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Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl invited us to share a non-book freebie this week. “Choose your own topic that’s not related to books!…Take this time to let your readers get to know you a little!” So I decided to list ten of my favorite national parks.
Unless otherwise noted, all images © Jennifer G. at Introverted Reader 2023
For those of you who don’t know, my husband and I wander around the country with his job as a traveling healthcare professional. We live in our RV while he’s on assignment, which is usually three months in one location at a time. One of the factors we consider when he’s applying to hospitals is proximity to national parks. We enjoy the outdoors and hiking and can never decide if we prefer the mountains or the beach. We love all 36 of the national parks we’ve visited. I could choose any of them as my favorites depending on my mood, but these are the ones that speak to me today.
Our home is near Asheville, NC, which is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the Smokies aren’t far away. I think of this as my home park. If I were listing my favorite national park units, I would choose the Blue Ridge Parkway because it runs right through Asheville and I have spent a lot of time hiking the adjacent trails. Shenandoah National Park is actually in the Blue Ridge Mountains, like Asheville, but it’s in Virginia and farther away. So the Great Smoky Mountains get my top spot.
We’ve been to this park twice. The first time was in May 2005. We flew into Seattle to visit my brother-in-law, who was living in Yakima at the time. He drove us through the park, our anticipation mounted, and–all we saw was fog and clouds. We didn’t see one bit of that mountain other than the road immediately in front of us. We finally saw it as we flew back out and rose above the clouds.
But then we visited in July 2020 for my husband’s 50th birthday. He was working in Portland, OR at the time so I surprised him with a trip to the San Juan Islands and Mount Rainier. We just happened to visit at peak wildflower season. Holy moly, you’ve never seen flowers like this! The skies were clear and the flowers were everywhere! Our pictures didn’t do it justice. It’s just something that has to be experienced.
We spent the summer of 2021 in Anchorage, AK. Alaska has a lot of national parks but the state is freaking huge and there aren’t very many roads. A lot of the parks can only be reached by taking a tiny plane, which is expensive. But my husband’s cousin came up to visit us and we decided to splurge on a flightseeing trip to see brown bears. Most people choose Katmai National Park, where the brown bears famously fish for salmon as they leap up a small waterfall. But I looked at charts on the flight operators’ websites and decided we had a better chance of seeing more bears at Lake Clark at that time of year.
Oh my. Did I ever choose correctly for this one.
I don’t know that we necessarily saw more brown bears (from the safety of our pontoon boat) but the setting was gorgeous. We were actually on Crescent Lake and the water was unbelievably blue. Snowcapped, volcanic Mount Redoubt was looming above us, flowers were blooming on the banks, the bears were actively fishing for salmon, and it was a day we will always remember.
On our flight out and back, we were low enough to appreciate the landscape below us and marvel at some of the remote villages. We could see seals hauled out on shore and beluga whales breaking the waves. Alaska is a magical place.
We went here twice while we were in Alaska because we loved it that much. A very small part of the park is on land and we took my sister to that section when she visited. We hiked out to Exit Glacier with her and she saw her first moose in the wild as we drove in.
The magic happens at Kenai on the water though.
We took a train down to Seward from Anchorage when one of my friends visited. That was the one touristy thing she wanted to do. It was an amazing train trip, passing by glaciers, lakes, and wildflowers. We had time to kill in town before the train headed back to Anchorage so we decided to take a cruise around the watery portion of Kenai Fjords. The wildlife gods were smiling on us that day.
We saw horned and tufted puffins (I absolutely love puffins), a mountain goat, bald eagles, seals, sea lions, sea otters with their babies, and even a black bear swimming around and climbing up on shore and startling some unsuspecting kayakers (Our boat captain used his loud speaker to warn them). We saw some humpback whales too but they were mostly spouting in the distance. Oh, and our turnaround point was Aialik Glacier, where we got to see it calving and then watch the harbor seals that were hauled out on tiny icebergs bob up and down on the resulting waves.
We loved it so much that when my sister visited a few weeks later, we took the same cruise with her. We didn’t see quite as much wildlife, though we still saw a lot. But with her, we saw whales much, much closer. We even saw a mama humpback whale and her calf.
I’ve been to Acadia twice. The first time was on vacation with my husband in late September 2015. The weather was not the greatest. It was kind of foggy and misty. We could see how beautiful it was but it was not at its peak. We did catch a misty sunrise from Cadillac Mountain and watch some sort of super blood moon or whatever rise over the ocean. The moon looked close enough to touch as it rose in the lavender-colored evening sky and then it turned eerily red later that night during the eclipse. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
But then my husband took a job working in Portland, Maine in 2019 and I took my sister to Acadia when she visited in mid-August. It was gorgeous! The skies were clear and the flowers were blooming. I love listening to the wave-smoothed rocks on Acadia’s shore clicking together as the water advances and retreats, advances and retreats. I find it incredibly soothing.
We visited this park in October 2020, which is the off-season. The weather was unpredictable while we were there. There’s such a wide variety of terrain in this park! We saw curtains of moss hanging from trees that were growing in fantastical shapes in the Hoh Rainforest, took pictures of lichens and fungi that looked like they belonged in a sci-fi movie along the Ancient Groves trail, and marveled at the gigantic driftwood and sea stacks (giant rocks) on the coast.
But we also saw the brightest, most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen over Lake Crescent. I first noticed it while my husband was driving. There was a mist rising from the trees just across the lake from us. “Do you see the rainbow colors in that mist? It’s really weird. It’s just colors, not really a rainbow.” He couldn’t really see it. But we kept driving and the more we drove, the more the rainbow separated from the mist. And all of a sudden, it was like we had entered Oz from Kansas. That rainbow was in technicolor! Of course we and everyone else around us pulled over to start taking pictures. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we noticed a double rainbow! That’s still the clearest, most distinct, brightest second rainbow I’ve ever seen!
I grew up in green, tree-covered mountains and a lush, vegetated landscape is generally what I prefer. I appreciate the unique beauty of the desert but I also miss lush greenery. But something about Death Valley spoke to me. It’s just so completely different from anything we’d seen before.
Again, there’s just a wide variety of sights to appreciate here. Badwater Basin is the lowest elevation in North America; the fantastical colors at Artists Palette look like something you would find at a Willy Wonka candy factory; the earth is folded into canyons and ridges that have to be seen to be believed at Zabriskie Point; and we felt like we were exploring the Sahara as we trekked across honest-to-goodness sand dunes at Mesquite Flats.
Zion was the first rocky national park we visited and it was my favorite for a very long time. The color of the sandstone cliffs and incredible shapes of the mountains instantly captured my imagination. It looked like something out of a painting. The isolated greenery that grew along the banks of the Virgin River was beautiful. We saw a few mule deer feeding by the river in the early morning light. We saw a fox one evening as we waited for a shuttle back to our car. It’s a special place.
Yellowstone is so iconic, how could it not make the list? We were able to visit for several long weekends last summer while my husband was working in Billings, Montana. The landscape is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. All the geysers, mud pots, and colorful springs with all the bison, elk, and deer wandering around looks like something from another planet. And then there’s the colorful canyon and the blue waters of Lake Yellowstone, and seeing all the way down to the Tetons on a clear day. It was incredible.
We first visited Hawaii on our honeymoon. We visited Haleakalā National Park on that trip but we just watched the sun rise over a crater then biked 30+ miles down a volcano. We didn’t see much of that park but Hawaii was everything I dreamed it would be and more.
We returned for our 10-year anniversary. We went to the Big Island that time and visited Hawai’i Volcanoes. It was so weird to see such a lush landscape surrounding the devastation of lava fields. And everything was surrounded by the blue waters of the Pacific. It’s just crazy to me. When we visited in 2014, the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater wasn’t very impressive during the day but at night it was everything you expect a volcano to be. There was even a bit of ash floating around in the air from somewhere. My husband took a picture of me with the glow of the crater in the background but it looks like I’m standing in a flurry of snow because of the ash.
Bonus: Banff National Park
I tried to stick to US National Parks but I’m going to add one more. Banff and the surrounding parks (Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay) in Canada make up the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. It feels like there are glacier lakes around every turn and each one is a different, vibrant shade of blue. We hit their wildflower season too and magenta fireweed was growing everywhere. The rocky mountains towered over us. We saw mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and even some black bears and a grizzly bear (Luckily we were in our car when we saw all the bears). Words and pictures can’t even begin describe it. You’ve probably seen pictures of Lake Louise or Moraine Lake and thought they were Photoshopped because water can’t possibly be that blue, can it? It’s even bluer in person, I promise you.
That’s my list! Have you been to any of these parks? What are some of your favorite places to visit? Link up every Tuesday at That Artsy Reader Girl!