During our mammoth one month road trip around the Western United States, we managed to visit a total of 13 national parks. Although some highlights of our trip included time in the cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Las Vegas; the national parks undoubtedly provided the most awe-inspiring moments and incredible scenery from our trip.
With landscapes as varied as the country they preside in, we found each national park had its own personality and atmosphere. Whether it be the rocky, desert-scape of Joshua Tree or the misty, drift wood laden beaches of Olympic, every park provided new scenery and unique experiences.
Whittling these amazing parks down to a list of our favourite five was incredibly difficult, and wasn’t without heated debate! Mostly because of the wide area that we covered, but mainly due to the variation in what we did as well as the ever-changing country-side that we found across the US. That being said we got there in the end and so here is a list (in no order) of our favourite five national parks in the Western United States;
1. SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON
Sequoia is known primarily for one thing…. its mighty Sequoia trees. Although these majestic giants aren’t the tallest in the world, they are definitely the largest by volume and people flock from all over to stand at the foot of the park’s pride and joy; the General Sherman Tree. Standing at over 83 meters tall and with a base circumference of over 31 meters, standing next to this gigantic wooden column makes you feel dwarfed by the power of Mother Nature.
Along with the second biggest tree in the world (the General Grant) and hundreds of their smaller (but still colossal) companions dotted among the Redwoods, Sequoia and Kings Canyon provide some amazing neck wrenching hikes through what must be one of the most formidable forested areas in the world.
That being said, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks aren’t all about the trees. Just on the drive from camp to a trail head, you can expect to stop a dozen times to take in the views of the surrounding landscape. Some roads are at such altitude that from these heights the gargantuan trees below look like match sticks and these vistas are worth a visit in themselves.
Perhaps one of the most famous national parks in the United States, Yosemite deserves every bit of the fame it enjoys. The park’s main draw for the hundreds of thousands of visitors each year is its giant half dome. Nestled into the rocky heart at the centre of the park, this peculiar shaped summit can be seen from miles around. Despite its popularity there are only a set number of places available each day for hikers to slog the fourteen mile round trip to its base before climbing the dome’s death defying steps to the peak.
Although half dome is the centre piece in Yosemite’s crown, it definitely isn’t the only thing on offer in this beautiful park. Home to North America’s highest waterfall (Yosemite falls) as well as hundreds of shorter treks, the park boasts towering granite cliffs, staggering vistas, ancient forests that are teeming with wildlife and lush green meadows.
Our favourite hike was to the top of Vernal Falls. A very popular route, this trek takes a while as it involves approximately 300 pretty steep steps right at the end of the hike. That being said, the views of the falls both from below and from the top are worth every drop of sweat and every swear word you mutter on the way up.
Home to the misty forests of the North West, the Olympic peninsula is home to some of the most stunning scenery the United States has to offer. With a large Native American population, this area has a proud and ancient heritage; some of the most beautiful scenery is on Native American reservations.
Amongst the foggy, cloud shrouded forests lurk stunningly blue lakes with crystal clear water as well as lofty mountains that climb out of the trees and dominate the skyline above. Home to where the Twilight novels were set, there are signs offering tours and memorabilia. That being said, none of the movies were shot here so don’t turn up expecting to see any of the movie locations!
La Push beach is perhaps one of the most amazing beaches that we have ever visited. It is true that you wouldn’t want to throw on a swim suit and try to get a tan. In fact, if you turn up to this beach in anything less than a winter jacket, you are going to be cold. With entire drift wood tree trunks littering the coarse, grey pebbles and mist hanging low over the raging seas; it is a place of bleak and rugged beauty. The scene is completed by a few tiny islands that lie just of the shore with their tops smothered by mist.
No visit to the peninsula would be complete without heading inland from Port Angeles and climbing to the top of Hurricane Ridge in the northern part of Olympic National Park. From its soaring viewpoint it is possible to see Canada across the sea as well as Mount Olympus and its neighbouring snow-capped peaks.
The grandfather of National parks across the world, Yellowstone was the very first natural area ever to be designated a national park way back in 1872. Home to over half of the planets thermal features it is easy to see why President Grant decided that it should be protected.
With a relatively flat and forested backdrop, Yellowstone national park is geyser country. Home to ‘Old Faithful’, one of the world’s largest frequently erupting geysers as well as around five hundred other, smaller thermal features; there is no shortage of things to see here. The chemicals and heat in these thermal pools create some of the most vivid colours that nature is capable of and with gurgling mud pools next to seemingly bottomless azure blue pools, it is easy to think you are on another planet altogether.
Huge expanses of grassy plains stretch into the distance from the road and bison roam care free throughout the park. With around one thousand grizzly and black bears in residence at the park, this is where the big boys of the animal kingdom live.
Just across the road from the majestic Canyonlands national park, Arches hits our top five purely for the impressive natural phenomena which earned the park its name. With over 2000 naturally formed arches dotting its already astounding boulder strewn desert plains, this park seems to defy gravity with huge stone bridges stretching seemingly impossible distances.
With a sparse, desert landscape, the sandy rock here is eroded over thousands of years to form the famous arches. These formations are collapsing and forming even today with the most recent collapse being Wall arch, which tumbled down in 2008.
Even with the town of Moab only five minutes from the park entrance, the park is still a remarkable place from which to view the night sky. On a cloudless night the milky way can be seen easily and the stars are so bright that they seem to twinkle constantly. Although Bryce Canyon boasts some of the darkest night skies in the continental US, Arches is definitely a place for star gazers to get lost in the cosmos.
Out of the thirteen national parks we visited, we decided the above five to be our favourite due to the varied landscape and scenery provided by each. Each and every park we visited was incredibly different and we enjoyed our time in every one. If you have the time to explore the national parks in the western USA, then you will be spoilt for choice!
If this post had been a top ten instead of a favourite five, we would have had no problem filling all ten slots. For that reason we have decided to give an honourable mention to the parks that just missed out on making our list. Joshua Tree NP in southern California was the setting for one of the most magical sunsets we have ever seen. Also, getting that perfect picture at Grand Tetons NP where iconic mountains tower over reflective lakes and sweeping grass plains was worth the visit in itself. Finally, the geology of Bryce Canyon NP, with its precarious hoodoos created one of the most surreal environments that we encountered on our travels.
How many of the USA’s national parks have you explored? Which parks were your favourites? We would love to hear from you, let us know if there’s a place you believe should be on our list!