Area: 3,242 sq km
Best for… birdwatching, hiking, river-floating
Why go? This south-west Texan stunner does exactly what is says on the tin, named for the grand curve of the Rio Grande that lies within its boundaries.
It is a place of remote and rare beauty, where the Chihuahuan Desert is at its most dramatically carved, colourful and wildlife-rich.
More than 1,200 species of plants, 75 species of mammals, 450 species of birds and 56 species of reptiles can be found here. Particularly good bird spots include the Sam Nail Ranch and Blue Creek, in the foothills of the Chisos Mountains.
You might encounter wildlife on some of the park’s 240km of hiking trails too, which include paths amid the forested Chisos and out into the desert, to canyons, cacti, mesas and oases. However, the best way to gorge-gaze is on a river trip: half-day or multi-day floats on the Rio Grande can be arranged.
When to go: The park is busiest November-April. Desert plants usually bloom late February-late April and July-August.
Plan your trip: Big Bend is 1,050km west of Houston. Got a month? Pay a visit while crossing the States’ bottom: Miami to San Diego, via New Orleans, Texas, the Grand Canyon and Vegas (baby!).
Area: 16,273 sq km
Best for… bears, flightseeing, more bears
Why go? Did we mention the bears? Few places beat Katmai for bruin viewing. Around 2,200 brown bears inhabit this realm of steaming volcanoes, pristine lakes, wild Pacific coast and untouched tundra. One the park’s best places for bear-watching is Brooks Camp, where the animals gather to feed on sockeye salmon in the Brooks River. Three waterside platforms offer up-close viewing. Other locations include Hallo Bay (where Hallo Bay Bear Camp comes highly recommended), Moraine Creek and Geographic Harbor.
Kayaking, boating and hiking are all wild and wonderful here, but flightseeing is the only way to grasp the scale of the place; trips leave from hubs such as Anchorage, Homer and Kodiak. Peer into the craters of the Aleutian Range, make out vast schools of salmon and, with luck, spot bears.
When to go: Open year-round. Backcountry activities are best June-September. Prime bear-viewing months at Brooks Camp are July and September; coastal bear-watching is possible June-August.
Plan your trip: Park HO is in King Salmon, a one-hour flight from Anchorage. Combine Katmai with Lake Clark (see no 2), or Kodiak National