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In 2009 almost 63 million visitors flocked to our country's stunning national parks. Just a handful of parks considered the gems of the United States National Park System and the names most familiar to the public received most of these visitors.
But these popular parks are more than clichéd family vacation destinations; look past the crowds and dig deeper into these household names to uncover the fascinating science of our national treasures.
Consider it your national park bucket list. If you don't go to any other parks, these are the ones to visit before you die.
Glacier National Park, MontanaSlide 2 of 21
Glacier National Park, Montana2,031,348 visitors per year
The nation's 10th national park is also its 10th most popular. Glacier National Park doesn't have many high peaks only six peaks over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) but it is one of the best examples of glacier carved terrain from a time 10,000 years in the past. Visitors can view the bedrock and deposited materials exposed by receding glaciers and imagine ancient seas and the movement of giant slabs of Earth that pushed up the mountain range that is known to Native Americans as the "Shining Mountains" and the "Backbone of the World."
Glacier Park isn't just a nod to the past in fact, it has glaciers today and many can be seen from the roads around the park. Their blue ice and crevasses separate them from the snowfield above the timberline. The alpine glaciers melt and re-freeze to move snow downhill like a conveyor belt. This cycle creates U-shaped valleys that are impressively vertical.
Web site: http://www.nps.gov/glac/
MORE INFO: 150 miles (240 km) north of Missoula in West Glacier, Mont. 59936. Phone: (406) 888-7800.Slide 3 of 21
Acadia National Park, MaineSlide 4 of 21
Acadia National Park, Maine2,227,698 visitors per year
Along the rugged Maine coast lays a cluster of islands that make up Acadia National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Acadia is home to Thunder Hole, a geologic formation on Mount Desert Narrows where waves slap the end of the inlet, shooting water up to 40 feet (12 m) high and unleashing a dramatic thunderclap.
Acadia's coastline is constantly changing, although at a pace much too slow for the average visitor to notice, and is evidenced by the parks' cobblestone beaches. The cobblestones were formed as the ocean waves rounded down coastal rocks over thousands of years. Visitors to Acadia will occasionally find visually stunning sea stacks stacks of ocean-smoothed stones hundreds of feet tall that have been sculpted over eons.
Web site: http://www.nps.gov/acad/
MORE INFO: 280 miles (450 km) northeast of Boston in Bar Harbor, Maine 04609. Phone: (207) 288-3338.Slide 5 of 21
Grand Teton National Park, WyomingSlide 6 of 21
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming2,580,081 visitors per year
Glacial lakes lie at the base of the jagged Teton Mountain Range, which rises more than 7,000 feet (2,100 m) above the valley of Jackson Hole, Wyo. The park's elevation ranges from 6,400 feet (2,000 m) at the sagebrush valley to more 13,770 feet (4,200 m) at the summit of the Grand Teton. Don't visit in the winter, however, as Grand Teton National Park once recorded a record cold of minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 53 degrees Celsius) and the park is often covered with snow from early November to late April.
The park's powerful peaks make it hard to imagine that the area was once covered by a sea. However, most of the park contains extensive exposures of sedimentary formations, some over 1,000 feet (300 meters) thick and dating back to 500 million years ago. These formations are filled with the fossil remains of marine organisms. Scientists now know that the Teton Range was once the floor of an ancient sea teeming with algae, coral, clam-like shells known as brachiopods, and early ancestors of the crayfish called trilobites.
Web site: http://www.nps.gov/grte/
MORE INFO: 300 miles (483 km) north of Salt Lake City in Moose, Wyo. 83012. Phone: (307) 739-3300.Slide 7 of 21
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OhioSlide 8 of 21