For some America is a country of big cities and good shopping. Some travel the distance to see the Hollywood sign, have fun in Disneyland or try their luck in Vegas. And although we have also done some of the above, what we really appreciated was the natural beauty found in national parks.
We’ve all heard of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. Those who like National Geographic probably know most of the other 59, but there are also state parks, national monuments and other sites, that would take a lifetime to see. No wonder Americans don’t travel abroad all that much!
Before we came to America we already had a list of a few parks we wanted to see and by recommendations from our couchsurfing hosts, the list was growing longer and longer.
We actually didn’t visit any parks on the eastern side, although we were pretty close to the Smokey Mountains, which sounded great, and if it wasn’t for the cold, the rain and our lack of camping gear, we probably would have gone there.
We have visited 12 national parks in the west. The entry fee to a park varies between $10 and $25 per vehicle, valid for seven days. Knowing that we would visit enough parks to get our money’s worth, we decided to buy an annual pass at $80. The pass is called America the Beautiful and for a year it gives an access to over 2,000 sites around USA. Their website www.nps.gov is a great source of information and is well worth checking before you even start planning your trip to any of the parks: it tells you when it’s best to visit, gives you details about available accommodation (whether you’re after a comfy lodge or a simple campsite), has a separate section on walks and other possible activities (white water rafting, horseback riding, etc) and quite often other useful updates, such as road closures due to heavy snowfall…
Below are a few notes and pictures of some of the parks we’ve visited.
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
This was the first national park we’ve been to. We knew that the trees were going to be huge, but even with that knowledge, we were absolutely stunned and amazed by their size! Even three days on and after seeing hundreds of those giants, we still couldn’t comprehend how they got to be so BIG! The biggest of them all, by volume, General Sherman had a circumference of 31 meters, was 2,200 years old and if filled with water, it would hold 1,487 cubic meters – enough for 9,844 baths (that’s one bath a day for 27 years!).
We got to see those magnificent trees in the sun, a bit of cloud and rain, but we had a very mystical experience when a sudden fog fell over the park and we couldn’t see further than 2-3 meters ahead. We couldn’t even find our car when we were virtually standing next to it.
An absolute must do is the climb to Moro Rock, from top of which you get breathtaking views. But be warned, in the summer, you will face a two hour long shuffle to the top, rather than the ten minutes it took us. Just watch for the weather – recently a person was killed by a lightning, when an incoming storm was ignored.
Also watch out for the bears; they are around and signs everywhere warn you to store ANY food and toiletries in bear boxes. They do break into people’s cars if they see or smell food or toothpaste, apparently…
- Yosemite National Park
Mecca for climbers all around the world. El Captain stands tall and challenges the brave and skillful to climb its sheer face.
The whole park is organized as a little town: has its own free shuttle bus (use of your car is very limited within park boundaries), a few shops and a great network of campsites and lodges. We were there at the beginning of April, night temperatures were below zero and all the open campsites were full! So in season you really need to book well in advance.
You can’t describe the beauty of this place. It was one of famous photographer Adam Ansel’s favorite spots and even though his pictures are impressive, you won’t understand how amazing this place is until you see the valley for yourself. There are some great walks, differing in levels of difficulty (one of the most famous that even got its mention on a fridge magnet is the ‘Mist Trail’) and you could spend weeks in Yosemite and still not experience it all.
In the evenings in the proper American camping style, we had s’mores (roasted marshmallows and melted chocolate in between two crackers), over a roaring fire. These were introduced to us by Adam and Kacy, our couchsurfing hosts from Atlanta.
We have seen marmots and deer but no bears although I had to strongly discourage Geoff from leaving food behind on a picnic table (as an invitation for Mr. Bear) rather than in a bear box.
- Death Valley National Park
Colorful desert and hot, very hot! As with pretty much any other park, we got there out of season except in this case, the season ended, because the coming months were going to be too hot. And indeed, temperatures of above 40 degrees proved that. It didn’t even get cooler at night. All we were doing was thinking of water and drinking it. At our campsite, the water from the tap was warm enough to make coffee in the morning! After all we were in a place that has the highest ever recorded temperature, 56.6 degrees on July 10th 1913. On this day, birds were dropping out of the sky. We didn’t experience these extreme temperatures, but we were struggling as it was.
Even the shortest hike was strenuous and when we went to see the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, we very nearly burnt our feet on the sand as we walked in our flip flops.
We have seen a road runner (too quick to get a picture of) and a coyote, which was not chasing the road runner as in the famous cartoon.
Despite the heat and the discomfort it caused, there was something magical, something inciting in the deserts of Death Valley.
If there is one state with truly amazing national parks, it has to be Utah. In this state alone we have visited five of the parks, all of which we would go back to again, without a doubt.
We arrived at the perfect time of the year; weather was fantastic but the crowds hadn’t arrived just yet.
- Arches National Park
As the name suggests the park is full of arches – amazing rock structures with beautiful background settings. Most arches are easily accessible by car and a short walk, but there are some great longer walks, one of which takes you to Delicate Arch – very popular with sunset enthusiasts.
Unfortunately when we were there the sun decided to skip the show, but instead gathered crowds got to watch a guy, re-proposing over the phone to his wife. He asked permission from the waiting photographers if it would be ok to disturb the scene for a minute or two, ran to the arch, called his wife, got down on one knee and a minute later punched his fist into the air announcing that she said ‘yes’…again! And strangely it was not a movie set… Nice to know that there are still guys out there with a romantic soul.
- Canyonlands National Park
We were not even planning to go to Canyonlands at first, but it was close to Arches NP and we found out that it had one of our favorites – Mesa Arch. By pure chance a couple of years back, Geoff found this great picture on the internet that became our desktop background at work – what we didn’t know at the time, what we now know – it was Mesa Arch. For this sight alone, Canyonlands is worth a visit.
But there are more, beautiful vistas to make a stay in this park worthwhile. We spent a couple of nights at one of the campsites and happened to make friends with a couple of ladies that were pitched next to us. The first night they invited us to their fire and brewed us some lovely hot tea (our camping gear was left behind in Greece, so apart from a tent we had nothing else, which they found hilarious). So the next evening we were invited to dinner and some more tea. Stunning views during the day and lovely company in the evening made our stay in Canyonlands a memorable one.
- Capitol Reef National Park
We went there because: (a) it was recommended to us by someone we met along the way and (b) it was on our route to Bryce Canyon anyway. We just didn’t expect to stay there for two nights and have that much fun. The campsite we stayed at was full half an hour after we arrived! It had free firewood and running water, which was a huge bonus. The other great thing about it was the campground keeper – a very friendly park ranger who was more than happy to help with any queries we had and to recommend various hikes. He showed us where to find slot canyons, pointed out the must see Cassidy Arch and encouraged us to cross a stream to bypass the closed track caused by a recent landslide on the way to a good hike .
Intrigued by this closed track, we followed his instructions and soon bumped into another couple. They laughed at the idea of wetting their feet, rather than simply climbing over the fallen rocks, but the conversation went on, and 45 minutes later we were invited for some wine and cheese to their campervan. If it wasn’t for the fact that we had our tent pitched a good distance away from them we probably would have accepted, but as it was we just said our goodbyes and wished each other a great trip.
How surprised we were when we met them on a different hike the next day! This time we walked together for a good bit, exchanged lots of stories (they happened to be keen travelers and cyclists themselves) and this time we accepted an invitation for lunch. We were starting to get used to this unprompted friendliness and generosity, but never have we taken it for granted. We did a lot of hiking – the weather was great and the views yet again rewarding. We thought we would have had enough of seeing rocks and canyons, but I doubt you can ever tire of it.
So if you want to know about the rest of the parks we visited, tune for National Parks Part II!
You can also find more pictures from Sequoia & Kings and Yosemite in our gallery; the rest will slowly find its way there too.