Jaw-dropping vistas, towering snowy peaks, endless varieties of plants, canyons and geysers are what define America’s majestic national parks. Dotted across the country from coast to coast, the parks offer a chance to explore the wilderness and garner a new appreciation for the great outdoors. We’ve rounded up five national parks to visit this summer — find out what to expect when you go and where to stay when you arrive:
1. Yosemite National Park, Calif. Located 195 miles east of San Francisco, Yosemite National Park has close to 1,200 miles to explore. The World Heritage site is famous for its waterfalls, especially Yosemite Falls, the largest in North America. The falls’ water flow is powered by snowmelt, so visit before the end of summer when the temperature heats up and the flow is at its max. There’s plenty of terrain to hike, too with more than 800 miles of trails to navigate. Two rivers — the Tuolumne and Merced — flow through Yosemite, and the massive granite monolith known as El Capitan towers more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor. Keep an eye out for animals including bighorn sheep, bobcats, mule deer and Western fence lizards.
Where to stay. After a long day of traversing terrain, retreat to the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Château du Sureau, located 16 miles south of the park’s south entrance. The quaint hideaway resembles a Provençal castle, and has just 10 richly-clad bedrooms where you can spot the Sierra Nevada Mountains from a private balcony. Grab dinner at the Four-Star restaurant Erna’s Elderberry House inside the hotel for a prix-fixe meal representing a farm-to-table philosophy with French and Mediterranean influences.
2. Zion National Park, Utah. Zion — Hebrew for refuge — has tall sandstone cliffs that gleam in the desert sun. The narrow Virgin River, located in a deep gorge, is surrounded by the rich orange colors of the sandstone walls on each side. This may be the desert, but the vegetation, the river and the rocks are vibrantly hued (photo ops abound). The landscape, with its varying degrees of elevation, serves as home to a slew of animals including mule deer and wild turkeys, Western rattlesnakes, gray foxes and plateau lizards. And the plant life here is like no other — expect to see an interesting amalgamation of cottonwood trees, wildflowers, cacti and Utah juniper. Take it all in by horseback, kayak or a long hike.
Where to stay. The park’s own Zion Lodge is located on park grounds. Choose from regular rooms or one of the 40 cabins with gas log fireplaces and private porches, and enjoy a meal outside on the terrace at Red Rock Grill, which provides a picturesque view of Zion Canyon.
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C. and TN. Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, this Appalachian park is the most visited in America. The landscape is dotted with historic barns, houses and schools from the early European settlers who inhabited the mountainous region. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also an International Biosphere Reserve — more than 17,000 different types of plants, animals and invertebrates live here (including 30-plus types of salamanders). Panoramic views of rolling mountains and the famous “smoky” mist can be seen by auto touring, hiking, biking and horseback riding. Expect to see a few backpackers and fishermen in the backcountry.
Where to stay. For a touch of luxury after a day in the wilderness, head to Asheville, N.C. for a night at the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Inn on Biltmore Estate (a little less than 100 miles away). Located on the Vanderbilt Biltmore Estate, the hotel offers unique activities like carriage rides and river float trips. The décor is decidedly grand — think lush fabrics and scenic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains — and you have immediate access to tours around the historic estate including the gardens and winery.
4. Grand Teton National Park, Wyo. The peaks of the Teton Range tower more than 7,000 feet above the valley of Jackson Hole, near the northwest corner of Wyoming. The Snake River runs north to south through the valley and in the summer you can kayak, boat, float, canoe and fish in it. You’ll see bison in the valley, trout in the River, moose in the meadows and eagles in the sky. Kids can earn a junior ranger badge by completing nature-minded activities and going on a guided hike. Camping is popular here, too — six campgrounds accommodate those with pop-up tents, RVs and everything in between.
Where to stay. Located just over an hour southeast from the park, Amangani is a Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel with some spectacular views. The resort overlooks the elk-grazing landscape of the Snake River Valley and the Rocky Mountains are visible in the distance. The modern, streamlined resort has 40 suites with deep soaking tubs and fireplaces. As the sun sets, take a dip in the heated outdoor pool and look out at the snowy peaks and beyond.
5. Death Valley National Park, Calif. Known as the hottest and driest place in North America, Death Valley National Park seems to contradict itself — high temperatures go hand-in-hand with snow-capped peaks in the sea-level basin. It’s this contrast that makes the park unique, as it’s filled with sand dunes, canyons and badlands. Despite the area’s intense heat, there are still more than 1,000 different kinds of plants that grow in the park and the warmer months feature the famous wildflowers in shades of purple and gold. The park’s scope of elevations allow for animals to inhabit the area — Death Valley is home to 307 species of birds and mammals like coyotes, mountain lions, desert bighorns and bobcats. Rent a Jeep to traverse through Death Valley and hit up the deserted ghosts towns for some creepy history lessons.
Where to stay. Unpack your bags at The Inn at Furnace Creek located inside park. The Spanish-style hotel has 66 rooms and sits next to the Funeral Mountains, which you can spot from the massive windows located throughout the building. Practice your swing at the 18-hole golf course that claims to be the lowest elevation in the world at 214 feet below sea level.
Photo courtesy of Aman Resorts