Dan Austin is the director of Austin-Lehman Adventures, a 39-year-old, Montana-based adventure travel company that focuses on small-scale trips to some of the world's greatest destinations.
Born and bred into the outdoor life in the hills of California, Dan Austin ignited his passion for adventure travel in 1976 as a partner of a rafting company in the Pacific Northwest. Later, after a stint owning a mid-size construction company in Alaska, he bought Backcountry Tours of Bozeman, Montana. The purchase turned out to be the catalyst for things to come. In 2000, Dan partnered with retired industrialist and financier Paul Lehman and Austin-Lehman Adventures was born.
Since then, he's traveled extensively in the national parks, and his company runs tours to nearly a dozen of them. Here are his top 20 national parks, in no particular order after #1:
1. Yellowstone National Park (#1 on the list)
This is the only one that follows rank literally. Yellowstone is just sensory overload, between the history, geothermal features, geography and the wildlife. There is something special at every turn, and it always ranks #1 in my book.
Acadia National Park (#3 on the list)
To be fair, we can’t focus completely on the West. Acadia and Mount Desert Island in Maine has to be on any list. John D. Rockefeller chose it as his summer residence back in 1917, which kicked off the building of 57 miles of carriage roads that are excellent bike paths today. Back that up with great hikes and beautiful seaside vistas, and you have a wonderful eastern park.
Everglades National Park (#12 on the list)
Perhaps one of our more endangered national parks, Everglades is home to more than 300 species of birds and 700-plus species of plant life, all threatened. Unlike many national parks established to protect the scenery, Everglades was established to protect this critical (and fragile) ecosystem. UNESCO has granted the Everglades recognition as an international biosphere and World Heritage site.
North Cascades National Park (#14 on the list)
Let’s bring things to the Northwest with one of our least visited national parks, North Cascades. At 684,000 acres, there’s noticeably less infrastructure in this park than most others, which is partially due to its inhospitable winters. What it does have are some 380-plus miles of some of the best hiking trails on the planet
Kenai Fjords National Park (#36 on the list)
Kenai Fjords is home to some of the more spectacular glaciers left on the planet. Tidewater glaciers like Holgate Glacier are sure to impress as they calve off into Resurrection Bay. The Harding Icefield offers a challenging 3.5-mile hike that is rewarded by endless views of the ice fields.
Denali National Park (#10 on the list)
We all know about Denali, and its more than 6 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. If you are lucky enough, a visit will be rewarded with a glimpse of the magnificent 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. The challenge might be traveling the 92 miles of park road into the heart of the park, but the further you go in, the more you will see… and it’s all part of the adventure.
Katmai National Park & Preserve (#23 on the list)
Let’s finish up in Alaska with Katmai National Park, home to the Katmai Bears (no that’s not a hockey team). Created by ancient volcanoes and carved by fast-flowing rivers, Katmai is home to some of the best bear viewing on the planet (there are some 2,000-plus).
Arches National Park (#26 on the list)
Back down south—way south—southern Utah’s Arches is always a highlight. These natural arches (more than 2,000 of them) create an amazing backdrop for any photographer. With its impossibly blue skies and sandstone arches, it’s a sure hit.
Canyonlands National Park (#19 on the list)
Just west of Arches, Canyonlands, too, is part of the same Colorado Plateau, and yet is a complete different visual experience. With the Green River flowing through its heart, Canyonlands can be alive with lush oases in the middle of a parched landscape.
Bryce Canyon National Park (#22 on the list)
Also part of this same Colorado Plateau is Bryce Canyon. Much like its cousin Yellowstone to the north, Bryce’s history is as colorful as its red rocks and blue skies. Hoodoos carved by thousands of years of erosion have been the backdrop for many an old Western film.
Zion National Park (#7 on the list)
OK, OK, you can’t recognize Bryce without giving equal billing to Zion. Joined at the hip, these two are the Ben and Jerry’s of national parks. While a bit smaller, Zion is no less magnificent. In fact, it’s home to some of the best hiking in the Southwest. The Narrows hike has to be my favorite, as well as a favorite of the masses.
Grand Canyon National Park (#5 on the list)
We can’t leave the Southwest without paying tribute to the big enchilada. The Grand Canyon is over 1.2 million acres following the Colorado River. The gorge itself is 18 miles wide at one point and a mile deep. It humbles us all, and only a fraction of it is visible from any one point.
Grand Teton National Park (#6 on the list)
To take it back a little closer to home, let’s go with Grand Teton, Yellowstone’s little sister to the south. Home to the youngest (and most photographed) mountain range in the country, The Tetons top out at 13,770ft. Across the valley from the wild mountains is the equally wild town of Jackson… but that’s another story.
Badlands National Park (#45 on the list)
Badlands…isn’t that a cool name for a National Park? Cool only in spirit, though, as the parched landscape certainly lives up to its name. The Badlands of South Dakota hold a special place in our history, as we settled the West. They were rarely mentioned affectionately, I am sure. Ironically, the park’s beauty is uncompromised, just different.
Glacier National Park (#4 on the list)
Glacier is considered by many one of the “crown jewels” of our national parks. When someone as well traveled as John Muir declared it “the best care-killing scenery on the continent,” you know you have to see it to believe it. Add over 700 miles of trails, and the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road for cycling, and you have the perfect recipe.
Yosemite National Park (#2 on the list)
Speaking of Muir, you can’t omit Yosemite from any list. Muir spent years crusading to establish the area as a national park before it was finally established in 1890. A visit to its approximately 750,000 acres will soon explain why. As Muir put it, “No Temple made with human hands can compare.”
Death Valley National Park (#11 on the list)
As it’s summer here in Montana, we always talk about the heat… well, no heat on the planet can compare with that found in Death Valley. The largest national park south of Alaska at some 3.4 million acres, it’s known for its extremes. The driest and hottest point on North America is not going to be unseated anytime soon. It’s also home to the lowest point on the continent, with a spot some 282 feet below sea level.
Crater Lake National Park (#24 on the list)
After visiting Death Valley, you might need to head north to refreshing Crater Lake. Crater Lake’s waters are said to be so blue and pristine that early photographs were returned by Kodak as overdeveloped at no charge, due to the rich blues. Few will ever forget that first glimpse when they climb to the crater’s edge for the view of the 21-square-mile lake.
Redwood National Park (#15 on the list)
Redwood is another iconic park that must make its way onto every list. While small by national park standards at just over 100,000 acres, the giant Redwoods that reside here are towering. Redwood NP is a good example how we have managed to protect a clearly endangered area to be enjoyed for generations. Loggers would love nothing more than to harvest these beauties.
Wind Cave National Park (#53 on the list)
Last but not least, let’s go with a unique underground (literally) national park, Wind Cave. As you arrive at Wind Cave, it would be easy to be swept up by the beauty of the prairie grasses that abound “on top,” but it’s what’s down below that’s truly spectacular and unique. Discovered back in 1881, there are more than 120 miles of explored passages (and many more yet to be found).
To check out some of the national parks trips offered by Austin-Lehman, visit their website at austinlehman.com.