In the United States, 59 national parks are scattered across the country, ranging from the very large—Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska—to the very small: Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania. In 2011, over 278 million people visited the parks—but how can you decide which ones to visit yourself?
Before you head off on your national park adventure, though, you should consider how to keep your family safe and healthy while exploring the wilderness. Carry a first-aid kit with you at all times in case a family member takes a fall or has a nasty encounter with some stinging nettles. Also, make sure to tell someone at home where you’ll be, and carry a cell phone with GPS to help you maintain your bearings on deserted trails. And consider purchasing a travel medical insurance policy before your trip begins; doing so will ensure coverage no matter where you are to help you avoid overwhelming medical bills later.
Read on for some information on a few national parks to help you decide which you must visit this year and which might be better saved for next vacation season.
America’s first national park
Yellowstone National park, which spans across portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, was first declared a national park—and therefore safe from industrial development—by Congress in 1872. This beautiful 2.2-million-acre space contains a host of unique natural features like Old Faithful, a geyser that erupts almost like clockwork every 60 to 110 minutes. The park is also home to animals like bison, bears and elk. Yellowstone is the best-known American national park for a reason; it should definitely be at the top of your list of must-visit places.
The Grandest of the grand
From Yellowstone, travel 10 miles south on the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway to Grand Teton National Park. Breathtaking views of Grand Teton itself—a 13,770-foot peak—and the rest of the Teton Range will mark themselves indelibly on your memory, so beautiful and magnificent are they. The park is a popular spot for outdoor activities like fishing, mountaineering and hiking—including over 200 miles of foot trails—so you’ll be sure to find plenty to keep you busy there.
Mind the gap
Heading partway across the country, you’ll find Cumberland Gap National Historical Park on the border among Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. This out-of-the-way park covers far less ground than the previous two—only 32 square miles—but what it lacks in size it makes up for in natural beauty. The area’s singular rock formations and waterfalls helped earn it a spot on the list of national parks, and options for entertaining activities abound. Would-be spelunkers might consider a park ranger-led tour of Gap Cave, and history buffs will enjoy a visit to Hensley Settlement, a living history museum located at the top of Brush Mountain.
Ending your parks tour in the eastern part of the country, Acadia National Park is located—and incorporates the tallest mountain range—on the Atlantic coast. The first national park located east of the Mississippi River, Acadia’s spectacular granite peaks offer a unique East Coast experience. Keep busy by hiking, bicycling along historic carriage roads or visiting Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse on Mount Desert Island; the lighthouse itself is a private residence, but you can enjoy the view from the short trails on either side.
A visit to a national park is sure to be a memorable experience for you and your family; instilling a passion for the outdoors in your children from a young age is especially important to maintaining our treasured outdoor spaces for generations to come. So pack up your family and head to one of these four parks—or to any of the 55 others open to visitors across our great nation.