The grandest canyon, the hottest desert, the tallest forest. They're all in our national parks — and they're like nowhere else on Earth.
Glacier National Park, Montana
The Must-Do: If the dire projections are correct, Glacier National Park will be bereft of glaciers by 2030. So get going. High above the milky waters of Grinnell Lake, Grinnell Glacier is the most stunning in the park. It's accessible via a boat trip across Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes, then a 3.8-mile hike.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
The Must-Do: Handcrafted homesteaders' cabins are as Alaskan as the governor's mooseburgers, and one of the best is Dick Proenneke's on Upper Twin Lake. Make a pilgrimage to see where the local legend lived alone for 30 years.Ultimate Sierra
Yosemite National Park, California
The Must-Do: Hit Vernal Fall, 1.5 miles up the Mist Trail. The 317-foot plume refracts concentric rainbows, and if you hike above it you'll reach Emerald Pool then Silver Apron, where the Merced River flows off a granite dome.Ultimate Coast
Olympic National Park, Washington
The Must-Do: About 3.2 miles in on the Hoh River Trail, within Olympic's temperate rain forest, is the supposed "quietest place in the country." Hike in, stand among the trees — some 60 feet around — and decide for yourself.Ultimate Desert
Death Valley National Park, California
The Must-Do: Death Valley is mysterious enough by day. By night, it's otherworldly. Two hours after sundown, walk 30 minutes into the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes outside Stovepipe Wells. If there's a moon, it's a klieg light. If not, the stars alone are enough to walk by. Get up as high as you can. Then just sit and admire the silver sea.Ultimate Wildlife Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
The Must-Do: Not to talk anyone out of jostling for a look at Old Faithful, but the 3.2-mile hike up Mount Washburn (10,243 feet) gives you all of Yellowstone — views of forests, geyser basins, subalpine meadows, and the sprawling Hayden Valley — in the company of about 5,000 fewer people.Ultimate Appalachian
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, North Carolina
The Must-Do: The 5.5 miles to Mount Cammerer Lookout from Cosby Campground take in old-growth forests and one of the park's best views, ridgelines north into Tennessee.Ultimate Forest
Redwood National Park, California
The Must-Do: Walk the one-mile loop through the fantasy world of Fern Canyon. Its sheer 40-foot walls are blanketed top to bottom in swaying, glistening ferns.
Copyright 2010 NationalGeographic.com
Also on MNN:
- 8 under-the-radar gems of the U.S. park system
- A tour of America's national parks
- 2 more glaciers gone from Glacier National Park