Take in the Mountains at These 4 National Parks
From the rugged slopes of the Rocky Mountains to the dense forests of the ancient Appalachians, some of the best mountain vistas in the United States can be found in national parks. For the best views, it helps to get off the beaten path, so be sure to wear some sturdy shoes as you hike into these four outstanding mountain parks.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, this is America’s most visited national park for a reason. The views are continuous and extraordinary, with ridge after ridge of the Appalachian Mountains fading away toward the horizon. Visit in autumn for unbeatable fall foliage or plan your trip in April to catch the annual wildflower bloom in the park’s alpine meadows.
● Best Hike: LeConte Mountain – One of only a handful of “sixers” (peaks over 6,000 feet) in the east, LeConte Mountain looms 6,593 feet above sea level. Several trails will get you to the top, including the scenic and moderately challenging Boulevard Trail. Start at the Newfound Gap parking area and head east for 2.7 miles on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and then turn north at the junction with the 5.4-mile Boulevard Trail. Once you reach the top, you can double back the way you came or take an alternate route on the 7.2-mile Billhead Trail, which ends on Cherokee Orchard Road.
2. Acadia National Park
There aren’t many places where you can climb a mountain and see the coast from the top, but Maine’s Acadia National Park is one of them. From its island-dotted coastline to the impenetrable evergreen forests inland, there’s no doubt that this is one of the wildest parks in America.
● Best Hike: Sargent Mountain – From the Jordan Pond House, the 5.5-mile Sargent Mountain Loop utilizes several shorter trails to take hikers along the shores of mirror-like Jordan Pond, upward through lush forest to the rocky summit of 1,373-foot Sargent Mountain and back. From the top, you can look out over Mount Desert Island to the Maine coast and inland to the distant Mount Katahdin.
3. Mount Rainier National Park
The centerpiece of this Washington park is the massive Mount Rainier, an active volcano that towers an imposing 14,410 feet above sea level. The landscape of Mount Rainier National Park ranges from a snow-capped summit to wild subalpine wildflower meadows and ancient forest.
● Best Hike: Wonderland Trail – Forming a 93-mile loop encircling Mount Rainier, this is a truly epic hike. Eighteen trailside wilderness camps provide a place to spend the nights as you complete the loop, a feat that usually takes a minimum of 10 days. Expect a challenging hike with numerous climbs and descents, along with spectacular views of the mountain and the six rivers that originate on its slopes.
4. Denali National Park
Alaska’s Denali National Park is 6 million acres of some of the wildest land that still exists in the United States. One solitary ribbon of road bisects this vast wilderness, and most of the park’s trails begin near the entrance, but for the best mountain views you need to go a little deeper.
● Best Hike: Eielson Visitor Center – Located at Mile 66 on the Park Road, the Eielson Visitor Center provides access to two short trails—the 0.3-mile Tundra Trail and the 0.2-mile Tundra Spur—that traverse fairly easy terrain and offer some of the best views of the park’s rugged alpine tundra. Sightings of caribou and Dall sheep are fairly common, and on a clear day you can see the 20,321-foot summit of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America.