The recent pandemic has not slowed down visitors to U.S. National Parks. You can get an annual pass (as of April 2021) and visit as many parks as you like in the National Park System (NPS).
Taking Pandemic Precautions
The CDC notes being physically active keeps the mind and body healthy. Therefore, visiting the parks and hiking the trails are great ways to get some fresh air and to relieve anxiety. Park rangers are now on duty to uphold the regulations and rules and help visitors, as needed.
When visiting any of the parks, you will need to wear a face mask in federal buildings and other facilities, such as the park’s visitor centers, museums, or inside historic sites. When outdoors, the masks must be worn if physical distancing cannot be maintained.
For everyone’s health and well-being, choose to visit a park at another time if you exhibit any of the following symptoms:
- COVID-like symptoms, such as a fever, respiratory difficulties, dry cough, or the loss of smell or taste.
- You have had close contact with a person who has been diagnosed or is suspected as having COVID-19 during the past 14 days.
- You have been self-quarantining, worried that you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
An Overview of the National Park System
You can visit more than 420 national U.S. parks, but 63 of the national parks stand out as the most popular – hosting millions of visitors each year. Each of the parks has its own special character and attractions. However, Congress has chosen 63 of the parks as being especially important.
Before visiting the parks, you need to know some of the rules. For example, you should not leave any trace of litter when you picnic in a park. Pick up after yourself, clean up food crumbs, and stay on the maintained trails. Following these basic park rules will help keep the park pristine and keep the ecosystem in balance.
Do not approach the wild animals in a park nor feed them. Animals in these settings may be dangerous. Therefore, it’s best to leave them alone in their natural surroundings. Respect their domain. Keep your distance. (Practice wildlife distancing.) Also, do not take pinecones or rocks from the parks as souvenirs.
Planning for a Park Visit
Before you tour national parks, you should plan ahead. That means you should know when to expect crowds and should reserve your lodgings before your trip. Know where you want to go and what you will be doing when you visit a park. Research trails and get the appropriate permits for exploring the backcountry.
The America the Beautiful Pass
Your entry into each park is the America the Beautiful Pass. While national parks generally charge an entrance fee, buying the America the Beautiful Pass will waive the fee and allow you to visit the parks as many times as you like. Also, you can get some passes on a complimentary basis. To check out the options for the pass, click on this link.
If you plan to visit a specific state, check that state’s national parks before you go on your trip. Most of the popular state parks are found in the western quadrant of the U.S., especially in Arizona (home to the Grand Canyon), Utah (home of Zion National Park), California, Wyoming, and Colorado.
However, the state of Tennessee, located in the eastern U.S., is home to the most popular national park, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Another popular attraction in the state is the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, part of a trail system that extends from the state of Georgia in the south to the northern U.S., or Maine.
Planning a Visit to Tennessee
If you plan to tour the National Park System (NPS), Tennessee is a good place to start. You can also visit other less-known parks and sites in the state, such as the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, or the Stones River National Battlefield.
Grand Canyon National Park – A One-of-a-Kind Destination
You cannot visit the National Parks in the U.S. without including Grand Canyon National Park, located in Arizona, on your bucket list. The iconic park is just as symbolic as the Statue of Liberty in New York. One of the world’s seven natural wonders, the park is home to paleolithic and rocky gems.
Grand Canyon Stats
In 2019, Grand Canyon Park celebrated its 100th birthday. The canyon in the park spans 277 miles (446 km) in length and 18 miles or 29 km wide. It plunges to a depth of approximately 7,000 feet or 1,857 meters.
The Colorado River runs through the park, home to the oldest rock layers in the world, estimated to be around 2 billion years old. The highest point in the park, the Desert View Watchtower, located on the South Rim, stands 7,522 feet or 2,293 meters above sea level.
Even though the average width of the canyon is about 10 miles (16 km), it takes about 5 hours driving time (215 miles or 345 km) to go from the park’s South Rim to North Rim.
The landscape and terrain of the Grand Canyon is unlike any other site or scenic attraction you will ever see.
You can visit the Grand Canyon anytime. However, temperatures in the summer can reach in the 3 figures when measured in Fahrenheit. Also, the elevations, when hiking the South Rim, can vary – with a rainstorm and colder temperatures often occurring in a lower elevation while it may be bright, hot, and sunny in an upper tier of the park.
Always Check the Weather First if You Plan to Hike
If you do plan a hike in a national park, always check the weather first. Also, always carry plenty of water to stay well-hydrated. You don’t always have access to a plentiful water supply. Give loved ones itineraries of where you plan to hike and when you will be hiking the trails.
California: Home to the Most National Parks in the U.S.
Seeing the Redwood Tree
A redwood tree is a superlative – the tallest, oldest, and most massive tree of all forest trees. The tree is simply awesome to view. California is one of the only places in the world to see the redwood tree – an iconic conifer of the Golden State.
Redwood groves flourish about 12 miles north of San Francisco, but a trip to Redwood National Park defies description. Redwoods actually represent 2 distinct but related species of trees. For example, coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) highlight the tallest living trees on the planet. They can grow as high as 380 feet and span up to 18 feet across. You find the trees bordering the California coast from Oregon down to California’s Big Sur.
Giant Sequoias or redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are found only in the Sierra Nevada Mountain in California, near the eastern edge of the state. The trees, which rise over 300 feet tall spread as much as 30 feet across. The oldest of the trees have survived and have been in existence for over 3,000 years.
Because redwood forests are abundant in California, many of the state’s state parks have “redwood” in their names.
All of the national parks in California represent varying terrains, from the low deserts of the high Sierras to the lush green landscapes in the north.
Visiting San Francisco and Traveling South
You can easily spend one month just exploring national parks and historic sites in California. A good itinerary to follow begins in San Francisco. For example, once you fly into the city, you can explore sites, such as Golden Gate, Muir Woods, Point Reyes, and the Rosie the Riveter World War II Homefront.
If your journey in California takes you south to San Diego, you will want to visit the Joshua Tree National Park and the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego. A visit to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, near Los Angeles, is also worth your time.
Visiting Channel Island National Park
If your journey leads you to Ventura, California, take time to visit Channel Island National Park (about an hour’s drive from Santa Monica) before journeying north to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National parks.
You should spend about 3 days in the Kings Canyon and Sequoia parks to take in the major sights. Another park to include on your California National Parks list is Pinnacles. Spend a day in the park before returning to San Francisco.
The Best National Parks to View Wildlife
If you like to view wildlife, some national parks provide better chances for viewing animals than others. Most wildlife come out at dawn and dusk, making these opportune times to view animals. Therefore, you can include wildlife viewing in your plans when camping or spending overnights in national parks. Just make sure you logistically keep your distance and bring equipment, such as binoculars, for safe viewing.
Big Bend National Park in Texas
One of the great national parks for viewing wildlife in Big Bend National Park, located in southwest Texas. The park, which features the entire Chisos mountain range and a large portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, is home to a large array of wildlife, including spectacular sites, such as the limestone cliffs of the Santa Elena Canyon and Langford Hot Springs, sitting near the Mexican border.
If you visit the montaine setting of the Chisos Basin, you can see animals, such as Mexican black bears or Bighorn sheep. In the landscapes that are more arid, you will find animals, such as coyotes, jackrabbits, mule deer, and javelinas.
Do you enjoy birding? If so, Big Bend National Park is one of the best places to engage in the activity. Hundreds of birds migrate over the area yearly. According to park officials, the park has more species of butterflies, bats, birds, scorpions, reptiles, ants, and cacti than any other place in the NPS.
Channel Islands National Park – Ventura, California
Channel Islands National Park in California has been called the Galapagos of North America – another great place to see wildlife in the NPS. The unique isles off the coast of southern California are teeming with endemic animals. You can also see marine animals migrating to warmer waters during boat rides in the area.
Some of the animals that make the Channel Islands home include the fox, a large variety of species of birds, humpback whales, dolphins, porpoises, foxes, seals, and sea lions. The Channel Islands fox and spotted skunk can only be found in the coastal park.
Seeing Grizzly Bears in the Wild
One of the best national parks to see wild grizzlies is Denali National Park and Preserve. Located in Alaska, the park covers 6 million acres in Alaska’s interior wilderness. The main focal point of the park is Mt. McKinley (also called Denali) – the tallest peak in the U.S. The mountain stands at a height of 20,310 feet. Guests who visit the park regularly engage in summer activities, such as hiking, backpacking, biking, and mountaineering.
Besides grizzly bears, the park is also home to other animals not commonly found in other parts of the U.S., including arctic ground squirrels, golden eagles, and wolverines. In the autumn, you can see antlered moose while sandhill cranes, migrating across the park, fly overhead. During peak years, visitors can see large numbers of Canadian lynx and snowshoe hares. Dall sheep and gyrfalcons also inhabit the area.
Dry Tortugas National Park – Florida
Featuring a landscape completely different from the other parks that abound in wildlife, the Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida sits along the Gulf of Mexico, west of Key West Florida. It makes up 7 islands, including protected coral reefs. Fort Jefferson Loggerhead Key in the park features sea turtles and the park’s landmark lighthouse. Near Loggerhead Reef, the remains of an 1875 ship, the Windjammer Wreck, represents a popular dive site. Sooty terns, nest at Bush Key, a popular nesting site for all types of seabirds.
If you camp at the site, you will see hermit crabs, especially on the beaches at night. Hundreds of migrating birds fly over the park annually. One special note – Bush Key is closed to the public. Therefore, you need to bring binoculars if you wish to view the wildlife. The major species in the park include the above-mentioned hermit crabs, sea turtles, birds, and tropical fish.
Everglades National Park – South Florida
While visiting Florida, you may also want to visit Everglades National Park. Few parks in the U.S. have more wildlife than Everglades. Covering 1.5 million acres, the wetlands preserve sits on the south tip of Florida, and often is compared to a slow-moving and grassy river.
The park, which comprises mangroves, pine flatwoods, and sawgrass marshes, provides a home to hundreds of animal species. Endangered animals, such as the leatherback turtle, Florida panther, and West Indian manatee, live inside the park.
The Everglades is the only place in the world where you will see both crocodiles and alligators because of the park’s brackish waters. If you visit the Gulf Coast in the park, you will want to take a boat tour. During the journey, you can spot dolphins, manatees, and pelicans. Shark Valley, in the park, features alligators, herons, and egrets. A visit to Flamingo will give you the opportunity to see manatees, crocodiles, and, yes – flamingos.
The Everglades is also a base for wood storks, ibises, bobcats, freshwater turtles,, and armadillos. If you want to see the same animals in a less crowded location, visit nearby Big Cypress National Preserve. Located in Ochopee, Florida, the preserve sits about 45 miles west of Miami.
Glacier National Park – Montana
You cannot round out a list of popular national parks without including Glacier National Park in Montana. The wildlife sanctuary spans 1,583 square miles of wilderness in the Rocky Mountains, with the park’s glacier-hewn peaks running up to the Canadian border. The Going-to-the-Sun Road crosses the park, which features over 700 miles of hiking trails, with a path leading to the park’s beautiful Hidden Lake. Visitors in the park like to cycle, camp, and backpack.
If you trek trails in the park, you will see marmots, pika, and bears. The park features both black and brown bears as well as several ungulate (hooved) animal species, including elk, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. Mountain lions also reside in the park, and show up from time to time.
Now Is a Good Time to Plan a Park Adventure
Now is a great opportunity to explore the National Parks in the U.S. By purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass, you can explore the National Park System in one of various locales. Whether you travel to Florida, the northeastern U.S., or escape to a park in the West, you will discover a world that takes you away from the stress, for a while, of everyday living. Set your sights on visiting the parks this coming summer and fall.
Top 10 National Parks – According to U.S. News and World Report
The top 10 national parks, according to U.S News World and Report include:
- Yosemite National Park – California
- Yellowstone National Park – (Mostly located in Wyoming, extending in parts of Idaho and Montana) – visit in April and October to avoid the crowds. The park is known for its geothermal wonders.
- Glacier National Park – Wyoming
- Grand Canyon – Arizona
- Zion National Park – Utah
- Grand Teton National Park – Wyoming
- Bryce Canyon National Park – Utah
- Arches National Park – Utah – Known for its natural rock arches, the Landscape Arch, the Delicate Arch, and Double Arches.
- Rocky Mountain National Park – Colorado – the park sits 70 miles north of Denver
- Haleakala National Park – known for its magnificent waterfalls. Hiking inside the park’s crater reveals some amazing terrains.
Wherever you go in the NPS, your pass will give you the opportunity to witness nature at its finest.