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16 Beautiful National Parks You MUST See

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16 Beautiful National Parks You MUST See
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Itching to go off the grid and lose yourself in hundreds of square miles of majestic wilderness? No need to dust off your passport: Some of the most beautiful and scenic spots on the planet are right here in the U.S.A., thanks to 84 million acres of pristine park land. Many national parks offer much more than day hikes and nature centers. Aside from the view, being in nature has proven health benefits: Studies show that it lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and boosts energy as well as overall feelings of well-being. Whether you're into snorkeling or stargazing, here are the top spots to feed your soul.

1. Best Park to Stare Into the Belly of a Volcano: Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
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1 BEST PARK TO STARE INTO THE BELLY OF A VOLCANO: HALEAKALA NATIONAL PARK, HAWAII

This 30,000-acre stretch along Maui’s southern and eastern coastline offers lush tropical rain forests, deserts to explore on horseback, and Pu'u'ula'ula Summit, the highest point on the island. The dormant volcano towers 10,000 feet high and is visible from almost every vantage point on Maui. Stretching seven miles long and three miles deep, the Haleakala Crater forms the eastern side of Hawaii’s second-biggest island. Hike to the top to see views of volcanoes on the Big Island plus neighboring islands Lanai and Molokai. Need to cool off? Take a dip in the pools below the highway bridge in ‘Ohe’o Gulch or discover your own private swimming hole in Haleakala’s mostly rain-forested Kipahulu Area.

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Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
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HALEAKALA NATIONAL PARK, HAWAII

WHEN TO GO: It’s Maui, so the weather’s hardly ever bad. But note that temps at the top of the crater are typically 30 degrees cooler than the coast and the crowds on the summit dissipate after 3pm. WHAT TO KNOW: Pack a picnic before hitting Haleakala -- neither food nor water is sold within the park.

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2. Best Park to Watch a Killer Sunset : Arches National Park, Utah
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2 BEST PARK TO WATCH A KILLER SUNSET : ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UTAH

Hike through this red rock wonderland in eastern Utah and you’ll feast your eyes on thousands of natural sandstone arches -- there are more here than anywhere else in the world -- and other unique geological formations. Rock climbing on the arches is prohibited but you can backpack, bike and camp in the park grounds as long as you get the proper permits. After a morning or afternoon scaling sandstone peaks and open canyons, plan to end the day by watching the fiery sun slip behind magnificent rock arches. Prime sunset viewing can be found along the 1.5-mile Delicate Arch trail just before dusk, where the brilliant glow will take your breath away.

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Arches National Park, Utah
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ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UTAH

WHEN TO GO: Arches is primarily desert, so summers are super-hot. Best to visit during spring or fall when the cool(er) temperatures allow more time for exploration. WHAT TO KNOW: Not up for an epic hike? The Windows area of Arches offers a series of short, easy trails.

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3. Best Park to ‘Go Batty:’  Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
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3 BEST PARK TO ‘GO BATTY:’ CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK, NEW MEXICO

About 750 feet beneath the rugged slopes, thorny shrubs and sparse greenery of this park are more than a hundred magnificent limestone caves, which sprung from an inland sea about 250 million years ago. Explore them either on your own or with a guided tour. (Age requirements vary by tour; children under 3 are not allowed on guided tours.) Every evening at dusk between May and late October, 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats suddenly emerge from their cavernous homes in search of a dinner of insects. Visitors can get a front-row view from the park’s amphitheater. For early risers, the bats’ pre-dawn return flight is just as thrilling a spectacle.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
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CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK, NEW MEXICO

WHEN TO GO: In July and August, newly born baby bats join the massive pack of flapping wings that dot the sky above Carlsbad Caverns. WHAT TO KNOW: Take a self-guided tour leaving from the elevator-accessible Big Room (a massive limestone chamber) to check out some of the caves' crown jewels, like the 140-foot-deep Bottomless Pit, Crystal Spring Dome, which sparkles like it's covered in shiny gems, and the equally shimmery Christmas Tree rock column.

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4. Best Park to Roll on a River: Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
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4 BEST PARK TO ROLL ON A RIVER: VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK, MINNESOTA

Named for fur-trading French Canadian voyagers who ventured here on canoes in the late 18th century, this park delivers all that northern Minnesota has to offer: towering trees, placid lakes, rivers and ponds, crisp air and an array of water-loving wildlife. Take a gentle journey on the Ash River in Voyageurs, hugging the Canadian coastline from the comforts of a houseboat, which you can either charter or steer yourself. Plus, you won’t have to rough it: Popular houseboat outfitter Ebel’s (www.ebels.com) offers houseboats stocked with luxuries like hot tubs and entertainment systems.

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
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VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK, MINNESOTA

WHEN TO GO: Spring to early fall is best to take advantage of the pleasant (read: not frigid) temps. WHAT TO KNOW: Bring your binoculars! Voyageurs boasts one of the largest populations of bald eagles among all national parks. Keep your eyes trained skyward and you may spot one nesting high in a tree.

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5. Best Park for a Paddle: Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
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5 BEST PARK FOR A PADDLE: GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA

Surrounded by towering glaciers and fjords carved into jagged cliffs, you’ll feel like you’re in the Ice Age as you tour these 3.3 million acres of protected land. A World Heritage Site, Glacier Bay is heaven for wildlife lovers. Keep your eyes peeled for brown bears, harbor seals, wolves and moose, as well as humpbacks and orcas breaching the frigid waters. Sea kayakers can’t get enough of Glacier Bay’s West Arm inlets, where you can get an up-close-and-personal view of icebergs while paddling in the shadows of the 15,000-foot-high Mount Fairweather. Want some alone time with these towering glaciers? Head to the remote Johns Hopkins Inlet, accessible only by boat or sea plane.

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Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
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GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA

WHEN TO GO: Late May to mid-September. With up to 18 hours of daylight in the summer, you’ll have nothing but time on your side to navigate the frozen terrain. WHAT TO KNOW: Listen up for “white thunder,” the tell-tale crackling and gurgling noise emitted after an iceberg calves -- or breaks away from a glacier.

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6. Best Park for Going Coastal: Olympic National Park, Washington
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6 BEST PARK FOR GOING COASTAL: OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON

Seen one beach, seen ‘em all? Not quite. Olympic offers an awesome array of diverse coastlines, from the sandy strands of Kalaloch to the rocky shores of Rialto Beach. It’s no surprise that Olympic is often referred to as “a gift from the sea.” Spread out a blanket and dig your toes in the sand, launch a kayak into the Pacific, or dare to take a dip (be forewarned: The water is cold!). Wherever you decide to park it, one thing’s for sure: You’ll never have to worry about finding a secluded spot at any of Olympic’s uber-remote beaches.

Olympic National Park, Washington
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OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON

WHEN TO GO: Summer’s the dry season in this rain-soaked region, so head to Olympic in June or July to increase your odds of having a warm and sunny day. WHAT TO KNOW: Up for a quick hike? Walk 1.5 miles north from Rialto Beach to see Hole-in-the-Wall, a stunning sea-carved natural arch.

7. Best Park for "Finding Nemo":  Virgin Islands National Park (Trunk Bay)
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7 BEST PARK FOR "FINDING NEMO": VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK (TRUNK BAY)

There’s something for everyone on this small slice of paradise covering about half of St. John Island. Try scuba diving, sailing, kayaking or windsurfing, or go on land excursions like hike or bird watching treks (the park is home to 500 species of tropical birds). But Trunk Bay really comes to life underwater. Slip on a mask, snorkel, and fins, and swim out to a nearby coral reef where a series of plaques identify various plants and marine animals. For even more adventure, try Waterlemon Bay. Accessible from the Leinster Bay Trail on the north shore of St. John, a 0.8-mile walk will get you to some of the best (and more private) snorkeling in the entire park. Turtles, baby barracudas and stingrays are common sightings.

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Virgin Islands National Park (Trunk Bay)
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VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK (TRUNK BAY)

WHEN TO GO: Anytime -- the park is open year round. Travel during the slower season (late April to early December) to avoid the crowds. WHAT TO KNOW: If you’re visiting in the wintertime, keep a lookout for humpback whales, which sometimes migrate to the warm waters surrounding the Virgin Islands.

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8. Best Park to Leaf Peep: Acadia National Park, Maine
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8 BEST PARK TO LEAF PEEP: ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, MAINE

Comprising a cluster of islands on the coast of Maine, the roughly 45,000 acres of park include mountains, lakes and streams, wetlands, forests, meadows and beaches. The park is home to Cadillac Mountain, which at 1,530 feet is the highest point on the Atlantic Coast. A visit to Acadia in the fall will greet you with a dazzling display of autumn’s finest hues, thanks to the massive amounts of hardwood trees that cover most of the park’s grounds. Pull on your hiking boots and hit the trails, hire a horse-drawn carriage to take you down the park’s historic carriage roads, or drive along around the scenic loop to take in the sites from the comfort of your car.

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Acadia National Park, Maine
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ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, MAINE

WHEN TO GO: The peak time for colorful fall foliage in Acadia is September to early October; however you’ll still get a taste of the season, and avoid the crowds, if you go a little later in the fall. WHAT TO KNOW: Early birds shouldn’t miss a sunrise visit to the summit of Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island, one of the places where dawn first touches the continental United States. (You can access the mountain by car and take a quick 0.3-mile walk to the summit.)

9. Best Park to Completely Unplug: Royale National Park, Michigan
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9 BEST PARK TO COMPLETELY UNPLUG: ROYALE NATIONAL PARK, MICHIGAN

This 45-mile island in Lake Superior is simply one of the most breathtaking and isolated areas in the country. Its stunning vistas and scenic beauty are perfect for inspiration and reflection. If you want to really get away, this is your spot. Isle Royale gets fewer visitors in one year than Yellowstone gets in a day. But that's not because the park lacks appeal: You can hike winding trails in deep forests, kayak tree-protected inlets, don your scuba gear and explore shipwrecks in Lake Superior, or fish the numerous inland lakes. Just don't expect bells and whistles: There's limited running water on the island and campgrounds are extremely basic, with no electricity, showers or trash cans.

Royale National Park, Michigan
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ROYALE NATIONAL PARK, MICHIGAN

WHEN TO GO: Summer, with ideal weather from late June to September; blueberries are ripe for picking in late July and August. The park closes from November to mid-April. WHAT TO KNOW: Expect to do all of your exploring by foot or by boat. With no roads on the island, wheeled vehicles--including bikes--are verboten.

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10. Best Park for Wedding Photos: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
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10 BEST PARK FOR WEDDING PHOTOS: GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING

Who needs pricy ice sculptures and fancy flower arrangements when your wedding photos are set against a backdrop of stunning jagged peaks, mirror-like lakes, and lush green forests? If you’re seeking a sensational outdoor location for wedding photos, Grand Teton is your place. Lovebirds flock to spots like Signal Mountain summit, which offers amazing vistas of the Tetons. And with the wildlife, like moose, bears, coyotes and bison, so close by, don’t be surprised if a few uninvited “guests” decide to drop by the celebration. Bonus: You won’t have to spend a second figuring out downtime activities for your guests. No matter the season, Grand Teton offers a whirl of activities, from summer hiking to horseback riding to snowshoeing and skiing during the colder months.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
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GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING

WHEN TO GO: For azure skies and pleasant temps, plan for late summer or early fall. WHAT TO KNOW: Take the Aerial Tram to the top of the Tetons and dine at upscale eco-friendly Couloir perched over 3,000 feet in the sky for a meal that's truly, um, elevated. (Open December through April, and June through September.)

11. Best Park to Sleep Under the Stars: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
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11 BEST PARK TO SLEEP UNDER THE STARS: THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK, NORTH DAKOTA

On a clear night up here, you can almost see forever. The wide-open skies of this untouched region of the Midwest transforms into a sparkling canopy of stars, planets and other celestial bodies after the sun sets. Pitch your tent at the park’s Cottonwood Campground, nestled along the banks of the Little Missouri River, or really rough it in the park's back county. President Theodore Roosevelt, the park’s namesake, fell in love with the Badlands region after a bison-hunting trip in 1883. Once you rest your head and take a look up at the heavens, with the moon beaming from above, you'll see why Teddy was so smitten.

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
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THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK, NORTH DAKOTA

WHEN TO GO: Summer is ideal, since the large portions of the park close the colder months. Late spring or early fall is top season for wildflowers. WHAT TO KNOW: Beware of bison. Roosevelt is rife with these giant beasts (they’ve been known to hold up traffic on the park’s roads), so hikers and campers should be cautious and give them a lot of leeway (at least 100 yards).

12. Best Park for a Scenic Drive: Glacier National Park, Montana
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12 BEST PARK FOR A SCENIC DRIVE: GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA

Straddling Northern Montana and Canada, Glacier National Park (combined with Waterton Lakes National Park across the border) was designated the world’s first International Peace Park back in 1932. And peaceful it is: abundant wildlife, glacier-fed lakes, soaring peaks, and, of course, the magnificent glaciers themselves. And while a highway might be the last thing you’re thinking about in the midst of nature, one major thoroughfare in Glacier is a can’t-miss: The 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road -- considered one of the world’s spectacular highways --winds through the mountains before reaching its peak at the 6,646-foot Logan Pass.

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Glacier National Park, Montana
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GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA

WHEN TO GO: The summer season’s ideal for driving; parts of Going-to-the-Sun Road are often closed due to snow during other parts of the year. WHAT TO KNOW: Lodging runs the gamut in Glacier, from historic hotels to backcountry chalets. If you're planning on staying within the park, book your rooms early as lodging is limited in the summertime.

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13. Best Park for Trail Running: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
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13 BEST PARK FOR TRAIL RUNNING: ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, COLORADO

Wooded pine and spruce forests yield to alpine tundra and magical mountain peaks in the heart of the Rockies. While any outdoor activity goes here, from rock climbing and horseback riding to rafting down the Colorado River, one that truly stands out is trail running. Lace up your sneaks and hit the path around Loch Vale, a six-mile route that runs past bubbling brooks and rushing streams as it takes you deep within the emerald green forest that surrounds a subalpine lake. Or choose from a myriad of other trails. From four-mile jaunts to long marathon training runs, you’ll find terrain that suits your fancy.

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Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
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ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, COLORADO

WHEN TO GO: Late spring or early fall. The trails are typically packed between mid-June and mid-August, so avoid those months if you don’t want to do battle with meandering tourists. WHAT TO KNOW: Take it easy. With elevations topping 10,000 feet in some areas, the thin air of the Rockies can be tough on even the most conditioned runners.

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14. Best Park to Cast Your Line: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
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14 BEST PARK TO CAST YOUR LINE: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING

A list of National Parks wouldn’t be complete without this veritable favorite, which occupies real estate in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The nation’s first-ever National Park, Yellowstone bursts with superlatives: It’s home to the world’s largest petrified forests and largest collection of geysers, to name just a few. Fly-fishermen (and -women) can recreate their own scene from "A River Runs Through It" in Yellowstone’s Firehole River, a place so packed with fish at times it seems as though it’s been stocked. Catch and release to your heart’s content as the pop and hiss of neighboring geysers and hot springs break the silence of this otherwise serene spot. More traditional anglers can cast their lines at Yellowstone, Lewis and Shoshone Lakes, also prime places within the park.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING

WHEN TO GO: Fall and spring, when the brown and rainbow trout tend to be hungrier (they’re slower to bite in the summer). WHAT TO KNOW: Make sure to stop by a visitor center or ranger station to get a fishing permit, mandatory throughout Yellowstone.

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15. Best Park to Smell the Flowers: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
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15 BEST PARK TO SMELL THE FLOWERS: GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, NORTH CAROLINA

Rushing waterfalls, 2,000 miles of streams, and of course the Appalachian Mountains are just a few of the features that draw millions to the Smokies each year, making this America’s most-visited national park. Straddling Tennessee and North Carolina, they don’t call this place the “Wildflower National Park” for nothing: Nearly 1,600 species of colorful flowering plants grow in the region, popping up from April to October. The best way to get a closer look at the astounding array of flora is via the park’s 800 miles of hiking trails and “Quiet Walkways,” which vary from a quarter mile to 70 miles long.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
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GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, NORTH CAROLINA

WHEN TO GO: While wildflowers abound from spring to fall, April marks the park’s annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, and guided tours are offered. WHAT TO KNOW: Plan a picnic! Chimneys, a wooded area on the Tennessee side of the Smokies, has tables overlooking the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.

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16. Best Park You’ve Never Heard of: Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
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16 BEST PARK YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF: KOBUK VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA

Established in 1980, Kobuk is one of the newer National Parks -- and one of the most far-flung. Isolated and accessible only by foot, dogsled or snowmobile, this 1.75-million-acre expanse easily qualifies as one of the most remote places on earth. Fewer than 900 people brave Kobuk Valley’s elements each year. What they see is a surprising swath of the Arctic Circle, highlighted by giant sand dunes, the lazily winding Kobuk River, and forests rich with wildlife including Arctic caribou, whose migration routes are protected here. Climb to the top of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, formed during the Ice Age, for a look at the awesome -- and unique -- landscape.

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Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
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KOBUK VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA

WHEN TO GO: Summer. The sun doesn’t set over Kobuk Valley between June 3 and July 9, so if your circadian rhythms can stand it, you’ll get to experience 24 straight hours of daylight. Plus, the temperatures can reach up to 80 in some spots. WHAT TO KNOW: There are no roads, no trails, no campground (and no gift shops). Bring everything you need with you because facilities and visitors’ centers are a plane ride away. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more authentic wilderness experience than this.

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What Do YOU Think?
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Have you been to any of these national parks? Which was your favorite? Are you adding any of these parks to your list of places to visit? Also, leave a comment below to let us know if YOUR favorite national park was left off the list.

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