During my career as a park ranger, I was frequently asked “What is your favorite park?” This was a tough question to answer because each park has a unique “personality” that distinguishes it from others.
This year’s reader vote of the 15 best park sites takes us on a voyage of discovery that highlights the diversity of the national parks and how each one embodies our nation’s values, ideals, and visions.
Let’s take a tour around the country and see what readers chose.
1. Pearl Harbor National Memorial (Winner)
More than 80 years ago, an attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II.
Today, this site is designated as Pearl Harbor National Memorial and pays tribute to the sailors, soldiers, marines, and civilians who perished on that day.
A visit to the USS Arizona Memorial tops the list for most visitors. Tours are 45 minutes and include a boat ride to and 15 minutes at the memorial.
Pro Tip: Reservations are highly recommended especially during the summer months and are available through recreation.gov.
2. Blue Ridge Parkway
North Carolina And Virginia
With a whopping 15.7 million visits last year, the parkway — often called America’s Favorite Drive — comes in at second on the list. The Blue Ridge Parkway begins near Shenandoah National Park and meanders 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina before terminating at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The road is narrow, winding, and offers spectacular vistas. So slow down, relax, and remember: You are on vacation!
Pro Tip: Major and minor road projects may cause closures and detours. Plan your trip by checking on the parkway website for temporary closures.
3. Gettysburg National Military Park
The decisive battle that turned the tide of the Civil War took place July 1–3, 1863, near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee marched his army to face Union troops. After staggering losses on both sides, Lee retreated to Virginia. The war raged on for almost 2 years before General Lee surrendered.
Today, visitors to the park can see “Living History” presentations between May and October that reenact crucial events in the momentous battle that saved the Union. Check the website Gettysburg National Military Park for information on time, location, and type of demonstration.
4. Muir Woods National Monument
Refresh your spirit as you breathe in the cool, clean air among towering redwood trees at Muir Woods. With an extensive list of hiking trails and suggestions, try the Main Trail Bridge 3 Loop. This 1-mile loop takes you through an old-growth redwood forest and follows the sparkling Redwood Creek.
The park is small and, because of its proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area, can be crowded especially on weekends. A great guide for visiting is the Top 10 list of things to know before visiting Muir Woods National Monument.
5. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Visiting the preserve is a look back in time when native tallgrass prairies covered over 170 million acres of western North America. Today, a remnant of this vast grassland is preserved in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
One of the premier opportunities for visitors is viewing the bison herd along the Scenic Overlook Trail (6 miles round trip) that winds through the Kansas Flint Hills — one of the last stretches of unplowed prairie.
Pro Tip: For your own safety, do not approach bison closer than 125 yards (a little more than a football field). Always treat wildlife with respect; this is their home!
6. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
The iconic figures of four American presidents are chiseled into the Black Hills of South Dakota. In October 1941, after years of work, the carved images were completed and presented for public viewing. Today, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is host to over 2 million visitors annually and is forever etched into America’s historical memory.
Pro Tip: While the sculpted heads are the main attraction, be sure to take in the colorful Hoop Dance Performance by Lakota artist and hoop dancer Starr Chief Eagle on Thursdays at 4 p.m. throughout the summer. See the event calendar on the park website as well.
7. Devils Tower National Monument
In Northeast Wyoming, the geologic oddity called Devil’s Tower looms 1,267 feet above the landscape of the Black Hills. The tower’s geologic history and formation are still not completely understood, although, many viewpoints persist including oral histories from several Native American tribes as well as scientific theories.
Although the tower is the main feature, the monument’s isolation from city lights makes for excellent night-sky adventures. Check the park website to plan your visit and be prepared to experience the “Dark Side.”
8. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
This oddly named site comes from traditional stories of Anishinabek (Odawa/Ottawa, Ojibway/Chippewa, and Potawatomi) oral tradition. The various versions tell of a large dune in the Great Lakes homeland that resembled a sleeping bear.
The rich Native American traditions continue today with a cooperative effort between the National Park Service and Anishinabek people to integrate more of their knowledge into the park’s interpretive programs. See the lakeshore’s website at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for information about seasonal cultural activities.
Pro Tip: Take a boat ride to visit the South Manitou Island lighthouse. You can climb the 117 steps to the top for a spectacular view from 100 feet above the shore.
9. Lincoln Memorial
Modeled after the Greek Parthenon, the memorial honors the president who helped save the Union from fragmentation during a bloody civil war. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and finally, just months before his assassination, worked with Congress to pass the 13th Amendment eradicating slavery.
The memorial that houses the statue of Lincoln — 19 feet tall and 19 feet wide — is an imposing structure that symbolizes the president’s strength and compassion.
Stand on the steps leading up to the statue and contemplate Lincoln’s historic legacy and leadership during one of our nation’s darkest times.
10. Niagara Falls National Heritage Area
Despite the famous “Honeymoon Hideaway” label, this national heritage area highlights a growing nation from the earliest Native American settlement, European exploration, hydroelectric industries, and early conservation efforts.
Pro Tip: Niagara Falls was a crucial “depot” in the Underground Railroad. A suspension bridge spanned the Niagara River into Canada and crossing it meant freedom for those escaping the bonds of slavery. You can learn more at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center.
11. Washington Monument
George Washington navigated our embryonic nation through a difficult birth and became our first president. His monument, a soaring 555-foot marble obelisk, pays tribute to his leadership and foresight.
After 40 years of funding challenges, design changes, and other difficulties, the Washington Monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885, to the man who was “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of his Countrymen.”
Pro Tip: If you plan on taking the elevator to the 500-foot-high observation deck, plan ahead and make a reservation through recreation.gov.
12. Assateague Island National Seashore
Maryland And Virginia
Located several miles off the shores of Maryland and Virginia, Assateague Island National Seashore is a 37-mile-long barrier island that shares space with the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The island is a popular summer vacation spot with its miles of sandy beaches and offers the opportunity to see rare and endangered wild (feral) horses.
The horses’ origins are somewhat mysterious. There are two competing versions: They are either remnants of earlier shipwrecks or were brought over from the mainland. With all wildlife viewing, remember to follow these wildlife and wild horses viewing safety tips to ensure the horses will thrive in their natural habitat.
13. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
With 15 miles of multicolored sandstone cliffs towering over the clear blue water of Lake Superior, this is a place that truly lives up to its name. Pictured Rocks is the nation’s first national lakeshore and offers visitors a multitude of activities including hiking, boating, camping, and photography opportunities in a spectacular setting.
What could be a more appropriate activity at a national lakeshore than sea kayaking? Glide along through an eroded sandstone arch or cruise on one of many inland lakes. Be safe and follow the advice on the lakeshore’s kayaking page.
14. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
In June 1876, on the windswept plains of southern Montana, two armed forces fought one of the last major battles in a war of cultural values that would forever change the Plains Indians’ way of life. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument pays homage to this decisive moment in American history.
A trip to the park’s visitor center offers interpretive displays that help you understand the battle’s complex sequence of events. You can also find a schedule of seasonal ranger-led programs and a cell phone audio tour along a 4.5-mile road.
15. Effigy Mounds National Monument
Mysteries on top of more mysteries unfold at the Effigy Mounds National Monument along the Upper Mississippi River. Who created these 190-plus, large earthen mounds of mostly animal shapes? What is their significance? Did they mark celestial events or were they territorial boundaries? There are many clues from both Native American legends and scientific research but not many definitive answers.
A visit to the monument allows you to become a “history detective” by gathering information to form your theories about this mysterious place.
Read more from our 2023 Best Of Travel Awards: