Carved from ancient rock, the countless canyons, mesas and buttes of this arid world may look like something out of a science fiction universe or pictures brought back from a probe sent to Mars. This location is classified as a desert environment, yet all of its unique landforms and geological formations are in someway shaped by two rivers. It may seem hard to believe that below the rims of these canyons, in the shadows of these mesas and buttes that both of these rivers still run here. While not as famous as the Grand Canyon to the south, the canyons here are also carved from the Colorado River, the blue ribbon of life that descends from the Rockies through Utah and Arizona before finally emptying into the Gulf of California via Mexico. This weird, wonderful magical place is Canyonlands National Park.
Located not far from Moab, Utah, this park is divided major districts with names that sound like something out of fiction: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the Rivers. This area was also once home to the ancestral Puebloan peoples who created one of the first major civilizations in this region as well as in other national parks like Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest and the Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. It soon became a place of miners and Mormons, ranchers and researchers. Today, Canyonlands is one of the big five parks in Utah and, along with nearby Arches National Park, has made the small Mormon community of Moab a travel destination for visitors the world over.
Amid the remains of ancient forests and ancient peoples are more modern ruins - towns, cars and railroads abandoned by those who attempted to make their life out in this unforgiving but beautiful landscape. While the desert and fossils here date back hundreds of millions of years, this area only became a national park in the 1960s. It took several attempts by various presidents to turn this area into a national park. It took more than 65 years of campaigning for Petrified Forest to attain national park status and was the only national park created under the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The second of the three national parks in Arizona, every new discovery here proves that Petrified Forest National Park is a national treasure.
Usually referred to as Virgin Islands National Park, this national park covers the majority of the island of St. John and most of Hassel Island. It is hard to get to either of these two islands that make up the park without leaving from Charlotte Amalie, the biggest city on the Island of St. Thomas, though this island is not part of the park itself. The U.S. Virgin Islands neighbor the British Virgin Islands, which have a few national parks of their own. Both of these territories share a similar history, and it is not uncommon to find Spanish, Danish and English names in the same communities as a result. Purchased from Denmark during World War I, these islands are a relatively new U.S. Territory. There is nowhere better to explore the Caribbean than in Virgin Islands National Park.
Nearly a week after American, British and Canadian troops began making their heroic D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed off on the creation of Big Bend National Park half a world a way. The American military and Big Bend always had a close relationship, from the end of the Mexican-American War when the military was used to buffalo soldiers survey this land to the cinnabar mines of the early 1900s that provided mercury and quicksilver needed for soldiers in World War II. Fort Stockton, a former military town, is still one of the closest cities to this remote park in west Texas. While it doesn’t have as many visitors as some of the more well-known parks out west, it is no longer one of the least visited national parks in the country, thanks in part to a historic 1960s visit by Lady Bird Johnson, a native Texan and America’s first lady at the time of her trip. Today, Big Bend National Park is still proving the adage that everything is bigger in Texas.
Over the years, the history of Mammoth Cave has followed the history of Kentucky, from the fossils left behind by ancient animals and plants that once roamed North America before the continent truly existed to the remains of the first prehistoric humans to claim Kentucky as their own. In more modern times, written history of the cave flows from the frontier trappers who first discovered it to its use as a saltpeter mine and even tuberculosis hospital. As the state’s fortunes changed, It was a giant during a period known as the Kentucky Cave wars when down-on-their luck post Civil War families attempted to make a quick buck off of tourists by exploiting the natural caves on their land. Internationally recognized as a gem of geological study, Mammoth Cave will always be the favorite national park in its old Kentucky home.
At 45 miles long and nine miles wide, it is the largest natural island in Lake Superior and the second largest in all of the great lakes. Before becoming a national park, it was its own county in Michigan and the site of a failed copper boom. The last national park created before the U.S. entered World War II, it remains in a state similar to how it appeared when the first European fur traders and trappers encountered the native Ojibwe people. They and their ancestors had lived, hunted and fished in this area dating back to at least 2000 BCE. While Isle Royale is the biggest island and namesake of the park, there are actually dozens of other islands that are part of the park's land. Today, Isle Royale National Park is popular with fishermen, boaters, kayakers, and scuba divers searching for the ships lost in the treacherous waters of Lake Superior.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are administered jointly as Sequoia splits Kings Canyon from its visitor’s center, making Kings Canyon one of few non contiguous parks in the U.S. Despite being jointly administered, some might expect a sibling rivalry to emerge between these two parks. Though Sequoia has more visitors per year, Kings Canyon still beats its big sister in terms of acreage. While Sequoia is named after the trees themselves, Kings Canyon is also home to the largest remaining sequoia grove in the world as well as one tree dubbed “America’s Christmas tree.” It can be hard to separate the two parks from each other, but they each have unique stories that helped them become national parks.
Things have not always been easy for the denizens of this national park. The Native tribes who flourished here for centuries found themselves driven off by loggers, prospectors and other settlers hoping to get a last glimpse of the old west in this new frontier. Pillaging of the area’s natural resources prompted conservationists and officials to campaign for the preservation of this park and its natural beauty before more devastation could occur. Even now, work is underway to restore damaged ecosystems and preserve the pristine beauty surrounding America’s Mount Olympus.
Known locally as the Smokies, this is largest national park east of the Rocky Mountains, and is also the most visited park in the country because it lies within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the nation’s population. The park is one of few open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. The reason for this is because of U.S. Highway 441, also known as Newfound Gap Road, a 32-mile stretch of highway that connects Gatlinburg, Tenn., with Cherokee, N.C. Another pathway, the Appalachian Trail, extends for 70 miles through the park. Visitors here not only take in the natural sights but can also learn about the history of the people who once lived here. Many former homesteads and even small villages are still historically preserved within the park’s boundaries. Home to black bears and fireflies, wildflowers and fall foliage, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is truly an American icon.
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