The World's Top Ten National Parks
Most Traveler readers know that Yellowstone National Park is considered to be the world’s first national park. Some, though, might not know that more than 130 nations have established parks or protected areas within their boundaries.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature counts more than 100,000 such areas around the world. Some of these areas are inscribed in the United Nation’s list of World Heritage or Biosphere Reserve sites.
Since it is unlikely than anyone will ever visit all 100,000, we want to invite all Traveler readers to help us pick the best national parks or other protected areas outside the United States. I am going to start the process by letting you know what five of mine are. For each of your areas, please submit a brief description of the resources of the area and the circumstances of your visit. We are going to let this run for a little while to see if we can’t figure out what the best 10 or 15 are from your point of view. The one rule is that you have to have visited the area.
Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
I was blown away by this park. We took a boat trip on Milford Sound. The waterfalls, the glaciers, and the fiords were spectacular. Although we only visited the sound, there are 14 fiords that define the shoreline of this World Heritage Site. I visited Fiordland following the 4th World Congress of the International Ranger Federation, held in Wilsons Promontory National Park in Victoria, Australia. It was interesting to be in a park where elk are considered an exotic species and need to be eliminated. This is one gift to New Zealand from President Theodore Roosevelt that didn’t turn out so well as there are no natural predators in New Zealand to control the elk population.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
This is perhaps the most impressive wildlife viewing area in the world. Millions of acres of habitat and little development give visitors an opportunity to see many large African mammals and magnificent birds. It is one of the few places where wildlife is in charge – they wander free and the visitors are controlled. I stayed here for a week during the 3rd World Congress of the International Ranger Federation. I found it a bit unsettling to be locked inside a compound at night, but as one of my South African ranger colleagues pointed out, “There are lots of things out there that want to eat you.”
Tikal National Park, Guatemala
This World Heritage Site contains the spectacular ruins of a Maya settlement from around 250 – 900 AD. The towering ruins of temples, one 70 meters tall, rising from the jungle that surrounds them, are mute testimony to the architectural genius of the Maya. As many as 90,000 people lived in Tikal at its zenith, but strife with neighboring towns and environmental stress caused its abandonment beginning in the 10th century. Of course, the Maya never left; they are there today, and it’s a thrill to visit it with a Maya guide. During a family trip to Belize and Guatemala, our guide was one of the rangers on the staff at Tikal. The park was holding a training session for some of its rangers and the superintendent asked me to stop by to say a few words to the class. I talked a little bit about how important it was for them to know that they were a part of an international family of rangers dedicated to protecting and preserving the world’s natural and cultural patrimony. They seemed to get it.
Kaieteur National Park, Guyana
I had the great good fortune to prepare a World Heritage nomination for this spectacular area several years ago. I understand its nomination is on hold due to internal political problems. At the time of the nomination, it was Guyana’s only national park. The center piece of the park is a magnificent waterfall that drops 226 meters, five times the height of Niagara. The surrounding rain forest was largely pristine and contained the normal biodiversity of this ecosystem. I saw my only cock-of-the-rock there, a brightly colored bird that hangs out in tropical forests. I did most of my research in Georgetown, the capital of the country, a city that sits below sea level protected by dikes. The original Dutch settlers knew how to build dikes.
I have visited Machu Picchu three times, the first time in 1969 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay and the last in 2008 when I visited the site with my wife. I was impressed with how much better control there is of visitation now than when I first visited. Only a certain number of people are allowed at any one time on the Inca Trail and there is a daily limit on the number of visitors allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, the peak that dominates the site. I also thought that the interpretation offered by the guides had improved considerably. They are all licensed by the government. Our guide slipped easily between Spanish and English and seemed to know Quechua also. The story of Machu Picchu is fascinating and he told it well.
OK, there are five of my favorites. Can you help us fill in five more blanks? If you have a great photo, send it along via email to and we'll see about posting it.