For those of us lucky enough to call the Western United States our home, it should come as no surprise that we share this landscape with the vast majority of our 59 national parks. Perhaps it’s the big sky, the open space, or the towering crests of the Continental Divide—our western national parks are a treasure trove of wonder.
Whether you’re searching for glacial peaks, valleys, red rock deserts, or rainforests, you’ll find it all within the borders of these western national parks.
Arches National Park
Best For: Photographers, geology enthusiasts, motorists, and day hikers
Ideal Home Base: Moab, a mecca of outdoor recreation five miles south of the Arches Entrance Station
Can’t-Miss Moment: More than 2,000 natural stone arches grace the red rock landscape of Arches National Park, not to mention the hundreds of pinnacles, fins, and balanced rocks that draw more than one million visitors each year. Take a scenic drive on the park’s main road, stretch your legs on the Delicate Arch Trail, and consult this handy photography cheat sheet to find prime conditions at the park’s most famous landmarks. But there’s no experience quite like a ranger-guided hike through Fiery Furnace, a natural sandstone labyrinth that winds through fascinating geological features. (Note: tickets must be purchased in person at the Arches Visitor Center up to seven days in advance.)
Channel Islands National Park
Best For: Sea kayakers, whale watchers, and marine life enthusiasts
Can’t-Miss Moment: Choosing a favorite among the five isles protected in Channel Islands National Park is no easy task. Perhaps you’re an experienced kayaker exploring the sea caves of Santa Cruz Island, a nature lover observing elephant seals on San Miguel, or a hiker relishing in the spectacular vistas from Inspiration Point on Anacapa. But with 145 species of animals unique to the Channel Islands, the real magic here is in the marine life, whether you paddle into the tidepools of Frenchy’s Cove or join a summer expedition from Ventura in search of blue and humpback whales.
Glacier National Park
Best For: Experienced hikers, motorists, and photographers
Ideal Home Base: West Glacier, home to the Apgar Visitor Center and the western terminus of the Going-to-the-Sun Road
Can’t-Miss Moment: With 26 glaciers, 175 mountain peaks, and 762 alpine lakes, it can often seem that every moment in Glacier National Park is a can’t-miss. This is especially true for motorists who drive the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, photographers who catch the sunrise on Swiftcurrent Lake, and hikers who make the trek along the Grinnell Glacier Trail. But there is no more iconic experience at the Crown of the Continent than the 12-mile Highline Trail, a cliffhanging trip on the Continental Divide that offers some of the most sweeping views in the park.
Olympic National Park
Best For: Beachcombers, backpackers, and wilderness enthusiasts
Ideal Home Base: Forks, the town of Twilight fame that offers the best access to the park’s west side
Can’t-Miss Moment: It is the sheer variety of landscapes that makes a visit to Olympic National Park so thrilling. This is a place where a day can begin among the sea stacks and driftwood on Ruby Beach, and end atop the windblown crests of the High Divide Loop and the Seven Lakes Basin. But there is nothing quite like standing in the shadow of the Hoh Rainforest—a dense grove of conifers, draping mosses, and lush ferns that see up to 14 feet of precipitation each year.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Best For: Day hikers, motorists, and mountaineers
Ideal Home Base: Estes Park, the alpine town three miles east of the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
Can’t-Miss Moment: With 98 peaks that rise above 11,000 feet, the scale of Rocky Mountain National Park is almost difficult to comprehend. Thankfully, there’s the Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile drive that connects Estes Park and Grand Lake, unraveling with “the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions,” as Horace Albright, the director of the National Park Service, said in 1931.
And while a scenic drive through alpine tundra is an adventure in its own right, you’d be wise to save time for a morning hike on the trails around Bear Lake. In less than two miles, you’ll trace the shores of Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes and take in commanding views of Hallett and Otis Peaks.
Yellowstone National Park
Best For: Geology and wildlife enthusiasts
Ideal Home Base: Big Sky, just an hour from the western entrance of the park, may be a bit further from the park than West Yellowstone, but what it lacks in proximity it makes up for in an awesome resort town to come back to at the end of the day
Can’t-Miss Moment: For some visitors to Yellowstone National Park, it’s thrill enough to know you’re standing in America’s first national park, the world’s foremost collection of geysers and hot springs, and the remains of a volcanic caldera created 640,000 years ago. But nothing can beat the feeling of examining Earth’s oddities with your own eyes, whether you watch Old Faithful erupt at sunrise, join a ranger for a walk through the Upper Geyser Basin, or marvel at the spectrum of colors in the Grand Prismatic Spring and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Yosemite National Park
Best For: Hikers, climbers, photographers, and families
Ideal Home Base: Groveland, a small town 45 miles west of Yosemite Valley
Can’t-Miss Moment: The great Scottish-American naturalist John Muir once wrote of Yosemite National Park, “This one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study and aesthetic enjoyment. It is good for everybody, no matter how benumbed with care, encrusted with a mail of business habits like a tree with bark. None can escape its charms.”
No matter how many times you raft the Merced River, take in the Tunnel View at sunset, and cling to the cables on the slick slopes of Half Dome, that sense of childlike awe never dissipates in Yosemite Valley. And the ascent of the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point will only enhance those feelings—thanks to panoramic views of Half Dome, three cascading waterfalls, and the wondrous valley below.
Zion National Park
Best For: Hikers, canyoneers, birders, and photographers
Ideal Home Base: St. George, the historic city 40 miles west of the Springdale Visitor Center
Can’t-Miss Moment: If the cathedrals of Yosemite had been carved from red rock instead of granite, they might look something like the monoliths of Zion National Park. These 149,000 acres of Southern Utah are among the most beautiful desert wonders in the United States, from the watery passages of The Narrows to the sunset-painted Canyon Overlook. Courageous day hikers will relish in the white-knuckled ascent of Angels Landing, but it is canyoneers who have the most to look forward to. Join Zion Adventure Company, Zion Rock & Mountain Guides, or Red Desert Adventure for the day, and you’ll soon be climbing, rappelling, and scrambling your way through Zion’s most incredible topography.
It’s a wealth of natural beauty, to be sure. But these trails, roads, and waters are just a taste of the adventure that awaits in our western national parks.
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