Top 10 U.S. National Park Landmarks

1. Cape Royal and Angels Window in Grand Canyon

Angels don’t need windows, but if they ever wanted to frame a great view, they might choose the North Rim’s Cape Royal (above) and its noble companion parapet in Arizona. Thrust far above the immense luminous space of the canyon, this natural arch overlooks the big bend where the canyon turns west, carving ever deeper into the heart of the Kaibab Plateau. No viewpoint offers a better perspective on the contrast between the dizzying verticality of the gorge and the horizontal rock layers through which it was carved. Red-and-yellow cliffs march across bays and escarpments for mile after astounding mile. The southern horizon is the South Rim, nine miles away and almost a thousand feet lower. Adding to its appeal, the North Rim is forested, wildflower strewn, and pleasantly cooler in summer than the South Rim. Cape Royal is a prime spot to watch cloud formations sail across the void, but beware of thunderstorms. Angels may be a matter for faith, but lightning strikes are a high-voltage reality at this most exposed geologic extremity.

2. Half Dome in Yosemite

Like all good landmarks, Half Dome is an eye magnet. It towers over the other grand monoliths of Yosemite Valley and demands attention. The others in the pantheon, including El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, and Cathedral Spires, are no less illustrious; however, there’s something special about Half Dome. It has undeniable stage presence. View it from the valley floor, beside the winding Merced River. Or drive up to Glacier Point to watch it glow in the sunset as night falls. Best of all, see it from its own bald top. The trail, which takes in the glories of Vernal and Nevada Falls along the way, ends on a cable-protected pathway nailed to smooth granite slabs. Eight miles and 4,800 vertical feet each way, it’s a long day—but entirely worth the effort.

3. Mount McKinley in Denali

The mountain sprawls across the Alaska tundra like half a planet, gleaming white and broad shouldered. How big is it really? It’s hard to tell by looking. And one can read the facts, and accept them, and still not know the measure of the place. Alaska natives expressed their awe with a single word, Denali, which means “the high one.” With all due respect to the 25th American President, the mountain remains the ineffable Denali in the eyes of many. The summit towers 20,320 feet above sea level, more than 18,000 feet above the base. This gives the mountain an all-in-one-view vertical rise more than a mile greater than Mount Everest, which begins its grand ascent at an already lofty elevation of about 17,000 feet. But comparisons are good only for discussion. A true understanding of the mountain and its relationship to those gazing at it in wonderment lies somewhere in the experience of being near it. Climbers, hikers, and travelers of all types have tried to understand it. It’s safe to say, as with Everest, that no one has fully succeeded.

4. Grand Teton and the Central Peaks

Grand Teton, the central crag of the Teton Range, scrapes the clouds nearly 7,000 feet above the Wyoming valley floor. Then consider the other mighty crags surrounding the 13,770-foot peak. Together they compose a formidable alpine stronghold of snow, rock, and ice, a seemingly untouchable and remote world. But looks can be deceiving. Knowing the stories—from mysterious Native American vision quest sites found high on The Grand to modern feats of endurance and skill, such as hiking the nine central peaks in a Grand Traverse—coupled with spending some time on even the lower trails, makes it clear. That far summit, so easy to look at but difficult to comprehend, is a human place after all.

5. Mount Rainier

Now you see it, now you don’t. Mount Rainier, true to its name, disappears behind cloud banks, stays hidden for days and weeks at a time, and reappears in most dramatic fashion. Sometimes, it floats above the clouds, visible only to mountaineers on its glacier-decked slopes and to thrilled passengers of flights climbing south from Seattle. When weather permits, 14,410-foot-high Rainier is visible from most of western Washington and far out to sea. It looms above the skyline of downtown Seattle as if its glaciers were invading suburban neighborhoods. Of course the best encounters are from park roads and trails, notably on the south side in the area called Paradise, known for its wildflower meadows, views of the mountain, prodigious snowfall, and the occasional rainstorm.

6. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

This landmark is the opposite of a high prominence, but to American immigrants in the late 1700s, it was an extremely important geographic feature. Settlement of the bluegrass region of Kentucky was held up for decades by Native American tribes, who prized it as a hunting territory, and also by the physical barrier of the Cumberland mountains. Eventually, war and politics ended the claims of native people, and a flood of settlers poured through the Cumberland Gap. The route was originally a Native American footpath called the Warriors’ Path. In 1775, Daniel Boone hacked out a wider track that became famous as the Wilderness Road. By 1820, despite sporadic warfare and the inherent challenge of life on the frontier, some 300,000 settlers had passed through the gap on their way west. Today the highway runs underground, leaving the gap almost as peaceful as ever. Modern travelers get a fine view of it and the surrounding mountains from the Pinnacle Overlook, a four-mile drive from the park visitor center.

7. Chimney Rock National Historic Site

Days could get long for immigrants headed to Utah, Oregon, and California. Starting at Independence, Missouri, where wagon trains formed up so people could travel together, trundling toward the sunset at the pace of a walking ox, settlers entered a world more open than most could imagine: no trees, little water, and grass that grew thinner as the miles went by. What Francis Parkman described in 1846 as “the same wild endless expanse” stretched through tomorrow into forever. On a route with few notable mileposts, Chimney Rock, in today’s Nebraska, stood out. Most diarists commented on the sight of it. Quite a few people climbed the slope at its base to scratch their names in the soft sandstone. Needle-shaped, 326 feet high, and a short walk from their camps on the North Platte River, the rock told travelers that they were nearing the end of the prairies and would soon be in the mountains.

8. Devils Tower National Monument

As a landform, it seems almost impossible. From the relatively flat surrounding land, the treestump-like tower’s sides form smooth upward arcs, drawing our thoughts to the sky. The summit, hovering 1,267 feet above Wyoming’s Belle Fourche River, is flat, not visible from below, and therefore mysterious. Plains tribes—Lakota, Shoshone, Crow, Blackfeet, Kiowa, Arapaho, and others—consider the tower a sacred object and call it by evocative names like Bear’s Lodge, Mythic-owl Mountain, Grey Horn Butte, Ghost Mountain, and Tree Rock. Legends tell of heroes, creation, and redemption. The tower’s ongoing importance is reflected by ceremonies and rituals conducted every year by regional tribes. The geologic story, not fully understood, credits an intrusion of molten igneous rock that took shape beneath overlying sedimentary layers, where it hardened and was eventually exposed by erosion. In the process of cooling, the rock formed vertical hexagonal columns that, parallel but separate, give the tower its distinctive striated appearance. Rock climbers find the columns irresistible. Most are happy to gaze upward from the base where, in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the first national monument.

9. Island in the Sky in Canyonlands

One pleasure of being in the red rocks of Utah is how intimate the landscape can be. Narrow canyons, room-size alcoves, little rounded peaks, streams you can step across, waterfalls and pools sized for a single person. Or two. The opposite pleasure is to get far above it all, up in the wind and weather, where the view is limited only by the arc of the Earth. Such a place is Island in the Sky. It is reached by driving south toward the tip of a huge triangular mesa. Side roads beckon toward Mineral Bottom, on the Green River, and Dead Horse Point State Park, perched above the Colorado River. Save them for later. Carry on to the apex where the triangle, clawed by erosion from both sides, comes to a jaw-dropping halt overlooking the confluence of the two great rivers and a vast spill of brightly colored sediments, intricately carved and at the same time massive in scale. The sediments lie in orderly horizontal layers. The carving slices them into psychedelic patterns. The rivers lend a sense of life and motion, and the sky—well, you just have to go and see for yourself.

10. Bering Land Bridge National Preserve

Whether, in the days of its use, anyone viewed the Bering Land Bridge as a landmark is doubtful. It wasn’t a bridge at all but rather a 1,000-mile-wide connector between Asia and North America. Sea level fell when Ice Age glaciers took up vast quantities of water and rose when those glaciers melted. In turn, the bridge appeared and disappeared. People lived on it and moved east across it as conditions permitted. Some continued south as the continental glaciers melted. Genetic evidence indicates that these Asian immigrants were the true first Americans. The bridge is still there, beneath the relatively shallow waters of the Bering Sea. The landmark means more to modern people as we ponder our heritage, study our maps, and consider the mere 50-mile separation between Asia and North America. The preserve, not precisely on the tip of Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, is a larger-than-Yellowstone chunk of pure roadless arctic wildness.