Randy Johnson is an expert in the eastern national parks, particularly some of the more popular (some would say crowded) ones. The author of best-selling trail guides Best Easy Day Hikes Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (about the most visited national park in the system), Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway (about the most visited unit of the NP system) and Hiking North Carolina, he’s out to debunk the tired old notion that the big Western parks like Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone are the best.
“Just because you live in the East and don't have the time or money to get to Yosemite,” Johnson says, “don’t avoid the parks. Just choose one closer to home.” He did, including a few underdogs like Biscayne, Virgin Islands, Shenandoah and last-placed Congaree. Here’s his complete list of 20:
Yellowstone National Park (#1 on the list)
The world's first national park deserves its own category. Beautifully diverse scenery with nice national park lodging, too. But it requires special dedication to enjoy at off times and/or with planning far in advance.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (#17 on the list)
Too many national publications automatically list the top western parks over the East—"the mountains are bigger out West," they say. Truth be told, the Smokies tower as far above their valleys as most peaks out West, so the feeling of topographical relief can be similar. Add in the rich, high-altitude forest of evergreens, open balds, and crags, and this is a great experience. LeConte Lodge offers a European-style "hut hiking" experience at well above 6,000 feet. The park's stellar collection of log cabins and structures is early American history at its most atmospheric, and there's also insight into Cherokee history. There’s plentiful wildlife in the park, including elk and bears. Plus—two other "units of the national park system" (though not national parks) are easy add-ons: Hike the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and reach or leave the Smokies on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a nearly 500-mile entrance ramp to the Great Smokies that turns this one park into a week-long immersion in the East's highest mountains.
Shenandoah National Park (#30 on the list)
The bucolic beauty of the Shenandoah Valley from the 100-mile Skyline Drive is a sight you won't forget. Stay in Skyland Lodge, visit Herbert Hoover's Rapidan fishing camp (the original Camp David), and hike the Appalachian Trail—or Old Rag, a rocky spectacular trail. And like the Smokies, the Blue Ridge Parkway also connects to Shenandoah so you can arrive or leave on a long, winding scenic road. Suggestion: Start at either Great Smokies or Shenanadoah and drive the Blue Ridge Parkway to the other park—there’s no better mountain national park vacation anywhere in the United States.
Everglades National Park (#12 on the list)
Vast and watery, this park is best seen from a kayak on overnight trips. Kayakers should not miss this park—its dozens of elevated platform backcountry campsites (called chickees) allow you to immerse yourself in the country’s largest subtropical wilderness. Go between November and March.
Acadia National Park (#3 on the list)
Say what you will about the West, but the Maine Coast is simply as iconic an American landscape as exists. The park's awesome network of historic, evergreen-lined, view-packed carriage roads is one of the few places to ride mountain bikes in a national park. Stop at scenic ponds and coastal views. Have a great lunch at the Jordan Pond House. If you like lobster, the tiny, off-the-beaten-path towns in the park offer a true taste of Maine.
Mount Rainier National Park (#18 on the list)
This single summit—home to the Lower 48’s biggest glacier—is a truly spectacular sight. Classic "grand lodge" national park lodging is available at the Paradise Inn and the low-key National Park Inn at Longmire. Take a hike at the Sunrise area, the park's highest, for great views of the peak. Or hike the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the entire mountain, which is one of the country's great long-distance hikes.
Haleakala National Park (#42 on the list)
Maui is a popular Hawaiian destination—and nobody who goes there should miss this volcanic national park. It runs from the sea up to the summit crater—reached by a road that’s riddled with spectacular hiking opportunities. Sunrise and sunset are unbelievable. And believe it or not, this park (along with the volcanoes on the Big Island) was named a national park back in 1916 when the National Park Service was first formed. Best of all, this otherworldly landscape can be hiked overnight by linking backcountry campgrounds and historic cabins.
Olympic National Park (#8 on the list)
Just the views of Puget Sound are worth the visit to Olympic for anyone visiting the Seattle area. Hurricane Ridge has high country views, and the Hoh Rainforest is one of the most unique places in the entire United States. The Lake Crescent Lodge and Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort are distinctive places to stay.
Biscayne National Park (#40 on the list)
Miami's national park has beautiful subtropical snorkeling and islands—with the city still visible on the distant skyline.
Grand Canyon National Park (#5 on the list)
This is really something every American should see—and, unfortunately, you'll probably think every other American is there when you go. Research, and plan ahead.
Yosemite National Park (#2 on the list)
Go in winter, when it's slower. The valley that inspired John Muir will take your breath away.
Death Valley National Park (#11 on the list)
This awe-inspiring park is also, it turns out, a great place to meet Europeans.
Glacier National Park (#4 on the list)
Glacier, with its Alps-like scenery, is the place to go if you ever plan to stay in a national park lodge. Beyond the lakeside classics like Many Glacier Hotel, there are two beautiful backcountry huts—Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet—you can hike to. Come winter, a train will drop you off at the homey Izaak Walton Inn, which makes a perfect base for guided cross-country ski adventures deep into the park’s wintry wilds.
Congaree National Park (#59 on the list)
One of the country's most impressive old growth forests is the draw here—especially for kayakers and canoeists who visit from fall to spring, when the bugs and snakes are dormant. The 20-mile paddle trail is a true adventure.
Mesa Verde National Park (#46 on the list)
The archeological significance of this park makes it paradise for anyone interested in the ancient Native American cultures of the West.
Rocky Mountain National Park (#13 on the list)
This park is easy to reach from popular city destinations in Colorado, and Trail Ridge Road is a truly scenic drive with enormous ecological insight into the Rockies.
Virgin Islands National Park (#33 on the list)
This is another of those parks to add onto a vacation that's not necessarily fnational parks-focused. If you're visiting in winter (when the islands are best), the park makes it easy to add a hike to the otherwise motorized island experience most people have. And the famous Concordia Eco-Resort, where there are a range of distinctive eco-friendly accommodations, can turn Virgin Islands into the best tropical island vacation you've ever had.
Sequoia National Park (#9 on the list)
Even if you try, you still won't be prepared for how big the trees are.
Denali National Park (#10 on the list)
As many people take cruises to Alaska—an add-on to Denali is a no-brainer if you can arrange it. Wildlife and a dramatic elevation change are the reward.
For more from Randy Johnson, visit his website, www.RandyJohnsonBooks.com.