It’s nearly impossible to capture the feeling of being there, staring out and absorbing all the splendors of the natural world and the American wilderness. It’s an experience that could easily redefine for the beholder what it means to be an American, if not what it means to be a human. A guest on this planet.
In any case, I’ll start small, keep it simple, and begin with something that many, including myself, always seem to dig: The good ol’ Top 10. My personal favorite national parks.
One thing to note, I haven’t been to all them. In fact, I haven’t even been to half of them. This list is less about the potential for sightseeing and more about experience. Specifically my own. I suspect the list will change over time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I got in late at night, when I could only see the darkness around me, but the next morning I woke up and found myself in a desert wonderland and standing before the arches in one of the trippiest, most unusual places I’ve experienced in the American Southwest.
Opposite the neighboring Canyonlands National Park to the west, Arches flanks the eastern side of Moab, a small but lively desert town and a prime base of operations for travelers looking to experience the greater outdoor adventures at their full disposal in this southeastern corner of Utah.
At the entrance is Park Avenue, so named after the rising rock formations that might give one the impression they are strolling down a walkway similar to New York City’s famous landmark. Only the hustle-and-bustle of the concrete jungle has been replaced by an undeniable feeling of peace and tranquility within the whispering silence of sandstone a few million years old.
Delicate Arch, the most iconic sight in all of the park, ranks alongside some of the most well-known landmarks in the United States. Chances are you’ve seen it on your computer as a desktop wallpaper, or on posters with some inspiring quote about exploration or achievement. Either way, a sense of achievement is no doubt something you’ll feel standing before this astounding desert archway.
The hike to reach it is just over a mile. At the start it seems very simple, but don’t be deceived. It might not take you long to get there, maybe just a half-hour without taking any big breaks, but in that half-hour you’ll be working. On this hike there’s no leveling out, not even for a little bit, so you’re constantly going uphill. It might be a short hike, but rest assured, it is a hike the whole way, so bring water and prepare to get a lot of sun, especially if you’re going in the summer.
Once you’ve reached the top of the slope, you’ll clear a wall of sandstone to your right before you climb another few steps. Then you see it. A strange whirlpool of rock and sand separate you from the monolithic arch, standing alone at the other side before a quiet, calm desert sky. It looks like a portal to another dimension. A desert temple long-forgotten but every bit as sacred now as it was ages ago.
Walk toward the archway. Stand before it. Enter it. You may not come out the same.
9. Rocky Mountain
If renewal and reawakening have together formed an ongoing theme for me and my experiences in these places, the Rocky Mountains are no exception. During my trip in 2015 from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale, the Rockies were the greatest height I reached both in the literal sense (12,183 feet above sea level) and in whatever existential, spiritual sort of journey I found myself in at the time.
I was coming in from Moab, running on little to no sleep and getting fairly delirious as I drove into the greater Denver area. By the time I arrived into the west end of the park, I was ready to set up camp and take a long and comfortable sleep. The next morning, I woke up and breathed in the fresh mountain air, rejuvenating my senses after a long week of camping in the heat and dryness of the southwestern desert.
Rocky Mountain might be one of the most popular ski destinations in America, but it is every bit as breathtaking in late summer without the snowfall and crowds of winter vacationers. One thing that I felt for certain was the vastness of alpine wilderness and greenery, revealed especially abundant from the vantage points offered along the Trail Ridge Road, built atop some of the highest peaks of the mountain range and taking travelers right through what’s known as the Alpine Tundra. Up here the air is thin (containing 35% less oxygen than at sea level) and possibly very windy. Hold onto your hat.
In short, Rocky Mountain offers some of the best and most plentiful opportunities for alpine hiking and camping you’ll find in the country. Its shimmering lakes, rivers and waterfalls add to the tremendous diversity of forest and mountain wilderness and to its spectacular scenery. It’s paradise in the mountains. A valley of kings nearly three miles high.
I left the park with my spirit cleansed and my head clear. To this day, I’ve yet to leave any place feeling more physically and spiritually renewed.
8. Grand Canyon
I remember watching the sun’s rays beam down into the canyon depths, shining its light upon the sandstone cliffs and revealing the faintest trace of the Colorado River, all while a mass of darkening clouds and thunder rolled in from the east before dissipating in the light of the sun and evaporating in a mist that fell softly on my forehead like a kiss from the heavens at sundown.
A whole world revealed itself to me like an epic drama of rain and thunder and darkness and light. I wonder just how well, if at all, some other place in America might have served as a better landscape for such an extraordinary moment. I wonder if that other place could have even come close.
When I first saw it, I was much younger. I spent maybe a half-hour just looking at it. The prevailing thought then, having never really seen a mountain much less a grand canyon, was that it simply didn’t look real. I used to say things like that about anything I thought even slightly memorable or noteworthy. After my first visit, I’d never again use that expression so freely.
The Grand Canyon can forever alter your vocabulary, forcing you to fully contemplate the meaning behind descriptive words, particularly those that denote size. People have often said that no place in America is truly so grand. I think it redefines the adjective, and it sets the standard for anything on this planet said be big or enormous, or massive or incredible.
Simply looking at it from any viewpoint along the rim is an experience in its own right. But once you finally begin to get over it—something that took me two separate visits—hiking down into the canyon is a whole new adventure that offers changing and more immersive views as you hike deeper. Just remember, whether you’re going a mile down, three miles down, or all the way down to the river, ultimately you have to come back up.
7. Crater Lake
The simplicity of this particular experience, the fact that I was doing nothing more than staring at a lake and yet still finding myself so awestruck and deeply moved by it, is something that puts Crater Lake at lucky number seven.
On paper, during the first day, there was nothing that should have been too memorable about this visit. It was very cold, most of the park was closed, and it snowed all the time we were there, obscuring our view of pretty much anything near the lake, including the lake itself.
So why is it on this list?
For one thing, this experience was a clear example of not letting circumstance dictate experience, in seeing through whatever one might deem inconvenient at the time and remembering that I was still in an incredible place, a place unlike any other in the world.
If something about where I currently stood didn’t meet my expectations, then I should have never set any expectation beyond simply experiencing something new. If I allowed myself, I just might see something truly beautiful, something that I’d remember for the rest of my life. Luckily I allowed myself to do that. I let myself be prepared for anything.
For me, it was seeing the lake, just barely in view, peering at me mysteriously through the dense snowfall. I could hardly see it, but I knew it was there, its dark circular outline seemed an ominous presence in that overwhelmingly white canvas before me. Only after staying the night in a campground just outside the grounds of the park and returning the next morning, when the sun was out and the sky was very clear and beautiful, did I see the glistening lake in all its splendor.
While the moment itself was an additional lesson in patience, waiting for the storm to blow over and not turning around and leaving when the weather looked bad, the greater point is that my seeing the lake was just as great an experience as not seeing it at all, or barely seeing it when all the snow was falling. It was all a matter of perspective and what I was allowing myself to see.
It’s the kind of thing that illustrates the difference between looking at something and seeing something. The difference between sightseeing and experiencing.
Anyway aside from all that, Crater Lake is a stunning sight. At 1,932 feet, it’s the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest in the world. Formed from a volcano that collapsed onto itself millions of years ago, all of its water comes from rain and snowfall. It’s therefore one of the clearest—and bluest—natural displays of water found anywhere in the world. Truly, I’ve never seen water so blue, and with the fallen snow and the patches of green still showing in the pine all around us, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
6. Death Valley
This place can be intimidating, and I don’t just say that because I got there in the dead of the night when I could hardly see anything. I know, I have a tendency to do that. Maybe there’s something about darkness that both scares me and thrills me. Darkness. Vastness. Put them both together—along with losing phone reception and not being entirely sure where you’re going, no matter what the maps might say because you still have never been to this place in your life—and things can get a little freaky.
But uncertainty is part of the adventure. Not having phone service, for example, especially in today’s world, can be scary when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re constantly thinking about everything that can go wrong. The trick is to not think about those things, because chances are things won’t go wrong, and if they do, you’ll be alright because you’re prepared. So…you know, make sure you’re at least somewhat prepared. Make sure you have a flashlight, for example, something I learned after driving through Big Sur a few years ago. Make sure to bring water too.
Death Valley is the kind of place where it might be easy to think about all those things that can go wrong. At least in the other parks, when you’re in the middle of nowhere, the truth of it doesn’t scream at you in the face. Let’s just say that at times, Death Valley looks damn near biblical. Jesus could have easily spent his forty days in this desert. A friend of mine once said he thought he saw Moses in the distance, marching along the desert floor with the Israelites.
That being said, Death Valley is really beautiful! Again this is the sort of thing that comes down to perspective.
It might be better to come here alone. You have to be quiet. You have to let it all come to you. Think about how old the place is, and how much it’s changed over the years. More importantly think about how it hasn’t changed. How in the ongoing chaos of the world, this desert remains, almost making our own day-to-day concerns seem trivial in light of how fleeting they are. Death Valley existed long before we arrived, and will more than likely exist long after we’re gone.
In Death Valley, I found life. Ongoing and unchanging.
5. Smoky Mountain
For those of us on the east coast, the number of national parks might seem a bit scarce compared to all that lies farther west. Maybe a lot of that has to do with history, old Europeans and future commercial interests clearing out vast wilderness and building on land that might have one day been protected; long before Americans began to expand west, when conservation efforts and a collective environmental awareness were growing at about the same time.
This next place on the list, therefore, has become a true sanctuary, having survived over generations and grown particularly valuable in the eyes of anyone who honors the beauty of our natural landscape. For those east coasters seeking the adventure of Grand Canyon or the tranquility of Crater Lake, or both, it is especially cherished; and for many Americans, it just might be the most iconic mountain range in all of our history and lore.
Covering 522,427 acres of land, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the United States.
With its own biological diversity, endless visions of greenery and waves of mountains seeming to stretch on into infinity, the Smokies reminded me of a lot of the Rocky Mountains. Only here I discovered a greater sense of intimacy and even a bit of southern charm that set it apart from the mountains of the west. My guess is that since there are more towns and cities in the general area, that famous southern hospitality tends to rubs off a little more on this park and give it a distinct personality of its own.
Unlike any other park on this list and a majority of the parks in America, the Smokies seem as though they are a solidly popular local destination, like something Tennesseans and Carolinians might easily decide to go and visit for a weekend or on a day-off, and lot less like a Yosemite or Yellowstone, which draws people in from across the country and all around the globe.
The local flair adds to that sense of intimacy. It felt less like a tourist destination and more like my backyard. Less like a forest. More like the woods. The waterfalls are smaller, the rivers seem more quiet, and altogether everything is every bit as beautiful as all the grand wonders of the American west put together.
If I were to keep this list as objective as possible–that is, strictly about sightseeing–then I just might have to put Yosemite National Park at Number One. Famously described by the naturalist John Muir as “the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter,” it’s no surprise that Yosemite has become a symbol of California and of the greater American outdoors.
If weather is permitting, and usually it is outside of winter, drive up to Glacier Point. Or better yet, climb it. Once you’re at the top, take a look out over the valley, at Half Dome standing mightily over the whole scene like a king in his own vast kingdom.
Down in the valley, at least during the busy summer season, Yosemite can feel a bit like Disneyland. If you want to hike up Half Dome, you will need a permit. Yet one reason Glacier Point is such a great spot is because you can take them all in at once, as it offers a spellbinding view of the valley, of Half Dome, of Yosemite Falls and the high country.
This was my introduction to Yosemite National Park, when I thought of Muir and his mission to protect both the valley and the parks, publishing in great detail his experiences and reflections on their beauty with the rest of America, all largely inspired by his own first encounter with Yosemite, when he wandered into the valley regarding himself an as “Unknown Nobody” searching for anyplace that was wild. Yea, I could relate.
As far as hikes go, the Mist Trail is definitely one of the best. However, while it’s slightly outside the valley, it too can get fairly crowded. To avoid the crowds, detour along the John Muir trail at the base of Vernal Fall. This will provide a far more quiet and enjoyable experience, with superior views of the river and the falls leading to Nevada Fall, at which point you rendezvous with the Mist Trail leading you back down to the trailhead.
Of course, this portion of the John Muir Trail is but a small fraction of its entirety, beginning in Yosemite Valley and traveling south through 211 miles of the Sierra Nevada, ending at the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Sierras; just outside another national park, not quite as famous as its big brother to the north, but every bit as wondrous.
3. Sequoia and Kings Canyon
I’d never been so positively humbled in my life, let alone by the mere presence of trees, as I was in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Of course, these are no ordinary trees. They are some of the largest trees in the world, most notably the famous General Sherman Tree, which is, by volume, the largest in the world.
Then again, it’s not just size that makes these trees so extraordinary, but their age. As some of them are over 3,000 years old.
This is where it all began for me. When I first became aware of the national parks and experienced a connection to them—to all of nature—unlike any I’d felt before. Looking up at giant Sequoias can do that to you.
My introduction to the park was through Kings Canyon, seeing the General Grant Tree, walking through Grant Grove and those surrounding it, and looking out over the marvelous canyon itself.
In the years since, I’ve written down a few observations, entries, many notes and even some music about my time here and I expect there’s a lot more to come. It has left a lasting impression, having greatly altered how I think and view the details of my life and my daily experience as a human on this planet.
If you’re staying in the park, the Lodgepole Campground is the most centrally located. It’s just two miles from the Giant Forest, the majestic Sequoia grove that is home to General Sherman. Lodgepole is also the busiest campground, though it never feels overly crowded. Still, going north up Generals Highway to Dorst Creek is a nice alternative, if you’re looking for something more quiet. Even farther north is Grant Grove Campground, which is another more popular campground and the Kings Canyon counterpart to Lodgepole.
Returning south down Generals Highway will lead you to Moro Rock, the trail to which can be accessed from the Giant Forest Museum, or from a parking lot just outside the rock, making the hike only a half-mile versus nearly two miles one-way. I would suggest the longer route if you’ve got time. The hike itself is pretty smooth until the last half-mile, that steep and winding trek up the rock. Once you’ve reached the peak, you’ve got a spectacular view of the mountains and the grand entryway into the greater Sierra Nevada.
I had no idea of what to expect and I’d never seen any pictures. It was just a vague understanding, some distant and shadowy vision of what stood waiting for me once I arrived. And then of course, adding to the allure was the name. Zion. It had an air of mystery. It felt unassuming yet powerful.
As I write this now, I still can’t articulate what it is exactly, what it is that makes Zion so remarkable. I’ve seen bigger mountains, more colorful and vibrant scenery and wildlife. The canyon itself seems far less impressive certainly than the Grand Canyon.
My first impression was that, while indeed smaller than the Grand Canyon, it was also greener and more dynamic. The most well-known part of Zion Canyon is the Narrows, which is a ten-mile hike round trip if you’re planning on heading as far as Big Spring. Whether you hike ten miles or two miles, you will be hiking in the river, which can be fairly challenging. At times, you’ll be waist deep in the water, so bring trekking poles and the right kind of footwear, shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting wet. Hopefully, you’ll find your footing in no time and eventually get into something of a rhythm; and so once you’re there, hiking in the gorge, try not to spend too much time still looking down at your feet. Look up. Look around. The Narrows gets its name because it’s the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, with walls 1,000 feet tall and a river sometimes a mere 20 to 30 feet wide.
Other more famous hikes are the Angels Landing, which provide commanding views of the entire canyon. Great for thrill-seekers. The Emerald Pools trails might be a better option for those looking for something a little less strenuous, but beautiful nonetheless.
All these places lie within the actual canyon in Zion National Park, and are thus accessible only via transit, a very reliable bus system that takes you from the entrance of the canyon all the way to the Narrows.
If you want to stay in your car and explore more of the wilderness in the outer reaches of the park, keep driving from the main entrance and continue via Canyon Ridge Road for some stellar views that are far less crowded and equally extraordinary compared to anything you’ll see back in the canyon.
To anyone coming in after a long drive through the southwest, if ever so great an oasis existed in all the American desert, it’s Zion. The Promised Land. A kingdom of Heaven living and breathing on the earth for all those who seek it. To all the pilgrims of America, young and old, Zion can feel a lot like home.
1. The Everglades
Surprised? Yea me too.
Of course, I am from South Florida. Born and raised. I grew up with the Everglades. I didn’t truly appreciate it then, but as I’ve grown older and more understanding of the connection I share with it, I’ve come to recognize it as home. Since it’s five minutes or so from the house in which I grew up, The Everglades is quite literally my own backyard.
Still, it’s a swamp. It’s almost always hot and looks the same pretty much all year. But don’t let any of that fool you. In the right time of year, or with enough mosquito repellant, you can find a whole array of secluded trails to hike, or lush creeks and canals to take a canoe and explore. In the lush subtropical wilderness—the largest in the United States—you will discover plants and wildlife unseen anywhere else in the world.
But that’s not the only reason it takes the Number One spot. The other reasons have more to do with its history and what the park essentially represents.
There are no mountains. No rivers. No waterfalls. There aren’t even any hills. The highest point of elevation is about 6-8 feet. It’s not necessarily about scenery. It was never founded with the intent, far more typical at the time, of being a place full of wondrous views where vacationers might come to leisurely spend a weekend getaway.
This distinction underscores the deeper meaning of the park itself, which further exemplifies the dual significance behind most of our national parks and monuments.
As a home to some of the most rare plant-life and endangered species on the planet, like the American crocodile, the manatee, and the Florida panther; the Everglades is the first national park founded for the sole purpose of preserving an ecosystem.
And yet it’s not just for the survival of the life that exists within it, but also to better ensure our own survival, the survival of we who depend on the health of our environment and the stability of our ecosystems everyday—usually far more than we realize.
Sometimes these ecosystems are glorious and mountainous and marvelous. Other times, they’re more discreet. Sometimes, it’s a swamp.
In this way, the significance of the Everglades is a lesson for us all, a truth we can all cherish throughout our time here on this fragile, beautiful planet we call home.