Many Americans take some time off this summer and will spend a long weekend outside eating barbecue, swimming, and enjoying family. Well, how about this year, you skip the backyard celebrations and hit the road to some of America’s greatest National Parks. The top five national parks ranked based on annual visitors I suggest visiting this July are the Petrified Forest, Badlands, Joshua Tree, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon.
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Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
643,274 visitors in 2016 – The Petrified Forest is the least visited Park on this list, yet it is short three-hour road trip from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Even though only a half of million visitors come to this park annually, the history of this National Park is incredible. This park is easily accessible by car, and there are many different paved pathways to take to wander through is Park’s natural beauty.
As a part of the Painted Desert Badlands, you can see the different ecosystems change from Badlands to Painted Desert. Crystal Forest is a three-fourths mile loop trail within the Petrified Forest that visitors can walk and enjoy the beauty of the petrified trees. In this area, some trees look like they were freshly cut down. If the sun hits the tree just right, you can even see some glimmer of crystals. When looking at Newspaper Rock, you will want to make sure you bring along the binoculars because this is the only way to see the petroglyphs that were created by the ancient people living in this area. Finally, make sure to stop by the sliver of Historic Route 66 within the park and take a photo of the old timey car to mark the landmark.
Three Must see Sites: Crystal Forest, Newspaper Rock, and Route 66 Alignment
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
996,263 visitors in 2016 – Badlands National Park is in what feels like the middle of nowhere, so make sure to pack a picnic lunch or stop by Wall Drugs for a substantial breakfast before visiting the park. When first driving up to the Badlands, one feels like they’ve stepped out onto the surface of Mars, especially when visiting the Big Badlands Overlook. This area has a couple of trails to walk around and experience the remoteness of this National Park. Witnessing the different layers of sediment within the mountains is breathtaking to see that each layer represents a different time on earth. The Fossil Exhibit Trailhead is a quarter mile loop on a boardwalk that gives the history of the park and features fossil replicas that were found in the park. The Badlands has a harsh environment, but this was one of the first places where I saw Bison and Prairie Dogs, both very close to Robert’s Prairie Dog Town.
Three Must see Sites: Big Badlands Overlook, Roberts Prairie Dog Town, and Fossil Exhibit Trailhead.
Prairie Dog eating some grass
Joshua Tree National Park, California
2,505,286 visitors in 2016 – Each National Park on this list is unique, but Joshua Tree National Park is one of my favorite National Parks in California and is where two desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado come together to make the perfect desert melting pot. The Yuccas in Joshua Tree grow only in the Mojave and are magnificent to look at. There are many different named boulders in Joshua Tree, the various wind patterns throughout the centuries, carve out the unique shapes in rocks. My favorite boulder was Skull Rock because it looks like a Skull, this iconic boulder shape is always teeming with travelers trying to climb it to take the perfect photo. While driving down the road, I spotted the Cholla Cactus Garden and immediately had to pull over – because there were Desert Succulents all clumped together!
Three Must see Sites: Skull Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden, and Keys View.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
4,257,177 visitors in 2016 – Yellowstone is bound to be busy during the summer – even during shoulder season, it is bustling! Make sure you wake up earlier to be able to see some of the best sites this geothermal area has to offer. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone could have hours dedicated just to that area due to all of the trails to see the upper and lower falls. Make sure to walk over to Artist Point to get the perfect viewing of the Falls.
Old Faithful is one of the most visited and iconic areas of this park. How often can you watch the same geyser go off over and over again? Every time the geyser goes off, it is a different showing, the longest I have seen the geyser go off is a little over 4 minutes. Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world. When walking on the boardwalk next to Grand Prismatic, one cannot imagine a hot spring being any larger. Yellowstone is a large park, and most visitors won’t even see 1% of the park, try taking one of the hiking trails to explore some off the beaten path beauty.
Three Must see Sites: Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Old Faithful, and Grand Prismatic
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
5,969,811visitors in 2016 – This national park is the busiest one on this list. When one first walks up to the Grand Canyon, it is completely awe-inspiring. You don’t realize how Grand the actual Grand Canyon is. Most visitors visit the South Rim as opposed to the North Rim due to accessibility. The North Rim is only open from Mid-May to Mid-September and is closed for most of the year due to snow. If at all possible, try visiting the North Rim, it works the extra effort.
On the South Rim, there are plenty of sites to see without having to descend into the canyon. The Desert View Watchtower gives visitors entering the East entrance their first glimpse of the Canyon. From here, you can climb the 85 steps of the tower to get a 360 view from the observation deck. Driving down Desert View Drive the next stop is the Rim Trail. The Rim Trail is one of the most densely popular areas of the Grand Canyon. This flat road is paved and full of visitors taking their iconic Grand Canyon photos. Hermit Road Drive is a scenic road until you hit Hermit’s Rest. Between March-November Hermit Road is only accessible by the bus system.
Three Must see Sites: Desert View Watchtower, Rim Trail, Hermit Road Drive.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
2,431,231 visitors in 2016 – There is nothing more American than visiting Mount Rushmore. Even though this is not a National Park but a National Memorial, so many visitors come from all over to see this Memorial that it had to make the list. The Memorial has a walking path where visitors can get up close and personal with the monuments. I suggest taking the audio walking tour because you learn a lot, and it makes the walk a lot more interesting. After spending a few hours at the monument, make sure grab an ice cream from the snack shop – the recipe is Thomas Jefferson’s favorite.
Whether you can take a few days off to explore one of the mentioned National Park, or you only have one day to cram everything in, going to any of the five national parks mentioned will give any visitor the ability to love of independence day.
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