Dr. Brainerd’s Top 10 National Parks in the United States

Friday, July 7, 2023

Welcome friends, to my Travel Friday’s B.R.E.A.T.H.S. blog where I share my traveling experiences from driving across the United States from September 2020 through June 2022. For the most part, I have been sharing my National Park travel experiences, and this time I am trying to change things up a bit and create a new Brainerd’s Top 10 every Friday this July. However, for the first week, I will start off with sharing my top 10 favorite National Parks, almost half of which I have already made a blog post about. Follow along to see which ten I chose out of the 130+ National Parks I have visited!

Photo by me, June 16, 2022

#10 Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID 

Craters of the Moon NP was the last park I visited on my trip and just barely made it on my top ten list. However, it was a beautiful sunny day in Idaho and long gravel roads to and from the park. When I entered, I was given a brochure with the map showing the Loop Road where you drive in a circle stopping at different viewpoints with moonesque features. The entire preserve is a massive 1100 square miles and the volcanic cone areas you can explore are tiny in comparison. My favorite part was the “Snow Cone,” a pack of ice in a cave even though it was hot outside. My second favorite part was the hike up to the Inferno Cone with magnificent views. 


I actually have two least favorite parts which is also why it’s in last spot: 1) I left a pair of my sunglasses on a picnic table and didn’t want to drive the entire loop to get them back, and 2) after driving several miles along the gravel roads with numerous signs that warn of windshield damage from flying rocks, one hits my window leaving a moon-shaped crack. The irony is a little funny. 

Photo by stranger, my parents and I, October 23, 2018

#9 Bryce Canyon National Park, UT 

I didn’t actually visit Bryce Canyon in the last couple years, but I did go with my parents five years ago and really enjoyed the park. Similar to driving in a circle like on Craters of the Moon, you drive up around different elevation points at Bryce Canyon where each stop offers you an extraordinary view. We got to see amazing rock formations in different pockets around the canyon, except when we got to the highest point, the clouds were so thick we couldn’t see anything. 


My favorite part was when someone offered to take a picture of our family with the elevation sign. My second favorite part was the breathtaking views that never ceased to amaze me. Ultimately, it was a memorable trip with my parents in their brand new camper that was quite the experience. 

Photo by me, taken June 11, 2022

#8 Mesa Verde National Park, CO 

Mesa Verde was another one of my most recent visits and it was with my friends from New Mexico who also took me to Aztec National Park, literally in their backyard. I remember learning about both places in school, but very briefly, and I don’t recall the exact time, era, or much about the people who lived there. I was amazed at how well preserved the cave dwellings were. 


My favorite part was being able to walk and stand in the same place as our ancestors, where I felt a deep connection to them, the earth, everything. My second favorite thing was actually from Aztec National Park where a Navajo lady working with silver made me a keychain token with the Navajo meaning for, “I love you” inscribed. I keep it attached to my hydroflask with the inscription, “I am love.”

Photo by me, taken September 09, 2021

#7 Nicodemus National Historic Site, KS 

While Nicodemus National Historic Site wasn’t as breathtaking or scenic as most of them are, this particular location softened my heart. Tucked in the northern middle of Kansas is this small Black farming community with a deep history that is still passed on today from first-person accounts. Visiting Nicodemus gave me a perspective I will never get from the history books found in schools. 


Along with a very informative documentary video, here was a volunteer lady present who is married to a descendant of one of the original Black families who own a farm there. They are able to retell the story of how their families left Kentucky to create the oldest, and only Black settlement West of the Mississippi. I had the unique opportunity to get to know the residents of the town and I was blown away to learn it was the only one of its kind. I am so happy and grateful the National Park System is able to preserve places such as Nicodemus.

Photo by me, taken October 08, 2021

#6 White Sands National Park, NM 

I visited White Sands National Park in the afternoon and was able to catch the sunset hike. The tour guide taught us about the ancient seas not too far below the earth’s surface where the water churns and cools the sand making it silky smooth and keeping it relatively cold even in scorching temperatures. Very specific foliage grows in this desert area. We watched the sun set behind the mountains and the temperatures dropped real fast. 


The visitor’s center sold/rented sledding discs for people to take to the top of dunes and sled down the sand hill just like you would on a snow-covered hill. Next time I go, I think it would be fun to return with the family and go sand sledding and also go on the sunrise hike. That is if I can get up early enough, lol.

Photo by me, taken September 23, 2021

#5 Gulf Islands National Seashore, FL, AL, MS 

Wow, just an absolutely gorgeous drive along the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. My favorite part were the pristine white sand beaches with turquoise water. I also got a cute alligator car magnet at the visitor’s center saying to protect the Gulf Shore Wildlife. The water and the weather were still relatively warm so it was a gorgeous visit at the different beaches particularly along the Gulf Shore Emerald Coast in Florida. 


There are some places you can drive on the beach, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a 4×4 vehicle. I would know from the experience of getting my 2×4 stuck and spending about an hour with my rubber floor mats as traction. Finally, a couple in a quad were able to help push my car to solid ground. Learned my lesson after that, lol. 

Photo taken by friend Amanda, April 03, 2021

#4  Grand Portage National Monument, MN 

While there was nothing particularly special about Grand Portage National Monument, I had a very fun and memorable experience when I visited with my Minnesota bestie during the time we still had Covid restrictions. We stayed the night at the Grand Portage Casino on a beautiful Lake Superior. 


Next, we visited the national monument, then went as far North as we could at Grand Portage State park along the Pigeon River that acts as the USA and Canada border. We hiked a bit along some snow covered trails and when we came to the river we thought it would be fun to throw rocks across the river to see if we could hit the banks of Canada. When we did, two Canadians saw us and we talked them into tossing some rocks back over. They both missed and I threw one more time and landed both my shots! That was the highlight of our trip! (Go to 3 min mark in this video to see footage)

Photo by me, taken June 24, 2021

#3 Mount Rainier National Park, WA 

This is probably my most visited national park and that is why it’s so high up on my list. When I was a kid, my family would come up to Mount Rainier National Park South entrance to go camping, tubing, and hiking. We have many fond memories of inner tubing down the river and then jumping off the bridge or rope swing. 


Probably the most memorable trip was when we hiked up to a glacier and there was a swinging bridge at the top in front of a massive waterfall. As we made our way back down the mountain, large hail started to pelt us. I have visited a couple times in the last couple years with my friends and family, but maybe I should check out the neighboring Olympic National Park. I have only driven through one time with my folks a few years ago. 

Photo by me, taken July 02, 2021

#2 Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park would normally rank #1 on anyone’s top National Park list. However, because it left me with a more than memorable experience when I got to the bottom of the volcano when it ripped the door off the vehicle I was borrowing, I bumped it to spot #2 instead. Some volcano angels did come to my rescue and put the door back on, but I had to use the passenger door the remainder of the two weeks on the island.  


Despite the door incident, my favorite part was feeling the earth breathe on me through the steam vents and also seeing the mouth of the caldera even though it wasn’t currently active. My second favorite part was the bright red ohia lehua flower that grows from the lava rock and the native story behind it. I also indulged in the hot springs right off the shore not too far from the volcano on the South end of the Big Island.  

Photo collage by me, taken February 10-11, 2021

#1 Hot Springs National Park, AR 

People are genuinely surprised when I tell them the state that surprised me the most and ended up at the top of my lists as places to travel frequently is Hot Springs National Park. First, I stopped off at Crater of Diamonds State Park to search for some raw diamonds which are found just about on a daily basis. An hour drive Northeast and I found Hot Springs where I was able to hike the thermal hill and then soak my sore legs in the natural hot springs that flow through Bathhouse Row. 


The only open bath house has four soaking pools kept at different temperatures and costs about $20/day for a visit. Then, I booked an appointment for an hour-long shiatsu massage. I finished off my evening with a delicious dinner at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city. There are two public fountains at each end of the bathhouse row for you to fill metal or glass containers with free spring water. The most memorable part of the trip was my experience meeting a local there who happened to offer me his farm as a sacred writing space. 

Photo collage by me from photos above

Conclusion on My Top 10 Best National Parks

There are over 420 National Parks, yet only 60 of them have the official National Park title. The remaining locations have been designated as national preserves, national monuments, national memorials, national historic sites, national seashores, and national battlefield parks (NPS, 2023). My least favorite National Parks to visit are the battlefields as I feel overcome with sadness due the bloodshed that had occurred during colonization. 

The 60 National Parks are probably the most visited by travelers, but there were some monuments and a seashore that made my top ten. Were you surprised with any parks on my list? What are your favorite National Parks? Please leave comments below.


Thank you for reading and viewing,

Dr. Jaime Brainerd, Ed.D.



National Park Service. (2023). What’s in a name? Discover National Park System designations. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/articles/nps-designations.htm


Friday, July 7, 2023 Daily Motivation Draw 

I set up a small outdoor altar on a round glass and metal table in the grass and sunlight with a candle, fresh-picked blueberries and raspberries, the card deck, and a palo santo stick. I lit the candle, lit the stick, began to read the invocation from the guidebook, and pulled the card: 

  • Daily Draw Question: “What medicine is being invited into my life so that I may thrive?”

  • The card I drew: 40 – Two Spirit – Diversity

  • Message integration: This card appears to open my heart and mind about the diversity and fluidity of genders (Frost, 2023). I am being asked to reflect on my fixed beliefs, to allow the rainbows of colors to open up my heart, and heal with powers of unconditional love (Frost, 2023). My heart is now expanding my viewpoints and I am beginning to learn about new ways of recognizing others’ truth (Frost, 2023). 

  • Healing affirmation: “I open myself up to learning about my fellow kin and unweaving harmful fixed beliefs of the past. I am love”

  • Personal insight: Each day I pull a new daily motivation draw, they seem to have stronger and stronger connections to blog posts. Today, I wrote a post about my favorite parks, and expressed my feelings about my least favorite ones as well. The two year trip I completed around 49 states really opened up my eyes, mind, and heart to my fellow Americans, specifically our Native Ancestors. 

  • Insight continued: Before my trip, I only read about Native Americans from school history books and had a pretty slim understanding of them. After my trip, I had visited several Native burial grounds, ancient mounds, cave dwellings, and tribal homesteads, so I was able to get a whole new perspective on life before colonists arrived. After my trip, I started reading books by North and South Native Americans, listening to their podcasts or meditations, and buying their oracle cards to learn more about ancient medicine wisdom. I am grateful for my heart to be opened and filled with unconditional love and curiosity for greater understanding of my fellow kin. 


Frost, A. (2023). The sacred medicine oracle card deck & guidebook. Hay House, Inc.

About the Author

Dr. Brainerd

Hello, I am Dr. Jaime Brainerd Ed.D., a lifelong learner, beauty consultant, author, financial specialist, artist, traveler, health enthusiast, and self care advocate. Please follow my website for my B.R.E.A.T.H.S. blogs.

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