Mountains, waterfalls, and various species of plants and animals are just a few of the things that make a national park worth visiting. Many of the best national parks in the world are also the largest and oldest in their respective countries. However, our neighbor to the north is home to three of the best national parks outside of the United States, according to our readers.
TravelAwaits readers voted in our 2021 Best of Travel Awards to help us determine everything from the best beaches to the friendliest small towns. Our readers have spoken. Here are the best national parks outside of the U.S.
Winner: Banff National Park
Banff, Alberta, Canada
Canada’s first national park is also its most famous. In addition to majestic mountainous views, Banff National Park offers biking, hiking, skiing, and camping. This picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site is also home to Peyto Lake, which sports some of the bluest water in the world and plenty of wildlife. The Rocky Mountain park boasts some pretty great snow and ice photo opportunities, including the fascinating frozen bubbles at Abraham Lake and the crystal ice castle that takes up residence each winter on Lake Louise.
Kruger National Park
Put this life-changing destination on your South Africa bucket list. Kruger National Park is the oldest and most popular park in Africa. In addition to the Big Five (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo), its 7,580 miles of world-renowned wildlands are home to more than 500 species of birds and 145 mammal species, including giraffes, zebras, antelope, and hippopotamuses. In fact, it’s one of the best places to see giraffes and white rhinos. More than 1,500 miles of all-weather roads allow visitors to explore the wildlife reserve in their own vehicles, but safari guides are readily available as well.
Jasper National Park
Jasper, Alberta, Canada
Banff’s less touristy twin is just one famous scenic road trip down the Icefields Parkway away in Jasper, Alberta. Sprawling over 4,200 square miles, Jasper National Park is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. Also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, this Rocky Mountain park boasts the world’s second-largest dark sky preserve. This makes it a prime spot for viewing nature’s most spectacular phenomenon, the Northern Lights. In addition to stargazing, the park offers hiking, camping, skiing, snowboarding, golfing, birding, paddling, photography, and more.
Fiordland National Park
Te Anau, New Zealand
As you can imagine, Fiordland National Park is home to some spectacular fjords, but it also features some wonderful waterfalls, beautiful lakes, and stunning snow-capped peaks. Flights and cruises show visitors around scenic Milford Sound. Bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, and penguins populate Doubtful Sound, the deepest fjord in the country at 1,381 feet. Lakes in Te Anau and Manapouri are perfect for diving and sea kayaking. The park also features three of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Inexperienced hikers can book a guided walk.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Croatia’s largest and oldest national park is also its most popular tourist attraction. With one glance at Plitvice Lakes National Park, it’s easy to see why. At 70,000 acres, the UNESCO World Heritage site features 16 marvelous blue lakes connected by a series of awe-inspiring waterfalls. At more than 200 feet tall, the tallest of the park’s stunning waterfalls is Veliki Slap.
Encased in a deep forest teeming with life, this exceptionally biologically and geologically diverse area is home to bears, wolves, and several rare species of birds. Seven hiking trails provide ample opportunity for walking, hiking, and lake gazing. In the winter, skiing and sledding are popular.
Galápagos National Park
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Galápagos National Park was created in 1959 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The Ecuadorian islands’ wide range of rare and exotic species is, after all, what inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
At over 3,000 square miles, the park takes up 97 percent of the archipelago’s 330 islands, islets, and rocks. Endangered species include giant tortoises (which can weigh up to 800 pounds!) and blue-footed boobies.
Peneda-Gerês National Park
Explore Peneda-Gerês National Park’s rivers, lagoons, forests, mountains, valleys, woods, and medieval villages. This huge park in northern Portugal covers over 270 square miles of terrain. Follow hiking paths or go by car to see the stone houses in the village of Campo Geres and visit the castles of Castro Laboreiro and Lindoso.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia
Located in the middle of Australia’s Outback, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is named for its rock formations. Also known as Ayers Rock, Uluru is taller than the Eiffel Tower and measures over 6 miles around at its base. This monolith is best viewed at sunset/moonrise, while Kata Tjuta shines during sunrise.
Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas, is a cluster of 30-plus sandstone domes that is stunning to explore. A 45-minute drive from each other, both attractions have designated platforms that provide optimal viewing spots.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Park, Alberta, Canada
Waterton Lakes National Park is a wonderland of craggy cliffs, sapphire-blue lakes, and roaring waterfalls. Over 100 miles of trails wind through scenic Alberta prairies and Rocky Mountain vistas that play host to many species of flora and fauna.
Bordered to the south by Montana’s Glacier National Park, the two parks collectively form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. You can’t miss the stately gables and peaked roof of the Prince Of Wales Hotel in Waterton, Alberta. Do stop in for afternoon tea, which takes place in the grand lobby overlooking the blue waters of Waterton Lake.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir, Selfoss, Iceland
Thingvellir National Park sits about an hour outside of Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and largest city. From 930 to 1789, this bucket-list locale was the site of the country’s first parliament. Therefore, this UNESCO World Heritage site is considered the birthplace of Iceland’s democracy. This natural and cultural wonder is also the oldest national park in Iceland.
Highlights include the impressive Öxarárfoss waterfall, views of the Northern Lights, and fissures such as Silfra. Dividing the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the fissure is filled with water from Langjokull, the second-largest glacier in Iceland. The pure, drinkable water offers more than 300 feet of visibility, making it a favorite of divers. Plus, about 200 feet underwater, you can touch the Eurasian and North American continents at the same time!