Our Favorite National Parks

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, NRDC’s very own wilderness fanatics share their most treasured park memories.

mcfst3/Flickr

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s Enduring Impact on Me

“Two decades have passed since I first drove into the western Colorado canyon lands, but I still remember the journey there as clearly as the stars that lit the boundless night sky. Making my way across the darkened landscape, I could sense the vastness of this special place in the pitch-black emptiness before me. Between the shadows stretched out across the broad plateau, I could faintly discern the outlines of granite walls falling off far beneath me, the handiwork of the Gunnison River slicing through Precambrian rock nearly two billion years old. By first light the next morning, I stood awestruck gazing at canyon walls, some nearly twice as tall as the Empire State Building, cut through in places with pink and white rock as if streaked by some cosmic brush. All was silent except for the wind, roaring through high passes where golden eagles and red-tailed hawks soared in the sunlight in search of prey.” —Rhea Suh, president

Don Breneman/Alamy Stock Photo

Surviving an Epic Storm at Voyageurs National Park

“Voyageurs campsites are reachable only by boat, and in the summer of 1993, my family headed out in a tiny johnboat. While we were looking for the perfect campsite, a massive storm developed. Giant waves tossed our boat around and crashed over the sides. My mom started crying, while my sister Christina sat silently in shock. My sister Caroline plugged her ears, closed her eyes, and started singing at the top of her lungs. I desperately tried to bail out the boat with a plastic cup while my dad tried to guide us to safety. At last, we found a pile of rocks in the middle of the lake where we could pull up. Our epic adventure is one we will remember forever.” —Rebecca Riley, senior attorney, Land & Wildlife program

Fighting Fire at Lassen Volcanic National Park

“I was working on a helicopter crew as a U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighter when a fire started high in Lassen Volcanic. Our pilot dropped us off in a meadow, miles from any road. We worked ferociously for the next 10 days, cutting a firebreak through the forest. The fire was only hours away, backing down the hill toward us. The skin on my face grew tight from the heat. But our line held—the fire stopped there. As our pilot picked us up, I thought about the fact that cars can’t take us to all of our country’s prettiest places, but a helicopter can.” Giulia Good Stefani, attorney, Marine Mammal and Southern California Ecosystems Project

Courtesy Joel Reynolds

Letting Go at Muir Rock in Kings Canyon

“I grew up hiking in Kings Canyon and have continued to do so with my own kids throughout their childhood. There is no more significant natural point of reference in their lives than Muir Rock, the site of a 15-foot jump into one of the most beautiful swimming holes anywhere. After avoiding the edge for years, my kids learned to love that jump—first while holding my hand and then, throwing caution to the wind, on their own, over and over again. 'The Rock' has become an essential destination for our family and just one more reason to love our national parks.” —Joel Reynolds, Western director and senior attorney

 

Finding God at Yosemite National Park

“For three summers in college, I worked in the stables at Yosemite, taking tourists up the park’s waterfalls and trails. After college, I returned and stayed for years. My love for Yosemite grew into an adoration of the outdoors. My work evolved until I was working full-time to protect the environment and take action on climate change. As many people do, I feel closest to God inside the national parks, as such natural beauty and tranquility begets spirituality. Today Yosemite remains my church. It’s where we celebrate weddings, lay friends to rest, and reconnect with what many of us consider our home.” —Mary Solecki, E2’s Western states advocate

Courtesy Tim Lau

Reuniting and Reflecting at Kenai Fjords National Park

“This past June, my mom, my dad, my brother, and I journeyed together to Kenai Fjords National Park. We hiked out to one of the park’s major highlights, Exit Glacier. Wooden signposts lined the trail, indicating where the glacier’s edge used to be. The signs were sobering: Exit Glacier has receded more than 1.25 miles over the last 200 years and shrunk by 187 feet in 2014 alone. After an hour or two, we reached the foot of the glacier—a soaring tower of blue and white ice. For one long moment, my family was completely synchronized: watching the glacier in collective wonder.” —Tim Lau, social media editor

Saving Falcons at Dinosaur National Monument

“Peregrines had been nearly wiped out by DDT poisoning; the toxic pesticide weakened their eggshells, so the shells broke during incubation. Specialized rangers at Dinosaur helped save the falcons by rappelling down the mountain to reach their high-altitude aeries, rescuing the eggs, and placing them in incubators. Once the eggs hatched, they returned the teenage birds to their nests—and my job as a park ranger was to observe the birds to make sure their parents taught them to fly and survive. Peregrine falcons are now off the threatened species list.”Kate Poole, senior attorney, Water and Wildlife Project; director, Water program

Dimitrios Timpilis/123RF

A Fragile Florida Refuge

“It took only one visit to southern Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve for me to appreciate its beauty—and fragility. The preserve encompasses more than 700,000 acres of freshwater swamp and offers refuge to rare plants and animals, including the ghost orchid and the critically endangered Florida panther. It was so tranquil that I almost forgot why I was there: to document the areas that the National Park Service recently approved for extensive oil and gas exploration. It further motivated me to do whatever I can to prevent dirty energy development in one of the last remaining refuges for panthers and south Floridians alike.” Alison Kelly, staff attorney, Land & Wildlife program

A Snake Surprise at Shenandoah National Park

“Shenandoah is just a couple of hours from Washington, D.C., but it offers more wildlife than you might expect. I was once hiking there with my now-husband and I spotted a harmless rat snake coiled up in the middle of the trail. I respectfully, but casually, stepped over the snake—only to hear a rattle. Turns out our friend was an eastern timber rattlesnake! My husband was impressed with my bravery, though he probably should have been concerned about my snake-identifying skills.”Melissa Waage, director, policy campaigns

Peter Wey/Stocksy

A Proposal in Grand Canyon National Park

“I once told my sweetheart that if he ever asked me to marry him, the proposal should make a really good story, like with polar bears and penguins. About a year later, we went on a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon, through epic rapids. Then we ventured to the headwaters of Thunder River. We hiked a hot, dusty trail all morning and finally reached the top. In the cool mist from the river, he pulled a stuffed polar bear and penguin out of his backpack. ‘Here’s your polar bear and penguin. Now will you marry me?’ The answer was yes.”—Jennifer Sass, senior scientist, Health program

Observing Change at Alaska’s Parks

“Alaska’s national parks are filled with majesty that I treasured when I lived there. I saw a grizzly pop up from the bush in Denali. I watched sea lions, sea otters, and humpback whales feed in Kenai Fjord. But the beauty of Alaska is changing. I went to Katmai hoping to see salmon leap into the mouths of bears, but the bears had left earlier than in years past. The ice caves I planned to explore in Wrangell-Elias had collapsed from heat. Alaska’s national parks capture the state’s raw beauty, but we all must do our part to ensure that beauty remains.” —Kimi Narita, director of strategic engagement, City Energy Project, Urban Solutions program

Kevin Russ/Stocksy

New Perspective at White Sands National Monument

“The first glimpse of dunes validates the park’s slogan: White Sands is truly like no place else on earth. Less than 100 miles from the Mexican border, the largest sea of gypsum dunes in the world covers 275 square miles of American desert. The U.S. military tested the first atomic bomb nearby. It’s a fitting juxtaposition: As I stand in the dunes, overcome by nature’s power, I can sense the eerie remnants of mankind’s. The sun sets, and the wind effortlessly erases our footprints in the sand. I’m struck by the permanence of our planet, despite our fleeting time on it.” —Jeff Popkin, program assistant

Breaking New Ground at Bob Marshall Wilderness

“The path was razor thin. To my right and left, only air, the ground 300 feet straight down. My feet were in the air. It was my horse’s feet that touched the trail. I had come to the Bob Marshall Wilderness for a six-day pack trip with my daughter. Johanna and I did things we’d never done before: She went six days without a shower, I learned to fly fish, we both learned to trust our horses. We came to know that spot on the map better. And we came to know each other better, too.”Sharon Buccino, director, Land & Wildlife program

Andy Gippetti/Flickr

Solo Time at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

“On a recent trip to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, my family and I were mesmerized by the steam and lava in Halema’uma’u crater and witnessed liquid rock emerging from distant hillsides. There was one rainy morning that kept most visitors away, but we decided to hike the Kilauea Iki Trail despite the risk of slippery footing. As we traversed the rainforest and emerged onto the open crater floor, still cooling down from its most recent eruption, we realized that we had the slate-gray splendor and eerie stillness of this large and bizarre landscape all to ourselves! Our minds were blown.”Lena Brook, food policy advocate, Food & Agriculture program

Exploring the Remote at Isle Royale National Park

“Last year, my wife, four-year-old daughter, and I spent a week on Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior that may be the most remote National Park in the system. Located three hours by boat from Copper Harbor, Michigan, it is the only park that closes for part of the year due to its extreme winters. Moose, a wolf pack, and many other residents are part of the experience that Isle Royale offers all who make the effort to get there. We hiked, paddled, caught brook trout, and found what this jewel has to offer.” —Rob Moore, senior policy analyst, Water program

nathanphoto/iStock

Nature’s Splendor at Redwood National Park

“Entering into the old growth of Redwood National Park and the neighboring California state parks is like traveling in time—I’m always struck by how the enormous size of the trees suggests the insignificance of us puny humans. Elks bugle; rhododendron and trillium burst forth in the spring; cool coastal mists add an ethereal quality to a scene that, to me, is unsurpassed. Nothing can match the thrill of being awakened by elk emerging from the redwood forest onto the beach in morning. As national parks go, this is a pocket-size one. But it leaves an enormous impression on my heart.”Carl Zichella, director, Western Transmission

Family Future at Glacier National Park

“This past Father’s Day, my wife, our son, our dog, and I camped for a night at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier. I was floored by Glacier’s raw, wild, rugged beauty. And to share the experience with my wife and two-year-old felt so good. We cooked over a fire, slept in a tent, and watched the sun rise over Glacier. Not long after our visit, we learned the wonderful news that our family will be expanding by one early next year. I am glad to know Glacier will be there for Otto and his brother or sister many decades from now.” Matt Skoglund, director, Northern Rockies office

Eric Foltz/iStock

Honoring the Past at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

“My parents thought it fitting to marry in Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse, a one-room log cabin that still stands in the park today. They’d hiked the Smokies frequently while dating and during their engagement. And when I was a student at the University of Tennessee, we went there to study botany and geology, or I went with my friends to hike, swim in the cold streams, and watch meteor showers from the mountain balds. The mountains have always been more than a recreation spot for us in East Tennessee. They are a link to our past and our culture.”Lara Bryant, soil health fellow, Water program

The Call of the Wild at Yosemite National Park

“On a recent a hiking trip to Yosemite with a friend, we headed to Hetch Hetchy. During our seven-hour hour trip from the valley floor to Smith Peak and back, we saw not a single other hiker on the trail. What we did see were a lot of bears. We also encountered a fire-scarred, difficult-to-follow trail, and we made it to the peak only after a lot of guesswork and backtracking. On the descent, as I looked for our faint boot prints and surveyed the trees for bears, I was struck that even in our heavily trafficked parks, there is still wildness.”—Anna Chapin, grant writer

evenfh/iStock

Discovering a Love of the Outdoors at Zion National Park

“I was never an outdoorsy person, but almost a year ago I visited Zion with my two best friends. Mind. Blown. Nothing has ever made me feel the way I felt in Zion. It made me feel small in the best way. I found myself staying quiet rather than talking, moved to tears by the majesty all around me, overwhelmed by the spectacular history. Zion feels alive, and it made me feel alive, too. I’m a hiker now. I’m outdoorsy. I’m more myself now than I was before experiencing that park. I’ll never look back.” —Emily Barkdoll, program assistant

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