From towering mountains to vast deserts, culture & history to sports & recreation, there is incredible diversity within the US National Park system. But which are the truly must-see places?
As RVers, we often have unprecedented opportunities to explore the National Parks, but with so many to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. If you only think about the 61 National Parks, you’d be forgetting the other 350+ National Park Units – including National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Lakeshores and many more!
Our Top 5 National Parks
We’re often asked to choose our favorite National Park; it’s a question we really struggle with.
The reality is that almost every park has something unique to offer – some way in which it is our favorite. But when it comes down to it, there are a few National Parks that really stand out for us – these are the ones we’d recommend as “must see” National Parks.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park in California is a truly incredible place – unlike almost anywhere else on Earth. It’s a land of extremes. As well as being the hottest and driest place in North America, it’s also home to the lowest point in North America – 282ft below sea level.
But Death Valley is so much more than the hot, dry desert it first seems to be. Spring rains can turn the parched land into a patchwork of wildflowers – and if conditions are just right, you may be lucky enough to see a super bloom as we did in 2016.
Or perhaps you’ve heard of the Sailing Stones – rocks that seemingly move of their own accord across Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa. Although scientists have now shown the effect is caused by wind and ice, it’s still a magical place to visit.
If you do visit, be sure to come prepared. Death Valley is huge, spanning over 3.3 million acres! In fact, the rough, washboard road to Racetrack Playa takes several hours to drive. We chose to come back along a trail through the towering peaks – only to be met with several inches of fresh snow. Who would have thought that the first and only time we have used snow chains on our truck would have been in Death Valley!
Channel Islands National Park
In our increasingly connected world, it’s growing ever harder to truly disconnect. Even in the National Parks, civilization often doesn’t feel too far away.
Not so at Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California. An hour-long ferry journey separates you from the mainland. If you take the opportunity, like we did, to spend a couple of nights camping in a tent, you begin to disconnect and really appreciate the area.
The islands offer so much to do: kayaking around the rugged shoreline, reading a book on the sunny beaches, hiking across the island, or just relaxing and absorbing the beauty all around. But whatever you do, make sure to keep an eye out for the Island Fox – these small foxes are sneaky and always on the lookout for unattended food!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks are all worthy of a visit, and they’re all close enough that a road trip between them is a great option! But Bryce Canyon National Park stands out for its sheer surrealism.
While the large, irregular columns of rocks known as hoodoos are found across the world, Bryce Canyon is home to the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth. Along with its bright red rocks, and colorful cliffs, you can spend hours just sitting and soaking in the view.
If you are up for a little more adventure, then follow one of the trails as it weaves in and out, up and down, through and between the hoodoos. The only way to truly appreciate the magnitude of the rock formations is to stand underneath them and look up at them, towering overhead.
Mesa Verde National Park
For something a little less active, be sure to check out Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. As well as being a National Park, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reflecting its critical role in protecting some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan ruins.
Amongst the 5,000 known archaeological sites including 500 cliff dwellings, perhaps the best known is Cliff Palace. You’ll need to join one of the excellent Ranger-guided tours to see the sites, but for something you can follow at your own pace, the 6-mile scenic Mesa Top Loop Drive is worth doing. The accompanying guidebook includes numerous stops to see attractions along the way.
Saguaro National Park
Split across two regions either side of Tucson in Arizona, Saguaro National Park is home to the iconic cactus of the southwest – the Saguaro. Growing up to 40ft tall and weighing over 4,000lbs, you might be surprised to learn that their roots are only 6 inches beneath the surface.
Tucson Mountain District on the west of Tucson is the smaller of the two regions, but is well worth a visit. Aside from several hikes (short and long) around the cacti, there’s a scenic drive with some stunning petroglyphs.
On the east side of town, Rincon Mountain District has many miles of hiking trails, but I’d recommend the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. Although most will choose to drive this 8-mile scenic road is it weaves through the cacti, we opted to cycle instead.
Other Favorite National Parks and Monuments
Of course, our top 5 above are just scratching the surface of what’s on offer across the National Parks.
Thanks to their protected status, the National Parks are great places to see some of the nation’s most spectacular wildlife in untouched landscapes. Yellowstone National Park is home to nearly 300 species of birds and 67 species of mammal – including bison, cougars, black bears, grizzly bears, wolves and river otters.
If you’re a cyclist, the 33-mile Rim Drive around Crater Lake National Park is one of the most beautiful bike rides – especially if you time it when there aren’t any cars! Alternatively, Colorado National Monument’s Rim Rock Drive offers riders canyons and glorious views on its 23-mile hilly route.
While the National Parks are renowned for their natural beauty, many areas are protected for their historical significance too.
Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah commemorates the site where the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined their tracks, creating the country’s first Transcontinental Railroad.
With historical reenactments and beautifully restored trains, history is quite literally brought to life and makes for a great family day out.
Matt Knight | SKP # 142499
Matt Knight hit the road full-time with his partner Diana in their 25 ft Outdoors RV travel trailer. They are on a quest to visit and explore all 400+ National Park Units across the US.
Combining their shared passions for technology and photography, they are meticulously documenting their journey on their Adventurous Way website and YouTube channel. They hope to inspire and educate others to get out and responsibly enjoy the National Parks.
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