Michael Joseph Oswald is the author of Your Guide to the National Parks: The Complete Guide to All 58 National Parks, which was published in 2012 (before Pinnacles NP was added to the system). Over two years of researching it, he logged thousands of miles hiking, paddling, and pedalling his way across America and through 48 of its national parks. He spoke with park patrons and employees, and sampled the deep riches that lie well beyond the roadside.
Here are his 20 favorite national parks, listed in order, though he admits that "really there are only a couple of national parks that I wouldn't make an extensive detour for." Would he tell us what those are? Not on your life.
1. Glacier National Park (#4 on the list)
If heaven is here on earth, it’s probably Glacier National Park. John Muir called it “the best care-killing scenery in the continent.” I agree.
2. Yosemite National Park (#2 on the list)
Yosemite Valley is one of those places you have to see to believe. Throw in sequoia trees, thunderous waterfalls, and some of the best backcountry hiking and you’ve got an incomparable wonderland.
3. Acadia National Park (#3 on the list)
What once was the premier vacation destination for the wealthy is now a scenic retreat for everyone. Acadia offers some of the most diverse activities and geography of all the national parks.
4. Crater Lake National Park (#24 on the list)
The water of Crater Lake is the deepest, purest blue you’ll ever see. The lake is extraordinary all year round, but access is limited in winter.
5. Zion National Park (#7 on the list)
Locals called Zion “Yosemite National Park in color.” These colorful sandstone walls are easily accessed thanks to Zion Tunnel (which leads directly into the canyon) and a convenient and easy-to-use shuttle system.
6. Mount Rainier National Park (#18 on the list)
Such stunning scenery so close to the Seattle metropolitan area makes including Mount Rainier National Park in this list an easy decision.
7. Grand Teton National Park (#6 on the list)
The skyline of the Teton Range is as iconic as that of New York City, but 100% more natural.
8. Grand Canyon National Park (#5 on the list)
The park is hot and busy during the summer, but few guests forget their first sight of this magnificent canyon. Try the North Rim for a less crowded experience.
9. Death Valley National Park (#11 on the list)
The largest national park in the contiguous U.S. holds a collection of oddities worthy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but you better believe all these attractions are real.
10. Yellowstone National Park (#1 on the list)
Yellowstone has it all. Gushing geysers, brilliant canyons, alpine lakes, abundant wildlife, and magnificent mountains make a trip here feel like you’re visiting several parks at once.
11. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (#55 on the list)
Even though there's a lot to love about this park, you're probably coming to see lava. And if you know where to look you won't be disappointed. Kilauea has been erupting continuously for the last 30 years.
12. Isle Royale National Park (#29 on the list)
Situated in the middle of pristine Lake Superior, you won't find any roads or cars here. Accessed only by boat or plane, Isle Royale is paradise for sea kayakers and backpackers.
13. Bryce Canyon National Park (#22 on the list)
Bryce Amphitheater is one of the most unique geological oddities in the world.
14. Sequoia National Park (#9 on the list) & Kings Canyon National Park (#16 on the list)
Here you'll find the world's largest single living organism (a sequoia named General Sherman) and the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 (Mt. Whitney).
15. North Cascades National Park (#14 on the list)
One of the least visited yet most dramatic parks in the United States.
16. Everglades National Park (#12 on the list)
Elevation tops out at eight feet, but that doesn't mean the Everglades aren't beautiful. You can find alligators and crocodiles living side-by-side and hundreds of miles of maze-like waterways await ambitious (and well-oriented) paddlers.
17. Denali National Park (#10 on the list)
Mt. McKinley and zoo-like wildlife. Need I say more?
18. Arches National Park (#26 on the list)
There are more than 2,500 arches within park boundaries, but sandstone features like the Fiery Furnace and Park Avenue are just as captivating.
19. Haleakala National Park (#42 on the list)
On the island of Maui you'll find this park that features two distinct regions: Haleakala Summit and Kaipahulu. The 10,023-ft summit is a tremendous place to enjoy the sunrise or take a hike (don't forget a jacket, because it'll be cold—especially in the morning). Kipahulu is the exact opposite, lush rain forest, warm weather, with numerous swimming pools and towering waterfalls.
20. Canyonlands National Park (#19 on the list)
The Green and Colorado Rivers have been carving out this natural masterpiece for many millennia. Views from Green River Overlook (Island in the Sky) are some of the best in the country.
For more about Mike Oswald's book projects, visit his website, stoneroadpress.com.