I’m proud to say that America started the modern conservation movement in the 19th century when it created the first National Park. Since then we have added many more parks, national monuments and sites forming a vast web of areas so important, that we have deemed they must be forever protected. The so-called North American model of conservation is now the norm around the world, but to really appreciate its importance a visit to a few American parks is in order. They’re also the perfect COVID-era trip since socially distanced is the preferred way of experiencing the parks. I’m not alone in this realization either, 2020 was one of the best years for the parks, with many instituting reservation systems and other methods of restricting access. As we all know by now, 2020 has bled into 2021 and so the National Parks remain the ideal trip I think. Every National Park is well worth a visit, but here are some of my favorites.
Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is a land bursting with cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, fields of wildflowers, and quiet wooded hollows. With over 200,000 acres of protected lands that are haven to deer, songbirds, and black bear, there’s so much to explore. The Skyline Drive runs its length, and a vast network of trails includes a section of the long-distance Appalachian Trail. Mostly forested, the park features wetlands, waterfalls and rocky peaks like Hawksbill and Old Rag mountains. As a native of Southwest Virginia, this National Park remains a personal favorite but aside from those youthful memories, I can’t imagine anyone not falling for this incredible part of the country.
Named after the huge preponderance of Joshua trees found throughout the region, there’s a lot more to love than just the plants. Massive boulders spread out across the landscape forming a kind of natural playground, and I had a lot of fun scampering across them, discovering a jackrabbit or two in the process. This is a very popular getaway for Southern Californians, so if you’re interested in camping make sure to get your permits well in advance.
Everglades National Park is protects the southern twenty percent of the original Everglades in Florida. The park is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States, and the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River. An average of one million people visit the park each year and it is the third-largest national park in the contiguous United States after Death Valley and Yellowstone. UNESCO declared the Everglades & Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve in 1976, and listed the park as a World Heritage Site in 1979. I visited this important area as part of an airboat safari along the moving river of grass. Approaching speeds of 30 miles per hour, the uniquely designed airboat isn’t only a fun way to explore the swamps of Florida, it’s the only way. What was the most fun though was encountering alligators almost right away. Sitting there just a few feet away from these massive and strangely beautiful animals was humbling and the perfect outdoors experience on a beautiful Florida afternoon.
Arches was first designated a National Monument in 1929 and then a Park in 1971; the massive 76,000 acre site recognized for the more than 2,000 sandstone arches that grace its lands. The most famous, Delicate Arch, even adorns the Utah license plate and driving to the park itself it’s hard not to be enthralled by the natural beauty of the region. Arches National Park though is about so much more than its namesake geology, there also exists around the park enormous formations that look like the handiwork of the gods. Spires, balanced rocks, sandstone fins, and eroded monoliths are all strewn about the landscape, creating a red rock diorama that looks more like Mars than anywhere on Earth.
Photo Credit: Nestor Ferraro
In full transparency, I have not yet visited this most important of the Parks, but I have plans to finally see it in person very soon. Long famous as the inspiration and home of John Muir, to stand where he stood and to slowly understand the beauty of this landscape is an experience that I know will be transformational. Granite cliffs, incredible waterfalls and more have long attracted those who not only want to admire the beauty of the country, but to find their own little haven of peace and quiet. I want that too, I want to experience the park as Muir experienced it and I too want to leave a little better than when I arrived.
Zion is the most popular of Utah’s Mighty Five parks, and its location is a key reason why. Just about two-hours from Las Vegas, Zion can be visited on a day trip; although that’s certainly not recommended. It’s also close to St. George, Utah, which is a popular outdoor recreation hub, and still other visitors include it on their circuit of the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Since it is so popular – about 4.5 million people journey there every year – the process of visiting is a little different from the other Mighty Five National Parks, but the majesty of the scenery is no less impressive.