For many living in big cities, the sad truth is that the only time they remember there are parts of America not covered in condos, big box stores, and fast-food outlets is when they’re Instagramming them from 36,000 feet.
Which is also when many think to themselves, “Wow, I wish I could see all that beauty up close and without a plane wing in my way.”
Well, turns out, there is! It’s called the National Parks Service. And you can RV there and take in all that awesome beauty.
And as a reminder of the scope of America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty (and its 59-strong national parks created by the coolest dude ever from New York), we thought it’d be fun to take seven of the most-visited parks in 2017 and rank them by their level of adventure and sheer, mind-blowing spectacle. Turns out, yes, it was fun.
Ask anyone to name Utah’s five National Parks, and odds are Capitol Reef is the one they forget among its arched-and-canyoned cousins. You should remember Capitol Reef for the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth and a feature you won’t find elsewhere in the state. It’s also been designated as a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, so camping here will yield some of the prettiest stars you’ve ever seen. At just over a million visitors last year, it offers much of the red rocks and striking geology of other Utah parks, without the crowds.
You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus, the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during mild weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.
Along the densely populated mid-Atlantic, no national park makes a faster, prettier escape to nature than this one. The main attraction here is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers sweeping views of the valley and, in fall, an explosion of insane colors. It’s also home to a big chunk of the Appalachian Trail if you’re feeling ambitious.
The only national park to get its very own U2 album named after it has exploded in popularity over the past decade, now the 11th most-visited park with 2.5 million visitors. They’re not coming in droves to see if the streets do, in fact, have no name. They’re coming because Joshua Tree boasts perhaps the best collection of rock-climbing faces in the US. The desert park also has 501 archeological sites, and is home to the lower Coachella Valley, making it a popular day trip for snowbirds and music festival goers.
The MOST VISITED PARK IN AMERICA spans four counties across two states, and runs through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Accessible from both Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, the park has more than 1,660 different kinds of flowering plants—the most of any national park. Its highest point is Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck allows visitors to soak in some spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding beauty. More than 11 million annual visitors make it nearly twice as busy as the second-place Grand Canyon.
Give whoever named this park credit: they didn’t mince words. This 120-square-mile national treasure outside Moab is all about arches, 2,000 of them in fact. All formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion. The most famous is the Delicate Arch, a 65-footer that you might recognize from playing the license plate game back when—and yes, it’s on the Utah tag.
If you ever wondered what your pet iguana feels like when he looks up at you, visit the second-oldest national park in America. Here, outside Visalia, California, not only can you look up at the biggest tree in the world (the 275-foot tall, 60-foot wide General Sherman) but also at five of the 10 largest trees in the world. They’re not easy to get to though: 84 percent of the park doesn’t have roads and is only accessible on foot or horseback.
Adventure is worthwhile.