Six of the best: Awe-inspiring US national parks

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK

The first sighting of the Grand Canyon always comes as a surprise. It's not one giant slot in the desert, but a staggering series of splinters dominating the horizon. The coloured layers in the rock, though, remain strikingly consistent. For many, an encounter with the Grand Canyon involves a day trip from Las Vegas and a couple of crowded lookouts. Far more rewarding is the view from the less accessible north rim, or the south rim from Flagstaff, Arizona. Hiking and rafting trips inside the canyon offer a more rounded perspective. See nps.gov/grca

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

It's the original – in 1872, Yellowstone became the world's first national park – and arguably the best. Yellowstone stretches over the north-west of Wyoming, overlapping slightly into Idaho and Montana, but its strength is its sheer variety. It's on top of a giant volcanic caldera, and has an array of strange geothermal features, such as the Grand Prismatic Spring and the Old Faithful geyser, but it also has its own grand canyon with a thunderously plunging waterfall, mountainous back country and world-class wildlife viewing. The Lamar Valley is particularly good for spotting bison, moose and bears. See nps.gov/yell

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

The five national parks spread across the south of Utah each do the rugged red rocks and canyons thing slightly differently, and combine beautifully as a road trip, but Bryce Canyon stands out from Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands through its sheer weirdness. The high-altitude lookouts give predictably mesmerising views over the inhospitable landscape, but it's the thousands of hoodoos that grab the attention. These bobbly rock formations, weathered into bizarreness over time, look like armies of Twiglets. Walking trails take you in among them. See nps.gov/brca

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK

This Californian escape's advertised highlight is the trees, in particular, the largest tree on earth. The General Sherman is more than 80 metres high and has a base circumference of more than 30 metres, but it is not alone – plenty more giant sequoias have been spared the chainsaw, and the dwarfing groves of them give the Sequoia National Park its character. The depth and variety, however, come elsewhere. The landscape is riddled with caves, many of which visitors can explore in relative safety, while the Sierra Nevada mountain backdrop adds spectacle. Mount Whitney, at 4421 metres the tallest mountain in the 48 contiguous US states, is the most  prominent. See nps.gov/seki

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK

Most of the national arks in the south-west are about the landscapes, but this one in southern Colorado is more cultural than natural. There's still plenty of rugged scenery, but there are also more than 5000 archaeological sites contained within Mesa Verde's boundaries. They're the remnants left by the ancient Pueblo people who lived there before the European conquest of the Americas, and some of the homes built into precarious cliff faces are remarkably well preserved. Cliff Palace has the most spectacular examples and, perhaps more than any other park, this is where the ranger-guided tours shed admirable light. See nps.gov/meve

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK

While most of the US national parks feature soaring mountain scenery and plunging gorges, the Everglades are almost entirely flat. Visitors go there for eco-systems rather than elevation. At the southern tip of Florida, this steamy, wild expanse of swampland is the world's slowest-moving river. There's almost no development within the confines, and exploring is generally done by airboat or squelchy wading in the relative shallows. The extensive mangrove system has created a rich haven for wildlife. It doesn't take too much nosing around to find alligators, panthers and manatees. See nps.gov/ever

Video: National Parks Adventure marks 100 years of America's National Parks Service

The writer travelled at his own expense. 

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