Breathtaking may be an understatement looking through our readers’ list of their 15 favorite U.S. national parks. Each offers unique, unforgettable experiences. And while picking a favorite may be as difficult as picking your favorite child, it’s fine to love them all equally.
1. Rocky Mountain National Park (Winner)
Rocky Mountain National Park offers beautiful meadows, waterfalls, alpine lakes, and plenty of wildlife in addition to its majestic peaks. Looking for a challenge? Hike to beautiful Chasm Lake. Equally beautiful, the short, flat trail around Bear Lake offers gorgeous views throughout. The loop is one of several options for those interested in less challenging, but still amazing, experiences. The park is so popular that you’ll need a reservation to visit from late May through mid-October.
2. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Old Faithful and Yellowstone National Park are practically synonymous, but America’s oldest national park is actually home to a staggering 500-plus geysers; many of which can be found around the Grand Loop Road. The southern portion of the road is also where you’ll find the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring, a must-stop for most visitors. The Yellowstone River is responsible for another dramatic experience — the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and its Upper and Lower Falls. Finally, listen for howling wolves in the Lamar Valley. It offers the best wildlife viewing with herds of bison, grizzly bears, and adorable pronghorn, as well as wolves in the northwestern corner of the park.
3. Grand Canyon National Park
The second most visited national park in the U.S., most visitors only see Grand Canyon National Park during a day trip. Instead, spend the night along the rim for a completely different experience. The changing colors of the canyon during sunrise and sunset will take your breath away. Then, the darkest of dark skies fills with stars to the delight of every junior astronomer. During the day, experience one of the park’s iconic mule rides, raft the Colorado River, hike into the canyon, or simply drive along the South Rim stopping at the lookouts along the way. While the South Rim is always open to visitors, the North Rim is planned to open on June 2.
4. Zion National Park
Zion National Park’s gorgeous red rock cliffs are the showstopper here. The park is home to two of the most famous hikes in the national park system — Angels Landing and The Narrows. Due to the park’s popularity, visitors can only access it using the shuttle system from mid-March through November. No matter if you’re on the shuttle, in your car, or riding a bike, Zion Canyon’s Scenic Road is awe-inspiring. To avoid some of the crowds, make your way north on Interstate 15 and visit the Kolob Canyons area in the northwest corner of the park.
5. Acadia National Park
Known as the first place to see the sunrise in the U.S. (at least for half the year), visitors flock to Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain in the early morning hours to watch the Sun leap over the Atlantic Ocean. Once the Sun is up, check the tide charts and venture to the park’s beautiful rocky coast to see Thunder Hole. From 1–2 hours before high tide will be the best time to hear the thunderous roar created by the crashing waves.
The park’s 45 miles of carriage roads offer a unique car-free experience for visitors. Built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the early 1900s for exclusive use by horse and carriage, the roads remain car-free today. Walk, bike, or enjoy a carriage ride as you take in some of the best views in the park. Acadia is especially brilliant in the fall when the changing leaves and crisp fall air are simply glorious.
6. Glacier National Park
Dramatic views await in rugged and wild Glacier National Park. Home to about two dozen named glaciers, park rangers, however, warn that climate change is melting the park’s namesake. They say the current total is nine fewer than in 1966.
The Continental Divide gives the park two distinctive sides known as East Glacier and West Glacier. When you visit, book a Red Bus tour. The knowledgeable drivers detail the spectacular views as they take you along the park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. The Many Glacier area offers even more magnificent views. Once there, hike to Iceberg Lake to see the beautiful blue water.
Because of its popularity, you’ll need a reservation to enter the park between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. during the summer. Just 1 mile outside the park, Polebridge Mercantile’s huckleberry bear claws are beloved by Glacier fans. It’s a delicious treat not to be missed.
7. Yosemite National Park
Known for its magnificent waterfalls and giant granite formations, we have John Muir to thank for the creation of Yosemite National Park. In this park, winning the lottery won’t bring you cash, but access to the top of the iconic Half Dome via cable wires. A mere photo of the experience is enough to caution many from trying it. If you prefer a more relaxed approach, paid tours are offered in the park throughout the year.
May and June are usually the best times to see the park’s numerous waterfalls. The best known, Yosemite Falls, is one of the tallest in the world. Horsetail Falls and the setting Sun create a unique experience known as the Firefall phenomenon just twice a year.
While reservations were required in 2021 and 2022, the park is not requiring them to visit in 2023.
8. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee, North Carolina
The Most visited national park in the U.S. in 2022, the mountains that make up Great Smoky Mountains National Park are beautifully covered in trees, creating a palate of lushly rolling peaks during the spring and summer and a gorgeous mix of colors in the fall. Here you can hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail, one of only two national parks where you can do so.
The park’s 11-mile Cades Cove Loop gives visitors a look at the early days of Appalachia. You’ll see log homes, several churches, barns, and even a working gristmill. You’re likely to see white-tailed deer during your drive and may even spot a black bear. A beautiful hike off the loop is Abrams Falls.
The park is one of only three locations in the U.S. where you can see synchronous fireflies, which usually occur in June. Although, you’ll need to enter the park lottery for a chance to view the phenomenon.
For a unique stay, hike to LeConte Lodge and spend the night in a rustic but cozy cabin. Several trails access the lodge and you’ll be rewarded with a delicious meal for your efforts.
9. Arches National Park
The park dubs itself a “red-rock wonderland” and none is more famous than its iconic Delicate Arch. Not only is it the symbol of the park but really the entire state of Utah.
Arches National Park is aptly named for the 2,000-plus stone arches found within its borders, but the park also features enormous rock fins, beautifully balanced rocks, and inspiring pinnacles. There’s something to see around every turn as you wind your way through the park.
You’ll need a reservation to enter between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. from April 1 through October 31. To beat the crowds and the heat, hike to Delicate Arch at sunrise. You’ll be outside of the reservation window and won’t have to fight for a parking spot. It’s just one of several hikes to explore. Double Arch is also beautiful and just a short walk from the nearby parking lot.
10. Bryce Canyon National Park
Another one of Utah’s Big Five, Bryce Canyon may get overshadowed by its neighbor Zion, but the park lays claim to the most hoodoos in the world. Its views are also very accessible. Explore the Rim Trail for beautiful views of Bryce Amphitheater. A portion of the trail known as Sunset Point to Sunrise Point Trail shows off the beautiful changing colors of the amphitheater below during these special times of the day. Several natural arches can be found in Bryce Canyon. The most famous is Natural Bridge, which you can see from Highway 63 as you drive through the park.
11. Grand Teton National Park
The majestic Teton Range welcomes visitors to Grand Teton National Park. The park’s jagged peaks, clear lakes, and outdoor activities keep them coming back. Drive Moose-Wilson or Teton Park Roads for gorgeous views and possibly some wildlife sightings including moose, elk, deer, and even bears. A beautiful biking path, called the Grand Teton Pathway, connects the town of Jackson to the park. Along the way, you can take a dip in the clear but chilly waters of Jenny Lake. If you want to paddle instead of swim, all watercraft require a permit and that includes stand-up paddleboards and kayaks.
Likely the most iconic image of the park is the T.A. Moulton barn along Mormon Row with the Teton Range towering behind. Photographers flock to the park to capture this coveted shot at sunrise, so expect to hear shutters clicking if you decide to start your day early as well.
12. Joshua Tree National Park
Near Palm Springs in southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is much more than its namesake, which you’ll only find in the western portion of the park. If you enter from the south, you’ll discover other gems like the towering palm trees in Cottonwood Spring and the extremely prickly Cholla Cactus Garden.
Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, mule deer, and antelope squirrels as you drive. They can be difficult to spot in the desert landscape.
Farther north and west, giant boulders beg to be climbed and explored by visitors of all ages, and getting down can be just as challenging, or more so, than getting up. Be sure to take a picture with Skull Rock and watch for professional rock climbers who are naturally attracted to the park’s many climbing options.
Joshua Tree National Park’s heat can be unforgiving. Come prepared with the proper sun protection and plenty of water when you visit.
13. Haleakalā National Park
One of two national parks located in beautiful Hawaii, Haleakala National Park is on the island of Maui. Make a reservation, then get up in the middle of the night to watch the sunrise above the clouds at the summit. Be prepared for all types of weather; it can get below freezing. Plan to stay a bit after the Sun is up, the views of the volcanic crater only continue to get better as the morning progresses.
If you want to visit the Kipahulu portion of the park, be aware: you’ll need to drive the Road to Hana to get there. Once you arrive, the beautiful 4-mile out-and-back Pipiwai Trail takes you to two waterfalls and through a bamboo forest. Kuloa Point Trail is also popular with gorgeous ocean views and takes hikers to the Pools of ‘O’he’o, also known as the Seven Sacred Pools.
Hiking is a great experience throughout the park, but it’s important to know that it’s against the law to venture off the trails.
14. Badlands National Park
Conveniently located off Interstate 90, you can either drive through Badlands National Park on the loop road in just a few hours or relax a bit and spend the night. During your trip through the park, you’re surrounded by beautiful rock formations with millions of years of history.
Stop and walk along Fossil Exhibit Trail’s boardwalk to understand the animals that used to roam here. Another spot not to be missed is the Roberts Prairie Dog Town where you’ll see hundreds of prairie dogs and hear them chattering away. Keep an eye out for bison; you’re sure to see a few during your drive. There are many viewpoints to explore, and as the Sun moves through the day, its color changes on the rock formations, which is why sunrise and sunset are brilliant times to experience the park.
The Lakota nation named the area “Badlands” and it can be unforgiving, so be prepared with proper sun protection and plenty of water when visiting in the summer.
15. Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier National Park is known for its amazing hikes, gorgeous lakes and waterfalls, wildflower-filled slopes, and of course, views of the iconic Mount Rainier. The park’s namesake is an active volcano, although it hasn’t erupted since 1450. Located in the Paradise section of the park, the Skyline Trail is popular with visitors offering a little something for everyone — waterfalls, flowers, and plenty of breathtaking views. Avoid the crowds by visiting the more remote Carbon River area. It’s home to the only inland rainforest in the park.
Pro Tip: Know Before You Go
Many national park visitors visit just for a day, but you should try to spend the night. Many offer lodging in addition to camping and the parks are even more wonderful once the day-trippers leave. Also, don’t forget about the park system’s Junior Ranger program. In spite of the name, there isn’t an age limit to participate and it’s an interesting way to learn a lot about a park.