Published online at www.msn.ca, July, 2010.
Our list of North America’s best national parks make even the best onscreen CGI special effects look cheap and tawdry. There is no car explosion dramatic enough or alien warcraft big enough to out-awe the sweeping vistas of jagged, mountain peaks, ludicrously turquoise lakes, and monolithic, ancient trees from our favourite parks. They are parks that humble human visitors with their grandeur and remind us why we need to protect Planet Earth.
Visit a “Place of Wonder”
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, B.C.
This is one of the lesser known national parks on our list. Even editors at National Geographic Traveler had never heard of Gwaii Haanas. That is, until their own survey of 300 expert panelists gave this remote B.C. destination in the Queen Charlotte Islands the top score for its historic preservation, park management and archeology. Accessible only by boat or floatplane, Gwaii Haanas — which means “place of wonder” in the Haida language — is where time is left alone to shape the natural habitat, undisturbed by development and human activity. There are no roads, stores or fuelling stations. The rainforest is carpeted in swaths of thick, soft moss, while giant, monolithic trees tower above you and inspire reverence and awe. It’s the ancestral home of the West Coast First Nations who have lived here for more than 10,000 years and preserved their heritage on carved totem poles. In the village of Nan Sdins, carved mortuary and memorial poles also serve as ancient testimonials to the Haida’s way of life, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Where everyone’s a shutterbug
If Gwaii Haanas is one of the most least visited national parks in Canada, Banff is arguably the most popular among Canadians and tourists alike — and with good reason. Yes, you will likely be jostling with busloads of chirping visitors — 4 million a year — and there’s a good chance you’ll inadvertently make it into the backgrounds of many family photos, but the views are worth it all. It’s 6,641 square kilometres of sweeping visual drama: jagged mountain peaks, valleys, glaciers, forests, meadows and rivers. The crowning jewel of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is Lake Louise, a pool of milky, cerulean-coloured water at the foot of Victoria Glacier which is the most photographed scene of the Rockies. Summer activities are diverse thanks to the breadth and scope of the landscape: hike, camp, fish, bike, golf, swim, canoe/kayak, scuba dive and go horseback riding. Banff was the first national park established in Canada, and third anywhere in the world.
Where rocks and earth collide
Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland
For the average visitor, the architectural landscape of this eastern Canadian outpost is stunning enough to be deemed worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. But for scientists, the ancient, rugged, rock formations, staggering fjords, and waterfalls are significant more for their geological value than for their esthetic value. It’s here that geologists proved the theory of plate tectonics. Gros Morne is a relic of this planet’s evolutionary past. Parks Canada calls it a “textbook” example of how plates from the earth’s crust spanning the size of continents collided and then drifted apart over time, to open and close oceans between them. Primeval rocky settings, plunging cliffs and crevassed valleys bear the scars of the earth’s power. For visitors, the result is just the work of a skilled carpenter with the earth as its canvas.
Trek Canada’s oldest and longest footpath
Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario
Thousand-year-old cedar trees, limestone cliffs and crystal-clear waters make the Bruce Peninsula a favourite among Ontarians every summer. The area’s ecological importance has also been recognized by UNESCO’s World Biosphere Reserve program as a site which demonstrates a balance between conservation an development. Located between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, this area was once covered by a shallow tropical sea teeming with crustaceans, corals and mollusks, much like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Now, 400 million years of limestone erosion later, impressive overhanging cliffs line the shore, and underwater caves invite visitors to explore its eerie watery graves — shipwrecks included. If underwater exhuming isn’t your thing, hike the famous Bruce trail, Canada’s oldest and longest footpath and find the Grotto, the largest cave on Georgian Bay. And if you just want some summertime fun, go east and lounge on the sandy beaches of Lake Huron.
The land that never melts
Auyuittuq National Park, Nunavut
Our list’s northern-most national park was the first park created within the Arctic Circle. Auyuittuq, an Inuktitut word which means “The land that never melts,” features the highest peak of the Canadian Shield, and is home to the Penny Ice Cap, a 6,000 square kilometre expanse of ice and snow that’s a relic from the last ice age. Its Mount Asgard also boasts a cameo in the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Located on southern Baffin Island, the park is composed of ancient glaciers, tundra and deep-cut fjords, and an inukshuk marks the spot where the Arctic Circle passes through the park. Hike the Akshayuk Pass in the summer when it’s snow-free, a traditional travel corridor used by the Inuit for thousands of years which also crosses over the Arctic Circle. If you’re a climber, Mount Thor is the largest uninterrupted cliff face in the world at 1,500 metres.
The world’s first national park
Yellowstone National Park, Montana/Wyoming/Idaho
Yellowstone has the distinction of being able to boast a lot of firsts and mosts amongst its national park brotherhood. It was the world’s first national park; its 10,000 geothermal features makes it the most diverse collection of geysers, hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles (steam vents) on the planet. It’s also home to the largest, high altitude lake in North America, stretching 341 square kilometres, and also has one of the world’s largest collection of petrified forests, trees that have become fossilized over time. Spanning an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, Yellowstone is well-known for sheltering a vibrant ecosystem made up of 67 different mammal species, that include bears, wolves, moose, bison and elk — the park is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. It’s also well-known for one of its most active and sought-out destinations, Old Faithful. Though it’s not the largest or the most regular of the park’s 300 geysyers, it’s the most popular because it erupts more frequently than the rest.
Take a hike
Yosemite National Park, California
Powerful, cascading waterfalls distinguish this national park from the rest. Its biggest attraction is the 739-metre Yosemite Falls — the tallest in North America — which flows into the Valley meadows. But take note: Because most of the water in Yosemite originates as snowmelt from the high country, peak runoff typically occurs in May or June, and either subsides to a slow trickle or dries out completely by August. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its granite cliffs, clean clear water and towering sequoia trees, Yosemite is also home to the Half Dome, a popular destination for hikers. Rising nearly 5,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley, this 26-km round-trip hike takes most hikers around 12 hours to complete, and requires a measure of physical fitness and strength: climbers must summit the final 193 m by mountaineering a steep, almost vertical, rock face using two metal cables. If you can manage it, the views of Vernal and Nevada Falls and Yosemite Valley are worth the climb. Another sidenote: staring this year, hikers climbing on federal holidays and Friday to Sundays must obtain permits.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Like Canada’s Gros Morne National Park, the Grand Canyon is a living testament of our planet’s history. Exposed geologic strata, fossil beds and distinct rock formations have provided scientists with a record that dates back millions of years in geological time, and as such is one of the most studied landscapes in the world. Raised, flat top plateaus cover the semi-arid land of northwestern Arizona, with vertical canyon walls averaging 1.6 km deep, for the length of its 446 km. Its widest point, meanwhile, is 29 km across, divided by the Colorado River which cuts through the canyon floor. More than five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, but most see take in the sights from the South Rim, the most accessible part of the park. The Grand Canyon West, however, has recently become a star attraction for the Grand Canyon Skywalk which opened in 2007, a glass-bottom platform that juts out 21 m beyond the canyon wall, 609 metres above ground.
River of Grass
Everglades National Park Florida
Staff here are on standby, monitoring the potential threats from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill which is insidiously shellacking the waters in the Gulf of Mexico. While there’s been no immediate threat at the time of reporting, the park is struggling to relay the message that they’re still open and welcoming visitors. Dubbed “the river of grass” for its sawgrass marshes, the Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness reserve in the U.S., covering 6,475 square kilometres of fragile wetlands, watersheds and coastal lowlands which support threatened species unique to the area, some of which can be found nowhere else in the world. Here, tropical animals co-exist with the species from temperate North America, to straddle both wildlife worlds. Lush wetlands also make it a sanctuary for 360 species of birds, 50 reptiles and 300 different species of fish. Unlike most national parks, the Everglades was cordoned off to protect a fragile ecosystem, not reward it for a unique geographic feature. For these reasons, the park has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
That’s what friends are for
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park
Glacier National Park, Montana and Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
If the most dire climate predictions hold true, get thee to a glacier soonish before they disappear. In 1850, Glacier Park had 150 glaciers. Today, only 25 remain. Also known to Native Americans as the “Shining Mountains” or the “Backbone of the World” the park is characterized by its glacial mountain landscape which forms unique, U-shaped amphitheaters — kind of like surround-sound scenery. Alberta’s Waterton Lakes, meanwhile, is where the southern Rocky Mountain range abruptly meets the Canadian prairies. Together, they became the first International Peace Park in 1932, to commemorate the longstanding friendship between nations. The region’s exceptional biodiversity also qualified the joint park to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Waterton boasts a third title, as a designated Biosphere Reserve. Glacier Park also offers visitors an environmentally friendly option with a free shuttle bus service that runs through the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road which stretches through the park’s wild interior.