Do you ever dream of getting away for an exotic vacation, but feel constrained by obstacles such as cost, distance, the hassle of traveling with small children, or fun diseases like malaria? Well, you need not look any further than you can drive for the next “Most Amazing Vacation Ever!” Once you post photos of these fantastic vacation locales on your Facebook page, your friends will be expressing their envy with each new comment. So invest in your National Parks Pass and get ready to explore the continent you call home. You will find North America as diverse and exciting as any place on earth.
1.) YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
A place where a picture truly says a thousand words, images of Yellowstone speak for themselves. The oldest national park in America, Yellowstone is spread out over three states (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho), and within its 3,468 square miles offers some of the most compelling geothermal and geological wonders available; the famous geyser Old Faithful, Yellowstone Caldera (the largest supervolcano on the continent) and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, to name just a few. The park is also home to lots of fun, furry creatures. While some of these animals, such as the elk or bison, may not seem threatening, or may even strike you as delicious, remember to treat all wildlife with caution and respect, because it is likely that some of them may find you delicious as well. Wolves and grizzly bears are not as picky about their meals as the average three year-old.
There is a variety of summer and winter activities suitable for everyone from the extreme back-country hiker to the young family who requires somewhat gentler trails. Permits and reservations are required for some of the things you might want to do, such as fishing, camping, renting snow machines, llama packing, or horseback riding, and it is always advisable to check availability of roads, lodgings, guided tours, and other things of this nature.
Old Faithful Geyser, which erupts every 90 minutes
Yellowstone in winter
Grand Prismatic Spring-the largest hot spring in the United States
2.) YOHO NATIONAL PARK
Grab your passport and head north to the Canadian Rockies! Nestled in the western slope of the Continental Divide, Yoho National Park is sure to make you want to “express amazement.” The name “Yoho” means just that in the native Cree tongue. The numerous waterfalls found in Yoho are reason enough to visit, or perhaps your more adventurous side has always wanted to try ice climbing. Water activities range from boating and rafting down the Kicking Horse River to fishing in the abundant lakes and streams. Glaciers, caves, and canyons offer visitors some spectacular sights, and Yoho is certain to appeal to the geologist in everyone, amateur or expert. This national park is famous for its rare fossil deposits, most particularly the in the Burgess Shale Formation. Check for fees, regulations, necessary permits, and laws specific to Canada before digging in, though. Guided tours of the fossil fields are available, but put down the shovels, eh? The Canadians prefer you leave the fossils where you found them.
Marella, a common organism found in Burgess Shale
3.) KLUANE NATIONAL PARK
If you yearn to visit Canada with your crampons, a great stop is Kluane National Park. Located in the Yukon Territory, visitors are drawn by the abundant fishing, boating, biking, hiking, and, of course, exploring the glaciers. Besides being home to Mt. Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, Kluane National Park is virtually covered in glaciers and mountains, which account for a full 82% of the landscape. No matter how you choose to see the park, prepare to interact with wildlife such as the Bald and Golden Eagles, caribou, lynx, and wolverines. Schedule your trip to Kluane at the right time and you may be treated to one of nature’s most extravagant displays, Aurora Borealis. Oh, and for those who might be feeling homesick way up there in the Yukon, consider scheduling a quick jaunt back to the United States, by way of Alaska. It is closer than you think.
Kluane National Park
Aurora Borealis in Kluane
4.) MIGUASHA NATIONAL PARK
Anyone interested in boning up on their French, fishy fossils, and the history of evolution should make their way to Miguasha National Park, or as the French say, Parc National de Miguasha. Found on the Gaspe` Peninsula in south-eastern Quebec, Miguasha has one of most significant and best preserved fossil deposits of the Devonian Period, or the “Age of Fishes.” 370 million years ago, this amazing park was home to numerous rare species of fish, flora, and spore fossils. Intriguingly, many of the best-preserved fish fossils are the lobe-finned variety which scientists believe eventually evolved into tetrapods, four-legged, air-breathing, terrestrial vertebrates. A Natural History Museum, guided tours, accommodations, and camping located within and near the park make this a stop that anyone is sure to enjoy. Oh la la!
The cliffs of Miguasha are laden with Devonian fossil beds
5.) GROS MORNE NATIONAL PARK
Mention Newfoundland, Canada and many people with conjure up images of quaint, simple fisher folk living in quaint fishing villages on a giant rock of an island. While this may be true in part, any fair and impartial judge will tell you that Newfoundland is a place of great beauty, and no place on the island is more beautiful than Gros Morne National Park. This park offers visitors camping by the sea, hiking through untamed, unpopulated mountains, and the chance to view the cliffs of a freshwater fjord formed by glaciers. The rocks at Gros Morne tell tales of Precambrian geological history, and there are numerous educational opportunities available to just waiting to be discovered. Additionally, the vast range of outdoor activities for both summer and winter will most certainly engage anyone from the casual nature lover to the Iron Men and Women who come to visit. Catch the next ferry and prepare to enjoy the second-largest, first-rate national park in Canada.
Gros Morne National Park
Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse at Gros Morne National Park
Western Brook Pond Fjord at Gros Morne
6.) GEORGIAN BAY ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Canada is full of natural jewels and most assuredly, one of them is the Georgian Bay Islands National Park, near Port Severn, Ontario. The landscape of these 59 islands has been largely formed over time by glaciers which have created a variety of ponds, lakes, bogs, and barren rocky outcroppings along the windswept Canadian Shield. As the islands are only accessible by boat, those who enjoy water activities should prepare to have a great time at this park! Camping, picnicking, and hiking are also ways to keep occupied when visiting islands. The islands are also rich in Native American history, for those who desire more educational pursuits. Now, there is some good or bad news depending or whether or not you are a herpephile or a herpephobe. The Georgian Bay Islands are a habitat area for 33 varieties of reptiles and amphibians, particularly the endangered Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. While it is doubtful a trip to the islands will end up like a scene from Snakes On A Plane, you will want to keep an eye out for these slithery fellows. When planning your trip, be sure to check the weather and what seasonal services will be available. Oh, and don’t forget to plot your navigational course to and from the islands. Otherwise, it could be a long, chilly swim back to the mainland!
Birdseye view of some of the islands at Georgian Bay Islands National Park
A glorious Georgian Bay sunrise at the mouth of the French River
Georgian Bay Islands
7.) NAHANNI NATIONAL PARK
First Canyon, Nahanni National Park Reserve
The adventurous souls who desire a remote wilds will find what they seek in Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories of Canada. This vast wilderness is only reachable by floatplane or helicopter. Consequently, less than 1,000 people visit the part annually. The park is most famous for the South Nahanni River, a veritable whitewater thrill ride, which is surrounded by four immense canyons. Another show-stopping feature at Nahanni is Virginia Falls. Beside providing a habitat for rare orchids, Virginia Falls has the distinction of being over twice the height of the more well-known Niagara Falls. Nahanni also features sulphur hot springs, spruce and aspen forests, mountain ranges, alpine tundra, and an amazing variety of wildlife (just don‘t feed the bears!). The fine visitor center will answer many questions you may have about the park itself, but be certain to educate yourself beforehand on Nahanni before visiting the park. If you plan to stay and brave the whitewater, note that a high level of skill is required, as are reservations. Nahanni is not a park for the faint of heart, but it does provides an intense wilderness experience. Just remember to tell your mom where you are going!
Virginia Falls-Nahanni Nat’l Park Reserve-over twice the height of Niagara Falls!
Pulpit Rock at Nahanni Nat’l Park
8.) WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK
Wood Bison- Wood Buffalo Nat’l Park
Sprawling between Alberta and the Northwest Territories lies the largest national park in Canada, Wood Buffalo National Park. Initially designated to protect the remaining bison herds , this park also plays host to the whooping crane. In fact, it is the only known nesting site of this noisy long-necked bird. Another interesting feature of Wood Buffalo is that the countryside is dotted with caves and sinkholes, called karstland. The original Native American population continues their existence at the park as well, hunting, trapping, fishing in the numerous lakes, rivers, and wetlands that are part of the landscape of Wood Buffalo. There are many activities to partake in while visiting including trail walks, snowshoeing, taking a canoe trip, or enjoying the amazing sight of Aurora Borealis. Wood Buffalo National Park is particularly well-suited to enjoy an intense wintertime light display. Take advantage of all that Wood Buffalo Park has to offer, not forgetting that no fee is charged for entering the park. Hey, the best things in life are free!
A marsh in Wood Buffalo Nat’l Park
The plains of Wood Buffalo Nat’l Park
9.) THE GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
A view of the canyon
While it may seem like an obvious choice, the Grand Canyon National Park is truly one of nature’s most breathtaking landscapes. Spanning nearly 2,000 miles between the states of Arizona and Colorado. The Canyon is a mile deep, and eighteen river miles long and is truly a natural wonder. Nothing will make you feel smaller (in a good way!) than standing along one of the rims of this indescribable scene. The park draws nearly five million visitors a year, so plan your visit wisely and well in advance if you wish to avail yourself of services that require reservations or permits, such as guided tours, mule rides, river trips, or camp sites. A hike across the rims involves a serious investment of time and energy, but is well worth it. The rugged park is a backpackers dream. Remember to exercise caution and common sense when hiking or walking around the Canyon and be certain to supervise your children closely. It is a long way down! For those who suffer from vertigo or who are just short on time, viewing the canyon from a safe distance is definitely an option. In some places, you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your car! There are numerous activities that are not as physically challenging, such as the cultural centers that offer geology and history lessons about the site and its previous native inhabitants, art exhibits, free ranger programs, train and plane rides through the area, and day hikes Additionally, some rims are less traveled than others, so if you don’t care for crowds, a little research may improve the quality of your trip immensely. Oh, and even an amateur is guaranteed some spectacular photos (think sunrise and sunset), so don’t forget your camera! If you are lucky, you just may get a shot of the rare giant condors that inhabit the area.
Sunrise over the canyon
Desert View Watchtower-Grand Canyon
10.) GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK
Stunning Glacier Bay National Park
If the recent presidential election piqued your interest at all, you may have found yourself wondering about Governor Sarah Palin and her home state of Alaska. Whatever your political affiliation, everyone should consider visiting Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to enjoy some of the phenomenal glaciers and wildlife just roamin’ around the ice. However, viewing them may prove a little more challenging than you might think. There are no roads into the park; indeed, most of the 300,000 yearly visitors come via the cruise ship. If your budget (like mine) will not allow for such a splurge, there are still affordable ways to see the glaciers. “Flightseeing” is one option, another is to ferry into the park. Once in Glacier Bay, there are a host of activities to keep even the most intrepid explorer engaged. A naturalist will likely find the abundance of animals, plants, and items of geological and glacial significance mind-boggling. Indeed, any number of scientific government and non-government research projects are constantly underway in the park. Mountaineering, rafting, camping, kayaking, and hiking are options for those who prefer to like a dash of excitement with their natural research. But if your idea of communing with nature includes a moose steak or a bowl of fresh fish chowder, you are also in luck. Sport hunting, fishing, and trapping are also allowable in certain designated areas of the Preserve. Check with the National Park Service first, though. Being arrested for poaching is sure to ruin any vacation.
Glaciers in Glacier Bay
A silver-tipped black bear or “glacier bear”
11.) ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
Bass Harbor Lighthouse in Acadia Nat’l Park
One of the best places in the United States to vacation is, without question, the state of Maine. In fact, printed on every Maine license plate is the word “Vacationland” so it must be a fact! Maine is an enormously popular vacation spot for many reasons, and not just because of the fresh lobster, leaf-peeping, Longfellow, Stephen King, George H.W. Bush, or even the L.L Bean Flagship store. Acadia National Park draws more than 2,200,000 visitors every year. Likely many of these folk want to be the first to see the sun rise over the continental United States. Despite the abundant amounts of snowfall, the park is open all year, making it an ideal destination for winter snow-play, skiing, and ice-fishing. Year-round activities offered at Acadia are hiking, fishing, camping, horseback riding, mountaineering, boating, and bird watching. Wildlife abounds and observant vacationers can see deer, moose, beaver, porcupine, bobcats, and black bears, to name a few. If you are really lucky, you will see a native Mainer is his natural habitat, a truly exotic and fun-loving species.
Bubble Pond, Acadia Nat’l Park
Thunder Hole, Acadia Nat’l Park
12.) GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Glacier Nat’l Park
If watching A River Runs Through It doesn’t make you want to visit Montana, then why not see if you are tempted by Glacier National Park? While it cannot be reasonably expected that all native Montana men will have the rugged good looks of Brad Pitt (sorry, ladies!), the rugged landscape and breathtaking beauty of this 16,000 square mile jewel is certain to make devoted fans of even the most stoic vacationers. But before we are run away with our feelings, here is a cataloging of some of what Glacier National Park has to offer: stunning glaciers, alpine meadows, forests, towering mountains, and shimmering lakes. Much of this is accessible by over 700 miles of trails that wind throughout the park. Camping is optional, but after a hard day of boating, hiking, horseback riding, or biking, you might just want to relax in one of the historic chalets housed in the park. Be sure to make reservations early, because these popular spots fill up quickly.
Wild Goose Island, St. Mary Lake, Glacier Nat’l Park
Wild goats in Glacier Nat’l Park
13.) YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Popular destinations in California tend to include Disneyland, Universal Studios, San Francisco, or nearly any beach on the entire West Coast, but one of the most famous spots for tourists has simply got to be Yosemite National Park. 3.5 million people can’t be wrong! It is 1,189 square miles of pristine and awe-inspiring beauty. Most visitors stay within the Yosemite Valley, and indeed there are fantastic sights to be seen there. Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, Half-Dome, and El Capitan are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sights to be seen and visited in the seven miles of the valley alone. For those who really want to get away from it all, a full 95% of the park is designated wilderness. Every activity a vacationer could wish for is there for the taking at Yosemite. There are both casual and elegant restaurants, or bear boxes in which to store picnics. Wildlife abounds, so be prepared to take advantage of those boxes. The Yosemite bears are no joke! There are shuttles to and from many of the more popular spots, and gentle paved trails co-exist with near-vertical crumbling slopes for the informal hiker and the extreme sports fan alike. Accommodations at Yosemite National Park range from sleeping on the dirt under the stars to staying in a posh hotel with room service. There is even a premium golf course for the gent or lady who defines leisure as being perpetually “teed off.” The park is open year-round. Reserve early and often (if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, as cancellations happen all the time). Those folks with flexible schedules might consider an off-season vacation to avoid the throngs of vacationers who come from around the globe to frolic in this paradise found.
Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite National Park
El Capitan, Yosemite Nat’l Park
Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Nat’l Park
14.) OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Nat’l Park
Have you ever dreamed of visiting a rain forest? Well, a trip into Olympic National Park in Washington state will afford you just such an opportunity, albeit not a tropical one. This unique park boast not one, but two temperate rain forests within its perimeter. Olympic also offers backpacking and hiking through the mountain trails or even along the beach. The park is arranged in such a way as to be attractive for visitors who only have a few hours to those who come and plan to stay awhile. There are lovely drives, day hikes, back-country hikes, fishing, and wintertime sports. Camping and RV hookups are within the park, as well as several lodges, some of which boast restaurants and hot springs. Nature lovers will find no shortage of rare and exotic flora and fauna, and lots of equipment like boats and skis are available to rent for reasonable rates. Surrounded by the beaches and rain forests, what more could a person ask for?
Olympic Nat’l Park-one of the many beaches
Mora Second Beach at night-Olympic Nat’l Park
15.) SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
While the desert does not appeal to everyone, Saguaro National Park is certainly worth your time. The park derives its name from the giant cacti that dominate the landscape. These cacti grow only in the Sonoran Desert, and the park was established primarily to protect them. Just outside of Tucson, Arizona, Saguaro is quite easily reached by car. It is divided into two different sections with about 30 miles in between, so take a little time to research what area interests you most. The park offers several hiking and biking trails, as well as ancient petroglyphs for viewing. Bear in mind that Saguaro is located within a desert, and guided hikes and tours are not available during the hot summer days. The park service recommends visiting during the winter or spring. The wildflowers are especially beautiful during the spring, when the desert is in bloom. While it may seem counterintuitive, the park is actually home to a variety of animals such as the coyote, desert tortoise, and within the higher elevations of the Rincon Mountains, one can even find Mexican spotted owls, black bears, and white-tailed deer. Camping is available, but somewhat limited so call ahead. Don’t forget to pack plenty of sunscreen and the National Park Service recommends about a gallon of water per person, per day. Bottoms up!
Saguaro Nat’l Park
Sunset at Saguaro Nat’l Park
16.) MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Rain forests, glaciers, active volcanoes, and magnificent beauty all come together in Mount Rainier National Park. Home to the highest mountain in the Cascade Mountain Range, for which the park is named, Mount Rainier also has the distinction of being the most dangerous volcano in the Range as well, even more dangerous than its sister volcano, Mt. Saint Helens. It has been little studied, but scientists estimate that it is very much active and likely to erupt again. Fortunately for the 1.3 million annual visitors to the park, most volcanoes give fair warning before blowing their tops. Meanwhile, there are many summer and winter activities, as well as breathtaking scenery that can be enjoyed. 97% of the park is designated as wilderness. Many vacationers flock to Paradise and who can blame them? It is known for its fabulous views, stunning fields of wildflowers, wonderful winter play areas, and its hospitable accommodations. Paradise boasts a visitor’s center, seasonal inn and dining room, and a ranger station. Camping sites are available, and there are many lovely day hikes that can be accessed from Paradise, but let us not forget the rest of the park. Carbon Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in the continental United States, is found at Mount Rainier, and an average of 10,000 visitors attempt to summit the mountain herself, but this is no easy task. Only 25% actually succeed, and there are occasionally tragic results, as the weather changes quickly and unexpectedly. Common sense and a healthy respect for nature can help avert your own personal tragedy, so take the time to check weather, dress appropriately, stay on the trails, and ALWAYS notify someone of your intended whereabouts, even if you plan on a nominal day hike. Enjoyed responsibly, Mount Rainier National Park is one of the most enjoyable vacations you can have. Just don’t forget your rain slicker!
Christine Falls, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park
While these are some of the more amazing places to visit in North America, this is by no means an exhaustive list. There are countless other public parks and sites to consider as destinations for great vacations. Hopefully, this has given you a few ideas, points to consider, safety tips, and sufficient motivation to get out there and see all the wonders that this continent has to offer you. Now is the time to make plans to retreat into the wilderness and escape from everyday life. No more excuses, off you go!