Top 10 National Parks: Yosemite to Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon

Ken Burns tells us about the magic of the national park system.

ByABC News
September 25, 2009, 3:41 PM

Sept. 28, 2009— -- Our national parks have a way of mesmerizing visitors and reminding us of why we travel.

From sunset at the Grand Canyon to watching lava pour out of Kilauea to witnessing Old Faithful erupt for the first time, the parks leave memories that will last for decades.

"When you step out of the tour bus or out of the car and stretch your legs and walk over and look at the rim of the Grand Canyon there's a great paradox that goes on. You suddenly feel you're insignificant yet that makes you bigger, it makes you feel connected to everyone else and everything else," said filmmaker Ken Burns, whose new six-episode documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea is airing all this week on PBS.

Burns told ABC News that he chose to focus on the national parksbecause they are "an utterly American invention."

"Nobody else had ever set aside land in the past. Only kings did that. Only rich people got that," Burns said. "In America, in a democratic experiment everybody could own this land."

Stay Up to Date on the Latest Travel Trends from ABC News on Twitter

For Burns, the parks are not so much about nature but about the connections that natural beauty helps bring.

"I've watched families look down in awe, grab each other's hands, look into each other's eyes and then you realize that's the real magic of the national parks," he said. "They're not just showing you spectacular natural scenery, they're also permitting you to have experiences with those closest to you in ways you've never had before."

There are 58 natural national parks in the U.S. But the National Park Service also oversees another 333 battlefields, memorials, parkways, seashores, recreation areas and monuments. They include everything from Abraham Lincoln's birthplace to the Statue of Liberty to a memorial in Pennsylvania for the 9/11 victims of United Airlines flight 93.

With that many parks, it's a hard task to narrow down a list of the 10 best. We know everybody has their own personal favorites -- and by choosing only 10, we also left some of our favorites off the list. (The Petrified Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park are just two of our favorites that missed the cut.)

These 10 parks represent some of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring natural formations in the country.

But first, we had to ask Ken Burns about his favorite national park. The filmmaker said that most favorites are based on personal experiences. He was in Yosemite for the first shoot of his documentary and remembered that in 1959, when he was six years old, his dad took him to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

"My mom was sick and dying of cancer and we were distracted. And I had forgotten that. All of the sudden, lying there awake in Yosemite, I could remember what his hand felt like in mine, I could remember all the songs he sang to me, the hike we took. It was mind-blowing. It just changed my life," Burns said. "So now, in some ways Yosemite and Shenandoah are paired in my mind as my favorite places."

So let's go over our list. Hopefully, you too will soon have a favorite.

#10: Acadia National Park We begin where the sun first hits the shore of America, at Acadia National Park.

This park along the rugged Maine coast has 125 miles of hiking trails and 45 miles of spectacular carriage roads that can be explored by bike or a horse-drawn carriage tour. Kayaking and canoeing are popular activities and two beaches in the park offer salt and fresh water for swimming.

Acadia is an excellent park to watch spring warblers, sea ducks, and migrating birds of prey. Ranger-led birdwalks are offered from late spring to mid-fall.

For some breathtaking views of the ocean, mountains and surrounding forests drive the 27-mile Park Loop Road. To get high above it all, add in the 3.5-mile road up Cadillac Mountain. At 1,530 feet, Cadillac is not only the tallest mountain in the park, but also the tallest mountain along the eastern coast of the United States. Rising high above the town of Bar Harbor, Cadillac offers magnificent views of the Porcupine Islands and Frenchman Bay.

#9: Everglades National Park There's no better place in the country to see crocodiles, panthers, manatees and the Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphin than Everglades National Park.

This park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, boasts rare and endangered species. It has been designated a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, and Wetland of International Importance, significant to all people of the world.

The national park is the 3rd largest in the lower 48 states, covering 2,500 square miles. There's no one point to start your journey. The park can be accessed from Everglades City to Homestead to Key Largo.

Camping, boating, hiking, and even a visit to a former missile base in the center of the park are all possible in the Everglades.

The park can be explored by airboat, regular boats, tram tours and perhaps the most serene way to sightsee: by canoe or kayak. Everglades National Park has 156 miles of canoe, kayak and walking trails. To really get away from it all, consider the 47 designated wilderness campsites, a real great opportunity for solitude.

Popular activities range from photographing the birds to hiking to watching alligators or to just sitting around a campfire relaxing.

#8: Arches National Park To get a sense of the real power of wind and water, come to Arches National Park in southeastern Utah.

The park preserves more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the world-famous Delicate Arch, and many other unusual rock formations. In some areas, the forces of nature have exposed millions of years of geologic history. The extraordinary features of the park create a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms and textures that is unlike any other in the world.

Arches contains the greatest density of natural arches in the world. The park is located in a "high desert," with elevations ranging from 4,085 to 5,653 feet above sea level. The climate is one of very hot summers, cold winters and very little rainfall.

The park's more than 2,000 catalogued arches range in size from a three-foot opening (the minimum considered to be an arch), to Landscape Arch which measures 306 feet from base to base. Towering spires, fins and balanced rocks complement the arches, creating a remarkable assortment of landforms in a relatively small area.

Nearby is Canyonlands National Park a series of canyons, mesas and buttes crafted by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Many visitors like to pair a trip to one of these parks with a stop at the other.

Both of these parks can experience brutally hot summers and chilly winters with snow.

#7: Crater Lake National Park One of the most unique national parks is in southern Oregon on the crest of the Cascade Mountain range, 100 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The heart of Crater Lake National Park is the lake, which sits inside a caldera, or volcanic basin, created when the 12,000-foot Mount Mazama collapsed 7,700 years ago following a large eruption.

No place else on earth combines a deep, pure lake, so blue in color; sheer surrounding cliffs, almost 2,000 feet high; two picturesque islands and a violent volcanic past.

Generous amounts of winter snow, averaging 533 inches per year, supply the lake with water. There are no inlets or outlets to the lake. Crater Lake, at 1,943 feet deep, is the seventh deepest lake in the world and the deepest in the United States. Evaporation and seepage prevent the lake from becoming any deeper.

There are also abundant squirrels and chipmunks throughout the park. Bald eagles are seen fairly often in the summer – especially from the boats. Golden Eagles are more rare, but usually make an appearance a couple times a year.

The water is so blue because there is hardly anything else in it – just water. It's not pure water, but it's close. But because of the lake's depth, that water is cold. The average temperature --below 300 feet deep -- is 38 degrees. In the summer, the surface can warm to 55 or 56 degrees.

#6: Yosemite National Park No park is probably more iconic of the national park system or America's rugged wilderness than Yosemite National Park. It is truly one of the country's grandest parks.

Yosemite was one of the first wilderness parks in the United States and is best known for its waterfalls. But within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more.

Visitors can drive cars into and around Yosemite but the massive amounts of crowds that visit the park have led the National Park Service to strongly encourage people to use the free shuttle bus system. (The only reason Yosemite isn't higher on our list is because of these very crowds. It is a spectacular place, but in peak season sometimes you struggle to escape from your fellow visitors.)

But back to the attractions.

Yosemite is home to countless waterfalls. The best time to see waterfalls is during spring, when most of the snowmelt occurs. Peak runoff typically occurs in May or June, with some waterfalls (including Yosemite Falls) often only a trickle or completely dry by August. Other famous falls include Bridalveil, Wapama and Ribbon.

Half Dome is perhaps the most recognized symbol of Yosemite. Rising nearly 5,000 feet above the Valley floor, it is one of the most sought-after landmarks in Yosemite. Some people even hike or rock-climb to the top.

El Capitan is a favorite for experienced rock climbers. Rising more than 3,000 feet above the Valley floor, it is the largest monolith of granite in the world.

The park also has giant sequoias, also known as Sierra redwoods that are a must for any visitor.

#5: Grand Canyon National Park While this Arizona park doesn't make the number one spot on our list, it is probably the best known national park in the country, if not the world. Grand doesn't really even begin to describe it.

The park includes more than a million acres of land. The Colorado River travels for 277 miles through the canyon from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs. At the South Rim, near Grand Canyon Village, it's a vertical mile -- about 5,000 feet -- from the rim to river or a 7-mile hike. The width of the canyon at Grand Canyon Village is 10 miles although in places it is as wide as 18 miles.

The Grand Canyon has two very different personalities.

Most visitors see the South Rim, the most-accessible part of the park that is open year round. Just 10 miles away as the crow flies is the vastly different North Rim. It's 1,000 feet higher, typically inaccessible from October to mid-May because of heavy snows and much more remote. They might only be 10 miles apart in the air, but driving between the two is a 220-mile trip. Or you can hike the 21 miles from rim to rim but that typically takes two the three days. (A rafting trip down the Colorado can take two weeks or longer.)

While the Grand Canyon is probably the world's most famous canyon, it is not the deepest. Barranca del Cobre in northern Mexico and Hell's Canyon in Idaho are both deeper. And those are just two examples.

The canyon was first afforded federal protection in 1893 as a Forest Reserve and later as a National Monument. But it wasn't until 1919 -- three years after the creation of the National Park Service -- that the Grand Canyon achieved National Park status.

That first year, 44,173 people visited the park. Today, nearly five million visitors a year come to gaze out at its beauty.

#4: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park If you want to get close to flowing lava -- and we mean real close -- this is the place to be. On Hawaii's Big Island, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park allows visitors to witness the destructive, yet creative power of nature first hand. Kilauea Volcano has erupted lava almost continuously from its east rift zone since 1983. These lava flows have added more than 568 acres of new land to the southern shore of Kilauea and covered 8.7 miles of highway with lava as deep as 115 feet.

At sunset, visitors carrying flashlights trek out to the end of the ocean to watch lava flow into the water. A few miles away, a crater that visitors could once hike through is now erupting for the first time since 1982, sending an ash-laden plume into the air. Elsewhere, visitors can hike through a hollowed-out tube that once carried lava.

The park highlights two of the world's most active volcanoes, and offers insights on the birth of the Hawaiian Islands and views of dramatic volcanic landscapes.

The current eruption of Kilauea has destroyed 187 structures including the park's Wahaula Visitors Center.

The current eruption rate of Kilauea volcano is 250,000-650,000 cubic yards a day. That is enough to resurface a 20-mile-long two-lane road every day. But remember, the eruption has been continuous since 1983. That would make the stack of lava on the road about 20 miles tall.

Be warned: visitors to the park, even returning ones, should always check in with the park staff to see what sites are open. Lava flow activity is always changing and you never know what's in store for your visit.

#3: Bryce Canyon National Park This Utah park is known for its amazing rock formations called hoodoos. They are pinnacles, or spires or odd-shaped rocks left standing by the forces of erosion. Bryce Canyon is named after Ebenezer Bryce, an immigrant from Scotland, who moved to the area with his family in 1875. Bryce was sent by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because his skill as a carpenter would be useful in settling the area. Locals started calling the canyon with the strange rock formations near his home "Bryce's Canyon." Ebenezer and his moved in 1880 to Arizona but his name stuck.

It takes a minimum of three hours to drive to the 13 viewpoints along the park's 38-mile round-trip scenic drive. But this park has more to offer. Bryce Canyon is famous for its night sky and the lack of artificial light. To highlight this, the parks service runs a "Dark Rangers" program introducing visitors to the wonders of the night.

The rim of the canyon is between 8,000 to 9,100 feet above sea level. In summer, daytime temperatures are in the 80s but fall to the 40s by night.

Many visitors pair a trip to Bryce with nearby Zion National Park, whose east entrance is just 78 miles away.

Zion's massive canyon walls surround visitors as they trek through the park. These unique sandstone cliffs range in color from cream, to pink, to red and give an amazing show during sunrise and sunset.

One of the nation's most unique and spectacular hikes takes place along the canyon floor. Simply called The Narrows, visitors hike through the Virgin River up into the park's canyon. The walls get narrower and narrower along the way and the river gets higher, making hiking a wet but enjoyable experience. But be warned, the narrow canyon walls leave out most of the sunlight and the running river brings in cold water. Flash floods and strong currents also present real dangers that can be life-threatening.

#2: Yellowstone National Park

Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is America's first national park. Located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, it is home to a large variety of wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, bison, and elk.

But what really bring people to this massive park are the geysers and hot springs. Walk along boardwalks with bubbling water and mud surrounding you. Stare at amazement as the geysers spew boiling water into beautiful fountains up in the air. Of course, the most famous – and predictable – geyser is Old Faithful.

But there is more to this park. It boasts its own "Grand Canyon" which features the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.

The Lower Falls is 308 feet high and can be seen from various lookout points, including one at the lip of the falls. It is often described as being more than twice the size of Niagara, although this only refers to its height and not the volume of water flowing over it.

For something completely different, check out Mammoth Hot Springs. These features are quite different from thermal areas elsewhere in the park. Travertine formations grow much more rapidly than sinter formations due to the softer nature of limestone. As hot water rises through limestone, large quantities of rock are dissolved by the hot water, and a white chalky mineral is deposited on the surface.

Visitors should also check out Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake at high elevation lake in North America. It is a natural lake, situated at 7,733 feet above sea level. It is roughly 20 miles long and 14 miles wide with 141 miles of shoreline. It freezes in late December or early January and thaws in late May or early June.

#1: Death Valley National Park This might be a controversial pick for the top spot on our list. But there is a reason: Death Valley's vast size and remoteness make it feel isolated. You aren't going to trip over busloads full of tourists here. You aren't going to need to fight your way to the canyon railing to get that photo op. Some days in Death Valley, you are lucky if there are other cars on the highway with you.

Death Valley is about 140 miles long and has 3.4 million acres of desert and mountains, making it the largest national park in the contiguous United States.

It is the hottest, driest and lowest place around.

The park, about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, is best visited in the spring when wildflowers can bloom or the winter when it is cool enough to walk around. By May the valley is too hot for most visitors, yet throughout the hottest months, visitors from around the world still flock to the park. Lodging and camping are available, but only the most hardy will want to camp in the low elevations in the summer. Most summer visitors tour by car to the main points of interest along the paved roads but do little else due to the extreme heat

In July of 1913, the temperature hit a shocking 134 degrees in the valley. It hasn't been that hot since, but other days have come close. Back on July 6, 2007, it touched 129 degrees. At that point, what's the difference? The summer of 2001 came with 154 consecutive days where temperatures reached 100 degrees. And 1996 was the hottest summer on record with 40 days over 120 degrees. Wow.

But if you can stand the heat, the park is simply spectacular. The park has many different attractions, including vast sand dunes and high peaks overlooking the valley.

But the real highlight is Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level, is not just the lowest place in the park, it's the lowest in North America. It's a surreal landscape of vast salt flats. Walking across it -- in cooler weather -- makes visitors feel like they are walking on the moon. Or at least some unearthly place.

Nearby, is the Devil's Golf Course, an immense area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires. The area is so serrated that it was once said that "only the devil could play golf on such rough links."

If you prefer some simpler links, the Furnace Creek Golf Course provides a more traditional game. It also happens to be the lowest in the world.