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National Parks, Ranked

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This is a barren time in the sports calendar. We are in a desolate trough between the international intrigue of the Olympics and the drama and nonsense of football season. I’m goddamn bored. Coincidentally, the National Parks Service turns 100 years old today. Unlike late August, the National Parks are good, and as the only member of the Deadspin staff with a geology degree, I am slightly more qualified to write about the natural wonders of our nation than anyone else.

The summer is drawing to a close, and maybe you want to visit a National Park. Which one should you go to? Do you wanna see cool rocks? What about bears? Please consult these airtight rankings. (I’m not going to rank American Samoa National Park or Virgin Islands National Park for various reasons we don’t need to get into.)


1. Yellowstone National Park

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Yellowstone National Park’s geothermal features are the products of a caldera, which is a recharging supervolcano with over 6,000 times the eruptive potential of Mt. St. Helens. Basically, magma from the Earth’s lower mantle travelled up through the upper mantle and the crust, and it feeds the Yellowstone caldera. It’s like Hawaii, but on land. As the Earth’s crust shifts over the hotspot, the location of the Yellowstone magma has changed. It erupted 2.1 million years ago, 1.2 million years ago, and 630,000 years ago. Astute readers will note that that recurrence interval indicates that another explosion could be approaching in the immediate future. When it explodes again, it will cover the Western United States in ash.

Anyway, Yellowstone is also very large, stocked with buffalo, and features a series of naturally heated rivers you can swim in.


2. Yosemite National Park

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By the time the last glaciers carved their way through the Yosemite Valley 12,000 years ago, they’d managed to smooth over almost every peak in the region. Unlike the Lake Tahoe area, the Eastern Sierras are full of granite, and other felsic rocks. Harder mineral compositions means that famous hanging walls like Half Dome and El Capitan are able to stand up more or less perfectly straight.

All that said, the cooler part of the actual park is the less-visited eastern half. If you hike Cloud’s Rest, you can stare down at the little line of ant people scurrying up Half Dome, 2,000 feet below you. You are their queen. Look at those doofuses.


3. Zion National Park

Look at this shit.

4. Glacier National Park

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As established in the Yosemite segment, glacial geomorphology is the shit. Glacier has the actual benefit of actual, uh, glaciers. Near-dead as they are, alpine glaciers are much weirder than glaciers that calve into the ocean. Experts estimate that the remaining glaciers in the park will all be gone by 2030, so go see them before these last remnants of the Ice Age die forever. Glacier NP has the additional benefit of a big grizzly bear population as well as mountain goats.

5. Bryce Canyon National Park

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Bryce Canyon looks like an alien civilization tried to carve a long, complicated message to humanity via orange spires of rock. In fact, these hoodoos only exist because of a very specific confluence of circumstances. Most of the body of each column consists of soft layers of limestone and siltstone, capped off by a thinner, harder layer. The Bryce Canyon area was a paleo-lake, but it’s a very arid and cold climate now. Because there’s precious little rainfall in the area, conventional erosion is not the dominant regime. Instead, frost wedging contributed to much of the separation within rock columns that leads to hoodoos. Higher layers are more chemically resistant to weathering, allowing them to resist.

6. Olympic National Park

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I usually think of rainforests as a rather equatorial biome, but there are several temperate rainforests on Washington’s Olympic peninsula. This is where people think Bigfoot lives. If I was him, I would hang here too.

7. Grand Canyon National Park

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The only problem with the Grand Canyon is that there’s too much of it to comprehend at once. When you look down into it, there are simply too many incredibly detailed ridges and sub-valleys to take in to truly grasp its size in one go.

8. Grand Teton National Park

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Here’s a fact: This National Park is named after boobs.

9. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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Because Hawaii is so volcanically active, many words for lava come from the native Hawaiian, like A’a and Pāhoehoe. If you look at the islands on a map, you can chart the course of the hotspot that created them over time. The islands furthest to the northwest are older and more degraded, while the big island is still actively growing on its southern margin. There is a chain of fallen, crumbled Hawaiis to the north of the existing island chain. Twenty two miles off the coast of the big island, the Lōʻihi Seamount has been slowly forming, and it will become the newest Hawaiian island. Sadly, it won’t breach the surface for at least 10,000 years, so we’re stuck the islands we’ve got.

10. Denali National Park

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I respect and fear the power of mighty Denali.

11. Rocky Mountain National Park

12. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

13. Redwood National Park

14. Badlands National Park

15. Everglades National Park

16. Kings Canyon National Park

17. Death Valley National Park

More fun than it sounds! Every 10 or so years, Death Valley experiences a “super bloom” as long-dormant seeds sprout en masse, covering the once-desolate landscape in a carpet of life. It’s weird as hell.

18. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

19. Joshua Tree National Park

20. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Nobody goes here, because it’s off in a strange pocket of northeastern California, but nowhere else has so many different types of magmatic systems packed into one area. The Gorda Plate, a fucked up old tectonic plate, has been subducting into the west coast for a long long time, and has produced some strange inland volcanism. Lassen Peak is the southernmost of the active volcanos in the Cascade Range, but the park also has a perfect cinder cone and some sulfuric hot spring action.


21. Sequoia National Park

Sequoias are redwoods, but with modesty.

22. Arches National Park

23. Capitol Reef National Park

24. Gates Of The Arctic National Park

25. Shenandoah National Park

26. Saguaro National Park

27. Kenai Fjords National Park

28. Glacier Bay National Park


Nice glacier.

29. Big Bend National Park

West Texas has a National Park and somehow it’s pretty good.

30. Acadia National Park

31. Mt. Rainier National Park

32. Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands were inhabited by a species of pygmy mammoth until about 10,000 years ago, when the ice age ended. A group of mammoths must have swam over to the islands and set up shop, gradually evolving into smaller and smaller animals to adapt to their island biome.


33. Katmai National Park

34. Petrified Forest National Park

35. Haleakala National Park

36. Lake Clark National Park

37. North Cascades National Park

38. Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave is easily the longest cave in the world, about 405 miles of tubes and such under Kentucky. It’s so big they keep finding stuff in it, and it’s probably not fully explored.


39. Canyonlands National Park

40. Hot Springs National Park

41. Crater Lake National Park

42. Wind Cave National Park

43. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

44. Biscayne National Park

45. Mojave National Park

46. Dry Tortugas National Park

47. Congaree National Park

48. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

49. Great Basin National Park

50. Kobuk Valley National Park

51. Great Sand Dunes National Park

52. Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park

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Pretty canyon.

53. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

54. Mesa Verde National Park

55. Voyageurs National Park

56. Isle Royale National Park

57. National Museum Of Getting Hit By A Car

58. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

They gave poor Teddy, who set the National Park system up, a very pretty but unspectacular park in North Dakota. Also, it’s split up into two unconnected segments, which, really, makes it two parks.

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