Compiling a list of the ‘most beautiful’ National Parks was an almost impossible task. They are all special and beautiful in their own right; areas of supreme American natural beauty that have been carefully preserved both for conservation and for future generations to cherish. The National Parks are the pride and joy of the USA and why wouldn’t they be? They are unlike anywhere else in the world, vast and varied landscapes that attract almost 300 million visitors each year. Despite the difficulties, we have picked our selection of the most beautiful National Parks for couples to visit, and there really is no better time to visit as the National Park Service (NPS) officially turns 100 on 25th August 2016. Special events will take place throughout 2016 as the centennial kicks off a second century of stewardship of the USA’s national parks.
Acadia National Park, Maine
The rugged terrain that makes up Acadia National Park in Maine’s Mount Desert Island covers almost 50,000 acres of sheer natural beauty. The diverse landscape blends from jagged shorelines, craggy seaward isles protruding from the silvery blue waters to troops of whispering pines and clearings revealing marshy prairielands. Nature enthusiasts will delight in the native flora and fauna at Acadia National Park; take to the waters on a boat cruise to witness the many seals that congregate or perhaps if you are lucky, you may have a rare encounter with a whale. Black bears and moose along with other native animals inhabit the national park however sightings of these shy and elusive animals are highly unlikely. Acadia is also home to the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast; the glacier-scoured pink granite peaks of Cadillac Mountain. Hikers can make their way to the summit by following various trails, some more challenging than others. If hiking isn’t really your thing don’t fret, there is also a paved road to the top. Driving or hiking to the summit of Cadillac Mountain to see the sunrise is a popular activity among visitors of Acadia National Park.
H&L Recommend… Driving the 27-mile) scenic loop that begins at Hulls Cove Visitor Centre and offers access to Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, Jordan Pond, and Cadillac Mountain. Most of Park Loop Road closes for the winter (December – April 15).
To see Acadia ablaze of fiery colours we suggest visiting in the autumn.
Arches National Park, Utah
The instantly recognisable and rather familiar formations at Arches National Park make it a popular red rock wonderland in eastern Utah. A geologists dream, discover a landscape of contrasting colours, landforms and textures unlike any other in the world. The park is known for containing over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the world-famous Delicate Arch in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks. Hiking trails suitable for every level are scattered around this mars-like landscape but for extreme adventurers we suggest trying the Fiery Furnace. The Fiery Furnace is a natural labyrinth of narrow passages between towering sandstone walls. To enter the Fiery Furnace, visitors must accompany a ranger-guided tour or obtain a hiking permit at the visitor centre. For the less brave hearted (some would say sensible), other ranger-guided tours are available.
H&L Recommend… Stargazing at Arches National Park. In addition to its stunning landscapes and rich cultural history, it has some of the darkest skies remaining in the contiguous 48 United States. Arches’ relative isolation from the artificial light of urban areas makes it an ideal place for viewing the night sky. What could be more romantic than witnessing a star spangled star in one of the most spectacular locations on earth. Under the right conditions, common binoculars may even reveal the rings of Saturn!
Hydration is essential in the desert, even in winter so we strongly suggest carrying water with you through the National Park.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend National Park can be found in West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons into ancient limestone. The park has national significance as the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States and is home to more than 1,200 species of plants and over 500 species of animal. Tenacious cactus bloom in the sublime Southwestern sun, and the diversity of species is the best in the country. Made up of towering mountain ranges surrounded by weather-beaten desert, Big Bend provides visitors with days of exploration through hiking trails, fishing, horseback riding, bird spotting and scenic drives.
H&L Recommend…Rio Grande river trips. There are many possibilities including half-day floats or multi-day excursions depending on how long you are planning on spending at the park. Floating down the Rio Grande can take you through miles of canyons with towering canyon walls where the sunlight may reach the bottom only briefly on winter days. Seeing the park’s canyons from the middle of the Rio Grande can be an incredible experience and one worth trying out.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Another of Utah’s red rock National Parks, Bryce Canyon is a sprawling reserve known for its collection of rouge-hued hoodoos, in fact the largest collection of hoodoos in the world. For those of you unfamiliar with the term hoodoo (and we have to admit that we weren’t 100% sure what they were), it simply means odd-shaped pillars of rock left standing from the forces of erosion. These spire-shaped rock formations stand proud like an army of geological soldiers. Colour is key at Bryce Canyon as throughout the day the light changes and presents shades of deep crimson, burnt orange and vivid corals acting as an ever changing natural painting. The park’s main road leads past the expansive Bryce Amphitheatre, a hoodoo-filled depression lying below the Rim Trail hiking path. It overlooks at Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point and Bryce Point. Prime viewing times are around sunrise and sunset to really see the park at its most beautiful.
H&L Recommend…Spending the night at the Sunset Campground Group Site. What could be more spectacular than ending your evening watching a magnificent sunset and waking to a breathtaking sunrise? Tip: Do not forget your camera- you will want to immortalise these memories!
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Located in southern Oregon, Crater Lake is the fifth oldest national park in the United States and the only national park in the state of Oregon. Legend has it that Native Americans witnessed it form 7,700 years ago, when a violent eruption triggered the collapse of a towering volcano. Scientists marvel at its purity: fed by rain and snow, it’s the deepest lake in the USA and perhaps the most pristine on earth. Artists and photographers gather in awe at the magnificent beauty of this underwater sleeping volcano at Crater Lake. The story alone is enough to send your senses running wild.
H&L Recommend… Driving all the way around Crater Lake. Both the East and the West rim boast outstanding views through the park and by driving all the way around you get the experience the varied landscape. Don’t miss Vidae Falls where you can see the Parks only drive-by waterfall.
Death Valley National Park, California/Nevada
Understandably any park with ‘death’ in the name may have you a little concerned but boy is it worth taking the risk. The harsh landscape makes up one of the hottest, driest and lowest National Parks in the USA. Straddling eastern California and Nevada, this below-sea-level basin is subject to a steady drought and record summer heats, making Death Valley an location of extremes. We find beauty in the extreme nature of this National Park; towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Rattlesnakes wind through the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Spikey salt mounds create the Devil’s Golf Course. Lush oases harbour tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans and colourful rocks act as the gallery of the desert. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley.
H&L Recommend… Avoiding hiking after 10am. With summer temperatures reaching into the 100’s °F it is crucial that you carry water with you. Instead we suggest driving the many roads within the park. Death Valley has more miles of roads than any other national park. These paved and dirt roads provide ample opportunities for recreation and exploration.
Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska
It was almost inevitable that an Alaskan National Park would make our list of the most beautiful because of the State’s picture perfect landscape. Denali is six million acres of wild land, bisected by one ribbon of road. Home to North America’s tallest peak (Mount McKinley), Denali has been a mecca for mountaineering and adventuring for more than a century. Today, the park continues to enchant climbers, pack-rafters, skiers, dog mushers and athletes seeking to test themselves against the raw, unchecked power of a truly wild landscape. With terrain of a tundra and a wonderland of spruce forests and glaciers, the park is home to free roaming wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep.
H&L Recommend… Exploring Denali by bus. 92 miles long, the Denali Park Road parallels the Alaska Range and travels through low valleys and high mountain passes. The sole road through the park is only open to buses so it is the best way to see the beautiful landscape and possibly wildlife sightings.
Everglades National Park, Florida
The Everglades National Park is unlike any other in the USA, due to its unusual swampy location and vast array of wildlife. Possibly one of the better known National Parks, it covers 1.5-million-acres of wetlands on the southern tip of Florida. The disguised marshy parkland is made up of coastal mangroves swamps, pine flatwoods and sawgrass prairies that are home to hundreds of animal species. Among the Everglades’ abundant wildlife are the endangered leatherback turtle, Florida panther and West Indian manatee. Climb atop Shark Valley’s 65-foot observation tower for a bird’s eye view of the Glades. One of the most popular ways of exploring the Glades is gliding over Florida Bay by tour boat or kayak for a chance to glimpse a crocodile, manatee, dolphin or the parks most sought after residents — alligators. Explore the pinelands by bike, paddle amongst the mangroves on Nine-Mile Pond, or tour the historic Nike Hercules missile base for a fun packed adventure in Everglades National Park.
H&L Recommend… Taking one of the many boat tours that leave from Flamingo and the Gulf Coast. Experience the Everglades from the water and spot wildlife on an informative tour.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Surely the most famous out of all the National Parks in the USA, the Grand Canyon combines unique geologic colour and erosional forms to decorate a canyon that is 446km long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep. It is hard to fathom the immense size of the Grand Canyon even when you are standing looking at it. It looks like a life-size postcard and truly overwhelms the senses. However there is something so brilliant about feeling so insignificantly small and to see the immeasurable power of nature. Even though the average distance across the canyon is only 10 miles, it takes 5 hours to drive the 215 miles between the park’s South Rim Village and the North Rim Village. Although this is a long drive, if you can find the time to embark on the mammoth journey it will be worth the hours spent in the car. Nearly two billion years of Earth’s geological history have been exposed as the Colorado River and its branches persistently forced their channels through layer after layer of rock while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted. Today one of the most popular things to do at the Grand Canyon is to go rafting in the Colorado River. Being down in the depths of the canyon looking up is a vantage point that should also be experienced. For thousands of years, the area has been inhabited by Native Americans, who built settlements within the canyon and its many caves. Today it is still marked as a holy place for many tribes and is managed by the Hualapai Tribal Nation, the Havasupai tribe and the Navajo Nation.
H&L Recommend… River trips. Choose from a variety of river excursions starting from a 1 day commercial river trip along to Colorado River all the way to a 12-25 day self-guided raft trip.
Another fantastic way to view the Grand Canyon is on the back of a mule. Book onto the year round mule trips from both the North and South Rim.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennesse
The Great Smoky Mountains National park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The sprawling landscape encompasses verdant forests and an overflow of wildflowers, from the earliest hepaticas in late winter to the last asters in late fall, blooming flowers can be found nearly year-round in the park. Rivers, streams and waterfalls appear along hiking routes that include a segment of the Appalachian Trail. An observation tower tops Clingmans Dome, the highest peak, offering scenic views of the mist-covered mountains. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, makes this America’s most visited national park. Hiking proves to be the most popular pastime in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hikers can enjoy the Smoky Mountains throughout the year with every season offering is own special rewards. During winter, the absence of deciduous leaves opens new vistas along trails. Spring provides a weekly parade of wildflowers and flowering trees. In summer, walkers can seek out cool retreats among the spruce-fir forests or follow mountain streams to roaring falls and cascades. Autumn hikers have crisp, dry air to sharpen their senses and a varied palette of fall colours to enjoy.
Note: Be aware of black bears- they are wild animals and can be dangerous. Do not approach. The Park works tirelessly to ensure that humans and bears can live harmoniously within the environment. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. How visitors behave while in the park has an impact on the safety of bears. For more information on protecting Black Bears and what to do if you encounter a bear please visit www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/black-bears.htm
H&L Recommend…Hike to the waterfalls. Every year over 200,000 visitors hike well-worn trails to view Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, Rainbow, and other popular waterfalls in the park. Large waterfalls attract the crowds, but smaller cascades and falls can be found on nearly every river and stream in the park.
Follow on for the next 10 beautiful American National Parks…hero-and-leander.com/americas-most-beautiful-national-parks-part-ii