10 national parks to see before you die
Glacier National Park, Montana
Mountain ranges, over 130 lakes, and 26 glaciers—what's left of 100 or more.
Size 1,584 square miles.
Best View Six-mile Grinnell Glacier Trail ends at a glacier and lake.
The Easy Way, Car The 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, a feat of 1920s engineering, crosses the Continental Divide and traces craggy cliffs.
The Easy Way, Foot The 2.5-mile St. Mary Falls trail reaches two cascades.
The Hard Way Try rigorous nine-mile Siyeh Pass.
Creature Feature Cougars and lynx and grizzly bears—oh my!
P.S. Waterton Lakes National Park is Canada's adjacent twin.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
Now 80 years old, Great Smoky is a tribute to natural grandeur, and to the pioneers of our first frontier.
Size 814 square miles.
Crowds About 9 million per year, one of the most popular parks in the country.
On Foot Charlie's Bunion, nine miles round-trip from Newfound Gap, is a cliff with sweeping panoramas.
On Two Wheels Cades Cove Loop Road prohibits cars on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in the summer.
On Four Wheels Drink in the views from atop Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest point.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Rugged coast, glacier-capped mountains, and temperate—and largely roadless—rain forests.
Size 1,442 square miles.
The Easy Way Hurricane Ridge viewing platform faces craggy Olympics (west) and forested hills (south).
The Hard (Wet) Way Launch at La Push to paddle the treacherous Pacific, seeking hidden coves, seals, otters, and bald eagles.
The Shady Way Hoh Rain Forest's Douglas firs and big-leaf maples shade Oregon oxalis and lady ferns in a rare extant example of West Coast old-growth woodlands.
Creature Feature The 27-mile-long East Fork Quinault River Trail traverses elk and bear country.
P.S. In September and October, watch migrating salmon in Sol Duc.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho
A wonderland of geothermal phenomena and wildlife.
Size 3,470 square miles (one-third the size of Vermont).
Pedigree Testimonials of artists and photographers helped convince Congress to preserve Yellowstone.
The Easy Way The two loop roads connect most of the highlights, from Old Faithful to Tower Fall.
The Hard Way Alpen Guides lead you beyond fellow bipeds into true wilderness (800-858-3502; tours from $75).
Creature Feature Lamar Valley is "America's Serengeti" for a reason.
Avoid Peak times at Artist Point.
Yosemite National Park, California
Spacious valleys, towering rock domes, crystalline rivers, thundering waterfalls, giant sequoias.
Size 1,169 square miles.
Crowds 3.2 million a year.
Huge Crowds Most visitors stay in seven-mile-long Yosemite Valley.
The Easy Hike Steep but short, the trail to Vernal Falls footbridge delivers Ansel Adams–worthy views.
The Easy Drive Tioga Road takes you 39 miles up to Tuolumne Meadows, a gentle valley amid peaks.
The Hardest Way Climb El Capitan.
The Smartest Way Hike 2.2 miles up Sentinel Dome for a 360° view.
Creature Feature Black bears, mule deer, and mountain lions are the star mammals.
P.S. Even the rangers have been seen carrying cameras in this park.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Blueberries and blue bloods, misty islands, spruce and pine forest, craggy coastlines.
Size 47 square miles (about double Manhattan).
Crowds Most in summer and fall.
Pedigree John D. Rockefeller, Jr., an early and active patron, created the 45-mile system of horse and carriage roads using granite from a nearby quarry (cars are banned on carriage roads and granite bridges).
Rubbernecking Drive or hike 1,530-foot Cadillac, the tallest mountain on the Eastern Seaboard.
The Easy Way Drive the 27-mile (and justly famous) Park Loop Road.
The Hard Way Hike the 120 miles of trails or bike the carriage roads (207-288-3886; barharborbike.com).
Creature Feature From May through August, rangers lead peregrine watches.
Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
The 91-mile Park Road accesses a vast subarctic wilderness with North America's tallest peak and an abundance of wildlife.
Size 9,492 square miles (about the size of Vermont).
Light Brigade Crowds peak around summer solstice, when the sun rises at 3:45 a.m. and sets at 12:30 a.m.
The Easy(ish) Way Only 1,600 Denali Park Road lottery winners—400 for each of four days every year—can drive in the park, carrying all the rubbernecking passengers they can hold (907-683-2294).
The Wheeled Way Gaze at Denali from the shuttle bus stop at Stony Hill Overlook (mile 61).
Creature Feature Shuttle drivers try to spot the Big Four: Dall sheep, caribou, moose, and grizzly bear.
P.S. The "High One," as Athabascans call it, a.k.a. Mt. McKinley, reveals itself at mile 9 of Park Road.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Spectacular 277-mile-long, 15-mile-wide, mile-deep Colorado River canyon.
Size 1,904 square miles, about the size of Delaware.
Crowds Close to 5 million annually.
Most Memorable View Your first.
Rookie Mistake Hiking part of it. Descend a thousand feet and you will be switchbacking down steep cliffs in rock only 250 million years old; the easier slopes are lower and take you back 120 million years.
The Easy Way Grandview Trail on the South Rim, a six-mile loop to Horseshoe Mesa's views.
The Hard Way The 18-mile round-trip Bright Angel Trail passes Phantom Ranch's dorm-style rooms en route to the Colorado River.
Creature Feature Mules spare you sore feet, but you will still be sore.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Skyscraping peaks and delicate alpine tundra, bighorn sheep scaling jagged cliffs, and glacier-carved valleys bursting with wildflowers.
Size 415 square miles.
Eight Miles High A ten-hour, eight-mile hike up 14,259-foot Longs Peak rewards you with a view of the mountain ridge of the Continental Divide.
Half That High Delivering great views of Longs Peak, Chasm Lake Trail climbs 2,360 feet in 4.2 miles to an alpine lake beneath The Diamond, a 1,000-foot rock wall.
Rubbernecking Cresting at 12,183 feet, Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous road in the United States; Many Parks Curve has awesome views.
Creature Feature Bighorns flock to Sheep Lakes in spring and summer.
P.S. Despite the altitude—a third of it is above 11,000 feet—this is one of the West's most accessible parks thanks to Trail Ridge Road, trail-to-trail shuttle service in the Bear Lake section, and a 355-mile trail system.
Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Erupting since 1983, Kilauea is one of Earth's most spectacular phenomena.
Size 505 square miles (about half the size of Rhode Island).
Best Views, Land Adjacent to the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, the overlook into Kilauea Crater.
The Easy Short Way The 11-mile Crater Rim Drive up Kilauea, past Halemaumau Overlook.
The Easy Long Way Bike or drive the 20-mile Chain of Craters Road (but check nps.gov for road closures).
The Hard Way The Kilauea Iki Trail drops 400 feet and passes steam vents and Pu'u Pua'i cinder cone.
The Harder Way Book a customized lava tube tour or a backcountry hike with Hawaii Forest and Trail (808-331-8505; hawaii-forest.com).
Go All Out Boat tours get close to where the burning red lava oozes into the Pacific (808-966-4200; lavaocean.com).
Etc. volcano.wr.usgs.gov has updates on active lava flow.
This article was originally published in September 2009. It has been excerpted and updated.