America’s top 10 national parks
The more national parks you visit, the harder it becomes to choose a favorite. So in celebration of National Park month in July, we've chosen the very best in each category. Visit any of these 10 gold-medal parks (or our 10 silver-medal picks) and it's likely you will add these to your own list of favorites.
Best mountain park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park,Tennessee/North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains are molehills compared to the 10,000-plus-foot peaks in Denali, Rocky Mountain, Mount Rainier, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and Haleakala National Parks. But America's largest national park boasts 800 miles of easier-to-hike low-altitude trails and unpaved roads, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Along with its proximity to the East Coast, this helps make it the most visited of all national parks. The tallest peak is Clingmans Dome, topped by an observation tower on the 6,643-foot summit with panoramic views of the coniferous rainforest.
Silver Medal: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Best canyon park
Zion National Park, Utah. The multihued canyons of the Southwest are so stunning that nine national parks showcasing their beauty stretch from northern Arizona to southern Utah and Colorado. Grand Canyon is the most famous, but once you've peered into the abyss, there isn't much else to do. There is at Zion, with 18 trails of all difficulty levels, and canyons that are just as “grand." Zion Narrows, for example, which can be explored on foot, is as slim as 20 feet and as tall as 2,000 feet. Viewed at dawn and dusk, Zion's sheer cliffs become rainbows of oranges, reds, purples and tans.
Silver Medal: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Best volcanic park
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho. Geothermal activity is also evident at Hawai'i Volcanoes, Lassen Volcanic and Hot Springs National Parks, but it's hard to beat Yellowstone, America's first national park. It starts with Old Faithful, the world's most famous geyser, which spouts hot-spring water and steam about 140 feet in the air every one to two hours. The park contains half of the world's geysers, plus many “mudpots," steam vents and hot-spring terraces. Add four mountain ranges, wolves, bison, elk and grizzly bears and it's a park erupting with surprises.
Silver Medal: Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii.
Best big-rock park
Yosemite National Park, California. Take away the massive granite walls that soar thousands of vertical feet above Yosemite Valley and it would be just another forest —not America's top spot for admiring waterfalls and world-class rock climbers. El Capitan and Half Dome are Yosemite's signature rock faces, while others are bisected by famous waterfalls, like 2,425-foot-high Yosemite Falls and rainbow-swaddled Bridalveil Fall. The park is not all imposing cliffs and thundering falls, though. More than 750 miles of trails snake through Yosemite Valley, up to the falls and in the high country.
Silver Medal: Arches National Park, Utah.
Best caves park
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. Fifty-five trails are found in this park and dozens of species of fish swim its rivers, but a half-million visitors come each year mostly for what's underneath: the world's largest known network of caves, tunneling more than 400 miles. Designated as a World Heritage Site, these caves can be seen on any of five guided tours, ranging from the fully lit, 75-minute Frozen Niagara Tour to the six-hour Wild Cave Tour that involves serious climbing, squeezing and crawling through muddy and dusty passageways wearing headlamps.
Silver Medal: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico.
Best island park
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan. Who would have guessed you could experience the remote island splendor of Lost, minus the scary drama, in Michigan? Isle Royale, a 45-mile-long roadless wilderness, is 56 miles from Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the middle of Lake Superior. Experience all the solitude you can handle on its 165 miles of hiking trails where moose sightings are common, canoe on inland lakes or kayak in the bays (both can be rented on the island). Scheduled ferry service from Houghton, Michigan, operates through September.
Silver Medal: Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Best desert park
Saguaro National Park, Arizona. The mighty saguaro cactus, the symbol of Arizona, is an amazing plant — it can grow up to 60 feet high, live for up to 200 years, store up to 200 gallons of water and serve as a shelter for birds and provide food for animals. At this two-part national park that flanks the western and eastern edges of Tucson, you can learn more about these majestic cacti at the visitor centers and hike in the midst of thousands of them in rolling hills that reach into the mountains.
Silver Medal: Joshua Tree National Park, California.
Best glaciers park
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. There are glaciers in other national parks in Alaska, Montana and Washington, but few are as accessible as Exit Glacier near Anchorage. Trails from the parking lot lead you right onto the glacier; President Obama hiked one in 2015 as a way to highlight global warming, which has shortened the glacier by more than a mile. Exit is one of dozens of Harding Icefield glaciers in the park, where you may also spot fjords, whales, moose and bears from your rental car, on a boat tour or on the hiking trail.
Silver Medal: Glacier National Park, Montana.
Best coastal park
Acadia National Park, Maine. Mountain hiking trails, bike-friendly carriage roads and trout-filled ponds occupy the interior of this lone national park in the Northeast, but Acadia is best known for its dramatic rocky coastline. The park is spread out on the Schoodic Peninsula and Mount Desert Island, which is accessible by bridge — plus Isle au Haut and some smaller islands which are accessible by ferry. The coast, most of it easily reached on the park's loop roads or from trails that branch off of them, features cliffs, tide pools, seashell-strewn beaches and a birder's paradise of wetlands.
Silver Medal: Olympic National Park, Washington.
Best urban recreation park
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. Besides 59 national parks, the National Park Service manages 18 national recreation areas (plus hundreds of national monuments, historical parks and other national treasures). The GGNRA is a sprawling, shore-hugging park in San Francisco and two neighboring counties that includes the Presidio (a former Army base dating to 1776); numerous beaches on the ocean and San Francisco Bay; rugged Coast Range headlands; and recreational opportunities that include some of the best surfing, windsurfing, mountain biking and day hiking in the West — much of it within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Silver Medal: Gateway National Recreation Area, New York/New Jersey.
If you go
United Airlines flies to these airports nearest our top 10 parks: Knoxville (Great Smoky Mountains), St. George (Zion), Cody/YRA (Yellowstone), Fresno (Yosemite), Louisville (Mammoth Cave), Houghton (Isle Royale), Tucson (Saguaro), Anchorage (Kenai Fjords), Bangor (Acadia) and San Francisco (Golden Gate).
Eric Rubens (@erubes1) is a MileagePlus member based in Southern California. He is a photographer/videographer who loves meeting new people and traveling the world.
When planning a vacation, one of the first steps is picking a theme. If you're in search of mountains, many look to the Rockies, Swiss Alps, or Dolomites. If a tropical vacation is desired, Hawaii, Mexico, or the Caribbean may be calling your name. There are so many beautiful destinations in this world, but is it possible for one of them to be blessed with incredible mountains, picturesque beaches, and some of the best wildlife viewing in the world?
Cape Town is one of the few places I've found that seems to have it all. With the iconic Table Mountain and Lion's Head rising out of the city, there are hikes leading up to majestic views down the African coastline. The beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay are some of the most incredible beaches on this planet. If wildlife peaks your interest, there's Boulder's Beach, home to one of the only land-based penguin colonies in the world. Did I mention the safari is a short trip away? Add in an exchange rate that is very favorable and you have all the makings of a trip you'll never forget.
Camps Bay Beach
Planning a trip to Africa for the first time can be both intimidating and a bit challenging. I found very few of my friends or family had been, which made my voyage to South Africa even more exciting. Cape Town is home to a hip urban scene, a vibrant melting pot of culture, and jaw dropping landscapes that'll make you wonder why you didn't visit sooner. There's no city quite like it, and this list of top things to do will make sure you maximize your time in the Mother City. Several theories exist regarding the origin of Cape Town's nickname as "The Mother City." Some say it can be traced back to the beginning of the city's history as a trading hub in the 17th century, or its status as South Africa's first metropolis. But many locals have their own theories – one running joke is that it takes nine months to get anything done in the very laid back city.
View from the top of Table Mountain
#1: Take a hike or tram up to the top of Table Mountain
This iconic mountain rising from the city is arguably home to Cape Town's best views. The 2 to 3-hour hike to the top makes for a fun activity if you're up for it. Otherwise, take in the view from the aerial cableway, complete with 360-degree rotating floor and running every 5 minutes from the base. Once up top, there's plenty of walking trails, souvenir shopping, and food and drinks. Table Mountain is known for the blanket of fog that rolls over the peak, so weather at the top can change quickly. Make sure to check the weather before heading up and bring a jacket, since the wind can be intense!
Penguins at Boulder Beach
#2: Visit the penguin colony at Boulder's Beach
Even though it's an hour or so drive from the city, visiting Boulder's Beach and its nearly 2,000 penguins is an unforgettable experience. Watching the penguins lounge on the beach and come in and out of the waves makes for some incredible pictures and a unique encounter. You can also swim in the nearby waters and will often come face to face with members of the colony.
#3: Wake up for a sunrise hike up Lion's Head
One of the most bucket list-worthy activities on a visit to Cape Town is catching sunrise atop Lion's Head. It's a challenging hike and not for those with a fear of heights, but you won't soon forget the view from the summit. If you're willing to scramble and make your way up the final ladders, 360-degree views of the city await, and the sunrise over the city is one for the ages.
#4: Explore the Cape Winelands and the beauty of Constantia
South Africa has some of the best vineyards in the world. Even though the towns of Franschooek and Stellenbosch get the majority of the press, nearby Constantia is home to the oldest wine estate in the country, Groot Constantia. Its proximity (just 15 minutes from the city center) makes it perfect for a day trip. The city sightseeing "Hop-On Hop-Off" bus tour has a purple line that connects through this region, so getting here is easy! If wine tasting isn't your thing, the Alphen Trail is a beautiful trek through the countryside and sure to put you in a relaxing mood.
Chapman's Peak Drive
#5: Take a road trip down Chapman's Peak Drive
One of the most beautiful drives awaits just south of Cape Town. Carved into the cliffs and winding along the ocean, this road between Hout Bay and Noordhoek offers majestic views of the coastline. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road since the sheer beauty can be distracting!
#6: View the diversity of flora throughout Kirstenbosch Gardens
The flora and fauna of South Africa is some of the most diverse in the world, and no place showcases it better than Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Tucked along the slopes of Table Mountain and widely recognized as one of the most impressive gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is home to over 7,000 species of plants. The newly completed Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway allows you to walk above the tree line. If you visit in summer, try to make one of the Sunday concerts in the gardens, which are a hit with locals and visitors.
V & A Waterfront
#7: Shop your heart out along the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Known as one of the biggest tourism hubs of the city, the always bustling V&A Waterfront is home to many of Cape Town's finest restaurants, shopping, and the launching point of many tours. There are countless ways to spend your time here, but make sure to stop by the V&A food market, where over 40 vendors sell gourmet street food from around the world.
#8: Make your way to the Southern tip of Africa
If you're up for an adventure, take a trip to The Cape of Good Hope. You'll most likely encounter penguins, baboons, and who knows what else along the 1.5-hour drive. The weather can be very unpredictable, so make sure to check it before making the trip south. While there, visit the lighthouse and if you're hungry grab a bite at the appropriately named Two Oceans Restaurant.
#9 Take a tour of historical Robben Island
Even though the prison has been shut down since 1996, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Cape Town's most popular tours. Tours take around 4 hours including a ferry ride to the island famous for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned.
-Use the "hop on hop off" bus for an easy guided tour of the city. The route takes you to many of the best spots throughout Cape Town and allows you to explore at your own pace. Buy tickets ahead of time to save on fare!
-Cape Town has some incredible boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts. My favorites are: Tintswalo Atlantic, 52 De Wet Luxury Boutique Hotel, and Derwent House Boutique Hotel.
-Make sure you don't carry too many valuables on you if you're walking around at night. Although beautiful and mostly safe, there is still a good amount of opportunistic crime throughout the city. Always pay attention to your surroundings.
Opinions expressed by the author are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of United.
Planning a Caribbean vacation around hurricane season isn't necessary if you head to Dutch-affiliated Curaçao. The southernmost of all Caribbean islands — just off Venezuela's coast — is rarely even grazed by hurricanes. It also has an ideal tropical climate with average winter highs in the 80s (and water temperatures to match) and only about one inch of rain a month.
Curaçao will be more accessible beginning December 7, 2019, when weekly nonstops begin from New York/Newark on United Airlines. The new seasonal service on 737-700 aircraft makes Curaçao the 21st Caribbean island destination for United, which already flies to the other two nearby "ABC islands" — Aruba and Bonaire. Why choose Curaçao? Because like the island's famous blue liqueur, it's colorful, exotic and appealing.
Jet lag won't be an issue for Americans flying to Curaçao because it's in the same time zone as New York. Nor is it a long flight — about five hours nonstop from New York/Newark. Upon arrival you can take a taxi, rental car or hotel shuttle from Curaçao International Airport to your accommodations — a resort (reserve early), boutique inn, vacation house or B&B. Most are in Willemstad, a coastal city only five miles from the airport.
Forts above the port
Straat Curaçao Getty Images/iStockphoto
The historic city center and harbor areas of Curaçao's only city of Willemstad are designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site, mostly for the 17th to 19th century Dutch colonial architecture of the houses and forts. The houses are painted a rainbow of bright colors in the Caribbean tradition, and the city is packed with forts — Fort Amsterdam (built in 1636), Fort Beekenburg (1703), Fort Nassau (1797) and Fort Waakzaamheid (1803). All four offer stellar views and are free to visitors.
On the waterfront
Curacao colorful houses Getty Images/iStockphoto
Along with forts, the harbor area is home to the oldest continuously operating synagogue (and museum) in the Western Hemisphere, an African art museum that tells the story of the slave trade through West African art and artifacts, and a maritime museum. These visits can be followed by a tour and tasting at the Curaçao Distillery, where you'll see how the peels of the native Laraha bitter oranges are turned into curaçao liqueur.
Snorkel from the sand
Two people snorkeling off coast of tropical island Getty Images
The chief allure of this 38-mile-long island is, of course, the ocean. Besides sunbathing at any of the dozens of powder-sand cove beaches, you can wade right in and snorkel in the turquoise, bathlike sea, usually around 80 degrees. Visibility is up to 100 feet, a snorkeler's dream. More adventurous types can snorkel or dive from day boats that head to prime diving sites like the Mushroom Forest (mushroom-shaped coral), Blue Cave and several shipwreck spots. There's also a nice aquarium on the shoreline where marine life is seen up close in their natural habitat —from land or aboard a minisub that dives 1,000 feet.
Curaçao is a convenient tropical destination for Americans because U.S. dollars and credit cards are commonly accepted, English is widely spoken and no visa is required. But the local culture and cuisine are still exotic enough to be intriguing with local specialties like stewed iguana and cactus soup served in restaurants and from food carts in Willemstad.
If you go
One of our most treasured events of the year is here – Fantasy Flights! Our Fantasy Flights bring holiday cheer to children in need by taking them on a special trip to the "North Pole." Each station creates a North Pole with care, in preparation for all the children who will soon be there…
Our participating stations this year are HNL (Honolulu), FRA (Frankfurt), CLE (Cleveland), DEN (Denver), IAD (Washington Dulles), LAX (Los Angeles), SFO (San Francisco), MCO (Orlando), ORD (Chicago O'Hare), GUM (Guam), EWR (New York/New Jersey), NRT (Tokyo-Narita), PHX (Phoenix), IAH (Houston), MCI (Kansas City) and SAT (San Antonio).
Please stay tuned for stories, photos and more from these magical events. #UAFantasyFlights