Thor's Hammer is a cap of durable limestone on a pillar of softer rock.
Glacier-fed Jenny Lake lies at the mouth of Cascade Canyon and the foot of Grand Teton peak.
Visitors to Crater Lake can often see some 100 feet down into its remarkably clear waters.
Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park is the tallest point within 180,000 square miles.
Coast redwood trunks can grow to 22 feet in diameter with bark 12 inches thick.
Here in the West, every highway seems to lead to a stunning view. Still, some landscapes stand head and shoulders above the rest. The truly extraordinary places we set aside to become our national parks. From Glacier Bay to Grand Teton, each has its iconic scenes. Pilgrims from around the world come to gaze at Yosemite Valley or the almost endless edge of the Grand Canyon. Everyone should be lucky enough to take in such sights at least once. But the best experiences are sometimes just beyond the marquee spectacles and the interpretive plaques. Lace up your sneakers, pack a snack, and head to one of these spots. Once there, you’ll know for certain why national parks are called America’s best idea.
lehman caves, great basin
The hulking dome of 13,065-foot Wheeler Peak, home to the only glacier in Nevada, dominates Great Basin National Park on the state’s eastern border. But visitors to this wild area find its true highlight underground in Lehman Caves. These cold caverns deep in the mountain enclose flowstone, glowing towers, and row upon row of stalactites and stalagmites. For 600 million years, water trickling through fractured limestone has deposited iridescent white calcite in vast arrays of fantastic shapes. Swirling draperies, knobby “popcorn,” spiky icicles, and wormlike “spaghetti” decorate the walls, floors, and ceilings of chambers bearing names such as Gothic Palace, Music Room, and Grand Palace.
Of all the formations, Parachute Shield—a giant disk draped with curtains of marble, resembling a set piece from a science fiction movie—makes the strongest impression, lending the otherworldly landscape a sense of drama and magic. “There’s an intimacy to the experience here that you don’t get elsewhere,” says Betsy Duncan-Clark, the park’s chief of interpretation. That’s especially true in spring, when visitors enjoy the caverns’ ghostly splendor without a jostling crowd to break the spell. (775) 234-7517, nps.gov/grba. —Melanie Haiken
lady bird johnson grove, redwood
The tallest living things in the world, California’s coast redwoods once covered 2 million acres of the Pacific shore, thriving in the fog belt that starts in the Santa Lucia Range in Big Sur and runs north to the Oregon border. Redwoods built California, post by post, and bound the state to the rest of the country, railroad tie by railroad tie. By 1968, when the federal government reserved 58,000 acres in the state’s northwestern corner for what would become Redwood National and State Parks, logging had claimed all but 10 percent of California’s old-growth trees.
Lady Bird Johnson Grove is perhaps the most beautiful remaining stand. Dedicated to the former first lady who promoted the creation of the preserve—which today includes 132,000 acres and three jointly managed state parks—it’s halfway along an easy, one-mile loop trail atop Bald Hills Ridge. In spring, large rhododendrons and azaleas fill the understory of the often mist-shrouded grove with pink and white flowers. High above hang the crowns of redwoods that can rise nearly 400 feet tall and live as many as 2,000 years. For visitors standing at the feet of the trees’ massive trunks, it’s easy to feel this ancient history, as if their weight were enough to catch and slow time. (707) 465-7335, nps.gov/redw. —Eric Smillie
Panorama Trail, Yosemite
Abraham Lincoln signed Yosemite Valley over to California on June 30, 1864, protecting land that would become the beloved national park. A century and a half later, Yosemite’s sheer cliffs and long falls still bewitch travelers, and the moderate, ninemile Panorama Trail is the most exceptional way to see the park’s most exceptional sights.
The wonders begin at 7,214-foot Glacier Point with a view that sweeps from the valley up into the park’s high country. From there, hikers descend, facing out toward the scenery for much of the way. The trail stops at a viewpoint overlooking 370-foot n the background. It climbs to Panorama Cliff for broad vistas of Upper Yosemite Fall, Royal Arches, and North Dome on the valley’s far side. And it winds past 594-foot Nevada Fall and thundering Vernal Fall. By the time they reach the valley floor, walkers have seen the lion’s share of the park’s superlatives, visions sure to last a lifetime.
A bus runs from Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, in the valley, up to Glacier Point starting in May or June, depending on how much winter snow remains; tickets cost $25. (209) 372-0200, nps.gov/yose. —E.S.
Grand Geyser, Yellowstone
Of all the grandeur in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, geysers are the brightest stars, and for good reason: The park contains two-thirds of all the geysers on earth. Most visitors go straight to Old Faithful for their thermal fix, but there’s another spring that reaches even more impressive heights. Grand Geyser, just across the Firehole River, soars to 200 feet, making it the tallest predictable geyser in the world.
Seeing Grand at full blast delivers an extra thrill, because each eruption is relatively rare. It takes patience to catch one of the shows, a series of bursts that tends to come every seven or eight hours. When it does spout, two other connected geysers—Vent and Turban—usually go off as well, playing backup. Between these ensemble performances, Turban lets loose on its own every 20 minutes. The path from Old Faithful to Grand crosses the Firehole and passes by the large but erratic Beehive Geyser, the crystal-blue Heart Spring, and very likely a few bison. Spring visitors who come shortly after the road opens on April 19 may well find some snow around, too. Wildlife, steam, and snow: a classic Yellowstone combo. (307) 344-7381, nps.gov/yell. —Chris Woolston
Jenny Lake, Grand Teton
Among the youngest ranges in the Rockies, the Tetons explode—toothy, rugged, and raw—7,000 feet up out of the heart of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. This is just what mountains are supposed to look like. And the shuttle ride across Jenny Lake to Cascade Canyon yields stupendous views of eight of the range’s 10 highest peaks, together called the Cathedral Group because they inspire as much awe as any church.
The water shuttle launches in mid-May after the ice breaks and, for a $12 round-trip ticket, brings visitors to the mouth of the canyon, which comes by its name honestly. Thousands of years ago, a glacier left this notch as it receded beneath the craggy and precipitous north faces of Teewinot and Grand Teton. Today, upwards of a dozen waterfalls tumble down the canyon’s stepped granite walls.
Spring sees the streams at their fullest and gives rise to a carpet of red Indian paintbrush, yellow arrowleaf balsamroot, white columbine, and other wildflowers. When summer comes, these give way to shrubs thick with sweet huckleberries, raspberries, and thimbleberries, which are exactly what mountains are supposed to taste like. (307) 739-3300, nps.gov/grte. —Dina Mishev
East Rim Trail, Grand Canyon
Northwestern Arizona’s magnificent gorge doesn’t exactly have a bad side. Take it in from any angle, and it’s still gorgeous. But for great views and a classic experience, you’ve got to see it from a mule on the freshly built four-mile East Rim Trail on the South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park.
For over 100 years, locals have prized these pack animals for their strength and dependability on the rugged canyon paths. After saddling up at the historic 1920s Yaki Barn, visitors find out why, as their sure-footed rides amble through stands of piñon and juniper until the giant tableau of the canyon suddenly unfurls.
“You come out of a clearing, and boom, it’s right there,” says Bruce Brossman, regional director for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which offers the trips for $114. “It’s spectacular.” Wranglers continuously spout startling details (did you know the canyon is home to 47 reptile species?), but you have permission to zone out over the swoonworthy views. You’ll see multicolored stone staircases, sagebrush desert, and the Colorado River’s tiny thread far below, as your mule adeptly steps past spring wildflowers and lipstick-pink cactus blooms. (928) 638-7888, nps.gov/grca. —Kate Siber
Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon
Visitors have dubbed it a forest of rock and an upside-down cave. The truth is, Bryce Canyon National Park eludes easy description: You simply have to see it. A series of amphitheaters carved out of southern Utah’s Paunsaugunt Plateau, the park brims with red-, orange-, and white-striped cliffs and hoodoos—stone statues sculpted by erosion, frost, and time.
The tallest and most striking formation is Thor’s Hammer, a single sinewy figure that rises in the middle of a cove of spiky rock. Most visitors hike the 1.5-mile Navajo Loop Trail leading to it by day, but the scene is quieter and more impressive at sunrise, when the light varnishes the cliffs in shifting hues of violet. Depart the trailhead at Sunset Point just as the sky begins to brighten, rousing cottontails and mule deer. When the sun pokes out over the eastern horizon, it beams directly on Thor’s Hammer as if shining a spotlight on a soloist backed by a showstopping chorus: rows of red-and-white spires, spruce forests, and the giant Western sky. (435) 834-5322, nps.gov/brca. —K.S.
Wizard Island, Crater Lake
For much of the year, the caldera at the center of Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon lies dormant beneath an average 44 feet of snowfall. Come June, however, it erupts out of hibernation with a cloak of greenery on its slopes and vodka-clear waters that attract swimmers, hikers, and view seekers.
Most visitors circumnavigate the lake on a 33-mile road, but boat trips, which start at $35, offer the most awe-inspiring experience. “You’re going to see the park from a totally different view,” says Marsha McCabe, Crater Lake’s chief of interpretation.“You’re riding in an ancient volcano on the deepest lake in the United States, with some of the cleanest water on earth.”
Getting to the dock requires a steep walk down (and later back up) a one-mile trail, but the effort is worth it. From inside the caldera, boaters marvel at the outcroppings created by ancient lava flows and the quilts of coniferous forest, then disembark on Wizard Island, a 7,300-year-old cinder cone jutting from the lake. There, you can fish for rainbow trout, brave 55-degree water for a dip, or hike to the islet’s highest point, the perfect spot to contemplate the water’s improbable shade of blue. (541) 594-3000, nps.gov/crla. —K.S.
Photography by Robert Harding World Imagery/Alamy (Thor’s Hammer); courtesy of dweekly/Wikipedia (Wizard Island); courtesy of John Menard/Wikipedia (Jenny Lake); by Dennis Frates/Alamy (Great Basin); courtesy of Trail Wiki (Lady Bird Johnson Grove)
This article was first published in March 2014 and updated in May 2014. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.