Here’s some fun news: 2016 marks the centennial of the U.S. National Parks Foundation. And believe it or not, America is home to 59 gorgeous and diverse protected areas designated as national parks. Overwhelmed about seeing them all? Let us cherry-pick the eight most worthy of your vacation days.
Fun fact: Yellowstone, the oldest National Park in the country, is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Inside its boundaries–contained mostly in Wyoming but also touching Montana and Idaho–you’ll find 300 geysers, 290 waterfalls, about 70 types of mammals and an active volcano. But the iconic Old Faithful geyser and the multicolored Grand Prismatic Spring are the park’s two biggest draws.
This Atlantic coastal park located in Bar Harbor, Maine, draws about 2 million visitors per year. A hiker’s paradise, you can climb scenic trails up Cadillac Mountain, rock climb the grueling path up Beehive trail and walk around Jordan Pond (only complete after you’ve enjoyed a meal of freshly baked popovers and fresh Maine blueberry jam at Jordan Pond House).
You may confuse Alaska’s Kenai Fjords for the glaciers of Patagonia. The park’s highlight is Harding Icefield, where about 40 glaciers the size of houses float where the frozen mountains meet the ocean. The best way to see Kenai is during the summer months by tour-boat cruise, which will take you to see the fjords up close. Keep an eye out for frequently passing orcas, sea otters and humpback whales.
Ever heard of the chain of islands off the coast of Southern California nicknamed the Galápagos of North America? Well, these five peaks are considered some of the most remote places in the U.S., accessible only by boat or plane. They’re known for their hugely diverse wildlife (think: sea lions, gray whales, dolphins and bald eagles) and obviously gorgeous landscape.
About 3.5 million people travel to California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains each year to visit Yosemite. But explore a little ways into the valley and you’ll feel alone in the rugged wilderness. Yosemite is famous for its impressive waterfalls, its iconic Half Dome rock formation (which visitors can climb to the top) and, of course, the giant Sierra redwoods trees.
There are two national parks in Hawaii, you’ll find the more impressive one (actually called “Hawai’i Volcanoes”) on the big island. It’s home to Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world’s most active volcanoes. Don’t worry, they won’t spew scalding ash at you, but with each non-violent eruption you can feel the land gargle beneath your feet and see it glow like lava when the sun sets. You may even feel a bit prehistoric as you walk through Thurston Lava Tube, a massive tunnel where scalding lava once flowed.
No discussion of America’s national parks would be complete without a mention of the Grand Canyon–a natural treasure 6 million years in the making. Popular tourist activities include white-water rafting through the Colorado River, hiking the South Rim and watching the colors of the canyon change with the sunset.
About a three-hour drive from Seattle stands Mount Rainier–one of the world’s largest volcanoes–and the centerpiece of Mount Rainier National Park. The volcano is visible throughout most of Washington state, and it’s surrounded by glaciers, snow fields, a crystal-clear lake and (in the fall and spring months) colorful fields of wildflowers.