2 Apr
2014
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5 Favorite National Parks

We’ve visited 22 national parks, all west of the Mississippi River. Our bucket list includes seeing all the national parks in the lower 48 states.

National Parks Passport Book

The National Park Service sells National Park passport books, small blue spiral books broken down by regions. Each region has listed places run by the National Park Service, not just parks, but monuments, memorials, refuges, and historic parks. At visitor centers, tourists can stamp their passport with the name, location and date of the place they’re visiting. Our passport is a souvenir timeline of places we’ve visited.

I’m asked quite often what my favorite national park was to visit. Each park we’ve visited is unique in its own right, but I am partial to a few. This list is compiled in alphabetical order because I can’t actually pick my very favorite national park. Keep in mind that we visited each of these national parks with all four kiddos and racked up miles of hiking, even with toddlers.

5 Favorite National Parks

Landscape Arch - Arches National Park

1. Arches National Park — The park entrance is located just outside of Moab, Utah. The park is named for its over 2,000 stone arches, the highest concentration of arches in one place in the world. The sandstone arches are seemingly everywhere you look. There are also quite a few balancing rock formations and massive pillars of red rock.

Windows Arches - Arches National Park

We’ve been to Arches National Park twice, both times in early March. There were a few spots with snow, but the crowds were almost nonexistent each time. That part of Utah gets hot in the summer. Most of the hiking is in the shadow of rock formations with no tree coverage. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed our visits nearly as much in 90-degree heat. There are several short, under 1-mile hikes available. A few of our favorite spots are The Windows, Landscape Arch, Double Arch, Sand Dune Arch and Park Avenue.

2. Canyonlands National Park — Located in Utah, also near Moab, Canyonlands consists of three unconnected districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. The Colorado River and its tributaries formed this land and separate the districts from each other.  We also visited Canyonlands in March and encountered few tourists.

Island in the Sky District - Canyonlands National Park

Island in the Sky is the easiest district to reach. It is home to one of my favorite hikes: Grand View Point Trail. It’s a two-mile round-trip hike that surrounds you with panoramic views while you skirt the top of the mesa. We hiked it near sunset and were treated to an amazing vista. The trail is a must-see at Island in the Sky.

Needles District - Canyonlands National Park

The Needles district is in the southeast corner of the park and more remote than Island in the Sky. It is known for longer hiking and backpacking opportunities. We enjoyed several slickrock trails with more wonderful panoramic views including snow-capped mountains. Our children worked on a lizard census while visiting Canyonlands. We saw several dozen scurrying over the warm rocks.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

3. Carlsbad Caverns National Park — The park is home to over 119 limestone caves and is located in southern New Mexico. There are several tours available at Carlsbad Caverns, so plan ahead. We chose to do the self-guided tour using the natural entrance to the cavern. The path is paved and there is dim lighting in the cavern. There are 16 species of bats at the park.

Stalactites and Stalagmites in Carlsbad Caverns

The highlight of our trip was the bat show at dusk. A park ranger gave a program about the bats at Carlsbad, answered questions and then we watched as thousands of bats left the cave for the night in a swarm. There are microphones near where the bats sleep. The noise of the bats waking up alerts the rangers and tourists to the imminent evacuation of the cave. It’s against park policy to take photos or video of the bats as they fly out at dusk. You’ll just have to trust me that it’s an amazing event to witness.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park

4. Mesa Verde National Park — This park in Colorado houses almost 5,000 archeological sites dating back to A.D. 600. Of those sites, 600 are cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people. There are several dwellings you can buy tickets for a park ranger-led tour. It’s worth the extra $3 fee to enter the sites. We toured Cliff Palace, discovered in 1888 by area ranchers in search of lost cattle. The palace is Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling. The dwellings we entered were remarkably preserved and gave an up-close look into a lifestyle I cannot fathom. Our kids enjoyed playing “I Spy” while looking for numerous other cliff dwellings. The park’s rangers offered an abundance of information about the Pueblo people and were some of the most friendly rangers we’ve encountered around the West. We, literally, had to drag our boys from sites and beg them to stop questioning the rangers. We visited Mesa Verde in July. It was fairly crowded and hot, but not unbearable.

West Thumb Geyser in Yellowstone National Park

5. Yellowstone National Park — We’ve been to Yellowstone several times. It’s located in Wyoming, just hours from where we live. I take this park for granted. Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States and contains the world’s largest collection of geysers. There are several locations to view the many varieties of geothermal activity in the park as well as looking for wildlife (elk, bears, bison, wolves, etc.), fishing, hiking, bike riding, etc. There are countless activities tourists can partake in.

Artist's Point in Yellowstone National Park

I’ve blogged about my must-do list while visiting Yellowstone. Having a plan for places in the park you absolutely must see is essential for Yellowstone. The park is large and ridiculously busy in the summer. Parking lots fill fast and campgrounds book early. It’s helpful to have an idea of how the park is laid out. The first time we took our kids to Yellowstone was magical. They couldn’t get over being in a volcano’s caldera. We’ve also acted as tour guides for a few British friends. Taking people to see something I take for granted helps the park remain magical and intriguing.

Do you have a favorite national park, or five?

 

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