Natural Treasures On A National Parks Trip
In North America we are blessed to have 98 National Parks (59 in the U.S. and 39 in Canada). The National Parks are preserved habitats that offer a wide range of natural landscapes and natural phenomenon. They are located all across the country but most of the National Parks we have visited are on the west coast. A National Parks trip will show you natural treasures – mountains, geysers, vibrant coloured rocks and wild animals.
The U.S. National Parks celebrated their 100th anniversary this year and Canada will soon be celebrating the 150th anniversary. This is a great time to plan a National Parks trip. You can get a day pass for a specific park but we found that the better option was to consider an annual pass. This will give you a full year to explore a larger range of parks. This is just one of the tips we learned when we explored the National Parks!
Rocky Mountain National Parks
As you might imagine, the Rocky Mountains through British Columbia (BC) and Alberta feature a number of National Parks. For a National Parks trip of a lifetime you should consider a route from Calgary to Vancouver through the Rocky Mountains. You will get the most amazing scenery as you pass through Mount Revelstoke, Banff and Jasper National Parks.
One year we did what is now called the Rocky Mountaineer train. Grab a seat in the observation car and just watch the views. One year we did the drive from Vancouver to Calgary with a longer stop in Banff.
As you travel through the Rocky Mountains you will get a great views of mountains. You can see the train tracks hugging the cliff sides and imagine the views from the train.
The town of Banff is a great stop on your National Parks trip. It offers great natural beauty in all directions. You can walk around the town or hike up Tunnel Mountain for a great panoramic view.
From Banff you can head up the Glacier Parkway to Jasper. Your first stop should be at Lake Louise. You can walk around this brilliant green lake before stopping for a snack at the castle-like Chateau Fairmont Hotel.
It is a leisurely drive along the Glacier Parkway as you slow down or stop many times to enjoy the animals that graze in the fields and hills along the route.
Yellowstone National Park For Geysers
Yellowstone National Park is about 3,500 square miles located mostly in Wyoming. Yellowstone is a great stop on your National Parks trip itinerary.
When you say Yellowstone, most people will immediately think of Yellowstone as a volcanic hot spot and picture the Old Faithful geyser. The Old Faithful eruption is regular enough that a schedule is posted and you can find a perfect spot to catch the show.
Old Faithful is not the only geyser at that site so make sure to walk around and see the other ones erupting on different schedules.
While the Old Faithful geyser site is the most well known, there are geysers throughout the whole Yellowstone National Park. You can see wisps of smoke in the streams and fields as you drive through the park.
If you head to the north end of the park you will find the Mammoth Springs Terraces and the beautiful Palette Spring. This site provides a broad range of colours (the “palette”) that was beautiful to see in the late fall as the ice was forming.
Yellowstone National Park is More Than Just Geysers
But geysers aren’t the only thing you will find in Yellowstone on your National Parks trip. This was the place where we saw our first buffalo as he sauntered right up to our car. You should have heard me squeal as I rushed to get back in the car.
There are also elk roaming free in the park. If you find a large group of parked cars on the side of the road, it is probably because someone has spotted a bear in the field.
Be sure to be careful around the animals on your National Parks tour. While they may be used to having people around, they are still wild and should be treated with care.
If geysers and animals are not enough, you can also find great mountains and streams in Yellowstone. Head to the Dunraven Pass to catch an early view of the red rock you will find as you head to the National Parks further south.
If you visit Yellowstone, head south of the park and you will drive into the Grand Teton National Park. The flat valley surrounds the town of Jackson Hole. You can see the much more rugged Grand Teton Mountains. Quite beautiful if you visit in the fall on your National Parks trip.
The Popular Grand Canyon South Rim
Everyone has seen pictures of the Grand Canyon. If you visit Las Vegas, there are a number of tours that will get you to an early viewing spot. You can walk out on a glass floor and see the vast valley below.
But if you keep going you will reach the Grand Canyon South Rim National Park. Most people who visit the Grand Canyon for more than a quick view on their National Parks trip will head to the South Rim. This site is quite well developed with tours, shopping and the large Grand Canyon Village for a variety of accommodations. There is a shuttle bus that can take you to the multiple viewing platforms along the South Rim.
On the South Rim, you will get a view of the immense broad valley of the Columbia River. The view provides a great palette of colours from the verdant green of the trees through to the red cliffs.
The Stunning Grand Canyon North Rim
If you plan your visit to the Grand Canyon for a few days, do not miss a trip around to the North Rim. While about only 10% of Grand Canyon visitors make that trip, it was one of our favourite parts of our Grand Canyon visit. It will take you about 5 hours to do the trip around to the North Rim but the scenery along the way is awesome. You will see vibrant red rock with small towns nestled at the base.
At the Navajo Bridge, you will cross the Columbia River. Stop to walk across the bridge and see the river far below.
Arriving at the North Rim National Park, there are a number of different view points, each one higher than the next and giving you a different view. You will find the Grand Canyon on this north side to be less broad with much steeper and rugged cliffs and valleys. Start at the North Rim Visitor Centre to get an overview and walk out to Bright Angel Point for a 360° vista of the Grand Canyon at this point.
Drive through the park to the vista points at Point Imperial and Cape Royal for higher and different views. Point Imperial was bathed in clouds but every now and then a high peak would show through. The Grand Canyon North Rim could be the highlight of a National Parks trip!
If you are in California, you should plan a detour to see Yosemite. Entering the park we headed first for the high viewpoint at Glacier Point. This provided a great close view of the Half Dome and a panoramic view of the valley. This iconic view is a favourite on a National Parks trip.
If you are not driving, you can take a shuttle bus from the base. If you are energetic, you can then hike back down into the valley. We took our car back down into the valley and parked to walk around. From there you could get a different perspective of the Half Dome.
The Yosemite Waterfall was but a trickle in the fall when we visited. We have heard this is quite impressive when it cascades down in the spring runoffs.
There are lots of hiking paths around the Yosemite site and several shuttle bus routes to get you deeper into the park.
So Many Great Sights On A National Parks Trip
This is just a taste test of some of the great National Parks on the west coast of Canada and the U.S. We were very sorry to have missed visiting the National Parks in Utah (Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks). After we returned, everywhere I looked I was seeing amazing pictures of the Utah Parks. They will be top on our list when we do our next National Parks tour.
There are so many others to explore on a National Parks trip. The National Parks on the east side of Canada will give you a different view than the mountains of the west. If you are in Ontario, a favourite spot of ours is to visit the Point Pelee National Park. This most southern point in Canada offers a verdant Carolinian forest and sand beaches. It is a great spot to catch migrating song birds in the spring or to see the swarms of Monarch butterflies at the end of summer.
If you head to the east coast, be sure to visit the Fundy National Park. The wide swing of tides on the Bay of Fundy are quite impressive (over 50 feet) and worth a stop to watch the tide cycle.
The National Parks are very busy in the summer, whether you are a day visitor or staying in the parks. We went in early October before the snow fell and it was great to experience the parks without the crowds. For a very different experience you may even want to try the National Parks trip in the winter. While some of the higher elevation points and routes may get closed, you will see a different natural beauty when the snow is on the ground.
Have you done a National Parks trip? Did you do Canada and/or the U.S.? What was your favourite?