Americas National Parks system is gigantic so I can’t say I’ve seen it all. When travellers beam they’ve “done America!” it’s just not possible. Yes, we may have explored the red rock deserts in the west, hiked the Appalachian Trail to the east, sailed the length of the Mississippi, or even braved the Alaskan mosquitoes but we haven’t ‘done it’, it’s simply too vast. This is one of the reasons why Americans don’t need to travel outside of their own country.
Why visit Americas National Parks?
My first foray in America were the red rock deserts in the west including Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon and Arches National Parks. Each day was better than the last and it left my narrow view of travel in America irreparably changed.
The following visit I rafted the length of the Grand Canyon for 8 days; an experience which humbled me in every sense of the word and gave a brief insight into what John Wesley Powell and his men encountered on their first exploration down the Green and Colorado Rivers.
This was followed by a road trip through New York State, my goal being to prove there is life outside of New York City. What I found was a lush state with areas such as the Adirondacks, 1000 Islands and the remote lodges of North Hudson, culminating in Gay Pride New York. The original city where gay men and women marched for equality.
Most recently was a camping trip in Alaska which revealed the wild and ruggedness of the 49th State; a place which feels very ‘un-American’ and where nature dictates the terms to the hardy bunch who call it home. Black and grizzly bears sauntered near my campsites and ambled along hiking trails, the salmon were running and Mother Nature displayed a brief glimpse into how it was for early settlers and gold rush boomers, who set up their homestead ahead of the harsh winter. Seriously, when you see Wrangell St Elias, you’ll appreciate hoe incredible Americas National Parks system is.
The mistake people frequently make is to spend more time in the cities, and yes, America has some buzzing metropolis wonderlands, but to really experience what makes the USA such an unmissable destination, you’ll need to lace up your hiking boots, fill water bottles, and hit the trails.
Americas Northwestern National Parks
A recent trip I took to explore Americas National park system in the northwest saw me visiting the more remote areas. I was fortunate enough to be staying within the national park boundaries in historic lodges and cabins, when other visitors were forced to leave.
So was America able to serve up another slice of premium pie and what were my highlights?
It always rains in Seattle?
Like New Zealand, the reason Washington State is so green is due to the amount of rain, but as luck would have it I arrived in June during a heatwave. Seattle is a coastal seaport city, the seat of King County and is wonderfully spread out with lots of green space, mostly devoid of sky rise buildings.
Seattle invites visitors to walk its steep roads, shop for local foods at Pike Market, stick chewing gum on the wall in Bubble-gum Alley, and take in surround-sound panoramic views across the Emerald City. From the top of the Space Needle, mountain ranges covered in Douglas Firs, Elliott Bay’s bustling waterfront, downtown Seattle and conical Mt Rainier greeted me. Typically I try to escape big cities as quickly as possible however; Seattle has a charm to conquer even the most hardened of traveller and that’s exactly what it did for me at the beginning and end of my trip.
Into the wilds of Glacier National Park
Located 31 miles from the Canadian border this park packs a punch. The drive to Glacier National Park delves deeper into the North-western wilderness where fir and pine forests, glacial lakes and rivers paved the way until I arrived to Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge, only a few minutes from the trails. You’ll need a car to get to Glacier and also definitely swing by the ranger stations for up to date weather and trail information, as well as maps to deliver you safely from point A to B.
Swiftcurrent Lodge offers a rare chance to sleep within the park borders. Make no mistake about it the bungalows are basic however, the location is amazing and what more could I actually need right? My room came with a double bed and en suite bathroom and hotel reception has Wi-Fi which is more frustrating than helpful. There is an overpriced restaurant but with few options you’ll pay for the privilege of eating there. The lodge offers ranger talks on flora and fauna so when you do hit the trails; you know what to look out for.
My favourite hike was the 10.4 mile round trip Iceberg Trail leaving directly from the lodge. The majority of the hike is through open fields covered with wild flowers, and incredible snow-capped peaks as the backdrop. The initial ascent is quite steep but quickly opens out to flat land with inclines and declines which barely register. Along the way I saw bear, deer, marmots, moose and birds. Take plenty of water and a packed lunch because there is a beautiful waterfall in the shade to relax beside. Unluckily for me there was a lot of snow on the trail before reaching the Iceberg Lake so I had to turn around however, a friend of mine called Toby reached the lake later in the year and here is a quick time lapse of what I missed.
Glacier National Park is 100% worth visiting and spending a few days. There are loads of trails on offer. My advice is bring a decent waterproof jacket as it tends to rain when least expected.
Big Sky Country
Montana or ‘Big Sky Country’ is famous for many things; hunting and ranches being among the top two so I combined both and stayed at the Iron Wheel Guest Ranch. There are two things which stood out almost immediately after arriving – the people of Montana are very friendly and the second is they take their hunting seriously. Photo albums of animals in various states, with and without fur filled the tables and the ‘workshop’ was like something from Norman Bates Motel. Here they break the skin down, add salt to dry and draw out the meat before sending them away to be finished.
If you’re a vegetarian do not even consider staying here but if you are able to arrive with an open mind and accept that Montana is a hunting state, it’s an interesting overnight and you’ll dine on delicious home-cooked meals of BBQ with corn bread and vegetables. There are a number of hiking trails in the surrounding area and they offer horse-riding for US$50, leaving directly from the lodge.
Yellowstone National Park
After arriving to Yellowstone National Park I drove directly to Mammoth Hot Springs and strolled the board-walks around the lower and upper springs. The area is awash with calcium deposits laced with orange hues caused by bacteria, and bubbling springs erupt from deep within the earths crust. This geothermal site looks like the fallout after a nuclear bomb has erupted leaving the water bubbling from the charred earth and steam rising. I also drove the winding roads to the Lamar Valley which runs along the Yellowstone River and attracts large numbers of Bison who come to drink and graze. Being lower down in the valley, the area is extremely lush and beautiful.
Yellowstone is typically a driving national park and as it borders three states it truly is massive so there are plenty of options. My advice is to spend 4 days and take your time, but you’ll need a car. I visited the ‘Brink of Upper Falls’ for a beautiful view of the waterfall, hiked the Canyon Rim Trail, Uncle Tom’s Trail and finished off with a view of the Yellowstone Grand Canyon for magnificent views.
I stayed in the Yellowstone Lake cabins which are simple but lovely and gave me the feeling of sleeping in the wilderness. Situated beside Yellowstone Lake and within walking distance of a number of trails, it is common to see wildlife in the evenings. Each cabin comes with heating and air-con, en suite, coffee making, two double beds and decent space inside.
Unmissable for any visitor to Yellowstone is the chance to watch ‘Old Faithful Geyser’ erupt every 60-70 minutes, before hitting the boardwalks to explore the geothermal sites, hot springs and exploding pools. The remainder of the day I simply drove through the park passing the petrified trees left over from the fires in 1988, rocky mountains, lush forest, scorched land and a host of wildlife including marmots, deer, moose, black bear, elk and mountain goats.
Grand Teton National Park
With Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks being connected, I drove directly from one to the other passing black bear en route. Almost instantly the scenery changes to dense forest and the Tetons rising sharply from the earth – quite a welcoming.
It’s US$15 to cross Jenny Lake by boat which delivered me to the Cascade Canyon trailhead passed Hidden Falls, a beautiful and fast moving glacial waterfall and up to Inspiration Point. At an altitude of 8000ft, breathing is tough but with views over Jenny Lake and the snow-capped Teton Range the rewards are obvious. The trail continues along a tributary of the Snake River deeper into Cascade Canyon. The walk is simply magical and serves up river, forest and mountain views, snow-capped peaks and moose.
I spent two nights at the Lexington Lodge in Jackson Hole, a beautiful building with huge rooms, free breakfast, pool and Jacuzzi, two double beds in each room, heated floors, and right in the heart of this western town. I recommend Merry Piglets Mexican for a meal and a few of their amazing margaritas.
The following day I opted to raft the Snake River outside of Jackson (US$70), a grade 2-3 relaxing river with stunning limestone mountains views, peace and tranquility.
Mt. Rainier National Park
Mt Rainier has one of the highest snow falls in America and the season really only starts mid-June to early October. Even in June there is still a huge amount of snow covering the trails but the lower trails are more accessible by foot albeit muddy. Upon arriving to Mt Rainier I stopped to walk the Grove of The Patriarchs’ trail, an incredible one hour hike through old growth forest.
I stayed at the Paradise Inn, a historic and beautiful mountain top lodge under the watchful eyes of Mt Rainier. Rooms are very small but the common area lounge is huge with thick wooden beams and dotted with comfy couches and open fires. When the weather is good it offers superb views across the tree studded valley and Mt Rainier, perfect for sundowners in the evening.
The following day I hiked the 4.5 mile Nisqually River Trail from the Nevada Falls to Longmire visitor Centre. Being on the lower levels there was less snow but if you’re travelling in June you’ll need adequate footwear. The trail explores deep into old growth forests as monstrous trees tower overhead, and small ferns flattened by the heavy snow begin to stretch up and out once again.
As luck would have it the weather cleared revealing blue skies and ever impressive Mt Rainier. The sounds of melting snow filled the air and I sat on the balcony with my hot chocolate watching the clouds blow across the sky. Dear readers, this is called perfection!
Olympic National Park
The drive to Olympic National Park is paved with forest, snow-capped mountains and views of Mt Rainier disappearing into the distance. I stopped by the coast at South Beach for lunch before following the coastal roads where it’s impossible to see through the first layer of dense trees. At Ruby Beach I turned inland and hiked the Hoh Rainforest. This trail is simply magical and reminded me of something from an Edgar Allen Poe novel. It felt like some weird wonderland where the forest had come alive and taken on a life of its own. Trees were decorated by hanging ferns and fallen trees had become the catalyst for new trees to grow from and mosses to cover.
I stayed in the Lake Crescent Lodge cabins which surround the lake. They are a decent size, basic but had everything I needed including en suite, coffee maker, and a patio area out the back to sit with a glass of wine at sunset. With weary bones I drove to the Sol Duc Hot Springs (approx. 30 mins away) where I pool-hopped between the three different temperature natural hot springs.
The following morning was the highlight of my trip – Rialto Beach which sits right on the Pacific Coast. It’s Important to go there at low tide in order to walk the beach trail and explore the rock pools. This wild and stunningly beautiful area really completed the checklist of what I wanted to see on this trip. The beach appears to be constantly lashed with heavy storms, which uproots gigantic trees and exposes them to the harsh elements. The entire beach is lined not by twigs and bottles, but by huge trees and logs, stumps of wood and rocks. These wonderful sea stacks are very beautiful indeed.
Large red and maroon coloured star-fish fill the rock pools, as well as bright green sea anemones. This beach trail is a four mile round trip and really highlights how wild the Washington State coastline is.
One thing I found was the areas we travelled were completely devoid of any rubbish and trash. There seems to be an appreciation and respect that I haven’t seen on many other walking trails.
If you fancy reading a walking blog with GPS routes, check out this blog post from 10Adventures.
So what are you waiting for folks? Americas National Parks need you!
Happy travelling folks!
If you want to read some of my other posts on America, click the links:
Hiking to Angels Landing in Zion National Park
The Alaskan Wilderness – Getting back to nature
Dig this, shoot that in Las Vegas
Yellowstone Winter Wildlife