You’re somewhere along Yellowstone ’s Grand Loop Road, idling behind a hulking Range Rover in a long line of rubbernecking “outdoorsmen,” when it hits you: this isn’t a National Park. It’s a National Parking Lot.
Tourists paid some 280 million visits to our 59 civic playgrounds in 2011, but most stayed on or near the main roads. Yet some of the most startling views on the planet—the jagged 2,000-foot walls of Black Canyon of the Gunnison , say, or the red rock bridges of Arches —are best (and sometimes only) seen when you leave the paved world behind to go off on your own two feet.
It’s a lesson Ansel Adams learned early on. In 1916, at age 14, he was scrambling around the glacier-carved granite boulders of Yosemite Valley with a Box Brownie camera. If he’d stuck to the streets in the ensuing years, he may never have taken the photos that jump-started the Sierra Club or prompted Franklin Roosevelt to establish Kings Canyon National Park , southeast of Yosemite. Instead, Adams immortalized the “primal song of the wilderness,” as he put it, and inspired millions to seek it themselves. Follow Adams’s logic and you’ll find breath-stealing views everywhere in national parks.
So which views rank at the top? We asked those who have spied them all: park employees. Patrick Meyers, who’s worked as a ranger at Colorado ’s Great Sand Dunes National Park for 20 years, nominated the top of Mount Herard. Hike up the mountain through all sorts of ecosystems, he said, and from the 13,297-foot summit you can see 30 square miles of the Great Sand Dunes, with the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range in the distance.
In Wyoming ’s Grand Tetons , you can trek through lodgepole pine forests to Leigh Lake’s east shore, plop yourself down on a soft, white sand beach, and stare up at flat-topped Mount Moran—the fourth highest peak in the Teton range. It’s the favorite view of Jackie Skaggs, one of the park’s public affairs officers. Get an early start and you might spot black bears (carry pepper spray), moose, and birds like flycatchers and white pelicans. “This is simply a magical place,” Skaggs says. “I’ve lived and worked in Grand Teton National Park for 33 years, and I still get goose bumps here.”
So check out our picks for the most spectacular spots in the country’s national park system, and discover your own. Just be sure to park that car and start hiking.