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Preserved for posterity as well as for conservation reasons, the contrasting beauty of America’s national parks renders countless visitors in awe. Yellowstone, the first national park ever to exist, was designated in 1872 and its status sparked an initiative that spread across the country.
Visiting the major parks is a rite of passage for many Americans and grand old parks like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Glacier remain popular choices among both locals and tourists. Off the beaten track you will find gorgeous vistas of untamed mountains, deep forests, pristine lakes and wide-open spaces. From imposing peaks to Dali-esque rock formations, geyser-watching and strenuous hikes, US National Parks offer seemingly boundless choice and reward. Here are eight of the best lesser-known US national parks.
Goblin Valley State Park, Utah
Fairy chimneys, earth pyramids and abstract mushrooms. The badland rock formations for which Goblin Valley is known have created an unique and otherworldly landscape. Spanning some 3654-acres, the Dalí-esque melted rock goblins range in height from two to 20ft. A showcase of geologic history, follow one of a limited number of trails down from the overlooks to the valley floor to relish the stone “goblins” up close. Be sure to plan your trip well in advance as the 19-spot campsite fills up most weekends.
Arches National Park, Utah
This striking park, with its 2,000-odd sandstone arches, has served as a backdrop to countless Hollywood films, including Indiana Jones and Thelma & Louise. Among the park’s iconic rock facades is the Delicate Arch, a standout landmark which you will see replicated across every licence plate in Utah. Encompassing bridges, towers and balanced rocks, the park is known for its aptly named attractions, such as Parade of Elephants and Balanced Rocks. Don’t miss a one-mile stroll down sandstone Park Avenue – startlingly similar to its New York namesake.
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah
Encompassing a vast array of landforms from the historic Lees Ferry area to the remote canyons of the Orange Cliffs, Glen Canyon National Park overflows with geologic wonders and scenic vistas. One of the most beautiful portions of the park is the dramatic Horseshoe Bend. The 1000ft sheer cliff drop to the river below carves a 270-degree bend, creating a perfect horseshoe in the Colorado River. A trick of the eye, the formation appears in such a way that the river looks like its swallowing itself.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
This spectacular glaciated mountain region in northwestern Wyoming enticed more than 3.2 million visitors last year with it’s jewel-like lakes and crystallising glaciers. Home to a variety of wildlife including bears, elk and bald eagles, Grand Teton’s appeal has much to do with the epic views of its craggy mountains as the rich history of the West.
The peaks of the Teton Range make one of the boldest geological statements in the Rockies, with most visitors coming to Wyoming’s great mountain in the summer months to climb. In the winter, Jackson Hole is one of the best places in the US for backcountry skiing – just a 30-minute drive from the 500-square-mile Grand Teton National Park. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, visit in late May, June or September.
Redwood National and State Park, California
When author John Steinbeck stood in the presence of redwood trees – the world’s tallest living things – he described the sensation as a “cathedral hush”. Towering as high as 379ft, the trees preserved in California’s Redwood National Park are the oldest, largest and tallest of the coast redwoods. Back on ground level, look out for native wildlife including elk, black-tailed deer, black bears and mountain lions.
Hugging California’s northwestern edge, the scenic coastal drive to Redwood makes the park a steadfast addition to any West Coast road trip. Visit year-round, but spring and autumn are best due to crowds in summer and rain-drenched winters.
Death Valley National Park, Nevada and California
This 3.4-million-acre expanse has been compared to Mars, but unlike the relatively cool planet, Death Valley is one of the hottest places on Earth. A rain-shadow desert, situated on the eastern edge of California, the majestically desolate national park is the largest outside Alaska.
One of the best places to experience Death Valley in all its multicoloured glory is at Zabriskie Point, either at sunrise or sunset when it’s not too hot. Dramatic and startlingly beautiful, Mosaic Canyon with its formations of swirling, multicoloured marble, and the pink green and lavender hills of Artist’s Palette are just two highlights. It can be hellishly hot in summer – the record is 134 degrees. Visit in autumn or spring.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Just 45 minutes from Palm Springs, Joshua Tree is an ideal day trip. Dotted with bizarre rock formations and the oddly shaped trees for which the park is named, the remote, desolate environment has long been tipped as a place for spiritual growth. If you can, try scheduling your trip during a meteor shower. Joshua Tree is at its most majestic at night, when the sky is studded with stars – the Milky Way is phenomenally vivid thanks to pollution-free skies. Alternatively, for a great sunset head to the Chola Cactus Garden during golden hour. After sundown, Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace (located in Joshua Tree town) is a great place to go for live music. Both Paul McCartney and Lorde have played here.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Less than three-hours’ drive from Seattle, Mount Rainier dominates the surrounding skyline, at nearly three miles in height. The tallest peak in the Cascade Range, dwarfing 6,000ft surrounding summits, it’s the most glaciated peak in the US. An active volcano, Mount Rainier creates its own clouds and can be concealed for days at a time. Come prepared to focus on short-distance delights of subalpine wildflower meadows and wander the ancient forest among trees mover a thousand years old. Visit year-round, but go midweek to beat weekend traffic jams and crowds.
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