For all the joys of its cities, America is at its most magnificent when you step away from the busy streets and wander amid the calm of its national parks – whether you choose the snap-jawed creatures of the Everglades or the incomparable vistas of the Grand Canyon.
Here's how to best tackle the national park of your choice.
Never has a hole in the ground achieved such fame. And there can be no doubt the Grand Canyon is famous. Perhaps former US president Theodore Roosevelt, who was so instrumental in the creation of Grand Canyon National Park in the early 20th century, described it best when he said: “The ages have been at work on it, and man cannot improve it.”
Certainly, there is nothing that human touch can add to this chasm – the eroding work of the Colorado River – which stretches for 277 miles (446 kilometres) in length, up to 18 miles (29 kilometres) in width, and up to a mile (1.6 kilometres) in depth across the dust of Arizona.
The Canyon is easily seen on a road trip (it is three hours from the Arizona capital Phoenix; or four hours from Las Vegas). But there is also much to be said for a hiking adventure. Macs Adventure offers an eight-day self-guided “National Parks of the American West” break, which takes participants along the ridge-line South Kaibab Trail, with its splendid views.
Alternatively, you can visit in a day from Las Vegas. Canyon Tours sells a 14-hour “South Rim Deluxe” jaunt, which includes a helicopter flight over the star attraction.
If the Grand Canyon is America’s national-park kingpin, Yellowstone National Park is its queen-consort. Given protected status as far back as 1872, it shouts out from the north-west corner of Wyoming (and also the outer edges of Idaho and Montana) as an epic expanse of mountains, gulches and volcanic fury.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 24 miles (39 kilometres) long, cannot match its Arizona namesake for size, but can certainly compete on majesty as the Yellowstone River meanders within.
Then there is the Park’s key resident, Old Faithful – the aptly christened geyser which lets loose its soul every 63 minutes. Alongside, the Old Faithful Inn offers widescreen perspective on this noisy display. A huge log lodge built in 1904, it provides cosy double rooms.
A break here is Yellowstone at its most refined. But if you want to follow your own route, Wyoming lends itself to the American dream of the motorhome trip.
Another of the state’s safeguarded spaces, Grand Teton National Park, where the Teton mountain range kicks up, is Yellowstone’s immediate neighbour. Touring with four wheels and the kitchen sink is possible through Trailfinders, who rent out motorhomes for a minimum of seven nights, with pick-up zones including the Utah capital Salt Lake City – which lingers 320 miles (515 kilometres) south of Yellowstone.
Pitched roughly on the belly button of the Californian torso, Yosemite National Park is the antidote to the idea that there is nothing more to the “Golden State” than beaches. Yosemite is California at its most serrated, all granite cliffs and waterfalls where the Sierra Nevada lifts its arms – a slice of hard terrain, carved out by the ancient movement of glaciers.
It has been protected since 1864 – and it is not difficult to grasp why it was granted this status at so early a stage. Landmarks are many – the much-photographed monolith El Capitan, which soars to 7,573 feet (2,308 metres), climbers inching up its face; Yosemite Falls, which plunges 2,425 feet (739 metres) over a series of ledges; and Bridalveil Fall, which, though shorter at 617 feet (188 metres), is one of the Park’s postcard sites.
It is a place that adds up to heaven for walkers. Ramblers Worldwide Holidays sells “The Contrasts of California” – a 16-day (group) on-foot odyssey, which spends four nights in Yosemite.
Of course, you can also glimpse this Californian darling on a less energetic basis. Yosemite is an easy three-hour drive east of San Francisco. Once arrived, you can slip into The Ahwahnee, a 1925 hotel dame set against Yosemite Falls; a true haven of elegance in the wilderness.
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The USA comes to a remarkable conclusion in Olympic National Park, which makes up the very north-west corner. In doing so it fills the furthest reaches of Washington with a kaleidoscope of terrain, veering from raw coastal beauty to lofty peaks where glaciers make chill progress.
There are dense pockets of trees too – such as the Hoh and Quinault Rainforests – where broad-limbed arboreal species like spruce, fir and cedar crowd pathways. The Klahhane Ridge Trail, a three-mile (five-kilometre) trip to a height of 6,046 feet (1,842 metres) in the north of the Park, is a sheer example of why this is hiking paradise.
However, for all its rugged appeal, Olympic National Park is decidedly attainable. Its eastern perimeter sit two hours west of Seattle. This gives the freedom to stay at hideaways like Kalaloch Lodge, which overlooks the Pacific from within the Park.
Everglades National Park may be the most accessible of America’s natural splendours – not least for British travellers. This swathe of wetland, which swarms across the lower tip of the Florida Panhandle, lurks just four hours south of Orlando, and barely 40 miles (64 kilometres) west of Miami.
It is plausible to use Miami as a base for the Everglades, sampling the sands of South Beach and the outback aesthetic of the National Park on the same day.
This is not to suggest that this saturated landscape is a tame side-dish to urban Florida. The National Park encompasses an ecosystem where over 350 bird species haunt the sky, the elusive Florida panther hides in the undergrowth, and crocodiles and alligators snooze in swamps.
The latter reptiles are the celebrities who cause cameras to flash. You can take trips in search of them via Everglades National Park Boat Tours, including a two-hour “Mangrove Wilderness Tour”. Equally, Shark Valley Tram Tours offers on-land jaunts through rivers of grass.
It might well be assumed that either the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone rank as America’s most visited national park. But in fact, a leafy realm in the south-east of the country attracts more footfall than any of its colleagues – the best part of 10 million people a year.
The popularity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is partly down to its finding favour with American holidaymakers, due to its picturesque qualities. Opening out to 2.1 hectares, it spreads into both North Carolina and Tennessee, straddling the ridge line of the mountains in its name – a portion of the Appalachian range – as it does so.
The result is a craggy wonderland where forest-swathed summits raise their eyes to the sky – most notably Clingmans Dome, the tallest of the resident bluffs at 6,643 feet (2,025 metres), its head crowned by an observation tower.
The park features 850 miles (1,368 kilometres) of paths – including the Alum Cave Trail, which winds to the roof of Mount Le Conte. This 6,593-foot (2,010-metre) beast plays host to Le Conte Lodge, the park’s only structured accommodation – an outpost whose cabins have dotted the site since 1926.
This article was written by Chris Leadbeater from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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