It's hard to forget the first time you glimpse the massive granite walls that hem Yosemite Valley or see big, fuzzy bison grazing in a Yellowstone meadow as they have for centuries. Such iconic scenes are an important part of our national heritage, soul-stirring reminders of the natural beauty this vast land has to offer. It's no secret that the U.S. national parks system is widely considered the most geographically diverse and spectacular system in the world. And no red-blooded American will let you forget it (Ken Burns, we doff our caps to you).
But the rest of the world is pretty diverse, too (or so we hear). It's chock-full of countless other natural wonders -- regal animals, wildflower-speckled alpine meadows, mysterious underground chambers, soaring peaks -- some strikingly similar to or (dare we say it?) even better than those within our own borders. In the interest of friendly competition, we decided to take a look around and make some comparisons. Who will win: America's A-team, the original national parks; or the wild diversity of the rest of the world?
Our advice? See for yourself. If you're a national park lover but are itching to pick up some passport stamps this summer, check out these foreign alternatives to some of our best American places below.
-Megan Taylor Morrison, The Active Times
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This protected area in New Mexico is home to 117 caves, but the most popular is Carlsbad Cavern itself. The limestone Big Room in this cave is almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet tall at its highest point. It's the third largest chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world. Photo Credit: Shutterstock Mammoth Cave Passes 400-Mile Mark
This park protects one of the world's largest karst regions and is home to 300 caves and grottoes -- only 20 of which have been surveyed by Vietnamese and British scientists. You can embark on professionally-guided explorations of these caves on foot, or even by boat (yeah, they're that big). Thien Duong Cave, or Paradise Cave (pictured here) is more than 19 miles long and upwards of 328 feet high in some places. Boom. Edge: Phong Nha-Ke Bang...boats in caves Photo Credit: Shutterstock Video: Inside the World's Largest Cave
Zion is world-renowned for the huge, reddish-tan sandstone cliffs that make up the walls of Zion and Kolob Canyons. Cut into the desert by the Virgin River and Taylor and Le Verkin creeks, these canyons and their myriad tributary creeks harbor narrow slot canyons and fantastical rock formations -- such as Angel's Landing and The Three Patriarchs -- that are ripe for exploration by adventurous, prepared hikers. Photo Credit: Shutterstock Great Hikes: The Zion Narrows
This is sort of what Zion would look like if you dropped it into a temperate climate. Gorgeous sandstone formations including Pravcicka Brana, the largest natural stone bridge on the European continentand narrow canyons are set among lush woodlands, forested mountainsides and, not far off, the very trappings of European society. There are plenty of trails to hike, where water and heat aren't concerns. With all the amazing rocks at Ceske, its no surprise the area has a long tradition of climbing, though it's closely regulated. Edge: Zion -- it takes more experience to head into this backcountry, but the hot desert air allows the fantastically colorful sandstone to stand on its own, bare from the intrusion of major plant life. Photo Credit: Shutterstock Ski the Arctic: Sweden's Northern Lights
The jagged Tetons seem to rear up here, soaring well over a mile above the plains to a lofty height of 13,775 feet. As such, they were a famous landmark for early western -- and, apparently, lovesick (tétons is French for "breasts") -- fur trappers and mountain men. Today, the park is an ideal spot for hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing, as well as fly fishing and float trips on the hallowed Snake River. Photo Credit: Shutterstock Video: Extreme Skiing in the Grand Tetons
This lesser-known national park comprises a mountain range with three major massifs: Central, Eastern and Western. Although smaller in scale than the Tetons (the highest peak is 8,694 feet tall), the area offers many similar activities. The limestone peaks attract climbers, backpackers bunk up in mountain huts throughout the park and fly fishermen catch salmon and trout. Though its name is certainly less colorful, Picos de Europe ("Peaks of Europe") does offer a couple of advantages the Tetons don't: spelunkers can explore some of the world's deepest caves, and the park is only a short drive from the sea. Edge: Picos de Europa -- who doesn't want deep caves and the seashore in the mix? Photo Credit: Shutterstock Adventure Guide to Spain's National Parks
Home to massive granite peaks, huge waterfalls and some of the largest living things on earth (ancient giant sequoias), Yosemite is a paradise for any outdoor lover... but especially climbers. Many spend days shimmying up the sheer faces of towering granite cliffs like El Capitan, Half Dome and Mt. Watkins, taking in views of Yosemite Valley from a rare and dizzying vantage point. Photo Credit: Shutterstock Video: A Day in the Life of Yosemite National Park
Called Africa's Yosemite by Alpinist, the pristine granite peaks here attract many European athletes who take on mountains such as the Tsaranoro Massif, an impressive, 2,600-foot climb. If you dont want to tackle big walls, you can also hike, backpack, camp and see incredible wildlife. That's actually our way of saying you can see lemurs -- boatloads of them. Ring-tailed lemurs, red-bellied lemurs and golden bamboo lemurs are just a few of the endemic species that thrive in one of the most biologically rich places in all of Madagascar. Edge: Andringitra -- for the lemurs Photo Credit: Shutterstock Kite Surfing in Madagascar
While there's plenty to do inland in Olympic National Park -- hike through temperate rain forests, bask in natural hot springs and climb high into the Olympics -- a journey along the Pacific Ocean is equally unforgettable. Most of this park's 73 miles of coastline are only accessible by foot. The area is known for its vibrant tide pools (each of which is like a self-contained marine biology lab, complete with star fish, urchins and other ocean life), offshore sea stacks, wind-sheared trees and nesting seabirds. It's also a great spot for gray, humpback and killer whale watching. Photo Credit: Shutterstock The Best National Parks in Winter
This corner of Wales is rich with natural features including numerous offshore islands, tide pools, the Preseli Mountains (from which the rocks for Stonehenge were sourced) and a vast stretch of pristine coastline comprising the majority of the park. A total of 621 miles of trails run through the area. When youre done hiking, you can charter a boat for a chance to see dolphins, porpoises, whales (minkes, fins, humpbacks and killers are sometimes seen here) even basking sharks -- the second largest living fish. Edge: Olympic -- for its size and variety of ecosystems Click here to see more of the National Parks Showdown Photo Credit: Shutterstock
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