6 of the most beautiful national parks in the world
The first national park in the world was Yellowstone, founded in 1872, when US President Ulysses S. Grant established it. The idea caught on quickly, spreading all over the world, and today there are more than 1,000 national parks in more than 100 countries, protecting places of natural beauty, geographical wonders, flora unique and incredible wildlife.
With so many beautiful places scattered around the world, it’s hard to choose which natural wonders to visit first. From the blue glaciers of Torres del Paine to the Great Migration in the Serengeti and from the far reaches of Fiordland National Park to the unique creatures of the Galápagos, these are just some of the most beautiful national parks in the world.
1. Yosemite National Park, USA
Yosemite was the first national park I ever visited in America. I was about 7 years old and I still remember the excitement I felt, leaning my face against our cabin window, watching the first bear I ever saw wander past our parked car.
Yosemite, located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains about 170 miles east of San Francisco, is a World Heritage Site and home to some of the most unique rock formations in the United States. The centerpiece of the park is Yosemite Valley, famous for its spectacular waterfalls and towering granite peaks surrounding it. Anyone who has ever visited Yosemite will attest to its magic, especially after seeing Half Dome, El Capitan and Inspiration Point. Hikers have over 800 miles of spectacular hiking to choose from and cyclists can enjoy over 12 miles of paved trails. Whichever route you take, try to get to Glacier Point for exceptional views of Yosemite Valley, and don’t forget to swing in one of the redwood groves to admire the towering trees.
Even inexperienced hikers can enjoy Yosemite. Guided tours and rock climbing lessons are available from local adventure outfitters such as Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service or Four Season Guides. Don’t expect to have the park all to yourself. About 4 million people visit Yosemite every year! But if you go at the right time, May and September being the best months, and start your day a little earlier than usual, you can still enjoy this beautiful place. Keep in mind though that many roads and trails in Yosemite are closed most of the year due to snow.
Pro tip: Consider a stay at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel (closed January 2, 2023 to March 2, 2023 for renovations), or for the more adventurous there’s the High Sierra Camps (normally you apply for a spot through a lottery system, however the camps are closed for the 2022 season). Vintage-style Airstreams, luxury tents and cabins are available for rent at AutoCamp located near the park, with a daily shuttle service operating to take you directly to Yosemite National Park.
2. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Another must-see destination is Tanzania’s oldest and most popular national park, the Serengeti. This magnificent game park and World Heritage Site spans 5,700 square miles of northern Tanzania and spills over into the Maasai Mara in Kenya; it is one of the most fantastic wildlife viewing spots on the planet. The Serengeti is home to the great annual migration, when 2 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras and antelope – often in columns 25 miles long and pursued by a plethora of predators – cross the crocodile-infested Grumeti River in June to July en route to Kenya’s Masai Mara in a 1,200 mile odyssey. Another great time to visit is February, when there is an incredible population explosion of wildebeest and zebra (8,000 are born every day). But the Serengeti isn’t just a great place to visit during the Great Migration, it has so much more to offer all year round, and it’s even better without the crowds.
Pro tip: Treat yourself to a unique experience and take a hot air balloon safari with Serengeti Balloon Safaris for an unforgettable experience.
3. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Surrounded by rugged snow-capped mountains, turquoise alpine lakes, windswept plains and icy glaciers, Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, home to guanacos (a relative of the llama), foxes and pumas, is truly a special place. Located in Chilean Patagonia and named after the three granite “Towers of Paine” that are the park’s main icon, Torres del Paine is a world of blue glaciers, shimmering lakes and fjords, and jagged peaks. It’s a fantastic destination for intrepid hikers, kayakers, mountain bikers or any adventurous traveler. Multi-day hikes are “the thing” here, and while the most spectacular views take a bit of effort, anyone can enjoy the park’s major landmarks while driving. Don’t miss the sunrise, when the horns of the Torres del Paine massif turn purple and then red.
You have the choice between several hiking trails. Circuit W is the best trek to start and lasts 4-5 days. If you’re feeling strong, try the longer O circuit, which is much more difficult and takes 6-10 days. You can book your trek with Cascada Expediciones if you want to move your legs. Alternatively, simply relax with a kayaking trip on Gray Glacier.
Pro tip: May I suggest the eco-friendly Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa for its beautiful views of misty glacial lakes.
4. Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
New Zealand’s largest national park is awash with fjords so stunning they’ll take your breath away. Fjords, carved by glaciers, are found in several places in the park, although the most popular are Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. Other highlights include the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, where you can take a boat ride to see real glowworms, and the Chasm, where a short walk takes you to an area where water appears to be carved around rocks old in the park. Filled with lush rainforests, pristine rivers, crystal-clear lakes, snow-capped peaks, glaciers and majestic ice-carved fjords, much of this national park is uninhabited and accessible only by boat or on foot. Even on rainy days, the scenery is spectacular, with entire valley walls turning into thundering waterfalls. Fiordland National Park is home to many wildlife including kiwis, seals, penguins and dolphins, and the flightless takahe bird and flightless kakapo parrot have been found here.
A highlight is the magnificent Milford Sound with Miter Peak, rising 5,551 feet above sea level. It is one of New Zealand’s most photographed peaks and the country’s only accessible fjord by the road. Although it is over 4 hours drive from Queensland, the fact that Milford Sound still receives almost a million visitors each year speaks volumes about the beauty and spectacularity of this place.
Pro tip: Book a cruise on Lake Te Anau and the Te Anau Caves with RealNZ.
5. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Located off the coast of Ecuador, Galápagos National Park is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. Created in 1959, it is Ecuador’s oldest park and covers 97% of the Galapagos Islands archipelago. The park has a totally unique ecosystem. There are animals, plants and fish here that are found nowhere else on earth. The Galapagos have their own species of turtles, penguins and lizards; in fact, it’s the only place in the northern hemisphere where penguins exist, and there are certainly far more iguanas here than people! It is not only terrestrial fauna that is protected here. The offshore area is protected by the Galapagos Marine Reserve and includes unique species like the Galapagos Green Sea Turtle, Galapagos Sea Lion and Galapagos Marine Iguana. Dive or snorkel around Darwin and Wolf Islands and you may see hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks or perhaps a majestic whale shark. It was species such as the marine iguana and Darwin’s finches that helped Charles Darwin develop his groundbreaking theory of evolution, and you can visit his former research station in Santa Cruz.
Pro tip: The best way to explore the park, both by land and sea, is to cruise around the islands. Adventure Life offers a variety of cruises and tours, ranging from eco-tours to private cruises, charters and luxury cruises. The best time to visit the Galapagos Islands is from December to May, as these months coincide with the warm season and the ocean conditions are clear, warm and excellent for snorkeling and diving.
6. Sagarmatha, Nepal
Home to Mount Everest, Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal is where many hikers (like me!) first catch the mountaineering bug and achieve their goal of climbing to the roof of the world. Sagarmatha means “sky” in Nepali. Located high in the Himalayas, the altitude of the park ranges from 9,350 to 29,028 feet above sea level, with the highest point in the park of course being the peak of Everest. The Three Passes and Gokyo Lakes trails prove popular with those looking for an easy hike. There are plenty of villages to explore and guided hikes take moderate to advanced hikers through the national park.
It is a harsh environment of glaciers, rocky terrain and steep valleys and gorges. Some species of flora and fauna manage to survive here. Pine, hemlock and bamboo forests are home to rare species such as snow leopards and lesser pandas, as well as Himalayan black bears, wolves and musk deer. The desolate upper parts of the arid mountains grow lichens and moss and are home to few animals except birds soaring high in the sky.
And that’s my take on 6 of the most beautiful national parks in the world. They say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, so of course my favorites aren’t your favorites, but I think we can all agree that these national parks are some of the most beautiful places on earth.
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