Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Considered to be one of the major natural wonders of the world, this is the grandaddy of America’s national parks. You won’t believe your eyes when you gaze down across the 5,000ft-deep gorge carved by the great Colorado River. While the South Rim has arguably the finer views, the North Rim is just as impressive; at 8,000ft it is surrounded by stunning alpine scenery, with lush forests of Douglas fir, meadows and aspen trees that turn a brilliant gold in the Fall. There are several viewpoints at both rims, allowing for unobstructed views up and down the gorge (make sure your camera is fully charged), and there are many hiking trails for all abilities, too. However, for a more relaxed way to soak up the views, push the boat out with a helicopter flight over the Canyon - it promises to be an unforgettable experience.
Zion National Park, Utah
Founded in 1909, Zion is Utah’s oldest national park, and is also one of its most spectacular. Its soaring monoliths and massive sandstone cliffs - among the highest in the world and a wonderful rainbow of colour - have been described as “sand castles crowning desert canyons”. Hop on the free shuttle bus (April to the end of October) for a six-mile scenic drive into Zion Canyon, cut through the reddish and tan-coloured Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River, where cliffs tower up to 2,500ft high. There are some fantastic hiking paths here - taking in amazing viewpoints - from thigh-burning backcountry trails to easy 10-minute strolls.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Originally inhabited by the Wabanaki people, this park has to be one of the most fascinating - and diverse - in the States. It is made up of 30,300 acres of rock-bound coast on Mount Desert Island, and a portion of the Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut, where towering pink granite cliffs, meet cobblestone beaches and picturesque lakes. One of the most spectacular sights in the park is Otter Cliffs, a series of sheer pink granite rock cliffs which rise from the ocean to a height of over 110ft (be sure to watch your step on the cliffs, they can be slippery from the seawater). If you are blessed with sunshine, explore the lakes on a boat cruise, go on a ranger-led nature walk, or pack a picnic and drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain - the highest of the 17 mountains on Mount Desert Island.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is America’s first national park. Incredibly, it contains more than 10,000 hydrothermal features - half of all those on earth - from bubbling mudpots to steaming fumaroles (a hole in a volcanic area). The Old Faithful Geyser remains an enduring symbol of Yellowstone, erupting frequently and predictably in a narrow jet of water that lasts about four minutes (be prepared for standing-room-only crowds at each eruption). The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is another must-see; it might not be as big as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but it is still breathtaking, providing some of the park’s best views. There are hikes of all lengths and for all abilities (the rim trails are among the best).
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
This park is a wonderful showcase of the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains: nowhere else in the Rockies has so many high peaks concentrated in such a compact area. This mass of granite slopes and frosted summits is breathtaking, and one of the best ways to appreciate it is by taking a long, lazy drive along the Trail Ridge Road - the highest continuous highway in the United States. With more than eight miles lying above 11,000ft, it provides a spectacular view of the deep gorges, and in spring and summer fields of alpine wildflowers can be seen on the tundra above the tree line. There are endless hiking trail through the park too, from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs - look out for elk, mule deer and marmots.
Nicola Iseard is a travel writer for The Observer.