Ever since the late 1800s when the first national parks came into existence, places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Redwoods have captivated the hearts and imaginations of Americans and international travelers alike. The following 14 parks rated as our readers’ favorites.
Before you go, make sure to get your National Parks Senior Pass, if your over 62, or an America the Beautiful Pass. These passes cover your entrance and day-use fees at more than 2,000 national parks and federal recreation sites. Also, due to the exploding popularity of the National Parks System, many have adopted timed reservation systems that limit the number of visitors each day.
1. Yellowstone National Park
Idaho, Montana, And Wyoming
With 2.2 million acres of wildlands, you can explore hikes, breathtaking meadows, scenic drives, and waterfalls, but for something different, consider kayaking one of the many lakes and waterways! It’s a great way to avoid crowds and you’ll experience unforgettable scenery and wildlife sightings that you’d never see from the road!
On the Idaho side of the park, consider an excursion 20 minutes outside of Yellowstone to Island Park (a hidden gem for ATVing and snowmobiling). This area is also home to Henry’s Lake and Henry’s Fork, offering some of the nation’s best fly fishing!
In addition to the classic must-see visits to Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, Mammoth Hot Springs, or any number of the parks outstanding waterfalls, head to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in the park’s more remote northeast corner, if you’re looking for wildlife. It’s the best place to view wolves, bison, elk, and grizzly bears!
2. Grand Canyon National Park
Northern Arizona’s iconic Grand Canyon National Park is something photos will never be able to fully capture. To see it in person is to experience it. Popular for its accessibility, the park is an easy day trip from Phoenix, Flagstaff, or Sedona.
The rim-to-rim hike is a true bucket-list item for dedicated hikers. The North Kaibob Trail to Bright Angel Trail is a classic route but requires training, planning, extra gear, and a hiking permit. At the bottom of the canyon, camp in your own tent, or if you’re lucky enough to win a room by lottery, enjoy a comfortable bed at Phantom Ranch (the only lodging below the canyon rim). The Ranch also offers advance reservation dining for weary adventurers.
Visiting Las Vegas? Book a helicopter tour that flies you through the canyon and lands on the canyon floor where you’ll enjoy refreshments before going back to Vegas.
Pro Tip: Avoid slower and longer pay station lines. Buy your digital park pass before you go!
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
North Carolina And Tennessee
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a less polished, more laid-back national park experience with plenty of side roads to explore. In early June, experience the dazzling synchronous firefly mating season. During this short window of time, tens of thousands of these magical little bugs put on an unforgettable and truly immersive show.
Cabins in Gatlinburg provide the perfect basecamp for your travels between Pigeon Forge and the park. Oak Haven Resort offers a variety of cabin options that accommodate a romantic weekend for two or a large family reunion.
Inside the park, enjoy a wide variety of hikes from easy to difficult. If you are looking for a driving adventure with amazing wildlife viewing, take the winding Cades Cove loop drive and make a stop at Clingman’s Dome (the highest point in the park) to climb the observation tower for a 360-degree view of the Smokies.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park (Tie)
Rocky Mountain National Park is filled with beautiful mountain drives at any time of year, but the fall season is pure delight. When the aspens turn from emerald to gold, you know it’s time to hear the elk bugling for mating season. Observe herds of hundreds of elk at a time throughout the park and surrounding communities.
At the western park entrance, Grand Lake offers a beautiful alpine lake setting. Famous for summer activities, the lake may have an even greater reputation for snowmobile access and trails! Snowshoeing and Nordic skiing are also popular activities with winter travel enthusiasts.
Located adjacent to Estes Park, the area offers a variety of lodging options from cabins and campgrounds to condos and hotels, like the historic Stanley Hotel. Inside or outside the park, take in views of Long’s Peak (elevation 14,259 feet), one of Colorado’s famed “14ers.”
Pro Tip: For world famous cinnamon rolls, visit Glenhaven, about 15 minutes from Estes Park, on Co Rd 43 — just be sure to order ahead!
4. Big Bend National Park (Tie)
You might hesitate to visit Big Bend National Park because it’s literally on the road to nowhere. But that’s precisely what makes it so special. Its remote location near the Mexican border and Rio Grande means it’s less crowded than other national parks. This park is filled with a diverse mix of forest and desert landscapes where you can hike to your heart’s content. From May through September, the temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so plan your trip for cooler months.
Stay in the heart of the park at Chisos Mountains Lodge. The lodge offers rooms, cottages, and RV sites (tents not permitted) and is the perfect basecamp for your adventures. Old Maverick Road from Santa Elena Canyon to the park entrance station is a favorite with visitors by car or bicycle. Travel the road in spring for the bluebonnet super bloom. The park variety grows up to 4 feet tall!
6. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is another great park that offers something year-round. In the winter, if you’re lucky, you might catch what many describe as a supernatural event — the Firefall. During 2 weeks of the year, when the sky is clear and the sun is “just right,” the light reflection on the water at Horsetail Fall causes it to look like fire flowing down the side of El Capitan!
Throughout the late spring and summer, connect with the beauty of Yosemite through art. Daily art classes and retreats are offered for visitors of all ages. (Bonus: You’ll take home a souvenir unlike any other to always remind you of this special national park!)
If you feel overwhelmed by the grandeur of the park, consider a half- or full-day guided park tour that will get you to all the key points of interest quickly and hassle-free.
7. Zion National Park
You will never grow tired of Zion National Park’s beauty, but if you are looking for intense adventure, this park needs to be on your list! With the impressive 2,000-foot sandstone cliffs, Zion is famous for some of the world’s best canyoneering routes and is a mecca for climbers. The 2.2-mile Angels Landing trail is considered one of the most dangerous in the world, but don’t worry, the park offers plenty of easier hikes, and a scenic road tour is a great way to explore!
The park’s superstar, Virgin River, is responsible for carving the incredible canyon landscape. It’s also a popular destination for tubing and other water fun. Rafting and kayaking are allowed on the river but require advance permits.
Pro Tip: From May through September, the Zion Canyon Shuttle is the only way to drive the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.
8. Glacier National Park
From mountain slopes covered in wildflowers to epic alpine lake hikes, you can still experience Glacier National Park’s untouched landscape like its first visitors more than 100 years ago.
Step back in time and arrive by rail. The railway has always been an integral part of the history of Glacier National Park because, for decades, it was the only way to get there! Amtrak still operates service to the park making it a delightful way to arrive and a great way to explore America along the way. Inside the park, stay at your choice of historic cabins, hotels, or lodges.
Bring your fishing gear for this trip. Glacier National Park boasts some of the best fly fishing in all of Montana. Anglers on the North Fork of the Flathead River catch cutthroat, rainbow, and bull trout as well as whitefish. If you’re up for a backpacking fishing trip, don’t miss Elizabeth Lake where you can catch large arctic grayling and rainbow trout.
9. Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is one of the most captivating places you will ever vacation. Considered one of the most diverse wilderness areas in the lower 48, you’ll take in stunning views of Mount Olympus, hike exquisite trails to picture-perfect Marymere and Madison waterfalls, and discover incredible marine life on the coast.
Make sure you visit the park’s Hoh Rainforest. I promise, you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported into a fairytale landscape. With its dense, dark mossy vegetation, scientists say it’s one of the most silent places in the lower 48. Hurricane Ridge is easily accessible and offers amazing mountain views as well as summer and winter activities. In the park’s northern foothills, visit or stay at the pristine Lake Crescent. Rowboat rentals are available at the lodge.
Seventy miles of rugged coastline offer the perfect opportunity for exploring tidepools and observing seals, sea lions, dolphins, and more. Take a cruise from a nearby port to see orcas and other large sealife up close!
10. Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park is the “Crown Jewel” of the North Atlantic Coast. The fall season at Acadia is everything you imagine in the northeast. The forests come alive with color, typically peaking in mid-October. Yellows, reds, and oranges pop as the temperatures change.
If you have only a day to spend at this park, start early and you’ll be able to hit all, or most, of the major highlights the park has to offer, including Cadillac Mountain and Sand Beach.
Bring your bicycle and discover the park through John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s famed “carriage roads.” This car-free zone features 45 miles of crushed rock-road surface and offers cyclists, hikers, and horseback riders alike a variety of safe routes to see the magnificent scenery. During the winter months, these routes also offer excellent Nordic skiing and snowshoeing opportunities.
11. Grand Teton National Park
Located just north of Jackson Hole, and south of Yellowstone, don’t miss Grand Teton National Park. The jagged-peak Teton mountains will draw you in, but the adventures will have you coming back for more! Plan your stay at Jenny Lake Lodge and you’ll find yourself surrounded by every activity you could dream up, plus a nightly five-course dinner. Cruiser bike rentals, horseback riding, and a variety of other activities are complimentary for guests, and you’ll love having access to three lakes within walking distance from the lodge.
Grand Teton National Park is a photographer’s dream. Capture your own photo of the iconic John Moulton Barn against the Teton mountain backdrop in the Mormon Row Historic District.
Oxbow Bend offers a stunning mountain reflection on the calm river surface. Walk in the footsteps of Ansel Adams and photograph the panoramic view at Snake River Overlook.
12. Redwood National And State Parks
Redwood National and State Parks is a cluster of one national park and three state parks. If you have an afternoon reserved for a scenic drive, don’t miss Howland Hill Road. This narrow, 6-mile dirt road skillfully weaves you between massive redwoods. It is not suitable for buses, campers, or RVs. If the road looks otherworldly, yet oddly familiar, you might recognize it from scenes out of the 1983 film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
Another beautiful drive is Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. An alternative to Highway 101, this 10-mile parkway takes you right into the heart of the forest, but you’ll want to make several stops along the way for photo ops. Visit the nearby park headquarters and hike the 3-mile Big Tree Loop. The loop is fairly easy and incredibly scenic, taking you through a variety of landscapes.
13. Arches National Park
Arches National Park is aptly named. It seems everywhere you look is another red rock arch against a bright blue sky. With stunning scenery in every direction, the secret is out: More than 1.7 million people visited Arches last year! To help manage the crowds, the park now requires timed reservations to visit the park between April and October.
Whether you plan to take a scenic drive, hike, or ride your bike, there are lots of ways to enjoy a day (or longer) in this beautiful park. Consider hiring a commercial tour guide, if your time is limited, you want to see it all, and you want to avoid the hassle of crowds. Tour guides can take you into the backcountry on an exciting four-by-four adventure, where you’ll discover treasures hidden from the main roadways, hear local legends, and learn about the fascinating history.
14. Sequoia And Kings Canyon National Parks
With its soaring mountains, rugged landscape, and cascading waterfalls, it’s no wonder that Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks were set aside to be preserved for generations to come! Home to old-growth forests, which feature six of the largest trees on earth (including “General Sherman” the biggest of them all), these parks will leave you utterly gobsmacked. But there’s so much more to see and explore, including the spectacular Crystal Cave (tickets required by reservation only).
If you plan to visit Sequoia National Park, don’t stop short of the lesser known Kings Canyon National Park. Famed Scottish-American naturalist John Muir famously declared Kings Canyon a rival to Yosemite. Pack a picnic lunch and visit Muir Rock, overlooking Kings River. You’ll gain a firsthand understanding of why Muir was so captivated by the area. A drive down into Kings Canyon is not for the faint of heart. The white-knuckle drive is full of switchbacks with steep cliffs but will pay off in spades for its views.
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