We took our first big camping trip as a family of three to Yosemite National Park when our daughter, Alexis, was 5. We had looked longingly at the photographic essays of Ansel Adams and read about the natural wonders of giant trees, ancient rock formations, and enticing hikes and rock climbs. We were not extremists in terms of seeking strenuous challenges, but rather strong, enthusiastic hikers and lovers of the outdoors.
We flew to San Francisco, rented a car, and started driving to the park, stopping first at Sequoia National Park to stare open-mouthed at the monstrous trees. The groves had been saved from the lumberjacks' axes by visionary conservationists, who understood that the country's natural treasures had to be preserved for future generations.
There was so much to do and see in Yosemite. We made the historic Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel) our base camp for three days as we climbed up to Vernal Falls, hiked through grassy plateaus in the highlands, and watched rock climbers attempt to reach the top of Half Dome.
Visiting Yosemite changed our lives forever. The natural beauty; the fresh, clear air; the pristine, icy streams; and the wonder we felt made us realize how important it was to experience as much of the grandeur of the United States as we could, whenever we could. For years after that trip, we made it a point to visit both national and state parks all over the country. To this day, Alexis and I love visiting these "shrines" to nature.
When I turned 50, I met Alexis in Utah, where we hiked the amazing Zion National Park. Zion's most riveting feature is a 15-mile-long canyon that is almost a half-mile deep. It's a favorite spot for hikers. Alexis led me on a harrowing walk to the end of Angel's Landing, a trail created in 1926 to entice visitors to a spectacular view along a craggy, precipitous path. It was very early in the morning, and I was relieved that there were no other hikers there to witness my ascent to the summit on my hands and knees. The trail is not that challenging, but the last portion is very steep, with drop-offs that require complete and total focus.
On that same trip, Alexis and I drove by Bryce Canyon National Park on our way to Yellowstone, where we saw an amazing array of wildlife -- moose, deer, bison, elk, and magnificent birds -- and the geothermal bubbling mudpots, fumaroles, geysers, and hot springs. Yellowstone was the first tract of American land to be designated a national park, and its sheer size and splendor make it a must-see.
I've ventured into the Grand Canyon and the Sierra Nevada. And I've camped and fished on Alaska's Admiralty Island, on Oregon's Crater Lake, and in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton and Grand Teton -- amazing sights everyone should experience. Recently, some colleagues and I hiked California's Joshua Tree National Park. We saw the famous spiky "trees" and extremely interesting rock formations.
There are many more national parks and forests on my list of must-sees, and I have vowed to visit them all in the next few years.
From a powerful geyser and astonishing rock formations to grand old lodges, the national parks in the West are rich in natural wonders and history. And you don't need to be an avid hiker to enjoy them; each park offers a wide range of ways to take in the scenery.
The first national park is one of the country's most beloved, and most visited, destinations. But thanks to the park's large size (3,500 square miles -- mostly in Wyoming, with small areas in Idaho and Montana), you can still escape the crowds and enjoy the spectacular landscape in solitude. To get the most out of your visit, book activities such as fly-fishing and kayaking ahead of time, and brush up on your wildlife knowledge. You're likely to encounter animals you won't see elsewhere, including ospreys, bison, elk, and bald eagles.
Stay at: Old Faithful Inn. The grand, rustic style of this hotel, built in 1904, inspired the term parkitecture. Its location, next to the Old Faithful geyser, is the best in the park. Book at least a year in advance, especially if you plan to visit in summer.
Don't miss: The spot where the Boiling River hot spring meets the cool Gardner River. People of all ages will enjoy bathing in the waters and watching the steam clouds.
Ansel Adams and other famous photographers have created such iconic images of this national park that its rock formations and waterfalls are a part of our nation's visual vocabulary. But they're well worth seeing in person. Yosemite is one of the easiest-to-reach national parks (it's a few hours from San Francisco and Los Angeles), and it offers easy walks and more strenuous hikes, making it a great place for a multigenerational vacation.
Stay at: The Ahwahnee. This National Historic Landmark in Yosemite Valley offers views of the epic El Capitan and Half Dome rock formations. The 1927 hotel's interiors are as stunning as the surroundings, featuring hand-stenciled beams, stained-glass windows, and massive stone fireplaces throughout.
Don't miss: A mule ride through Yosemite's high country, which rises above several lakes and looks out onto the Cathedral and Mammoth mountain ranges. A hike to at least one of the three major waterfalls -- Nevada, Vernal, and Yosemite -- is also highly recommended.
This barren but beautiful desert is dotted with strangely shaped Joshua trees (some of which are 300 years old), immense boulders, and more than 800 species of plants. The quiet landscape inspires reflection, and it's no surprise that nearby towns have become popular spa and wellness destinations.
Stay at: Hope Springs Resort. About 30 minutes from Joshua Tree, this midcentury-modern boutique hotel has 10 well-appointed rooms, as well as three pools fed by a nearby mineral spring.
Don't miss: Two Bunch Palms Resort & Spa. Balance a day of desert exploration with a day at this spa, near the Hope Springs Resort. The therapeutic treatments include a detoxifying mud bath and water shiatsu in a private mineral pool.
This southern Utah park is famous for its red hoodoos, fantastical, eerie spires that can reach 150 feet. You can view them along a scenic drive that winds through the park, or by hiking through the maze of spires at their base. Day hikes range in difficulty and in length, from less than a mile to 11 miles long.
Stay at: The Lodge at Bryce Canyon. This stone and timber lodge, which opened in 1926, is a National Historic Landmark. Reserve one of the original cabins, which have been restored to their 1920s appearance. Since it's the only lodge within the park, light pollution is minimal, allowing for incredible stargazing from your porch.
Don't miss: A rodeo at Ruby's Inn. An institution since 1916, Ruby's hosts rodeos throughout the summer. The inn also holds nightly cowboy-style suppers, complete with a Western hoedown.
Text by Martha Stewart