Craig and Wooster in Acadia National Park, image

Craig Neff and his pal, Wooster, pose in Acadia National Park.

Pacific Flyway: The Allure of National Parks

Road Journals Blog—(There’s not enough time for both.) Take a two- or three-day detour to Glacier National Park, which would eliminate Yellowstone and Yosemite from the itinerary? Reserve a day for Crater Lake, or see Montana's Red Rock Lakes, which has been called the country's most beautiful national wildlife refuge?

The road trip I took to look for birds of the Pacific Flyway for a cover story in VIA was brutal—in a good way. In driving from Montana to California, I faced one impossible choice after another: Visit Yellowstone near the beginning of the journey, or Yosemite at the end? (There’s not enough time for both.) Take a two- or three-day detour to Glacier National Park, which would eliminate Yellowstone and Yosemite from the itinerary? Reserve a day for Crater Lake, or see Montana's Red Rock Lakes, which has been called the country's most beautiful national wildlife refuge?

Pretty miserable assignment, isn't it?

Travel is all about choices, of course. Domestic or foreign? Active or passive? San Diego, St. Tropez or the Sandhill Crane Festival in Lodi? When it comes to America's almost five-dozen national parks, picking one is like choosing off the ultimate dessert tray. There are no bad choices, but because you have to select—which one is best?

I've been to 11 national parks, and—keeping in mind that I haven't yet visited potential list-makers Yosemite, Glacier, Zion, and Grand Teton—I would rank my top three as follows:

1) Yellowstone: I was there as snow fell in late October, with frosted trees and thick steam from the boiling pools and fumaroles. Herds of bison surrounded my car—twice. Magnificent elk came within 30 feet. I saw Old Faithful erupt. The colorful paint pots bubbled and hissed. This beautiful, sometimes eerie place is a window on the molten soul of the planet.

2) Grand Canyon: Every park visit is shaped by timing and circumstances. The canyon’s grandeur would have awed me in any event, but I happened to arrive on April 30, 1992, the day after the Rodney King verdict was announced in Los Angeles. I couldn't stop thinking about the contrast between the rage in that riot-torn city and the perspective offered by a vast canyon: a monumental chasm that was being carved into the rock millions of years before homo sapiens walked the Earth, and which will likely be here long after our species has found a way to extinguish itself. Can't we all just get along, indeed.

3) Acadia: I'm biased. I live in Maine, a few miles from this park, and use it constantly. Its compact combination of forest, mountains, and ocean is unique. The hiking, biking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, and migratory birdwatching are wonderful. I proposed to my wife in the park, at sunrise on top of Cadillac Mountain. I used a donut in place of an engagement ring, but that's another story.

Honorable mention goes to a pair of parks in Alaska. One is Denali (where I saw my first grizzly but not the cloud-covered peak of the mountain) and Wrangell-St. Elias (where I had to pull myself on a rope-suspended trolley over a nearly freezing stream, then make my way past a black bear in order to reach the remote former copper mine building at which I was staying, at the edge of a glacier). Also to Redwood National Park, because everyone should have the amazing experience of standing next to a tree that shoots almost 400 feet into the air.

Agree with my selections? Disagree? What parks are at the top of your list? Where in America should I go next?

Craig Neff wrote the cover story for the September/October 2011 issue of VIA about the Pacific Flyway bird migration route.

This blog post was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.