One of the things we think people forget about the USA is its outstanding natural beauty. Away from the identikit mega-malls and bland burger chains, America is all about the great outdoors. Its 50 states are blessed with some of the most beautiful National Parks in the world; a vast cinematic sweep of mountains, lakes, canyons, rivers, forests and beaches.
If you’re planning on backpacking in America or taking a road trip to several cities, why not really get under the country’s skin, and discover what the really drew the pioneers across the American wilderness?
The areas under the National Park System are preserved by the US government for public use, so are uniformly beautiful and easy to explore. They are also perfect for budget travelers – with such beautiful (and free) natural scenery to explore, all you need to pay for is supplies, transport and somewhere to crash after a hike!
You can stay in a lodge within the park boundaries, but these can book up quickly during peak season. The easiest way to discover the National Parks is by hiring a car, or taking a Greyhound Bus and staying in a hostel near by. Failing that, some USA hostels in major cities conduct their own tours to National Parks – check out USA Hostel San Francisco which offers trips to Yosemite National Park and Muir woods.
With over 58 parks to choose from, though, you’ll need a guide to the great outdoors before you set off! Here’s our pick of the top National Parks:
Yosemite National Park
You could say that Yosemite was the inspiration for the National Park System – it’s said that early visitors to the park were so in awe of its beauty it was the first place to be preserved by the US government – and became a National Park in 1890. There are over 800 miles of hiking trails, taking you past the dramatic mountains and valleys of the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite Valley’s grand waterfalls and soaring cliffs, the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoia trees and the spectacular vistas from Glacier Point.
Yosemite Valley is a vast secluded, wilderness, so you won’t find a town or city here, but it’s an easy drive from other destinations in California. Follow in the footsteps of American naturalist John Muir and take the ‘Sequoia Tree Trail’, a four hour drive from a youth hostel in San Francisco, or stop over in a hostel in Modesto, only a two hour drive from the park gates.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park is a hiker’s and nature-lover’s paradise, home to over 700 miles of maintained trails, and the largest intact eco-system on the mainland. Montana’s mountain scenery is pretty epic, so it’s no surprise Glacier follows suit – the park is massive, home to a staggering 1,000,000 acres of forests, lakes, alpine meadows, six National Historic Landmarks and 350 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. On top of all that, you can hike the Rocky Mountains and visit the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Stay in historic East Glacier Park, and you’re minutes from the park gates but close enough to civilization, with a grocery store and restaurants in the town. The Whistling Swan Motel is the perfect base to answer the call of the wild. The rustic but comfortable rooms are all equipped with private bathrooms, cable TV and some have kitchens. If you’re new to the great outdoors, the friendly staff will help plan fishing or horse-riding trips, and there’s park transportation from outside the motel.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
We’re sure you’ve heard of this one – the Grand Canyon is one of the major wonders of the world, and no matter how ‘touristy’ it may seem to want to go there, one glimpse of the sheer size of this gorge will blow you away. One of the oldest National Parks in America, the Grand Canyon encompasses 1,902 miles of rugged and remote desert in Arizona, a surreal selection of colorful rock formations by the Colorado River.
Despite the vast size, the park trails and back country roads make the canyon easy to explore. But even if you are an avid hiker, trekking through this extreme landscape can be a challenge. You’re in the middle of the desert, so hike smart -the canyon gets extremely hot during the day, and cold at night, so take it slow, and bring plenty of water and food. The National Park’s website has a load of useful ‘Hike Smart Podcasts’ to help you on your trip.
Most visitors enter the park by the South Rim, arriving on Arizona State Route 64, but you can also get here via Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. Of course, the best way to see the Canyon is by staying close by- pick a hostel in Grand Canyon-Williams like The Grand Canyon Hotel, or the AAE Grand Canyon, and you’ll be on historic Route 66, next to the Grand Canyon Amtrak station.