Here’s something we can all agree on: This country deserves to have its very best places protected and enjoyed. That’s what happened on August 25, 1916, when the National Park System was born. The first two parks, Yellowstone and Yosemite, were established in the West. In fact, our region is so rich in national parks that one road, U.S. 89, connects six of them, each a world unto itself. The 1,400-mile stretch, bookended by the ice-carved peaks of Montana’s Glacier National Park and the symphonic chasm of the Grand Canyon, is a highway of epic proportions.
Look up at the peaks of Montana’s Glacier National Park—Mt. Gould, Mt. Grinnell, Going-to-the-Sun—and they are snaggle-toothed, beautiful, terrifying. Testimony to the sculptural power of ice. Glacier’s glacier story is complicated. The park has glaciers, 25 of them, which were at their best 500 years ago. The mountain-sculpting work was done by long-vanished Ice Age glaciers from 2 million years ago. Spend time in the park, and you pick up the names for the formations they created. Moraine: an untidy slope of boulders pushed down a mountain by a glacier. Arête: a knife-sharp ridge of rock. A park carved by brute force has an aura. Glacier is the edgiest of national parks, the moodiest. On a sunny summer morning, it shines with such alpine loveliness, you half-expect to see Maria from The Sound of Music tripping across a meadow. Ten minutes later, thunderclouds have massed and the world goes gray, grim, thrilling with menace, as if Maria had wandered into Game of Thrones. Glacier is also the park where you see clearly that national parks aren’t as timeless as we want them to be. At the visitor center in Logan Pass, a ranger gives an impromptu talk about Glacier’s current glaciers. They are shrinking, thanks to a warming planet, and may be gone by 2030. Glacier will still be wild and still be beautiful. But it will be different.
One of the best ways to experience the park is by boat. A ferry glides you across Swiftcurrent Lake (pictured), then it’s a five-minute walk for a skip across Lake Josephine on a different ferry. It’s an ideal intro to Glacier’s ice-shaped world: Swiftcurrent and Josephine are glacier-made paternoster lakes, so-called because they’re like two rosary beads. You’ll remember that fact for a few days. You’ll remember the boat ride forever.
Grinnell stands out as the most impressive and easiest to see among the park’s shrinking roster of glaciers. After ferrying across the lakes, follow the 3.6-mile trail to Grinnell Glacier Viewpoint. Heads up: This is the heart of grizzly country, so join a ranger-led hike or go in a group.
Props to the workers who spent 23 years blasting, tunneling through, and dangling off cliffs to build Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile park drive that climbs up the Rockies to the Continental Divide, then climbs down the other side. Most spectacular drive in America? Oh, yeah. Your challenge: Pay attention to the road and not to scenery. There are lots of turnouts. Stop at them all.
- Established: May 11, 1910
- Gateway town: East Glacier Park, famous for its huckleberry ice cream, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
- The lodge: On the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, Many Glacier Hotel (pictured, with its vintage limo) is like a Swiss chalet on steroids.
- The meal: Sautéed Montana trout with lemon and capers at Many Glacier Hotel.
- Critter watch: Canada lynx looks like a mountain lion wearing snowshoes.
Remember how in end-of-the-world disaster flick 2012 that crazed loner Woody Harrelson awaits the planet’s doom in Yellowstone National Park? (Admit it, you saw it.) It’s here, he predicts, the apocalypse will start when the giant volcano beneath the park explodes. “I have goose bumps, people,” he shouts as the ground shudders beneath him. And then … well, let’s just say we don’t see Woody again. Okay, calm down. It’s true that the world’s first national park sits atop the Yellowstone Super Volcano, one of the largest volcanoes on Earth. And that 600,000 years ago, it exploded, covering half of North America in ash. And that it could explode again … any minute. But that probably won’t occur while you visit. Really. The Super Volcano happens to be responsible for Yellowstone’s most spectacular glories—the elegantly spraying geysers, the burbling mudpots, the gilded Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Spend time here and geology becomes as thrilling as this summer’s blockbuster—with special effects that include the world’s greatest concentration of hydrothermal features. Will Yellowstone give you goose bumps? You bet.
Pay homage to the world’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful, still performing between every 64 and 94 minutes. From there, stroll the rest of Upper Geyser Basin for spectacles like Beehive (pictured) and Fan.
Drive to Midway Geyser Basin to see Grand Prismatic Spring (pictured), a psychedelically colored hot spring and a good name for an indie rock band. After that, hit nearby Lower Geyser Basin for Great Fountain Geyser and Fountain Paint Pot.
Explore the park with instructors who can make concepts like hydrothermal alteration entertaining. You’ll learn firsthand the difference between a hot spring and a fumarole. And if you’re traveling with kids, the five-day Yellowstone for Families programs are great.
- Established: March 1, 1872
- Gateway town: West Yellowstone, a four-block knot of coffee and souvenir shops and restaurants.
- The lodge: Old Faithful Inn has been going strong since 1904.
- The meal: The carnitas taco plate at Taqueria Las Palmitas, a converted school bus parked in West Yellowstone.
- Critter watch: Bison (pictured), bull elk.
Not all red rocks are created equal. Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks—less than 75 miles apart in southern Utah and often visited together—are streaks in that crimson blur people like to call red rock country. But while Zion is a landscape painting come to life, solemn as a sermon, sandstone cliffs shooting 2,000 feet above the Virgin River, Bryce is a red rock rave. From the rim, you look down into an amphitheater, where thousands of orange and pink hoodoos (pictured, the coolest name of any geological formation) poke up to create a labyrinth of limestone towers 30 million years old. The landscapes couldn’t be more different, yet, strangely, more complementary. And if you think you have time for only one of these parks, here’s our tip: Find more time.
There are canyons big and small in Zion and Bryce, but none more beloved than the slot canyon. You’ll know one when you see it—these slits, formed by rushing water, are deeper than they are wide. Exploring one might mean turning sideways and sucking in your gut. Access a bunch on Zion’s Riverside Walk as it leads up the North Fork. You’ll be boulder hopping until you hit The Narrows (pictured), a stretch where 1,000-foot cliffs enclose a gap just 20 feet across. It’s a challenge, so avoid during rainstorms.
Start with sandstone, add rain, wait 50,000 years … presto, it’s the perfect arch. At 287 feet across, Zion’s Kolob Arch is the second longest freestanding natural arch in the world. Only problem? Getting to it requires a brutal 14-mile trek. A more manageable 5-mile
up-and-back on Taylor Creek Trail delivers Double Arch Alcove (pictured), which doubles down on the sandstone magic to reveal two separate bridges being carved, grain by grain, out of a 1,700-foot rock wall.
This is the flat part of a steep geological formation, sort of like a roof. In Zion, the valley may be a riot of sheer red cliffs, but the mesas reveal a world of cream-colored domes and forever views. And there’s none eerier or more breathtaking than Checkerboard Mesa (pictured), near the park’s east entrance. The cone-shaped formation—actually an ancient hardened sand dune—is covered in horizontal furrows and vertical fractures that give it a crosshatched look and make it fun to scramble up.
In Bryce, they take on various forms: a totem pole, giant sea anemone, E.T.’s head. According to Paiute legend, the spirelike formations came from the remains of an ancient people who were turned to stone after angering the gods. Geologists explain the phenomenon as a pattern of alternating hard rock and soft rock—like Phil Collins’s career. Stroll along the Navajo Loop Trail to witness a dreamscape of magic: spooky, surreal, and like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
- Established: February 25, 1928
- Gateway town: Panguitch, Utah. Time it right and you can hit up its rodeo or summer hot-air balloon festival.
- The lodge: Your front-row seat to hoodoo central is at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon, built by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1925.
- The meal: Barbecue chicken pizza at The Pizza Place in the Bryce Canyon Inn.
- Critter watch: Pronghorn antelope. Don’t blink; it’s the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere and can run up to 60 mph.
- Established: November 19, 1919
- Gateway town: Kanab, Utah. So Old West–looking that Hollywood shot such classics as The Lone Ranger and Stagecoach here.
- The lodge: Canyon views for days at Zion Lodge, and each suite has its own wet bar.
- The meal: Mushroom-stuffed sweet-potato tamales at Bit & Spur Restaurant and Saloon, in Springdale.
- Critter watch: The Zion snail, the world’s smallest, lives in the park’s hanging gardens.
Maybe it’s all of those View-Master slides you flicked through as a kid, or the rim-top selfies that blow up your Facebook feed every summer, but the Grand Canyon can feel a little played out. Its ubiquity breeds a certain complacency that obscures just how grand this 277-mile-long gorge actually is. Been there? Possibly. Done it? No way. You have no idea, for instance, that in addition to the popular South Rim, with its screensaver views and unrivaled architecture, the park’s North Rim, 1,000 feet higher, is a totally different landscape. Or that a person could spend 11 full days floating down the Colorado River (pictured) as it weaves from one end of the park to the other. What makes the Grand Canyon so special is its mix of greatest hits and infinite capacity for surprise. Those moments when a storm rolls in unexpectedly and the light changes, or when you’re strolling the rim and notice a condor hovering directly overhead. Suddenly, this most familiar of national parks becomes new again.
The North and South Rims are only 10 miles apart as the crow flies—but you’re no crow. By road, you’re looking at a 4-hour drive, without traffic. So you’ll need to choose. The good news: They’re both life-alteringly awesome, the South Rim for its culture (museums, architecture), the North Rim (pictured) for its extensive trail network.
You didn’t come this far to snap a few pictures, stamp your park passport, and disappear, like Clark and the clan in National Lampoon’s Vacation. Get below the rim. The Bright Angel Trail (pictured) gives you a taste of the canyon’s scale and steepness (it’s a 1,000-foot climb back to the rim). And farther down, Indian Garden is a no-joke hike—9 miles round-trip with a 3,000-foot climb—but perfect for anyone looking to experience the canyon from the inside up.
The architect designed six structures in the park, using local stone and timber. Each one blends into the epic setting, from the Pueblo-inspired Hopi House to the rustic Hermit’s Rest. The Watchtower at Desert View resembles a 1,000-year-old Native American structure, while Lookout Studio appears carved straight out of the Kaibab limestone cliffs on which it sits. See several of them in one shot in Grand Canyon Village.
First-timers grouse that the dining room at the 1905 El Tovar Lodge doesn’t have much of a canyon view. But park pros know it’s all about the interior, with vaulted pine ceilings and Native American murals by Hopi artist Bruce Timeche. It’s where the same bow tie–clad waiters have been serving the same creamy polenta corncakes (with prickly-pear pistachio butter) and salmon tostadas for a decade. It’s called tradition—open your eyes.
Many a sunset money shot has been snapped from the terrace of the North Rim’s Grand Canyon Lodge. The Adirondack chairs aren’t especially comfy, but kick your feet up on the stone wall and take in the view—Grand Canyon’s finest—and you’ll have no complaints. And the show doesn’t end when the sun goes down: The terrace’s big fireplace flames brightly and the canyon begins to glow with the moonlight.
- Established: February 26, 1919
- Gateway town: Cameron, on the Navajo Reservation. Go for the handmade rugs, jewelry, and Navajo tacos.
- The lodge: Bright Angel Lodge honors the park, from the limestone façade to a fireplace that features every type of rock found in the canyon.
- The meal: Smoked brisket and baked beans served chuckwagon-style at the Grand Cookout Experience, the park’s version of dinner theater.
- Critter watch: The endangered California condor.