Spend Memorial Day With Mother Nature at These 9 Breathtaking National Parks
Summer is so close we can almost smell the coconut oil, but wait… Why does the hottest season of the year have to be spent at the beach? While we all love the warmth of the sun on our skin and the smell of salt in the air, this year it’s time to swap the status quo—but don’t worry: Mother Nature is still involved.
This summer we’re strapping on our hiking boots, packing our “glamping” bags (including our travel handbags), and heading to one of the 58 U.S. national parks for some serious adventure. You too should take the leap, not only for the time of your life but also for a potentially healing experience. (A recent Stanford University study shows that walking, specifically in a natural environment, can greatly decrease your chances of developing depression.) So get out there and enjoy the beauty our world has to offer. If you can’t decide which one to visit, we highlighted nine of the most breathtaking parks you need to add to your travel bucket list—stat.
If you’re a fan of arid environments that really challenge your senses, then put Death Valley on the top of your list. This desolate landscape is one of the hottest, driest, and lowest-situated basins, and at 3.4 million acres, it’s also the largest U.S. national park. Death Valley ranges from barren salt flats on the valley floor to 11,000-foot mountains with dividing canyons, sand dunes, and 1000 miles of winding paved dirt roads. Since daytime temperatures can exceed 120°F, veering off the designated paths is not recommended: Use your vehicle’s air conditioning, and drink plenty of water. Photographic enthusiasts will love the artist’s drive, with its breathtaking multihued mountain ranges that resemble a painter’s palette.
Other outdoor activities range from hiking to mountain biking and even bird-watching. There’s also guided tours and a museum. We recommend planning your visit around the full moon, when Death Valley rangers lead tours of the region by moonlight, set up telescopes, and let you view the constellations across an open sky that’s unimpacted by an urban cityscape.
From black bears to magnificent wildflowers, the rich and diverse Smoky Mountains are abundant with natural beauty. If you love to hike, this national park has some of the most popular trails, with old-growth forests, waterfalls, endless views, and even kid-friendly paths. If walking isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of fishing, horseback riding, picnicking, and wildlife viewing to do instead. And if you can’t visit in the summer, then book a trip in the fall—the colors are out of this world.
If you haven’t been to Yellowstone, then the national park should take number one slot on your bucket list. There’s a reason millions of people visit this stunning natural beauty every year; it truly has some of the most exquisite examples of Mother Nature you’ll ever see, including the Old Faithful geyser (which erupts almost hourly with a huge water spurt into the sky) and the mammoth hot springs. But our favorite is the Emerald Spring, where the magnificent yellow color from the sulfur combines with the reflected blue light to give off a heavenly emerald green hue.
If you feel like taking a leisurely tour, then hit up the 142-mile-long Grand Loop road, and tour all the visitor centers, museums, boardwalks, and scenic side roads. Just beware of roaming bison or bears.
Crater Lake is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The deepest lake in the U.S. (at 1943 feet) was created over 7000 years ago when a 12,000-foot-tall volcano fell after a violent eruption, leaving a giant abyss that is filled entirely via rain and snow. This natural marvel is a photographer’s wonderland, with a picturesque skyline and sheer surrounding cliffs of almost 2000 feet. Enjoy biking around the outer rim, stopping to take snaps or enjoy a picnic along the way. The main attraction is Phantom Ship and the mid-lake Wizard Island, both of which are the result of smaller eruptions. But the lake is only 10% of the national park; beyond that, you can explore the magnificent old-growth forest, which is also home to mountain lions, elk, and black bears.
It’s hard not to feel like you’re on top of the world at Rocky Mountain National Park, but that’s probably because you are. At an astounding 11,500 feet, the famous Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved road in the U.S. and includes over 350 miles of trails. There’s a hike for every level from beginner to adventurous, or get wild and go whitewater rafting. Aside from the unrivaled (and untouched) scenery, the wildlife viewing is one of the best in America, with elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes, beavers, marmots, chipmunks, and hawks. Don’t forget your camera for this one.
If you’re ready for a mind-blowing trip into some of the earth’s most astounding natural wonders, then plan your next vacation at Bryce Canyon. The valley features miles of crimson-colored rock forest mountain ranges, spire-shaped rock patterns, and the largest collection of hoodoos, which according to the National Park Service are “odd-shaped pillars of rock left standing from the forces of erosion.” Take the rim trail across the Bryce Amphitheater to view some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets you’ll ever witness. It’s life changing.
There’s a reason U2 named its 1987 record after this magical place—Joshua Tree truly is a spiritual heartland. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage every year to experience this desert wonderland and take photographs among the unique Dr. Seuss–esque trees. While arid and barren, this dry landscape is home to several animals including the desert tortoise. One of the most popular attractions is stargazing. Due to its remote location, there is no artificial light to compete with the light of the night sky, and the result is an uninterrupted view of the stars, planets, and passing meteors. It’s truly out of this world.
When the sun sets on Yosemite’s famous Half Dome stone formation, you’ll feel like you’ve come home. But this enchanting natural phenomenon is just one of the many marvels you’ll see and fall in love with at the popular national park. Summer is the ideal time to go on one of its many hikes or rafting expeditions. The Half Dome hike is definitely on the top of our must-do list. While its 14- to 16-mile round-trip is certainly challenging, you’ll be rewarded for your effort with amazing panoramic views of the Yosemite Valley and High Sierra. When you’ve had ample time exploring outdoors, then put your feet up and indulge in some pampering at the nearby spas and wellness retreats.
While the Grand Canyon has had global media attention, Zion is equally majestic and scenic. The Utah-based national park is filled with vibrant sandstone cliffs in red, cream, and pink, with over 1000 species of luscious plant life and insanely blue skies above. The canyon is divided by the Virgin River, which flows down to the beautiful Emerald Pools, complete with towering waterfalls. The Weeping Rock is another incredibly powerful and electric experience. At only a half-mile round-trip, it’s one of the shortest hikes, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful. The name refers to the constant flow of water that “weeps” out of the Weeping Rock alcove below. There’s also a ton of wildlife throughout Zion, from mountain lions to owls and even a small population of Mojave Desert tortoises. It’s definitely worth a visit.
Ready to hit the road? Pick up one of our books first, and sharpen your photography skills before you leave.