This article was written by Katherine Bertrand, a Vancouver native currently exploring her way across North America in her van. Follow her #vanlife adventures on Instagram – @katherine.bertrand.
The United States and US territories are collectively home to 61 national parks, and if you’re like us, then chances are you’ve dreamt of taking in the stunning natural beauty of at least one of these incredible protected areas.
When first arriving at Carlsbad Caverns, it’s hard to grasp the adventure you’re in for. Below what appears to be your typical visitor center, amidst spiky cacti and lizards, are more than 119 caves hidden beneath the New Mexico desert. These caves, moulded by ancient seas four to six million years ago, span more than 48 km and are some of the deepest and largest caverns ever found.
Push aside your fears of underground creatures (anyone else remember the early-2000s horror film The Descent?) and opt for the Natural Entrance Tour, a self-guided trail that starts (you guessed it) at the natural entrance of the cave, winding underground on switchbacks for 2 km. This route takes about one hour on average to complete but is well worth it. You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of stalactites clinging to the roof, stalagmites rising from the floor and vibrant, green coloured pools.
From there, take time to explore the Big Room for more jaw-dropping limestone formations — some six stories tall, others tiny and intricate. When you find yourself craving some natural sunlight, an elevator will whisk you back to ground level, where you can experience one of the park’s spectacular sights at the cave’s mouth. More than a quarter million Mexican free-tailed bats call sections of the cave home in the summer months, and around sunset spiral up from the entrance in a dense, choreographed group to hunt for insects.
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Joshua Tree National Park, named for the Joshua trees native to the area (duh!), is truly one of the most intriguing and photogenic areas in California. Located where two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together, Joshua Tree’s beauty can be attributed to its enchanting variety of plants, animals and geological features. While the park is open year-round, temperatures are most comfortable in the spring and fall. Plus, a springtime visit means you’ll likely catch the wildflower and cactus blooming season, which is a gorgeous experience in itself.
Originally home to the Pinto people thousands of years ago, Joshua Tree now attracts nearly 1.3 million visitors annually — and for good reason! With no shortage of nature trails, there’s a hike suited for everyone, ranging from a leisurely stroll along the Arch Rock nature trail to the more strenuous hike to Mastodon Peak, which offers stunning panoramic views of southeastern Joshua Tree. Or, make like a local and head to Hidden Valley, a mecca for SoCal climbers who flock here to boulder on the massive granite monoliths.
If taking in the scenery is more your thing (we’re not judging!), take some beautiful snaps in the Cholla Cactus Garden during the day before settling into a campsite for some epic stargazing at night. Pro tip: Make sure you’re visiting during New Moon to catch a view of the Milky Way!
Located about 70 nautical miles west of Key West and accessible only by ferry, Dry Tortugas National Park is compromised of a seven-key (aka low-lying islands/reef) archipelago in the Gulf of Mexico. Famous for its breathtaking coral reefs brimming with sea creatures, 99% of the park is actually submerged beneath crystal-clear water, so be sure to pack your swimsuit!
Our suggestion? Take the high-speed ferry over from Key West in the morning for a full day of exploration, before catching the last departing ferry back at 3 pm. Be sure to pack in all food and drinks, and to use the bathroom facilities on board the ferry as this is a primitive island park with no running water, food or restrooms.
Snorkelling gear is included with your ferry ticket, so start off your day swimming in the crystalline waters around Fort Jefferson and experience the massive coral heads and colourful reef life. Don’t be surprised if you see sea turtles, angelfish and eels all in one breath — think opening scene in Finding Nemo!
From there, take a self-guided walking tour or a 45-minute guided tour of Fort Jefferson, an impressive 19th-century military installation that actually served as a federal prison following the Civil War. Walk or swim along the fort’s moat wall, and keep an eye out for old artifacts like cement barrels and anchor chains along the way.
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If you’re in search of a park that makes you feel like you’ve landed on another planet, look no further than White Sands National Monument. Formed from an ancient gypsum crystal seabed, rolling white sand dunes today are what remain from the shallow seas that covered the region millions of years ago. (Yes, you read that right!)
On the drive in, the expansive, sweeping white sand dunes seem to rise out of nowhere, a stark contrast to anything else in the area. Engulfing over 700-sq-km of desert, the wave-like dunes create the world’s largest gypsum dune field. With glistening white sands as far as the eye can see, it’s easy to feel like you’ve landed on the moon.
When you arrive, take Dunes Drive, a 13 km scenic route that leads from the visitor center into the heart of the gypsum dune field. Be sure to stop along the way and take your camera for a hike over the vast sea of snow-white waves. Better yet, buy a sled from the gift shop, and unleash your inner kid as you sled down the slip face of the dunes. Just make sure you stick to the marked areas!
You didn’t think we’d forget to mention the Grand Canyon, did you?!
Arguably one of the most famous national parks, viewing the Grand Canyon is an unforgettable experience. The immense gorge, spanning 1.5 km deep and nearly 30 km wide is so vast that only a fraction of the canyon’s 445 km can be seen from even the most prime vantage point.
With countless viewing points along both the North and South rims, there’s definitely no shortage of stunning scenery to be had, especially at sunrise or sunset. Avoid the crowds and take in the canyon’s two billion years of geology by hiking one of the parks many trails, perhaps some of the best hiking in the Southwest. From trails that skirt the edge of the rim to some that plunge thousands of feet towards the river below, the Grand Canyon has a little something for everyone.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, opt for a guided river-rafting trip where you’re treated to wild rapids and gorgeous beaches. Hoping to stay dry? Check out the mule rides, one of the Grand Canyon’s most popular activities. Allow these sure-footed animals to guide you into the canyon for a fun, convenient way to taste the Old West. (Word of warning: Mule riding is not for the faint of heart! While they’re incredibly safe animals, they do like to walk terrifyingly close to the edge! You’ve been warned…)
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