When you look back at 2016, what are the top things that stand out? Perhaps Donald Trump securing an unlikely victory in the Presidential election or maybe one of the many tragic events that took place around the world. Let’s take a moment to forget any negativity that may be floating around from the last 12 months and look at an epic event that we should all be celebrating. For the avid travelers out there, you will likely agree that the National Park Centennial is one of the best highlights of 2016.
2016 was a year to celebrate for many reasons. Our travel blog has escalated to great heights and our travels have continued to see us visit a myriad of amazing destinations, none more so than a variety of national parks that helped us celebrate the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service.
We can’t think of any better way to publish our final post of 2016, than by sharing just a few of our favorite national parks around the United States and hopefully inspire you to add these to your list in 2017.
What is the National Park Centennial?
August 25, 2016…this was the date to celebrate the National Park Centennial! But don’t worry, for those of you that weren’t able to visit a national park on that date, the National Park Service celebrated all year long…and why not!
The centennial celebrates the achievements of the past 100 years, but it is really about the future.
When you look back over the past 100 years, there are clearly a lot of achievements to celebrate. But it’s how we embrace the future and potential of the National Park Service to carry us forward for the next 100 years and beyond that makes this such an exciting time to experience the plethora of breathtaking parks around the United States.
In 2016 we have been fortunate to visit several national parks and listen to a number of expert park rangers share their thoughts on this centennial celebration. There was one comment in particular that I think eloquently summarized the fundamental principles behind the National Park Service.
When the park ranger described Denali National Park in Alaska as follows, I immediately realized this is how we should treat every national park that we experience.
An untouched wilderness that should be preserved and respected
Let’s take a look at 10 amazing national parks that we have visited over the past few years, many of which we explored for the first time in 2016.
Yellowstone National Park
Let’s start with probably the most famous national park around the world – Yellowstone! Located primarily in Wyoming just north of another gorgeous national park (more on that later), Yellowstone covers 3,500 square miles and spreads into Idaho and Montana. It’s also the oldest national park dating back to 1872.
From spectacular landscapes across canyons, including the amazing “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”, to an array of thermal activity featuring the world-famous “Old Faithful” geyser, Yellowstone is home to an abundance of attractions that make this an incredible place to explore.
We spent an amazing two days exploring Yellowstone and barely touched the surface. The scenic loop is a great way to drive around and visit some of the main attractions including the possibility of various impromptu encounters with wildlife. However, perhaps the best thing to do in Yellowstone, just like any national park, is to head “off the beaten path” and start exploring.
Yosemite National Park
Another of the oldest national parks across the States is the equally spectacular Yosemite National Park. Dating back to 1890, Yosemite is located in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range.
A visit to Yosemite will immediately take your breath away, particularly if you arrive at the western entrance where you drop down into the canyon and catch a glimpse of the gorgeous natural attractions scattered around the landscape. Our time in Yosemite was limited but any time here is a fulfilling experience.
Beyond the obvious well-recognized landmarks such as El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite is home to vast landscapes where wildlife roams and adventure seekers can test their skills on some of the nation’s most challenging yet rewarding cliffs.
Be sure to visit Yosemite Village where you can speak with knowledgeable park rangers before hopping on one of the shuttle buses to experience one of many hikes throughout the park.
Denali National Park
After falling in love with Yellowstone, we really didn’t think that national parks could get any more spectacular…that was until we visited Denali National Park in Alaska!
Whether it was because we were incredibly fortunate to experience two days in Denali with perfect weather and see the peak of Mount Denali every day to join the “30% Club”. Or maybe it was because we spent a full day exploring the inherent beauty of Denali National Park courtesy of a shuttle bus tour to Wonder Lake. Either way, Denali is breathtaking for many reasons and we can’t wait to go back.
Grizzly bear sightings, epic landscape photography opportunities and again, the possibility of seeing the peak of the tallest mountain in North America all create an amazing environment that makes Denali such an eye-catching national park.
When we look back on the National Park Centennial celebration in 2016, I don’t think we could have picked a better park to visit than Denali. Everything was pure perfection and we even had the fortune of seeing the Northern Lights during our stay outside the park.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Did you know that only California has more national parks than Alaska? What is most surprising about Alaska’s wilderness is that many of these national parks are incredibly difficult to reach. As we discovered, Denali is certainly the easiest but for those of you wishing to head south of Anchorage, perhaps Kenai Fjords National Park is worth a visit.
We enjoyed an amazing cruise courtesy of Major Marine Tours out of Seward and we can highly recommend this to anyone planning a trip to Alaska. The Aialik Glacier is an amazing landmark in the Kenai Peninsula and many of the cruises will take you here to enjoy the epic sound and sight of the ice calving. It’s the largest glacier in Aialik Bay and well worth a visit if you want the ultimate experience of watching glacial motion in Alaska.
Up close and personal experiences with glaciers are not the only intriguing prospect of visiting Kenai Fjords National Park. There are plenty of opportunities to see a plethora of amazing wildlife including orcas, puffins, and humpback whales while taking a cruise to explore Kenai Fjords.
Badlands National Park
South Dakota may not be the first state you consider visiting but after visiting Badlands National Park earlier this year during our visit to both Dakota’s, we can well and truly attest that this is a spectacular landscape worth experiencing.
Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller (ibn battuta)
For the geology aficionados out there, Badlands is the perfect destination to visit with a variety of layered rock formations and towering spires scattered around the landscape.
The scenic drive through the national park takes visitors past a number of awe-inspiring overlooks while encounters with bighorn sheep and prairie dogs are frequent occurrences throughout the rugged landscapes.
As Battuta eloquently described the concept of traveling, it’s noticeable as you explore every corner of Badlands that there is a different story to be told. Ancient fossil beds can be found throughout Badlands and we can only imagine the ancient mammals and tribes that once roamed this corner of South Dakota.
Grand Canyon National Park
If you are familiar with the seven natural wonders of the world, you will know that the Grand Canyon in Arizona is part of this elite list of natural attractions. Although the Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts the most visitors each year, the Grand Canyon is the second most popular with over 5 million visitors.
The Grand Canyon is also the most iconic national park, given that the natural environment here is unlike anywhere else in the United States. Let’s look at a couple of incredible statistics regarding the Grand Canyon.
- Over a mile deep;
- 18 miles wide in certain spots;
- Over 5 million annual visitors;
- Grand Canyon gorge measures 277 miles;
- Erosion over the past 3-6 million years has formed the Grand Canyon that we see today although this process continues to shape the future of the chasm.
The Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919 and this is understandably one of the parks that everyone has to experience at least once (I think it’s fair to say after your first visit, you will want to return!) Formed by the Colorado River, there are ample overlooks on either side of the canyon that offer breathtaking panoramic views.
We spent a couple of days here and couldn’t help but just sit and admire the scenery. For those that want to be a little more adventurous and hike from one side to the other, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted but it’s one heck of a rewarding experience.
Arches National Park
In terms of unique beauty, the “Mighty 5” national parks in Utah are certainly the most intriguing to explore. If you are considering visiting one or more of these, we highly recommend experiencing what we consider to be the quirkiest of them all – Arches National Park. Arches may be quirky but it’s undoubtedly breathtaking for many reasons.
The name of this national park speaks for itself. Scattered across the landscape of eastern Utah, Arches lies north of Moab and is home to more than 2,000 sandstone arches. This isn’t the type of landscape or variety of geological formations that you can expect to see anywhere else in the States, so be prepared for the ultimate unique experience.
Delicate Arch is understandably the most iconic of all the arches due to its size and presence in the national park but there are many other gorgeous formations such as “The Windows” and “Balanced Rock” which towers across the landscape.
A scenic drive through Arches National Park is beyond rewarding and the difficult part will be managing your time as every few minutes you will want to pull over and admire one or more of the amazing formations.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Let’s continue the theme of Utah’s Mighty 5 national park by heading west to the heart of the Beehive state. Bryce Canyon is just as spectacular as Arches given the uniqueness and stunning panoramas you can admire from a variety of overlooks that are strategically placed along the drive that runs through the park.
The iconic feature throughout Bryce Canyon is the hoodoo. Thousands of crimson-colored spires can be found grouped together, forming a gorgeous landscape unlike anywhere else. A number of challenging hiking trails offer visitors the opportunity to get much closer to these hoodoos and gain a greater appreciation of how nature has formed such spectacular formations.
Bryce Amphitheater is hoodoo-filled depression that is one of the most sought after locations at the Golden Hour and just before sunset as the opportunities to capture stunning photography are endless.
Glacier National Park
Located in the heart of Montana’s Rocky Mountain range, Glacier National Park is a remote wilderness that offers plenty of breathtaking experiences that leave visitors speechless. The iconic “Going to the Sun Road” crosses a number of high peaks and valleys, offering nothing but a plethora of stunning scenery along this route.
Be sure to check in advance that the weather is cooperating with your visit, otherwise, you may face the prospect of this road being closed as we experienced during our visit to Glacier National Park. The winding road has a number of viewpoints overlooking the valleys that connect to create such an amazing natural environment.
Wildlife such as mountain goats and grizzly bears can be spotted throughout the park but in our opinion, the highlight here is the crystal clear lakes with the mountains creating a gorgeous reflection and picture-perfect scene.
Grand Teton National Park
Frequently left in the shadow of Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is a part of Wyoming that you cannot afford to miss. Take the short drive from Jackson Hole and spend time exploring the Teton range before heading into Yellowstone.
Named after the tallest peak in the range, Grand Teton stands at just under 14,000 feet and is an imperious sight on the landscape. Jackson Lake creates the perfect reflection pool if you are fortunate to visit at the right time.
Regardless of this, it offers an opportunity for those interested in water activities to experience the gorgeous surroundings while enjoying the solitude out on the lake.
During our visit to Grand Teton, we were fortunate to see a variety of wildlife which supports the claims that this national park offers the perfect ecosystem for the flora and fauna that has continued to thrive for centuries.
The National Park Centennial is a fitting tribute to all areas that have been designated as national parks since Yellowstone was first declared in 1872. We have been fortunate to experience several of the most iconic parks across the nation but there is still a large number that we can’t wait to visit in the near future.
It’s difficult to pinpoint one park that stands out above the rest but I have to admit that Yellowstone and Denali are probably two of the most spectacular that we have visited for various reasons.
As 2016 draws to a close, we can look back and reflect on another amazing year of travel. National parks have been at the forefront of our travels and it’s a perfect way to end the year by admiring some of the most beautiful scenery around the United States.
Did you celebrate the National Park Centennial this year? Which is your favorite national park?