National parks in western USA

From the Badlands in South Dakota all the way to Yellowstone National Park; here we cover which National Parks you should seek out in the US

5 mins

I have lived a very fortunate life. My adulthood has been full of journeys into the natural world of North America, mostly National Parks, which have enriched my soul and opened my eyes to the natural and human history of this incredible continent. There has also been disappointment to accompany those moments of euphoria. These treasures of Mother Earth have been put under enormous pressure by commercial interests – mine included – and the ‘footprints’ of mass tourism.

There is reason for optimism, however. The reintroduction of wolf, grizzly, and other predators into National Park lands has forced an extension of boundaries into surrounding private and public lands. It is not uncommon today to describe them as ‘ecosystems’, where boundaries are recognised only by humans. Ranchers, mineral extractors, loggers and other commercial operators, intent on continued exploitation, have been forced to accept that the days of unrestricted and underpriced access to these lands may soon be over. Tourism is looking more like the middle ground, whereby a workable balance can be achieved so that all sides benefit.

With the recent designation of the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, 1.7 million acres of southeast Utah, Clinton made a bold statement to Americans, the ranching and mining industries in particular, on how he sees the future. Al Gore is an outspoken environmentalist and, if the Democrats can make it three in a row in 2000, there is a glimmer of hope that effective long term planning can take shape by the millennium. With recent severe flooding in California, officials in Yosemite NP have a golden opportunity to enact a strategy which could be the first step in this direction.

Native tribes are beginning to flex their legal muscle, challenging the government on long buried treaties. Many tribes have regained access rights to National Parks for cultural and spiritual purposes. Ancient burial sites, encampments, hunting grounds, fishing rights, and trail systems are being viewed in a different light. The Lakota and Oglala again recently refused payment in exchange for giving up claims on the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. They have tried to make clear that no amount of money could be worth the intrinsic value that these lands have for the well being of their people.

Attending the Nez Perce Historical Trail Symposium in Idaho in 1995, I found it heart wrenching to discuss the future of Public Lands with these proud but displaced people, whose consistent reference to Mother Earth was in stark contrast with the Euro-Americans’ obsession with Father Time. They are deeply concerned over the management of what is to them ‘Sacred Ground’. Their concerns are well founded, for the National Parks also face the very real possibility of full commercial management unless funding is raised and attitudes drastically changed. Across the border, Parks Canada is already on the verge of private management, and continues extensive commercial development within park boundaries.

Visitors also have a responsibility to value their national treasure; some resent being asked to pay $10 for a 7-day pass to Yosemite for a family of four, yet would happily part with $32 each for a day in Universal Studios. Priorities have to change if progress is to be made. Morale is low in the NPS as many seasonal positions are now staffed by poorly trained volunteers, which has further eroded job security. Park Rangers have become an armed police force because of cutbacks, taking them away from their core professions. A recent hike with a ranger in Glacier NP summed up the situation: trained in wilderness education and survival training, he spends the bulk of his time enforcing park rules. Investigating campground noise complaints and car accidents removed him from the interpretive programme, which was the main reason he was hired in the first place! He believes that the travel trade and the general public share responsibility for better preparation, because the NPS no longer has the resources to cope with masses of mindless morons.

History of the NPS

The National Park Service was established in 1872 when the United States was still embroiled in the Plains Indian Wars, and had not yet completely driven the Indians out of the Rocky Mountains. Chief Joseph must have thought it somewhat ironic to find tourists marvelling at the wonders of Yellowstone, the first National Park, while he and his people were fleeing for their lives. The Nez Perce were running from the very troops soon to become some of the first park rangers assigned to protect this latest acquisition. Mount Rushmore was carved in the Sacred Black Hills, only 40 years after the Wounded Knee massacre. The Cherokee were driven from what is now the most popular park, The Great Smoky Mountains NP. No history of the NPS is complete without these points being considered.

Yellowstone’s first 10 years saw only 10,000 tourists, completely on their own to explore the park and make up rules as they went. Hunting was not only the most popular activity, it was also necessary as visitors could rarely pack enough food for the entire visit. Hot springs were re-channelled, forests ravaged for firewood, animals shot indiscriminately, and the few native Sheepeater Indians were moved onto a reservation, “for their own protection”. Although the NPS had good intentions, there were no experts to manage the place, and it was not until Teddy Roosevelt enacted sweeping conservation legislation in the early 1900s that the NPS became what it is today.

Franklin D. Roosevelt deserves credit for the current NPS infrastructure, much of it a result of his Civilian Conservation Corps programme. Roads, trails, information centres and many other facilities were built in the 1930s by the huge army of unemployed young men with nothing better to do. Although they could not have realised it at the time, their efforts shaped the future of the Parks. Backcountry wilderness access, photography, wildlife encounters, and the search for solitude replaced more aggressive activities as a direct result of their projects.

Significant developments have taken place since the 1960s, when the USA was in the early stages of environmental protection legislation. As America boomed the NPS was flush with cash from the sympathetic administrations of Kennedy and Johnson. Jimmy Carter set aside huge areas in Alaska, which had been designated for oil and gas exploration. Unfortunately the NPS soon felt the ‘withering on the vine’ effect of three successive Reagan and Bush presidencies, neither strong advocates of pro-conservation policy. In their eyes the USA had created a monster that had to be cut down to size. ‘Non-essential’ employees such as interpretive specialists, wildlife researchers, and low level rangers were given the boot. There is a distinct feeling of atrophy in many Parks today, but like any muscle it just needs a little work to gain strength again.

Regulation, regulation, regulation

In many respects National Parks are in much better shape than they were at the turn of the century, if only because regulations exist. The concept of wilderness as a viable resource has finally taken hold and, though much has been lost to the forces of development, what remains is worth fighting for. These issues must be clearly and resolutely addressed, and we must re-dedicate ourselves to the NP ideals of resource management “...for the enjoyment of future generations”. Clinton and Gore are in the drivers seat and we are the navigators.

Yosemite: California

Ask any of the 3.5 million annual visitors what the Yosemite experience should be, and their responses will be as varied as the scenery; a sanctuary to some and a recreational mecca to others. Some of the oldest and largest living things inhabit the park, along with several large mammals including black bear, elk, deer, mountain lion and coyote. Wildlife sightings usually occur in the back country away from the tourist centres. Hiking is one of the most popular activities with over 750 miles of hiking trails amidst the stunning grandeur of Alpine Wilderness, groves of Giant Sequoias (Redwoods), deep glacial valleys and towering waterfalls. Several visits are needed to absorb the magic of Yosemite, as different seasons offer different perspectives. Plan your stay well in advance.

Current status: Yosemite Valley was hit by massive floods in January, which will severely disrupt the coming tourist season. The park closed for over 2 months, with a limited re-opening from mid March. It may be wise to avoid this area for a few years, but visitors this year should plan very carefully so as not to be disappointed. Accommodation will be difficult to find, many visitor services have been curtailed, road reconstruction will slow already heavily congested traffic routes, and only 2 of 3 entrances are open. If possible avoid June through September, all weekends, and maybe even Yosemite Valley itself, and perhaps focus on the high country of Tuolumne Meadows or the National Forest Lands around the park.

When to go: If this is the year for Yosemite, seasonal variations will dictate the optimum time to visit. If it’s waterfalls you seek, May to July is ideal. For peace and quiet, mid October through March. My favourite season is Autumn, early October through November. The crowds are low and the hiking superb! Two full days within the park can offer an excellent introduction, allowing enough time to experience a fleeting taste of seclusion and wilderness. Three or four days offers the chance for longer hikes or just time to sit and wonder. The high country becomes inaccessible as early as October and sometime remains so through July.

Facilities/Transport: It is wise to reserve accommodation in advance! Hotels and campgrounds within the valley are full during peak season and most weekends unless booked well ahead. Public and private campgrounds surround the park, and must be secured early in the day. One very positive development since the floods is that seasonal restaurant and hotel employees may have to be rehoused outside the park, using a daily shuttle bus to come and go. This would ease several problems; overcrowding, parking, noise, and pollution. There is public transport available from San Francisco, Fresno, and Merced for travellers using Amtrak or Greyhound. A free Valley shuttle service operates during summer, along with hikers buses to Tuolomne Meadows and Tenaya Lake from late June to early September, and to the Sequoia Groves of Giant Redwoods in summer. Commercial tours within the park are readily available.

Contact details: Yosemite National Park, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite, California 95389
Tel: General Info, 209 372 0200; Campground Res., 619 452 8787; 

Yellowstone: Wyoming/Montana/Idaho

Over the last two million years three stages of massive eruptions occurred in the Yellowstone Plateau, the last forming a 30 by 50 mile caldera or volcanic basin. This covers almost half of the park and contains the largest concentration of geysers in the world. Combine this with huge mountain ranges, vast alpine meadows, endless forests and even its own Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone cannot help but live up to expectations. Bison, elk, grizzly and black bear, moose, deer, coyote, bighorn sheep, wolf, and antelope are some of the fauna in the area. Migratory birds pass through in spring and autumn, and several surprising birds live permanently in Yellowstone including pelican, trumpeter swan and osprey. Wildflowers are at their best in July and August, and the opportunity to witness the regeneration of the forests since the great fires of 1988/9 is a rare one indeed. There are over 1000 miles of hiking trails, many of which are little travelled and not well marked. Backcountry enthusiasts should be aware of likely wildlife encounters and possible severe weather conditions in any season.

Current Status: The fires of 1988 and 1989 have left many lasting marks on Yellowstone, and opened again the debate about fire suppression and control. I was lucky to have led several adventure tours here during the worst of the fires, witnessing the grace and fury of this very predictable burn. Returning twice in 1996, I was pleased to see how quickly Yellowstone has recovered, and how ironic that most of the long term damage was inflicted by the fire fighting machine put together to combat the blaze. Where the fire burned uninhibited, meadows have formed and a beautiful mosaic of burn lines are just a hint of the 200-300 year progression from burnt forests, to open grassland, to deciduous forest, and back to the pine/spruce/fir that so recently burned. Visitors have a special chance to witness this early stage of the park’s ecological cycle.

When to go: Unfortunately for this jewel of the Rockies, tourism has become a year round business with the rapid increase in winter snowmobile tourists. Otherwise, May, September and early October are excellent months to visit when wildlife are busy welcoming spring or preparing for winter, and school is in session. June through August requires planning and extra time to experience the wide variety of attractions. A minimum of two nights in the area will allow for at least one full day in the park, but ideally the visitor should spend three nights, seeing the northern and southern loops on separate days. This would enable them to break the 500-metre barrier and ‘sense’ a little wilderness.

Facilities/Transport: Camping is relatively easy provided it is secured early in the day, or by advance reservation. There are also many public and private campgrounds near to each of the five entrances to Yellowstone. Hotels and cabins are scattered throughout the park, and can often be reserved on the day due to inevitable cancellations. A visit to the magnificent log-built Old Faithful Inn is a must, even if you are not staying in it. Several visitor centres offer up to date information and excellent interpretive exhibits. There is a limited bus service in the park, but having your own transport is advisable.

Contact details: Yellowstone NP, P. O. Box 168, Yellowstone, Wyoming, 82190; Tel: General Info, campgrounds, lodging – 307 344 7381

Denali: Alaska

Denali NP is home to healthy grizzly populations, free roaming wolf, herds of caribou, moose, and the tallest mountain in North America. Native Athabascan nomads hunted and gathered berries on the lower slopes of the Alaska Range, but there does appear to have been permanent settlements due to the bitterly cold winters. Permanent snowfields cover more than half of the park, winds can blow at 150mph, and winter temperatures drop to -80°F or less! Earthquakes are frequent occurrences and geologists are convinced that Denali is still rising. It was expanded in 1980 to 6 million acres, larger that the state of Massachusetts, and exemplifies the true wilderness character of the far north. It is for the most part unspoiled.

Wildlife remains firmly on top of the priority list, as predator-prey relationship continues to exist in a natural balance as it did in other areas prior to human intrusion. Almost 500 species of flowering plants cover the land, dividing Denali into two distinct plant associations, taiga and tundra, which grow on top of various levels of the permafrost that lies under parts of the park. Raven, ptarmigan, grey jay, and the common magpie are permanent residents, and several migratory birds nest here in summer. Owls, hawks, golden eagles, grouse and mew gulls are among the 157 species of birds in Denali.

Current status: Overcrowding is a growing problem as Denali NP offers limited facilities due to the very short tourist season. There are calls for further road projects to open new areas, and for another entrance towards the south end of the park. The rapid growth in the cruise ship business to Alaska has created a massive increase in day trippers, and the inevitable fast food mentality that accompanies them. Provided the visitor takes time enough, however, the rewards are plentiful with proper research.

When to go: Denali’s season is from late May through September, although both months can experience snow. June and July confirms the Land of the Midnight Sun label (as well as the mosquito capital of Earth), August opens up the back country from snow which can make wildlife encounters less likely, but gives hikers high country access, and September provides a glimpse of the winter that lies ahead. Each season is different, but mid August to mid September tops our optimum time list.

Facilities/Transport: Visitors can use the excellent train or bus transportation from Anchorage. Cars are not allowed past the 15 mile mark of the only road into the park, instead using the shuttle bus system from the Visitor Centre to Wonder Lake at the end of road. It makes scheduled stops at specific walking areas, and several unscheduled stops to view wildlife. Round trip to Wonder Lake is 11 hours and there is no food service so visitors must be prepared. Lodging and camping surround the entrance but should be reserved in advance if possible, especially in July and August. Hiking is not for the faint hearted as the park has very few established trails, requiring various degrees of bushwhacking. Visitors should keep in mind that Denali (Mt. McKinley) is hidden by clouds up to 75% of the summer.

Contact details: Denali NP, P.O. Box 9, Denali Park, AK, 99755; Tel. 907 451 7352

Canyonlands: Utah

This enormous wilderness of red rock at the centre of the Colorado Plateau, has been carved by water, wind and gravity. It contains the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers and has three distinctly different regions. Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Needles. Sheer walls overlook Cataract Canyon, the wildest whitewater in North America, and makes this some of the most remote country in the lower 48 states. Desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, fox, a wide range of reptiles, ravens, hawks and numerous small birds inhabit this seemingly uninhabitable place. Petroglyphs and ancient ruins are found throughout the region. For the most part Canyonlands remains untrammelled, its roads mostly unpaved and trails primitive; 530 square miles of wild and colourful desert.

Island in the Sky: Grand View Point is directly above the confluence and offers spectacular views of canyon after canyon stretching 100 miles. The Manti La Sal Mountains provide the perfect backdrop, rising to almost 13,000 feet. Limited camping and lodging makes this sector a day visit unless you are backpacking.

The Maze: This 30 square mile puzzle in sandstone is full of weirdly shaped towers, buttes and mesas, and offers an intangible resource rarely found elsewhere; solitude, the challenge of self reliance, and absolute silence. When the park was created only a few individuals ever ventured into the Maze.

The Needles: The most accessible part of Canyonlands was home to the Anasazi, with several well preserved stone and mud dwellings in almost every canyon. Wonderful well marked trails snake through the diverse landscapes of rock pinnacles, pot holes, canyons, and many natural arches. Chesler Park, a thousand acre desert meadow, offers a striking contrast to the endless bare red rock.

Current status: With Clinton’s recent announcement of the Grand Staircase/ Escalante Wilderness, a long sought goal has been achieved; to set aside as much of S. E. Utah as possible and link vast wilderness ecosystems of the Colorado Plateau. Canyonlands NP is its own best protection, offering little water and proving too tough even for miners and prospectors. Recreation has firmly gained control of the local economy, with the exception of ranching, and this can only grow.

When to go: March-May and October-November are the best times, but are also the busiest. Winters are changeable but mild, and summer temperatures make any activity difficult and potentially dangerous. Unless prepared to camp, visitors must stay well outside the park, in Moab or Monticello, and do day trips.

Facilities/Transport: The amenities are limited, although a new visitors centre has been built in the Needles District and the privately owned campground has been modernised. There is no public transport.

Contact Details: Canyonlands NP, 125 West 2nd South, Moab, Utah, 84532; Tel. 801 259 7164

Badlands: South Dakota

There is a strong presence of Native Americans in the region, many of whom are fiercely anti-government. The park was established in 1939 to protect fossils and wildlife, and to conserve the mixed grass prairie. In 1976 133,000 acres were added which doubled the size of the park. Virtually all of this came from the Pine Ridge Reservation, supposedly in agreement with the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Relations between local Euro-Americans and Oglala have always been strained, but this action exacerbated the situation and drove them further apart.

Rain, wind and frost have carved steep canyons, sharp ridges and spires, and gullies in the prairie, offering a clear picture of rapid geologic change. The bones of numerous animals, buried by periodic floods and converted into fossils, are the primary attraction in the park. Some of the richest fossil beds on earth from the Oligocene epoch (25 million years ago), portray what was the Golden Age of Mammals. Excellent exhibits are found throughout the park, and several private Palaeontological museums are nearby. The spring rains produce an array of wildflowers, providing just enough moisture to sustain the grassland which once supported countless millions of bison and an astonishing range of flora and fauna. Gone are the grey wolf, grizzly bear and elk, but mule deer and pronghorn antelope still roam. Bison and bighorn sheep were exterminated by 1890, but have been reintroduced and are doing well.

Current Status: The Badlands NP continues to be embroiled in controversy over land claims, past atrocities, and is a vivid reminder of how the west was lost. They cannot be separated from the Black Hills which border the Park. Oglala and other Plains Tribes consider them inter-related, and are determined to regain access for hunting and cultural purposes. Visitors usually pass through the Badlands in the middle of the day en route to another destination, which limits their appreciation and understanding. Cutbacks have caused the visitors programmes to suffer, and much of what is on offer is up to the individual.

When to go: Wildflowers are at their best from mid April to mid June, and again during the August rains. Summers are incredibly hot; early morning and evening hikes, or a full moon visit are good ideas. Powerful storms in August create magical skies, especially sunsets, and extra caution should be taken during the brilliant displays of lightning and thunder. September and October are optimum months for a 2-3 day visit, which also coincides with the autumn colours of the surrounding high country. Frigid winter temperatures and blizzards are common from December through March. Try to avoid the annual Days of ’76, mid August for 10 days, as the region is descended on by hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists, making accommodation impossible to find.

Facilities/Transport: Your own transport is a necessity. There is limited accommodation around the Badlands, most visitors stay in the Black Hills, but campgrounds and motels can usually be arranged early in the day. Rapid City is the closest airport serviced well by Northwest Airlines.

Contact Details: Badlands NP, P.O. Box 6, Interior, South Dakota, 57750
Tel. 605 433 5361

Glacier: Montana

This unique park bridges Canada and America along one of the most dramatic borders of these vast countries. Rivers flowing into the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans begin at Triple Divide Pass, spanning almost half of the continent.

Wildlife thrives in some of the most remote mountain landscapes in north America, as do wildflowers in habitat ranging from alpine meadows to the lower prairie grasslands. Sculpted glacial valleys serve as a reminder of the massive rivers of ice that created them.

Only a few glaciers still remain which often leaves visitors confused as to the name of the park. Glacier NP was named more for the end result, rather that current forces of nature. The western slopes capture most of the rainfall, creating a relatively warm and moist environment which produces endless forests.

The eastern side, however, is influenced more by the frigid Canadian storms of winter and a much drier climate in the shadow of the Rockies. Some of the most colourful displays of wildflowers are visible for a brief time during July and August, often much more elaborate on the eastern side and at alpine levels. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, black bear, deer, grizzly, moose, wolves, beaver, river otter, marmot and and marten are all permanent residents. Several birds inhabit the park including osprey, golden eagle, ptarmigan, and even a few endangered bald eagle pairs nest and fish in the area.

Current status: Montana has over the past five years become a gathering place for celebrities, many buying large tracts of land which surround Glacier NP and other public
lands. Ranchettes, 40 acre homesites, are rapidly gobbling up and dividing the massive ranches that once dominated the state. Glacier NP is quickly becoming an elitist centre of the Natural World much like the game parks of Africa, something which is very obvious in the marketing efforts by Montana Tourism. Keeping large wilderness areas somehow out of reach of the masses could ensure continued survival of one of America's wildest places. Blackfeet, Flathead, Salish and Kootenai Indians live on both sides of the park, but have been sufficiently subjugated so as not to offer much in the way of resistance to this method of management.

When to go: A very short tourist season, particularly in the high country, offers limited access. July through September provide the best weather, with May and October potentially – weather permitting – excellent times to visit. Due to the limited road network, visitors are often herded to viewpoints and facilities, making it difficult to experience the wilderness of Glacier. Hikers have the best opportunity to achieve this by exploring the vast network of trails. Extreme weather conditions can occur during any season.

Facilities/transport: There is no public transport servicing the park, with the exception of local operators, which again makes a vehicle a must. Campgrounds and lodging, if arranged early in the day, are not a problem generally. From September facilities are limited mostly due to budget cuts, so visitors should plan carefully.

Contact details: Glacier NP, West Glacier, Montana 59936; Tel. 406 888 5441.

When, where and how?

Up to 80% of all visitors concentrate on a very small number of national Parks; the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Shenandoah, Acadia, Everglades, Zion, Mount Rainier, and Bryce Canyon to name a few.

Most travellers visit two or three parks on a two week fly/drive holiday, spending on average less than 24 hours within NP boundaries. This means that visitors can still get
away from the crowds if they take their time. In Yellowstone NP for example, 95% of all visitors do not venture more than 500 metres from their vehicle, and often complete their visit within daylight hours.

This leaves virtually all of her two-plus million acres untouched and even uncrowded at key times of day and night, which is true for most Parks. Early morning starts, timing your visits around the full moon, and patience are keys to making optimum use of your leisure time in
all parks.

Be aware of the impact of seasonality – many mountain parks are closed or restricted over winter (which can extend until April). Try to avoid weekends, especially those around major public holidays such as Labor Day.

A few parks can be reached by public transport, but overall a car or motorhome remains the best method of transportation. Visitors should, however, take advantage of transport
services within the parks or do the unimaginable – walk or cycle when possible!

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