National Parks are all unique and, while I can find the beauty in each, there are definitely some that I would revisit in a heart beat. There are also some that I would only revisit with a significant other…like if they really, really wanted to go. It’s not only the beauty in each park, but the individual experiences I had at each. My list is not just in terms of beauty, but what each park means to me. So, without further-a-do, here are my top 5 National Parks I’ve been to!
5) Rocky Mountain National Park
I visited this park on a road trip to the total solar eclipse. This park would probably rank higher on my list if we had more time here. With only two days, we had time to visit the local town of Grand Lake, drive to the highest peak (pictured above), do one major hike, and camp out. Even with the short time we had here it was able to make my list. Here’s why:
The views are breathtaking. Nothing like I was used to seeing growing up in Illinois or living in Texas. The drive into the park is along a single skinny road with sheer drops on one side. At times it was a little scary driving through the park, but you get used to it and then it becomes beautiful instead of stressful. Driving up the road alone is an experience that will never leave my mind. I will never forget how clammy my hands were. Or the tight feeling I had around my chest turning each corner. I stayed calm though, and carried on.
Camping here was sheer bliss. Once you climb to the peak of the park (12,000ft) you drive down into a valley that has a wide open campground. There was no light or noise pollution. We were alone in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. There was only one problem…it dropped down into the 30’s and we packed no sweatshirts. With three dudes and one sweater you can imagine how close we all became that night. Without a doubt the coldest I have ever been while camping, and that is a feeling I will never forget.
Waking up here was beautiful. In the early morning a herd of Moose walked by our campground and, after that spectacle, the view kept delivering. Soon after waking up we packed up, hit up a Grand Lake again, and went on our way.
Grand Lake was so peaceful in the morning. Slightly cold, but incredibly sunny. We got our coffee, walked around the town, took in the view, saw a local car show, and proceeded on.
This park has mountaintop views, deep valleys, thick forest hikes, and zero light pollution. Definitely one I plan on revisiting.
4) Great Sand Dunes National Park
This park, again, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Growing up as a kid, one of my favorite things to do is drive up to the Warren Sand Dunes in Michigan. This was on a completely different level. It felt like a desert, but then you see the snow capped mountains surrounding you. This park had rolling sand hills, cascading waterfalls, and a cool new experience called sand boarding.
You quickly come to realize that these hills are not that easy to climb. Each hill seemed to get 50 feet higher. The sand was scorching hot, and we became exhausted climbing these giants. Once we did manage to climb a hill, we would strap in and cruise down on our sand boards. This was a rush, a completely new experience, and one I hope to have again. There are no sand lifts here though, so when you ride down a hill, you need to climb your way back up.
It’s not all sand though! There were some pretty cool forest and hiking trails here. We ended up taking a day hike through the forest to a hidden waterfall. The sand was blistering hot, and the water was chillingly cold. It was quite the contrast. The last quarter of the hike to the waterfall was through the water and my brother was not having it so he stayed behind. I pressed on though, and the view was worth it.
This park was unique and provided great views and fun experiences, though I wish there had been more hiking spots to enjoy to give a more well-rounded trip, so it gets number 4 on my list. This is definitely one I would revisit and explore more…just bring enough water and proper footwear!
3) Carlsbad Caverns National Park
This park makes my list because it truly felt like being on a different planet, or in one! I’ve been in tiny caverns before, with narrow walkways and 10 foot ceilings. That has always been my idea of what a cave is. I have always heard about huge caves and seen the pictures others have taken of them, but just couldn’t grasp how big they actually were. This was the first stop on my cross country road trip I did. I remember getting to the park as soon as it opened. I was the first person in the cave and that meant I could go at my own pace and go off the trail when I wanted to. It was my first park on my own and I just remember walking into the cave, climbing to the bottom, turning around, and a smile lit up my face all the way to my ears.
This picture is the same place that took my breath away. It was the first time I turned around after walking about 200 ft down. I could not believe what I was seeing and all I could do was smile. I didn’t have anyone to share this with, just taking it in for myself. A picture will never be able to capture the vastness of this cave and that’s okay. It’s something everyone should be able to experience. I was able to finish this hike within 4 hours and felt I had seen enough. There were private hikes you could go on, which would give you more of a rush. This hike was all paved and well lit. So I plan on going back and truly exploring this cave. This gets number 3 on the list because of how fast you can et through it and, outside of the cave, the city doesn’t have much to offer around it. This is just a hidden gem amongst a barren town.
but believe me, it’s worth the drive…
2) Zion National Park
Driving through Utah alone feels like touring a National Park. The entires state is filled with valleys, basins, mountains, and giant arches. Zion tops all of that, though. Although, the park has become a victim of tourism and that has affected a lot of the town near the park. It feels more like a resort on the outside. When you enter the park you are right in the middle of a huge valley that runs the length of the park. I have been here twice now and, if you go, I would recommend going during the winter. Come summer time, the park is packed and finding open space can be hard. The first time I went was during winter break with some college buddies, and we had the park to ourselves. It was just warm enough that some of the snow had started to melt and waterfalls seemed to be forming everywhere.
This park has mountain peaks, waterfalls, ravines, and rivers that take your breath away, but that isn’t entirely the reason this park is so high up in my list. Zion makes the number 2 spot because of the company as well. This was my first college road trip and my first big exposure to National Parks as an adult. This kickstarted my travel bug, and the people made the trip that much more memorable.
The valleys here are huge!
Like the Rocky Mountain National Park, you camp in a valley and are surrounded by mountains. When the sun sets the mountains light up and turn into gold!
1) Big Bend National Park
This place will always have a special place in my heart. It was my first camping trip to a National Park and my first exposure to camping in such a desolate environment. I remember entering the park for the first time and seeing the towering mountain range. I remember camping out on a patch of pebbles. I remember my first time seeing the Milky Way in a clear sky with no light pollution. That is a sight you don’t forget. I also remember the long hikes in the hot sun with minimal water and food, due to my poor planning. There were good times, and rough times, and I loved it all.
Waking up in the middle of the Chisos Mountains is what I look forward to. Normally, we camp out and make our own coffee in the morning. This morning the family and I decided to walk to the cafe, get some coffee, and take in the views. I could have sat here all day if there wasn’t a mountain to be hiked haha.
If you want to feel isolated this is the place to go. You will find zero light pollution and the milky way galaxy will be as bright as the moon, with a peak hike that leads you to the top of the world. Plus, a natural hot spring on the boarder of Mexico doesn’t hurt, especially after a long day’s hike. In terms of beauty, this park does not top my list. Big Bend has some pretty rough terrain, scraggly plants, and, in the summer, the wildlife spends the day hiding from the blistering sun. But, because of the amazing memories I have here, this place will always feel like home to me. Although, there is one thing that places this above the rest of the parks to me. The view…
Big Bend has a long 10 mile hike that takes you up 3000 ft of elevation gain to the peak of the mountain range. The hike is a tough one, filled with switchbacks, minimal shaded areas, and no water along the way. At the end of the hike you have to literally scramble up 50 ft of jagged rock to the peak of the mountain. At times, you’re climbing next to a sheer drop and to some, this can be too much. But if you complete the climb, you’re left on top of the world. As you sit on the peak of the mountain you can’t help but remember how hard it was to get here. That made the view mean so much more to me. Every time I have come to this park the company has been amazing and I have nothing but fond memories here. I think that’s what makes it so special. Every park will have endless beauty, but the experiences you have there is what will set them apart from each other.
I have only been to 14 national parks so far, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. Each park has something to offer and an experience to be had. I am lucky enough to have started so young. If you are reading this, and if I have inspired you at all to start traveling, then I have done my job.