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Top 10 National Parks: Is Your List Better Than Mine?

Yellowstone belongs on every park lover's Top 10 list of parks, no? Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River by Kurt Repanshek.

People like lists. No, check that, they love them. Particularly when they disagree with them and think they have a better list. So, here's my personal Top 10 list of national parks.*  How does it match up with yours?

1. Yellowstone. Does this selection really need to be explained? It's the world's first national park, it features the world's greatest collection of thermal features (hot springs, fumaroles, geysers, etc.), has wolves, two species of bears, eagles, osprey, moose, bighorn sheep, streams for angling, lakes for paddling and angling, and an incredible backcountry for getting away from it all.

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You could spend an entire vacation watching the surf at Acadia. NPS photo.

2. Acadia. Perhaps because this was the very first national park I ever visited, this deserves to be in my Top 10. That said, it can stand on its own. The wonderful mix of forests and surf, the carriage paths, the eclectic vibe that runs through Bar Harbor, the great B&Bs and cottages, and, of course, the fresh lawbsta make this park a crowd pleaser.

3. Olympic. One park, three vastly different experiences: Surf, rainforest, and alpine. Just one of those three would justify a visit to this park overlooking the Pacific Ocean from Washington state's peninsula. But when you have all three in one visit...well, it's a no brainer.

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Great Smoky is rife with hiking options. Kurt Repanshek photo.

4. Great Smoky. Family friendly, rich in American history, fantastic hiking, it's all here. When the dog days of summer get hot and lazy, there are more than a few streams to cool off in. The historic structures found in Cades Cove, (Big and Little) Cataloochee, and Oconaluftee allow you to peer into an earlier, somewhat simpler, more self-reliant time.

5. Canyonlands. This park likely won't make everyone's list, but then, that's probably because they haven't visited. There's prehistory on display in the form of granaries, petroglyphs and pictographs, vestiges of cowboy history, bizarre geology, bucking rivers for white-water cowboys, and vast expanses to walk into.






6.  Glacier Bay. Again, not likely to make everyone's list. But it's rich in glacial history, boasts a cornucopia of wildlife (both terrestrial and marine), and is most definitely wild. And the fishing is not lacking.

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You want glaciers? Glacier Bay has glaciers. Kurt Repanshek photo.

7. Sequoia. Big trees, big backcountry, great backcountry and front-country trails, a kid-pleaser. A bonus is that it's connected by border, and administratively, to Kings Canyon National Park. 

8. Yosemite. While the Yosemite Valley is the main attraction, if you spend all your time there with the millions of other visitors, you won't really get to know this park. The high country with its granite domes, peaks, and hiking trails is sublime. 

9. Everglades. Sure, it's hot in summer, but show up between November and April and you've got a reasonable climate in which to explore the paddling trails, go birding, take in a hike or two, explore the largest officially designated wilderness east of the Rockies, and the fishing is waiting for you.

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You haven't experienced Yosemite if you neglect the high country. Kurt Repanshek photo.

10. Virgin Islands. Another personal favorite that might not show up on many lists. But if you're looking for relaxation in the form of reclining in your beach chair on the park's sugar-sand beaches, want to explore some dazzling marinelife while snorkeling the park's coral reefs, or study Caribbean history, this is the place to head.



* For the purposes of this list, I considered just the 58 "national" parks.


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From the ones I've already visited - but in no particular order:
Joshua Tree NP
For being my first-ever NP. And the one I always want to return to. I hopelessly fell in love with the landscape of the Mojave destert. Mojave NPres is great, too.
Yellowstone NP
The whole thermal stuff is just amazing. The north-eastern part of the park is my favourite.
Arches NP
Those rock formations are so scenic.
Canyonlands NP
The beauty of Grand Canyon & Arches combined, but without the masses.
Badlands NP
Wind Cave NP
What a gem of a park. Best wildlife experiences I had in a National Park. Bisons, prairie dogs, all kind of deer... and the beauty of the Black Hills.
Redwood NP
Capitol Reef NP
Rocky Mountain NP
Crater Lake NP

I enjoyed the smaller parks for different reasons often more than the big one. Grand Canyon NP and Glacier NP left me quite disappointed. A lot of National Monuments would make my NPS site overall top 10 list.

We have no idea how someone with Kurt's expertise could omit Glacier National Park from a top ten national park list. Going-to-the-Sun Road, historic lodges, unsurpassed scenic beauty, lack of large crowds, and delightful meals at Serranos Mexican Restaurant in East Glacier (across the road from Glacier Park Lodge) make this one of America's premiere national parks.
Among the smaller parks, Devils Tower National Monument has always been one of our favorite stops. The pleasant and generally uncrowded campground set amid the cottonwoods, the trail to the visitor center, the prairie dog town, and the splendid view of Devils Tower upon getting out of the tent each morning place this monument high on a list of best parks. Best of all is the initial sighting of the tower while driving toward the park. Its as if Richard Dreyfuss will be hitching a ride just over the next hill.

I daydream about this list all the time! And it changes, too!

Theodore Roosevelt
Isle Royale
Rocky Mountain
Death Valley
Great Smoky Mountains
Grand Teton

(I also have a strange weakness for Hot Springs: coffee from the thermal springs, then a day hiking the Sunset Trail loop through the Ouchita Moutains, to end with a thermal bath, beer, and dinner. And Markus is right about Wind Cave!)

I'm in Fresno, so visit YOSE & SEKI often, but CHIS (Channel Islands NP) is my very favourite.

From what I have this far been to:
1. Sequoia and King's Canyon.
2. Grand Canyon, North Rim.
3. Saguaro, Rincon Mountains district.
4. Yosemite.
5. Everglades.
6. Joshua Tree.
7. Shenandoah.
8. Zion.
9. Mammoth Cave.
10. Capitol Reef.
I doubt the top three would ever change, though I have yet to experience Olympic, Glacier, and Isle Royal. I think Saguaro is very much underrated. Try experiencing it after a spring rain on a misty, overcast day and wander amongst the paths braching off of Cactus Forest drive. The smells and sights are just ethereal, almost unearthly. I have yet to see the Redwood, but the Sequoias are something everyone should see once in a lifetime, especially people who say that they are not otherwise moved by nature.

Since I enjoy hiking, climbing, and wildlife viewing my top ten list focues on the large wilderness parks of the west and I've been lucky enough to work at all but three of them.
Yellowstone NP;
Besides the geysers there are hundreds of miles of trail and dozens of spectacular peaks
Death Valley NP;
Who can argue with 3.1 million acres of wilderness and hundreds of rugged peaks
Glacier NP;
Wildlife, 1,000 miles of trails, and spectacular peaks
Grand Canyon NP;
There's only one and everyone should hike it once in their lives
Olympic NP:
Remote beaches, rain forest, and high mountain wilderness
Kings Canyon NP:
High Sierra wilderness and rugged mountains
Yosemite NP;
Plenty of more remote trails to get away from the crowds
Big Bend NP:
A real gem
Canyonlands NP:
Should be larger, but still lots of room to get lost in
Capitol Reef NP:
If it's not on your list, you haven't been there.

I tend to rate the parks based on my visiting experiences, and those don't tend to be better in the most popular parks, so while I think Grand Canyon and Yosemite are awesome, my visits to these parks have put them on my top 10:
1. Arches NP
2. Great Basin NP
3. Crater Lake NP
4. Guadalupe Mts NP
5. Capitol Reef NP
6. Mt. Rainier NP
7. Isle Royale NP
8. Redwood NP
9. Lassen Volcanic NP
10. Yellowstone NP (too great not to make the list)

1. Canyonlands NP
2. Zion NP
3. Lake Clark NP
4. Olympic NP
5. Wrangell St. Elias NP
6. Denali NP
7. Glacier NP
8. Capitol Reef NP
9. Guadalupe Mountains NP
10. Klondike Gold Rush NHP – Skagway Unit

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