My Top 10 U.S. National Park Experiences

When I came to the States, I stumbled upon a site called Frommer’s Travel Guide that uses “experiences” to describe travel destinations and their attractions. So instead of “a beautiful waterfall”, an experience is “jump into a clear pool under a beautiful waterfall”. It struck me how proper this way is. You can know a mountain pretty well from a photo or a Wikipedia page, but you can only experience a mountain when you go there. Weather, companion, food, activity, animal, random encounters, all these define your particular experience with that mountain, and it’s your unique memory.

Some experiences can be easily copied, some cannot because of rare elements. Experiences gained from efforts (e.g. long hikes) tend to be more memorable, but some easy experiences can also be very appealing.

I want to write about national parks because I really love the national park system. It’s one of the best aspects of the United States we can experience and enjoy. Especially in the era that so many other things feel so messed up, we can always seek serenity, order, peace, and civilized behavior in national parks. I’ve been to 34 of them and they covered most of my best travel experiences.

10. Petrified Forest: Devil’s Playground

Petrified Forest NP is such a secluded national park that when I walked into their visitor center, there are only two rangers and zero visitors, zero. One of the rangers welcomed me: “Welcome to Grand Canyon!”

Without little hope, I asked, “do you still have permits for Devil’s Playground?” It’s an area that they only issue 3 permits each week. To my surprise, they still have!

It was a 4-mile-ish hike, starting with finding your own way to descend into a dry riverbed and ending with one of the most untouched lands I’ve ever seen. Those elephant-skin surfaces look like they have been there for thousands of years, so otherworldly yet so fragile.

On the way back I saw an amazing desert sunset with a light pillar at the horizon. It looks stunning.

9. Mount Rainier: Hike on Snow

Mount Rainier is one of the first snow mountains I visited. I was pretty excited to see snow in July until I found our trail disappeared into a huge snowfield. We had to hike on snow for almost a mile. Rest assured, it was one of my most memorable hikes.

8. Canyonlands: Flight Tour

We booked a flight tour with Redtail Air Adventures in Moab to see Canyonlands and Monument Valley. The plane was so tiny that’s basically a mini car with wings. While Wen was screaming in the backseat, we saw the most amazing canyon views from the top.

7. Crater Lake: Blue Water

This is probably the easiest to copy experience on this list. We took a boat tour of Crater Lake when we visited there. Most mountain lakes that look colorful afar don’t look that colorful when you get close, they just look clear. But Crater Lake was so incredibly blue, it still shows that pure blue color when you look at it right on the water.

6. Grand Canyon: After Snow

We went to Grand Canyon in late March this year. It was snowing on our way there. Once we arrived at the south rim around noon, we found the canyon was completely filled with white mist and we couldn’t see anything in the canyon…

We went to our hotel and slept through the whole afternoon. Around 6 pm we decided to go out to look for food. We walked to the rim of the canyon and found the mist was moving away! We started walking along the rim and appreciating the view of mist and cloud flowing around in the Grand Canyon. Eventually, we stopped at a small structure that looks like an altar, Wen stood on it. At that moment, two streams of cloud butt heads against each other in the canyon, erupted like a cloud volcano, and washed through us.

5. Grand Canyon: Rim2Rim

This is one of the experiences that has to be super memorable because of the huge effort.

It was the Memorial Day weekend of 2017. I went to Grand Canyon to do a South Rim to South Rim day hike with two friends. We started around 7 am in the morning, down the Kaibab Trail, then up the Bright Angel Trail, 20 miles in a day with over 5k feet elevation. The toughest part of canyon hiking is the ascending comes after descending. The slogan “down is optional, up is mandatory” burned into my memory. And I really experienced the “no gas left in the tank” feeling in the last mile, was practically dragging my feet. When I finally got up I had a leg cramp so bad that I fell down at the door of a restaurant and couldn’t get up for a minute.

The trail doesn’t really offer a better view. The best view of the Grand Canyon is still from the rims. It really just told me “bottom of the Grand Canyon looks like this”. And it was such a brutal hike with the huge scale fully presented right in front of me that I’ll remember it for life.

4. Glacier: Iceberg Lake

Glacier National Park is one of my favorite parks because it has beautiful views, great accommodations, and so many great trails. I love my hike to the Iceberg Lake for two things:

First, the lake still had remaining icebergs when we visited which look so unreal. During most of the hike, we could see a cloud of mist by the side of a mountain, at the end we realized it was exactly the mist caused by the ice on the lake. It was like a grand reveal at the end.

Second, we saw two mooses swimming through a lake nearby and later met one of them up close. I heard moose can be mean animals, but the moose I met was so calm and chill…

3. Glacier: Deer by McDonald Lake

Glacier again, I said it was one of my favorites.

One night we were camping by McDonald Lake. After dark we went to the lake beach, laying on cold pebbles and chatting, beer in hands, stars in view. Suddenly there were water sounds. I sat up and saw a beautiful deer walking through the water right in front of us. That moment felt magical.

2. Great Sand Dunes: Stargazing and Comet

I went to Great Sand Dunes last year and camped on the dunes for a night. It’s a dry place, with over 8000 ft elevation, and so remote that the closest city requires a few hours drive. That night I saw the best stars in my life. I’d seen the milky way at different places, but this was the only time I was able to see the red/purple-ish colors of the milky way in naked eyes. The sunset and sunrise were also amazing but the stargazing experience was truly one of a kind. In the morning I woke up around 5 AM and saw the NEOWISE comet hanging above the horizon, like the whole universe was frozen. Surreal.

1. Yosemite: Half Dome and Bears

Half Dome is another hike that the sheer amount of effort was almost enough to leave a mark in my memory, leaving alone the crazy cables at the end.

I did it in 2007 as a two-day hike, before it started requiring permits. We camped at an apparently “wild” campsite our group leader happened to know. And a small black bear visited us around 3 AM in the morning and woke up everyone. We drove her away and she came back from another direction. We drove her away again and she came back one more time… it was hilarious and exhausting.

The cables: it looks vertical, it feels vertical, it is vertical. When going down the cables, I chose to face down and was grabbing the cables so hard, for my life. My gloves were broken after coming down. There was a glove “graveyard” at the end of the cables.

Half Dome was my very first long-distance hike. I remember my legs were literally shaking on every step halfway down. The high stairs on the Mist Trail were killing me… I look forward to doing this hike again.

On this Half Dome trip, I also had my first bear encounter. On the first day, we hiked the Four Mile Trail up to Glacier Point. There was a shop at Glacier Point so we were buying some ice cream. At that time someone started yelling “bear”, and we immediately darted in the direction of the sound. A bear apparently climbed up to Glacier Point almost at the same time as us. We started doing some close photos with the bear. Now thinking about it we were pretty ignorant and fearless at that time, lol. The bear was apparently confused by the number of people and the whole photo-op scene, so he just posed for a few minutes then left.

Yosemite is like my first love for national parks. It will always have a special position in my heart.


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