The US was the first country to set aside vast tracts of land as protected national parks, and they’re still among the best – and most diverse – in the world, finds Natalie Marsh.
National parks are arguably the jewel in the US’s crown. From the lush wetlands of southern Florida and the snow-capped mountains of Washington state, to the vibrant colours of the Grand Canyon and the misty panoramas of the Smoky Mountains, it’s not surprising the country is known as ‘America the Beautiful’.
More than half of its 50 states are home to a national park, and they’re all bursting with diverse scenery and wildlife. But with so many to choose from, and some logistical challenges involved in getting your customers to the most remote corners of the country, why not suggest a guided tour?
Offering pre-arranged accommodation, an easy way to get around and local knowledge, an escorted tour is an organised way to experience the American outdoors – and there are options to suit every budget. Here are some of the best national parks across the country, so your customers can see it all, whatever their price point.
Grand Canyon National Park: Staring into the mile-deep Grand Canyon truly takes your breath away – it’s no surprise it’s one of the most impressive natural wonders in the world. From hiking around its rim to descending into the inner canyon, or even taking a helicopter ride to take in its sheer size, there isn’t anything quite like the Grand Canyon. Each rim has unique viewpoints and attractions, including a glass skywalk and the Grand Canyon Village.
The advantage of a group tour is that visitors can get to the national park with ease, says Christopher Sharman, product and commercial executive at TrekAmerica. “And when it comes to hikes, it’s good to know you’re in a group of people who want to do the same things you do,” he adds.
TrekAmerica’s eight-day Southwest Canyons and Coasts tour, new this year, takes in the Grand Canyon among its stops. With fewer included activities, it caters to a lower price point, and includes visits to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park.
“Each rim has unique viewpoints and attractions, including a glass skywalk and the Grand Canyon Village.”
Yellowstone National Park: Extending into three states in America’s northwest, Yellowstone National Park is the oldest in the country, established in 1872. If wildlife spotting is on your customers’ list, then Lamar Valley is one of the best places to find bison, wolf packs, grizzly bears, eagles and more.
But you can’t take a trip to Yellowstone without exploring its geysers, mud baths and hot springs. The park sits inside the exploded crater of a volcano and geothermal features can be seen all over Yellowstone. The Old Faithful geyser is the most famous and also one of the most predictable, spraying out huge jets of water as often as every two hours. So, with a bit of patience, it’s an incredible show.
Yellowstone also has a Grand Canyon of its own, a vast ravine with a waterfall at the end and rugged scenery in a kaleidoscope of colours.
America’s Greatest Treasures is a 10-day tour from Cosmos starting at £1,345, including two days exploring Yellowstone’s geothermal attractions, plus stops in Denver, Mount Rushmore and Salt Lake City.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: What comes to mind when you think of Hawaii? Beaches, surfing and coastal walks may be up there, but there’s also a stunning national park on Big Island.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as its name suggests, is home to two striking volcanoes – Mauna Loa and Kīlauea – which is one of the world’s most active.
Some parts of the park remain closed following a volcanic eruption in 2018, but most of it is open as normal, including the sulphur banks, trails on both the volcanoes and most of the campgrounds.
“Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to two striking volcanoes – Mauna Loa and Kīlauea.”
“As well as the volcanic backdrop there are also fantastic flora, fauna, rainforest, wilderness and seascapes in the park,” says Rachel Coffey, director of business development at Trafalgar, which offers four dedicated trips to Hawaii, all of which visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “We learn about the fiery geology of the islands and walk through a real lava tube, before enjoying lunch with the volcano in the background.”
Yosemite National Park: Sequoia trees towering higher than the eye can see, sheer granite cliff faces dominating the horizon, waterfalls crashing down into the lakes below – these are just some of the scenes on show at Yosemite National Park.
The park is a hiker’s dream, and in an area covering 1,200 square miles, there are plenty of trails to choose from.
El Capitan is one of the most famous sights in the park, soaring to more than 900m. This sheer granite cliff face is impressive, no matter what angle you look at it from.
“Yosemite National Park is a hiker’s dream, and in an area covering 1,200 square miles, there are plenty of trails to choose from.”
The best way to see Yosemite is on foot, says Vicky Broughton, senior product manager at Exodus Travels. “A naturalist guide can take travellers to lesser-visited parts of a park, identifying the local flora and fauna as well as looking out for black bears,” she says.
Exodus Travels has incorporated more than 13 Grand American Adventures tours into its programme, including the Western Explorer, a 12-day tour that takes in five national parks, as well as Monument Valley,
Las Vegas and San Francisco.
Denali National Park: Alaska is unrivalled when it comes to nature and wildlife. The largest US state by land mass, it’s full of lakes, mountains, glaciers, fjords and much more.
Denali National Park alone covers almost 2.5 million hectares and has its own ‘big five’ of must-spot animals: caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, moose and wolves.
“Denali is a true wilderness destination,” says Tom Armstrong, corporate communications manager at Tauck. “Most travellers want the assurance and confidence that results from having someone with real ‘boots-on-the-ground’ experience planning their trip.
“Denali National Park alone covers almost 2.5 million hectares and has its own ‘big five’ of must-spot animals.”
“Guides are incredibly knowledgeable, and they really help our guests to better understand and fully appreciate everything they’re experiencing in Denali, so it’s a much more educational and enriching experience.”
The park is also home to North America’s highest peak, Denali, which is hard to miss towering high above the landscape. Meanwhile, Horseshoe Lake Trail is one of the most picturesque hikes, where the tall trees and rugged mountains reflect in the calm waters.
The lodges in Denali are extremely popular, so it’s advisable to book far in advance, says Armstrong.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Those looking for an all-American experience can stop by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. Named for the blue mist that lingers over the mountains’ peaks, the Smokies are full of history. The park’s landmarks, which range from mills to historical houses, provide a window into what life was like for the Cherokees.
“Named for the blue mist that lingers over the mountains’ peaks, the Smokies are full of history.”
“Its location offers a perfect opportunity to take in some other amazing experiences as part of a tour,” says James Howlett, head of sales at Collette, which is sold through Fred Olsen Travel in the UK. “That could be to learn all about the equestrian world of Kentucky, take in a bourbon tasting, be wowed by Dolly Parton’s Stampede, visit the Grand Ole Opry or enjoy the incredible food and hospitality of the south.”
Collette’s eight-day Nashville & the Smoky Mountains Holiday (from £2,049) visits Nashville to take in the sights of the home of country music, as well as Gatlinburg and Asheville.
Best of the rest
• Zion National Park: Localed in Utah, Zion is best known for ils jaw-dropping Angels Landing hike, a sleep and narrow path that twists and turns upwards, offering unparalleled views of the park – it’s nol for the faint-hearted.
• Everglades National Park: On Florida’s southern lip, the Everglades is a lush wetland, home lo alligators, crocodiles and manatees. Row through the swamps in a kayak, cycle along the frails or rent a fishing boat.
• Olympic National Park: set in Washington slate’s nodhwesl, this park is full of incredible biodiversity. There’s snow-lopped mountains, abundant rainforests and beautiful bays along its coastline.
Save: TrekAmerica’s eight-day Southwest Canyons and Coast tour costs from £699 per person, including two nights in a hotel, five nights’ camping, the services of a tour leader, fees, private transport and most equipment.
Spend: Exodus Travels offers a 12-day Western Explorer tour from £3,429, including accommodation, guided excursions, three breakfasts and one dinner.
Splurge: Tauck’s 15-day Grand Alaska lour costs £5,490, based on a May 30 departure. The price includes seven nights’ accommodation, a seven-night cruise with shore excursions, all meals except one dinner, and transfers. tauck.co.uk