Ecotourism in America: Amazing Destinations from Hawaii to the Northwest

The vastness of America lends itself to an incredible diversity of terrain, wildlife, and scenery, but the Northwestern states and Hawaiian islands stand out as especially unique in these areas. From the landlocked plains to the Pacific and from the wild Alaskan tundra to the Hawaiian tropics, this region invites enthusiastic nature-lovers to come marvel and explore.

Denali National Park and Preserve

Denali Park, Alaska

Source: Public Domain

Source: Public Domain

The six million acres of Denali National Park are breathtakingly beautiful and wild, remaining mostly untouched by man. The park is centered around the 20,310-foot peak of Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), which is the highest mountain in North America, and the third highest in the world. Though named for its enormous mountain, Denali National Park was the first created specifically to protect wildlife. Grizzly and black bears, wolves, caribou, moose, dall sheep, snowshoe hares, lynx, wolverines, tundra swans, salmon, and trout are just some of the magnificent species which call Denali home.

A single road runs through Denali, and most visitors to the park arrive in summer, when access by bus is possible as the ice melts. The various ecosystems within the park include deciduous taiga at the lower elevations, tundra at middle elevations, and glaciers and snowy peaks at the highest elevations. Popular activities include camping, hiking, fishing, and flight-seeing, which involves touring the park via small aircraft or helicopter. Visitors who prefer a remote and rustic retreat can travel to Denali in winter, when dog-sledding, winter camping, snowmobiling, and observing the Northern Lights can occupy their time.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii National Park, Hawaii

Source: Public Domain

Source: Public Domain

Hawaii’s reputation for natural beauty is perfectly manifested in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, which is located on the state’s Big Island. Two of the Park’s most impressive features are Kilauea, the largest active volcano in the world, and Mauna Loa, the largest shield volcano in the world, which stand guard over the Park. Over 130,000 acres of designated wilderness area provide unique hiking opportunities for visitors.

Within the Park, the climate ranges from the dry Ka’u Desert region to areas of tropical rain forest. Over 90% of the native wildlife in the Park are found only in the Hawaiian islands, making the region more endemic than any other place on earth, including the Galapagos Islands. However, the invasion of non-native species has taken a toll on the biodiversity and health of the native species. In fact, a significant part of the Park’s mission is dedicated to restoring the health of native habitats. Wildlife includes Hawaii’s only native land mammal, the bat, as well as carnivorous caterpillars, happy face spiders, endangered sea turtles, and vibrant Hawaiian honeycreepers.

*** NOTE: ***

Due to the volatility of the park’s volcanoes, if planning a trip here, it important to stay updated on the status of current volcanic activity.

Bruneau Sand Dunes

Mountain Home, Idaho

Source: Public Domain

Source: Public Domain

Bruneau Dunes State Park contains the tallest freestanding sand dunes in North America, with the highest reaching 470 feet. The Park’s dunes are also unique in that they form near the center of a natural basin, whereas others in the Western Hemisphere form around basin edges. Due to the nearly equal and opposite wind forces placed upon the dunes, the dunes’ location stays fairly stable, without drifting significantly. The Park’s habitats include deserts, dunes, prairies, lakes, and marshes. Visitors are often able to spot desert wildlife, along with waterfowl and birds of prey.

A unique range of activities is available for visitors to Bruneau, including hiking, dune climbing, sand boarding in the drier regions to fishing and swimming in the wetland areas. Camping, star gazing at the public observatory, and birdwatching are also popular pastimes.  Park policy prevents motorized boats on the waterways and motorized vehicles on the dunes, allowing visitors to truly take in their natural surroundings.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park, Montana

Source: Public Domain

Source: Public Domain

Yellowstone was America’s first National Park, having been signed into law by President Grant in 1872. It is also believed to have been the first National Park in the entire world—and arguably remains the most famous. Though it touches parts of Montana and Idaho, the mass of Yellowstone is contained in Wyoming.

Yellowstone is a virtual paradise for nature-lovers, containing vastly diverse habitats including subalpine forest, geothermal features including the famous Old Faithful Geyser, and of course parts of the Rocky Mountains. Yellowstone Caldera is considered an active volcano, though it has not erupted anytime in recent history. Half of all the world's geysers and other hydrothermal features are contained here, driven by volcanic activity underground. Unfortunately, forest fires are an annual fixture in Yellowstone’s lifecycle. An enormous blaze in 1988 burned nearly a third of the Park, evidence of which is still seen throughout the Park today.

Yellowstone is the center of one of the most expansive, nearly-intact temperate zones on Earth, providing a true haven for wildlife. The Park has the highest concentration of large mammals in the contiguous United States. Grizzly bears, a rebounding wolf population, elk, bison, and many more freely roam about in large numbers. The bison herd at Yellowstone is the oldest and largest public herd in the United States, and the wolves were re-introduced in 1995. Aside from the truly prolific wildlife viewing opportunities, visitor activities include camping and hiking, as well as boating and fishing on Yellowstone Lake. A variety of lodges, educational nature centers, and recreational areas are scattered throughout the Park as well. Summer is the busiest time of the year, but guests can also enjoy the Park in winter, where guided tours via snow coaches or snowmobiles offer a unique experience.

Three Sisters Wilderness

Blue River, Oregon

The Three Sisters Wilderness makes up close to 300,000 acres of beautiful territory in Central Oregon. The trio of volcanic peaks, each over 10,000 feet high, adjoin the Cascade Mountain Range. The three peaks were once referred to by pioneers as Faith, Hope, and Charity, but today they are referred to as South Sister, Middle Sister, and North Sister. Visitors to Three Sisters Wilderness can enjoy activities such as camping, hiking, climbing, and fishing. South Sister and Middle Sister are more leisurely climbs, but ascending North Sister requires technical expertise and equipment. More than 260 miles of trails wind through the Wilderness, parts of which overlap the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Three Sisters Wilderness has played an important role in Northwestern conservation efforts. When the region was to be stripped of 53,000 acres of forest lands in 1954, environmentalists and local nature-enthusiasts organized and protested against this, forming the Friends of the Three Sisters Wilderness (the first wilderness activist group in the Northwest). Regardless, the Forest Service reduced the protected area in 1957, citing the need for timber at local mills. This prompted two Oregon senators to co-sponsor the Wilderness Bill, which removed the Forest Service’s authority to determine wilderness boundaries. This bill passed in 1964, creating more permanent protection for the Three Sisters. The region has remained an important player in the discussion over protecting old-growth forests to this day.

Mount Rainier National Park

Ashford, Washington

Source: Public Domain

Source: Public Domain

Mount Rainier National Park was established in 1899, and was only the fifth national park to ever be established in the United States. Its property spans over 200,000 acres, with the Park centering around the massive 14,411 ft. stratovolcano called Rainier. Mount Rainier rises abruptly from the lower surrounding landscape, looking out in stately majesty over the earth below. The surrounding region is decorated with valleys, waterfalls, subalpine meadows, and 91,000 acres of old-growth forests. Over 25 glaciers, including two of the largest in the US, as well as snowfields, rest on the slopes of Rainier itself. Wonderland Trail circles the mountain, allowing rugged hikers and mountaineers to brave the elements. Paradise, the most popular region of the Park, is the snowiest place on Earth. *

Visitors who opt for an experience slightly less demanding than climbing Mount Rainier can enjoy scenic drives, hikes in the lower regions, and wildlife watching. The Park is home to a number of large mammals including cougar, black bear, bobcat, elk, and mountain goat. It is also full of a variety of feathered creatures including thrush, owls, jays, nutcrackers, eagles, duck, grouse, and the peregrine falcon. Currently, the Park is working to restore the Pacific Fisher to the region as well.

*This statistic only includes places that are currently measured for snowfall.

Grand Tetons National Park

Moose, Wyoming

Source: Public Domain

Source: Public Domain

Grand Teton National Park contains approximately 310,000 acres and includes the Teton Range, which stretches for a total length of about 40 miles. The picturesque Grand Tetons stand back against the surrounding landscape, the deep purple shadows and white peaks contrasting beautifully. The Park’s surrounding land includes a collection of crystal lakes, alpine terrain, and green valleys. Over 200 miles of trails wind their way through the Park, inviting visitors to explore the wilderness. Floating the Snake River is another good way to see different aspects of the Park. In summer, activities like camping, climbing, fishing, swimming, boating, and other water activities are popular, while in winter visitors can ski or snowshoe. The nearby town of Jackson Hole is also a popular tourist destination.

Only about 10 miles south of the Yellowstone border, the Grand Tetons region is encompassed by the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and is full of abundant wildlife. Of the sixty-one mammal species recorded in the Park, gray wolves, grizzly and black bears, cougar, lynx, elk, moose, bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, wolverine, otter, and badger are some of the more notable. The tiniest bird in North America, the calliope hummingbird, can be spotted in the Park, as well as the largest waterfowl species in North America, the trumpeter swan. Other notable bird species here include the harlequin duck, bald and golden eagles, osprey, many species of owl, magpie, plovers, jays, sage grouse, great blue heron, white pelican, and the endangered whooping crane.

Hawaii and the Northwestern states are indeed beautiful in every way, full of majestic mountains, brilliant greenery, and perhaps most remarkably, countless indigenous wildlife. From the tropical climate of Hawaii to the mountains of Wyoming to the snow-covered landscapes of Alaska, this region beckons nature-lovers to experience its beauty, majesty, and variety.

We here at ACC hope this series has sparked ideas for your best nature-oriented travels in 2019. Happy trails!

Meghan Miller