Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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By
updated 6/23/2009 9:51:52 AM ET 2009-06-23T13:51:52

Our most protected lands — and the dramatic drives that give access to them — are all too often conga lines of taillights and tourists. These four itineraries revive the majesty.

Olympic and Mount Rainier
Bubbling hot springs, massive glaciers, and moody beaches you'll have all to yourself—just a sampling of the natural wonders worth soaking up in two parks within a few hours of Seattle.

Day 1: This drive actually begins on a boat: the 35-minute-long Bainbridge Island Ferry, which carries you from Seattle city center across Puget Sound. Connect with Route 101 and head west along Olympic National Park's northern edge. The park's gateway, in Port Angeles, Wash., feeds into Hurricane Ridge Road, ascending more than 5,200 feet through cedar, maple, and pine forests before dead-ending at the ridgeline. It's an hour's drive back on 101 to Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, where 32 TV-free cabins huddle around three spring-fed soaking pools that hold steady at 99, 101, and 104 degrees, (from $147).

Day 2: Another name for Route 101 is the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway Loop; past Forks, it connects with Upper Hoh Road, an 18-mile stretch of road-trip heaven that traces the silvery Hoh River. The 17-mile-long Hoh River Trail gently traverses the flat valley before leading to Mount Olympus's Blue Glacier. Watch for elk and spotted owls hiding out amid 30-story-tall firs. Just 90 minutes away, the Adirondack-style Lake Quinault Lodge, built in 1926, awaits, (from $130).

Day 3: As Route 101 heads south, it hugs the Pacific shoreline; empty beaches peek through gaps in the coastal forest. The easiest to access is Kalaloch Beach, home to plump sunning sea lions and Kalaloch Lodge, with an ocean-view restaurant serving locally caught grilled king salmon ($24). About two hours to the southeast is the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, where 147 miles of paved roads take in the park's almost 14,500-foot namesake peak. In July, Paradise meadow, the preferred launching pad for hikers, is blanketed in wildflowers. The 121-room Paradise Inn, which recently completed a $22.5 million renovation, has an expansive dining room with original decorative woodwork and some of the best vantage points, (from $104).

Day 4: Route 410 cuts through Rainier's eastern border and climbs above the tree line at Chinook Pass—open from May to November. Even then, many visitors don't know to go there, so the views of Rainier's reflection in Tipsoo Lake could be all yours.

Beautiful photos of national parksStick around
Only two hours north of Seattle lies yet another national park, the rugged North Cascades, where the 12 floating cabins at Ross Lake Resortare accessible only by foot or boat, (from $128).

Utah Canyon Country
From Las Vegas, it's a short drive to these four parks with strikingly diverse landscapes.

Day 1: Interstate 15 quickly leaves Vegas shrinking in the rearview and drops you in Zion National Park three hours later. Tourists line up for bus rides on the six-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (cars aren't allowed on the main road in summer), but independent-minded travelers head to little-known Kolob Terrace Road: The hourlong drive cuts across the park's center to Lava Point, which, at 7,600 feet in elevation, allows a soaring view of the canyons. Spend the evening on the private porch of a cabin at Zion Lodge, (from $159).

Day 2: It's a quick drive north to Bryce Canyon, off U.S. 89. Take your time and do a two-hour horseback ride into the canyon ($50); then set aside the afternoon to drive to the outdoor-sports mecca of Moab, Utah, sandwiched between Arches and Canyonlands parks. The pueblo-style Gonzo Innhas bike storage, an espresso bar, and a hot tub, (from $159).

National park secrets

Day 3: A day's time is enough to loop around all of the paved roads in Arches National Park and take in the most important sights, like Delicate Arch (the one on Utah license plates). But to find the park's true beauty, put boots to the ground and wander the narrow Technicolor maze of Fiery Furnace. There are no proper trails here, so hikers can only enter with a permit or on a ranger-led, three-hour walk (435/719-2299, walk $10).

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Day 4: Canyonlands may be the country's least drivable national park; much of it is inaccessible to cars. The broadest perspective by road lies at Island in the Sky mesa, 32 miles from Moab, which peers 1,000 feet down into the red canyons. Reach the plateau's edge via the mile-long Grand View Point Trail.

Stick around
The usual rafting trip on the Green and Colorado rivers from Moab to Lake Powell takes five days, but you can get the same thrills in just two days on a motorized-raft trip with Western River Expeditions, (from $645).

Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains
Winding between these two parks in Virginia and Tennessee is the Blue Ridge Parkway, a bucolic 496-mile route with over 200 misty, megapixel-worthy overlooks—forcing some difficult decisions.

Day 1: A 90-minute drive from D.C. on Interstate 66 through Virginia horse country, the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive meanders along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the broad Shenandoah Valley unfolding to the west. Paralleling the road for much of the way—and crossing it many times—is the Appalachian Trail; from the side of the road, utterly fearless Virginia white-tailed deer sniff at passing cars.

Near Waynesboro, Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway, where it stretches for hours and passes overlooks with memorable names (Raven's Roost, Peaks of Otter), before reaching a turnoff for surprisingly cosmopolitan Roanoke. The recently renovated 1882 Hotel Roanokehas history behind it: The hotel's bar was once a World War II officers' club, and the ballroom hosted a cattle auction in the '60s. Today, in-room spa services are more typical, (from $119).

Day 2: As you drive farther into the heart of Appalachia, the traffic thins and the valleys plunge deeper. The Blue Ridge Music Center, with its Saturday evening outdoor concerts and weekday-afternoon banjo-picking sessions, is a welcome sign of civilization near the North Carolina line. From here, a curving 100-mile drive leads to 87-acre Chetola Resort, North Carolina's only Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing lodge. Yoga, horseshoes, and canoes await those with little interest in hooking a trout, (from $145).

National park secretsin the distance. In downtown Asheville, N.C., 87 miles west of the resort, Southern classics (cornmeal-crusted catfish) are made with ingredients from local farms at the Early Girl Eatery, (lunch from $6.50). After lunch, it's on to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where the Bearskin Lodge'slazy river mimics the nearby Little Pigeon River, (from $80). To experience the full sweep of the Great Smoky Mountains, take Newfound Gap Road up 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the park's tallest peak, where you can see more than 100 miles out on clear days.

Day 4: En route back to D.C., take in the crystalline formations of Skyline Caverns in Front Royal, Va. And get a sweeping final view of the Shenandoah Valley on a Blue Ridge Hot Air Balloonstour, ($200).

Stick around
It's almost a sin not to spend a couple of extra days in Gatlinburg, on the edge of the national park, and explore the Great Smoky Mountains. The options are limitless, from hiking and biking to rock climbing—but the white-water rafting trumps them all, with no fewer than five world-class rivers in the area. Get a taste through a half-day trip on the 24 Class III and IV rapids of the Big Pigeon River, (from $39).

Coastal Maine and Acadia
A drive from Boston up to New England's only national park takes you through lost-in-time fishing villages and cinematic coastal tableaux.

Day 1: About 20 miles north of Boston, U.S. 1 curves to meet the Atlantic Ocean, teasing you with glimpses of saltwater marshes and pristine beaches as you make your way to Kennebunkport, Maine, a place so tidy it feels like a movie set. Settle in among the grand mansions on Ocean Avenue at the 10-room waterfront Green Heron Inn. It's worth the stay just for the grilled banana bread with lemon curd and fresh berries for breakfast, (from $140).

Day 2: It's 200 miles to Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island, and Acadia's northeastern entrance. Make an afternoon tour around the park's 27-mile loop road, which ricochets between lakes, forests, pint-size mountains, and the jagged shoreline. At the century-old Balance Rock Inn, a converted summer home on the water, the innkeeper, Michael, will point you toward a local lobster pound, where fresh lobsters are steamed and served, picnic-style, on the spot, (from $125).

Day 3: From October to early March, the sunrise hits 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain before anywhere else in the continental U.S., so it's worth the three-and-a-half-mile predawn drive to its summit. That leaves the rest of the morning open for exploring the park's 45 miles of carriage roads—on a bike, (rentals from $20) or in a horse-drawn carriage (Carriages of Acadia, 877/276-3622, from $18). In the afternoon, get a whale's perspective of Acadia on a two-hour ranger-led cruise of Frenchman Bay on a 151-foot-long schooner (book at the park's visitors center, 207/288-4585, $32).

Day 4: Taking the quick route back to Boston doesn't mean bypassing the sights and tastes of New England. Interstate 295 cuts through Portland, Maine's largest city, where an endless string of fishing boats unload their catches at the Harbor Fish Marketon the ancient Custom House Wharf, to be shipped around the world or sold in the retail store alongside hundreds of lobsters swimming in massive saltwater tanks.

Stick around
Acadia extends six miles off the coast to tiny Isle au Haut, home to about 50 residents and accessible by mail boat. A stay at four-room Inn at Isle au Hautis a worthy off-the-grid splurge,(from $300 with meals).

Copyright © 2012 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc.

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