GIVEN TODAY'S COMPLICATED PASSPORT REQUIREMENTS—NOT TO MENTION BACKLOGGED ISSUANCES—PLANNING A DOMESTIC VACATION HAS NEVER BEEN MORE APPEALING. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the allure of Italy, France and Spain, it's easy to forget about the travel opportunities available in our own backyards. National parks are peppered throughout the United States, providing easily coordinated getaways with plenty of suitable options for families, couples and single travelers.
Coast to coast and border to border, American parks are designed for experiencing not just nature, but adventure. Many parks provide hiking and fitness trails coupled with exquisite views of some of the country's most cherished environments. Though such government-sanctioned land is usually largely undeveloped, the surrounding areas tend to be populated with campsites. If pitching a tent isn't your idea of a vacation, plenty of American parks are stocked with hotels for every budget and are located within driving distance of major cities—Red Rock Canyon, for example, is just 30 minutes outside of Las Vegas, giving you two vacations in one.
In 1872, Yellowstone was established as the world's first truly national park, meaning it was set aside by the government exclusively for public use and recreation. The park's acreage extends from Wyoming into Montana and Idaho, with its most visited site being the Old Faithful Geyser in Wyoming. The park, comprised of lakes, canyons, rivers and mountain ranges, is also rich in Native American heritage, as various tribes have lived in the region for the past 11,000 years.
Yellowstone might be the first designated national park, but perhaps the most well-known park in North America is the Grand Canyon. In Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park is split by the Colorado River, which over thousands of years has carved out layer upon layer of colorful cliffs and rocks. Traveling by train or helicopter easily provides the most spectacular views of the park. Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam are also nearby.
Further west lays Waimea Canyon State Park in Hawaii, dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" by Mark Twain. Unlike other parks profiled here, Waimea Canyon is a state park, which means it is smaller in size and under the care of the state, rather than the federal administration. Another notable difference is that this canyon was formed not by erosion, but by the collapse of a volcano that created the island of Kauai, believed to be the oldest of the large Hawaiian islands. Waimea Canyon offers breathtaking views of plant-covered rock and cascading waterfalls, as well as one of the more strenuous hikes of the parks listed here.
Providing a different point of view is Zion National Park in Utah. Instead of looking down from the rim as you would at the Grand Canyon, Zion's visitors get to walk on the canyon floor and look up at the park's renowned rock formations. The Narrows is Zion's most popular hiking route, which follows the Virgin River. Keep in mind, however, that the full hike is 32 miles roundtrip. If you're looking for a less strenuous option, Zion also has a six-mile scenic drive through sandstone cliffs that rise up to 3,000 feet above the canyon floor.
If you're more into foliage than geology, Redwood National Park in California should be your park of choice. Redwoods are the world's tallest trees, measuring more than 300 feet. At the park, you can also stroll down sandy beaches and look at various kinds of plant life. Redwood National Park is also surrounded by Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, providing ample opportunity for further nature exploration.
One of the smallest national parks in the country, Acadia National Park in Maine, also is one of the most visited. The first national park established east of the Mississippi River, Acadia offers opportunities for hiking, bicycling, bird watching, fishing and skiing. Also of note is the nearby town of Bar Harbor, which has shopping, art galleries, fine dining and whale watching.
So if you're fretting over France, agonizing over Italy or undecided on Spain—relax. A visit to any American park truly can be a vacation to suit your needs, with easy travel, minimal—if any—jet lag and budget friendly accommodations (depending on your preference for sleeping arrangements, you can either adhere to your budget or blow it off completely). No passport or paperwork is required.