U.S. National Parks Bucket List
North America is culturally and ecologically diverse, and much of it remains untamed. There is so much to experience and explore; you could spend a lifetime trying to cover it all. The U.S. alone has hundreds of nationally recognized historical and cultural sites to explore, including more than 60 national parks! Whether you want to hike, fish, kayak, snorkel, or go spelunking, you are sure to find something that excites you at many of these protected locations.
In 2020, when international travel became impossible for me, I started thinking about how much of my own country that I had yet to see. National parks have always been on my list of places to explore, so I decided to take full advantage of the limited, domestic-travel situation that Covid created for many of us. As on all of my travels, I learned so much about these beautiful and mysterious places and I feel fortunate to be one of the relatively few Americans who has stepped foot onto these special and sacred grounds.
Spanning over 660,000 square miles, Alaska is by far the biggest state. It is home to dozens of different animals that can be seen in their native habitat including bison, caribou, moose, bears, whales, and seals. There are 8 national parks, 4 national preserves, and 2 national forests in The Last Frontier, so there are plenty of places where you can spot some of these creatures if you're looking for them.
Kenai Fjords National Park
The Kenai Fjords National Park spans over the Kenai Peninsula situated in southern Alaska. Kenai's major attraction is the Exit Glacier, which is part of the Harding Icefield. The visitor center and trailheads are easily accessible; less than an hour drive north of Seward.
Along the drive through the park entrance and the trails, there are date markers posted for visitors to see where the Exit Glacier reached at those specific points in time. As you walk along the trail, you will traverse a timeline of the effects that climate change has had on the glacier. Since 1917, the glacier has receded about 1 mile.
The Kenai Peninsula boasts more than 80 official hiking trails that are sure to challenge even the most seasoned hikers, and there's no shortage of camping, fishing, and kayaking locations.
There are 3 national parks in Florida and they have some of the most diverse arrays of animal species found anywhere in the world.
Everglades National Park
The Everglades National Park covers an enormous, 1.5 million-acre section of southern Florida. There are 3 main areas of the park that visitors can access from either Miami or Homestead.
Guided tours are offered year round for visitors to gain access to some otherwise difficult areas, such as those reached by air boat. I personally recommend the air boat experience, especially if you have never done it before. The Everglades tour I had from Captain Jack's was a unique and fun experience where I learned a lot about this interesting landscape and its inhabitants. I got closer to a 13-foot alligator in the wild than I ever thought I could! The tour included a pass to the neighboring animal sanctuary where I saw more alligators, turtles, otters, and even some lions and tigers.
Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park is conveniently accessed from Miami with a 45-minute drive south to the visitor center. Visitors can swim, snorkel, and paddle through the 173,000-acre park to observe a portion of the Florida Reef - the world's 3rd largest coral reef. An astonishing 95% of this national park is underwater, so snorkeling or diving are the best activities to experience the most of what it has to offer. More than 600 species of native sea animals and birds inhabit this huge park, and more than 30 of them are threatened or endangered.
The National Park Service offers guided sailboat tours for your visit to Biscayne and I chartered one right from the visitor center for an unforgettable day of sailing, snorkeling, and observing the Florida Reef wildlife including sea turtles, jellyfish, gobies, and barracudas. Our captain enlightened us with many interesting facts about the Florida Reef, Keys, and the wildlife found there.
Dry Tortugas National Park
The most remote national park of the United States is Dry Tortugas. Named for its lack of fresh water and the abundance of sea turtles by early settlers, it is a sailing, fishing, and snorkeling dream destination for visitors from around the world. The western-most Florida key is located 70 miles west of Key West and is accessible by boat or seaplane. Visitors can camp at the park overnight on a first-come-first-serve basis. There is a visitor center located within Fort Jefferson that is open daily, however, there are no dining or shopping options for visitors. For your visit, come prepared with food, water, and proper beach gear, and plan to take your trash with you.
The seaplane option is by far the most convenient and inclusive option for transportation to the park. Passengers are dropped off in the morning after a 45-minute, low-altitude, scenic flight over reefs, shipwrecks, and easily observable ocean wildlife. Visitors spend the day snorkeling, sunbathing, fishing, and learning about the history of Fort Jefferson at an entirely self-directed pace. When I visited the park, the ferry service had been canceled for that day, so I had the entire island practically to myself! Key West Seaplane Charters offers full and half day tours for guests - snorkel gear and complimentary water bottles included. Passengers can also bring personal coolers and other gear along on the flight. The pilots provide helpful information on the way out and give clear instructions on where and when to meet for the return flight to Key West. I hope to return to Dry Tortugas someday. It is a tiny key, but it has so much to offer that you can't possibly see in just one day.
There is one national park in Kentucky, but it takes multiple visits to fully experience all that it has to offer.
Mammoth Cave National Park
The Mammoth Cave National Park contains the world's longest known cave system which is home to thousands of years of human history and a diverse array of plant and animal life making it a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. During your visit you have a chance to see crickets that have evolved to live deep in the cave, as well as bats, and even scorpions and shrimp!
To access the vast and complex cave system, visitors must book a tour and purchase a ticket. Depending on your interests, you can select one of many unique tours that offer a close up look at domes, sinkholes, ancient artifacts, and the formations of stalactites and stalagmites. There are over 400 miles of cave to explore, so pace yourself and select the tour that's right for you.
I must say that I was thoroughly impressed by the engineering feats that now give visitors safe access to the cave system. Well-lit and guarded walkways and bridges allow visitors to navigate the dark, congested tunnels of the cave that would be otherwise impossible to pass through.
Visitors are cautioned by park rangers providing the tours to re-think entering the cave system if they experience adverse effects when exposed to high elevations or tight spaces. Many times while making my way through the cave, I had to turn my shoulders sideways, duck my head, or somehow contort my body to squeeze through to the next open area along the path, all while suspended on a walkway bridge at heights of up to 80 feet. It can also get chilly while in the cave, some parts descend 300 feet below ground.
Acadia National Park
The crown jewel of the North Atlantic Coast is Acadia National Park located in Bar Harbor, ME. It is one of the nation's top 10 most-visited national parks where visitors enjoy more than 150 hiking trails and paddling access to 24 lakes and ponds. And no where else in the country can you get a Maine lobster roll this fresh!
The absolute best time to visit Acadia is late summer, early fall. Labor Day weekend was my first visit to the area and the weather was perfect, but the crowds were unbearable. I recommend waiting for the following week or two after things die down, and you may even get to see some early fall foliage which is unbeatable in New England. As a bonus, the souvenir shops in Bar Harbor are trying to get rid of their summer merchandise, so you can stock up on supplies at half the summer costs, or even less. The rocky coasts around the park are beautiful, especially when viewed from the surrounding ocean water. There are several public beaches, too.
Due to the crowds and some passing weather during my weekend in Acadia, I was only able to get one hike in, but I think I picked a great one. The Beehive trail is a difficult but rewarding hike that overlooks the beautiful Gulf of Maine. It is only 1.4 miles round trip, but it took me over 2 hours to complete due to the excessive amount of hikers stopping to take pictures and whatnot. This is a short, but aggressive trail. Hikers need to use both hands to ascend some parts of the trail. There are 450-foot cliffs with exposed edges and steep drop-offs with no railings. This is not a good hike for small kids or dogs.
Congaree National Park
The Congaree National Park has the largest old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. The wide-bottom trees that grow from the nourishment of the Congaree and Wateree rivers provide nutrition and shelter for a diverse array of wildlife including bobcats, wild pigs, fox, opossums, deer, and otters.
During your visit to Congaree, you can enjoy 25 miles of hiking trails, fishing, canoeing and camping to name a few. The park is an excellent place to take the family for the day, and you can even bring the dog. The main boardwalk trail is easily accessible for people of all hiking abilities since it features a raised platform with rails that gives visitors a safe but up-close view of the ecosystem. Grab a trail information guide when you arrive, or access the Congaree information link to learn about all of the main points that are numbered along the way. Visitors can see an old moonshine still that was used during prohibition where bootleggers found refuge near the Congaree river out of sight from authorities.
Check the conditions of the park before planning your visit. Some sections may be inaccessible due to flooding. The mosquito conditions could be unbearable as well. I visited Congaree in late November and my visit was uninterrupted by mosquitos, thankfully. But, upon arriving at the visitor center, I found it both amusing and alarming that there is a mosquito meter that warns visitors of the park conditions before they enter. Conditions range from 1-6; All Clear - to - War Zone, respectively.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park touches 2 states; North Carolina and Tennessee. Ascending one of the many peaks will provide a view of endless blue mountains and ridges covered in hazy fog and clouds. They really do look smoky! During my visit in late November, I entered the park through Cherokee, NC and spent about 8 hours exploring the park's roadways and trails before exiting in Pigeon Forge, TN.
Visitors can easily spend more than a full day exploring all that this park has to offer. There are 159 campsites and more than 800 hiking trails. One popular attraction is the park's highest elevation at 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome, that straddles the NC and TN state line.
The Great Smoky Mountains park has a rich history where for hundreds of years, the Cherokee hunted in Cades Cove, which was later settled by Europeans. Today, it offers a wide variety of historic buildings including a church, grist mill, barns, log houses, and other restored 18th and 19th century structures.
This blog is going to be a work in progress, since I have not yet visited all 63 national parks. I will continue to update as I check more off my list, so stay tuned!
A Little Bit About the U.S. National Park Service
The U.S. National Park Service has been entrusted with the preservation of the nation's beautiful landmarks and memorials for more than 100 years. Partners and volunteers donate their money and time to ensure that these sites can be enjoyed for generations to come. When considering a visit to one of the locations, be sure to check the NPS website for helpful information such as ticket prices, hours of operation, and seasonal advisories. Not all national parks require fees for admission, but the ones that do have affordable prices and special discounts for military service members and veterans, as well as seniors, so be sure to ask for more information if you fit in those categories.
The NPS also preserves national monuments, memorials, historic sites, trails, and other culturally, historically, or geologically significant sites. You may have been to several already, some without even realizing that they were NPS sites. I know I have.
The National Park Service offers a passport for park enthusiasts who wish to commemorate their visits. The passport is a souvenir booklet where visitors can collect stamps to show each park visit and the date. When you visit a park, be sure to check into the visitor center to stamp your passport and grab some other collectable NPS merchandise unique to that park.
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."