A journey to America’s most magnificent National Parks delivers a life-affirming dose of natural wonder.
The Scottish-American naturalist and conservation advocate John Muir wrote about the importance of national parks in 1901: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
Over a century later, his words are truer than ever. Covering over 80 million acres of land, America’s 59 national parks are visited by more than 300 million people each year who come in search of an escape from an ever-more connected, increasingly urbanized and over-civilized world.
This year, as America celebrated a centenary of national park service, I became one of those 300 million people, along with three friends who are all happiest in hiking backpacks with binoculars around their necks, as we set off on a long road trip through the American West to camp and hike in six of the country’s best parks.
We flew into Denver, picked up a rental car, camping gear, packets of dehydrated food (and a large amount of peanut butter energy bars), and made our way north to our first stop: Rocky Mountains National Park, a preserved high-altitude alpine pocket of a mountain range that stretches from New Mexico to Canada. With its snow-capped peaks, forests, river-crossed valleys, wildflowers, abundant wildlife and 562 kilometres of hiking trails, it’s easy to see why the park is the country’s third most visited.
During the summer months, Rocky Mountains draws several million visitors, and as we were travelling in mid-August, we decided to go into the backcountry to escape the crowds. All across America’s parks are rustic backcountry campsites that are often nothing more than a marker with the name of the site that are free or cost a small fee – you just need to book a permit in advance.
Some camps are several days’ hike away from the nearest trailhead, and you need to bring all your own food and purify water from the rivers to be totally self-sufficient, so they are a more adventurous option than an RV resort, but undoubtedly the best choice for a real immersion in nature.
And so it was that we left the busy tourist town of Grand Lake behind, with food, tents and sleeping mats strapped to our backs. Within minutes we’d had our first animal sightings: two moose and a few white-tailed deer, who continued to feed right next to the trail, utterly nonchalant about our presence.
The park continued to surprise us with magic all along the way, with ever-changing vistas of peaks, valleys and meadows, forests of old trees draped in old man’s beard, beautiful campsites sheltered in the forest, glassy alpine lakes so picturesque they looked photoshopped, sightings of pine martens, marmots and pikas and encounters with curious squirrels. And all of this was shared with only a handful of other hikers over the course of the four days.
It didn’t take long for the touch of nature to spread across our minds and bodies like an invigorating tonic. I felt like all of my senses awakened (especially taste: after a long day’s hiking that dehydrated burrito bowl tasted like Michelin-star cooking) and I started to feel more grounded in the present than I ever do back in my usual on-the-go life.
It was such a profound disconnect from the “normal” world that re-entering civilization afterwards came as a bit of a shock. Luckily, our next wilderness experience lay just around the corner, in eastern Utah, a few hours’ drive to the west. Here was an entirely different landscape but no less picturesque: jaw-dropping canyons, giant mysterious rock formations in shades of pink, apricot and cream and thousands of soaring sandstone arches that have formed the backdrop to many Hollywood movies.
Avoiding the 40-degree heat of the day, we used the cooler sunrises and sunsets to explore Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, finding a deep serenity that comes with spending time in such a raw, primal landscape so uncluttered by any signs of modern life.
A long day’s drive north from Moab took us through the starkly empty spaces of Utah to the immense prairie ranches of Wyoming, which gradually gave way to forested mountains, until we eventually reached the town of Jackson Hole, just outside Grand Teton National Park. After the bone-dry Utah desert, the sight of hundreds of thousands of dark green fir and pine trees and the snow-dusted jagged faces of the Teton mountains felt like a soothing balm. We embraced the chilly air by hiking our hearts out on spectacular mountain trails for several happy days, before moving on northwards to America’s oldest national park.
Epic in the true sense of the word, Yellowstone’s two million acres contain the largest concentration of mammals in the continental USA as well as stunning geological diversity, from mountains, forests (including a petrified one), lakes and hundreds of waterfalls to hot springs, an active volcano and half of the world’s geysers. However, some of the more famous geysers were difficult to see beyond the forest of selfie sticks, and so it was with relief that we parked our car and headed off on a long four-day backcountry trail into the Black Canyon.
Yellowstone is all about grand scale, and seeing it on foot, rather than from the window of a car, made me appreciate it even more. I felt like I was in a constant state of awe as we walked on rolling plains strewn with wildflowers and the occasional hulking bison, forded crystal clear rivers, spotted pronghorn, bald eagles and even a black bear scaling a tree and fell asleep under a night sky awash with stars.
It was going to be tough to follow up Yellowstone, but Olympic National Park in Washington State on the Pacific Coast turned out to be the perfect place to end off the trip. The park holds the claim to fame of being one of the few places on the planet where you can hike between mountain glaciers, rainforest and sandy beaches. It also preserves the quietest square inch of wild space in the whole country, deep in the Hoh Rainforest.
We pitched our tent among the tallest trees I’ve ever seen at the Hoh Campground and set out on the Rainforest Trail to find this unmarked quiet inch (it’s at 47°51’57.5”N, 123°52’13.3”W, if you go looking). A few steps onto the path and I was utterly entranced. The rainforest felt like an enchanted realm with a damp, fragrant floor covered in moss and mushroom-covered logs and sitka spruce and western hemlock trees soaring 20 storeys into the sky, branches draped with ferns and trailing epiphytes.
There was supposed to be a red pebble marking the inch, but I couldn’t find it. Instead, I found a quieter part of myself in that world of green, a stillness that would stay with me months after I left the park. John Muir famously said that “in every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”. My walks in Rocky Mountains, Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Olympic had certainly given me far more than any usual holiday break the long-lasting gift of the wild.
From San Salvador if you want to do the same route as the author, fly directly with Avianca from San Salvador to Los Angeles, Houston or Dallas and connect from there to Denver in codeshare with United Airlines.