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Living in the US
US National Parks
As is known all over the world, the United States is not only one of the most popular countries for expatriates, but also a leading tourist destination. In their report for 2012, the World Tourism Organization ranked the US second worldwide in the number of international tourists.
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As we have briefly brushed upon in part one of this article, there are many more attractions that make the US such a popular tourist destination apart from “just” its various must-see cities. While decidedly more often frequented by domestic tourists than those from abroad, no expat’s travel itinerary should be without at least one of the many great national parks in the US.
The History of National Parks
National parks have been among the most prized institutions of American public life since the designation of the first one in 1872: The world-famous Yellowstone national park in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho is widely accepted as the first national park in the world.
In a nutshell, national parks are protected areas of mostly unspoiled nature and wilderness. They are selected for their natural beauty, recreational opportunities, geological features not found anywhere else, or rare or unusual ecosystems. The main goal of national parks and the agency in charge of their upkeep (National Park Service, NPS) is the preservation and conservation of unique features of nature, scenery, and wildlife for future generations to enjoy.
More than half of the fifty states of the US are home to one or more national parks. California, Alaska (which saw the establishment of a total of seven national parks in late 1980, as per the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act), Utah, and Colorado are the states with the highest number of national parks.
The most recent addition to the ever-growing list of national parks is Pinnacles National Park, which attained its new status in early 2013. California’s ninth park is a popular attraction with rock climbers due to the unique formations found here (formed by erosion out of the remnants of an extinct volcano), and its impressive cave system is home to a variety of bat species. The rare Californian condor was also successfully reintroduced in the wilderness of Pinnacles National Park.
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Most Popular National Parks in the US
For a variety of reasons, accessibility being only one of them, some parks are more popular than others. Still, you will be able to enjoy spectacular and unique natural sights in each and every one of them.
Below, we list the top five national parks in the US in descending order of visitor numbers; chances are that many of you will be familiar with a number of names. We could not possibly list all the noteworthy parks and other natural wonders across the US that would just as well deserve a closer view. Niagara Falls, the Everglades, or Arches National Park are just a few examples.
Great Smoky Mountains
Somewhat surprisingly, the top spot on the list is decidedly less famous around the world than others further down. Still, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has attracted more than twice as many visitors over the past five years as the runner up.
Located between North Carolina and Tennessee, this part of the Appalachian Mountains is a prime destination for hiking enthusiasts, offering some 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads along and up various summits through vast forests, and past beautiful waterfalls. Fishing is another popular activity in the park which, like the mountains that are its home, was named after the fog that frequently hangs between the peaks of the range.
Possibly one of the most famous landmarks in the US, the Grand Canyon, located in Arizona, is most famous for the beauty of its colorful rocks and its unfathomable size and depth. Carved into the sediment by the Colorado River since the Rocky Mountains began to be formed some 70 million years ago, the 450km canyon reaches depths of up to 1800m. As all other parks on this list (with the exception of Rocky Mountain National Park), the Grand Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
More than 3000km² of nearly pure wilderness make Yosemite National Park, located in central California, truly a sight to behold. Yosemite is famous around the world for its harsh granite cliffs (highly popular among rock climbers), pillars, and columns; myriad of lakes, ponds, streams, and waterfalls; scenic hiking routes, and beautiful vegetation.
Yosemite Valley, the park’s namesake and one of most spectacular views that presents itself to the visitor, is probably one of the main attractions. However, failing to explore beyond it would definitely not do the park justice!
Yellowstone is widely regarded the first national park in the world. As it was established well before the detrimental effects of civilization were able to unfold, it managed to meet the original aims of national parks, the preservation of nature and wildlife, to a higher degree than some others.
Yellowstone is home to a nearly completely intact ecosystem bearing its name, a rarity around the world, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. Both flora and fauna can be found in incredible diversity, counting several hundred species each.
But the most prominent and recognizable features of Yellowstone National Park are its many geothermal phenomena, caused by considerable volcanic activity beneath the surface. The most famous is Old Faithful, a geyser that earned its name by reliably erupting up to 56m every 90 minutes.
Rocky Mountain National park, unsurprisingly located in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and surrounded by forest on all sides, is another favorite destination for hikers and rock climbers. The majestic Longs Peak may be the most visible point of the park, but far from the only rewarding destination.
Hikers, backpackers, and campers are in for a wealth of treats along the 560km of trails and past many mountain lakes. As the park sees plenty of snowfall, cross-country skiing is another popular activity.