I love that our country cares about conserving land for the simple pleasure of taking in the view. C.S. Lewis said it best when he stated that we don't merely want to look at nature, we want to merge with it. Our national park system offers the best views and experiences in America. Disney World is a fabricated cement farm, but Zion is cosmic mind blower.
I've enjoyed each park we visited, but there are some incredibly unique. Here are my top ten national parks and when I think it is best to visit them.
1. Yosemite National Park
The photo below is my son descending the cables from Half Dome. The valley of the park is always packed with people, but there are numerous hikes to get you out of the crowds - you'll have to work for them. Ascents such as Half Dome and Glacier are limited to summer and fall months. There is access in the winter to the ridges with the proper snow chains. I recommend Yosemite in the late winter just before the school spring breaks start to take place. The first week or two of March is perfect. Be prepared for winter weather, but the park without the mass of humanity.
2. Zion National Park
There is no place like Zion. The diversity of rock, colors and terrain will keep your eyes wide open with every step. An easy drive from Vegas, go in the dead of winter and during the week. Rent dry suits from a local outfitter and trek up The Narrows bumping into only a few people. The shot below is my daughter in The Narrows in February.
3. Canyonlands National Park
No sunset matches the experience of one in Canyonlands if watching it from the Grand View in Islands, or as it fades over the Needles District. The Moab area is always busy, but a late fall visit before Thanksgiving will have you bumping into mostly foreign visitors. The area is massive so you can escape with ease. Below my wife is taking in one of those off the chart sunsets.
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
GSMNP is the most visited national park in America. Stay in Asheville and avoid Gatlinburg like the plague. It is amazing in the fall and worth dealing with the crowds. As with any of these large areas you can find hikes to get away from the noise. Winter is also great as you can see so much further with the leaves shed. The area is surrounded by tourist dumps, but the park is great. Also nearby is the Pisgah National Forest and it is also a wonderful place.
5. Yellowstone National Park
Experiencing the park in early May can be a collision of seasons. The crowds are extremely smaller and moving through the park much easier. Rent a house in Idaho and make the drive in each day if not camping. Prepare for extreme and fast changes in the weather. Leave prepared each day. You can hope while you're there the volcano beneath you doesn't decide to blow.
6. Capital Reef National Park
This park is out of the way, thankfully. It is a gem offering massive cliffs reaching for the sky. Great hikes and little concern for crowds no matter what time of year. Take time to watch the sun rise from a high point over this explosion of color.
7. Acadia National Park
Early June the air is still cool and as the locals say, the "Massholes" have not yet arrived in large numbers. Bar Harbor offers great food and relaxing for the less adventurous, but with not much effort you can be on some incredible forest hikes and packrafting the lakes. The further you are from the ocean, the further you are from the crowds and can experience this gift in solitude.
8. Death Valley National Park
My wife, below, looking out of Death Valley is not a big a fan of this park like I am. I find the stillness and heat alluring. The whitewash landscape is so expansive. A few hours from Vegas and you're in a California oasis of sand and fire. Plan well with a cooler and lots of water if going in the summer months. It's always a great time of year for Death Valley.
9. Rocky Mountain National Park
Utah is my favorite state for views, but Colorado my favorite state of mind. RMNP is great for families, but also for the hardcore adventure junky. The photo below is my hike and climb of Longs Peak in the park. If winter driving is not your thing, and you want to experience more of the park go in the fall when the kids are back in school. If you're looking to climb up to 14K feet, July and August will be your best weather windows.
10. Wrangell St. Elias National Park
No crowds - ever. Make the effort to get back into this true wilderness. If not experienced, there are great local guides to help plan your excursion deep into one the great treasures of the U.S. in Alaska.