Don't Be the Last to See These American GemsThe Best U.S. Parks Are Well-Traveled ... for Good Reason
America's most visited park logged 9.4 million visitors in 2007, according to the National Parks Service. And for good reason.
boasts 800 miles of hiking trails, up rugged Appalachian Mountain peaks—16 of them greater than 6,000 feet. Straddling the mountainous border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is traversed by rivers and streams that reveal countless waterfalls. Part of the park's appeal is the diversity of recreation available there, from picnics and scenic drives to hiking and wildlife watching.
Founded in 1940, the park owes its creation, in part, to some of the biggest names in American conservation: John D. Rockefeller Jr., who donated $5 million to the effort, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was in the White House when the park was dedicated.
There's no bad time to visit, but the spring and early summer profusion of wildflowers earned this park the nickname of Wildflower National Park, and fall leaf peeping through the park's undulating ridges and its namesake mist can be magnificent.
What, you haven't seen the Grand Canyon?
With 4.4 million visitors in 2007, Arizona's is the nation's second-most visited park. It's also generally included in every list of 7 Natural Wonders of the World, often as the only U.S. site.
You could have seen a zillion photos of the canyon, and it will still make your jaw drop to see it in person. Millions of years of geologic history are laid bare by the Colorado River, the colors are breathtaking and shift with the angle of the sun, and the hiking or white-water rafting experience is second-to-none.
President Theodore Roosevelt preserved the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908, and it was designated a national park 11 years later.
If you want to see the more remote North Rim, visit between late May and early October, before heavy snows close the roads. Most people stick to the more easily accessible South Rim, and they don't regret it.
Also, see why The Grand Canyon is one of .
At 1,200 square miles, approaches the size of Rhode Island. More than 3.5 million people visited in 2007, making it the third-most visited park in the United States.
Its fierce granite cliffs make it a world-renowned destination for rock climbers, but Yosemite's giant sequoia groves and scenery make it popular with hikers, bikers, families who stay in the car, photographers, wildlife watchers.... Virtually everyone can find something to love in this vast expanse of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The central California park was the third designated in the U.S., in 1890, but its preservation traces its origins back to Abraham Lincoln, who signed a law guaranteeing the land's protection in 1864—a foundational swipe of the pen that led to the establishment, decades later, of a national parks system. The great naturalist John Muir popularized Yosemite.
Yosemite is best known for its stunning waterfalls, and to appreciate them the best time to visit is late May, when mountain snowmelt keeps them flowing. Visitors at other times of the year won't be disappointed, however.
Its geysers, its free-roaming bison and grizzly bears and its name made the nation's fourth-most popular, with nearly 3.2 million visitors in 2007.
Old Faithful itself is so popular, the roads leading to it can get jammed up with cars. Even in 1915, more than 1,000 cars visited the park. About the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, the park is plenty big enough to lose yourself in, if you're looking for a wilderness experience.
Established in 1872 in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, Yellowstone was America's first national park, dedicated by President Ulysses S. Grant.
Many of the parks roads close in the fall and winter, so spring and summer are the best times to visit for all but snow enthusiasts. Old Faithful spouts—reliably—all year long, but you can't reach it by road until mid-April from one side, or mid-May from another.
One can hardly do better than the National Park Service's description of : "Here you will find Pacific Ocean beaches, rain forest valleys, glacier-capped peaks and a stunning variety of plants and animals. Roads provide access to the outer edges of the park, but the heart of Olympic is wilderness; a primeval sanctuary for humans and wild creatures alike."
With nearly 3 million visitors in 2007, the park is the fifth-most trafficked. Located west of Seattle, Wash., this is another park that owes its existence to the Rooselvets: Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the Olympic National Monument in 1909 and Franklin D. Roosevelt named it a national park in 1938.
Some parts of the park are inaccessible in winter, but it's open year round.
The Rockies make other U.S. mountain chains seem like hills, and nearly 2.9 million people visited in 2007 to take in the grandeur of 60 mountains that top out above 12,000 feet.
Colorado's mountains take your breath away—literally, at that altitude—but they hide equally stunning alpine wildflower meadows, pristine lakes and streams, and impressive wildlife, like bighorn sheep.
The Colorado River headwaters are in the park, as is the Continental Divide. The original acreage of the park was designated in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. Now 416 square miles, the park is ringed by national forests, expanding its sense of wilderness.
Many roads become impassible in winter, making late spring, summer and early fall the best times to visit.
The creamy red cliffs of Zion Canyon, a 15-mile-long gash that reaches nearly half a mile into the earth at its deepest, attracted more than 2.6 million visitors to in Utah in 2007.
Home to 271 bird species, Zion—"place of refuge" in Hebrew—is a true sanctuary for wildlife, as well as for people. Hikers, bicyclers, photographers and even equestrians can enjoy the 229-square-mile park, which is open year round. Wildflowers bloom in the spring, and the foliages turns colors in the fall.
Originally preserved as Mukuntweap National Monument by President William Howard Taft in 1909, it was renamed Zion in 1937 and became a park in 1956. It will celebrate the centennial of its preservation in 2009.
The 484-square-mile is nothing if not stunningly beautiful. You can forgive the lonely French trapper whose straying thoughts lent the park its name.
The park's beauty comes from its nine rugged peaks—a dramatic stretch of the Rockies—over 12,000 feet, and the flat grassland and glacial lakes at their base. It drew nearly 2.6 million visitors in 2007.
The original Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming, was set aside by Congress and President Calvin Coolidge in 1929, and FDR named the adjacent Jackson Hole Monument, including a 35,000-acre swath donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr., in 1943. Neither effort came without a fight from local ranchers. The two parcels were added and consolidated as Grand Teton National Park in 1950.
Many of the park visitor centers are closed from September or October through May.
The youngest park on our list, was first protected as a national recreation area in 1974 and made into a national park in 2000.
Attracted by the natural beauty of the 60-foot Brandywine Falls, as well as history embodied by a stretch of the Ohio and Erie Canal, nearly 2.5 million people in 2007 visited the only national park in Ohio. The canal, completed in 1832, connected Lake Erie to the Ohio River and opened much of the state to development and industry.
Cuyahoga notably includes perhaps the most unlikely patch of national parkland—an old automobile junkyard that is now home to beavers.
Most of the park and its visitor centers are open year round.
Maine's great attracted more than 2.2 million visitors in 2007.
More than 30,000 acres encompass a vast forest and a beautiful stretch of rocky shoreline.
The first federally protected land that would become the park was set aside by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, but this is yet another park in the great legacy of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated about one-third of the park's acreage and is responsible for building the carriage roads now enjoyed by hikers, bikers and equestrians.
Though the park is open year round, much of it is inaccessible, and most visitor centers close, during the winter.