National parks maps route driving directions ideas

So you’ve seen a million Instagram photos of the national parks, they look wonderful with their endless trails, rustic campfires and crazy skies. You want to hike, camp and unplug from the hectic schedule life has placed upon you, but you’re not sure where to start…fear not. The national parks are as varied as they are beautiful, and your ideal park may depend on your personal aims. However, if you are looking to go to a national park for the first time, the five I am about to mention will leave you wanderlusting for more.

The last few years have been big for the National Parks Service, being its centennial celebration in ’18 was certainly a milestone. Although the service itself hasn’t been around for a hundred years, the first national park has. Yellowstone National Park has grown from a mythical wilderness into a tourist bonanza. Never the less, the park is still magical, and despite the hoards of tourists which occupy the ring road and visitor’s center like a shopping mall on Black Friday in summer, the majority of the park remains a true wilderness. One only has to wander for fifteen minutes from any given trailhead and the crowds dissipate exponentially. Let’s take a look at some starter parks.

1. Yosemite

Founded in 1890, this is one of the older parks in the NPS. It’s 1,169 mi² is mostly wilderness and only reachable following multiple days of backcountry hiking. However, the beauty of Yosemite as a first-time park lies in its core; Yosemite Valley. I have returned to Yosemite more times than any other park in America, and though the endless miles of backcountry is now my biggest draw, I’m struck intensely by the sight of the valley as I cruise down Wawona or El Portal roads, which snake down from the west entrance to the valley floor.

Yosemite national park

Half Dome at Sunset

Once down, you can cruise along the Merced River, which is wonderful to look at and even better to jump in! If you manage to secure a camp sight down here, despite the midday summer crowds, you will feel a serenity and tranquility that I haven’t found in any other park. From the valley floor, the opportunities are almost endless. If you want to relax amongst the great Sequoia trees you can. Should your legs get itchy and you want a walk there are tons of inspiring day hikes; Glacier Point, Lower Yosemite Falls and Vernal Fall come to mind. If you want to locate a stunning photograph, every trail just mentioned will bring you plenty, and you can get superb shots of El Capitan without having to leave your campsite. It is the sheer variety of activities and difficulty levels which put this park on top.

Once you’ve experienced the valley, you will no doubt head home already planning your next trip, and possibly a venture into the backcountry wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

2. Smokey Mountains

The full name of this park is the ‘Great Smoky Mountains’ National Park, and it certainly lives up to its title.

Let’s start with mountains. The park is around 816 mi² and fills itself with lush forests, flowing streams and rivers. The mountains are plentiful and the landscape of the Smoky’s is like a green ocean, with tree-covered waves rising and falling in all directions. Hiking trails are scattered throughout the park, which makes up a small segment of the famous Appalachian Trail, and the view from Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park is stunning, particularly at sunset.

Now let’s talk smokey. They didn’t name this park for nothing. The mist in the mornings is otherworldly. It hangs in the trees and flows gently through the mountains until the morning sun lazily shuns it to one side after breakfast. Photo’s here can be outstanding, with light and mist mixing together you can normally pull off something spectacular without even trying.

Great Smoky Mountains national park

Smokey Mountain Sunset

As for the great part…For first time visitors to a national park, you can truly dip your feet in the NPS waters here, metaphorically and literally. Towns such as Pigeon Ford, which gains extra visitors due to its proximity to Dollywood, allow a visitor to stay in cabins with the most ludicrous of views for reasonable prices. Go to the very edge of the park boundary, to towns like Gatlinburg and you can hike from your campsite or hotel straight into the woods. Again, like Yosemite, you really have the option to go full blown wilderness or retain some home comforts and day trip in which, for a first time National Park-er, is ideal.

No matter how you look at it, a visit to the Smokey’s will blow your mind. You’ll definitely see some nice waterfalls, you’ll most certainly see a black bear or two and the morning views of the hills will stay with you for life.

3. Arches

Located in the middle of the Utah desert, near a town called Moab, are two national parks; both examples of the awesome ability nature has to truly carve up the landscape. Arches is so full of highlights and reasons to be on this list that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The park is of course famed for its density of spectacular natural sandstone arches. They really are everywhere! Hikes can be short, half a mile or so (handy in mid-summer when temperatures hit the hundreds) or hours long. At the North end of the park, you can follow a trail and scramble for a few hours to Double Arch and Landscape Arch, a journey with crazy morning views and some great fun off trail climbing.

The most enjoyable trail, in my eyes, is an evening hike up to the famous Delicate Arch. This hike will take you somewhere between an hour and two hours, once up you can sit back with a coffee and watch as the sun dips below the horizon, leaving a surreal glow on the sandstone arch which towers 65 feet up into the cool evening air. Once the night comes in, the most amazing view of the stars will dazzle you for hours, and some epic night photography opportunities will present themselves. Just remember to take your head torch for the walk back down!

Arches national parks

Delicate Arch at Night

The downside to this, and the next national park on the list is the distance you need to travel to get to them but trust me the hours in the car are worth it. Once you are there, the road gives you superb access to the park and you can select the difficulty level of your walks and explorations. Moab is a cute town, with lovely restaurants and cafes, plus a great little photography store. If you’re on a budget there is a lovely hostel with superb quality private cabins on the edge of town for around $35 a night.

The last huge bonus of this park is its amazing proximity to the next park on our list… Just twenty minutes South of the park entrance, you arrive at the entrance to the phenomenal Canyonlands.

4. Canyonlands

In Canyonlands there are basically four main areas to the park; Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the combined rivers (the Colorado and Green). Each area has highlights to speak of, however the area that stands out to me personally is the Island in the Sky region, which has some of the coolest hikes, most breathtaking canyon views and easy access from Moab.

The park’s location being so remote means it never gets the unsavory crowds of some of the other parks, although making it a journey to get there you are more than rewarded by the silence and serenity. You will be hiking by yourself more often than not glimpsing the views from the canyon rims that leave you in complete awe.

Canyonlands national park

Mesa Arch at Sunrise

There are a variety of hikes here, and photographic locations are dotted all over the park, sunrise and sunset are by far the best times to capture this landscape. The North entrance allows you access to locations such as Mesa Arch which produces one of the most spectacular sunrises you’re ever going to see. Dangle your legs over the thousand feet sheer drops whilst sipping from your thermos as the sun comes over the horizon and you’ll never forget it.

The benefits of Moab are all applicable to this park too, including the great hostel to use as a base camp, useful in summer when the hotel costs go into the two hundreds and the heat makes camping less of an option.

5. Yellowstone

Aaaahhh Yellowstone National Park, the original.

The first National Park in the U.S was created in 1872 and despite the odd argument, it is widely held to be the first National Park ever created, in the entire world.…ever. Its reputation is so immense now that it brings in visitors from all over the globe, and in vast numbers. In 2010 a record was set with just shy of one million visitors arriving at the park in July alone! So you may be thinking twice about going, well don’t, the crowds are avoidable and the park absolutely does live up to its name.

Slightly off-putting is the notion that the park sits nicely atop a super-volcano.  This geological anomaly has historically blown on average every 600,000 years or so, and it’s last eruption occurred around 680,000 years ago…

The supervolcanic activity (which has shown an increase in recent years) is actually the reason for the national park being so remarkable; powering its many geysers, hot springs and other thermal activity. The wildlife survive here all year round thanks to the warm springs and the biodiversity that results from this (and the park’s protection) is spectacular.

Yellowstone national park hot spring

A Hot Spring in January

When driving through Yellowstone it is normal get a sore neck from constantly turning in order to spy deer, bison, bears, elk, geysers exploding or multicolored hot springs bubbling.

As for those pesky crowds, if you hit it early or late in the season, around May or October, you will find it oddly quiet, and if you make a trip in winter it might seem like no one has ever discovered the vast park at all until you arrived! I recently ventured in during January and decided it was at its best when the snow was on the ground, the snowmobiles were out to play and the steam from the hot springs formed what the Rangers call ‘ghost trees.’

As with all the parks on this list, the difficulty and comfort level is down to the visitor. You could, of course, obtain your backcountry pass and vanish into the wilderness for weeks, or you can simply drive around the park all day and jump out when a bison or a bear shows up. The informative visitor’s center here is superb, and there are many lakes and streams to relax by in the summer afternoons if hiking isn’t your thing.

With Yellowstone, as with all five national parks on this ‘first timer’s’ list, you will be in awe of the park, stunned by nature in ways you didn’t think possible and encouraged to venture further next time.

So what are you waiting for? These are just five of the wonderful National Parks in America that can be explored any season. Grab your backpack and boots and get going!

Keep Traveling,