Kurt Repanshek is the founder and editor-in-chief of National Parks Traveler, which has been dedicated to covering America’s National Park System and the National Park Service on a daily basis since August 2005. He's stood on the top of the Grand Teton, cross-country skied to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, paddled the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, and enjoyed many other fascinating adventures in the park system.
Before launching National Parks Traveler, Repanshek did a 14-year stint with The Associated Press in positions ranging from a general assignment reporter to correspondent-in-charge for the state of Wyoming. Since embarking on a freelance career in the fall of 1993, his articles have appeared in Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, Audubon, National Wildlife, Hemispheres, Wilderness and other publications.
Here are his 14 favorite national parks (and one national monument!), listed in no particular order:
Yellowstone National Park (#1 on the list)
Not only is this the world's first national park, but within its 2.2 million acres you'll find the world's largest collection of thermal features, a kingdom of wildlife representative of that which existed long before it became a national park, and incredible backcountry trails—both for hiking and paddling. Yellowstone draws millions each year, and its front-country can be incredibly crowded in July and August, but head down a trail, paddle across a lake, or return in winter to confront temperatures falling to -40º F, and you'll encounter experiences not soon forgotten.
Acadia National Park (#3 on the list)
I first visited Acadia when I was a very young boy...and the memory still is fresh in my mind. This not a sprawling, wide-flung park, but one that is much more intimate. And it has lots to offer. You can pedal the day away on the Carriage Roads that weave through Mount Desert Island's forests, hike some short, but demanding, trails, or work on your kayaking, canoeing, or climbing skills...all in a gorgeous pine-rock-and-sea setting. The island's history—that of 19th century Hudson River School artists who came for inspiration and the "rusticators" who followed and helped protect lands that today are part of the national park—is both fascinating and inspiring in terms of the national park movement.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (#17 on the list)
Though this park counts the greatest number of yearly visitors among national parks—nearly 9.7 million in 2012—that doesn't mean you can't find solitude. Just hike off into the backcountry. The mix of vegetation—a tangle of rhododendron, magnolia, mountain laurel as well as grassy balds and hardwood forests—is a treat in its own right. Plus, the vegetation harbors some of the greatest biodiversity in the East; so much that scientists are still trying to fully chronicle and understand what lives there. Add the history of the Cherokee and the early mountaineers with this beautiful landscape and you've got a park of many dimensions.
Rocky Mountain National Park (#13 on the list)
Sheer beauty best defines Rocky. You've got wildlife in the form of elk and bighorn sheep that are readily visible. There are short, and long, hikes that reveal spectacular waterfalls, alpine tundra, and forests thick with lodgepole and ponderosa pine along with spruce and aspen. All this in one place make Rocky a spectacular park to behold. Heap on top of that all the backpacking, ski touring, snowshoeing, and climbing opportunities, and you've assembled a recreational heaven.
Olympic National Park (#8 on the list)
Three parks in one is perhaps the best way to describe Olympic. There's the Pacific Coast with camping options and tidal pools to explore, the lush, temperate rain forests of the Hoh, Quinault, Queets and Bogachiel valleys with their curious life forms, and the high country with its glaciers and mountains. Olympic offers eye candy for front-country travelers, but the lack of a cross-park road means this is a park seen best with a pack on your back.
Virgin Islands National Park (#33 on the list)
Sugar-sand beaches and colorful coral reefs make this a wonderful park for a relaxing vacation. Snorkeling is a main event here, with numerous beaches from which to explore the reefs with their vibrant marine life—blue tang, yellow sergeant majors, iridescent green parrotfish, silver tubes we know as barracuda and sea turtles the size of steamer trunks. They're all down there beneath the surface, you just have to keep your eyes open. Plus there's the rich, albeit dark, history of the sugar plantations that dates back to the 1600s.
Glacier National Park (#4 on the list)
A rugged park with spectacular landscape carved by glaciers and their meltwater. This is a backpacker's paradise...if you don't mind, and are prepared, for traveling in grizzly country. For those who don't have the time, or skills, to head deep into the heart of the park, the Going-to-the-Sun Road carries you across this park and shows off its magnificent landscape, and wildlife in the form of shaggy, professorial looking mountain goats. Too, the Sun Road provides access to many great trails for day hikes. And some of those hikes offer great views of some of the last remaining glaciers in the United States.
Yosemite National Park (#2 on the list)
The best of this park lies up high. The Yosemite Valley is iconic, but draws 95 percent of the park's visitors to a slender valley a mile wide and seven miles long. A day spent there is enough; then head up onto the Tioga Road and experience many of the fine trails that dart off from it and take you past granite domes, refreshing alpine lakes and streams, and into forests of pine. The John Muir Trail is a classic...it starts in the Yosemite Valley and ends 211 miles later atop Mount
Whitney. You can jump onto it at Tuolumne Meadows without having to venture into the valley. There also are many beautiful day hikes off the Tioga Road, such as down to Cathedral Lakes.
Canyonlands National Park (#19 on the list)
Red-rock landscapes here leave their imprints on your brain. Hike into the Needles District and you'll encounter rock minarets seemingly sculpted by giants using clay in red, orange, bluff and brown hues. Come May this setting flares with blossoms of claret cup cactus, orange globemallow, vivid red Desert Indian paintbrush, and western peppergrass with its delicate white blooms. History is painted on some of these rock faces by cultures that roamed here thousands of years ago and left behind curious pictographs and petroglyphs. The Colorado River, meanwhile, offers days of thrills for paddlers.
Glacier Bay National Park (#31 on the list)
Alaska offers many wonderful national parks, and Glacier Bay is just one of them. But you have to leave Gustavus to really experience it. Day-long cruises up the 75-mile-long bay reveal some of the more than 200 bird species that will fill a hefty section of any birder's life list—horned and tufted puffins, auks, murrelets, murres, Glacous-winged gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes and more. Better yet, take a week-long cruise with some of small ships that offer daily hiking and kayaking explorations of the park, or head off in a sea kayak for your own private adventure. John Muir was duly impressed when he visited in 1879, and you will be, too.
Shenandoah National Park (#30 on the list)
Though long and slender, this Appalachian beauty offers a heady dose of nature for DC-ites looking to escape the city. While the October brings particular notice to Shenandoah thanks to the fall colors, the park's hiking trails shouldn't be overlooked any time of year. There are
more than 500 miles of trails woven into this park, and nearly 80,000 acres of officially designated wilderness. Spend any time in the backcountry and you're likely to come across some of the resident black bears and perhaps hear some owls screeching at night.
Grand Teton National Park (#6 on the list)
Some might argue, but the Teton Range is the most arresting mountain range in the Lower 48. The way the Tetons soar up from the Jackson Hole Valley will take anyone's breath away. Though humanity is relatively close by—a U.S. highway passes through the park, and there's actually an airport located within the park's boundaries—Grand Teton is a rugged park that shouldn't be taken lightly. It's challenging for climbers, the Teton Crest Trail is a wonderful multi-day hike in a drop-dead gorgeous setting, and the resident fauna counts grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, and perhaps a wolverine or two. For those not ready to explore the park with a backpack, the front country areas offer shimmering lakes, the iconic Oxbow Bend of the Snake River with its waterfowl, and great day hiking and paddling possibilities.
Voyageurs National Park (#39 on the list)
Paddlers won't be disappointed with Voyageurs, as not quite half of this 218,200-acre park is water. Whether you envision yourself a latter-day courier du bois or simply are in search of a wolf howl hanging in the evening air, this is an amazing park. Remnants of the boreal forest can be found here, too, as well as some of the oldest rocks in the world. For those fortunate enough to camp in the backcountry, the Northern Lights—the Aurora Borealis—at times can be seen glimmering over Voyageurs.
Sequoia National Park (#9 on the list)
Huge trees that frame the mountains. Mountains into which you can vanish for days on end. Rushing rivers. In terms of sheer visitation, Sequoia is a quieter version of Yosemite, one where the massive sequoia trees and trails that head off into the mountains—not soaring granite cliffs—are the main attraction. But it's somewhat of a deceiving park, too, as it harbors an underworld shown off in Crystal Cave. But that's just the drawing card. There are more than 250 caves beneath Sequoia and its adjoining sibling, Kings Canyon National Park. Some have rooms 50 feet across and 6-foot-long "soda straws." Sequoia is definitely more than it appears to be.
Dinosaur National Monument (excluded from the list)
True, this unit of the National Park System carries the "monument" surname. But it offers much, much more than many "national parks." Two of the West's greatest rivers—the Green and the Yampa—flow through this 210,300-acre park. It also harbors the country's greatest Jurassic dinosaur quarry, and the landscape still is giving up fossilized remains. Cultures long since vanished left their pictographs and petroglyphs on sandstone palettes in Dinosaur, the intact geologic record supposedly is more complete than that from Grand Canyon National Park. The "monument" designation is a misnomer, but perhaps that's a good thing, as crowds don't flock to Dinosaur.
To read more of Kurt's national parks coverage, visit his website, www.nationalparkstraveler.com.