Natural beauty. Enchanting wildlife. A chance to unplug. These are just a few of the reasons that the country’s national parks remain such popular destinations year after year. With the addition of social distancing requirements, 2020 became the year to explore the great outdoors, with record attendance numbers achieved in many national parks throughout 2020 and continuing into 2021.
With 63 official parks, and hundreds of additional monuments, forests, and other protected land areas, those in the United States should never grow bored with the outdoor opportunities at their disposal. But which is the best park? That is the exact question that we posed to our readers during our annual Best of Travel Awards. Here are the top 15 U.S. national parks as chosen by our readers.
Acadia National Park
It may not get the same attention as some of the other parks on this list, but Acadia National Park is by no means overlooked. In fact, it was the seventh-most-visited national park in 2019. Acadia is the only national park in all of New England, making it the closest getaway for many who live along the upper Atlantic, including the population centers of New York City and Boston.
The park sprawls over 18 coastal islands near Bar Harbor, Maine, as well as a small portion of the mainland. Hike through coastal mountains, stroll along rocky beaches, and admire the transformation of the fall foliage as the seasons turn.
Arches National Park
Take just one step into this park, and its name should come as no surprise: More than 2,000 natural stone arches dot the landscape of Arches National Park just outside of Moab, Utah. Hike through gravity-defying rock formations including the must-see Delicate Arch, Double Arch, and many others. Most of the park’s hikes are either accessible or relatively moderate; however, the treks to a few landmarks will require a significant amount of time and energy, so plan accordingly. True thrill-seekers should consider obtaining a day-use permit or joining a ranger-guided hike to explore the area known as the Fiery Furnace, a maze of canyons within the park that provides a unique — albeit arduous — experience. Just don’t get lost!
Big Bend National Park
The name of Big Bend National Park comes from the large bend in the Rio Grande that gives the Texas–Mexico border its unique shape. The U.S. section of the Chihuahuan Desert makes up a large portion of this remote Texas park far from the pesky light pollution that plagues big cities. The stargazing is incredible in this internationally designated dark-sky park. Experience the unique desert flora and fauna as you hike, and keep your eyes peeled for dinosaur bones for a truly exciting discovery.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The smallest of Utah’s Mighty Five, Bryce Canyon National Park is no less mighty in terms of the impression it leaves. The tall chimney-like structures known as hoodoos are a sight to behold and fill the natural amphitheater of the region. The area can be viewed along a scenic drive, while hiking one of the many trails, or on horseback. Bryce Canyon receives fewer visitors than the more popular Zion to the southwest, likely due to its remoteness and higher elevation.
Denali National Park And Preserve
The state of Alaska includes eight of the nation’s signature parks, more than there are in any state except California (which edges it out with nine). However, due to Alaska’s separation from the rest of country, as well as its rugged terrain and harsh climate, the state’s parks receive far fewer visitors than their counterparts in the lower 48.
Denali National Park and Preserve is known for, well, Denali. With a peak registering at a staggering 20,310 feet above sea level, this highest point in North America has been studied by many, but conquered by few. The park sprawls over 6 million acres of preserved land surrounding the titular peak. If you are fortunate enough to make the trip north, set aside ample time to enjoy the mostly untouched landscape.
Everglades National Park
While most national parks are created to protect specific land formations, the preservation of an entire ecosystem is the goal of Everglades National Park. The greater Everglades region is a shadow of its former self; much has been drained to make room for homes and businesses. The park exists to preserve what remains and to aid in the recovery of the region. It is located near the southern tip of Florida, west of Miami, and is home to many endangered or otherwise protected species, such as the American crocodile and the West Indian manatee. Bird-watchers flock to the area to catch a glimpse of the many wading birds that call the Everglades home.
Glacier National Park
The continental divide splits Glacier National Park in two, effectively creating two parks, each with its own unique reasons to visit. Glacier is bordered to the north by Waterton Lakes National Park of Canada, and the two parks collectively form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. A trip to Glacier would not be complete without a Red Bus Tour of Going-To-The-Sun Road, the engineering marvel that made vehicle traffic into the interior of the park possible.
Grand Canyon National Park
It is unlikely that any location in the U.S. receives more recognition than the Grand Canyon. Visiting is the quintessential family vacation for many and has been immortalized in pop culture in movies such as Vacation and Thelma & Louise. Whether you come for a brief glimpse of the gorgeous canyon, or you make plans for an extended stay to make the most of the 1.2-million-acre park, you won’t regret a stop at one of the natural wonders of the world.
First-time visitors should plan to visit the South Rim, since there is more to do and see there, but the North Rim is a must for return visitors. A grueling day-long Rim-to-Rim hike (or a 4.5-hour drive) separates the park’s two halves, so few are able to enjoy both in the same day without a good deal of planning. Read these helpful tips about the differences between the Rims as you plan your visit.
Grand Teton National Park
The Teton Mountain Range lies just south of the wilderness that is Yellowstone National Park. Grand Teton National Park is connected to Yellowstone via an NPS-managed highway. While smaller, Grand Teton is no less impressive: Gaze up in wonder at the piercing peaks of the Teton range, meander along the serpentine Snake River, or hole yourself up in Jackson Hole and enjoy the spectacular views from town. The park is open year-round, but the campgrounds and many of the park’s roads close during the winter months.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of only a handful of national parks that lie east of the Mississippi River. That makes it one of the most accessible parks for those along the East Coast. In fact, year after year, more visitors flock to this park than to any other; it saw approximately 12.5 million visitors in 2019. The allure of the Appalachian Mountains is obvious: While less grand than their rockier cousins to the west, the Appalachians have a less imposing, more inviting feel. The forested peaks and river-fed valleys provide miles of hikable terrain to explore. After getting your fill of wilderness, stop in nearby Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge for some old-fashioned family fun.
Mount Rainier National Park
Located just 2 hours southeast of Seattle is a sleeping giant: an active volcano. While the last known eruption was nearly 600 years ago, experts claim another eruption is likely, which adds an air of mystery to this seemingly serene area. Mount Rainier National Park contains the eponymous mountain as well as parts of the surrounding Cascade Range. Discover the many glaciers of the region, stop and smell the blossoming wildflowers, or embark on a harrowing hike to the park’s summit.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park exists to preserve a small region of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado for generations to come. Here you will find the very beginning of the Colorado River — the famed waterway that carved out the Grand Canyon and that slowly winds its way through the Southwest before emptying into the Gulf of California. In the park, hike along the Continental Divide, seek out the cascading flow of a picturesque waterfall, or experience the serene beauty of one of many alpine lakes. Nestled between the quaint towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake, the park offers ample lodging opportunities.
Yellowstone National Park
If asked to name a national park, most people would say Yellowstone National Park, and for good reason. It was the first national park in the U.S. (and by some estimations, the first in the world), signed into existence all the way back in 1872. In fact, the park predates the statehood of the three states that it calls home by nearly 20 years!
Yellowstone encompasses much of what makes the national park system so great: the raw beauty of nature, including majestic mountains, colossal canyons, and rolling rivers teeming with wildlife. However, the geothermal features flowing under the park are some of its biggest draws, with Old Faithful becoming a household name over the years.
As with anything wild, take care to follow safety guidelines to protect both yourself and the beauty of the park. Both the wildlife and steaming waters can prove lethal if not respected. However, those who carefully follow the posted signs and make common-sense decisions are in for a real treat of nature!
Yosemite National Park
The glacier-carved Yosemite Valley is the focal point of Yosemite National Park, drawing millions of visitors each year. The park houses many natural wonders, including Half Dome and El Capitan, as well the equally impressive Yosemite Falls, plunging nearly 2,500 feet into the valley below. A trek to Yosemite involves a manageable 3-hour drive from the Bay Area or a 4.5-hour excursion from the Lake Tahoe/Reno region. Adventure-seekers may enjoy a strenuous rock climb, while more casual visitors may prefer a leisurely hike to one of several lookout points.
Zion National Park
Utah is home to five national parks, three of which made this list, and Zion National Park is by far the most popular of the Mighty Five, welcoming nearly five million visitors in 2019. Zion surrounds a unique intersection of rocky desert formations, canyons, and expansive forests. Set out to explore one of the many hikes that make this park so special.
The Narrows of Zion was named the best national park hike this year, and as you traverse a narrow section of the Zion Canyon with breathtaking views of waterfalls and sheer cliffs all around, you’ll see why. Another great option is a hike to Angels Landing, although inexperienced hikers shouldn’t take this on without proper planning.
Did your favorite national park make our list? If not, keep an eye out for our Hidden Gem National Parks list, which we will publish in the next week. In the meantime, take a look at our full list of Best of Travel Awards winners and finalists.
We realize that for a true fan of the nation’s national parks, it is impossible to narrow down a list of such stunning and mesmerizing locations to just a few favorites, but that is the task that we set before our readers. Our team would love to hear from you to discover your favorite park and why you find it so enchanting!