingway notably visited several times when he lived 70 miles away, on Key West. Activities here today include snorkeling, swimming and camping. Some of Garden Key’s largest and best-preserved coral heads grow so massive that you cannot swim over them. Visitors are advised to protect such vulnerable assets.

Clouds loom over the Florida Everglades. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Everglades, Florida

  • Size: 1,508,939 acres
  • Founded: Authorized as a reserve in 1934; national park, 1947
  • Annual attendance: 1,118,300

This park is a prairie, although not in the “Little House” sense. Sharp-edged sawgrass stretches for acres of marshland. It’s a landscape Native Americans called Pa-hay-okee (grassy waters). “Everglades” was the name early European explorers applied to the expanse. Following thousands of years of use by indigenous people, newcomers came to grow sugar cane, as well as hunt and fish. Bird populations were decimated for their plumes to festoon women’s hats. Developers dredged, drained and diverted the wetlands. They cleared mangroves to open up ocean views.

Quickly vanishing resources prompted the creation of the park to protect its ecosystem. Today, it’s a designated by UNESCO as both a biosphere reserve (along with Dry Tortugas) and World Heritage site, and also is a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

This third-largest park in the lower 48 states is home to at least 39 rare, threatened or endangered native Florida species, including the Florida panther, the American crocodile and the West Indian manatee. It harbors the largest contiguous strand of protected mangrove forest in the western hemisphere and also shelters the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. The Everglades is the main source of drinking water for South Florida.

Despite being a protected environment, Everglades is a remarkably accessible park. Three car entrances include the main entry in Homestead. Boaters and paddlers can enter via its coastal boundaries and waterways.

Ranger-led programs include a meteor-shower bike ride, sightseeing by tram and various birding excursions.

Haleakalā silverswords in a lava field at Haleakalā National Park. (National Park Service)

Haleakalā, Hawaii

  • Size: 33,265 acres
  • Founded: 1916 (separated from Volcanoes Park in 1961)
  • Annual attendance: 994,394

In a park whose name means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian, it’s appropriate that visitors’ eyes are often drawn skyward. Rapidly changing cloudscapes, rainbows, moonbows and nighttime celestial bodies are highlights. Views can reach as far as 115 miles out to sea.

On land, there are rare plants and animals with memorable names. This is one of the last sanctuaries of the vibrant honeycreeper bird. And the protected silversword plant, which lives up to 90 years, flowers just once and then dies.

Botanists also call this the geranium capital of the world, which hardly sounds exotic. But, species of the flower here appear nowhere else.

Two sections — the summit and coast — make up this park on the island of Maui. They are not connected by road. Above, is a crater formed by erosion. It’s a 19-square-mile wilderness area that’s popular with backpackers. Visitors flock to the summit for spectacular sunrise and sunset views. Below, in a lush landscape of forest, waterfalls, meadows and ocean, visitors watch for sea turtles, monk seals, dolphins, seabirds and humpback whales.

Overnighters may reserve wilderness cabins, which are accessible by hiking. Two car-accessible campgrounds also are options. All visitors are advised that the wild environment here includes the weather, which can be changeable.

Ferns in a lava field at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. (National Park Service)

Hawai’i Volcanoes, Hawaii

  • Size: 328,356 acres
  • Founded: 1916
  • Annual attendance: 1,368,376

Here on the big island of Hawaii, 30 miles from Hilo, are two of the world’s most active volcanoes: Kilauea, whose name means spreading, much spewing; and Mauna Loa, which translates to long mountain. Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984; Kilauea is no longer erupting, but is considered an active volcano, producing steam and volcanic gas.

Although volcanoes are undeniable draws, this park is also home to historic sites and endangered flora and fauna. Hiking and biking are popular ways to take in the scene. Driving routes also offer a dramatic overview. Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road include a number of vantage points. Kilauea’s summit may be seen along Crater Rim Drive. Other stops on the driving route include the Thurston Lava Tube (which Hawaiians call Nahuku), a walk-in tube that ends in a tropical rain forest. Tubes are formed when an underground channel of molten lava creates a hollow chamber.

In-park lodging is available at the Volcano House hotel, which overlooks Halema’uma’u Crater. It has been operating since 1846, when it began as a grass shack.

Boardwalk steps down a dune at Indiana Dunes National Park, where once-threatened land now shelters rare and threatened flora and fauna.

Indiana Dunes, Indiana

  • Size: 15,349 acres
  • Founded: National lakeshore, 1966; national park 2019
  • Attendance: 2,134,285

The 61st national park is the embodiment of shifting sands—in metaphor and in reality.

Its protected area was borne of an urgency to shield the wild landscape from the shifting sands of development. The actual shifting sands are nature’s hourglass. Mount Baldy, a 126-foot dune, moves 5 to 10 feet a year, a perpetual change indicated by marram (beach) grass bending in the wind.

Indiana Dunes cradles the southern tip of Lake Michigan along 15 miles of Indiana shore, where it accommodates bicycling, fishing, birding, swimming and hiking along multiple trails in dunes, wetlands, prairies and forests.

Although visitors may come simply for a day at the beach, the park’s ecology is significant.

Despite its metropolitan proximity, it has been dubbed the birthplace of ecology in America. That designation stems from the work of botanist Henry C. Cowles (and others) who studied the surroundings.

Just an hour from Chicago and bordering Gary, Ind., the once-threatened land now shelters rare and threatened flora and fauna. Wildflowers, such as nodding lady’s tresses and the federally threatened Pitcher’s thistle, bloom. The piping plover, a small, threatened shorebird finds refuge, and some 350 bird species have been observed. An annual birding festival is held in May.

“The biological diversity within Indiana Dunes National Park is fourth among all of our national parks,” the Park Service reports. That diversity includes some of the last surviving black oak savannas, which now find safe harbor from change.

Broadway inside Mammoth Cave. (National Park Service)

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

  • Size: 54,016 acres
  • Founded: 1941
  • Annual attendance: 551,590

In a state known for its elevated landscape in the form of the Appalachian and Cumberland mountains, it is an inverse topography — the world’s longest known cave system — that is Kentucky’s lone national park. This underground wonder, whose dimensions suit its name, is mapped at 420 miles — a length that increases with ongoing exploration.

Here, midway between Louisville and Nashville, this limestone labyrinth with a colorful and contentious (land-ownership) past fascinates visitors.

The deep history goes back 10 million years in time and 379 feet into the earth, where ancient human remains and artifacts are legally protected. The modern story includes African American history, such as the legacy of Stephen Bishop, who ventured into unexplored areas and became a guide. He is buried at the park’s Old Guides’ Cemetery.

In popular culture, Mammoth has inspired a short story, an early computer game, poetry and rock-music lyrics.

Today, park rangers continue to guide cave visitors through tours of varying length, style and level of physical demand — from easy to extremely strenuous. Tours include Gothic Avenue, which has historically significant passageways where 19th-century signatures are preserved.

Interior temperatures average about 54 degrees. Bring a jacket or sweater and wear shoes suitable for walking. Aboveground activities include hiking and fishing.

The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse at Acadia National Park. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Acadia, Maine

  • Size: 49,071 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1916; national park, 1919 (originally named Lafayette National Park)
  • Annual attendance: 3,437,286

The oldest national park east of the Mississippi is one of the first places in the country to see the sunrise (about 50 minutes before dawn in the D.C. area). Park visitors trek to Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the Eastern Seaboard, to greet the day.

Early visionaries who sought to protect this carved granite, coastal landscape included John D. Rockefeller Jr. He is responsible for carriage roads and trails that meander for use by hikers, horseback riders and bicyclists.

Acadia lies primarily on Mount Desert Island, which owes its name to explorer Samuel de Champlain, who called it “Isles des Monts Déserts” (island of barren mountains). Despite that early observation, the park’s glacially carved landscape is quite rich in nature and scenic panoramas, with many pine forests, ocean views and nine birding areas. Avian occupants include peregrine falcons and sharp-shinned hawks.

Moviemakers have flocked here, as well. Scenes in “The Cider House Rules” and “Pet Sematary” (adapted by Maine native Stephen King from his own book) were filmed on park grounds.

This is a shoreline park next door to the seaside resort town of Bar Harbor. Two beaches (one ocean with water temperatures for thick-skinned swimmers and one warmer, freshwater site) are available.

In 2015, the last three wolves known to live in Isle Royale National Park. (Rolf Peterson/Michigan Technological University via AP)

Isle Royale, Michigan

  • Size: 571,790 acres
  • Founded: 1940
  • Annual attendance: 26,410

Rugged, remote and relatively untouched, this park possesses the ingredients for rare 21st-century solitude. It’s a designated U.S. Wilderness and UNESCO biosphere reserve. To the moose and the dwindling population of wolves, it’s home. They’re among the animals that have shared this Lake Superior island with sporadic humans for thousands of years. Today, visitors arrive by ferry from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or Minnesota. The Ranger III ferry is the largest piece of moving equipment owned and operated by the Park Service. It carries 128 passengers and offers interpretive programs, dining and lounges on indoor and outdoor decks.

Isle Royale is the least-visited of the national parks in the lower 48 states, and the only one completely closed in winter.

In season, it attracts hikers and campers, who pluck and eat the wild blueberries and thimbleberries in late July and August. Scuba divers explore shipwrecks that date to as early as 1877. The sunken vessels are protected by the Park Service. (Licensed scuba charters serve the area, where a wet suit is necessary and a dry suit recommended due to water temperatures of about 35 degrees at depths below 50 feet in the world’s largest freshwater lake.

Island comforts include rustic cabins and the Rock Harbor Lodge, which has accommodations and a restaurant that serves fresh lake trout.

A rock island covered with orange lichen on Kabetogama Lake in Voyageurs National Park. (Don Breneman/Alamy)

Voyageurs, Minnesota

  • Size: 218,222 acres
  • Founded: 1975
  • Annual attendance: 232,974

This park comprises 30 lakes and 900 islands that once were traversed by the Native Americans, European explorers, fur trappers and gold miners who navigated the U.S.-Canada border in birch-bark canoes. Today, much of the park remains reachable only by water. Sightseeing boats staffed by park naturalists depart from visitor centers.

Hiking trails (some reached by water) also meander the wilderness. They range from easy to strenuous. Some trails are groomed for snowshoeing and skiing. Trail users may see moose or a blue heron rookery, as well as aspens, pines and rock outcroppings. Loons may be seen diving for fish in deeper parts of the lakes.

In addition to camping, accommodations are available in the nearby resort communities of Kabetogama Lake, International Falls, Crane Lake and Ash River.

The storied Kettle Falls Hotel is the only lodging within the park. Built by a timber baron in 1910, it served a region where commercial fishermen sold their catch and bootleggers sold whiskey. Today, the hotel offers 12 rooms, a restaurant and the Lumberjack Saloon.

The 630-foot Gateway Arch was completed in 1965; an interior tram takes visitors to the windowed viewing platform at the top.

Gateway Arch, Missouri

  • Size: 193 acres
  • Founded: Formerly Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, 1935; (Arch completed, 1965) national park, 2018
  • Attendance: 2,055,309

The Gateway Arch hovers like a silver rainbow over St. Louis.

The stainless-steel monument, standing 630 feet high on the banks of the Mississippi River, is a ceremonial portal to the American West. Architect Eero Saarinen said of his design, “The arch [should] be a triumphal arch for our age as the triumphal arches of classical antiquity were for theirs.”

It was intended as an intersection between past and present, and the surrounding grounds and exhibits parallel that goal. Below ground, at the base of the Arch is the Museum at the Gateway Arch, which details more than 200 years of history. Exhibits explore President Thomas Jefferson’s dream of westward expansion, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the displacement of Indigenous people, stolen lands, women’s rights and the fight for African American freedoms and equality. (The Old Courthouse is currently undergoing restoration.)

As of 2018, the renovated Gateway Arch grounds have a better link to the city itself, thanks to the addition of connecting green space, a plaza and glass museum entrance facing downtown St. Louis. The redesign also created a better connection with the surrounding historical context. The Park includes the Old Courthouse where the pivotal Dred Scott civil rights case was heard. It was there that Scott and his wife, Harriet, both enslaved people, filed lawsuits seeking their freedom.

At the Arch itself, an interior tram takes visitors to the windowed viewing platform at the top, for views of Missouri, Illinois, the river and the American horizon beyond.

The landscape of Glacier National Park. (Brian Flaherty)

Glacier, Montana

  • Size: 1,013,126 acres
  • Founded: 1910
  • Annual attendance: 3,049,839

This pristine landscape does more than feed the appetite for scenic adventure. It quenches the thirst of the American continent. Here, 150 miles from Missoula, in northwestern Montana, the park and neighboring wilderness lands are called the “Crown of the Continent,” a headwaters for three rivers leading to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, as well as the Hudson Bay.

The lush region includes 762 lakes within park boundaries. Among them, Lake McDonald is so clear that it’s possible to see, from the surface, to 30 feet below.

The list of plant and animal species living here has remained unchanged since the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Trust for Public Land notes. Not unchanged are the 25 glaciers, which are shrinking.

The panoramas remain verdant, however, and a popular way to view the vistas is by taking a two-hour drive on Going-to-the-Sun Road. (It appears in the opening of “The Shining.”) The east-west parkway, built in 1932, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Expect two tunnels, steep drop-offs, tight curves and spectacular views — including mountain goats and bighorn sheep.

Non-driving activities include hiking on 746 miles of trails, boat tours and backcountry camping. Hotel accommodations also are available.

A look at the drastic elevation changes from Great Basin National Park. (National Park Service)

Great Basin, Nevada

  • Size: 77,180 acres
  • Founded: National monument (Lehman Caves), 1922; national park, 1986
  • Annual attendance: 131,802

Ancient trees and dramatic cave formations highlight this park, which is 286 miles from Las Vegas near the Utah border.

The trees, bristlecone pines up 4,000 years old, are contorted, as if twisted from the sheer effort to survive harsh conditions. The cavern, Lehman Caves, is a geologic remnant of an ancient, shallow inland sea — a paradoxical image in this arid setting.

Tourists can sightsee at various levels: 194 feet below ground; at the surface; at 13,063 feet in elevation (Wheeler Peak); and higher above in the night sky, which is said to provide the best visibility of the Milky Way in the continental United States. (Great Basin is a designated Dark Sky Park.)

Two guided cave tours are offered: the Lodge Room (one hour) and the Grand Palace (90 minutes). Of note among the many subterranean formations is the Parachute Shield. At least 80 U.S. caves have shields, which are circular plates. Lehman Caves has 300.

As for the park’s namesake, this region is part of a 200,000-square-mile area that drains internally, rather than into rivers that feed the Pacific Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. The Great Basin takes in most of Nevada, half of Utah and portions of Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and California. For a wider view of the basin, visitors may hike an 8.6-mile trail to the Wheeler Peak summit, where vistas reward the effort.

The Doll's Theater at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (Peter Jones/National Park Service)

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

  • Size: 46,766 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1923; national park, 1930
  • Annual attendance: 440,691

Will Rogers, the famed cowboy, humorist and actor, once called Carlsbad Cavern the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it.”

Beneath that roof is a subterranean mansion with 119 limestone caves and a “chandelier” in the Big Room. It’s naturally air-conditioned to a constant 56 degrees, which is welcome during New Mexico summers, when July days average 95 degrees.

Self-guided tours are available to visitors. They include the Natural Entrance Trail, which begins with a steep descent from the entrance to the Big Room. It lasts one hour and is more physically demanding than the Big Room Trail, which is accessed via elevator.

Other, more strenuous tours are available, including one of Slaughter Canyon Cave. Guides lead the way into an underground wilderness. Here, darkness is broken only by the flashlights and headlamps of rangers and tour members. Sights include the 89-foot-high Monarch column, which is one of the world’s tallest, and the Christmas Tree, a sparkling, crystal-studded column.

The limestone rock that holds Carlsbad Cavern contains ocean fossils of plants and animals dating from a time when this area, 149 miles from El Paso, lay beneath an inland sea.

The 275-square-mile gypsum field at White Sands National Park is the largest in the world.

White Sands, New Mexico

  • Size: 146,344 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1933, national park 2019
  • Attendance: 608,785

In home-decor terms, the stark simplicity of white dunes is minimalist.

Its otherworldly landscape has served as a backdrop for several films, including “Hang ‘Em High” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

But this is no mere backdrop. For all its visual austerity, White Sands is a lived-in environment. It invites play in the form of dune sledding, hiking, picnicking and camping in a backcountry campground. For windshield sightseers, there’s the Dunes Drive.

A vast field of gypsum, the largest in the world, it harbors at least 45 species found nowhere else. Denizens include the Apache pocket mouse and the bleached earless lizard. Many of the park’s birds inhabit scrub surrounding the Spanish pueblo-adobe style visitor center, which was built during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.

Though the setting feels rare, it’s composed of one of the world’s most common minerals: gypsum.

“An average new American home contains more than 7 metric tons of gypsum in the form of more than 6,000 square feet of wallboard,” the U.S. Geological Survey reports. Pure gypsum sand is rare because it dissolves on contact with water. (Total annual rainfall at the park is about 8 inches.)

Because gypsum’s pale color doesn’t absorb heat, it remains cool to the touch. Precautions are in order, however. The Park Service advises sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses because “the sun reflecting off the white sand is intense year round and can cause severe sunburns.”

That intensity may make the monthly full-moon hikes, offered April through December, an appealing option. The lunar light is so bright you will see your moon shadow.

Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (David Davis/Alamy Stock Photo)

Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee

  • Size: 522,427 acres
  • Founded: 1934
  • Annual attendance: 12,547,743

Every year here, for a few weeks in late spring, there’s a twinkling light show, courtesy of synchronous fireflies. Also in spring, an annual wildflower pilgrimage showcases blooms so prolific and diverse that this landscape is nicknamed “Wildflower National Park.”

Although this is the most-visited U.S. national park, it retains an enchanted quality, a place where emerald moss carpets boulders and a dreamy, “smoky” mist recalls the region’s Cherokee name, Shaconagay, “land of the blue smoke.”

This area was part of the Cherokee homeland before the tribe was forced west. Some remained in what is now the park, either by hiding or by lobbying the government, and their descendants live in the nearby Qualla Boundary.

Today, visitors hike, bike and drive the history-steeped land. The American Hiking Society says, “Almost every trail in Great Smoky Mountain National Park is eligible for your hiking bucket list.” However, the organization’s blog cites the 12-mile Baxter Creek Trail’s “4,000 feet of climbing, sweetly smelling spruce trees and a lush rainforest understory.” The Appalachian Trail also makes a 70-mile appearance here.

Several self-guided car routes are available along the 384 miles of road. An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the historical Cades Cove, where preserved log cabins, barns and churches highlight the region’s former way of life. Every Saturday and Wednesday morning (from May to September), the car route is open to bicyclists and walkers only.

This is a park rich with stories. Of the Walker sisters, from a family of 11 children with a Union-soldier father who farmed the land, six of them never married and stayed in what became the park, meeting visitors and carrying on with traditional work and crafting well into old age. Their log home remains.

Sightseers encounter place names reflecting southern storytelling tradition. Among them: Place of a Thousand Drips (waterfall), Mouse Creek Falls and Hen Wallow Falls. A rounded rock outcropping is dubbed Charlies Bunion.

Visitors who arrive via Cherokee, N.C., Gatlinburg, Tenn., or Townsend, Tenn., enter an area that’s 95 percent forested with the largest block of virgin red spruce on Earth. And if they visit Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies, on a clear and (rare) pollution-free day, they can see for 100 miles and possibly take in seven states.

One of the more than 100 miles of hiking trails at Teddy Roosevelt National Park. (Ryan Marthaller/National Park Service)

Theodore Roosevelt, North Dakota

  • Size: 70,447 acres
  • Founded: Memorial park, 1947; national park, 1978
  • Annual attendance: 691,658

This park is a memorial to one man’s love of the American landscape. Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president (1901-09), established five national parks and help found the U.S. Forest Service. His first cabin (Maltese Cross) is on park grounds and open for touring. The foundation of his second, at Elkhorn Ranch, also is here in a remote area.

Three separate sections make up this park. They include a badlands area populated by bison, pronghorn, elk, wild horses and bighorn sheep.

Roosevelt, a New York native, found this land restorative and wrote extensively about his time in the West. Contemporary visitors can experience this windswept territory, due west of Bismarck, from their cars, on bicycle, on horseback, on foot or by canoe or kayak on the Little Missouri River.

Prolific wildflowers, which appear from May to September, soften the stark landscape. June and July are their peak months; later-season tourists will find sunflowers, asters and rabbitbrush. In late September, cottonwood leaves turn a brilliant gold.

Changing colors at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. (Sara Gure/National Park Service)

Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio

  • Size: 32,572 acres
  • Founded: National recreation area, 1974; national park, 2000
  • Annual attendance: 2,237,997

Most national parks preserve and protect pristine lands. This park is an example of restoring what once was. Land and water along miles of the winding Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron were reclaimed from industrial pollution and other environmental abuses. Today, beavers have returned to the marshes. The bird activity has merited designation as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International. Animal inhabitants here include muskrats, coyotes, red and gray foxes, peregrine falcons, river otters, bald eagles and great blue herons.

Visitors hike, bike, run, snowshoe, ride horses and observe wildlife. The scenery includes waterfalls, farmland, forest and wetlands. The Wilderness Society lists this park among its 15 national parks for fall color.

History also is highlighted here. For example, there is the 19th-century Everett Covered Bridge. And it’s possible to walk or bike the same path that mules trod while towing canal boats loaded with goods and passengers. Canal locks and other structures built between 1825 and 1832 are still visible.

The Towpath Trail follows the historic route of the Ohio & Erie Canal, which opened the sparsely settled area to commerce with the Eastern states.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad operates here during summer and autumn months. Paralleling the history of the park, the rail was opened in 1880 as a means to transport coal, as well as passengers. In 1972, it became a scenic excursion route for leisure, as well as railroad preservation.

Wizard Island at Crater Lake National Park. (National Park Service)

Crater Lake, Oregon

  • Size: 183,224 acres
  • Founded: 1902
  • Annual attendance: 704,512

Vacations give us stories to tell. And sometimes the places we visit tell us stories. That’s true of this legend-steeped ancient lake. The deepest one in the United States (1,932 feet), it is also deep blue, a hue that inspired Native American legends claiming that the mountain bluebird was gray before dipping into the lake’s water.

Indigenous people could have witnessed the formation of this lake about 7,700 years ago, when a volcanic eruption of Mount Mazama triggered its collapse. Rain and snow filled the crater — and continue to feed the lake today.

Visitors to this park in southern Oregon, 85 miles from Medford, may view the lake by car on the 33-mile Rim Drive, except in months with heavy snow, or by hiking. Cleetwood Trail leads to the lake’s shore. Boat tours, with park-ranger narration, are another option. A longer boat excursion includes a three-hour hike of Wizard Island, a volcanic cinder cone rising 755 feet above the lake.

Tourists should watch for the Old Man of the Lake, an ancient hemlock stump that has confounded visitors and scientists by floating upright in the lake, unanchored, for more than a century. Local lore claims that “he” can control the weather.

Contemporary Crater Lake storytelling includes an appearance in the movie “Wild,” based on the Cheryl Strayed memoir about walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada and crosses this land.

Bald Cypress and willows at Bates Old River in Congaree National Park. (Jeff Lepore/Alamy) (Jeff Lepore/Alamy Stock Photo)

Congaree, South Carolina

  • Size: 26,693 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1976; national park, 2003
  • Annual attendance: 159,445

There is a bald-cypress tree with a name in this old-growth bottomland forest. It’s called Harry Hampton, named after the man who began lobbying to protect this land in 1954. His effort gained momentum when college students, enthused by the first Earth Day in 1970, joined in. Today, the park visitor center also bears the name of Hampton, who died in 1980.

Visitors to the park, which is near Charleston and Columbia and named for Native Americans who lived in central South Carolina, may walk, paddle, camp and fish here. The interior is accessible via boardwalks, which provide views of Spanish moss, bald cypress and a forest of water tupelos.

Canoeing or kayaking Cedar Creek (bring your own boat or take a guided tour with park vessels) takes visitors past some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. Also part of the scene are river otters, deer, turtles, wading birds and the occasional alligator. Several species of woodpeckers can be found in the park, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

A ranger at Badlands National Park. (National Park Service)

Badlands, South Dakota

  • Size: 242,756 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1939, national park, 1978
  • Annual attendance: 970,998

Badlands are good for movies, and the land here is sheer drama. This park provided the asteroid surface for “Armageddon,” and scenes from “Dances With Wolves” were filmed here.

Visitors aim their own cameras at the same austere beauty, which includes buttes (isolated steep hills), canyons, pinnacles, spires and prairie. “The Badlands are cut from deep alluvial and volcanic ash deposits that have been sculptured and carved into fantastic forms by the continuous action of wind and water,” the editors of Consumer Guide explain at That sculpting began 80 million years ago.

The resulting view — 75 miles east of Rapid City Regional Airport and 90 minutes from Mount Rushmore — can be seen via hiking, backpacking, camping or driving the Badlands Loop.

Animal inhabitants roaming the landscape include bison, bobcats, badgers and butterflies. Of the estimated 14,500 butterfly species in the world, the Park Service says 69 have been documented in Badlands, where wildflowers support them. The butterflies include the distinctive two-tailed swallowtail, whose wingspan reaches five inches.

The park’s Stronghold District, also known as the South Unit, is composed of lands on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation owned by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The 133,300 acres of the Stronghold District were added to Badlands National Monument in 1976, before the monument became a park in 1978. The land is full of history. And that story is memorialized, in part, at the nearby site of the massacre at Wounded Knee.

A hiking trail at Wind Cave National Park. (National Park Service)

Wind Cave, South Dakota

  • Size: 33,971 acres
  • Founded: 1903
  • Annual attendance: 615,350

For most tourists, the road less taken is the path that leads underground. Here, beneath the prairie, this cave runs 143 miles long and 654 feet deep.

The subterranean maze 54 miles south of Rapid City is rich in formations with names that will provide a new sightseeing vocabulary: frostwork (delicate, needlelike growths), popcorn (small and knobby) and boxwork (paper-thin, honeycomb-like veins).

A variety of ranger-guided cave tours are offered, from family friendly to more adventuresome, even candlelit. Among them, the Wild Cave Tour may provide the most impressive postcard copy. Much of the trip involves crawling. The park provides hard hats, lights and kneepads.

Aboveground, sights include a large herd of bison (the official national mammal). As with all national parks, this comes with a history lesson. It is a culturally significant and sacred site to the Lakota and Cheyenne people and to many other tribes.

There is no evidence of anyone entering the cave until 1881. Alvin McDonald was the first to explore the cave extensively, in 1891. Using candlelight and string, he covered eight to 10 miles, named rooms and passageways, and kept a detailed journal. At one point, McDonald noted: “Have given up the idea of finding the end of Wind Cave.” McDonald is buried near the entrance.

A canoe trip down the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park. (Erich Schlegel/The Washington Post)

Big Bend, Texas

  • Size: 801,163 acres
  • Founded: 1944
  • Annual attendance: 463,832

For a clue to the character of this sprawling landscape, consider this: It was used for astronaut training because of its harsh terrain and climate.

But this park is also hospitable. It’s home to 75 species of mammals, nearly 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles and more than 1,000 species of plants. The wide-ranging flora and fauna is due to the ecological diversity: water (the Rio Grande), mountains (the Chisos range) and desert (the Chihauhuan). Taking it all in can be done via car on 100 miles of paved road, or by hiking and rafting. This park has 244 miles along the Rio Grande. Visitors will encounter places with such colorful names as Panther Junction, Mule Ears Trail, Dog Canyon and Devil’s Den.

When first lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson visited the park in 1966, her stay included rafting. The trip was part of her campaign to highlight the 50th anniversary of the Park Service. In this centennial year, her words still speak to the wonder of the parks.

Johnson reportedly stood on a ridge in the Chisos Basin and said, “This looks like the very edge of the world.”

Fifty years later, park visitors can honor “Lady Bird” by doing a little birding. Cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers, black phoebes, Lucifer hummingbirds and greater roadrunners are among the year-round avian inhabitants.

Park staffers also suggest stargazing. The International Dark-Sky Association has certified Big Bend as a Dark Sky Park — no surprise, given that El Paso, the nearest large city, is 300 miles away.

Lower Pine Spring Canyon, seen from Hunter Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. (National Park Service)

Guadalupe Mountains, Texas

  • Size: 86,367 acres
  • Founded: 1972
  • Annual attendance: 188,833

To the uninitiated, sightseeing in sun-bleached desert landscapes may seem like a “Where’s Waldo” challenge. On close inspection, however, nature and beauty appear. Creatures show themselves in the morning or late evening. And even park staff make new discoveries, including a little, yellow violet that was an unknown species until 1990.

There are obvious assets, of course, including Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas (8,749 feet). In addition, visitors find canyons, a high-country conifer forest and lush streamside woodlands.

More than 300 species of birds either nest or migrate here. Depending on season and location, birders may spy western bluebirds, violet-green swallows, white-throated swifts and red-naped sapsuckers.

Nature here in West Texas (110 miles from El Paso) lives among layers of history. There are remains of ancient cultures (projectile points, baskets, pottery and rock art). From the displaced Mescalero Apache inhabitants, there are agave-roasting pits. And from later years, there is a memorial to the Butterfield Overland Mail stage line. A stainless steel pyramid on Guadalupe Peak commemorates the line (1858-1861), which passed south of the mountain as it carried mail from St. Louis to San Francisco. Such overland driving does not happen here, now. There are no car tours of the park.

The Lawaetz Family Museum on St. Croix at Virgin Islands National Park. (Alamy)

Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands

  • Size: 15,052
  • Founded: 1956
  • Annual attendance: 133,398

Caribbean Islands are synonymous with surfside leisure. And that’s true here, where Trunk Bay is one of the most photographed beaches in the world.

But also here, just east of Puerto Rico, are hiking trails, historical sites and fragile coral reefs.

The U.S. Virgin Islands include St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas, which has the nearest airport. The park covers more than half the island of St. John and most of the small, neighboring Hassel Island. Within the boundaries are more than 100 historic sites and undisturbed Caribbean landscapes.

Significant archeological sites — on almost every beach and in every bay — date from as early as 840 B.C. to the arrival of Columbus.

Today, visitors may hike 20 trails suited to a variety of interests and physical abilities. Sights along the way include carved petroglyphs and ocean views. Snorkeling opportunities include the Underwater Trail, which has plaques explaining the marine life. (More than 40 percent of this park is under water.)

Among the architectural remains are structures from plantation estates and the days when sugar was king. Ruins include windmills, factories, great houses and at least 2,000 house sites once occupied by the enslaved plantation workers and their graveyards, as well.

Double O Arch at Arches National Park. (Neal Herbert/National Park Service)

Arches, Utah

  • Size: 76,679 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1929; national park, 1971
  • Annual attendance: 1,659,702

It’s no surprise the U.S. Postal Service chose to depict this park on one of its commemorative Park Service centennial stamps. Cameras love the complementary combination of red-orange sandstone against high-desert blue skies. Photographers flock here, 236 miles from Salt Lake City, to capture the 2,000 arches, as well as the fins, balanced rocks, pinnacles and spires in their best light. It’s alluring to filmmakers, as well. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” is among the movies with scenes filmed here.

The story of the arches begins 65 million years ago, when the area was a dry seabed and the rock was still uncarved, raw material.

Because the resulting natural beauty draws crowds, the Park Service suggests visiting before 8 a.m. or after 3 p.m. And they advise treading with care. The formations are more delicate than their rocky foundation would suggest. That’s also true of the ground.

Visitors should avoid stepping on the crusty cryptobiotic soil, which is alive and prevents erosion. That said, seeing the park on foot is suggested and hiking options — from family friendly to strenuous — are plentiful. Among the more physical hikes is a ranger-guided, three-hour one to Fiery Furnace, which includes rock scrambling up and through narrow cracks and along steep ledges above drop-offs.

Sightseeing by car is also possible; popular features, such as Balanced Rock, are visible from the main road.

In this park so dominated by stony beauty, wildflowers may get overlooked. The Park Service provides an interactive wildflower guide to help visitors to determine what they’ll see and when.

The landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park. (Brian Flaherty)

Bryce Canyon, Utah

  • Size: 35,835 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1923; national park, 1928
  • Annual attendance: 2,594,904

This landscape is actually a collection of natural amphitheaters — stone bowls — rather than canyons. Bryce Amphitheater covers six square miles.

Inside the hollows are hoodoos, which are tall spires of rock protruding from the bottom of arid basins. The park has more hoodoos than any other spot on Earth.

Visitors gazing at hoodoos from the basin rim or trails below see stoic, sometimes human-shaped rock forms ranging from as tall as adults to taller than 10-story buildings. Observing the upright shapes gives a sense of being a spectator in a Greek amphitheater. It’s understandable why Paiute inhabitants here said the hoodoos were “Evil Legend People.”

The dramatic figures of Bryce were shaped by water’s freeze-thaw cycle and by erosion from rain (as opposed to by a river carving a canyon). And they continue to be eroded.

Here, about 270 miles from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, this landscape can be seen by car or on foot, as well as on snowshoes or cross-country skis and by winter backpacking.

This park is named for homesteader Ebenezer Bryce, a Scottish immigrant who arrived in 1875 and reputedly once said, “It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

A less practical take on this land today includes such annual events as Prairie Dog Day and geology and astronomy festivals. And because park visitors aren’t tending cattle like Mr. Bryce, they can stop to appreciate the colors of the rock, which are said to be especially vibrant after a rainstorm.

An ancestral Puebloan granary at Canyonlands National Park. (National Park Service)

Canyonlands, Utah

  • Size: 337,598 acres
  • Founded: 1964
  • Annual attendance: 733,996

At this landscape in southeastern Utah near Moab, the rock art (petroglyphs and pictographs) in the Great Gallery here is a sort of a message in a bottle sent centuries ago. The well-preserved, life-sized figures with intricate designs are hailed as the most significant rock art in North America.

As the human parade crisscrossing this region evolved, European explorers found Canyonlands to be more of an impediment than a destination. Today, this land may be appreciated in as little as an hour, with a drive to Grand View Point for a panoramic vista. Add another hour, and there’s also time for a half-mile hike to Mesa Arch, one of the most popular sites here.

Canyonlands’ geographic districts include Island in the Sky and the Needles district. Island in the Sky is a mesa on sheer sandstone cliffs with spectacular views. The Needles district offers variegated spires of cedar mesa sandstone. Activities include hiking and four-wheeling. Kayaking on calm stretches of the Green and Colorado rivers provides another perspective.

The Maze district ranks among the most remote areas in the United States. Backpacker Magazine included the Maze on its “America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes” list, noting that route-finding is tough among “sandstone fins and interconnecting canyons that all seem to look the same.”

It’s no wonder outlaws, including Butch Cassidy, made use of Horseshoe Canyon in the late 1800s, taking refuge in the confusing network of canyons.

One of the “tanks” in the Capitol Gorge at Capitol Reef National Park. (Jacob Frank/National Park Service)

Capitol Reef, Utah

  • Size: 241,905 acres
  • Founded: National monument, 1937; national park, 1971
  • Annual attendance: 1,226,519

This remote landscape is a wrinkle in time. Its main feature, the Waterpocket Fold, is a wrinkle in the earth’s crust known as a monocline. Here, the folding and tilting of rock layers opened a glimpse into millions of years of geologic history.

The park gets its name from white domes of Navajo sandstone that resemble capitol domes and rocky cliffs that form a land barrier reef. Such features earned the park a place on the Wilderness Society’s “America’s best kept secrets” list. At night, its starry status as a Dark Sky Park is revealed.

This craggy topography, 235 miles from Salt Lake City, attracts rock climbers. Hiking (day and backcountry) and car tourism also afford ample views. Various walking trails may lead into a narrow gorge, to cliff tops, under a stone arch or to historic inscriptions. Road routes are paved and unpaved. (Rustic roads require four-wheel-drive vehicles.)

Despite the rocky terrain, this area has an agricultural past.

Fremont and ancestral Pueblo people added farming to their hunter-gatherer ways about 2,000 years ago, growing corn, beans and squash. Petroglyph panels throughout the park depict stories of the early inhabitants.

Today, there are no restaurants or lodging here. However, an oasis of hospitality exists at the Gifford Homestead (a farmhouse on the National Register of Historic Places). Now a museum and store, it sells reproduction household tools, jellies, rag dolls and books. Also popular: locally made fruit pies.

Night at Zion Canyon in Zion National Park. (Rebecca Alfafara/National Park Service)

Zion, Utah

  • Size: 147,243 acres
  • Founded: As Mukuntuweap National Monument, 1909; as Zion National Park, 1919
  • Annual attendance: 4,488,268

Americans look anything but sedentary here among the formations of sedimentary rock. The terrain invites climbing, scrambling, hiking, wading and canyoneering. Although shuttle buses and cars can access views, sightseeing here can seem a bit like a competitive sport.

Among the challenges is the Subway, a slot canyon that requires route finding, rappelling and swimming. (Permits are required.)

Lower-exertion paths are also available among the trails that meander throughout the varied landscape of desert, mountains, forests, valleys and river.

The Narrows, a canyon-network trek along the Virgin River that involves wading and, sometimes, swimming, is less challenging. The visual reward for such efforts is evident in this: Zion is one of the most Instagrammed places in the country. (Scenes in the Oscar-winning 1969 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” were filmed here.)

Spectacular sites include a man-made addition. As the U.S. Interior Department puts it, “Zion is home to one of the greatest engineering feats of modern times.” To make the area accessible, construction began on a 25-mile stretch of road to connect Zion to the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel, completed in 1930, includes a 1.1-mile-long tunnel that slices through Zion’s sandstone cliffs. The tunnel has windows to provide views of Zion Canyon.

Early inhabitants called this land Mukuntuweap, meaning straight canyon in the language of the Southern Paiute. Zion is the Mormon name. Other names here include the Great White Throne (of white Navajo sandstone), the Watchman, Three Patriarchs, Weeping Rock, Checkerboard Mesa, Emerald Pools. Monkey flowers and hanging gardens (created by water seeping from sandstone and feeding ferns and mosses) are part of a diversity that’s made possible by the park’s location at the intersection of the Colorado Plateau, Basin and Range Province and Mojave Desert.

This park is open all year, and fans of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing flock to Zion in winter.

Campers from Camp Sonshine at the Hughes River Gap overlook on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Shenandoah, Virginia

  • Size: 200,417 acres
  • Founded: 1935
  • Annual attendance: 1,425,507

A classic road trip lies within the boundaries of this park. Skyline Drive runs like a 105-mile spine along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With 75 scenic overlooks and a leisurely speed limit, traveling end to end takes three to four hours. The roadsides bloom with a seasonal progression of wildflowers — from early trillium through azaleas and mountain laurel to black-eyed Susans and goldenrods. The Wilderness Society listed Shenandoah among its best parks for fall color. The annual Fall Foliage Bike Festival coincides with that display.

Although the park can be driven in a day, accommodations and dining are available for those who linger to explore the paths, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Overnight options include the 1939 Big Meadows Lodge, a stone and wormy-chestnut structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Before the area was designated as a park, homeowners here kept farms, orchards and grazing animals. Traces of former residents include garden-patch daffodils and more than 100 family cemeteries, some still maintained by descendants.

One site of note is Rapidan Camp, the summer retreat of President Herbert Hoover. Here, 70 miles from the White House on 164 wooded acres, the president, first lady and friends relaxed and held meetings. The guest book of the 13-cabin compound includes such names as Lindbergh, Ford and Edison.

In 1935, the compound became part of the park; its three remaining buildings are open for ranger-led tours.

Today, summer visitors may catch a view of a more ethereal variety.

“Fog lies like a soft white blanket on the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont, while the mountaintop is clear,” says.

“If conditions are right, you can look down on a ‘fog ocean,’ with the lower peaks rising above it like islands.”

Mount Rainier and Nisqually Glacier at dusk in Mount Rainier National Park. (National Park Service)

Mount Rainier, Washington

  • Size: 236,382 acres
  • Founded: 1899
  • Annual attendance: 1,501,621

Mount Rainier is an icy volcano, which sounds contradictory. But this icon, which reaches 14,411 feet above sea level and last erupted in 1894, is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. Its glaciers feed six rivers as well as wildflower meadows and forests.

Mount Rainier is a Pacific Northwest landmark. And the surrounding landscape is rife with flora and fauna. But another notable aspect of this park is man-made. Mount Rainier Park was designated a National Landmark for its collection of structures built in the Park Service’s rustic style of architecture. Examples here include the 1916-built Paradise Inn, which still accommodates guests. It’s built of timbers that had weathered naturally for 30 years before they were used in the construction. Other rustic buildings dotting the parkland include three late-1920s structures in the Longmire Village area, made of large, glacial boulders and logs for an appearance designed to fit the surroundings.

Although rustic and rugged, this park was the first to allow visitors to enter with cars. Today, vehicles may go no higher that the Sunrise area. Because Sunrise is at 6,400 feet, the road doesn’t typically open until late June or early July. It usually closes by early October. Sunrise offers views of Mount Rainier and other Cascade Mountain volcanoes, as well as wildflower meadows and valleys. Climbers seeking to summit Mount Rainier should be in good physical condition, with expertise and proper equipment.

The aptly named Paradise area of the park is popular year round and also is a prime area for winter sports. The Paradise Inn was one of the earliest ski resorts in the United States. Although just a two-hour drive from Seattle, Paradise is listed among the snowiest places on earth.

Horses in the Pasayten Wilderness at North Cascades National Park. (Steve Kazlowski/Alamy Stock Photo)

North Cascades, Washington

  • Size: 504,781 acres
  • Founded: 1968
  • Annual attendance: 38,208

This portion of the Cascades Range, dubbed the American Alps, feels much farther removed than its three-hour distance from Seattle.

There is a depth of wilderness here, due to its rugged terrain, as well as to its neighbors: Ross Lake and Lake Chelan national recreation areas. Running through this land is a stretch of the famed Pacific Crest Trail, which extends from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada.

Along with climbers, equestrians, backcountry hikers and day tourists, a wide-ranging ecosystem thrives at various elevations here. Mammals include the reclusive and, some argue, threatened wolverine, as well as the mountain goat. A note for postcard writers here: Mountain goats aren’t really goats. They’re members of the antelope family.

Mountain goats are “generalist herbivores” that eat most plants, the Park Service says. Like that wide-ranging diet, this park bills itself as a “hikers smorgasbord.” In additional to serious mountaineering, it offers accessible trails and short, scenic strolls and steep, grueling hikes.

Such an unadorned nature experience evokes the words of writer-conservationist Wallace Stegner, who once noted, “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Hurricane Ridge at Olympic National Park. (Dave Turner/National Park Service)

Olympic, Washington

  • Size: 922,649 acres
  • Founded: As Mount Olympus National Monument, 1909; national park, 1938
  • Annual attendance: 3,245,806

Few people think “United States” when they hear the words “rain forest.” Here, just over an hour from Olympia, the state capital, the Olympic Peninsula offers just that.

In addition to having national park status, this rare landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage site and biosphere reserve.

UNESCO cites this park’s longest undeveloped coast in the contiguous United States and its complex ecosystems, which range from Pacific shore through temperate rain forest, from Alpine meadows to glaciated mountain peaks. In addition, it claims one of the world’s largest stands of virgin temperate rain forest and many of the world’s largest species of coniferous trees.

This water-rich place is prime for boating. Visitors may kayak or canoe on a various lakes, rivers or the ocean.

In a single day, sightseers can take in Hurricane Ridge, Hoh Rainforest and Rialto Beach (save it for last for a Pacific sunset). Multi-day visitors may stay inside the park at the vintage Lake Quinault Lodge, built in 1926, or Lake Crescent Lodge (1915).

The Park Service suggests bringing binoculars and looking for wildlife at dawn and dusk. Bald eagles, marmots, black oystercatchers and sooty grouse are among the denizens. Coastal hikers in the months of April, May, October and November may see migrating whales along the Kalaloch, Rialto and Shi Shi beaches.

One researcher suggests that visitors also explore with their ears. Gordon Hempton, an acoustic audiologist and proponent of limiting noise, identified a spot on the Hoh River Trail that he calls “One Square Inch of Silence.”

At one time, the Hoh Rainforest edged the Pacific Coast from Southeastern Alaska to California’s Central Coast and abundant resources sustained a number of indigenous dwellers, including the Hoh people. Today, eight Olympic Peninsula tribes have a relationship with the park.

Sandstone Falls on the New River at New River Gorge National Park.

New River Gorge, West Virginia

  • Size: 72,346 acres
  • Founded: National river, 1978; national park and preserve, 2020
  • Attendance: 1,195,721

In this storied place, where coal miners labored to extract fossil fuel from seams in the earth, visitors test their recreational muscle. Among abandoned timber and mining towns, buff adventurers tackle white-water rapids and steep gorge walls carved by an ancient river paradoxically called the New.

In addition to the high-energy activities of hiking, mountain biking, rappelling, fishing and annual bridge BASE jumping on the first Saturday of October, there is a quieter side, contemplative, even. Among the sights are abandoned towns, pioneer gravestones, moss-covered railroad tracks, train depots, mines and rusting relics of the mining history. Active rail tracks also operate in the area. They include Amtrak passenger service, which has stops within the park.

Remains of former activity include onetime homesteads and subsistence farms.

And there is natural beauty. Trillium and bluebells bloom here, as do masses of rhododendrons. Great rhododendrons, West Virginia’s state flower, thrive in dense thickets covered in pale pink-white flowers in late June and early July.

The gorge itself has been dubbed the Grand Canyon of the East—with good reason. The canyon reaches 1,400 feet at its deepest point.

That depth parallels a deep history, tucked into what the Park Service describes as “the largest remaining block of relatively unfragmented, mid-latitude forest in the world.”

Middle Teton, the third-highest peak at Grand Teton National Park. (National Park Service)

Grand Teton, Wyoming

  • Size: 310,044 acres
  • Founded: 1929
  • Annual attendance: 3,405,614

The superlatives “awesome” and “amazing” have been diminished by overuse. But we still have “majestic.” And there are still landscapes — including here — that merit that description.

Majestic might also apply to the creatures that populate the ground that surrounds the Teton peaks. Park inhabitants include bison, weighing in at as much as 2,000 pounds, and calliope hummingbirds, as light as two paper clips.

The tiny calliope breeds in the chilly mountain environments and is remarkable for being the smallest bird in the United States and Canada and the smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world, according to Cornell University.

The beauty that surrounds such creatures is, like them, both grand and subtle. They all play a role in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which encompasses this park, Yellowstone Park and portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

This vast network of flora, fauna and geology is a significant interconnected environment. Here, grass is essential for the soil and for the animals it feeds. Tickle grass and tufted hair grass, among others, tint the vistas with subtle hues.

The land here beside the city of Jackson Hole also fed early tribal inhabitants. Native Americans roasted camas bulbs, for example, in underground pits.

Today Grand Teton, named for the main peak, feeds visitors’ hunger for nature and recreation. Activities include mountaineering, hiking, backpacking, bicycling, fishing, boating, floating, skiing, snowshoeing and, of course, sightseeing.

Among the hiking trails is the Paintbrush and Cascade canyons’ 18-mile loop. The Wilderness Society says this route offers “winning views” of the Cathedral Group, which are the tallest peaks in the Teton Range.

The panoramas here have attracted moviemakers. Grand Teton has served as a backdrop for parts of “Django Unchained,” “Rocky IV” and “Shane.”

Cynobacteria forming waves of color in hot water at Yellowstone National Park. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Yellowstone, Wyoming

  • Size: 2,219,791 acres
  • Founded: 1872
  • Annual attendance: 4,020,288

This, the first U.S. national park, in part owes its physical asset to the active volcano that lies beneath its surface, where the Park Service says there’s enough magma to fill the Grand Canyon about 11 times.

Seismologist Robert B. Smith has described the park as “an active geologic laboratory — and the laboratory is alive.”

That living landscape speaks through 10,000 hydrothermal features: hissing fumaroles (steam vents), spewing geysers and gurgling mud pots. Old Faithful geyser, the most well-known, erupts about 17 times a day.

The subterranean side of Yellowstone is what the Park Service has called a pressure cooker. Aboveground, much of Yellowstone is a protected paradise. Its beauty became widely known when photographer William Henry Jackson documented the region for the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. His images helped inspire Congress to establish the park.

Yellowstone is large, with 17 rivers, 290 waterfalls, five entrances, 4,000 bison and acreage spanning portions of three states (96 percent in Wyoming, 3 percent in Montana and 1 percent in Idaho). It has the largest lake on the continent at a high elevation (7,733 feet).

Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48. In addition to bison, those inhabitants include grizzly bears, wolves, lynxes, foxes, moose and elk.

Humans also have left their mark on this western range. It has 27 associated Native American tribes, 466 miles of roads (310 miles paved) and more than 900 historic buildings. Included among those vintage structures are Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel, built in 1891, the oldest operating hotel in the park.

Also here is an unexpected category: “other life forms.” That “other” is heat-loving bacteria, which create the ribbons of color in hot water.

As the Park Service explains, the green, brown and orange mats are cyanobacteria, which can thrive in waters as hot as 167 degrees. Here, the colors are visible in the Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin. Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in the country and the third largest in the world.

In 1871, well before color photography could document the vibrant phenomenon, Ferdinand Hayden, leader of the U.S. Geological Survey expedition, described the hot spring’s “peculiar vividness and delicacy of color [from] nature’s cunning skill."

About this story

Annual attendance figures are from 2019; park acreage figures are as of June, 2022.

Design by Matthew Callahan, Jess Eng and Jeong Shin


A previous photo caption for Haleakalā National Park in Hawaii misidentified the plants in the photo as ferns. The plants are Haleakalā silverswords. This article has been corrected.