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The World's Top Ten National Parks

Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. Rick Smith photo.

Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. One of the world's top ten national parks? Photo by Rick Smith.

Most Traveler readers know that Yellowstone National Park is considered to be the world’s first national park. Some, though, might not know that more than 130 nations have established parks or protected areas within their boundaries.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature counts more than 100,000 such areas around the world. Some of these areas are inscribed in the United Nation’s list of World Heritage or Biosphere Reserve sites.

Since it is unlikely than anyone will ever visit all 100,000, we want to invite all Traveler readers to help us pick the best national parks or other protected areas outside the United States. I am going to start the process by letting you know what five of mine are. For each of your areas, please submit a brief description of the resources of the area and the circumstances of your visit. We are going to let this run for a little while to see if we can’t figure out what the best 10 or 15 are from your point of view. The one rule is that you have to have visited the area.

Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

I was blown away by this park. We took a boat trip on Milford Sound. The waterfalls, the glaciers, and the fiords were spectacular. Although we only visited the sound, there are 14 fiords that define the shoreline of this World Heritage Site. I visited Fiordland following the 4th World Congress of the International Ranger Federation, held in Wilsons Promontory National Park in Victoria, Australia. It was interesting to be in a park where elk are considered an exotic species and need to be eliminated. This is one gift to New Zealand from President Theodore Roosevelt that didn’t turn out so well as there are no natural predators in New Zealand to control the elk population.

Kruger National Park, South Africa

This is perhaps the most impressive wildlife viewing area in the world. Millions of acres of habitat and little development give visitors an opportunity to see many large African mammals and magnificent birds. It is one of the few places where wildlife is in charge – they wander free and the visitors are controlled. I stayed here for a week during the 3rd World Congress of the International Ranger Federation. I found it a bit unsettling to be locked inside a compound at night, but as one of my South African ranger colleagues pointed out, “There are lots of things out there that want to eat you.”

Tikal National Park, Guatemala

This World Heritage Site contains the spectacular ruins of a Maya settlement from around 250 – 900 AD. The towering ruins of temples, one 70 meters tall, rising from the jungle that surrounds them, are mute testimony to the architectural genius of the Maya. As many as 90,000 people lived in Tikal at its zenith, but strife with neighboring towns and environmental stress caused its abandonment beginning in the 10th century. Of course, the Maya never left; they are there today, and it’s a thrill to visit it with a Maya guide. During a family trip to Belize and Guatemala, our guide was one of the rangers on the staff at Tikal. The park was holding a training session for some of its rangers and the superintendent asked me to stop by to say a few words to the class. I talked a little bit about how important it was for them to know that they were a part of an international family of rangers dedicated to protecting and preserving the world’s natural and cultural patrimony. They seemed to get it.

Kaieteur National Park, Guyana

I had the great good fortune to prepare a World Heritage nomination for this spectacular area several years ago. I understand its nomination is on hold due to internal political problems. At the time of the nomination, it was Guyana’s only national park. The center piece of the park is a magnificent waterfall that drops 226 meters, five times the height of Niagara. The surrounding rain forest was largely pristine and contained the normal biodiversity of this ecosystem. I saw my only cock-of-the-rock there, a brightly colored bird that hangs out in tropical forests. I did most of my research in Georgetown, the capital of the country, a city that sits below sea level protected by dikes. The original Dutch settlers knew how to build dikes.

Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, Peru

I have visited Machu Picchu three times, the first time in 1969 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay and the last in 2008 when I visited the site with my wife. I was impressed with how much better control there is of visitation now than when I first visited. Only a certain number of people are allowed at any one time on the Inca Trail and there is a daily limit on the number of visitors allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, the peak that dominates the site. I also thought that the interpretation offered by the guides had improved considerably. They are all licensed by the government. Our guide slipped easily between Spanish and English and seemed to know Quechua also. The story of Machu Picchu is fascinating and he told it well.

OK, there are five of my favorites. Can you help us fill in five more blanks? If you have a great photo, send it along via email to [email protected] and we'll see about posting it.


Rick -

Thanks for a great article - and some tempting suggestions for travel! I'll look forward to seeing other suggestions you receive.

My international park experience is rather limited, but here's one that might interest some readers.

The current political situation may make this park a bit less attractive to tourists these days, but Nairobi National Park in Kenya has a lot to offer for those who would like to see some classic African wildlife without spending a king's ransom on a major expedition into the bush.

This isn't a "wilderness park." Located on the outskirts of the capital city of Nairobi, this was the first national park established in Kenya. The location makes the park easy to visit, but proximity to the city may be a negative for some visitors. You can see the skyscrapers of Nairobi from parts of the park, and during my single visit to the area, I found it a bit surreal to be sitting in a vehicle watching a black rhino or a lion while a British Air jet passed overhead.

This is a small park - only about 28,000 acres, but wildlife migrate in and out of the area via the unfenced southern boundary. The park has a nice variety of wildlife, including black rhino, lion, cheetah, leopard, zebra, buffalo, giraffe and gazelle. We saw all of those and more in a single day. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded in the park, but that includes seasonal migrants. The annual wildebeest and zebra migration in July and August is an attraction for some visitors. One drawback - no elephants in this park.

The park is touted as a success story for protection of Kenya's rhino population, and is providing animals for reintroduction into other areas. The Kenya Wildlife Service website claims this is "one the few parks where a visitor can be certain of seeing a black rhino in its natural habitat."

An interesting sidelight on the topic of poaching and law enforcement in parks: During my visit I talked with one of their rangers, who was on duty at the park's single, short nature trail. (This is lion country – long hikes are not encouraged :-) He was dressed in combat camos, and in addition to his sidearm had an AR-16 slung over his shoulder.

I asked him about the poaching issue, and after finding out I was a ranger in the U.S., he warmed up a bit in his conversation. He commented that poaching used to be a problem, but they had largely solved it. How? This is my paraphrase after over a decade, but the jist of it was: "The park is closed at night, so after dark if we hear anybody out there in the bush, we just shoot. In the morning we go see if we hit anything." (Maybe my leg was being pulled a bit, but he seemed pretty serious – and from the reports of success with the black rhino, whatever they're doing seems to be working. I guess it pays to observe closing hours here!)

Some may regard this park as a Safari for Dummies (or city-slickers), but I found it to be a memorable wildlife viewing opportunity.

I haven't traveled outside North American extensively, but I have traveled extensively within North America. I think Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland is extraordinary for both "visual" delight and also topography. It's been called the Galapogos (hey, that's also a National Park, right?) of Geology.

Within the U.S., Yellowstone has it all. Sometimes the best known are the best!


You are right. Galapagos is a national park. Here's what I wrote about it for this contest:


I visited the Galapagos as an invited speaker at a Latin American protected area conference held on Santa Cruz Island. What a break! I think this is one of the areas that really lives up to the brag of being one of the world’s treasures. It is, of course, not without its problems, especially with shark fishermen and an expanding human population on Santa Cruz that threatens the island’s environment. It doesn’t help that Santa Cruz is also the headquarters site of the park and the home of the Charles Darwin Research Center. During a break in the conference, the superintendent of the park, Miguel Cifuentes, asked me if I wanted to go diving. I eagerly replied that I did. When we got to the dive site, however, I looked over the side of the boat and saw maybe 50 or 60 hammerhead sharks circling in the water. That didn’t seem to bother Miguel, but it ended my diving adventure for the day.

Can you tell us a little more about Gros Morne NP? I have never heard of it before and I am curious why it is called the Galapagos of Geology. Do you have a photo you can send Kurt?

Rick Smith

Good afternoon--

We have received only two additional nominations for the best international parks. Come on, NPT readers, we know you are world adventurers and have visited many parks or other protected areas outside the US. We really would like to pick your brains on the best ones out there. Give us your suggestions.

Rick Smith

Surely a representative of the magnificent Canadian Parks should be nominated. Kluane and the Rocky Mountain group are outstanding. Our northern neigbors do an especially good job at interpretation and visitor

Tahoma--Thanks for the recommendation. I have driven through the park on the way to Alaska one time. It is magnificent but I did not have time to explore the interior of the park.

Here is what the Parks Canada website says about Kluane:

"A gem in the family of Parks Canada's national treasures, Kluane National Park and Reserve of Canada covers an area of 21,980 square kilometres. It is a land of precipitous, high mountains, immense icefields and lush valleys that yield a diverse array of plant and wildlife species and provides for a host of outdoor activities. Kluane National Park and Reserve is also home to Mount Logan (5959 m/19,545 ft), Canada's highest peak.

As part of a larger system of national parks and historic sites found throughout Canada, Kluane National Park and Reserve protects and presents a nationally significant example of Canada's North Coast Mountains natural region and the associated regional cultural heritage. Fostering public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of Kluane National Park and Reserve while ensuring ecological and commemorative integrity for present and future generations is Parks Canada's goal."

If I am not mistaken, Kluane is inscribed in the list of World Heritage Sites with Wrangells St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on the US side. Together they must represent the largest World Heritage Site in the world.

I have been fortunate to spend quality time in Wrangells and Glacier Bay. Both parks contain stunning landscapes, significant wildlife, and a diversity of cultural resources. They are neat places.

Rick Smith

Galapagos, Great Barrier Reef, Etosha, Okavango and for North America outside of the United States Jasper and maybe Banff. Those are some of the international parks you can expect in a list like this.

Let's propose a few less spectacular, but none the less important parks:

The Wadden Sea (organized in three national parks in Germany and one in the Netherlands): this coastal area is the most important filter for the North Sea and even parts of the Atlantic ocean. Its function is comparable with the mangrove forests on tropical shores.

Or the Nationalpark Kalkalpen in Upper Austria. It contains the largest roadless forest in Central Europe in a landscape of midsize mountains (up to 1700 m / 5000 ft) with steep valleys - one of which is called the "Große Schlucht" ("Grand Canyon"). The area is full of history as well, in the park are former mines, saw mills and other remnants of the early industrialization. The park is easily the most spectacular hiking area in Central Europe.

In France one could mention the Cevennes - Parc National des Cévennes -, a small but lovely mountain range in the backcountry of the Mediterranean coast. Excellent for hiking, particularly the trail along the river Gard. And again with great history: The famous "Pont du Gard", a 2000 year old, three story, Roman aqueduct, spans the river just some 15 miles outside of the national park.


Good suggestions. I have not traveled much in Europe so I am not a good source for information on these parks. Have you visited all of them? Can you send Kurt a photo of your favorite so that we could see what you are talking about? I assume that these parks follow the European model of little public ownership of the land within the borders but cooperative conservation between landowners and the local/state/federal government. And I have been told that many European parks contain cultural resources of extreme importance.

Your mention of the Wadden Sea brings another issue to mind: in many countries, national parks or other protected areas are established specifically for the environmental services they provide and not because they contain the most spectacular landscapes, the tallest trees, the highest waterfalls, or the deepest canyons. They preserve watersheds or coastal mangroves and the like.

Thanks, MRC, for your comments.

Rick Smith

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