America's National Parks service celebrates its centenary on 25 August. There are 59 parks showcasing the country’s epic wilderness – here's five of our favourites...
This volcanic playground in north-west Wyoming is rightly regarded as the mother of National Parks: its designation in 1872 sparked the idea that spread across the country and around the world.
Today, around four million people a year flock to see Old Faithful, its most famous landmark, an azure-blue geyser edged with gold that spouts water some 100ft into the sky, roughly every 90 minutes. It’s just one of around 12,000 thermal features, which include fumaroles and hot springs. And volcanic wonders are just the start: the Park also boasts one of the world’s largest petrified forests (wood transformed into rock), the jagged peaks of the towering Rockies and Yellowstone Lake, North America’s highest-altitude lake.
Best for Wildlife. The park is home to 500 grizzly bears, black bears, bison, mule wolves, elks and wolves. With the largest concentration of mammals (there are 61 species) in continental USA, the park has been nicknamed the 'American Serengeti'. The chances of spotting some of the creatures are high – head to the Lamar Valley in the early morning or late evening to see the grizzlies – although you’ll need lady luck on your side to spy the elusive wolverine and lynx.
2. Grand Teton
The Teton mountain range is the jewel in the crown of this National Park, Yellowstone’s next-door neighbour. The 37 mile-long ridge, topped by the Grand Teton itself, a mountain that grazes the sky at just under two-and-a-half miles, creates an ethereal landscape, jutting up dramatically above the Jackson Hole valley.
There are 12 small glaciers, too. During summer, wildflowers carpet alpine-esque meadows in a supernova burst of colour and, when snow covers the mountains come winter, Jackson Hole attracts skiers from across the globe. It’s also a favourite destination for our feathered friends, with birds like the trumpeter swan and the calliope hummingbird, with its vivid magenta-covered breast, flocking here.
Best for Outdoor adventures. There are over 200 miles of trails in the Park to suit all abilities. Serious walkers might want to tackle the signature hike of the Teton Crest Trail, a 37-mile, six-day trail that takes in the fathomless alpine lakes, those famous craggy summits and sweeping views of Jackson Hole and Teton Valley.
Water-based activities are a thing here, too, thanks to Jackson Lake and Snake River, which offers opportunities for both gentle and white-water rafting, boat trips and world-class fishing.
3. Great Smoky Mountains
With one foot in North Carolina and the other in Tennessee, this exceptionally beautiful park is dominated by the mist-shrouded (‘smoky’) mountains, covered in lush, virgin forests. Climb to the top of the observation tower on Clingmans Dome, the highest peak, to drink in the remarkable views.
Officially the most visited of America’s National Parks, 10 million visitors are lured by its charms every year, but it still retains an air of stepping back in time to when the world was relatively untouched by mankind. Look out for the salamanders skittering through the undergrowth – 31 different species thrive here, thanks to the rude health of the eco-system within the park. There’s also a population of around 1500 Black Bears – that’s roughly two of them per square mile, so you’ve a good chance of spying one.
Best for: Plants and animals. Many call the Smokies ‘the wildflower national park’ – its temperate climate means over 6000 species of wildflowers, plants and trees flourish here. In early summer, the hillsides are ablaze with the orange of flame azaleas and the delicate white and pink of mountain laurel. For a brief window in early June, the synchronous fireflies put on their famous and enchanting light show; illuminating the forest as darkness falls.
Immortalised in the black and white landscape photography of Ansel Adams, Yosemite’s natural majesty is undeniable. The park, set within California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, is famed for its ancient sequoia groves and the sheer granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome that are nothing short of mythical. Though the vast park spans over 1100 square miles, the four million visitors who arrive every year are mostly drawn to the dramatic Yosemite Valley, an area of just seven square miles.
For those who want to escape the crowds, a trip to Mariposa Grove in the south of the park is a must. Home to around 500 giant sequoia trees – the Earth's largest living organisms – some of which are around 1800 years old and tower up to 278ft into the sky, hushing the sound of the outside world. The Grove is currently closed for restoration but will reopen in spring 2017.
Best for Getting close to nature. For the adventurous, Yosemite is perfect for wilderness camping, but also boasts 13 camping sites for those who want to pitch up close to other humans and amenities, plus there are several RV parks, too. Stunning views come as standard; especially at Bridalveil Creek Campground, a stone’s throw from Bridalveil Fall. This waterfall is a beauty, especially in the wake of a wet spring or harsh winter.
Set in south-west Utah, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe the staggering drama and beauty of this park. The spectacular cliff-and-canyon landscape, carved by water and time over a period of around 250 million years, feels borne from the imagination of the gods. Certainly, the names of some of the extraordinary monoliths have biblical overtures with names such as Angels Landing and Cathedral Mountain. Bald eagles and California condors often circle overhead before perching on the rocky spires. One of the world’s largest – and most beautiful – natural arches, the Kolob Arch, is found in the north-west corner of the park, and appears as a vivid ribbon of rich red Navajo sandstone rock against the deep blue desert sky.
Best for Jaw-dropping scenery. Zion Canyon is the hallowed heart of the park, a 15 mile-long, half-mile deep gorge that cuts through the landscape, the Virgin River rushing and gurgling across its bedrock. Another standout attraction is the Checkerboard Mesa (a table-topped mountain) found in the east of the park. The sandstone formation is scored with a natural grid reminiscent of a chess board.