“Seeing as I’m stuck in front of a computer during the week, I try to make the most of my weekend adventures. I always start with spots that are within a reasonable driving distance, but a few times a year I make an effort to visit places I know I’ll be dreaming about long after I leave. So why not go big and spend a few days in one of our country’s great national parks? Here’s a list of my favorite ones in the wild west…” – Elisabeth Brentano | Lowepro Storyteller | Weekend Wanderer
Yosemite National Park (California)
Everybody loves Half Dome, but there’s so much more to Yosemite than this iconic rock. You’ll find a seemingly endless amount of scenic hikes, my personal favorite being the Four Mile Trail. However, if ascending 3,200 feet over 4.7 miles isn’t your thing, there are easier adventures accessible both by foot and car. Nevada and Vernal Falls are the most photographed waterfalls in the park (and far less demanding hikes), and the Tenaya and Cathedral Lakes are well worth a visit too. If you don’t feel like hiking the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, you can drive there; and Tunnel View is another spectacular roadside vista you won’t want to miss.
Glacier National Park (Montana)
I made my first trip to Glacier National Park this summer and I was blown away by the mountain views and crystal clear water of Lake McDonald. The road through the park quickly takes you up several thousand feet in elevation, and you can pull over for a killer view of Mount Cannon and other peaks at a number of turnouts. Logan Pass is a great stop as well — if you can get a parking spot, that is. There are plenty of trails at this spot, which is the highest point on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Bonus: if you drive about an hour out of the main part of the park, you will be equally wowed by Swiftcurrent Lake
Death Valley National Park (California)
For something a little bit different, think about spending a few days in Death Valley. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, and there are four different sand dunes in the 5,200-square-mile park. The Mesquite Dunes are the most popular (and easily accessible from the main road), but if you have a four wheel drive and some time to kill, definitely make a trip up north to the Eureka Dunes. From painted hills to salt flats, odds are you’ve never seen a landscape quite like this before — or felt one this hot! The average temperature in the late spring can soar as high as 100 degrees, so the best time to visit is between mid-October to mid-April.
Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)
The thermal springs and deep river valleys are as thrilling as the abundant wildlife you’ll see thriving in the oldest park in the United States. You’re pretty much guaranteed to spot bison, elk and pronghorn antelope from the road, and you may even see wolves, bears and foxes if you drive through Lamar Valley. Marvel at the rainbow hues of the Morning Glory Pool and the Grand Prismatic Spring, watch the Old Faithful geyser work the crowd and definitely make sure you visit the 300+ foot Lower Falls waterfall. Oh, and if you think there’s only one Grand Canyon in the United States, you’re wrong — the one here is just as impressive as Arizona’s.
Joshua Tree National Park (California)
From the starry skies to the otherworldly silhouettes of Joshua trees on the horizon, this vast desert landscape comes alive as soon as the sun starts setting. There are nearly a dozen campsites (my personal favorite is White Tank), and there are quite a few fun hikes as well. And it’s not just about the Joshua trees — there are all sorts of incredible rock formations in the park, many of which you can climb on. There’s an arch near the White Tank campground, along with a number of large boulder clusters scattered off the main road. You’ll see rabbits, lizards and snakes, and be sure to take a stroll through the Cholla Cactus Garden, especially in the early morning or late afternoon.
Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)
If you’ve ever dreamed of a place with snow-capped peaks, glassy lakes and swans, you’ll be happy to learn that all three of these things actually exist at Grand Teton National Park. Stop by Schwabacher Landing, Oxbow Bend Turnout and Jackson Lake for amazing views of the mountains reflecting on the water, and if you pay a visit to the Mormon Row Historic District, you’ll get to admire rural barns. Barns are fun and all, but the real reason to hang out here is for the chance to get a peek at the fox that frequents that area…
Crater Lake National Park (Oregon)
I’ve never been to Crater Lake National Park, so I initially didn’t want to include it in this post. However, I have a handful of friends in the Pacific Northwest who constantly send me pictures in an attempt to lure me up for a visit. And you know what? It worked, because I now have a long weekend trip in the works before the end of the year. This image was shot by my buddy and fellow weekend wanderer Robby, who resides in Oregon. When I asked what he likes best about Crater Lake National Park, he seemed torn. “The stars are to die for, but my favorite thing is how the lake is still protected from motorized boats. It’s perfectly clean and pristine, and it’s such a peaceful place to visit.” On top of that, the view above is just a two minute walk from a parking lot off the side of the road.
Canyonlands National Park (Utah)
Arches, Canyonlands and Zion all boast spectacular scenery and hikes, so it’s pretty difficult to pick a favorite national park in Utah. Canyonlands may get the least amount of attention, but did you know that it gives you the most variety when it comes to landscapes? From the way the sun glows on the belly of Mesa Arch at sunrise (pictured above) to the jaw-dropping view of the Island in the Sky mesa at the Green River Overlook, you have to spend at least half a day in Canyonlands. The best part? It’s only 30 minutes away from the incredible Arches National Park, so you really can have it all.