This year marks the centenary of the US National Park Service, the sole agency responsible for protecting and preserving the country’s 59 “national treasures”. While official celebrations don’t take place until August – the same month President Woodrow Wilson established the entity to manage these wildernesses – festivities are under way throughout the year.
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Start planning now, as many park lovers will already have arranged their trips in advance, and hotels and lodges are starting to get booked up. A good bet would be to join a tour which guarantees accommodation as well as guided access to these vast wildernesses, which can often be a challenge to navigate – or even get to – on one’s own. A majority of national park itineraries are focused on the West but don’t overlook the East and the likes of the Great Smoky Mountains on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Acadia in Maine and the Everglades in Florida.
There are options for all: from single travelers to families. While this selection consists mostly of guided trips, we’ve provided options for those who would prefer to customize their journeys. Several itineraries feature excursions and walking tours led by specialists, including a geologist and a naturalist.
1. On the right track
This 16-day America’s Great National Parks itinerary from Great Rail Journeys sweeps along the shore of Lake Michigan and crosses Wisconsin and South Dakota into Montana, before a final approach into Glacier National Park where rivers, peaks, and meadows come into full view. Other highlights include Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Arches and Canyonlands in addition to stops at Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Denver. There’s also a ride on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway – said to be the highest cog railway in the world – for a thrilling round-trip past creeks, ravines, forests, waterfalls and “Hell’s Gate,” a natural gateway to the mountains. Fittingly, the trip ends with a visit to the Garden of the Gods, an other-worldly constellation of pillars, arches, and rocks.
Departures between August 2016 and September 2017, from £2,895pp, including flights and some meals. Great Rail Journeys (0800 140 4444; greatrail.com).
2. Autumn colours
American Sky’s eight-day Autumn Colours tour visits New England at its most vibrant. It takes in Acadia National Park as well as Boston, Ludlow, Williamstown, North Conway, Bar Harbour, Kancamagus Highway and Portsmouth. Starting in Boston, the itinerary explores the Freedom Trail and the Mohawk Trail before wending its way to Vermont for a visit to the Simon Pearce glassblowing workshop in Quechee. Then it’s off to New Hampshire for a glimpse of Mount Washington. Finally, in Acadia National Park, there’s a stop at Cadillac Mountain, one of the best spots for seeing the sunrise in the US.
Departures between September and October, from £2,219, including flights and some meals. American Sky (01342 889211; americansky.co.uk).
3. Parks and recreation
This comprehensive Awe-Inspiring National Parks tour from Titan visits eight parks in Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota, a vision of the American West as seen in countless films and photographs. The itinerary allows plenty of time to explore the great national parks: Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Teton, Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon. Other highlights include Denver, Fort Laramie, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower and Salt Lake City. There’s even more beauty behind the rugged exterior: you’ll discover these spiritual homelands of the Navajo and Cheyenne, and gain insight into American Indian life and culture. At Yellowstone, an expert will lead you through the mountains, waterfalls, volcanic “sideshows”, and wildlife.
Departures between June 2016 and September 2017, from £2,799pp, include flights, excluding meals. Titan (0800 988 5873; titantravel.co.uk)
4. John Muir’s California: Yosemite and Sequoia
The naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir – the so-called father of the National Parks – spent his life studying at the “University of Wilderness,” turning his love for nature into books that inspired a movement to protect “nature’s temples.” Tauck pays tribute to this much-loved author with a new eight-day Yosemite and Sequoia tour that traces Muir’s trajectory from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada, before moving on to Muir Woods, Sequoia National Park, and Yosemite, where you’ll take in its glacier-carved mountains and redwood forests. Other highlights include a visit to the Presidio, a former army base that was the home of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American cavalrymen, and a walk along the Big Trees Trail at Round Meadow in Sequoia.
Departures between June and October, from £3,090, including flights and most meals. Tauck (0800 8108020;tauck.co.uk).
5. Alaskan adventure
Alaska is home to spectacular national parks such as Denali and Kenai Fjords in addition to the largest national park in the US, Wrangell-St Elias, which is strewn with glaciers five times the size of Manhattan and dotted with nine of the 16 highest peaks in North America. American Sky’s 11-day Alaskan Highlights visits these parks and more. Activities on offer include a dogsled demonstration and the chance to hike, bike and go white-water rafting in Denali; a wildlife cruise, fishing in Kenai Fjords and glacier walking or ice cave trekking in Wrangell-St Elias.
Departures between June and August, from £2,899 including flights; excluding meals. American Sky (01342 889211; americansky.co.uk).
6. Going solo
If you’re flying solo, Just You, a single traveller specialist, is offering a 17-day national parks itinerary, a whirlwind tour of the Wild West. The trip takes in Badlands, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Arches, Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon and Zion alongside key attractions like Mount Rushmore; the battlefield of Little Bighorn where General Custer and the 7th Cavalry were outfought by Crazy Horse; and Mesa Verde, an archaeological masterpiece famed for its cliff dwellings, the largest of which has more than 200 rooms. Alternatively, opt for the company’s 11-day America’s Historic Trail to spend time at the Great Smoky Mountains, the nation’s number one visited national park.
Departures between May and October, from £3,049 b&b including flights. Just You (01858 897311; justyou.co.uk).
7. Family ties
For families, a new 11-day Wild West Adventure from Families Worldwide offers the chance to bring the children (ages 11 and under at the time of travel) for a reduced price (which most other tours don’t offer). The tour takes in Grand Canyon, Arches, and Zion parks, with a stop at Monument Valley. There’s plenty to keep the young ones entertained: a stay in a traditional Hogan house, hiking through the Grand Canyon, swimming in natural pools in Zion, camping under the stars, a sand painting demonstration at a local school and exploring Monument Valley aboard a jeep with a local Navajo guide.
Departures between July 2016 and August 2017, from £2,939 for adults and £2,509 for children including flights and some meals. Families Worldwide (01962 737560; familiesworldwide.co.uk).
8. Bespoke journey
If you’re not keen on joining a group tour but need a helping hand, Audley is offering a 24-day National Parks Explored itinerary. Highlights include Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Mesa Verde and Zion national parks, Monument Valley, South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse national monuments and Salt Lake City. The suggested itinerary includes Bighorn National Park and the Wyoming State Museum and the Union Pacific Railway Terminus in Cheyenne. At Yellowstone, make a beeline for Old Faithful, the park’s geyser, as well as its lakes, boiling mud and sulphurous springs. There are elk, herds of bison and wolves.
This suggested itinerary can be customised, from £3,025pp, including flights, excluding meals. Audley (01993 838 755; audleytravel.com).
9. The Wild West with Ray Mears
This exclusive 15-day Telegraph Tour offers the ultimate national parks experience. It visits seven parks in the west and Midwest, from Mesa Verde’s carved canyon house to Bryce Canyon’s towering hoodoos. The trip includes two days on the road with survival expert and presenter Ray Mears who will share his insights, Old West survival skills and tales of General Custer at Little Bighorn Battlefield; a talk by a geologist to learn about the events that led to the formation of the Grand Canyon; and a chance to meet a real cowboy at a cookout in Billings. There is also a visit to the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West, a dinner hosted by a Montana local, and a trip through Yellowstone with an expert who will explain the park’s forests, geothermal features, and wildlife.
Departs September 9, 2017, from £3,995pp full board including flights. Telegraph Tours (0333 234 0385; telegraph.co.uk/tt-nationalparks).
10. Sun, sea, and sailing
A new seven-day Key West and Dry Tortugas Sailing Expedition from Intrepid Travel charts a course to one of the most isolated and least-visited national parks, the Dry Tortugas Islands in the Florida Keys. It lacks the typical hallmarks of a national park: the trees aren’t too tall and there are no grizzly bears. Instead, it’s a tropical marvel, with sea turtles, corals, and schools of fish. The itinerary is flexible: you can opt to snorkel the reefs off the Marquesas Islands, head ashore on Loggerhead Key or to Hospital Key for a cookout, or even take a tour the Civil War-era Fort Jefferson National Monument. There’s a stop at Key West for nights on the town. Extend your trip for a visit to the nearby Everglades National Park – an International Biosphere Reserve – for a chance to spot spoonbills, egrets, and alligators.
October 15, from £1,156 including most meals; excluding flights. Intrepid Travel (0808 274 5111; intrepidtravel.com).