In a week where the National Park Service has been in the news in relation to alleged censorship on Twitter by the Trump Administration, I have been thinking about one of my favourite things in America – the areas of outstanding beauty that are cared for by the agency – and am inspired to write a post reflecting on my experiences in some of America’s most stunning landscapes. I have had the privilege of spending time in many National Parks, and I hope to continue visiting and that they will remain protected for generations to come. As a Brit, I believe the National Park system is one of America’s finest assets – what follows are some of the parks I’ve been to and the pictures I’ve taken whilst there – I hope you agree that these parks are worth protecting and celebrating!
The Grand Canyon, one of the seven wonders of the world, is a mile deep and around 10 miles wide on average. It is awe inspiring, and frankly left me speechless. I was fortunate enough to fly over the canyon in a helicopter – the moment where you come to the edge of the canyon and your stomach does a somersault inside you, your brain can’t comprehend the sheer size of what you’re looking at, so shrinks it down to make it more manageable. The orange/brown rock surrounds you and far below a thin green line winds it’s way through – the mighty Colorado river, a vast and powerful river which from the top of the canyon appears to be only 5cm wide. The individual layers of rock in the canyon glow in the Arizona sunshine and revealing history in front of your very eyes. It truly is astonishingly beautiful.
Less famous than its nearby cousin, Bryce Canyon is no less fascinating. Here, the rock formations stand tall like statues, an army of soldiers on parade, the fading evening light bouncing off the layers to produce an orange flame of colour. These structures are rather pleasingly called ‘hoodoos’ and can be up to 200ft high, formed not by central erosion, but rather by frost weathering and stream erosion. Native Americans developed a myth that the structures were in fact ‘The Legend People’ that the Coyote, a trickster type character, had turned to stone as punishment for being bad. We stood and stared for almost an hour at these pillars of stone rising up from the ground, proud and striking and beautiful.
Zion is Utah’s oldest National Park, and is made up of giant Sandstone cliffs stretching high up above the Virgin River, which runs through the almost 230,000 square miles of wilderness. Climbing up towards the Emerald Pools, the vista of orange and pink rocks contrasted with a bright blue sky stretches out as far as the eye can see; waterfalls cascade down over pathways carved out by centuries of walkers navigating their way around the water, the droplets forming miniature rainbows as the sunlight hits them. Birds of prey circled overhead as we walked upwards, their calls echoing across the vast valley reminding us of the sheer size of the park. Everywhere you look there is wildlife – a deer darting behind a bush as it hears you approaching, squirrels and mice scurrying over the rocks scavenging for food – thanks to the vast difference in elevation across the park, thousands of species thrive here.
Death Valley National Park, CA/NV
The desert is an incredible place, and Death Valley is no exception. This is the hottest, driest and lowest National Park in the country (over 200ft below sea level). We stayed at Furnace Creek towards the end of September, and the temperature during the day got to 114 degrees Farenheit (45.5 degrees Celcius). This sounds horrendous, but it’s a dry heat, which is marginally more manageable than the humidity of the south. However, 10 minutes outside of the car was enough – the sun burned down onto our skin, the wind hot, and the shade absent. The silence is deafening – the air seems to press in on you and not a sound can be heard. The salt flats glow bright white in the distance, with the foreground made up of brown rocks complete with streaks of pinks and yellows and greens, with traces of blue and purple. It’s a bizzarre landscape, and thoroughly captivating.
Travelling from Death Valley to Yosemite is an ear-popping experience in itself, climbing from 200ft below sea level to 10,000ft above it through desert roads and mountain tracks. As you ascend the landscape changes, gradually becoming more green and noticeably cooler until you reach Yosemite, a glorious oasis of trees, lakes and mountains. We found a beach area, with a small tributary of water flowing through it – complete with a Beaver Dam, toothmarks visible in the logs they had dragged across the beach from the trees on the other side of the stream. I felt so small standing at the base of the sheer grey rockface that towered above me, the trees themselves dwarfed by it. We stopped off by a lake surrounded by deciduous trees and large rocks poking their peaks out of the water, a breeze gently blowing the surface of the lake producing a lapping sound at the shore where we stood. We hiked a mile or so down to Tolumne Grove, where the giant Sequoias stand proud and tall, so vast that you can’t see the top, so wide that you can fit a car through the centre. There were some that had fallen, their root systems visible – a single root wider than my thigh. The contrast to Death Valley was stark and the diversity of America’s precious landscape was evident as we visited the parks one by one.
We stayed in the town of Bar Harbor, a lovely coastal town with restaurants serving clam chowder and blueberry pancakes and hotels overlooking the ocean. Acadia National Park is a combination of coastal and mountainous scenery, with Cadillac Mountain being the central feature. We took a drive on the Park Loop, a 27 mile road offering incredible Atlantic Coastal views and a trip to the top of Cadillac Mountain itself. The view over Frenchman Bay from the north end of the park is spectacular, with 4 small weather-beaten islands of land dotted about the water. The cloud hovered over the ocean as the sun struggled to shine through, the white tips of the waves breaking as they hit the rocks of the islands sending spray high into the air. In addition to the beaches and the mountains, Acadia is also 20% Wetland, has more than 20 lakes and ponds and is covered in forest. You don’t get much more diverse than that!
Recently in the news for severe wildfires which completely destroyed the lodge we stayed in, this is the most visited National Park in the US and spans 2 States, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Smoky Mountains are part of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain which runs from Newfoundland in Canada through to central Alabama. We drove up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park at over 6500ft, offering incredible views of the Smokies – the blue hues of the mountain tops stretching for miles all around. The Appalachian Trail, described in hilarious detail by Bill Bryson in his book ‘A Walk in the Woods‘, crosses Clingman’s Dome, making it the highest point of the trail between Maine and Georgia. We actually went up twice – the first day was so foggy that you couldn’t really see further than your hand. The following morning we had another go, and wow, was it worth it! The greenery of the foreground gave way to blue as the moutains silhouetted against each other in the distance, peak after peak rising and falling, with the sun shining intermittently through the fluffy clouds that sped past in the high gusts of wind enveloping the top of the mountain, casting moving shadows over the mountains below. There are 12 endangered or threatened species of mammal, fish, insect and plant life that call this park home – it MUST be protected.
These are just 7 of the 58 National Parks in the USA, and we have been blown away by all of them – the diversity and beauty of America’s natural landscape is incredible and MUST be preserved. I haven’t even mentioned the National Monuments, Recreational Areas, Preserves and Forests that we have been fortunate enough to visit, and the National Park Service looks after each of these (I will just include photos here as I will write about them elsewhere, but they are all too beautiful to leave out!):
To finish on Lady Liberty is especially poignant at the moment. Her plaque reads:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
This is the America I love. I can’t wait to visit more of these unique wonders of nature. I just hope that the current administration recognises their inherent value and doesn’t destroy them for profit. Here’s to many more years of unspoilt beauty!
Many thanks to the National Park Service for maintaining and preserving American history, nature and wildlife for future generations.