While I’m in a blogging frame of mind as we sit in our apartment hiding out from tropical storms in Cancun, I’ve been thinking about just how much we enjoyed our visits to US National and State Parks while we were in America, and thought I’d write a little bit about these schemes and some of the highlights for us.
We’ve been lucky enough in our whistle stop 3 week tour of the states to spend time in some incredible cities – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC and Las Vegas – as well as managing to zip through 8 states in total (New York State, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, California, Arizona & Nevada)! Whilst the cities have been impressive and amazing in so many ways, what I’ve really loved the most, and what’s made me determined to come back to America and explore it further, is the stunning natural landscapes we’ve seen. Most of these have been located in National and State Parks, and after reading more about these schemes, they’re just the sort of thing we should be promoting as much as possible to help sustain and maintain the incredible sites of natural beauty that are dotted across the country.
What Are The National & State Park Schemes?
The National Park Service was started by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to care for these areas – the first of which, Yellowstone, was established in 1872. Currently the number of sites covered is 412 parks covering more than 84 million acres of land across North America and even stretching as far as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The service is dedicated to preserving and protecting this land to ensure it can be enjoyed fully by future generations, and they have many principles that are emphasised across the parks to remind visitors of the importance of this.
State Parks follow similar principles and the NASPD manage over 10,000 units across all 50 states – again, with a focus on enhancing American quality of life and an ambition to create a network of parks that would be the envy of the world.
Full lists of National Parks can be found here and State Parks here and I can’t recommend visiting some if you get a chance based on how much we enjoyed all of our trips. Also, if you’re in America in the next couple of weeks, it’s actually the 100 year anniversary of the the National Park Service on August 25th and there’s tons going on to celebrate its centennial so get involved if you can!
National & State Park Facts
- Recreational visits to the National Parks have increased from 1 million in 1920 to over 307 million in 2015.
- The NPS is supported by over a quarter of a million Volunteers-in-Parks!
- Yellowstone was the first National Park, established in 1872.
- The National Parks contain at least 247 species of threatened or endangered plants and animals
- They also host the world’s largest living things (Giant Sequoias), the highest point in North America (Mount McKinlay), and America’s deepest lake (Crater Lake)
- State parks have total trails in excess of 43000 miles total length – enough to stretch almost twice around the equator
- The State Parks also host 130 golf courses and 147 ski slopes
- Yosemite supports more than 400 species of vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals – watch out for bears while you’re there!
- The Top Most Visited National Parks are The Great Smoky Mountains, The Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite and Yellowstone.
- The USA Today 2015 poll voted the following as the most popular State Parks: Letchworth State Park, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Watkins Glen State Park, Ha Ha Tonka State Park and Devil’s Lake State Park.
Our Experiences at the Parks
We visited Yosemite, The Grand Canyon and Alcatraz, as well as a couple of State Parks – Niagara Falls and Watkins Glen in New York State. All offered some breathtaking views and scenery, and I’ve included some of our favourite pics as well as a bit more about our visits in the round up below 🙂
Yosemite National Park, California
Covering almost 1200 square miles, Yosemite is an awe inspiring collection of meadows, mountains, valleys, lakes and waterfalls in Central Eastern California, with amazing hikes and camping locations throughout. I wrote a lot more about our 3 day trip to Yosemite in my previous post on our tour – but couldn’t resist including more pictures in this write up as well. Almost 4 million people per year visit the park, with the majority spending time in Yosemite Valley where we camped overnight and spent a day hiking the Mist Trail. In total there are over 800 miles of hiking trails to enjoy and the park is also famous for rock climbing (see the netflix documentary Valley Uprising for more on this) and even skiing in the winter!
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Sadly we only got to spend a few hours at the Grand Canyon when we took a day trip to the South Rim from Las Vegas – it’s about a 4 hour drive, so if you’re looking at the tours while you’re in Vegas, I’d definitely recommend trying to spend at least one night in the park to explore properly. It’s true what you hear about not being able to fully appreciate the scale of the canyon from looking over the edge, and given the chance I’d love to try some hiking or even horse riding which looks like it would be pretty amazing. That said, even though we only had a few hours to appreciate it, most of which was consumed by an impressive thunderstorm, it was still a spectacular place to see and I’m so glad we took time out to go.
Alcatraz Island (Golden Gate National Recreation Area), California
I had no idea that Alcatraz was managed by the National Park Service until we arrived here and discovered that not only is it famous for being a notorious prison it’s also pretty well known for its seabird colonies! Indeed, the first Spanish settlers who documented the area named it ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces’ or ‘The Island of the Pelicans’. It’s part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and hosts the oldest operating lighthouse on the Western coast of America as well as being habitat and breeding ground for birds and other species including pigeon guillemots, cormorants, gulls, black-crowned night herons, slender salamanders and deer mice.
Aside from the wildlife and gardens, the island boasts yet more stunning views – this time of the San Francisco Bay, and offers tours of the infamous former high security prison that closed its doors in 1963. Tickets can be hard to come by due to limited numbers of daily tours, so I’d recommend booking well in advance of your trip. We got lucky and managed to buy some spare tickets from some Italian visitors we met while hanging around the port, but tickets had sold out over a month before our visit in early August. It’s a bargain at $33 per person though, and something we’d definitely recommend doing as part of any trip to San Francisco.
Niagara Falls State Park, New York
Niagara Falls was the first park we visited, and I was actually wrongly convinced that it was a National Park until I started my research for this piece. It’s the oldest State Park in the US and you can literally get close enough to touch the falls while you’re there exploring! We took a tour here from New York City that arrived in time to visit the park early evening and see sunset over the falls before returning the next morning to spend several hours exploring and hiking. The best part for us was that by arriving at around 7.30am we were pretty much the first people there and had the park to ourselves for a while on the most beautiful sunny morning – the weather also meant that the rainbows were out in force which was stunning to see.
Whilst the Canadian side of the falls tends to get the best press, and I’ll concede that it probably has the best views, the park makes the US side well worth a visit and you really can get up close. We’d recommend arriving early and trekking down to Terrapin point where you can get a fantastic view over Horseshoe Falls – although be warned, you do get pretty soaked! We also invested in the Maid of the Mist boat tour which I think cost around $18 each and was well worth the price – again, bring your waterproofs, although there are also some super stylish ponchos available!
Watkins Glen State Park, New York
On the same tour as the one that took us to Niagara, we also had the chance to visit Watkins Glen State Park which is also in New York and located in the Finger Lakes region. It’s also pretty stunning – coming 3rd in a 2015 poll for Best State Park in the United States, and we spent a fab afternoon hiking. There are three main trails available that wind their way through the park, and we hiked the Gorge Trail that runs closest to the stream and offers the best views of the park’s 19 waterfalls. It’s a lot smaller than the other parks we spent time at, but is host to some amazing views and great hiking opportunities – if you’re spending longer in the area the park also offers camping and lots of other outdoor activities. Again, if I was ever in the area again, I’d spend longer exploring some of the other trails, as well as the Finger Lakes region in general – we drove along some of them on our bus tour and they look like amazing places to visit.
In short – both the National and State Parks schemes are amazing, and do a fantastic job of preserving some really special locations. After this post went live, we also had the opportunity to visit the Everglades National Park in Florida while spending a weekend in Miami, so will have to write about that in more detail as well. We’ve been left totally inspired to come back to America after our trip to see more of the parks – top of our list are Yellowstone, Denali, Bryce Canyon and Zion, so hopefully it won’t be too long before we can come back again!