I am proud to say that America started the modern conservation movement with the creation of the first national park in the 19th century. Since then, we’ve added many more parks, national monuments, and sites, forming a vast web of areas so important that we must keep them protected forever. The so-called North American Conservation Model is the norm around the world today, but to truly appreciate its importance it is worth visiting a few American parks. They are also the perfect trip from the COVID era as being socially distant is the preferred way to experience the parks. I am not alone with this knowledge either. 2020 was one of the best years for the parks as many implemented reservation systems and other methods of restricting access. As we all know by now, 2020 has turned into 2021, so the national parks remain the ideal trip in my opinion. Every national park is worth a visit, but here are some of my favorites.
Shenandoah National Park is just 120 km from the hustle and bustle of Washington DC and is a land of waterfalls, spectacular views, fields of wildflowers and serene, wooded hollows. With over 200,000 acres of protected land home to deer, songbirds and black bears, there is so much to explore. Skyline Drive runs its entire length, and an extensive network of trails includes a section of the Appalachian Long Distance Hiking Trail. The largely forested park features wetlands, waterfalls, and rocky peaks such as Hawksbill and Old Rag Mountains. As a native of Southwest Virginia American, this national park remains a personal favorite, but other than those youthful memories, I can’t imagine anyone not falling for this incredible part of the country.
Named for the overwhelming preponderance of Joshua trees across the region, there’s a lot more to love than just the plants. Massive boulders spread across the landscape and formed a kind of natural playground. I had a lot of fun scurrying over them and spotting a jackrabbit or two. This is a very popular getaway for Southern Californians. So if you are interested in camping you should get your permission well in advance.
Everglades National Park protects the southern twenty percent of Florida’s original Everglades. The park is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States and the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi. An average of one million people visit the park each year and it is the third largest national park in the adjacent United States after Death Valley and Yellowstone. UNESCO declared the Everglades & Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and made the park a World Heritage Site in 1979. I visited this important area as part of an airboat safari along the moving grass river. At 30 miles per hour, the uniquely designed airboat is not only a fun way to explore the Florida swamps, it’s the only one. What was most fun, however, was the instant encounter with alligators. Sitting just a few feet away from these massive and strangely beautiful animals was humbling and the perfect outdoor experience on a beautiful Florida afternoon.
Arches was first designated a National Monument in 1929 and a Park in 1971. The vast 76,000 acre site is known for the more than 2,000 sandstone arches that grace its land. The most famous, Delicate Arch, even adorns Utah’s license plate, and when you drive to the park itself, it’s hard not to be amazed by the area’s natural beauty. The Arches National Park is so much more than its eponymous geology that there are also enormous formations around the park that look like the work of the gods. Towers, balanced rocks, sandstone fins, and eroded monoliths are scattered across the landscape, forming a red rock diorama that looks more like Mars than anywhere on Earth.
In full transparency, I have not yet visited this most important park, but I plan to see it in person soon. Long famed as the inspiration and home of John Muir, standing where he was and slowly understanding the beauty of this landscape is an experience that I know will be transformative. Granite boulders, incredible waterfalls, and more have long drawn those who want to not only admire the beauty of the land, but also find their own little oasis of calm. I want that too, I want to experience the park as Muir experienced it and I also want to walk a little better than when I arrived.
Zion is the most popular of the Mighty Five parks in Utah, and its location is a primary reason for that. Just two hours from Las Vegas, Zion can be visited on a day trip. although that is certainly not recommended. It’s also close to St. George, Utah, a popular outdoor recreation center, and other visitors take it on their racetrack through Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Because it’s so popular – about 4.5 million people travel there every year – the visiting process is a little different from the other Mighty Five national parks, but the majesty of the scenery is no less impressive.