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Northwest National Parks

5 National Parks We Can’t Wait to Revisit

Recall the sounds of Olympic National Park, the brilliant hue of Crater Lake, the smell of towering redwoods and more sensory memories to start dreaming of your visit.

There’s something so restorative about turning off your cellphone, leaving your laptop behind and engaging with nature.

The public lands of the greater Northwest provide perfect opportunities for unplugging, unwinding, and reactivating your senses, whether it’s breathing in the fragrant scent of sequoias or immersing yourself in Earth’s soundscapes.

Here are five of our favorite U.S. and Canadian national parks within a day’s drive for AAA Washington members, plus a couple of state parks and a U.S. national monument and preserve.

As always, check online before you go, and plan ahead for an off-the-grid experience by printing a AAA TripTik travel itinerary and any hiking maps you might need, as well as downloading offline-enabled apps like iNaturalist and Cornell University’s Merlin Bird ID to make the most of your sensory sojourn.

Gordon Hempton records audio inside a massive Sitka spruce driftwood log 
on First Beach in La Push, Washington.
Gordon Hempton records audio in a Sitka spruce driftwood log on First Beach in La Push, Washington. (Photo by Shawn Parkin)

Olympic National Park, Washington State

Standing in sheer silence amid the Hoh Rainforest’s verdant, moss-covered beauty, hiking meandering mountain trails that wind alongside rivers and result in spectacular panoramic views, or taking a reflective stroll somewhere amid the 70-plus miles of wild coastline, Olympic National Park provides nearly 1 million acres of opportunities to disconnect (check online for road and weather alerts). It’s one of the most sonically diverse national parks in the country, with a cacophony of roaring winds, wildlife calls and rushing rivers, and sometimes nothing but your own heartbeat.

Start the day at Rialto Beach to experience the pure power of nature. Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton considers it the “most musical beach in the world” due to a harmonious coming together of instruments: the mighty Pacific Ocean’s rhythmic beats as its tide ebbs and flows, the beach’s natural incline, and sections of sand, gravel and pebbles that blend, turn and churn with each wave and retraction.

The lush Hoh Rainforest plays a part in Olympic’s musical masterpiece. Canopy moisture softly pings as it drips down from Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees while tiny Pacific wrens sing their high-pitched, melodic songs. Embark on a portion of the 17-mile Hoh River Trail toward Five Mile Island, occasionally passing along the river that starts as meltwater from the Hoh Glacier on the 7,980-foot-tall Mount Olympus.

“You’ll not only see the fallen Sitka trees, but also the water that transports these natural instruments, and the often-exposed gravel banks — all which create their own unique sounds,” Hempton says.

Naturally felled trees plunk down in these waters and often float toward the coastline, where they eventually become hollowed-out driftwood, some so large you can step inside to listen.

With their flexing fibers, each piece comprises a secret symphony of “nature’s own violins,” Hempton says, “reverberating the sounds of the surf.”

Wizard Island at Crater Lake National Park
Overlooking Wizard Island at Crater Lake National Park (Photo by Justin Bailie)

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

It’s America’s deepest lake and perhaps one of its bluest. This 1,943-foot-deep volcanic caldera is filled with a mixture of rain and melted snow that creates a breathtakingly vibrant azure hue when sunlight penetrates.

The 33-mile drive around Crater Lake is a must for experiencing its beauty up close. For the best bird’s-eye vantage point, Cloudcap Overlook provides panoramic views of Crater Lake and its Wizard Island cinder cone, as well as a front-row seat to impressive sunsets from Oregon’s highest paved road.

If it’s a more immersive experience you’re after, hike the steep Cleetwood Cove Trail down to the water for an invigorating swim in the lake, which averages 57 degrees in the summer.

Ranger Dave Grimes recommends the 5.1-mile Boundary Springs Trail just outside the park’s northwest corner.

“You follow the Rogue River through a shaded forest of hemlock, fir and lodgepole pine trees right up to its gushing, snow-fed headwaters,” he says. “There’s no lake view, but the spring itself is outstanding.”

A family explores a cave at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Photo courtesy Idaho Tourism)

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho

With its sagebrush-dotted lava fields, hiking trails, accessible caves and lava tubes that wind beneath the Earth’s surface, and dozens of volcanic cinder cones rising up from a blackened landscape like giant ant hills, Idaho’s Craters of the Moon feels otherworldly. Add to this an intensely dark night’s sky bursting with celestial bodies, and it’s likely you’ll forget laptops and cellphones ever existed.

About a half mile from the Robert Limbert Visitor Center is the North Crater Trail, a 3.5-mile out-and-back hike that undulates its way through a variety of volcanic terrain, including Craters’ most prevalent type of lava: smooth and ropey pahoehoe, which spread across Idaho’s surface like slow-moving molasses thousands of years ago.

The preserve’s Tree Molds area has even more diversity, says Chief of Interpretation and Education Ted Stout. The 2.1-mile Tree Molds Trail takes hikers to tactile impressions left in the lava by trees, while the 1.8-mile Broken Top Loop Trail circumnavigates a cinder cone and traverses what may be the Craters’ youngest lava flow, some 2,000 years old.

Fern Canyon in California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Fern Canyon in California’s Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (Photo by Follow Me Away)

Redwood National and State Parks, California

One moment you’re standing beneath droplets of morning dew descending from the tallest trees on Earth, and the next you’re wandering somewhere along 40 miles of rugged and widely overlooked Pacific coastline.

Redwoods Parks Conservancy Executive Director Joanna Di Tommaso recommends the Yurok Loop Trail for its dramatic ocean views, though they are sometimes shrouded by fog. The mile-long trail passes shorebird-covered sea stacks that jut up from rugged waters and through a coastal forest of spruce trees and alders before connecting with the Coastal Trail, which leads to a quiet cove aptly named Hidden Beach.

Absorb the rich scent and enormity of the park’s namesake giants at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Drive through these old-growth forests on the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, where you may see velvet-antlered elk in the summer or hear them bugling on frosty fall mornings.

The redwoods meet the sea at Gold Bluffs Beach, accessible via a slow, cautious drive on rutted gravel and through a shallow water crossing. The real gem here is Fern Canyon, an easy hike along a gurgling creek with splashing waterfalls and staccato drip-drip-drips down towering stone walls covered in fronds. Go early on a weekday for maximum solitude and listen for the eerie call of the elusive varied thrush. Enjoy the sensation of cool, clean water trickling between your toes — just pack a pair of shoes that you don’t mind getting wet.

For drier, more private contemplation, try the Nickerson Ranch Trail in the northernmost Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. This moderate 1-mile trek winds through a forest of lush ferns and stunning old-growth redwoods to Mill Creek, prime habitat for chinook salmon and threatened coho.

Burgess Shale fossils at Walcott Quarry in Yoho National Park, British Columbia.
Burgess Shale fossils at Walcott Quarry in Yoho National Park, British Columbia (Photo by Lawson White)

Kootenay and Yoho National Parks, British Columbia

From soaking in the soothing mineral waters of Kootenay’s natural hot springs to hearing grizzly bears rustling through fragrant bushes of red buffalo berries, Kootenay National Park and the adjacent Yoho National Park to the north offer a kaleidoscope of sensory experiences, many right along the 65-mile Banff-Windermere Highway that runs north to south through Kootenay.

Some of the most interesting are the Burgess Shale fossils, more than half-a-billion-year-old remnants of Earth’s earliest animal life forms: bizarre Cambrian-era creatures such as the lobster-like Yawunik and the tiny, protruding-eyed Metaspriggina, one of the world’s earliest fish.

While visitors can see fossil displays at the Yoho National Park Visitor Centre, paleontologist Jean-Bernard Caron recommends guided Burgess Shale hikes to delve into the history and discovery of these rare remains — and to handle one yourself. Of the three guided hikes, Kootenay’s 6.3-mile Stanley Glacier Trail is best for families with children 8 and older, while Yoho’s more strenuous trek to Walcott Quarry takes you into the heart of the park’s incredible fragmented finds. 

–Written by Laura Kiniry and last updated in July 2022. 

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.

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