Many people visit the islands in search of white sand beaches and cool trade winds, forgetting that this state is home to two unique National Parks, Haleakela on Maui and Hawaii Volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii. Hawaii's parks offer myriad activities for early risers, hikers, campers, swimmers, and star-gazers. Sunrise at Haleakela is one of the most iconic on Earth; trails in both parks wind through jungle to towering waterfalls, swimming holes, and across barren lava fields; campgrounds are clean and communal; and the night skies, well, there's not much light pollution in the middle of the Pacific Ocean so whether you find yourself perched above the clouds at Haleakela's 10,000' summit, or wandering the rim of Halemau'mau crater on the Big Island, expect to be dazzled by the vast, twinkling expanse above and the energetic, volcanic land below.
Odds are you'll visit the islands at some point, so make the time to visit the parks too. Combine volcanoes with tropical forests and rugged coastline and you have beauty and drama unlike anywhere on the mainland and for this reason Hawaii ranks as one of the top five states for National Parks. Come to Haleakela and Hawaii Volcanoes and peer into the islands' fiery past and experience the richness of Hawaiian culture's intimate relationship with the natural world.
Wyoming may be the most sparsely populated state in the union, but what it lacks in people, it more than makes up for with natural grandeur and diverse wildlife. The two parks located in this beautiful state are also two of our favorites: Grand Teton National Park, and the world's first national park: Yellowstone. For an added bonus, they practically share a border making it easy to visit both.
Outdoor enthusiasts looking for the quintessential alpine adventure absolutely must visit Wyoming. While Grand Teton may seem to live in the shadow of Yellowstone, this small and mighty park packs a dramatic and powerful proverbial punch. The Tetons erupt out of the velvety green earth and an extensive network of trails allows visitors to get up close and personal with the towering peaks and hidden mountain lakes. Tired hikers can then relax on the pebbly shores of Jenny or Jackson Lakes and rest up for Yellowstone's 800+ miles of trails, wildlife galore (bald eagles, black bears, grizzlies, deer, elk and more), geysers, mudpots and fumeroles, waterfalls, rivers, lakes and much, much more! Well done, Wyoming.
You may have seen television advertisements for Utah's "Mighty Five," referring to the five National Parks located here: Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion. And yes, these are a mighty fine group of parks, scoring Utah third place. Utah's parks are widely characterized by red and orange striped stone, freaky rock formations that resemble arm-less humans called "hoodoos," and towering sandstone arches, just to name a few. Between these five parks we hiked, backpacked, relaxed and enjoyed the surreal scenery bathed in the yellow rays of the desert sun.
Camping in the high desert means crisp nights and clear skies; trails in these parks were well-maintained and interactive leading hikers over red slick rock, through towering canyons, atop high peaks, to the edge of deep canyons and among alien-like rock statues; rivers running through the park provide sustenance for tall cottonwoods, which then provide cool shade for people and animals alike; and the sunrises and sunsets we saw throughout Utah were among some of the most spectacular! Utah's parks are also within reasonable driving distance from one another, via exceptionally scenic byways. Not to mention, visitors to Canyonlands and Arches are treated to the nearby town of Moab, where (for the craft beer lovers among us) growler fills are only $7 at the brewery.
If (and when) you plan a trip to Utah, consider visiting in Spring. We were there late April and early May and weather varied from snowy to prohibitively hot - just think of how much more extreme it could be in either Winter or Summer.
Wow. Where to begin with Washington... Well, there are three parks in the evergreen state, each with similarities, and differences beyond comparison. North Cascades, Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks all afford unspeakable beauty and opportunities for outdoor adventures to satisfy every personality type. Parks here are located mostly in western and central western Washington, facilitating relatively easy travel between them, and exciting Seattle.
In total we were at Washington's three parks for about two and a half weeks. During that time we hiked through alpine forests to sweeping ridges, cirques and arretes formed by glaciers of yesteryear; followed trails in and out of dense, lush temperate rain forests where age-old trees are cloaked in a soft, green moss; explored tide pools, sea stacks and slept on the beach; and basked in the aura of the second highest mountain in the contiguous United States. There is much, much more to see and do at these parks, especially if you're really hard core that tote around crampons and an ice axe. Cheers, Washington State.
First off, NO, this is not just our bias coming through. California really does deserve first place for having the highest concentration of the most diverse National Parks. Here's why:
California is home to eight parks. Yup, EIGHT, including Redwoods, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Kings Canyon/Sequoia, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Channel Islands (which we did not visit on this trip), and the king daddy, Yosemite. National Parks in California are scattered throughout the third-largest state and each major region (northern, central, and southern) is well within reasonable driving distance to at least two parks. In California, nature enthusiasts have the choice of rock climbing up sheer cliffs at Pinnacles; tiptoeing over steam vents, mud pots and fumeroles at Lassen Volcanic; climbing the contiguous United States' tallest mountain, Mount Whitney in Kings Canyon; feeling the burn of the sun 279' below sea-level at Badwater Basin in Death Valley; sitting among the biggest, tallest, or oldest trees on earth at Sequoia, Redwoods and Kings Canyon, respectively; and losing themselves in the sublimely surreal landscape of Joshua Tree.
If that isn't enough, California weather is, by and large, sunny and pleasant throughout the year. There is snow in higher elevations, which opens the wilderness up to a host of season-specific activities for winter enthusiasts. For snowbirds like me, temperatures in southern California are just right for a break from the chill and I recommend heading to parks like Death Valley and Joshua Tree in early-to-mid spring, before the mercury rises too much. Overall, California's eight parks, the diversity of activities, geography, topography, and ecosystems, and proximity to one another and to populated areas earn the Golden State #1.
Thanks for reading. Now, go get outside!