Last year, former National Geographic travel photographer, Jonathan Irish, and NASA employee, Stephanie Payne, embarked on a journey to see all of America’s 59 national parks in 52 weeks.
The couple decided to take the trip in honor of the centennial last year as a way to celebrate the parks and inspire travelers to get out and explore them.
The pair, who had regularly visited national parks as children, spent as many as nine days in some of these parks to see the sites that many travelers never get to.
Here are the top 12 the duo say every traveler should be sure to see.
Death Valley National Park
Payne and Irish picked Death Valley National Park, which spans both California and Nevada, thanks to the park’s incredible variety of landscapes.
“I had never been to this park before and it absolutely blew me away,” said Irish. “It’s really a park of extremes where you get everything from dunes to soaring mountains overlooking salt pans.”
The park, noted for its extremely dry and hot temperatures, is where travelers will also find the lowest point in the U.S. and stunning striations of color at viewpoints like Zabriskie point, which Irish says has a stunning landscape that reminds him of Rocky Road ice cream thanks to the many slopes that carve its surroundings.
Though the park typically has dry conditions, when it rains, the water sits atop the sand to make mirror reflections.
Grand Tetons National Park
Wildlife lovers will enjoy Grand Tetons National Park, in Wyoming, where they can see elks, grizzly bears, owls, sea otters, and more.
The park also comes alive with colors in the fall.
“I’ve never seen a place more beautiful than the Grand Tetons in the fall, when the aspen trees are just exploring with color against the backdrop of the Grand Teton Mountains,” Irish said.
One of his favorite stops in the park is Oxbow Bend, where visitors can get a view of Snake River winding towards the mountains. “There’s just some scenes in nature that seem almost too perfect to be real, and this is definitely one of them,” Irish said.
Glacier National Park
Irish says Montana’s Glacier National Park is ideal for those who love hiking. The park is home to a variety of backcountry trails where hikers can see an array of wildlife, including moose, grizzly bears, and black bears.
“It’s also incredible because it’s like an old soul,” said Irish. “It’s one of the few places where you see billion and billions of year old rock by just looking up.” Visitors can hike up mountains to get views of scenic valleys carved by glaciers, making their surrounding peaks seem all the more dramatic.
Badlands National Park
What makes South Dakota’s Badlands National Park so impressive is the fact that visitors are invited to walk directly onto the badlands themselves, since the park was formed through natural erosion, an opportunity travelers rarely get at other parks.
“You can walk out into these amazing vistas and into the badlands, where you’ll find that you’re all alone, and it’s incredible,” said Irish.
Yosemite National Park
At Yosemite National Park, Irish suggests visitors head to Glacier Point—away from all of the crowds—to get a sense of the heart of the park. Visitors can take a hike on the Panorama Trail to see what Irish says are the best views of the park, including viewpoints overlooking Half Dome and the valley below, and two waterfalls below.
Lake Clark National Park
Although Lake Clark National Park is one of the least visited parks in the U.S., according to Irish, it’s an iconic Alaska experience few know of that Irish says you won’t want to miss. Once visitors arrive, they are treated to reflective lakes that create a breathtaking surrounding for activities like kayaking and hiking.
The exterior of the park’s coast is known for its brown bear population.
Acadia National Park
Come to Maine for the lobster, stay for Acadia National Park‘s soaring granite peaks, rugged coastline, and the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast. Irish says that, thanks to the bright orange hue of some of the rocks in the park, when warm sunlight hits the rocks it creates an incredible pinkish glow.
Arches National Park
Utah’s Arches National Park is known as a “red rock wonderland” thanks to some 2,000 natural stone arches and hundreds of soaring pinnacles that paint the scene a stunning hue of red.
“Arches has held my heart for as long as I can remember,” Irish told T+L. “The unique formations that make the park its namesake—the arches—showcase the park as such a fragile place with an incredible scenery, so it seem like an honor to be able to see these sites before they eventually fall and crack.”
His favorite trail in the park is the Devil’s Garden, a challenging hike that includes at least 10 scenic arches.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park is an adventure lover’s dream come true, as North America’s tallest dunes stand in the heart of a landscape that includes everything from wetlands and aspen forests to alpine lakes.
Sequoia National Park
“I’ll never forget going into Sequoia for the first time and looking up to see the trees because it feels like you’re walking through hallowed ground because the trees are so massive and overwhelming,” Irish said. “It’s one of those locations where you feel you just want to be quiet in the nature because it’s just too beautiful.”
One of the top trails at California’s Sequoia National Park is the Big Trees Trail, a short and easy walk that will take visitors to some of the biggest trees in the world.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Though Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is America’s biggest national park, it’s also one of the least visited, according to Irish. There are no roads here, meaning visitors must fly or hike into the park, which Irish says is what also helps to keep the place pristine. “We would pitch our tent next to massive glaciers that run for two to three miles wide in some places and hike across them,” Irish said.
Canyonlands National Park
Utah’s Canyonlands National Park is divided by rivers into four parts that include the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves, each of which have their own awe-inspiring scenery to offer. The Needles was most impressive to Payne and Irish.
“Where we got blown away is the Needles district, where there’s this otherwordly landscape of pink sandstone that takes the shape of needles nad forms to look just like nature’s artwork,” Irish said.