Many of us have a national park bucket list. The majesty of some of these outdoor spectacles is beyond words. We asked our retired park rangers which parks we should put on our must-visit list for 2023. Marilyn Irwin, Greg Jackson, and Phil Selleck recommended several unique parks, plus some fan favorites, for the upcoming year.
1. Bryce Canyon National Park
Next year is the 100th anniversary of Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah. The park received federal protection in 1923 and was designated a national monument by President Harding. Retired ranger Greg Jackson, who patrolled national parks for over 25 years, says the 100th anniversary is a wonderful time to visit not just the park, but the surrounding area as well.
This beautiful park is only 78 miles from Zion National Park. It’s a simple park to get around because there is only one way in, one way out, and one main road that travels north and south. The hiking is spectacular, and there are options for all skill levels. You can also enjoy the winter festival in February or, if you’re really adventurous, sign up for the Bryce Canyon Ultra Races in May.
2. Sagamore Hill National Historic Site
Oyster Bay, New York
Sagamore Hill National Historic Site is a hidden gem about 30 miles northwest of Long Island, It’s the private retreat of former president Theodore Roosevelt. A visit to this park offers you an inside look into this president’s life.
Roosevelt is credited with protecting over 230 million acres of public land as national forests, national wildlife refuges, and national parks. Phil Selleck, a former ranger who worked for the National Park Service for 30 years, says this lesser-known park is 83 acres full of history and includes Roosevelt’s home and a beachfront on Long Island Sound.
The house interior is about 95 percent original. Roosevelt added the North Room in 1906, incorporating it into his summer White House. Reminders of his distinguished life are there. In his library are his desk, the clay pencil holder he made as a child, and a mantle adorned with Frederick Remington bronzes.
After you’ve toured the house, complete your orientation by walking the path through the woods to the beach, where he walked and rowed. Some of the large old trees are the very same ones there when Roosevelt and his family walked the grounds.
3. Isle Royale National Park
This national park is absolutely on my bucket list! An island in Lake Superior, Isle Royale is the most remote national park in the lower 48 states. Access to the island is by ferry from Minnesota or Michigan. Cars are not allowed on the island.
Hiking is the way to see the park, according to former ranger Marilyn Irwin. There are many trails of various lengths for day trips. For the avid backpacker, the Greenstone Ridge Trail is a 4-day, 3-night trek that covers 40 miles. There are 36 campgrounds in the backcountry, as well as less primitive accommodations of hotels in the front country.
Irwin, who served as a park ranger for 29 years, enjoyed the quaintness of Isle Royale. She liked the old-fashioned feel and serenity.
“Because the island is remote,” Irwin says, “it is a haven for many animals, such as moose, red fox, the illusive gray wolf, and loons with their eerie call. Those enjoying scuba diving can explore shipwrecks in the waters of Lake Superior around the island.”
4. Badlands National Park
Growing up in neighboring Minnesota, I’d driven past this national park but never stopped to explore until 5 years ago. And it is stunning!
Badlands National Park is a rich example of Great Plains plants, animals, and landforms. The landforms, which the Lakota called mako sica, translated into English as “badlands,” were sculpted by water and wind. The layered peaks, canyon complexes, and the famous Badlands Wall change colors with the light throughout the day and after a rain.
Selleck highly recommends watching a Badlands sunset or the miles-off approach of a turbulent Great Plains thunderstorm. You can drive the loop through the park from Cactus Flats to the town of Wall to look for mule deer, antelope, and prairie dogs. If you’ve never seen prairie dogs you’re in for a treat. These little guys pop up all over the place.
Leave the beaten path and you may have the opportunity to find bighorn sheep and bison. And don’t forget to look into the incredible fossil record the area is noted for and the lives of the Lakota people, who still call the badlands home. There is so much to see and explore in this national park.
5. Wupatki National Monument
Near Flagstaff, Arizona
Wupatki National Monument captures the story of the ancient Puebloan people that lived there in the 1100s, when the land was less dry and farming was possible. The National Park Service has stabilized and partially restored several ruins to give an impression of what the trademark pueblos, or adobe homes, looked like.
Though the high desert can look barren, the shrubs, cacti, and seasonal wildflowers occasionally show their colors. Check with the park to pinpoint the best chance of seeing the desert blooms.
The revealing experience for Selleck was driving through beautiful, uninhabited desert and seeing countless piles of red rocks on high points along the way. What surprised him was learning that the rock piles were once dwellings, showing that his abandoned desert was once populated and busy with Puebloan people growing their crops and living their lives all over the landscape.
6. Shenandoah National Park
This spectacular national park extends along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. It’s located about 75 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and draws up to 1.6 million visitors each year.
Shenandoah National Park’s diversity can capture the imagination of any visitor, according to Irwin.
The Skyline Drive, which winds through the park for 105 miles, can give a valuable experience to visitors without leaving their cars. There are numerous overlooks and parking areas from which one can take pictures or walk short distances. The views of the Blue Ridge Mountains are always spectacular, even when observed in the frequent foggy conditions.
For those wanting a wilderness experience, most hiking trails, from easy walks to extensive backpacking trips, are accessed from this drive. The Appalachian Trail goes through the park and beckons one into the dark, dense forest.
Irwin has visited Shenandoah three different times. She started down the Appalachian Trail at one point and quickly realized that she could get very lost if she wandered off the path. It was very dense and very dark, even in daylight.
This park does have its share of black bears. Even though Irwin was a ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, she was a little wary that there was a bear around every turn.
Shenandoah is often suggested as an autumn vacation destination, but summer, with its sunny days and mild temperatures, should not be overlooked.
7. Congaree National Park
Near Columbia, South Carolina
Congaree National Park was once called Congaree Swamp, is named for the Congaree people. This park covers more than 26,000 acres. It has 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of boardwalk. You can enjoy this park near Columbia, South Carolina, by foot or by water.
Selleck says what makes the park special is the diversity. You can take in the forest from the low wet areas along the Congaree River to the drier uplands. The land in the park periodically floods, and the receding waters leave rich plant nutrients behind; combined with the climate, it is an ideal plant nursery.
Much of the park has never been logged, so the old-growth forest shows you firsthand what happens with ideal growing conditions. Fifteen species of the tallest trees in the United States are found there.
For example, the loblolly pine champion stands at 167 feet, and the sweetgum at 157 feet. It is just incredible to walk through a grove of huge (over 100 feet tall) bald cypress, knowing they have been there for an eternity and will continue to stand tall and undisturbed for future generations. You just have to see the sheer size and height of these trees to appreciate them.
8. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, And Idaho
Yellowstone was established in 1872 and was the beginning of one of the best ideas the United States has ever had: setting aside lands for national parks. Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres are so diverse that it takes many days to really investigate all that Yellowstone offers. In every season, this area is active with dramatic geysers, colorful hot pools, and boiling mud pots. Old Faithful Geyser is well known and faithfully erupts about every 90 minutes.
Irwin admits she’s always impressed by the geysers in the nation’s first national park.
Seeing wildlife is an exciting part of the Yellowstone experience. There are over 67 species of mammal in the park, many of which one can spot. Bison can be seen in great numbers and sometimes even cause traffic to come to a halt. Grizzly bears and gray wolves are less often seen but add much to the experience when observed at a safe distance.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with its yellow-toned rock walls, shows how it got its name. The Upper and Lower Falls give a dramatic backdrop for stunning photography.