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15 Must-Visit National Park Attractions
Thanks to fee-free days, visiting a national park has never been more affordable.
Here's where to make the most of the National Park Service centennial.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Old Faithful gets a lot of love from visitors, but the Grand Prismatic Spring is just as much of a stunner. Measuring 370 feet in diameter, 120 feet in depth and reaching 189 degrees Fahrenheit, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States. Plus, it holds the distinction of being the most colorful attraction Yellowstone National Park has to offer. The many colors that make up the striking spring vary by season and are caused by the various types of bacteria that reside within its waters.
Cadillac Mountain isn't just another mountain to climb; it's the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard. Located on Mount Desert Island in Maine, the mountain is a whopping 1,530 feet tall (higher than the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower) and provides magnificent views of the surrounding seaboard and the small islands that dot it. And thanks to its unique location, Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the U.S. to view the sunrise from Oct. 7 to March 6 every year.
Everyone knows if you want to get wet in the Grand Canyon, you should go river rafting in the Colorado River. But if you're looking for something a little less wild, hike to Havasu Falls about 2 miles north of Supai Village. There are many waterfalls that call the Grand Canyon home, but Havasu stands out for its turquoise-colored waters. The vibrant hue comes from minerals that live within the water, which combine with the sunlight to create its luminous shade. Mix that with the canyon's jagged red rock formations and surrounding lush greenery and you've got the perfect photo op, or a great swimming spot.
Located about three hours south of Colorado Springs, Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one giant sandbox just waiting to be played in. Measuring 30 square miles wide, the park is known for housing North America's tallest sand dunes, including High Dune. Though not the tallest, it is the most manageable to traverse of the highest dunes with a two-hour hiking time. If you're looking to do more than just walk around, sand sports of all kinds are allowed as long as they are played away from vegetated areas.
Harding Icefield Trail
The Harding Icefield, which is actually composed of 40 glaciers, is the star attraction in Kenai Fjords National Park. And to skip the Harding Icefield Trail would be like skipping the park altogether. This 8.2-mile round-trip hike takes visitors through the best assets of Kenai. Starting off on the valley floor, the trail winds through meadows and forests, providing expansive views of the park's icefield at the top. But come prepared: This hike is strenuous. Visitors gain 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile.
If you're looking for a challenge, there is no better place to get the blood pumping than The Narrows in Zion National Park. Far from your run-of-the-mill hike, The Narrows, as its name implies, is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, and requires hikers to get both their hands and feet dirty. To complete the hike, visitors must travel upstream through the Virgin River and traverse through gorges that are at times only 20 to 30 feet wide. Although the trek is strenuous, hikers are rewarded with time spent surrounded by some of Mother Nature's most incredible architecture, including natural walls upward of 1,000 feet tall.
Although it's impossible to see the 2,000-plus arches that reside within the park in one trip, try to add as many to your itinerary as possible. Key arches to see include Landscape Arch, the park's longest arch, Delicate Arch, which is featured on the Utah state license plate, and the Windows Trail, which is also visible from Turret Arch.
Tunnel View Overlook
If you're not the kind of traveler who likes to take the most treacherous path, but you still want the vistas that typically come with those challenging journeys, the Tunnel View overlook is your best bet. If you follow U.S. Highway 41, all you have to do is continue on Wawona Road and you'll eventually hit one of the park's most famous lookouts. From Tunnel View, visitors are treated to scenic vistas of some of Yosemite's greatest attractions, including Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall and El Capitan.
The General Sherman Tree
You might want to do some stretching before visiting Sequoia National Park as your head will likely be fixed upward the entire time. That's because some of the largest trees in the world reside here. The General Sherman Tree is the largest tree in the world at 52,508 cubic feet tall. Plus, the parks' sequoias, which are about as tall as a 26-story building, grow 40 cubic feet each year, so the trees you see during your trip won't look the same if you ever decide to return.
The lack of landmarks within this national park may deter some visitors, but Crater Lake's undeniable beauty more than makes up for its shortcomings. Crater Lake, as its name suggests, is set within the inactive Mount Mazama volcano. After a massive eruption in 5,700 B.C., the crater filled with rain and snow over time, creating what is now America's deepest (and possibly bluest) lake. The best time to witness this natural wonder is in the summer, when the sun further illuminates its deep blue waters and the 1,200-foot-tall cliffs that surround it.
There is no better place to feel like an explorer than the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. The famous trail hugs the jagged cliffs that line the Continental Divide, affording dramatic views of the tall peaks, lush valleys and wildlife that dwell within. But be forewarned: those afraid of heights might want to sit this one out. A quarter mile into the hike the trail becomes only 4 to 6 feet wide with cables built into the wall for extra support. Luckily, that part of the trail lasts for less than half a mile.
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park's top attraction is also the world's most active volcano, producing 200,000 to 500,000 cubic meters of lava per day (enough to cover a 20-mile long, two-lane road each day). Located on the park's famed Crater Rim Drive, Mount Kilauea offers visitors the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with this natural attraction at the Kilauea Overlook.
Hoh Rain Forest
Dripping in moss, dotted with giant conifers and blanketed with ferns, the Hoh Rain Forest looks like something out of a fairytale. What's more, the area gets 12 to 14 feet of precipitation per year, creating a misty atmosphere that only adds to its overall allure. The rainforest, unsurprisingly, is one of the park's most-visited attractions and is considered to be one of the best examples of a temperate rainforest in the U.S. And the forest features predominately short and flat hikes, making it the perfect place for a relaxing stroll.
Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay
With more than 40 percent of this Caribbean destination covered in water, it's the perfect place for some subaquatic adventures. The park features multiple bays and beaches waiting to be explored, with throngs of coral reefs and wildlife ready to make an appearance as you embark on your journey under the sea. Beginner snorkelers and scuba divers will appreciate Francis Bay and the Underwater Trail at Trunk Bay, while those looking for a challenge should consider traversing Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay, the former of which features a big drop into the ocean.
The most-visited section in this Utah national park is also the easiest to reach. Just a 14-minute drive from the park's visitor center, Bryce Amphitheater is truly a sight to behold. The stunning rock spires that comprise the 6-mile-long attraction were formed after millions of years of erosion. The attraction is also unique in that it seemingly changes colors dependent on the placement of the sun. If you can, swing by during sunrise or sunset to see Bryce Amphitheater at its most photogenic time of day.
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