The Top 10 National Parks in Western USA You Can’t Miss – Part 1
National Parks are the almost universal way for nations to preserve their most spectacular natural and cultural attractions. Collectively, they shout out to us: “These are the world’s most amazing places,” and compel us to come and see them for ourselves. It seems Mother Nature has blessed the United States West with an undue portion of these wonders. And so, a visit to the American West is –or should be—high on everyone’s bucket list.
While it is always a challenge to rank natural and cultural attractions—it depends on the criteria you choose–here is our choice of the top ten National Parks in the US West. We’ll start with Yellowstone, and work counter-clockwise.
To Yellowstone National Park goes the honour of originating the National Parks movement; it was the world’s first, established in 1871. Yellowstone’s plethora of attractions almost all relate to the geologic “hot-spot” that sits below the Earth’s surface and, in copious quantities, emerges through the earth’s surface fissures. You’ll find about 10,000 hydrothermal features in Yellowstone, including half of all the world’s known geysers. The most famous, of course, is “Old Faithful,” which erupts about every 90 minutes. But the tallest, indeed the World’s tallest, is Steamboat Geyser, reaching a height of 300 ft. (91.4 m.)
Fumeroles, mud pots and hot springs also abound, with their vast array of colours and spectacular formations. No visit to Yellowstone would be complete without taking in the colours of Grand Prismatic Spring or the travertine terraces near Mammoth Hot Springs.
But the hydrothermal vents have also created a nutrient-rich ecosystem that has become the home to a wide range of flora and fauna. The preservation initiatives of Park authorities have added to make it a paradise for those searching out wildlife, including wolves, bison, bears, elk, cougars, and many more mammals and birds. Indeed, many come here primarily for the wildlife spotting. And you will never miss!
The number of people visiting Yellowstone every year is growing to the extent that the Park may soon face visiting restrictions. It’s one place you’ll want to book your ticket to before those restrictions make it too difficult to visit.
Crater Lake National Park is also of volcanic origin, but entirely different from Yellowstone. It is, in fact the collapsed caldera of the massive Mount Mazama that formed 7,700 years ago during a period of violent eruptions in the Cascade Mountain Range. The caldera is a nearly symmetrical 4000-ft. drop from its rim to its bed. Water fills nearly half of that, with the lake boasting a 1949 ft (594 m.) depth at its deepest, making it the deepest lake in the United States and ninth deepest in the world. The rim of the caldera ranges about 7000-8000 ft (2133 – 2438 m.) above sea level.
The Lake is distinguished by its iridescent blue waters. The circular rim drive provides numerous vistas through a broad range of high mountain scenic photo frames, but always, the water’s clear deep blue hue dominates the scene. The other renowned feature is Wizard Island, a cinder cone that rises 764 ft (233 m.) out of the water near its western edge. The Park has many other small cinder cones surrounding the lake itself, and is also filled with numerous hiking trails.
Crater Lake is remarkable, furthermore, in that it has no streams flowing into or out of it. It is maintained strictly from the precipitation, in the form of rain, and the massive amount of snow that falls directly into it from September to June, and then is subsequently lost only through evaporation or sub-surface seepage. Although the park is open year-round, the massive snow accumulations typically close the Rim Drive from October until May or June, with East section possibly not being reopened until July. So, you will need to plan your visit carefully!
Yosemite National Park is a glacially shaped landscape in the heart of California’s high Sierra Nevada mountains. The Park has a great variety of natural features that have been seared into many a traveller’s memory, the most notable scene being “Tunnel View,” the iconic vista of Bridalveil Fall, between the tall granite rock faces of Half Dome and El Capitan.
The iconic Half Dome at the eastern end the valley, challenges hikers and climbers alike. The route up the back side of the dome is a 10 – 12-hr. strenuous hike for a fit hiker. Much of it is through giant forest but, along the way, you’ll also get outstanding views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Half Dome, and–from the shoulder and summit–panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra. Numerous easier hikes are available in the Yosemite Valley for those not up the Dome Challenge. The face of the Dome, at the opposite end of the scale, has become the ultimate challenge to many a rock climber.
But Yosemite is so much more that granite views and long hikes. It is renowned also for its giant sequoia treesfor the glacially-carved Yosemite River valley; for its eroded high elevation boulder fields and rock formations; for the grand vista from Tioga Pass of the Eastern slope of the Sierras, a scene that some rank among the top vistas on the planet; and for its famous chronicler, Ansel Adams, whose black and white impressions of the Park can be appreciated in the Yosemite Village Gallery that bears his name. Buy one of them, and the souvenir you take home could be an investment.
You’d think you were in the Sahara Desert, given the heat and barrenness of Death Valley. And then you notice that the built-up areas have names like Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. Yes, it is hot here (116⁰ F/47⁰C, average July high temperature). But it is also tremendously fascinating if you like desert landscapes, from rolling sand dunes to the intensely serrated salt pan known as “Devil’s Golf Course” (not a golf course, at all), to the “Race Track,” where supposedly moving rocks (whose movement no one has yet witnessed) leave behind their tell-tale tracks. The landscape is vast, barren and mysterious.
But there is also the beauty of Zabriskie Point and Artist’s Palette, rivalling colourful rock formations found anywhere. And if you’re into extremes, you’ll find Badwater, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere, at 282 ft (86 m.) below sea level. Ironically, from there, you can almost see the highest point in the continental USA, Mt. Whitney, at 14,494 ft. (4417 m.) above sea level. And, the best part? Although there is a campsite and some indoor accommodations, unless you really want to spend several days in the heat, you can easily access Death Valley’s many attractions for day trips from either brim of the valley.
Although described as “one of nature’s most distinctive and peculiar creations,” how many Joshua trees do you need to see before they become boring? Fortunately, the National Park that’s named after this iconic tree, offers much more than millions of them. The official National Parks guide is entitled “The outer limits of reality;” this vast area of southern California is characterized by stark desert landscapes and rugged rock formations. “It was like visiting an alien landscape,” wrote one visitor. The Park itself, straddles two deserts, the low-lying Colorado Desert, and the much higher—and cooler—Mojave Desert.
Despite limited vegetation beyond the ubiquitous cacti and Joshua trees, the park harbours a surprising variety of wildlife, from Bighorn sheep to kangaroo rats to coyotes. Lying along the Pacific migratory bird flyway, a large number of bird species are also observed, whether flying overhead or stopping for a rest on their long journeys. The Park is also a favorite hiking destination, offering hikes of all difficulty levels that provide sweeping vistas of the mystical terrain, as well as a variety of rock-climbing options and fabulous stargazing.
Nine campgrounds and four official Visitors’ Centres attest to its popularity, yet its vastness and diversity still allows one to escape the crowds and find the tranquility that wild landscapes afford. But, with the increased attention the Park is receiving, one is well advised to plan that trip soon, before that can no longer be assured.
All but Joshua Tree National Park are included on West Adventures’ Western Kaleidoscope: Landscapes and Lights of the American West tour.
Part 2 of this article next week will feature the five top-ten national parks of the Colorado River Basin, starting with the Grandest Canyon of them all.