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HOW WOULD YOU go about designating, managing, and protecting the prime wilderness areas of the United States, a country of 3.8 million square miles and many of the most spectacular natural features in the world? Despite the enormity of the task, the US National Park Service has done a phenomenal job.
Americans and those who visit the US from abroad have access to 59 different national parks, whose characteristics and opportunities, taken together, are more diverse than those of anywhere else in the world. From the frigid peaks of Gates of the Arctic’s Brooks Range, to the subtropical wetlands of Florida’s Everglades. From the below-sea-level simmer of California’s Death Valley, to the mist lifting off the ridges of Shenandoah in Virginia. From glaciers to mangroves to waterfalls to canyons to towering forests — if you visited all 59 of America’s national parks, you would have a pretty thorough understanding of our planet’s geology and ecology.
Many of these park names will be familiar to you. Some you may be hearing for the first time. But whether they see 10 million annual visitors (Great Smoky) or barely a 1,000 (Kobuk Valley), all are worth a trip. Here’s some inspiration to get you planning.
Wrangell–St. Elias National Park
The largest park in the country, Wrangell-St. Elias lies in a corner of southern Alaska, adjacent to the Yukon's Kluane National Park just over the border. Its 20,000 square miles make for a whole lot of potential exploration; pictured above is a hiker on the Skookum Volcano Trail.
Photo: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
Canyonlands National Park
Just south of Moab and the more recognized Arches National Park, Canyonlands also features some impressive sandstone arch formations, as well as canyons of monumental scale, carved by the Colorado and Green Rivers.
Photo: John Fowler
Shenandoah National Park
Encompassing a long strip of both the Blue Ridge Mountains and adjacent Shenandoah River Valley, this Virginia national park gets super popular during the fall, when leaf peepers arrive to complete the 105-mile Skyline Drive.
Photo: Brandon Atkinson
Yellowstone National Park
The world's first national park is also one of its most unique and well visited. The 3,400 square miles of Yellowstone hold geysers, mountain lakes, forests, river canyons, waterfalls, and many threatened species. Above is an aerial shot of the Grand Prismatic Spring, the third-largest hot spring in the world.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Congaree National Park
I had honestly never heard of this park prior to researching this piece, but after reading up, I totally want to go. Congaree protects a vast tract of marshy hardwood forest along the river of the same name just southeast of Columbia, South Carolina. Its old-growth cypress trees are some of the tallest in the American East.
Photo: Hunter Desportes
Death Valley National Park
Low and hot—Death Valley is home to both the lowest elevations and hottest temperatures in the US. But the landscape in this part of California is actually incredibly diverse, ranging from saltpans like the Devil's Racetrack, pictured above, to snow-capped mountains reaching 11,000ft.
Photo: Chao Yen
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce sits in southern Utah and features a massive collection of natural amphitheaters covered in rock formations known as hoodoos. Find this particular view on the Queen Mary trail.
Photo: Srikanth Jandhyala
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky is surrounded by kitschy tourist towns and is the most visited national park, thanks to its location near the East Coast and free admission. Still, once you're there, you can see scenes like this.
Photo: Red Wolf
Grand Teton National Park
Named for the largest of its three signature peaks, Grand Teton National Park also contains lakes, forest, and a section of the Snake River. It sits just south of Yellowstone in western Wyoming, and together they represent one of the largest protected ecosystems in the world.
Photo: Sandeep Pawar
Olympic National Park
Covering nearly a million acres on the peninsula of the same name in northwestern Washington, the terrain of this park is super variable, ranging from Pacific coastline to alpine peaks to temperate rainforest.
Photo: Lucia Sanchez
Great Sand Dunes National Park
One of the country's newest national parks (designated in 2004), Great Sand Dunes lies in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Featuring the tallest sand dunes on the continent, backed by multiple 13,000ft mountains, this is also one of the few places in the country where you can try sandboarding.
Photo: Larry Lamsa
Yosemite National Park
The central draw of Yosemite is the 7-square-mile valley of the same name, with its glacially carved peaks, sequoia groves, and spectacular waterfalls. To beat the crowds, get out and explore some of the other areas in this massive park in the Eastern Sierras.
Photo: Adam Selwood
Arches National Park
This aptly named park in eastern Utah, just north of Moab, is home to some 2,000 sandstone arches that come in all shapes and sizes. Above is one of the most photographed, Delicate Arch.
Photo: Joe Parks
Glacier Bay National Park
There are no roads leading to this park in southeastern Alaska, so your choices for getting there are: by raft via the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers (from Canada), by plane (usually out of Juneau), or, most commonly, by cruise ship.
Photo: Christopher Michel
Kings Canyon National Park
Like Sequoia National Park next door, Kings Canyon is home to some seriously massive trees. Seen above is a stout ponderosa pine on the Bubbs Creek Trail.
Photo: Miguel Vieira
Big Bend National Park
Expansive desert plains, 7,800ft mountains, and high Rio Grande canyons (Santa Elena Canyon shown above) define Big Bend National Park in western Texas. It's also distinguished as an International Dark Sky Park, marking it a great place for stargazing.
Photo: Robert Hensley
Denali National Park
As far as views from the visitor center go, this one is pretty spectacular. The 6 million acres of Denali, in central Alaska, include the highest section of the Alaska Range (with the peak that gives the park its name), glaciers, river valleys, and abundant wildlife such as grizzly bears, caribou, gray wolves, golden eagles, wolverines, and Dall sheep.
Photo: Srikanth Jandhyala
Everglades National Park
Preserving one of the most significant wetland ecosystems anywhere in the world, southern Florida's Everglades protect rare species such as the Florida panther and American crocodile. The water in the park is actually an enormous river that runs from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay at a speed of about a quarter mile per day.
Photo: Chris Foster
Gates of the Arctic National Park
As its name suggests, this is the northernmost park in the US, and is also one of the largest. Its predominant geographic feature is the Brooks Range. With zero road access, you have to hike or fly in, but once there, you've got pretty much an endless list of wilderness hiking and camping options.
Photo: Paxson Woelber
Grand Canyon National Park
For the past several million years, the Colorado River has been slowly but steadily grinding its way through the rock of the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona. Reaching a width of 18 miles and a depth of 6,000 feet, the Grand Canyon is on a scale of few other places on Earth.
Photo: faungg's photo
North Cascades National Park
Often overshadowed by Rainier, its sibling park to the south, North Cascades is a great place to go for smaller crowds and protects some stunning mountain wilderness. Pictured above is Mount Shuksan.
Photo: Michal Osmenda
Petrified Forest National Park
The main feature of Petrified Forest National Park, in eastern Arizona, is pretty clear. Fossilized logs (like the one seen above) and other organisms dot a landscape of badlands and desert colors.
Photo: Petrified Forest
Acadia National Park
Acadia is the oldest national park in the East and covers the majority of Downeast Maine's Mount Desert Island and a few surrounding areas. Pictured above is the Bass Harbor Lighthouse, on the southern tip of MDI.
Photo: Chris Potako
Zion National Park
The 15-mile Zion Canyon, cut over millennia by the North Fork of the Virgin River, is the main feature of this park in southwestern Utah. Hit the Canyon Overlook trail to attain this incredible view.
Photo: Todd Petrie
Glacier National Park
Northern Montana's Glacier National Park is over a million acres in size and contains multiple peaks over 10,000 feet, along with a dwindling number of glaciers. The only public vehicular access is via the Going-to-the-Sun road which, depending on the past winter's snowfall, is usually only open a few months out of the year.
Photo: Jeff P
Redwood National Park
The backbone of a much larger system of federal and state park land charged with preserving the coast redwood, Redwood National Park lies in northern California and is home to many of the tallest trees on Earth. While the exact locations of the most titanic redwoods are kept secret, many groves are easily accessible, particularly those along the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Photo: Krishna Santhanam
Sequoia National Park
Named for the largest tree species in the world, Sequoia is located in California's Sierra Nevada and is directly adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park. General Sherman, a giant sequoia whose bole volume of 1,487 cubic meters makes it the largest living tree on Earth, is a centerpiece of the park. Pictured above is the fallen Buttress Tree.
Joshua Tree National Park
The iconic Joshua tree gives this desert park in southeastern California its name. Fun fact: It's larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Photo: Dan Eckert
Mammoth Cave National Park
True to its name, Kentucky's Mammoth Cave protects the longest known cave system on Earth, with 400 miles of explored passageways. Visitors can choose from a variety of guided tours.
Photo: Peter Rivera
Rocky Mountain National Park
In the Front Range of Colorado's Rocky Mountains, northwest of Denver, this park is one of the best for easily accessible overnight camping trips, with 359 miles of trail and dozens of backcountry camping areas.
Photo: Steven Bratman
This post is proudly produced in partnership with Brand USA, with whom Matador is currently working to produce a series of monumental videos showcasing the best of the US national park system. Stay tuned for more.
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