I consider myself a very fortunate person to be able to live in such a beautiful place as I do. For those of you who don’t know, I get to call Banff National Park home; I may be biased (ok, I definitely am), but I’d say its one of the most beautiful parks and its definitely my personal favourite.
However, amidst all the magic and beauty that the park holds, there are some very serious issues facing our parks today. Nearly all of them have to do with the huge increase in tourism and people visiting the park. Overcrowding, mind blowing traffic congestion, lack of parking, littering, feeding animals, not giving animals space, destroying fragile areas, the list truly and sadly goes on.
Working at a Park’s Canada site full time gives me a unique opportunity to interact with so many different people from all over the world. In the last couple of years, thanks to the weak Canadian dollar, we have seen a huge amount of American tourists coming through Banff. As I spoke with them, I heard a lot about their national park systems and how they compare to Banff.
With a 7 week road trip coming up through the western states, I was curious how my experiences would compare to what I had heard. We purchased an annual national parks pass from a friend in Banff so that we would be able to visit as many parks as we could. We ended up visiting ten national parks in total, and the parks we visited were truly diverse, unique, and beautiful places.
So, now that I have had time to reflect on these spaces, I want to share with you what we did, what I learned, what I would do differently if I went again, and my thoughts and impressions on each one. Any negative thing listed below I don’t write to spark offense or anger, however, I encourage readers to use it to truly think and get real about some of the things threatening the future of our parks (this goes for Canada too!). Based on my experiences, I listed the parks in order of “You have to see these places!”, which is just my honest view and opinion. In all honesty however, the first few are totally tied as I enjoyed them all so much.
1) Joshua Tree
This park tops the list for me because it is just so much fun and unlike any place I’ve ever been. Our road trip was my second visit to Joshua Tree and just like the first time it completely blew my mind. I am convinced when you drive through the park gates you are transported to another planet. There are massive boulders everywhere and the Joshua trees grow in the wonkiest ways. It is honestly a combination of a scene straight out of the Flintstones/being on mars (or something like that).
We camped at Jumbo Rocks campground. I could get lost playing around all day just at the campground alone. The rocks in the park are amazing, hence why it is a very popular place among climbers and people bouldering.
The boulders also provide a unique opportunity to get lost in mazes, play, run around, and feel like a kid again.
If you want to go for a good hike, Ryan Mountain is an easy hike with incredible views of the area. Intersection rock has great bouldering (along with many other areas). If you need to rent any gear, I recommend Joshua Tree Outfitters, located right near the park gate. They have very affordable prices as well.
All in all, my feelings towards Joshua Tree give it a solid 10/10. Each time I’ve been has had peace and quiet, great weather, clean campsites, respectful visitors, endless activities, and scenic camping.
2) Death Valley
Although second on the list, this place absolutely stole the show for me. I had no expectations or prior knowledge of this park and it blew my mind in the most amazing ways. The landscapes are mountainous, yet possess the dry, desert feel. The landscapes in the park itself are diverse, harsh, and unlike anything I have ever seen.
Our first stop was a hike through Golden Canyon. I definitely recommend this one whether you are an avid hiker or not a hiker at all. It is not long, but takes you through a winding maze of desert ridges and different colours of rock. The views at the end of the hike are amazing.
From here, we went to Badwater Basin. This location is 85.5 meters below sea level. It is a completely dry salt flat. We had a blast taking photos and wandering around. It is HOT. Make sure you bring a lot of water. This spot was a definite highlight for myself.
After, we went to check out natural bridge. I have to be honest, I personally wouldn’t bother. Maybe I was just over the heat, but it’s a short hike to an arch looking feature. Don’t get me wrong, its beautiful, but it just wasn’t worth it for me.
Our last stop was the drive through Artists Palette. This is a must see! You can get out and do little scenic view points along the way. The pastel colours in the sand and rock are incredible. It is so unique and definitely worth the drive.
Death Valley was the greatest surprise for me. We had a full day running around in the heat through desert mazes and open flats. I went to sleep that night with a very full and happy heart.
3) Red Rocks
Like Joshua Tree, this was not my first visit to Red Rocks, and it will definitely not be my last. Third on the list, but as I said, these first few parks are a pretty tough tie. Red rocks is located very close to Vegas, yet significantly less people frequent the area. It is a very popular place for rock climbing. The crags are easily accessible, the rock is great, and for someone like myself coming from Canada, the warm temperatures are very welcome.
I am a very average rock climber, so each time I have visited Red Rocks, I go to the crags that have moderately graded climbs. I have climbed at the Black Corridor, Sweet Pain wall, Panty Wall, Hamlet, Magic Bus, and Civilization Crag. All of them were awesome, however, due to their moderate grades they are often crowded.
Other than some of the crowds (which is pretty minor for the payoff in fun climbing), the park is very clean and people are respectful of the environment. The park promotes wagbags for climbers. Did you know the desert enzymes cannot break down human waste? That was something new I learned which helped me understand the necessity of using a wag bag should you need to do your business. I was impressed the park advertised/provided these in many places.
We stayed at the campground just outside the park. I had heard not so nice things about this place, but our experience was the exact opposite. We had great water, a campsite with a table and bathrooms nearby, and campers were quiet and respectful. The only downside is the high demand for sites and the lack of a system for reservations. Get there early to get a site, and don’t be surprised if someone steals your camp tag and removes it to put up their own. This happened to us and it was beyond frustrating. I believe this issue is being addressed however starting in 2019.
Again, like Joshua Tree, I would give this park another 10/10. I have nothing but great memories of everything there and it seems like other visitors feel the same way as they treated it with the respect it deserves.
Arches was our last national park of the trip, and it sure ended the trip on a very positive note. Since it was closing in on winter, the crowds were non-existent and the temperatures perfect for fall hiking. The park was clean, people were respectful, and the information was easy to access.
We started our first day at Arches with a trip through the Devil’s garden. Most hikers only check out the first arch or two, so if you do the whole loop you will definitely escape the crowds. The loop leads you to roughly 10 arches. It is an awesome combination of trails, rocks, scrambling, and finding your own way. It was a nice refresh from the perfectly paved trails of most of the other national parks.
On our second day we went into the Fiery Furnace. This hike requires a permit which you can obtain at the visitor centre. I cannot recommend it enough. It is a maze of paths through so many different rock features and arches. It is a “choose you own adventure” kind of thing, which made it very fun and kept us busy for the afternoon. If you want a chance to explore, this is the perfect hike.
After the Fiery Furnace we decided to hike to the delicate arch. I have to be honest, we were pretty hesitant. It’s the most popular arch in the park and by the end of this road trip we were pretty over people. However, I am really glad we decided to hike to it because it was stunning and impressive. It was much bigger than I expected and the hike more fun than I anticipated. We went for sunset and the light at the time of day was magical.
Arches was awesome and I highly recommend adding this one high on your list. It has endless hikes to do and features to see. In my opinion, it was one of the more “natural” or rugged of the national parks. Less developed, a bit less accessible, and more spaces that felt remote.
Ahh, Yosemite. Arguably one of the most popular parks and I totally see why. Upon driving in to the park we immediately pulled over and my jaw dropped. The view of El Capitan humbled me and amazed me. The scale of it is incredible. I can see why it draws climbers and tourists from all over the world.
Yosemite is one of my biggest regrets however. I did not do enough research on what to do there, and that was our biggest downfall. This is why this park falls lower on my list. This place is CROWDED. We were instantly overwhelmed by the volume of people and our lack of knowledge on what to do. So what did we do? We went were everyone else goes- the most popular spots (face palm).
I usually consider myself an off the beaten track kind of girl, but having no idea about where those kind of trails were, we set off for the ones we had heard of, along with the million and a half other visitors. We checked out Bridalveil falls, did the hike to Sentinel Dome, walked to Glacier Point from there, than drove back down to visit the meadows around El Capitan. It was a busy and full day and it was undeniably beautiful. I am happy we got to see what we did, again, I just wish I had known more about the hidden gems to escape the crowds.
We got some information from a ranger to hike to Eagle Peak the next day. A full day, escape the crowds, challenging hike she said, so I was excited. When we woke up however, nature had other plans in mind and the park was completely covered in forest fire smoke. You could hardly see a thing. So, we quickly thought of a plan B. We saw signs for Mirror Lake and figured that would let us stretch the legs and keep us lower from the smoke. Fun fact, in the fall Mirror Lake is completely dried up, so it was not even a lake once we got there (second face palm).
In summary, Yosemite was as beautiful as I ever could have imagined, just nothing could prepare me for the crowds and the sheer vastness of the park. It is massive! I was overwhelmed with not knowing what to do, dodging through crowds, and we were both kind of down on not getting to do what had hoped and expected. This means that I will definitely go back, however, better equipped with knowledge of the best and quiet spots.
6) Bryce Canyon
This park was our “we didn’t get a permit to the wave so what do we do now” day. My cousins had visited it and mentioned it was a very cool spot, so an hours drive from Kanab took us here for the day/evening. Well, if it just wasn’t the coolest surprise of a park! This park is only lower on my list because we didn’t spend a great deal of time here.
We only had a half day by the time we got there so we did not do as much as the park offers, but even the short activities were worth the drive. We hiked the Navajo Loop trail which is a must. A short trail, but it weaves beautifully down into the canyon between the hoodoo features. It is breath taking. We then hiked from Sunrise to Sunset point (or maybe the other way?), which gives you a great view of the entire canyon from above. Both of these are easy hikes, but highly rewarding.
A very unique spot with its towering hoodoos and rugged environment, I would recommend Bryce as a perfect day trip. The crowds were not bad when we were there and the fall temperatures were perfect for hiking.
We went to Zion for thanksgiving weekend along with every other person in America. I mean, I thought Yosemite was bad, which it was, but this was something else, and is the reason for it being lower on my list. That probably has something to do with the fact that the size of Zion is significantly smaller park however. We booked a campsite right in the park (totally worth it), and I was very happy we booked it ahead of time.
Visiting Zion there were two main hikes I wanted to do: Angels landing and The Narrows. For our first day we decided to head early to do Angels landing. Man am I ever glad we went early! I have never experienced crowds like that on a hike in my entire life! It was to the point of it being scary and unsafe. People were in their flip flops, not carrying water, pushing past people unsafely, carrying dogs, the list goes on. I wouldn’t deem it a hard hike, however, it has a lot of exposure and chains and narrow parts. Its definitely not for the faint of heart. I heard so many comments of surprise from people about the trail, how narrow it was, etc.
The park posts signs about this, however, people just don’t take the time to read them and don’t do the research to know what they are getting themselves into. The whole experience turned me off from the hike, which is unfortunate as it was quite beautiful and I did enjoy the way up with less people around.
The rest of the day we spent exploring the town. We also sorted out places to rent gear for the narrows for the next day. Unfortunately, since it was winter, you needed lots of gear to trek through the water (boots, waders, etc.). Once we added up the cost and the conversion to Canadian, we sadly decided to give the hike a pass. I highly recommend aiming to do this hike during the summer months when the weather is warmer and less gear is required.
One thing that really shocked me about Zion is the state that people leave their campsites in. Garbage everywhere, food left out, dirty dishes all over, it was appalling. People have no respect for the wildlife and the harm that it can do to them by leaving a messy site.
For beauty, I give Zion a firm 10/10. However, for crowds, respect and enforcement of leave no trace principles, I give it about a 1/10. That 1 goes to the one lovely ranger we had a nice chat with who was going around educating people about the importance of leaving a clean site. More people should take note from her and lead by example!
8) Sequoia/Kings Canyon
This was our next spot after Yosemite. We were feeling fairly exhausted from the energy of Yosemite, so our motivation to go was a little low. I am glad we didn’t give into our laziness however, because this park has beautiful and had easily accessible sights to see.
Turns out the road to Kings Canyon was closed at that time of the year, so unfortunately we did not get to see it. Our first stop on the drive was the General Grant tree. It is the second largest tree in the world and it was in fact incredibly large. The forest was quiet, it was a crisp fall morning, and the trees towered over us in a beautiful, humbling nature.
After General Grant, we learned we could then go see the LARGEST TREE IN THE WORLD. So, we were off to see General Sherman! There are no words to describe the scale of that tree. We wandered around the area on beautiful trails checking out The General Sherman and all the other trees in the area. This is a must do spot!
It is very similar to Redwood, in that the drive through this park was worth it alone. Quiet, winding roads, unimaginably tall trees, and lush colours everywhere. It was gorgeous and peaceful and just the reset we needed. This park falls close to the bottom of my list only because of the fact that most of it was closed due to the season, so we didn’t get a full experience of what it offered.
The only reason this park is last on my list is because we spent the least amount of time there. I feel like my knowledge is minimal and our experience was just a taste of what this park offers.
Redwood is worth it just to drive through. Even if you didn’t get out of your car, it is breath taking (although I highly recommend getting out of your vehicle to stand beneath these towering trees).
We got out at the (BIG TREE?) and did a small loop of a hike for about an hour or so. These trees are TALL, and the colour of their bark is incredible.
Lush green forests, humbling giant trees, this park is straight out of a scene from Fern Gully.
So, what’s the conclusion?
After getting what I would consider a fairly good taste of some of the incredible US national parks, I definitely have a few thoughts and reflections.
1) America is diverse, beautiful, and home to some pretty incredible landscapes.
I know, you’re probably like “well, duh?” but this stood out to me as I always figured our parks in Canada were the truly beautiful ones (*cough* biased, I know…). All the parks we visited were incredible, and I love how varied all the landscapes were. From the towering trees in Redwood and Sequoia, to the gorgeous mountains of Yosemite, to the harsh desert landscapes of Joshua Tree and Death Valley, to the gorgeous red rocks of Red Rocks and the arches in Arches, I was truly blown away! Like I said, this shouldn’t be surprising, but the diversity of the beauty was what caught my attention and heart. There were so many activities and so many different sights to see. My thoughts on visiting America changed greatly, and I know I will definitely be going back to many of those places to explore more.
2) US national parks need to work on leave no trace.
This is something we need to work on in Canada too, no doubt, but I was appalled by some of the campsites we saw. Banff has become pretty good at issuing out fines for people who leave their campsites untidy, and while I’m not saying we are perfect, I think some of the US places should start enforcing these things better as well.
I am sure there are places that are great at it, however, I am speaking solely from my experiences alone. So, some examples. In Big Sur we woke up to see that the campsite across from us was awake as well. Just kidding- they weren’t awake (although based on the state of their campsite I would have thought they were). Coolers left out, dirty grill left out as well, garbage and food were absolutely everywhere.
People need to realize the impact this has on wildlife. This became a serious issue in Banff, and also one of the main reasons we lost our wolf pack. People leave dirty sites, animals find garbage and food, animals connect food and garbage to humans, animals start approaching humans, animals exhibit behaviour that humans deem unsafe, so therefore the animal is put down. It is tragic, sad, and something that we can easily work together to prevent.
3) American parks are incredibly accessible. For me personally, this was a love/hate thing.
I want to start this off by saying that it is absolutely amazing how accessible these American parks are. They have specific paths for people in wheelchairs which is something I definitely think Canada lacks. It is awesome allowing more people to be able to witness the beauty these parks offer, who other wise wouldn’t necessarily get the chance.
However, for me personally, I found it to be a double edged sword. With ease in accessibility I noticed a huge increase in crowds. This has NOTHING to do with people who require such accessibility, as I don’t even understand how some would maneuver a wheelchair through some of these trails due to the sheer volume of people. It has more to do with easily paved paths leading to destinations that the majority of the population wouldn’t have made it to before. It also means making difficult trails easier, which allow more people to see them (like angels landing).
Again, this is not ALWAYS a bad thing, however, with the crowds come people not being safe, people disrespecting the land, etc. People also seem to think that accessible means easy, which isn’t always the case. I found it hard to witness. Its such a tough balance; the balance of keeping these lands wild, but also wanting people to experience their beauty to help preserve them for future generations to come. I am not sure what the solution is to this unfortunately, as it is a both good and bad issue.
It is not beneficial to all populations obviously, but I personally like the ability to get off the beaten trail in Canada more often. It was something I missed when visiting some of the US national parks, which is why I was drawn to Arches so much. Just being on a dirt trail, away from the crowds, well, its something that my soul craves.
4) All parks, whether Canadian or American, face some serious threats to their future.
Overcrowding, garbage, loss of wildlife, and damage to natural places are all grim realities that our national parks and wild places face despite which country you are in. It is tragic, and it has happening very quickly.
If there is one thing I take away from visiting these US national parks and living in a Canadian national park myself, it is that we have to do something…fast. Sadly, I do not know what the solution is, but what I do know is that its going to take a village. We have to work together to educate, protect, and preserve these places so that people can continue to enjoy them and our lands can continue to thrive. Sadly, I don’t have a solution.
Use this list above as a list to visit these places for sure, but also use it as a list of places to protect. Enjoy them, respect them, and educate others to do the same. Education is huge, as sadly many people just don’t know. By knowing, hopefully more people will care. The world is our playground, our sacred space. Lets do what we can to keep it that way, for us and for the future.