25 stunning park vistas in the USA

Last updated 13:28 23/08/2013

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If these 25 astounding vistas tell us anything, it's that America's beauty is a fierce kind. There are the alien landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and the trickling glacial promontories of Denali and Glacier National Park.

Legends, too, inform these lands, from Dead Horse Point's cowboy past to the cliff-side Puebloan abodes of Mesa Verde. That's to say nothing of the swooping peregrine falcons, majestic moose, and gigantic Californian redwoods that call these parks home.

Check out our picks for the 25 most stunning vistas in America's National Parks - but these are merely a sliver of the wonders you'll find when you actually visit.

Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona

The Grand Canyon astounds with its statistics - clocking at an average width of 10 miles and depth of 1 mile, coupled with a length of 277 river miles - but nothing compares to the view itself. Year-round outdoor adventures beckon, like biking, boating, camping, fishing, hiking, mule riding, white-water rafting, cross-country skiing, and more. But stand still to take in the surreal vistas including the awesome sunsets and sunrises at Point Sublime and Yavapai Point; waterfalls, streams, and rivers; and sandstone canyon walls juxtaposed with velvet green forests and jutting mesas, plateaus, and volcanic features.

Insider Tip: To truly commune with nature, make sure to consult these tips for avoiding the crowds.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Tennessee/North Carolina

With miles of mountains and verdant wilderness, it's no wonder this ranks as the most-visited national park in the U.S. Explore the many historic buildings in Cades Cove, whose history is as rich as the Smokies' abundance of wildlife. For lunch, picnic at Chimneys while the kids wade in the rocky streams.

Insider Tip: 'Bald' mountains lack trees on top, making for spectacular unobstructed views in the midst of a high-elevation meadow - Great Smoky Mountains National Park has plenty.

Olympic National Park - Washington

Circling the snow-capped Olympic Mountains is this remote, enchanted gem of Pacific Northwestern beauty. Coastal boulders sculpted by waves top hot springs and tidal pools teeming with sea life, while pine trees crown foggy sea stacks. Get a panoramic view of it all from the 5,200-foot-high Hurricane Ridge, which encompasses the Olympic range, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Vancouver Island.

Insider Tip: Bring a raincoat: the region gets 140 inches or more per year. Enjoy the precipitation in the lush Hoh River Rain Forest, where elk peer from beneath mossy maples upwards of 200 feet high.

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Dead Horse Point National Park - Utah

Legend has it that cowboys once drove wild mustangs onto Dead Horse Point - a small peninsula overlooking the Colorado River 2,000 feet below - and pen them here with a brush fence, where some were forgotten and left to perish. The mesa's ties to the wild west, combined with spectacular views of pinnacles and buttes carved by the river, make this a must-visit.

Insider Tip: Sleep under the stars at Kayenta campground, which has 21 campsites -- we can't guarantee you won't be haunted by ghosts of wild mustangs, though.

Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah

The 'hoodoos' for which Bryce Canyon is known - fairy-like, rain-sculpted spires of rock that protrude from the badlands - best capture what makes the park so magical. At sunrise and sunset, light plays off the red rock to enchanting effect. When night falls, the Night Sky Program shepherds hikers through the sky as it illuminates with three times as many stars as city-folk witness.

Insider Tip: Fairytale flora and fauna populate the park, whose elevation tops out around 9,000 feet. Look out for peregrine falcons soaring at speeds near 200 mph through the crimson and orange sandstone amphitheatres.

Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado

More than 355 miles of hiking trails wind through wildflower meadows, dizzying mountain peaks, alpine lakes, and teeming wildlife like elk and bighorn sheep. Trail Ridge Road - the world's highest continuous paved highway - twists and turns to a 12,183-foot apex from which to take it all in. Along the way, moraines and glaciers, colourfully carpeted meadows, and three different ecosystems make for multiple photo ops. Rainbow Curve affords views of nine distinct mountain peaks, as well as the Alluvial Fan, a 42-acre field of rocks and boulders left over from an earthen dam-break in 1982.

Insider Tip: While high-season crowds are thinnest in early June or September, Trail Ridge Road is only passable from Memorial Day to mid-October.

Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming

Upon arrival at Yellowstone, the combination of rugged wilderness, natural beauty, majestic peaks, and vibrant wildlife make it obvious why this is an American rite of passage. Geysers like Old Faithful (which can be viewed from the Old Faithful Inn), mudpots, fumaroles, and hot springs are the dazzling manifests of the park's magma-filled underbelly. Stampeding bison in the Lamar Valley will stoke your heart rate; calm it with a glass of wine and an elegant meal at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel Dining Room.

Insider Tip: Anglers will love Yellowstone in fishing season, especially along the Madison River, where native cutthroat trout, grayling, and mountain whitefish tempt fly fishermen.

Yosemite Nationa Park - California

Imagine stepping into an episode of Planet Earth, except everything in the episode is visible with one 360° crane of the neck -- that's what it's like to stand in Yosemite Valley. Glacier Point offers bird's-eye views at 3,200 feet, while Yosemite Falls promise a cooling shower if you hike nearby in May. Let yourself be dwarfed by the ancient sequoias in the aptly named Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, then dine in the sugar-pine-laced Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room with towering windows overlooking the park.

Insider Tip: Head to Wawona Road, which passes through a mountainside before emerging on one of the park's most astonishing vistas.

Acadia National Park - Maine

Scenic drives through Maine's only national park afford views of ragged cliffs jutting starkly from the navy ocean, while hikers can view Frenchman and Blue Hill bays from rounded mountaintops -- Cadillac Mountain is the highest point of land on the East Coast. Acadia's forested interior, criss-crossed with carriage roads, hides birds and other wildlife.

Insider Tip: The demure yet famed Bass Harbor Head Light is one of Maine's most photographed lights. Built in 1858, it can be photographed from the rocks below or the surrounding trails as it beckons phantom mariners.

Denali National Park - Alaska

Denali, Alaska's most-visited attraction, offers a chance to experience what it might have been like in Yellowstone 50 years ago: 6 million acres of untouched wilderness are enough to house galaxies of stunning vistas, like leviathan mountains (including Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America) and equally oversize moose antlers, as well as forested glaciers and vestiges of Alaska's ice ages like Wonder Lake.

Insider Tip: Most of Denali's wilderness is unmarked, meaning hikers should be conservative in route planning -- unexpected tussocks will frustrate tundra treks, and wildlife may cause delays as well.

Mesa Verde National Park - Colorado 

The west has its fair share of geologically stunning parks, but Mesa Verde earns its status from its rich cultural history. More than 4,000 archaeological sites from the Ancestral Puebloan people cover 80 square miles. The largest is Cliff Palace, which contains about 150 rooms and 23 kivas (ceremonial religious rooms) on three levels and is accessible only by a steep downhill hike and five ladders. Other dwellings are carved directly into the sandstone cliff faces.

Insider Tip: The Mesa Top Loop Road, which skirts the scenic rim of Chapin Mesa, is a 6-mile drive offering great views of Cliff Palace, Sun Temple, and other dwellings.

Canyonlands National Park - Utah

Commercial moon travel is still a pipe-dream, but Canyonlands lets you come close. Here, rocks rise like mushrooms from the arid canyons, reaching for the clouds in pinnacles, spires, buttes, and mesas. If someone oil-painted the moon's surface, it might look something like where the Green and Colorado rivers traverse Canyonlands' viridian forests and sunset-hued rocks. Rafters can battle the Cataract Canyon rapids, while mountain bikers will be drawn to the park's challenging dirt roads.

Insider Tip: Mesa Arch is a great photo op, while Grand View Point offers scene-stealing 360° views of millennia-old canyons.

Redwood National Park - California

This park's eponymous coastal redwoods soar to more than 300 feet and have certainly seen a lot: some have survived centuries, while a few have been around for more than 2,000 years. Start inside the redwoods themselves at Prairie Creek Visitor Center, a lodge constructed from them that also has wildlife displays and Roosevelt elk roaming nearby. Wander Fern Canyon, an otherworldly vertical garden of ferns on 30-foot canyon walls.

Insider Tips: Take it all in from Crescent Beach Overlook, which includes ocean views -- including migrating grey whales in winter -- and Crescent City in the distance.

Joshua Tree National Park - California

"Where the Mojave and Sonora deserts meet is where you'll find Keys View affords panoramic views of the Santa Rosa Mountains and Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, Mount San Gorgonio, the Salton Sea, and even Mexico's Signal Mountain."

Insider Tip: See how William and Frances Keys raised five children in extreme desert conditions at the 150-acre Keys Ranch - it can only be seen on a walking tour between October and May.

Mount Rainier National Park - Washington

Behind its lilac-studded landscapes, Washington state's Mount Rainier National Park hides a sense of danger: the towering active volcano is a Decade Volcano, meaning it's among 16 on a watch-list of particularly dangerous volcanoes. At 14,411 feet tall, the ghostly peak is the fifth highest in the lower 48 states, as well as the most highly glaciated. Upwards of 2 million visitors yearly trek the sun-bathed subalpine wildflower meadows and forests that ring the majestic mountain. Hike amongst 1,000-year-old trees in the Grove of the Patriarchs, and refuel with the Paradise Inn's bourbon buffalo meatloaf while basking in panoramic views of Rainier.

Insider Tip: The best times to see wildlife, like fawns and bull elk, are at dawn and dusk at the forest's edge.

Death Valley National Park - California

The name doesn't lie: this park is unforgiving. The largest national park outside Alaska is a sparse, scorched swath of land that rewards only the most daring visitors with rolling sand dunes, black cinder cones thrusting angrily from the scorched desert hundreds of feet below, mutant-like Joshua trees, and unlikely riots of wildflowers. Dante's View roosts 5,000 feet up in the Black Mountains, allowing astounding views.

Insider Tip: Head to Racetrack to witness inexplicable 'moving boulders' that have scientists scratching their heads.

Glacier National Park - Montana 

Melting snow and alpine glaciers from the slopes of the Continental Divide's massive peaks flow in all directions to the ocean, while verdant meadows, stream bottoms, and coniferous forests are a haven for widely varied wildlife. Going-to-the-Sun Road offers incredible views as it traverses the crest of the Continental Divide and Garden Wall, while Goat Lick Overlook lets hikers observe both mountain goats and the Flathead River's Middle Fork below.

Insider Tip: Boat tours of St. Mary Lake or Lake McDonald from Glacier Park Boat Company (406-257-2426) are a unique way to take in the park - be sure to make reservations.

Crater Lake National Park - Oregon

Crater Lake's acrylic blue water, which accumulated in the wake of Mt. Mazama's fiery eruption, stretch for more than 5 miles and are ringed by cliffs nearing 2,000 feet high. Filled by snowmelt and rain, it's the clearest and deepest lake in the U.S., and the seventh deepest in the world. If you can tear your eyes away, explore the Oregon Caves National Monument, which hosts marble caves, large calcite formations, and vaulted underground rooms.

Insider Tip: From Phantom Ship Overlook you can see Phantom Ship, a rock formation that resembles a ghostly schooner.

Grand Teton National Park - Wyoming

The jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Teton Range jut up from the Jackson Hole valley floor with an almost artificial-looking vibrancy that's sure to steal your breath. Mountain glaciers creep subtly down 12,605-foot Mt. Moran, while lakes glitter at the range's base. Iconic Western wildlife call this park home, and you'll wish you could, too. Get a close-up of the range from the road on the Jenny Lake scenic drive.

Insider Tip: Birdwatchers will love Oxbow Bend, where pelicans, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, blue herons, and more make regular appearances.

Arches National Park - Utah

Arches is possibly even more Martian than Mars itself, with rocks that teeter impossibly on pedestals interspersed with over 2,500 sandstone arches forming peepholes to the sky, all forming a palette as colourful as a tapestry. Walk through labyrinthine rock fins and narrow sandstone canyons at Fiery Furnace, or gaze up at the iconic Delicate Arch, which is big enough to shelter a four-story building and frames the La Sal Mountains.

Insider Tip: Come quick to see Landscape Arch before it falls -- it's the longest open span in the world.

Big Bend National Park - Texas

Like the set of a Hollywood Western, Big Bend's stark plains stretch tensely in the shadow of the shady Chisos Mountains and hang suspended above Mexico's northern deserts. Ride the rapids of the Rio Grande, or view it from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Chisos Mountains, which reaches 8,000 feet in some places, offers a surprisingly cool refuge year-round.

Insider Tip: Just outside the park, book a Jeep tour for as little as $US49 for a two-hour tour. It's a fun way to get in the rugged spirit of the park.

Badlands National Park - South Dakota

Once described as 'hell with the fires burned out,' South Dakota's weather-ravaged badlands are 380 square miles of ominous chiselled spires, ragged ridgelines, and plunging ravines that unsettle the psyche in the best of ways. Prairie life teems in the wild terrain beside fossils abounds. Next to the Pinnacles overlook, Ancient Hunters Overlook perches above a particularly dense fossil bed, where prehistoric bison hunters drove buffalo herds over the edge.

Insider Tip: Check out the Minuteman Missile Silo near the park entrance. It's the only remaining intact component of an old nuclear-missile field in the area.

Haleakala National Park - Maui

The Haleakala Crater forms the centrepiece of this otherworldly park, where you can drive from sea level to 10,023 feet in just 38 miles. Lush tropical forests flourish below, while at the summit of Haleakala volcano you'll find the crater's stark lunar landscape. Kalahaku Overlook, at 9,000 feet, provides unparalleled views of the island, as well as the unique silversword plant, which only blooms here and on the Big Island's two peaks, sending forth a 3- to 8-foot-tall stalk with hundreds of tiny sunflowers once before dying. The Puu Ulaula Overlook is the highest point on Maui, offering 360° views.

Insider Tips: At 10,000 feet, the air is thin -- you might get breathless. If you've been scuba diving, save the trip up Haleakala for another day.

Lassen Volcanic National Park - California

Lassen Peak, the locus of this park, became dormant in 1921, but not before creating the Devastated Area, a span where vegetation was destroyed by a mudflow following a spectacular eruption in 1915. If you foot the strenuous 10,457-feet climb to the summit, you'll be rewarded with fabulous panoramic views. A scenic drive on Lassen Scenic Byway yields similar sights without the struggle.

Insider Tip: Listen to the earth's natural cacophony of mudpots and fumaroles down below as they roil, gurgle, and thump.

Zion National Park - Utah 

With stripes and spots of greenery dappling the upper coloured bands of limestone, sandstone, and lava, Zion Canyon's 2,000-foot walls are a vibrant geological infographic of the land's history. The domes, fins, and blocky massifs form living monuments of the elements' fury, while the visages and names of cathedrals, temples, prophets, and angels carved in their sides signal the zealous spirituality of the ancients. The sinuous 16-mile crevice of The Narrows lets you be dwarfed by the heavens as towering smooth walls enclose the gorges of the Virgin River.

Insider Tip: Cars are no longer allowed during the busy summer season, allowing for a more relaxing and scenic shuttle ride.

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