Spread over more than 85 million acres of iconic landscapes that boast sandstone arches, mighty rivers and soaring mountains, enthusiastic ramblers who are keen to discover the United States’ National Parks are confronted with a plethora of dazzling options. From jagged coastlines and fossil-rich reserves to remote volcanic regions and deep canyons, these remarkably varied parks are made up of both world-renowned vistas and epic unsung sights.
Untarnished, wild, and full of secrets, these parks are a grown-up’s playground. But where to go? What to do? The sheer quantity of options can bring on overwhelm. Owing to our close overseas contacts and extensive personal experience, the Steppes touch builds on the magnificence of these parks but takes the experience one step further – think horseback herding alongside wranglers at an extraordinary tented camp, photography lessons during a Monument Valley sunrise and spending an evening around a campfire on a Colorado prairie.
We have landed helicopters on top of 5,000-foot-tall buttes in Arizona, arranged behind-the-scenes rodeo access in Wyoming, set up private camps in Yellowstone and flown families between parks on privately chartered flights. In the far reaches of Alaska, we understand the logistics of landing on glaciers for icy picnic lunches and working alongside vets in sea otter sanctuaries. In the rocky wilderness of the Canyonlands, we know the finest spots for pristine dark sky stargazing and the opportune time to take to the skies in a hot air balloon.
With so many majestic panoramas waiting to be discovered, and so many unique ways to experience them, keep reading to uncover our choice of national parks made for exploring.
Ravines and Rocks: Grand Canyon National Park
Encompassing several major ecosystems, colossal geological formations, 277 miles of river, unforeseen turquoise pools and in excess of 500 animal species, the sheer enormity of the Grand Canyon National Park is virtually incomprehensible. Under the watchful eye of the endangered Californian condor, explore one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World while dodging coyotes, mountain lions, mule deer and bighorn sheep.
Must-Do in Grand Canyon National Park: Step down from the scenic vistas and board a raft to hurtle down the Colorado River atop the white-water rapids for which this park is renowned, plunging past fluted rock formations while being utterly immersed in the self-fulfilling grandeur of the Grand Canyon. Deserving of more than just a brief visit to the crater-rim, the national park can also be explored on mule-back or discovered from the air in a hot air balloon.
Gorges and Coastlines: Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park
Not one of the official United States’ National Parks but rather one of the lesser known State Parks, the Nā Pali Coast is considered one of the most dazzling places on the planet. Memorably showcased as the panoramic backdrop in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the Nā Pali Coast is situated on the relatively little-visited Hawaiian Island of Kauai and is renowned for its soaring sea cliffs, slender valleys, babbling streams and tumbling waterfalls. Almost inaccessible, the wilderness park boasts 3,000-foot-tall mountains that are shrouded in dense foliage and interspersed with pristine beaches.
Must-Do in Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park: Ambitious ramblers (without a fear of heights!) can embark on the 11-mile-long Kalalau Trail, a steep track that cuts through five of the park’s valleys, to reach Kalalau Beach. Perhaps camping for a night or two at Hanakoa in the embrace of an ancient rain-etched valley, intrepid explorers can experience a once-in-a-lifetime slumber under a blanket of stars accompanied by the restorative echoes of the nearby crashing ocean. Those who crave a gentler view of the island’s dramatic shore, or who desire to see the real-life movie scene in all its glory, can absorb the epic landscape from a birds’ eye view in an exhilarating helicopter flight or during a sailing voyage around the coastline.
Cliffs and Waves: Acadia National Park
On the rugged coast of Maine in historic New England lies a coalescence of rolling waves, unspoiled lakes, lush woodlands, granite-domed mountains and wild islands. Eclipsed by some of its more prominent counterparts, Acadia is one of the more clandestine national parks that is primarily visited by wayfarers in pursuit of one-of-a-kind and off the beaten track escapade. With lingering traditional values first enforced by the wealthy homeowners of the region still in place, vehicles are prohibited in many areas of the park – instead, horse-drawn carriages and bicycles traverse the old roads. Harbouring the quaint seaside town of Bar Harbour, famed for its Gilded Age mansions, the park offers in excess of 130 miles of hiking trails and is regarded as the finest place on the east coast to view the Milky Way.
Must-Do in Acadia National Park: Winding through the core of the park, the tree-lined carriage road system provides miles of uninterrupted bicycle routes that are shared by horse riders, pedestrians, moose and black bears alike. Cyclists can navigate the 27-mile-long Park Loop or embark on the challenging Summit Road to the top of 1,530-foot-tall Cadillac Mountain, passing evergreen forests and encircling serene lakes en route.
Gullies and Arches: Zion National Park
Combining soaring crimson cliffs, unique geological formations, major arches, narrow canyons and some of the darkest night skies in the United States, Zion National Park is a world-renowned hiking destination that offers spring-fed pools and cascading waterfalls to offset its deceptively parched appearance. Suitable for gentle and strenuous treks, scenic drives and even wilderness camping, this dramatic desert landscape is interspersed with forested plateaus, narrow meandering canyons and towering cliffs that combine to create an immersive world of natural wonders.
Must-Do in Zion National Park: For an authentic adventure, audacious visitors to the park can embark on a day of exploratory canyoneering through this legendary and inhospitable terrain. Often combining route finding, rappelling, problem-solving, swimming, and hiking in canyons that are occasionally barely wide enough to squeeze through, canyoneering in Zion is one of the most spectacular pastimes on offer in all the national parks. Whilst carving out a route in this 150-million-year-old Mesozoic-aged landscape, look out for peregrine falcons, bald eagles and Californian condors.
Lakes and Mountains: Crater Lake National Park
Encompassing 183,224 acres of mountains, pinnacles, evergreen forests and its namesake lake, Crater Lake National Park in the Pacific Northwest is a diverse habitat that teems with wildlife from hummingbirds to black bears and chipmunks to coyotes. The exceptional 7,700-year-old Crater Lake, the deepest in the country at 1,943-feet, owes its formation to the volcanic collapse of Mount Mazama and its crystal-clear waters to the snowfall of which it is almost entirely comprised. With its compelling combination of sapphire lake, enveloping precipices, charming islands and violent volcanic history, Crater Lake National Park dazzles in flurries of white in winter and blooms in verdant hues of green and blues in the milder months.
Must-Do in Crater Lake National Park: Plunging in to the translucent waters of this cavernous lake, where rainbow trout and kokanee salmon thrive as the only two surviving introduced species, is a refreshing pursuit that awaits ramblers after a day of hiking under the blazing sun in the company of illusive elk and bobcats.
Valleys and Waterfalls: Yosemite National Park
Neither words nor images can adequately describe the grandeur and majesty of Yosemite National Park, as admitted by the legendary naturalist John Muir and gifted photographer Ansel Adams who openly discussed their struggles to encapsulate its sheer scale and indescribable spirit. Some of the planets’ heftiest trees, tallest waterfalls, most pristine alpine meadows, loveliest lake valleys and greatest monolithic rock structures dwell in this park.
Must-Do in Yosemite National Park: Standing atop the iconic granite monolith Half Dome, a sheer-faced rock formation whose pinnacle geologists hitherto reckoned would never be summited by humankind, is the impossible to miss highlight of a visit to this park. The strenuous seventeen-mile Half Dome Hike takes ambitious ramblers to the pinnacle of this steely rock 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley on an unforgettable wilderness adventure.
Geysers and Forests: Yellowstone National Park
The grandfather of all national parks (in fact, the first in the world), Yellowstone is renowned for its immense landscapes and thousands-strong population of wildlife. With infinite wildflower-filled prairies, icy high-altitude lakes and roaring rivers that plummet into cascading waterfalls, the park showcases the best of North American wilderness. Rich with legends and unscathed by humanity, Yellowstone is home to elk, mountain lions, bears, coyotes, white-tailed deer, gray wolves and the world’s largest herd of grazing mighty bison. Meanwhile, rainbow-hued hot springs and ethereal mineral terraces embody the eternal frothing happening beneath the surface of the geothermal park.
Must-Do in Yosemite National Park: Offering elements of real exclusivity, behind-the-scenes access and unrivalled expert private guidance throughout, we can arrange a number of off-the-beaten-track explorations and customised experiences. Travel with acclaimed privates, sleep in a remotely located private tented camp, experience otherworldly star-studded night skies, quietly float down Snake River, and maybe even squeezing in an afternoon at a rodeo.