The Pacific West national parks region includes the West Coast of the continental U.S. plus Hawaii and territories in the Pacific Ocean. The parks of the region show off the wonders of plate tectonics and house some of the oldest living organisms on Earth.
Featuring the tallest trees on Earth, this Northern California park falls under national and state jurisdiction. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and served as a shooting location for several movies, most notably serving as the forest moon of Endor in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Several options for a scenic drive take visitors through ancient forests (including iconic drive-through trees), along the coast and into flowering prairies. The wildlife ranges from banana slugs to gray whales. The star attractions are the Coast redwoods, which live on average 500-700 years, with a few known to be 2,000 years old.
Peaking at 14,410 feet above sea level in Washington, Rainier is is a land of fire and ice. Still an active volcano, it is also the most glaciated peak in the continental U.S. The park is open year-round, featuring winter sports and ranger-guided snowshoe walks, brilliant fall colors, abundant waterfalls in the spring as the snow melts and bountiful flowers and berries in summer. Humans have lived in the area of the mountain native tribes called Takhoma for at least 9,000 years, and its modern name comes from Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, a friend of British Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver, who explored extensively around the Pacific Northwest.
In nearly 1,200 square miles, Yosemite packs quite a punch. El Capitan, Half Dome, and Cathedral Peak are among the iconic rock formations, and intrepid climbers scale just about every rock they can to take in astounding views. Birdwatchers can spot more than 250 species living in or passing through the park throughout the year, with peregrine falcons and spotted owls among the most popular. Bring your star chart for some great gazing, especially during the summer, when amateur astronomers gather at Glacier Point on Saturday nights.
The violent eruption of Mt. Mazama about 7,700 years ago created what is now the deepest lake in the U.S. Crater Lake lies in the caldera of the volcano, reaching almost 2,000 feet at its deepest, with the rim of the caldera ranging between 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. A cinder cone in the western part of the lake forms Wizard Island, which is accessible by boat during the summer. A legend of the Klamath people tells of a battle between the god of the below world and the god of the above world ending with the destruction of the underworld god’s home, which then filled with water.
Encompassing Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the five volcanoes that formed the Big Island, the park shows off many stages of the life of a volcano. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983, creating new land, while Mauna Loa is the most massive volcano on Earth’s surface. Lava tubes and steam vents abound, providing homes to unique flora and fauna such as happy face spiders and ohi‘a trees. Visitors can drive the Chain of Craters road or go on foot, hiking to flowing lava and seeing the newest land on Earth form.