As well as having 59 giant parks, a superbly managed trail system, an informative website, the rangers are like all your favourite geography teachers ever, running guided walks and workshops. In addition to the 59 parks, there are national monuments, rivers, seashores and so many more, all coming under the national park umbrella.
Many of these seem to have wonderful names, such as Organ Pipe, Mesa Verde, Big Bend, Craters of the Moon. There is even a national park in the South Pacific: the National Park of American Samoa. Glacier National Park, Olympic and White Sands are three of our favourite lesser known beauties.
Do read up on this before you go, as many of the national parks have important historical links to indigenous people, not only American Indians, but also the Ancestral Pueblo people, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. National parks are not just about the place, but about the history of the people who come from these places too.
Serious hikers do it under canvas. And national parks are full of happy campers too. As you are unlikely to be traveling from Europe with a tent, tour operators often offer camping options, which is handy because many of the campsites book up months in advance. There are usually several campsites in each park, and the more remote you go, the better chance you have of gaining a spot.
The parks are, fundamentally, about protecting wildlife and their habitats. We gain so much from sharing these habitats but remember these are places for animals to roam freely. There are no fences. So bring you binoculars, swot up before you go, and enjoy the elk in the Rocky Mountain, bison in Yellowstone or mountain goats in Glacier. Just for starters.
You can’t miss the rangers, they look a bit like grown up scouts. But they are the people who bring the parks to life for visitors. They lead guided walks, give lectures, and are dotted around at various viewpoints to give information to visitors. The website gives details on upcoming programmes.
These are the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Arches National Park, and they are as magnificent as everyone says. Just don’t try rushing them. Yellowstone, funnily enough, although it was the first national park in the world, isn’t the most visited, as it is harder to get to for foreign visitors.
There are cabins in most of the national parks, which offer hot deals to tourists. Like budget hotels but with 5 star views. Many tour operators include stays here in your itinerary because it really worth staying the night and feeling the park envelop you when all the daytrippers have gone.
There are so many trails in the Canyon, but most people choose this one, which makes it a bit of a grim trail in the peak season. The best way to get perspective of the Grand Canyon is just to take five or ten steps down into it. You need to get that red rock behind you or above you to fully appreciate its greatness.
It is hard to avoid driving to access many of the parks, but once you do, there are shuttle buses to transport you to trailheads, and a zillion trails to get you out of the car too. The National Parks website gives lots of details of trails and shuttle buses which serve them, and if you book through a tour operator, they will transport you to the parks when possible.
There are people who do a six hour coach drive to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, spend four hours there and a six hour journey back. These parks deserve more than that. Take in one park at a time, immerse yourself in its greatness, watch the sun set, spend the night there if possible and get up for sunrise. You won’t regret it.
There are signs everywhere, but remember, these parks were created first and foremost to conserve the wildlife. By feeding them the stuff we bring in you are not only putting their health at risk, but you are changing their behaviour. This goes for birds as well as the biggies. Some people feed bears inadvertently, which can have drastic consequences.