The great author Wallace Stegner once wrote, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
You would be hard-pressed to create a more apt description of one of the United States’ most storied and cherished homegrown treasures.
Encompassing over 400 national parks stretching from Maine to California, the hills and mountains, buttes and valleys, rivers and lakes that make up the National Park System are themselves truly American in their breadth of diversity.
Perhaps Old Faithful or the towering Rockies spring to mind when you think of national parks. But from sea to shining sea, America is chock-full of natural wonders and in some far-off corners of the country, some truly hidden gems.
The Pacific Northwest remains a mystery to many Americans, shrouded in images of long, rainy days and dense forests, towering redwoods, and lush canopies. But the top left corner of the U.S. map actually offers as distinct a variety of ecosystems and topography as the rest of the country. And thankfully, many of these natural wonders are protected by America’s “best idea”, the National Parks System.
Here are some of the highlights of the Pacific Northwest’s National Parks:
- MOUNT RAINIER: Rising majestically above the horizon near Seattle, Mt. Rainier is Washington State’s most easily recognizable natural landmark. Climbing to 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is an active volcano and is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S., spawning five major rivers and is a hotspot for some of the region’s most beautiful hikes.
- NORTH CASCADES: Referred to often as the “geological heart of the Cascades”, North Cascades National Park is as naturally diverse and sprawling as the region itself. Containing over 300 glaciers that helped form the area over the millennia, melodious rivers and streams flowing down through the forested valleys and the allure of the magisterial alpine mountain terrain make this park the true jewel of the state of Washington.
- OLYMPIC: With its almost unimaginable range of precipitation and elevation, diversity is certainly the word for Olympic National Park. Covering nearly a million acres, the park offers a vast wilderness, thousands of years of human history, and several different ecosystems. Visit this national park to see glacier-capped mountains, old-growth temperate rainforests, and over 70 miles of wild coastline.
- NEZ PERCE: A different variety of preservation welcomes visitors to the Northwest here at Nez Perce National Park. This park preserves not only the natural beauty of the hills, mountains, valleys, and plateaus of the inland northwest once long inhabited by the Niimipuu people (Nez Perce) but also the story and lineage of the native tribe and their famed Flight of 1877. In addition to the splendor of its natural setting, this park also offers a historical well from which to fill the heart, mind, and soul for the wild at heart visiting Washington.
- CRATER LAKE: The site of the deepest lake in the United States and one of the most pristine in the world, this national park preserves a national treasure that truly inspires awe. Formed around 7,700 years ago when a volcanic eruption triggered the collapse of a massive peak, this lake, fed by rain and snowmelt, still marvels scientists to this day. Artists, photographers, and sightseers flock by the thousands to this national park annually.
- OREGON CAVES: Discover the marble-walled labyrinths of Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains at this national park. Deep within this mountain range and formed by eons of acidic water seepage through the rock lies the famed “Marble Halls of Oregon”, a sight that truly must be seen firsthand to comprehend and appreciate its glory and intricacies. Cavers and explorers come from all over to explore this unique slice of the Oregon National Parks System.
- JOHN DAY FOSSIL BEDS: The wondrous colors of the rock formations at John Day Fossil Beds preserve a world-renowned record of plant and animal evolution, changing climate, and past ecosystems that span over 40 million years. The Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center offer exhibits for the educationally minded visitor. For those that just want to relax and take it all in, hikes and scenic drives to appreciate the prehistoric past and beautiful present of the great state of Oregon.
- ALCATRAZ ISLAND: Alcatraz reveals stories of American incarceration, justice, and our common humanity. The tiny island was once a fort, a military prison, and a maximum-security federal penitentiary. Enjoy its complex history and beauty when visiting the Bay Area.
- GOLDEN GATE: Experience a park so rich it supports 19 distinct ecosystems with over 2,000 plant and animal species. Go for a hike, have a picnic, or learn about the history of the surrounding San Francisco area in addition to taking in one of the world’s most recognizable sights and architectural feats.
- LASSEN VOLCANIC: Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to steaming fumaroles, meadows spotted with wildflowers, pristine mountain lakes, and numerous volcanoes. The craggy peaks tell the story of its tumultuous, eruptive past while hot water continues to shape the land to this day.
- PINNACLES: The rock pinnacles that give this park its name are truly spectacular and, like Lassen Volcanic, were formed some 23 million years ago when multiple volcanoes erupted, lava flowing and settling to form what is now Pinnacles National Park near San Jose, CA. Hiking and wildlife watching make this park a must-see.
- REDWOOD: The setting for the Forest Moon of Endor in George Lucas’ Return Of The Jedi, Redwood National Park is home not only to the tallest trees on earth but plentiful prairies, oak woodlands, lakes, and over 40 miles of coastline. The size and breadth of its namesake feature is truly a marvel to behold and must be seen to be believed.
- YOSEMITE: First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but within its over 1,200 square miles, you will find deep valleys, sprawling meadows, ancient sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and so much more.
So, be sure not to forget the great Northwest when planning your next great adventure. As one can see, this region offers a sprawling and magnificent smorgasbord of natural beauty, education, and rugged challenge to journeymen and women of every stripe.