North America has 59 different national parks, whose characteristics and opportunities, taken together, are more diverse than those of anywhere else in the world. From the frigid peaks of Gates of the Arctic’s Brooks Range to the subtropical wetlands of Florida’s Everglades. From the below-sea-level simmer of California’s Death Valley to the mist lifting off the ridges of Shenandoah in Virginia. From glaciers to mangroves to waterfalls to canyons to towering forests — if you visited all 59 of America’s national parks, you would have a pretty thorough understanding of our planet’s geology and ecology. Here’s a selection of some of the highlights to help you with your trip planning.
Editor’s note: These spots are all taken directly from travelstoke®, a new app from Matador that connects you with fellow travelers and locals, and helps you build trip itineraries with spots that integrate seamlessly into Google Maps and Uber. Download the app to add any of the spots below directly to your future trips.
For the past several million years, the Colorado River has been slowly but steadily grinding its way through the rock of the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona. Reaching a width of 18 miles and a depth of 6,000 feet, the Grand Canyon is on a scale of few other places on Earth.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The largest park in the country, Wrangell-St. Elias lies in a corner of southern Alaska, adjacent to the Yukon’s Kluane National Park just over the border. Its 20,000 square miles make for a whole lot of potential exploration; pictured above is a hiker on the Skookum Volcano Trail.
Just south of Moab and the more recognized Arches National Park, Canyonlands also features some impressive sandstone arch formations, as well as canyons of monumental scale, carved by the Colorado and Green Rivers.
The central draw of Yosemite is the 7-square-mile valley of the same name, with its glacially carved peaks, sequoia groves, and spectacular waterfalls. To beat the crowds, get out and explore some of the other areas in this massive park in the Eastern Sierras.
Encompassing a long strip of both the Blue Ridge Mountains and adjacent Shenandoah River Valley, this Virginia national park gets super popular during the fall, when leaf peepers arrive to complete the 105-mile Skyline Drive.
Great Smoky is surrounded by kitschy tourist towns and is the most visited national park, thanks to its location near the East Coast and free admission. Still, once you’re there, you can see scenes like this.
Named for the largest of its three signature peaks, Grand Teton National Park also contains lakes, forest, and a section of the Snake River. It sits just south of Yellowstone in western Wyoming, and together they represent one of the largest protected ecosystems in the world.
Olympic National Park
Covering nearly a million acres on the peninsula of the same name in northwestern Washington, the terrain of this park is super variable, ranging from Pacific coastline to alpine peaks to temperate rainforest.
The world’s first national park is also one of its most unique and well visited. The 3,400 square miles of Yellowstone hold geysers, mountain lakes, forests, river canyons, waterfalls, and many threatened species. Above is an aerial shot of the Grand Prismatic Spring, the third-largest hot spring in the world.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
One of the country’s newest national parks (designated in 2004), Great Sand Dunes lies in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Featuring the tallest sand dunes on the continent, backed by multiple 13,000ft mountains, this is also one of the few places in the country where you can try sandboarding.
As far as views from the visitor center go, this one is pretty spectacular. The 6 million acres of Denali, in central Alaska, include the highest section of the Alaska Range (with the peak that gives the park its name), glaciers, river valleys, and abundant wildlife such as grizzly bears, caribou, gray wolves, golden eagles, wolverines, and Dall sheep.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park
Low and hot—Death Valley is home to both the lowest elevations and hottest temperatures in the US. But the landscape in this part of California is actually incredibly diverse, ranging from saltpans like the Devil’s Racetrack, pictured above, to snow-capped mountains reaching 11,000ft.
There are no roads leading to this park in southeastern Alaska, so your choices for getting there are: by raft via the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers (from Canada), by plane (usually out of Juneau), or, most commonly, by cruise ship.
The Arches National Park
This aptly named park in eastern Utah, just north of Moab, is home to some 2,000 sandstone arches that come in all shapes and sizes. Above is one of the most photographed, Delicate Arch.
The backbone of a much larger system of federal and state park land charged with preserving the coast redwood, Redwood National Park lies in northern California and is home to many of the tallest trees on Earth. While the exact locations of the most titanic redwoods are kept secret, many groves are easily accessible, particularly those along the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Sequoia National Park
Named for the largest tree species in the world, Sequoia is located in California’s Sierra Nevada and is directly adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park. General Sherman, a giant sequoia whose bole volume of 1,487 cubic meters makes it the largest living tree on Earth, is a centerpiece of the park. Pictured above is the fallen Buttress Tree.