There are so many national parks in the west and southwest that it will be impossible to even drive by all of them. West of the Rockies lie parks that showcase glaciers, canyons, impossible land formations, breathtaking waterfalls and ancient cultural sites. Often when our family tours, we pick a theme to pursue, like visiting sand dunes or Ancient Puebloan sites, to get a deeper understanding of a particular issue and to help focus our attention. But whether you take the smorgasbord approach or study a topic in depth, you will find something new around every corner.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
The heart of Native American territory, with hundreds of cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde in Colorado shows how the ancient Pueblo people lived. The kids will love climbing around the rocks in an attempt to get to the elusive abodes. Walnut Creek National Park, in Arizona, features similar cliff dwellings. (mesaverdecountry.com)
Death Valley, California
Death Valley is one of the hottest places on Earth, which might at first glance seem to scare people off. In fact, the heat is a draw, attracting millions to prove themselves against the elements. The annual Badwater Ultra Marathon, held in the hottest week of the year, covers 135 miles through blistering heat, from below sea level to the top of Mount Whitney. Gorgeous flowers litter the desert landscape in the springtime. Zabriskie's Point and Dante's View are two of the park's most popular overlooks. Zabriskie hangs on the edge of the Funeral Mountains and looks over the pale badlands that seem to be always changing with the height of the sun or the weather. Dante's View presides like a distant overlord over panoramic views of the desert and badlands.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
American's first national park still remains one of it's most beloved. Hot pots, mud pots, geysers, and abundant wildlife characterize this national wonder. Take the Grand Loop Road to pick your favorite scenic stop. With a figure eight design, it takes you to most of Yellowstone's top views. (yellowstonepark.com)
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
In the fifties, a group lobbied Congress to preserve a rare stand of bristlecone pine, many of which were ancient. Bristlecone pines are believed to be the oldest living being in the world. Public support simply didn't exist. Then, a young college kid who was researching old trees decided to cut one of the older trees to accurately assess its age. The tree, known as "Prometheus," turned out to be very old and he had just killed the oldest living being in the world, over 4,500 years old. Prometheus' demise sparked an immediate backlash, and not long after Congress granted the region the national park status that would have saved Prometheus.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Located high in the rugged mountain peaks, one can look down at miles of lustrous forest and sharp cliffs, all the time searching for fierce mountain creatures that may show themselves to the patient, and quiet, traveler. (myrockymountainpark.com)
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified wood is scattered from the southeast corner of Utah into northern Arizona where Petrified Forest National Park is located. The wood comes from an ancient forest that covered the area during the Late Triassic period. Don't miss the easy hike over Trail of the Sleeping Rainbows to discover petrified logs up to 5 yards long. Look, but don't take the smaller pieces and fragments. The park has a cache of letters from chagrined petrified wood "collectors" who returned the pieces after experiencing a series of misfortunes on the tail of taking home a sample.