What We Can Learn in U.S. National Parks
What can we learn from a country’s national parks? Why does a government decide to get into the business of park management anyway? Doesn’t it have other things to worry about, like national defense, taxes, crime, healthcare, education, and the mail?
It turns out that nature can sometimes transcend even the most basic tasks of governing.
National Parks may just be a rare example of a government acting on virtue alone. Yosemite was the place that started it all. When European settlers were conquesting westward across the land that’s now the lower U.S. 48, they came upon the Yosemite Valley and their view of property rights was suddenly up-ended. This place was so magnificent that it was inconceivable that it could belong to any one person or private company; the government decided it needed to be common property.
If you’ve ever been to Yosemite, you understand.
So as the Civil War raged on, on June 30, 1864 — three days after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and three months before the fictional Scarlett O’Hara helps to deliver Melanie Wilkes’s child as Atlanta is burned to the ground — President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Yosemite Grant of 1864, which gave the area known as Yosemite to California for safekeeping.
Nearly ten years later, it was agreed that Yellowstone needed special protection too, and on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant, after his Civil War victory, signed into law a bill that created Yellowstone as the country’s first National Park.
(Can you guess what the second National Park was? And why it’s no longer considered a National Park?)
In 1916, forty-four years after Yellowstone’s designation as “First,” Congress passed legislation that created the National Park Service as a division of the Department of the Interior. The law was known as the “Organic Act.” Its mission was “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
There are now 61 (scratch that — 62, as of December 2019) National Parks designated by Congress in the United States of America. Twenty-eight states have at least one, California has the most, Alaska has a lot. In 2017, 84 million people visited those parks.
And an appreciative word about National Park Rangers. In addition to protecting and managing the parks, they lead tours on geography, archaeology, nature, animals, biodiversity and astronomy — most of them free. Get ready for a long and wild post below because all 62 U.S. National Parks are listed, with links to the ranger-led programs at each.
How many have you been to? Which one is your favorite? What’s one of the most interesting things you learned in a U.S. National Park?
1. Acadia National Park, Maine
More than three million people visit Maine’s famous National Park every year. Ranger programs offer everything from bicycle tours and boat cruises to botany walks, geology walks, and hawk watches.
American Samoa is a U.S. territory consisting of five South Pacific islands and two coral atolls (atoll: a ring-shaped coral reef that encircles a lagoon partially or completely). The land area is slightly larger than Washington D.C. Tutulia, the largest island, is home to the capital, Pago Pago. Divided between the islands Tutlia, Ofu, and Ta’u, is the National Park of American Samoa. The park has a Homestay Program that provides an opportunity for visitors to become acquainted with Samoan people and culture in a village setting by staying with residents of local villages.
3. Arches National Park, Utah
So named for its more than 2,000 sandstone arches caused by its location atop a huge underground salt bed. Park rangers offer guided hikes and summer stargazing tours and three commercial tour operators have concession contracts to provide four-wheel guided educational tours of the park.
4. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Nearly 250,000 acres of fossil-rich geological wonder. Plus lots of prairie dogs. Badlands offers hiking, camping, and bicycling. is well known for its stargazing and it even hosts its own three-day annual Astronomy Festival in July. (Plus Bruce Springsteen’s song Badlands is best listened to here, volume up loud. In a pink Cadillac convertible, if possible.)
5. Big Bend National Park, Texas
In far West Texas, bordering Mexico, Big Bend offers lots of guided ranger tours with cool names like Sun Fun: Observing our Nearest Star, Bear Country, Uncovering the Past, and Dark Animal Superpowers.
6. Biscayne National Park, Florida
Located in Biscayne Bay, this park at the north end of the Florida Keys has four interrelated marine ecosystems: the mangrove forest, the Bay, the Keys, and coral reefs. Threatened animals include the West Indian manatee, American crocodile, various sea turtles, and peregrine falcon. Guided tours include snorkeling, diving, sailing, bowfishing, and seaplaning.
7. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Located in Southwest Colorado, the park protects a quarter of the Gunnison River, whose job it has been for thousands of years to patiently and artistically slice sheer canyon walls from dark Precambrian-era rock. The canyon features some of the steepest cliffs and oldest rock in North America. The outdoor activities are wicked here and include kayaking, rafting, hiking, climbing, fishing and horseback riding, but there are far fewer ranger-guided tours than at other parks. The rangers do offer a 90-minute hour boat tour of the Morrow Point Reservoir.
8. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
9. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
This landscape was eroded into a maze of canyons, buttes, and mesas by the combined efforts of the Colorado River, Green River, and their tributaries, which divide the park into three districts. The park also contains rock pinnacles and arches, as well as artifacts from Ancient Pueblo peoples. Several tour operators are authorized to guide for hiking, biking, four-wheel driving, white water rafting, canoeing, and jet boating.
10. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Reef encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the earth’s crust that is 65 million years old. It is the largest exposed monocline in North America. (Monocline: a bend in rock strata that are otherwise uniformly dipping or horizontal.) The park is filled with canyons, cliffs, domes, bridges, and arches. Ranger programs include guided tours about geology, astronomy, and the environment.
11. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns has 117 caves, the longest of which is over 120 miles (190 km) long. The Big Room is almost 4,000 feet (1,200 m) long, and the caves are home to over 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats and sixteen other species. Rangers guide you on a number of different cave hikes, and Carlsbad also participates in the Night Skies stargazing programs.
12. Channel Islands National Park, California
Five of the eight Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California are a National Park and all eight are designated as a UNESCO biosphere. Half of the park’s area is underwater. The largest island, Santa Cruz, is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. There are plenty of ranger-led programs here, along with guided kayak, snorkeling, scuba and whale watching tours. The park also offers the Shore to Sea Lecture Series, six talks designed to further the understanding of current research on the Channel Islands and surrounding waters.
13. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
This park is the largest portion of old-growth floodplain forest left in North America. Some of the trees are the tallest in the eastern United States. An elevated walkway called the Boardwalk Loop guides visitors through the swamp. Hiking and canoeing/kayaking and ranger-led talks take you through the park where you’ll see and learn about large bald cypress, loblolly pine, and a bunch of wildlife.
14. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Crater Lake lies in the remnant an ancient volcano called Mount Mazama that collapsed 7,700 years ago. The lake is the deepest in the United States (1,949 feet, 594 meters) and is noted for its vivid blue color and water clarity. There are ranger-led hikes, boat and trolley tours, and lots of hikes.
15. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the only national park in Ohio and one of the few national parks adjacent to two large urban areas — it lies along the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland in Northeast Ohio. There’s hiking, canoeing, biking, and fishing and the special Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad — a 3.5 hour, 26-mile scenic train ride on a railway dating back to 1880. Every September, the park holds Steam in the Valley where visitors can ride the historic Nickel Plate Road Steam Locomotive № 765, a “high-stepping, fourteen-wheeled, time machine” that is one of famous class of steam locomotives known for its “superpower” technology and aesthetic charm.
16. Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada
Death Valley goes to extremes — it’s the largest (in the lower 48), the driest, the hottest, and the lowest National Park. It straddles the California-Nevada border and includes Badwater Basin and its salt flats, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level. It has rocks dated 1.7 billion years old. It’s also designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Skies Association. And it’s the only National Park to be featured in Star Wars — it was a stand-in for Tatooine in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The park has ranger-led programs on geology, astronomy, paleontology and mining history.
17. Denali National Park, Alaska
As its website says, Denali “is six million acres of wild land, bisected by one ribbon of road.” This remote Alaska National Park is definitely for the rugged adventurer. Its ranger-led programs include sled dog demonstrations featuring Alaskan Huskies, hikes and walks, and ranger talks.
18. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Almost 70 miles (113 km) west of Key West lies the remote Dry Tortugas National Park. This 100-square mile park is mostly open water with seven small islands. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the park’s centerpiece is Fort Jefferson, a massive but unfinished coastal fortress. Fort Jefferson is one of the largest brick masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Ranger guided tours include Fort Jefferson history tours, ecological moat walks, living history demonstrations, night sky programs and special events. There are also a good number of licensed tour operators who provide guided diving, wildlife, fishing, and sailing tours.
19. Everglades National Park, Florida
The Everglades are the largest tropical wilderness in the United States. This mangrove and tropical rain forest ecosystem and marine estuary is home to 36 protected species, including the Florida panther, American crocodile, and West Indian manatee. Ranger-led tours include canoe trips, nature walks, bird watching, and bicycling. Lots of tour operators have concessions to provide tours in the park.
20. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska
This is a cold one. The park is the northernmost National Park in the United States, situated entirely north of the Arctic Circle. The park is the second largest in the US at nearly 8.5 million acres, slightly larger than Belgium. There are no roads or trails in the park — visitors are encouraged to hike along animal trails.
21. Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri
About as different a National Park from № 20 Gates of the Arctic as one can get. The park consists of a 91-acre park along the Mississippi River on the site of the earliest buildings of St. Louis. The Gateway Arch reflects St. Louis’ role in the Westward Expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century. The park is a memorial to Thomas Jefferson’s role in opening the West, to the pioneers who helped shape its history, and to Dred Scott who sued for his freedom in the Old Courthouse. There are ranger-led guided tours and riverboat cruises.
22. Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier has a U.S. side and a Canadian side and both are spectacular. Going-to-the-Sun road is one of the most famous and loved (and feared) road in the U.S. The park hosts Native America Speaks, in which each summer Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai,and Pend d’Oreille tribal members share their knowledge of the history and culture of Native America with Glacier National Park visitors. Also offered are guided boat trips, bus tours, hikes, raft tours, and horseback rides. Also, The Glacier Institute (“hike and learn in Glacier National Park”) provides field-based learning experiences to the public and serves as an official park partner specializing in field seminars.
23. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Not to be confused with Montana’s Glacier National Park, Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska’s Inner Passage covers 3.3 million acres of rugged mountains, dynamic glaciers, temperate rain forest, wild coastlines and deep sheltered fjords. It’s home to large populations of grizzly bears, mountain goats, whales, seals, and eagles. Join a Park Ranger to learn all about the park.
24. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The one and only. No description necessary. There are ranger-led programs for the South Rim, the North Rim, and Desert View. The Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute offers single and multi-day educational tours. And there are tons of other guided tours of the canyon.
25. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton includes the major peaks of the 40-mile-long Teton Range as well as most of the northern sections of the valley known as Jackson Hole. Grand Teton is only 10 miles south of Yellowstone — they’re connected by the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway which is managed by the National Park Service. Rangers offer a lot of programs including International Migratory Bird Day, snowshoe hikes, the Grouse Strut, and guided hikes. And there’s also a good number of tour operators licensed in the park — everything from kayaking tours to fishing to hiking to horseback riding, to floating.
26. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Based around Nevada’s second tallest mountain, Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park contains 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines, a rock glacier, and the limestone Lehman Caves. Due to its remote location, the park has some of the country’s darkest night skies. Recognized as an International Dark Sky Park, Great Basis has a lot of astronomy programs, including a Star Train and a Full Moon Hike. The park also offers Lehman Cave Tours and a whole slew of other ranger-guided tours.
27. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
28. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina
Surprise! The Great Smoky Mountains beat out the Grand Canyon to be the most visited U.S. National Park in 2018! It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that straddles the ridge line of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. Host to 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail. So many things to do. Partner operations offer educational workshops on things like emergency medicine, herbal wellness, butterflies, photography, wildflowers, mushrooms, old-growth forests, salamanders, stream life, elk, bears, tracking, early settlers, and the Cherokee.
(And one of the few places on Earth where you can see synchronous fireflies. A very small percentage of fireflies — only 1 or 2% — where the male guys fly around and flash their little tails in synchrony. All of them, at the same time, on the same beat. Scientists are trying to figure out why, and they think it’s related to the synchrony of the cells that fire up the human heart.)
29. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, near El Paso, Texas
The four highest peaks in Texas. Camping, hiking, birding, horseback riding, stargazing. The Guadalupe Mountains have a lot to give, and they’ve also been witness to a tumultuous history through conflicts between early European settlers and Native Americans.
30. Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii
Haleakalā National Park is an American National Park located on the island of Maui in the state of Hawaii. The park is home to endangered species, some of which exist nowhere else. The park area was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. The name Haleakalā is Hawaiian for “house of the sun.” The sunrises are so amazing that you need to make a reservation and get a permit to see them (not for sunsets, though).
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park was established on August 1, 1916, on the island of Hawaii to protect two active volcanoes: Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive shield volcano. In addition to amazing day and backcountry hikes and drives, the park has special programs like After Dark in the Park and ‘Ike Hana No’ eau that offer educational talks, cultural art and craft classes, and music.
32. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park is located in central Garland County, Arkansas, adjacent to the city of Hot Springs, the county seat. The hot springs water has been popularly believed for centuries to possess medicinal properties, and was a subject of legend among several Native American tribes. Following federal protection in 1832, the city developed into a successful spa town. According to its Wikipedia site, “the city has been home to Major League Baseball spring training, illegal gambling, speakeasies and gangsters such as Al Capone, horse racing at Oaklawn Park, the Army and Navy Hospital, and 42nd President Bill Clinton. The area was made a national park on March 4, 1921.” You can take guided tours of famous bathhouses and an outdoor tour where you’ll learn the 4000-year-old story of how rainwater becomes hot springs water and how the water was used for therapeutic baths here.
33. Indiana Dunes National Park, Michigan
Indiana Dunes National Park hugs 15 miles of the southern shore of Lake Michigan. The park includes habitats for several rare plants and animals. The park has more than 1,400 species of vascular plants, ranking it 8th in total plant species among all units of the National Park System. At least two plant species are on the Federal list of Threatened and Endangered Species. Among the federally threatened and endangered wildlife are: Indiana bat;
Eastern massasauga rattlesnake; Rufa Red knot; and the Piping plover. Park rangers offer over 400 educational tours.
34. Isle Royale, Michigan
Isle Royale is an American National Park consisting of Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior at over 45 miles long, and over 400 smaller islands, as well as the surrounding waters of Lake Superior. Isle Royale National Park was established on April 3, 1940, then additionally protected from development by wilderness area designation in 1976, and declared a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. The park’s northern boundary lies adjacent to the Canadian Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area along the international border. Isle Royale offers unparalleled solitude and adventures for backpackers, hikers, boaters, kayakers, canoeists and scuba divers. Tours around the park are offered on the MV Sandy, or the Keweenaw Waterway Cruise, as well as ranger-led programs about Isle Royale’s natural and cultural history.
35. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree is a famous 1987 U2 album and also an American National Park in southeastern California, east of Los Angeles, near San Bernardino and Palm Springs. The park is named for the Joshua trees native to the Mojave Desert and it encompasses parts of two deserts, each an ecosystem whose characteristics are determined primarily by elevation: the higher Mojave Desert and the lower Colorado Desert. The ranger programs offer guided geology hikes and night sky viewing, among others. In fact, Joshua Tree is one of the most popular places in North America for stargazing — it’s been designated as an International Dark Sky Park and holds a Night Sky Festival every year that includes a Star Party with at least 20 telescopes, music, Constellation Tours and Sky Stories.
36. Katmai National Park, Alaska
Katmai is an American National Park and preserve in southern Alaska, notable for the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and for its brown bears. The park and preserve is about the size of New Jersey. Most of the national park is a designated wilderness area where all hunting is banned. The park is named after Mount Katmai, its centerpiece stratovolcano. (What’s a stratovolcano? It’s a composite volcano, made up of layers of ash, pumice, lava. Famous stratovolcanos include Krakatoa and Vesuvius, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Pinatubo.) Ranger-led programs include a day-long tour of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, which is the aftermath of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century on June 6, 1912.
37. Kenai Fjords, Alaska
Near Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, this park protects the Harding Icefield and at least 38 glaciers and fjords stemming from it. The only area accessible to the public by road is Exit Glacier; the rest must be viewed or reached from boat tours. The ranger-led programs are exceptional.
38. Kobuk Valley, Alaska
Kobuk is 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle. No designated roads, trails, or developed facilities. Just nearly 1.8 million acres of remote backcountry. Visitors must arrive by chartered air taxis — it’s safe to say there are no crowds here. Summer activities include boating, camping, hiking, backpacking, flight-seeing, wildlife watching, photography, and fishing. For people with Arctic winter survival skills and personal equipment, there’s snow machining, skiing, and dog mushing. You can do all that on your own or use one of the 18 authorized guided tour operators.
39. Lake Clark National Park and Reserve, Alaska
Another Alaska National Park that can’t be accessed by road or trail! Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is an American National Park in southwest Alaska, about 100 miles southwest of Anchorage. The park includes many streams and lakes vital to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, including its namesake, Lake Clark. And it has a lot of animals, particularly sockeye salmon and the bears who like to eat them, and two active volcanoes, Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna.
40. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Lassen Volcanic is full of hot water — steaming, roaring fumaroles (steam and volcanic gas vents), thumping mud pots, boiling pools, and steaming ground. There’s also huge, jagged volcanic peaks. In addition to the ranger-led educational programs, they also offer field seminars, like nature photography and watercolor painting. And it’s also a natural draw for stargazing — it has an annual stargazing festival in August, where rangers, astronomers, and astrobiologists gather for talks and demonstrations. (Astrobiologist: somebody who studies life in the universe!)
41. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
An American National Park in central Kentucky, encompassing portions of Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system known in the world — over 400 miles of explored caves. The park also has 53,000 acres of forest above, and over 20 miles of navigable river. Park rangers offer 20 different guided tours of the caves, with names like River Styx, Domes and Dripstones, Frozen Niagara. These caves are trippy. Take, for example, the Extended Historic Tour that has visitors crossing a Bottomless Pit before exploring an underground hospital used in the 1840’s to treat patients with consumption. Or the Wild Cave Tour, an “extremely strenuous” six-hour climb, crawl, squeeze, hike, and plunge into darkness only for people of 42-inch girth or less. The gear on this tour is strictly monitored to protect against White Nose Syndrome, a bat-killing fungus. Enjoy.
42. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve and interpret the archaeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from 600 to 1300 CE. Today, the park protects nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Popular ranger-led tours include the Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House.
43. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Mount Rainier is an active volcano in Washington state that stands over 14,400 feet high. Ranger-led programs include astronomy, wildlife, ecology, and park history. The park also has a program called Citizen Ranger Quests in which older children and adults go through a series of learning challenges and questions to become a certified Mount Rainier Citizen Ranger!
44. North Cascades National Park, Washington
An alpine landscape less than a three-hour drive from Seattle. Guided tours include ranger-led programs, cool programs from the North Cascade Institute, including geology, corvids and Cascadian carnivores, and a good long list of third-party outfitters licensed to give educational tours of the park.
45. Olympic National Park, Washington
Nearly a million acres situated on the Olympic Peninsula, the park has four regions and three ecosystems. Regions include the Pacific coastline, alpine areas, the west side temperate rainforest and the forests of the drier east side. Ecosystems: subalpine forest and wildflower meadow, temperate forest, and the rugged Pacific coast. Ranger-led programs take place all year.
46. Petrified Forest, Arizona
The park’s name is what it is: petrified wood. Lots of it. It’s kind of like tree fossils. All the organic material in the wood has been replaced by minerals over time so that the trees have literally turned to stone. You’ve got to see it. The park offers plenty of ranger-led tours, and paleontology labs where you can work alongside paleontologists in the field.
47. Pinnacles National Park, California
The park’s namesakes are the eroded leftovers of the western half of an extinct volcano that has moved 200 miles from its original location on the San Andreas Fault, embedded in a portion of the California Pacific Coast Ranges. Hikers enter rare talus caves and emerge to towering rock spires teeming with life: prairie and peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and the inspiring California condor. In addition to ranger-led programs, there’s caving, climbing, and bird watching in the park.
48. Redwood National Park, California
Not only the tallest trees on Earth. There’s also vast prairies, oak woodlands, wild river-ways, and nearly 40 miles of rugged coastline. The ranger-led programs are popular here.
49. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Just 80 miles from the Denver airport, Rocky Mountain National Park is breathtaking, huge (there are five visitor centers), and high (the Trail Ridge Road crests at 12,000 feet — our rental Prius climbed it with no problem!). Take the Rocky Pledge. And check out all the ranger-led programs and the night sky and astronomy programs.
50. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
The 92,000-acre park consists of two separate areas that are 10 miles from Tucson in either direction — the Tucson Mountain District (10 miles west of the city) and the Rincon Mountain District (10 miles east of the city). The park is named after the biggest cacti in the country — the giant saguaro, which is the universal symbol of the American west (and most familiar to many of us from Bugs Bunny and road runner cartoons). There’s beautiful hiking and camping, and gorgeous sunsets.
51 & 52. Sequoia & Kings Canyon, California
The park’s namesake, Kings Canyon, is a rugged glacier-carved valley more than a mile deep. Other natural features include multiple 14,000-foot peaks, high mountain meadows, swift-flowing rivers, and some of the world’s largest stands of giant sequoia trees. Kings Canyon is north of and contiguous with Sequoia National Park and the two are jointly administered by the National Park Service as the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Ranger-led programs are run year round.
53. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Just 75 miles from Washington D.C., Shenandoah National Park encompasses the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. As its website says: “Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, quiet wooded hollows — take a hike, meander along Skyline Drive, or picnic with the family. 200,000 acres of protected lands are haven to deer, songbirds, the night sky…and you.” The park offers ranger-led tours and bicycling, camping, horseback riding, fishing, and rock climbing. The park also has a special Earthcache program (what’s that, you ask? Well, it’s based on geocaching, which is a high-tech treasure hunt using GPS to find hidden containers, called geocaches, which usually have trinkets placed inside. The park does not allow physical geocaches, so they offer EarthCaching — a “virtual” version of geocaching).
54. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
There’s a lot to see and do at this National Park named after, as the website puts it, “a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York” when he came to the Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1883. The park has the annual Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival. Camping, hiking, canoeing, skiing and snowshoeing, fishing, bicycling — plus ranger-led tours that include Teddy’s Maltese Cross cabin, guided hikes, geology tours, and evening programs.
Virgin Islands National Park is a park of islands — it’s not only famous for its beaches, scuba diving and snorkeling, but also its history and culture. The park encompasses over two-thirds the island of St. John, and almost all of Hassel Island. Significant prehistoric sites are present on almost every beach and in every bay within the park. These archaeological sites date from as early as 840 BC to the arrival of Columbus in 1493. There are lots of ranger programs, “Hiking in Paradise,” sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and windsurfing.
56. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park is an American National Park in northern Minnesota near the town of International Falls. The park’s name commemorates the voyageurs — French-Canadian fur traders who were the first European settlers to frequently travel through the area. The park is over 40% waterways, so it’s popular with canoeists, kayakers, other boaters, and fishermen. Ranger-led programs include Rainy Lake boat tours, Kabetogama Lake Tours, and Crane Lake programs, including Northern Lights and Sunflare stargazing.
57. White Sands National Park, New Mexico
The newest U.S. National Park — signed into law on December 20, 2019 — White Sands National Park (formally National Monument) in Southern New Mexico is 275 square miles of gypsum dunefield desert. Its ranger-led programs include a Sunset Hike, a Full Moon Hike, a Full Moon Party, Lake Lucero Tour, MothaPalooza (a celebration of over 40 unique, endemic species of moths), and Perseids Meteor Shower Watching Party. The park has its own ghost, Pavla Blanca, who shows up every evening in a flowing, white wedding gown to seek her lover, a Spanish conquistador who died in the sands, his body never to be found.
58. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
The seventh National Park, designated as such in 1903. The cave is one of the longest and densest cave systems in the world with nearly 150 miles of explored passages. As of February 2020, all cave tours have been suspended while elevators are repaired, but rangers are still offering lots of above-ground tours.
59. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, South Central Alaska
Alaska just keeps going! Wrangell-St Elias National Park is a park in South-Central Alaska that’s as big as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Switzerland combined. A large portion of the Saint Elias Mountains — which include most of the highest peaks in the U.S. and Canada — are in the park and within ten miles of tidewater they rise up to over 18,000 feet. There are plenty of ranger-led guided tours and about three dozen licensed tour operators.
60. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone was the first National Park in the U.S. and is also widely held to be the first national park in the world. The park is known for its wildlife and its many geothermal features, especially Old Faithful Geyser, one of its most iconic features. So many things to do here! Hiking, guided backpacking, guided bicycling, boating, fishing, wildlife viewing (bison! wolves! bears!), painting and photography tours, skiing and snowshoeing, and so many ranger-led programs. Just don’t take selfies too close to the thermals.
61. Yosemite National Park, California
Words don’t do enough to describe the beauty of Yosemite. Neither do photographs actually. Just go. Here are guided tours. Just go.
62. Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park has the feel of an enormous outdoor cathedral, the look of an exquisite painting, and it all feels so magical. It just does. The Narrows is a trail that should be on everybody’s bucket list. Ranger-led programs are here.
How many have you been to? (Me: 17). What’s your favorite? (Zion.) Most interesting thing you learned in a U.S. National Park? (That looking into the eyes of a wolverine (in Glacier Nat’l Park) is not at all like looking into the eyes of my dog Dylan. It’s scary. And memorable.)