The USA is blessed to have some of the most amazing natural scenery in the world, encased within the country’s many national parks. All of them exhibit stunning beauty and awe-inspiring vistas, but you are unlikely to be able to visit all 59 of them on your gap year! If you get the chance, you should definitely visit one of the ones on this list though, as they really are special. From towering mountains through to deep caves, we bring you the very best in US national parks…
You might not have heard of Sequoia National Park before, as it isn’t as famous as some of the other national parks in the USA. But once you visit this stunning corner of the natural world, you’ll never forget its name – although you still might have a few issues spelling it. It’s in California and is spread over 404,000 acres, with much of the park being wilderness, meaning no roads and therefore only accessible by horseback or on foot.
But what makes Sequoia such an amazing place to visit? Well, its main claim to fame is that it is home to the magnificent General Sherman, the largest tree in the world. What’s more, it also has four more of the top ten, meaning you’ll be looking up a lot here! There’s also the not-so-small matter of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in continental USA, rising 14,500 feet and offering some great climbing and hiking opportunities.
4) Mammoth Cave
So, we’ve had the tallest trees and huge mountains, but now it’s time to look down: deep, deep down into the longest cave system in the world (it’s over twice as long as second placed Sac Actun in Mexico). Mammoth Cave in Kentucky – the nearest city is Brownsville – has over 400 miles of explored caves and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1981. It might not be too close to the usual gap year hang-outs, but it’s well worth the trip to get there.
The best way to see this cave system is to get a guided tour, which can last from one to six hours and will include some of the biggest highlights, such as Frozen Niagara, Fat Man’s Misery and Grand Avenue. It’s also possible to get away from the crowds and tour the less accessible areas – if you are ready to squeeze through tiny gaps and crawl on your belly for a little bit! The subterranean waterways of this cave system are one of the most spectacular sights you’ll see while on your gap year in the US.
Okay, so not many people visit Alaska on their gap year, but they should. Top on everyone’s list of what to do in this far-flung American state is Denali, which is the national park located around the tallest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley. With only one road into the national park, getting there can be a bit tough, but those with a taste for adventure will find a visit to Denali to be a real experience.
Climbing Mount McKinley is without doubt the highlight of visiting here, however not everyone will have the fitness, nor the desire, to complete this mammoth trek. Have no fear though, as there’s plenty else to see. Photographers will revel in the fantastic mountain shots of the region, while nature lovers will get the chance to see grizzly bears, caribou and even wolves. There’s also dog-sledding and skiing for those with a more active mind-set.
2) Great Smokey Mountains
Just missing out on top spot is the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, which is still no mean feat. It’s found straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, and is home to some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the world, let alone in the USA. What’s more, it plays host to around 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail – walking this trail is perhaps the most amazing way to see the varied landscapes of the US, although it’ll take some time, planning and effort!
If you don’t fancy trekking the Appalachian Trail, the park will still have something for you. There’s over 800 miles of hiking trails here – a stark contrast to some national parks, which are proud of their wilderness – and these trails allow you to get close to a plethora of different birds, animals and plants. History buffs will also be in their element, thanks to the fact that there are nearly 80 buildings and structures with historic significance.
Okay, we know this is pretty obvious, but Yellowstone has to be at the top of any list. Spread over three different states – Montana, Idaho and Wyoming – it is the epitome of the US National Park, crammed full of wildlife and stunning scenery. Top of everyone’s list here is without doubt the world-famous Old Faithful, a powerful and regularly erupting geyser attracting throngs of tourists every year. Don’t worry about the crowds though, as there are plenty of places you can go to get away from them in the 2.2 million acres this park is set in.
While everyone is gazing at Old Faithful, you can be taking in the many other sights this park has to offer. Wildlife spotting is a popular pastime – the park is one of the best places to see wildlife in the country – and you might get lucky and see wolves, bison, grizzly bears or even a lynx. Your eyes will soon shift to the park’s waterfalls though, before they then raise upwards and take in the stunning mountain scenery. And with four different mountain ranges running through the park, you won’t be short of alpine views. So, we think Yellowstone is the best national park in the USA, but do you agree with us?