Writer Wallace Stegner once called national parks "the best idea we ever had.” And, for the most part (Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” etc. etc.—aside), we agree with him. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic,” he went on, “they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."
That’s certainly true. After all, what could be more impulsively democratic than to set aside your most spectacular, ecologically unique and culturally important land not for the use of the wealthy and privileged few, but for everybody to enjoy for all of time? It’s what makes the national parks the greatest national treasure on Earth—more valuable than the British Crown Jewels or even Egypt's ancient cultural artifacts.
Ever since Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872, we as a nation have placed more than 52 million acres of soaring mountains, primordial forests, rugged coastlines and wildlife-rich grasslands into the public trust in 59 national parks. I own them just as much as you own them, just as much as Donald Trump owns them. It’s a great idea, indeed, and the symbolism and promise of the parks alone is enough to make us love each and every one of them.
That's a lot of beatuiful places, but which ones are the best? It's a subjective term, to be sure, but we thought it worth taking a crack at. After all, it's rare that anyone has the time to visit more than a few at a time, so how do you pick between Arizona's impossibly deep Grand Canyon, the towering granite cliffs of California's Yosemite and the red rock deserts of Utah's Zion? Sequoia is home to the world's biggest living things, and Denali has North America's tallest mountain. And where do the parks of the East fit in? We wanted to find out.
So how do you pick a Top 10? There are hundreds of criteria you could use to judge or rank a collection as big and diverse as the American national parks, from objective measures like park size and annual visitation to subjective measures like scenic value. For our ranking, we chose three—biodiversity (the number of plant and animal species living there), range of visitor activities (including things like hiking, fishing, winter sports, bird watching and camping) and (here’s the subjective one) the opinions of an expert panel.
For our panel of experts, we asked 17 writers, landscape photographers and travel professionals to do the impossible—name their 20 favorite national parks. These are people who write about and study the national parks, and spend much more time in them than your average person. Among those who helped out were Kurt Repanshek, editor of National Parks Traveler; Michael Joseph Oswald, author of the exhaustive Your Guide to the National Parks: The Complete Guide to All 58 National Parks; Mel White, author of National Geographic's Complete National Parks of the United States; Dan Austin, founder and owner of ace travel company Austin-Lehman Adventures; parks guidebook author Randy Johnson; Joel Saferstein, owner of American Park Network; Robert Earle Howells, editor of National Geographic's The 10 Best of Everything National Parks, and nature photographer QT Luong, who’s captured every park on his large format camera and was featured in Ken Burns’s documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Even recently departed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar weighed in, though he couldn’t choose favorites, saying, “I must admit the temptation to take on this task. However, I will not because all 401 are my favorite children. And that doesn’t take into account our 560 Wildlife Refuges or the many units of our National Landscape Conservation System.” In the end, their responses were entirely subjective—a mix of personal experience and how well each one felt his or her picks served the American people.
Meet the top 10 national parks. They span the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and from the wilds of Alaska to the desert Southwest. We're sorry if your favorite didn't make the cut. Let us know what we missed in the comments.