Next week, from April 20th through 28th, The National Park Service is celebrating its annual National Park Week. This is the perfect opportunity for a visit to one (or more) of the 401 amazing natural places and historical sites in the national park system. Even better, from Monday, April 22nd through Friday, April 26th, admission is free to everyone.
The National Park Service uses over twenty different titles for the park units it manages, including National Monument, National Historic Site, National Battlefield Site, National Recreation Area, National Preserve and of course, the crème de la crème, National Park.
There are fifty-nine areas designated as National Parks, starting with Yellowstone in 1872 followed by California’s Yosemite and Sequoia in 1890. The most recent addition to the National Park System is Pinnacles, also located in California, which was added in January of this year.
On my recent “epic” cross-country road trip I was able to visit a few of the amazing national parks and monuments that help define America. Below are a few of my favorites:
Yosemite National Park, California
The sublime vistas of the Yosemite Valley are famous the world over, due in large part to photographers like Ansel Adams and conservationists like John Muir. Located in in central California, against the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Yosemite is internationally recognized for it’s awe-inspiring granite cliffs, Giant Sequoia groves, alpine meadows, and diverse wildlife. Some of the most amazing geological features include Half Dome and El Capitan, which loom high over the glacier-carved valley and can be seen from almost anywhere. There are several spectacular waterfalls in the park, including Bridalveil, Vernal, and Yosemite Falls, which is the highest in North America at 2,425-feet (739 meters). Everywhere you look is picture perfect. My recommendation is to drive up to Glacier Point on your way out of the park to see the most unbelievable panoramic views of the Yosemite Valley and surrounding mountain wilderness from high above.When: Yosemite National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, and no reservations are required to visit. However, during the summer, the campgrounds book up months in advance. How much: All vehicles must pay a $20 fee to enter the park, which is valid for seven days. Individuals on foot, horseback or bicycle must pay a $10 entrance fee. (If you have a National Park Pass, which costs $80 annually, you can enter at no charge.) Getting There: From the San Francisco/Bay area: Take I-580 east to I-205 east to Highway 120 east (Manteca) or Highway 140 east (Merced) into Yosemite National Park. Distance: 195 mi / 314 km Time: 4-5 hours. From Southern California/Los Angeles: Take I-5 north (or I-405 north to I-5) to Highway 99 north to Highway 41 north (Fresno) into Yosemite National Park. Distance: 313 mi / 504 km Time: 6 hours. For more information: Visit the official U.S. National Park website.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Anyone who’s seen the Grand Canyon in person would agree that pictures simply can’t do it justice. As you approach the visitor center, step out of your car and walk to the overlook, you’ll finally be able to comprehend its enormity. 277 miles (446 km) long, between four and eight miles (6.4 to 29 km) wide and over one mile (1.83 km) deep, “grand” is definitely an understatement. It’s no wonder it’s considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
The Grand Canyon attracts nearly five million visitors every year, most of whom explore the more accessible South Rim. Popular overlooks include Grand Canyon Village, Hermits Rest, and Desert View. The North Rim is harder to get to and is closed from late-October to mid-May due to snowy conditions.
There are countless ways to enjoy the great outdoors at Grand Canyon National Park, from hiking and camping to just gazing at the magnificent vistas. Visitors can take escorted mule rides down the steep trails or, for the more adventurous, there are multi-day whitewater rafting excursion on the Colorado River at the base of the canyon too. If you ever have the opportunity to visit—even if it’s just passing through on a cross-country drive—you really must do it!How to get there: From points west and east, take Interstate 40 to Williams, Arizona. Then take State Highway 64 for approximately sixty miles to the National Park’s entrance at the South Rim. How much: There is a $25 per vehicle fee to enter the National Park. For more information: Visit the official U.S. National Park’s website.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
In an isolated corner of New Mexico, not too far from the border with Texas, is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders: Carlsbad Caverns National Park. A visit to the complex of underground caves is like embarking on The Journey to the Center of the Earth. Although not the largest caverns in the world, they are among the most famous because of their diversity and beauty of mineral formations.
One of the things that surprised me most was how deep the caverns are. From the visitor center, you take an elevator 750 feet (229 meters) down. That’s the equivalent of a seventy-five-story building! After you reach a vestibule at the bottom, you pass through set of doors into the caverns. The air is quite humid and it takes some time to adjust to the dim lighting. The largest chamber at Carlsbad Caverns is aptly named the Big Room. At almost 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) long, 625 feet (191 meters) wide, and 255 feet (78 meters) high at the tallest point, it’s the third largest chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world.
A 1.25-mile (2 km) path follows a counter-clockwise route down one side of the chambers and back along the other. Visitors are greeted with countless stalactites (the formations that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that point up). I learned a new term on my visit: speleothems, which is the all-encompassing term for the different types of these decorative rock forms. They take many shapes, depending on whether the water drips, seeps, condenses, flows, or pools. Rainwater trickles down through the soil and picks up carbon dioxide gas, creating carbonic acid. This acid slowly dissolves the limestone in the earth, and then re-deposits it in the cave as calcite decorations.Where: Carlsbad Caverns is located at 727 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, New Mexico 88220. The park’s entrance is off U.S. Highway 62/180 approximately 18 miles (29 km) from Carlsbad, New Mexico. The nearest large city is El Paso, Texas, about 151 miles away. When: Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open daily except Christmas Day. Fall/Winter/Spring hours at the Visitor Center are 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. The last cavern entry via the Natural Entrance – 2:00 p.m.; Via elevator – 3:30 p.m. Summer hours at the Visitor Center are 8:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.; The last cavern entry via the Natural Entrance – 3:30 p.m.; Via elevator – 5:00 p.m. How Much: Adults – $6, Children 15 and under – Free Dont Forget: This deep in the earth, the temperature is quite cool year-round at 56 °F (13 °C). Bring a long sleeve shirt or light jacket and be sure to wear rubber-soled shoes, as the pathways are often damp and slippery. For More Information: Visit the official U.S. National Park website.
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Pristine mounds of sparkling white sand rise like waves in the bleak desert landscape of southern New Mexico. But it’s not ordinary sand. It’s actually gypsum, or more specifically, crystallized gypsum called “selenite.” Gypsum is a mineral that’s commonly used in the making of drywall and plaster for casts, also known as “Plaster of Paris.” While many dune fields exist around the world, most are made up of brown quartz and other minerals; only a handful of gypsum dune fields are known. In order to protect and preserve the world’s largest gypsum dune field, White Sands National Monument was established in 1933 and has been drawing visitors ever since.
The entrance to White Sands National Monument is located off U.S. Highway 70, 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Alamogordo and 52 miles (84 km) east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. For a nominal fee, visitors can drive along an 8-mile (13 km) roadway leading into the dunes. The surrounding views are otherworldly. Along the road are several places to pull over and snap photos or just play in the sand. It’s even permitted to sled down the dunes on plastic saucers, the same kind used for snow play. You can park near the end of Dunes Drive to have a picnic too. With their curving, cocoon-like aluminum roofs, the picnic tables look like they belong in a science fiction film. There are four marked trails for exploring and, in the summer months, there are also Ranger-guided orientation and nature walks as well.Where: The visitor center is located off U.S. Highway 70, 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Alamogordo and 52 miles (84 km) east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Travelers coming from Carlsbad Caverns can take U.S. 82 through the scenic Sacramento Mountains to reach White Sands National Monument. When: Park hours vary throughout the year. During the summer (Memorial Day through Labor Day), the Dunes Drive may be entered between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. All visitors must exit the park by 10 p.m. During the rest of the year, the Dunes Drive may be entered from 7 a.m. to sunset, and visitors must exit the park by one hour after sunset. The park Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer. Fall hours are from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the rest of the year. How Much: Entrance fees are $3 per adult (16 and over). Children are free. National Park passes allow free entrance. Don’t forget: Bring plenty of water, as there aren’t any fountains inside the park, and don’t forget sunscreen or your sunglasses—the white dunes reflect the sunlight, which is blinding. For more information: Visit the official U.S. National Park website.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
One of the greatest symbols of the American Southwest is the tall and stately saguaro cactus. Reaching heights of 60 feet (18 meters), the only place in the world where they grow natively is in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, southeastern California and northern Mexico. These mighty cacti can live upwards of 150 years and are an important part of the desert ecosystem. Thousands of them are protected in Saguaro National Park, which is located just outside Tucson, Arizona. The park is actually split into two separate areas, Saguaro East (the Rincon Mountain District) and Saguaro West (the Tucson Mountain District) with the sprawling city of Tucson in between.
For a $10 vehicle fee, visitors gain access to a scenic eight-mile (13 km) loop that snakes through the arid desert landscape. On the road, there are plenty of vista points to pull over to for taking photographs. Besides the saguaros, which stand tall like sentinels over the dusty terrain, the park features numerous other species of cactus and low-lying bushes as well. A great time to visit is in the spring or summer, when desert wildflowers in gold, orange, and purple fill the spaces in between. Coyotes, foxes, jackrabbits, desert tortoises, and javelinas (wild pigs) and birds such as hawks, owls, roadrunners, and woodpeckers call this desert environment home.
Saguaro National Park is a great place for hiking, although in the summer months temperatures can reach above 105ºF (41ºC). At night, the temperature hovers around a still balmy 75ºF (24ºC). During winter, the temperature ranges between 40ºF (5ºC) and 18 ºF (- 8ºC). Even with sudden and fierce thunderstorms in summer, the desert averages less than twelve inches (30.5 cm) of rain annually.Getting there: By plane: The nearest city is Tucson, Arizona (TUS). By car: Tucson, as well as both districts of Saguaro National Park, is located off Interstate 10 in southeastern Arizona. The entrance for East Saguaro (Rincon Mountain District) is at 3693 South Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, AZ 85730. West Saguaro (Tucson Mountain District) is at 2700 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona 85743. How much: All vehicles must pay a $10 fee to enter the park, which is valid for seven days. Individuals on foot or bicycle must pay a $5 entrance fee. (If you have a National Park Pass, which costs $80 annually, you can enter at no charge.) When: Both districts have visitor centers, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, as well as a scenic loop drive, open from 7:00 a.m. to sunset daily. Don’t forget: Always bring plenty of water and sunscreen, no matter what time of year you visit. For more information: Visit the official U.S. National Park website.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Although most U.S. national parks preserve unique geographic features, Florida’s Everglades National Park was the first created to protect a fragile ecosystem. Making up the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, the Everglades are a network of wetlands and forests fed by a river flowing only .25 miles (0.40 km) per day out of Lake Okeechobee southwest into the Florida Bay. The largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere, this marine estuary is home to thirty-six protected species, including the elusive Florida panther, American crocodile, and West Indian manatee. Countless other species of birds, fish, mammals and reptiles also call the Everglades home. Currently about 1.5 million acres, the Everglades is only a fraction of its original size. Encroaching cities have necessitated the preservation of this endangered ecosystem. Private airboat operators currently offer tours on the outskirts of the park’s wilderness. These operators are located off of U.S. Highway 41/Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami.Getting there: Visitors coming from the Miami area and points north should take the Florida Turnpike (Route 821) south until it ends merging with U.S. 1 at Florida City. Turn right at the first traffic light onto Palm Drive (State Road 9336/SW 344th St.) and follow the signs to the Ernest Coe Visitor Center at 40001 State Road 9336, Homestead, FL 33034. How much: All vehicles must pay a $10 fee to enter the park at any entrance, which is valid for seven days. Individuals on foot or bicycle must pay a $5 entrance fee. (If you have a National Park Pass, which costs $80 annually, you can enter at no charge.) When: The Ernest Coe Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Don’t forget: Always bring plenty of water and sunscreen. It’s also recommended to wear long sleeves and avoid mosquitoes. For more information: Visit the official U.S. National Park website.
If you’re planning a trip that includes multiple national parks, you might consider the $80 annual pass that provides entrance to all national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, and many other Federal lands. This America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is offered free to all active duty military members and their dependents as well. Information on these and other pass options is available online. Seniors (U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents, ages 62 and over) can get a specially priced lifetime pass for only $10.
Which are your favorite U.S. National Parks? Feel free to comment in the section below!
Michael Figueiredo is a freelance travel writer based in Los Angeles, California. When he’s not gallivanting around the world, he’s enjoying the laid-back lifestyle and perfect weather of Southern California. So far he’s visited forty countries and territories on five continents. His goal is to see at least one new country every year! . Read more from this author