If there ever has been a deeply meaningful time to get wild amid America’s extraordinary wilderness, this summer is our inspired defining moment — as we emerge from more than two years of pandemic confinement. Indulge your wonder about where best to now wander with 100 Great American Parks (published this week by National Geographic). Written by outdoors travel expert Stephanie Pearson, this gorgeously photographed and inviting info-rich hardcover is graced with a foreword by multiple-award-winning, mega-top-selling musician Garth Brooks, whose music has long celebrated the American landscape in his albums, such as No Fences, and in his songs, such as “The River.”
“The parks in these pages — 100 in total, including all 63 national parks — are a testament to the unique and amazing landscapes around us, as well as to the many people who call this land their home,” writes Brooks. “Some parks protect precious and vulnerable habitats, some serve as reminders of important events from our history and others provide a serene space for visitors to transition from go, go, going all the time to just…being. And you know why? Whether staring across the rippled, salty surface of Death Valley; feeling tiny, tucked up against the trunk of a giant sequoia; or hiking through the famous blue fog of the Great Smoky Mountains, getting out in nature helps put things in perspective. It reminds us of our place on the planet. It’s a harbor for the soul.”
Pearson deftly dives into compelling past and present stories about our stunning wild treasures, delivering eye-opening details that are organized in short easy-to-digest page turners. She inserts scene-setting quotes from explorers, authors and other insightful observers throughout. With 100 Great American Parks, curl up in an armchair to imagine journeys that take you into the magnificent American yonder.
Here, a sample of dreamy U.S. horizons to jumpstart your wanderlust:
“The wind, water and waves along this magical 40-mile stretch of Atlantic seashore seem to have the intoxicating effect of scrubbing the spirit clean,” says Pearson about Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. Author Henry David Thoreau mused that this spot is “a most advantageous point from which to contemplate the world.”
“Now we were alone between fringes of spruce by a clear stream where tundra went up the sides of the mountains,” wrote author John McPhee in his Alaska-exploration book Coming into the Country, which Pearson includes. The Kobuk Valley “was, in all likelihood, the most isolated wilderness I would ever see,” he marveled. Its Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle, “is one of the least visited in the nation,” points out Pearson, and yet “the region has been inhabited by humans for more than 8,000 years.”
“No sea-lover could look unmoved on the blue rollers of the Gulf Stream and the crystal-clear waters of the reef, of every delicate shade of blue and green, and tinged with every color of the spectrum…a sort of liquid light, rather than water, so limpid and brilliant it is,” wrote Commodore Ralph Munroe, a native New Yorker, yacht builder and founder of the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club in 1877. “In the nearly century and a half since Munroe wrote those words,” says Pearson, “the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the country has sprawled along Biscayne Bay. But the allure of its water remains as strong as it was in Munroe’s day.” South of Miami, Biscayne National Park in Florida is the connection of four dazzling ecosystems — southern Biscayne Bay, a mangrove forest, the northernmost Florida Keys and an area of the third-largest coral reef in the world. Splash!
Virgin Islands National Park sumptuously encompasses much of St. John in the U.S.V.I. “Hiking trails traverse steep terrain through one of the last dry tropical rainforests in the Caribbean,” notes Pearson. “Sun, swim, stand-up paddleboard and snorkel among sea turtles and marine fish — there are 400 species in the park — off iconic white sand beaches like Maho Bay and Trunk Bay.”
A crown jewel of Maine, Acadia National Park is a haven for cyclists, hikers and horseback riders who relish stone pathway carriage roads, spruce forests and granite peaks that offer awesome views of the Atlantic, particularly at sunrise. Its preeminent pleasure is Mount Desert Island.
“Before there were Instagram influencers,” says Pearson about this Maine region, “there were ‘rusticators.’ These painters from the mid-1800s, like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church from the Hudson School, created beautiful renditions of Mount Desert Island that inspired visitors to flock there in steamboats and yachts, which ignited tourism and, ultimately, the establishment of the park.”
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah is a glorious expanse featuring 14 hoodoo-filled amphitheaters of striking red dolomitic limestone. At this elevation, natural forces such as rain, wind, melting snow, gravity, and, most important, frost, irregularly eroded the rock bed, fashioning the park’s thousands of picturesque spires.
“These mystical hoodoos are what most of the 2.6-million annual visitors come to see,” says Pearson, as they hike trails through Douglas fir trees, among alpine forests and past wildflower-flocked meadows. Hot air ballooning is also a popular and majestic way to regale in the grand splendor.
Big Bend National Park in Texas is an immense geologic puzzle, explains Pearson. It’s mind-boggling in scope. “The sweeping Chihuahuan Desert landscape is the only place where the country’s three major mountain-building episodes are preserved and on display.”
“Throughout the park,” she adds, “there are so many jumbled rock formations, some exposed at odd angles and others seemingly displaced from where they currently sit, that geologists have spent decades trying to solve the great mystery of how they once fit together.”
The book’s images of Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State instill a sense of serenity and possibility. Says Pearson: “Mount Rainier, an active volcano and the most glaciated summit in the lower 48, has captivated imaginations for millennia.” Naturalists like John Muir have swooned about its spectacular scenery. After his 1888 ascent, he asserted that the “peak’s flanks contained ‘the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings,’” showcases Pearson. The loveliest locations host “subalpine meadows that are full of hundreds of species of wildflowers, including alpine asters, glacier lilies, cascade huckleberries and scarlet paintbrush,” Pearson elaborates. One can almost envision the slopes coming alive as we swing into the summer season.
The remarkable mounds and mountain ranges of Badlands National Park in South Dakota evoke an otherworldly odyssey. It is what they behold beneath their grounds that draw paleontologists and dinosaur fans from around the globe. “Considered to be the birthplace of vertebrate paleontology in the American West,” writes Pearson, “the Badlands, with their Seussian yellow-brown-and-pale-red buttes, contain layer upon layer of rocks that formed at different moments in geologic time and hold the best preserved snapshot in North America of the transition between the late Eocene epoch (36.9 million years ago) and the late Oligocene epoch (26.8 million years ago).”
If you think that is too yesteryear to be relevant today, pause and ponder the discovery in 2010 by seven-year-old park visitor Kylie Ferguson, who glimpsed an unusual something nosing out of a butte. “She left the item where she found it,” reports Pearson, “documented the details and reported it to a ranger…. [It] turned out to be the skull of a carnivorous saber-toothed Hoplophoneus, a member of the catlike Nimravidae family. Ferguson’s find spurred on the 2012 opening of the Fossil Preparation Lab.”
Pack your swimsuit and a fishing rod, recommends Pearson, when heading to rugged Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. Sharing a border with Canada, its reach is one-third water — with 30 freshwater lakes, hemmed by tranquil forests of birch, spruce and white and red pine. “Three of the park’s four main bodies of water — the largest of which is 60-mile-long Rainy Lake,” writes Pearson, “surrounds the park’s wild centerpiece, the 75,000-acre Kabetogama Peninsula.” Now that is really getting away. Expect “pillowy white pines and naked granite rock” that “is home to deer, moose, beavers, bald eagles and wolves,” she continues. “Visitors can choose between the slow, peaceful pace of a kayak; the utilitarian appeal of a fishing boat from which to catch walleye, northern pike and smallmouth bass; or the luxury of a houseboat to explore the park’s 655 miles of undeveloped coastline and more than 500 islands.”
Ready to pack your bag?