America's oldest National Parks provide an epic outdoor playground, writes Chris Leadbeater

1. Yellowstone

Founded

: March 1872

An epic playground of hot springs and geysers, the most feted being Old Faithful, Yellowstone has long been a postcard image of the American West. Largely in northwest Wyoming, it spreads into Montana and Idaho.

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2. Sequoia

Founded

: September 189

Sequoia National Park, California. Photo / Andrew Jenkins
Sequoia National Park, California. Photo / Andrew Jenkins

Two icons of the American landscape are found within this treescape in central California. General Sherman, regarded as the planet's largest living tree (all 84m of it), is part of the forest; Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states (all 4421m of that) extends its west flank down into the park.

3. Yosemite

Founded

: October 189

Yosemite National Park. Photo / Aniket Deole
Yosemite National Park. Photo / Aniket Deole

Granted protected status less than a week after nearby Sequoia, Yosemite is surely the most famous national park in California, its majesty visible in the towering granite monolith El Capitan and the 188m cascade Bridalveil Fall.

4. Mt Rainier

Founded

: March 1899

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Mt Rainier is only 95km from Seattle. Photo / Milkovi
Mt Rainier is only 95km from Seattle. Photo / Milkovi

The Cascade Range runs up the three most westerly mainland states - California, Oregon and Washington - like a serrated spine. It makes its most prominent point in the latter, 95km south-east of Seattle - where Mt Rainier, a 4392m stratovolcano, juts upwards. It is viewed as one of the planet's most dangerous volcanoes, but its last reported eruption was in 1894; good news for the 26 glaciers that cling to its sides.

5. Crater Lake

Founded

: May 19

Crater Lake, in Southern Oregon. Photo / traveloregon.com
Crater Lake, in Southern Oregon. Photo / traveloregon.com

If Mount Rainier is one of the Cascade Range's most bad-tempered fire demons, Crater Lake is its pale ghost. This enormous ring of stone in southwestern Oregon is what remains of Mt Mazama, a volcano that blew its top so conclusively about 7700 years ago that its collapsed caldera now frames this spectacular water feature.

Best of the West

These are the five oldest National Parks in the US - the remaining members of the top 10 are further evidence that, when it came to founding national parks, America looked west before it considered the rest of the landmass.

Wind Cave National Park (6) (January 1903) safeguards a South Dakota cavern complex of vast cultural significance to the Lakota people. Mesa Verde National Park (7) (June 1906) in Colorado also focuses on the indigenous US, in the archaeological sites created by the Ancestral Puebloans of the region as long ago as the 12th century BC.

Elsewhere, Glacier National Park (8) in Montana (May 1910) and Rocky Mountain National Park (9) (January 1915) in Colorado are all about raw geography - and advertise their specific appeal in their names.

The exceptions to the western rule are Haleakala National Park and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which ring lava-born scenery on Maui and Hawaii island respectively. Both joined the national parks register on August 1, 1916, when Hawaii National Park (10) was inaugurated. They were split into two entities in 1961.