Celebrate a century of the American Park Service by exploring the system’s very best national parks, from arctic Denali to tropical Dry Tortugas. Americans sometimes forget how truly immense the United States is, but a list of national parks (currently numbering 58 and totaling 84 million acres) will do much to remind them—and that’s not even counting the other 352 national monuments, seashores, preserves, battlefields, and other designated areas set aside by the Park Service. Travel + Leisure can help you navigate the park system’s most popular destinations as well as point out the under-appreciated gems hiding in plain sight.
For over a century, millions of visitors have sought out the dramatic vistas, spellbinding wildlife, and delicate ecosystems on display in America’s national parks. Congress created the National Park Service in 1916, though the first national park predated it by over forty years. (Wyoming did not yet exist when the federal government established Yellowstone in 1872, meaning it rather than a state government had to run the park.) The work of politicians and advocates such as John Muir, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt helped lay the ground for a truly astounding network of natural, national treasures, owned in part by every American citizen. (Those wanting to beef up on their national park trivia should check out the 2009 Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.)
National park vacations are more popular than ever before: breaking attendance records with 307.2 million visits in 2015. The most popular park in the system is Great Smoky Mountains on the Tennessee/North Carolina border, due in part to its proximity to major population centers and its year-round visitor friendly climate. If you count all the designated areas that fall within the National Park Service’s purview, the breathtaking Blue Ridge Parkway is its most visited site, followed close behind by Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Lincoln Memorial, and Lake Mead. The parks that regularly chart at the top for popularity are Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Olympic, Grand Teton, Acadia, and Glacier. These parks, despite the millions of other visitors angling to visit, are worth the trouble. In general, plan around the month of July, when school summer vacations are at their zenith.
The Park System is just as full of less-visited parks just as deserving of your time and attention: American Samoa in the middle of the Pacific, Isle Royale in Lake Superior, Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona’s Painted Desert, Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, Olympic in western Washington State, California Channel Islands along the coast. For the frequent traveler, buy a season pass and try out some of the system’s historic park lodges, which are iconic as they are comfortable.
Explore this magnificent national inheritance with T+L: check back soon for the latest.