Today we’re celebrating the centennial of the United States National Park Service, which was created on the 25th August, 1916 via an act of Congress. Last year, the parks were visited by a staggering 307 million visitors, and the figures for this year already look set to topple that amount.
Our Virgin Atlantic destinations in the USA are ideally placed for exploring some of these phenomenal protected landscapes. All you need (in most cases) is a car, a map, and a sense of adventure, and the USA’s amazing scenery is your oyster. Read on for our pick of the best national parks within a few hours’ drive of our cities…
Located in the northeast state of Maine, Acadia National Park is around four and half hours from Boston by car and was the first national park to be designated on the eastern side of the USA. Best known for Cadillac Mountain – the tallest peak along the United States’ eastern coast – Acadia also features winding rocky shorelines, biodiverse wetlands and shimmering lakes and ponds, while the surrounding slopes are carpeted with deep green forests of spruce-fir and pitch pine.
At just a 90-minute drive from the nation’s capital, parts of Shenandoah National Park can even be explored on a day trip. Better to make it a longer visit though, as this particular park is long and skinny, and its major highlight – the Skyline Drive – deserves to be savoured at length. Scenic at any time of year, Shenandoah is especially stunning during mid-September to early November, when its stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains begins to turn shades of copper, gold, russet and ruby in the autumn sunshine.
It takes around three hours to drive north from Atlanta to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the entire USA by far. Receiving almost double the annual visitors of second-ranked Grand Canyon, the park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, and is one of the largest protected regions in the country where black bears can live freely in their wild and natural habitat.
Another three-hour drive from Atlanta – this time to the east – will bring you to the far smaller, less visited Congaree National Park in South Carolina, which preserves the largest tract of old growth hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. Also designated an International Biosphere Reserve, the park features an atmospheric boardwalk trail through dreamy stands of bald cypress, maple, oak and loblolly pine.
Around 90 miles west of Miami is the network of wetlands and forests known as Everglades National Park, which is the largest sub-tropical wilderness in the USA. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to an incredible array of animals and birds – from yellow rat snakes and American crocodiles to turkey vultures and burrowing owls – and features sea water marshlands, barely penetrable hardwood forests, and an extensive system of mangrove trees.
Vegas is a brilliant base for visiting southwest USA’s amazing diversity of national parks. While all of them are accessible if you have the time, the easiest to reach are Zion National Park, Death Valley National Park and the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon is easy to visit on a side trip from Las Vegas, whether you have your own wheels or not. Scores of companies provide various types of day trips and outings, from helicopter and small airplane tours to adventures by jeep, boat or even by raft. On the other hand, Death Valley National Park is best visited independently, as the park is so enormous it pays to do your own research and decide which bits you want to see most. Highlights include the salt flats at Badwater Basin, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and the amazing ‘painted’ sedimentary hills along the scenic Artist’s Drive. It takes around two hours to reach Death Valley from central Las Vegas.
Over the border in Utah, Zion National Park is slightly further afield but unquestionably worth the effort. Featuring some of the most extraordinary scenery in the whole of North America, it’s defined by its narrow sandstone canyons, steep red cliffs, rushing rivers, and abundant waterfalls which support lush hanging gardens. The road in the picture above is Utah Scenic Byway Route 9, which cuts through the heart of the remarkable Zion Canyon.
You can leave downtown Los Angeles and be at Joshua Tree National Park in under three hours. It’s also a great destination to combine with a stay in the desert resort of Palm Springs which lies about 45 minutes to the south. This stark and sometimes spooky terrain straddles both the Mojave and the Colorado deserts, and it’s known for its creepy wildlife – giant desert scorpions and tarantulas for starters – as well as its eponymous crazy-limbed trees (actually yucca palms) and outstanding stargazing opportunities.
If you can avoid the San Francisco rush hour, there’s no reason why you can’t reach Yosemite National Park in under three and a half hours. Situated within the Sierra Nevada mountains, the park is home to towering granite rock formations, jaw-dropping giant sequoias, and some of the tallest waterfalls in the world. Come for the rock-climbing, the hiking, the horse-riding or the rafting, or come to simply stand in awe at this astonishing natural spectacle.
The two other national parks in northern California are Lassen Volcanic and Redwood National Park, a four-hour and six-hour drive respectively. Lassen Volcanic is a hydrothermal area of boiling mud pots, steaming ground, crystal clear lakes and many volcanoes, while in stark contrast, Redwood National Park is a land of cool and misty old-growth Redwood forests and one of the most magical, otherworldly habitats on the west coast. Short of time? Head to Muir Woods National Monument, just 12 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County, for a chance to see these primeval Redwoods in a smaller, more intimate setting.
Ready to make your own National Park memories? We fly direct to all these United States destinations and more, so book your Virgin Atlantic flights today and start planning your next adventure.
And if you can’t make it to the parks for real? The next best thing if you’re stuck in the UK is to grab a ticket to a series of free screenings of the film: ‘America Wild: National Parks Adventure’ at the ODEON BFI IMAX.
Brought to you by VisitTheUSA.co.uk and narrated by Robert Redford, the film takes audiences on the ultimate off-trail adventure into the nation’s awe-inspiring great outdoors and untamed wilderness.
Immersive IMAX 3D takes viewers soaring over red rock canyons, hurtling up craggy mountain peaks and into other-worldly realms found within America’s most legendary outdoor playgrounds, including Yellowstone, Glacier National Park and Yosemite.
Celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the national parks with world-class mountaineer Conrad Anker, adventure photographer Max Lowe and artist Rachel Pohl as they hike, climb and explore their way across ‘America Wild: National Parks’ in an action-packed expedition that will inspire the adventurer in us all.
The screenings take place on:
Saturday 27 August at 11am
Saturday 3 September at 11am
Saturday 10 September at 11am
Saturday 17 September at 11am
Register NOW for your FREE tickets at www.americawildmovie.eventbrite.com
Running time: 45 minutes