The 59 National Parks
In April 2017, our family set out to visit all 59 designated National Parks in the U.S. Our journey took us all over the country, to 49 states, across the Pacific to Hawaii and the National Park of American Samoa, above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and to hundreds of beautiful corners of America. Check out our blog posts about each park, listed below in the order we visited them!
Named for the twisty Cuyahoga river that runs through the middle of the park (Ka-ih-ogh-ha is the Mohawk word for crooked), Cuyahoga Valley began its park life as an urban National Recreation Area in 1974 and was made a National Park in 2000. It stretches 22 miles between Akron and Cleveland, and has gorgeous landscapes, wetlands and forests, deer, coyote, beaver, and over 100 bird species. But our favorite part of the park was the way the area was and is influenced by people. Its location makes it super accessible for urban dwellers, and its history as the location of the Ohio-Erie Canal means it's full of history from the development of the area.
The Lakota people called this area "bad land" for its extreme terrain and climate, and then fur trappers came along and also thought it was pretty lousy, and by the by the name stuck. Half the park is a stark landscape of layered geologic formations; the other half is grassland covered with bison and prairie dogs. Taken together, it's a study in contrasts and a pretty jaw-dropping place to spend a few days.
Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world, and only about 5% of it has been explored. Its first documented discovery was in 1881 when two brothers going by noticed wind coming out of a hole in the rock. As the story goes, the wind was so strong it blew one of the brother's hats off. That hole is the only natural opening of the cave.
The star of Lassen Volcanic is, as you might guess, the volcanoes. All four types of volcanoes that exist in the world are found in the park, and several of the volcanoes have been active recently in the last few hundred years. Because the area is so geologically active, the area is filled with hot springs and geothermal areas.
The struggle to save the redwood forests is a prime example of the complexity of conservation. On the one hand, we have an incredible temperate rain forest, home to hundreds of wildlife species and the tallest trees in the world, some of them thousands of years old. On the other hand, we have local communities that rely on logging, and a wider public that relies on lumber and pays well for redwood, especially old-growth wood, because of its excellent building properties. Both sides, in the fight to preserve either an ancient landscape or a way of life, commit atrocities: acts of protest or carelessness that kill those on the other side of the issue. And, perhaps, both sides are poorly understood by the other.
This place demands to be stared at, especially because the color of the water is constantly changing, reflecting the sky. As we played on the snow and watched the lake, we saw an incredible range of blues. The reflection of the surrounding crater is perfectly mirrored in the water, and the contrast of colors with the snow set the whole thing off perfectly.
Olympic is the most varied national park we’ve visited yet—it might be one of the most varied in the whole park system. Olympic protects the largest old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, contains over 70 miles of undeveloped wilderness coastline, and everywhere you look, the mountains of the Olympic range tower above.
Mt. Rainier is the star of the show here, and of course it would be—it is spectacular. With over 13,000 feet of vertical relief, Rainier can be seen from hundreds of miles away. Its slopes are covered in 25 glaciers and scattered with wildflowers. But Rainier is also considered to be the most dangerous volcano in the Cascade Range; because of its dense snowpack, an eruption would create lahars, a deadly mixture of lava and snow that would flow through hundreds of miles of valley like a river of concrete, carrying off everything in its path.
North Cascades was formed to protect the glaciers—it’s home to most of the glaciers that are left in the lower 48. It’s also the last place in the U.S. with an intact ecosystem, meaning all the plant and animal species that lived here when explorers arrived hundreds of years ago are still here. One species, though, has become very scarce in the park: grizzly bears. Park officials think the grizzly population is down to fewer than 20 bears, not a sustainable population.
There is an epic, untouched quality to this park that exists in few places on the planet. Being here, you get to see what much of the Earth looked like during the Pleistocene Era. The park is the biggest in the NPS system, larger than Switzerland and with higher mountains. It contains 9 of the 16 highest peaks in North America and has a single glacier larger than Rhode Island.
It's hard to talk about Exit Glacier without talking about its rapid recession. The glacier spills out from the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield in the Chugach Mountains and measures 14 square miles, a relatively small glacier. But driving, and then walking, up to its toe is a perfect marker of climate change; the Park Service posts signs along the road that form a timeline of the glacier's retreat. And that retreat has been incredibly fast. Last summer alone it lost 252 feet, the most in any summer on record.
The main trail in this section of Haleakala is Sliding Sands, which runs 11 miles into the valley of the volcano, past cinder cones and silversword stands and packs of scurrying nenes (the elusive Hawaiian goose!). We descended 3 miles, crunching over chunks of ancient lava, then climbed back out—slowly, both because we have two babies and because David and I are babies when it comes to serious elevation gain. But also because the views on this trail are seriously unbeatable; hiking around inside a volcano is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
The history of Hawaii is fascinating and also a little upsetting, and Hawaii Volcanoes NP is a perfect microcosm of what has happened to the islands more broadly, both in ecological terms and anthropological ones. The island chain was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions originating from a “hot spot” in the Pacific; that hot spot now lies under the newest island in the chain, the island of Hawaii, where flows of magma continue to increase the land area of the island every year, forming the newest land on Earth. Enormously cool stuff.
I think our trip—and possibly our lives—may have peaked at Katmai. It was such a mind-bogglingly cool experience that I can hardly believe it happened to us.
Our experience at Lake Clark was unexpected; we came away feeling awed and restored, but also cared for and stimulated and hopeful (and in David's case, a little swollen 'round the knee.) We expected to see no one, and instead got to know a bunch of wonderful someones, and though we're not thrilled about the knee situation, it was delightful to see how kindness and humor and homemade breakfast and rides in the back of a pickup can turn the lousiest moments into the most blessed ones.
On our ride into the park, the top bit of Denali was covered in clouds; because the Alaska range sits at the confluence of weather from the interior and the coast, Denali is only visible about 30% of the time, so our view coming in was very standard. Around sunset that evening, the clouds started to clear away and we had beautiful twilight views that stayed until midday the next day.
In Alaska we ran into several couples who had been to every or nearly every National Park (those Alaska parks can be beasts, so they were usually the last to be checked off.) When we asked about favorite parks, the most common answer was Glacier. This made us a) stoked to go there, and b) excited that a park so accessible is on the top of so many lists.
I grew up in the Great Basin Desert in Idaho and I never knew about Great Basin National Park. This is a shame, because the park is basically a big celebration of the landscape I grew up in and until recently, I didn’t fully appreciate it. I could’ve used a little GBNP teaching me about high-desert love.
Grand Teton’s story is one of ancient earthquakes and glacial sculpting, of multiple ecosystems across the varied landscape, of thousands of years of Native American history and a more recent history of ranching and farming by European settlers. It’s also a story of the complexity of conservation, as the national park’s founding required a bitter battle over control of the land.
Yellowstone is one of my favorite places on Earth, and one of only two national parks I’d visited before we embarked on this trip. I love its warm colors, burbling mud pots, aqua hot springs, steaming landscapes, boardwalks and expansiveness.
When Theodore Roosevelt first arrived in Medora, North Dakota, he was nearly laughed out of town. He had a high-pitched voice and thick glasses, a fancy fringed buckskin shirt, a gold gun with an ivory handle, and a jewel-encrusted bowie knife from Tiffany’s. He looked like exactly what he was: a rich city boy playing cowboy.
The area that makes up Voyageurs once served as a water highway for a trade route that connected Northern Canada with the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic to the East. These interconnected lakes were also a hotspot for fur trappers, booming with beavers whose pelts were known as “soft gold.”
Isle Royale is made up off more than 400 little islands, all of them ridges of basalt layers that cracked and thrust upward millions of years ago. This little archipelago is super isolated, which means the plants and animals here are unique, having evolved separately from their mainland counterparts. The red squirrels, for example, are smaller and make different sounds than other red squirrels, and their genetic distinctions mean they are now considered a subspecies.
The only national park in the Northeast and one of only a handful on the East coast, Acadia is a patchwork of protected forests, mountains, and coastline on and around Mt. Desert Island in Maine. It’s jaw-droopingly beautiful, and we lucked out by having beautiful weather and fall colors during our visit. We hadn’t been in Acadia ten minutes before we deemed it one of our favorite parks so far—it was love at first sight.
Our time in Shenandoah was largely centered around the Appalachian Trail: learning about its history and hiking sections of it. Throughout our trip, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by trails, these man-made things we’re usually dependent on for our experience of wilderness. We often go into the woods to feel free, to escape civilization, but a trail represents one of the most ancient forms of civilization that exists and reduces, rather than increasing, our options. The Appalachian Trail is one of the most popular thru-hikes in the world, stretching over 2000 miles from Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
Great Smoky Mountains is stunning in its size and diversity—especially for an Eastern park. Its location makes it a unique spot biologically—it contains the northernmost instances of many southern plants, and the southernmost instances of many northern plants. Because of this confluence, the number of species contained in the park is staggering. Of the one million named bugs in existence, 800,000 of them exist in the park. There are more varieties of trees in GSM—130 species—than in the whole of Europe, including several species that are found nowhere else on Earth. The only place in the world that is more biologically diverse is the rainforest.
We’ve been to a few caves so far in our tour of the national parks—Wind Cave in South Dakota and Lehman Cave in Nevada—which both had lots of lovely formations and decorations. Mammoth Cave is a different beast; the longest cave system in the world (by a long shot) at 412 measured miles—and scientists think they’ve discovered less than half of the cave.
Hot Springs is home to an unusual water phenomenon, wherein 4000-year-old rain runoff, superheated over centuries by the Earth’s core, is pressure-forced up through fissures in the ground and emerges as hot springs. For hundreds of years (and probably before), the thermal waters have been renowned for their purity and curative properties. In the early 1800s, the springs flowed into open creeks and anyone could come soak in the water. The federal government declared the area a “national reservation” in 1832—it was the first protected land in the country.
Congaree was established as Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976, but it’s not a swamp—it’s actually an old-growth, bottomland, floodplain forest. These types of forests used to stretch across the Southeastern U.S. from Virginia to Texas, but nearly all the trees fell to logging in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Congaree was preserved mostly due to luck—bad luck for its owners, who struggled to clear the often-flooded trees, and great luck for everyone else, because by the 1950s, Congaree was the largest, oldest, and best-preserved floodplain forest left in the country. Now it’s the only area left of this once vast ecology.
Our trip felt special because we’d poured our hearts into our fundraiser for the island, but also because we were some of the few visitors the national park has had since getting hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Graham worked on his Jr. Ranger book just like he does at every park, but here he was the first post-hurricane Jr. Ranger to be sworn in and a whole team of folks working disaster management at park headquarters gave him a round of applause. Going to the beach was a near-solitary experience. Beaches like Trunk Bay that normally see 1500 visitors per day had only a handful of locals and two or three tourists each time we went there; we watched sunset there by ourselves three nights in a row.
Dry Tortugas is named for the abundance of sea turtles in the area and the utter lack of fresh drinking water (“dry” was meant as a warning to other sailors.) The seven islands that make up the land portion of the park lie right alongside the only safe harbors and anchorages in this part of the Gulf of Mexico, which means the islands have been strategic stopping spots for centuries of sailing.
Biscayne is all about the water; the largest marine park in the national park system, it’s comprised entirely of mangrove shoreline, the northernmost of the Florida Keys, and lots and lots of agua.
Everything we read about the Everglades before our visit there told us we needed to take our time to really get a feel for the place. It’s a subtle place. With hardly any rise in elevation, the landscape in the Everglades is covered for most of the year with a gradually flowing river, oozing by inches through the plains of sawgrass til it reaches the sea. It’s a haven for alligators and wading birds, a truly unique ecology, and one of the most controversial and endangered national parks in America’s history.
The drive in is startling; massive red cliffs tower overhead as the road winds along the river, through the narrow canyon. We drove all the way to the end of the road, to the Temple of Sinawava. The place names in Zion are august and spiritual, invoking thrones and temples, altars and angels, and the scenery matches these grandiose titles. We love the desert in general—despite the lack of water it feels scrubbed and fresh—and after spending months in the humid, sultry South, being here was like a purifying ritual. This is a cleansing place, a wild mikvah, and we loved it instantly.
Accessible and varied, geologically and historically interesting, and sized so you feel like you can really take in what it has to offer. This place felt like such a good balance between what we’ve loved about other parks; if you’ve never been or if, like us, you’d never even heard of it, go if you can. We were just delighted by it.
Both David and I have seen big holes in the ground, but neither of us had previously been to this big hole in the ground and, silly as it probably sounds, I was actually a bit worried about being unimpressed. I’d seen the Grand Canyon in movies and pictures and I’ve been to many other canyons, and a niggling part of me just kept thinking, “What if I’m not impressed enough by it?”
We knew Death Valley is a place of extremes: the largest national park outside of Alaska, the lowest elevation in North America, and the driest place in the U.S., with the highest recorded temperature on Earth: 134 F, and that was in the shade.What we didn’t expect was how varied Death Valley is. The park encompasses elevations from 200 feet below sea level to over 11,000 ft. on Telescope Peak; the topography ranges widely, from salt flats to juniper-covered mountains, sand dunes and badlands to dolomite-walled slot canyons. We had a snowball fight in Wildrose Canyon and the next day nearly melted in the heat of Badwater’s salt-pan floor.
Joshua Tree is a playground: for rock climbers, for hikers, for L.A. hipsters looking for scenic Instagram shots. For us it was one of the most fun and kid-friendly parks we’ve been to yet; Graham was in heaven scrambling around on boulders and we spent most of our visit giving him time to do just that.
The Sonoran is one of the most diverse deserts in the world; its combination of soil type, weather patterns, and twice-yearly rain “events” means it can support more kinds of life than any other desert. This is my favorite thing about deserts: from a distance, they look brown and baked and largely lifeless, but as you get closer, you see that they are teeming. Stand still in the desert and you will see unexpected movement—a zebra-tailed lizard or cactus wren or hummingbird—and every single thing that lives in the desert is, by necessity, clever. It is a wonderland of evolutionary brilliance.
The start of the hike is classic Chihuahuan desert, gravel and dust and scrub dotted with prickly pear, ocotillo, and madrone trees. But about a mile in, the ancient history of these mountains became more visible: the Guadalupes were once part of a massive reef in an inland sea and the trail to Devil’s Hall leads you through a wash covered in rounded limestone pebbles and huge white boulders, some of which required a bit of scramble to get past. The vegetation changed the farther up-canyon we got, to desert oak, maple and juniper, and after noticing rustling leaves and sudden rockslides, we realized we were surrounded by at least a dozen mule deer grazing around the edges of the wash.
A National Geographic Society expedition that explored Carlsbad Caverns in 1924 reported it in the magazine as “king of its kind,” a judgement we wholeheartedly agree with. We’ve been excited and delighted by every cave we’ve visited on this trip—Lehman, Wind, Mammoth—but for its scale, accessibility and decoration, I’m not sure Carlsbad can be beat.
Driving through West Texas, one gets the feeling that absolutely no one lives in America. The sky here is enormous, the open fields roll on and on, and even where there are towns, many seem nearly deserted.
It’s impossible to rank Utah’s national parks—they are across-the-board stunners. But we did really fall head over heels for the vibe of Canyonlands. Incredible views, endless hiking, and if felt very peaceful—much less busy than Arches and with what seemed to be a different, more rugged crowd.
The geology on display here is just mind-boggling. The park is a wonderland of spires, fins, buttes and, of course, the eponymous arches, which are absolutely breathtaking to see in person. The scenery also includes rolling fields of petrified sand dunes, green valleys left over from the collapse of a massive underground salt deposit, and the majestic La Sal Mountains in the background.
American Samoa comprises five tiny islands deep in the heart of the South Pacific; adjacent to and culturally twinned with Western Samoa, American Samoa is not an independent nation like its brother, but a territory of the United States. It has one of the best-protected natural harbors in the world, so it's a strategic port for the U.S., but it’s also an area of tremendous natural beauty. The landscape of the islands is dramatic: sheer volcanic peaks covered in a tangle of greenery and fruit trees, with rugged coastline, soft sands, fascinating wildlife, and one of the healthiest coral reefs in the world. It’s also home to one of America’s most remote national parks.
The park protects five islands off the coast of southern California and has an incredible history: never connected to the mainland, the plants and animal species that swam, flew, floated or drifted to this isolated archipelago adapted over time to thrive in their unique environment. Some species, like mammoths and foxes, shrank so as to require fewer resources. Other species, including mice, scrub jays and certain plants, grew giant compared to their mainland counterparts with more natural predators. There are more endemic species on the Channel Islands than on the Galapagos.
Pinnacles has some incredible geology packed into its acreage. The rocks here came from a lava field that was originally closer to L.A., but slid up to its current location as the underlying fault line shifted. Over time the field eroded into the formations that the park is named for today. Beyond its spires and soaring rock walls, Pinnacles also has several talus caves, formed when boulders wedged between narrow canyon walls, creating enclosed spaces below.
In 1864, in the middle of the bloodiest year of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln took a moment to sign into law the Yosemite Park Act, which deeded the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of California as a national trust, to be preserved for “public use, resort and recreation.”This was the seed of the national parks idea, the first time land was set aside to be preserved simply for its natural beauty. Although Yellowstone was the first officially named national park, Yosemite and the sequoia groves to its south set the standard and the precedent for conservation.
The Sierra Nevadas are special, and I mean that in the least-cheesy sense that word can be used. The Yosemite Valley and the sequoia groves south of it were the inspiration behind the national parks idea, and that conservation movement is now global. But sequoia trees didn’t just inspire the initial idea of protecting landscapes and species; they have continued to change the face of conservation again and again. These incredible giants are, in many ways, the perfect representation of the national parks, and they’ve stood as a symbol on both the NPS arrowhead and every park ranger’s hat band and belt for over a hundred years.
This was the first time a national park was created to protect a living thing, and it established a precedent of caring for biological species and their environments. But natural resources were viewed very differently in the 1890s—had the sequoias been useful for building materials, it’s likely they never would have been saved
Rocky Mountain is one of those perfect parks that can accommodate any kind of traveler up for any level of adventure. For those who don’t want to stray far from their cars, Trail Ridge Road offers what must be some of the most exquisite driving in the U.S. For the more adventurous, there are trails that range from short loops to weeks-long backpacking routes, strolls through meadows to challenging 14-ers. Compared to what’s on offer, we didn’t do very much, but we left with stars in our eyes and a burning desire to come back to this place. And really, what better way to leave the wild?
In the middle of the Rocky Mountains, nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, lies 30 square miles of sand. It rises out of the surrounding terrain like an apparition, the tallest sand dunes in North America set against jagged mountain peaks and high desert scrub. Blown here from the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains and kept here by a cross-current of winds, the dunes rise in places up to 755 feet.
Mesa Verde is the only national park dedicated specifically to protecting archeological sites, and was the inspiration behind the Antiquities Act of 1906, a landmark decision in conservation. It’s the most history-focused park we’ve visited; it’s also perhaps the most spiritual. There are few places in North America where you can so fully envision the life that people once lived here, and while I am inspired every day by nature, there is something especially stirring about preserved human habitations.
Among the handful of parks we’d never heard of before this trip, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is by far Colorado’s least visited national park and one of the smallest parks in the whole system. The park protects the steepest miles of the gorge carved by the Gunnison River, and the park’s road leads visitors to a string of stunning viewpoints, where they can peer into the incredibly narrow chasm.
Now we’ve been to nearly all of the national parks, have had our minds and hearts and muscles expanded by each of those 56, but returning to Capitol Reef was the only visit that felt like a homecoming. I love this place—every ounce of me loves it—the striations of the rock, the cool of the sand deep inside a slot canyon, the petroglyphs and pioneer history. Utah’s parks are some of my very favorites, and this is my favorite Utah park: low-key, but with all the geological highlights of the Grand Staircase, this place begs for deep exploration and extended time spent.
What is now a long bay surrounded by sheer peaks and winding glaciers was, only 300 years ago, a wide valley stretching away from the toe of the Grand Pacific Glacier. Home to the Huna Tlingit people from time immemorial, the valley was a fertile stretch, rich in resources and naturally protected by the mountains and the ocean. Then, in around 1700, the Little Ice Age forever changed the landscape.
Gates of the Arctic has stood in our minds as the last frontier, the end of the earth, since we started this trip—actually, for David, that idea of Gates began much sooner, in his childhood when he first read the name “Gates of the Arctic” on a map and thought to himself, “That is where the real wilderness is.”
It would be hard to overstate our giddiness on the day we visited Kobuk Valley National Park. I had expected a feeling of finality or completion, but there was none of that; instead we were filled with the sense that we were exactly where we wanted to be, doing exactly what we wanted to be doing. It was a heightened awareness, a broader perspective, and a swelling of gratitude. It was perfect.