1. Best for hiking: Zion, Utah
Within the 50 states, Utah is the undisputed king of national parks. And within its “Mighty Five”, the most famous is Zion. Its burnt red rock cliffs, hanging valleys and slot canyons are instantly recognisable, thanks to the hundreds of Hollywood films shot here. But it’s also beloved for its exceptional hiking trails, particularly along the mind-bogglingly beautiful Virgin River.
2. Best for kayaking: Big Bend, Texas
A colourful, high-desert wilderness on the Texas-Mexico border, Big Bend is cradled within the sweeping arm of the Rio Grande river. Its temple-like limestone canyons are the stuff of paddlers’ dreams.
3. Best for fossil hunting: Badlands, South Dakota
There are plenty of good times to be had in the Badlands, particularly if you’re a dinosaur fan. The park’s 98,743 hectares encompass one of the world’s richest fossil beds, and you can dig for bones with local operators. A national park so awesome that Bruce Springsteen even wrote a song about it.
4. Best for wildlife photography: Yellowstone, Wyoming
Nicknamed “the American Serengeti”, Yellowstone has the largest concentration of mammals anywhere in continental USA, with excellent opportunities to spot everything from moose and elk to bears, wolves and mountain lions. For a truly unique experience, try working as a fire lookout during summer where you’ll stay in a mountaintop cabin with a 360-degree view.
5. Best for stargazing: Bryce Canyon, Utah
Another of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, the unique sandstone hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are both extraordinary and otherworldly, particularly at mesmerising Silent City. Each year the park hosts a four-day astronomy festival; the perfect way to enjoy Utah’s famous Dark Skies, and some of the finest stargazing anywhere on the planet.
6. Best for rock climbing: Yosemite, California
Considered by many to be the National Parks System’s crown jewel, Yosemite is just 11km long and 1.6km wide. But this epic river valley is also a geological wonderland, walled by 914m-tall rock sentinels including the famed Half Dome and El Capitan.
7. Best for spectacular sunrises: Acadia, Maine
Every morning an awestruck crowd gathers atop Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain to enjoy the country’s first sunrise. At 466m, it’s the park’s highest peak, and the point where the sun first strikes the USA. The views from the top as day breaks over the Atlantic are nothing short of spectacular.
8. Best for whitewater rafting: Grand Canyon, Arizona
Arguably the most renowned national park on the planet, the Grand Canyon is a lot more than just a big hole in the ground. One of the best ways to enjoy it is rafting down the Colorado River, taking on some of the world’s most challenging rapids as you soak up the views.
9. Best for snorkelling: Dry Tortugas, Florida
This remote gem is very different to the majority of America’s other national parks. A 113km boat ride from Key West, it’s made up of seven coral-and-sand islets, encircled by coral reefs. The tropical waters here make for outstanding snorkelling.
10. Best for snowmobiling: Denali, Alaska
Cars are banned from almost all of Denali’s 2.43 million ha, with snowmobiles the preferred means of transportation. Here, you can ride for hundreds of miles across pristine snow meadows, staying in huts en route, with the pristine white peaks of the Alaska Range your constant companions.
– TEXT BY JONATHAN THOMPSON
PHOTOS: 123RF.COM, INSTAGRAM
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.