Whether tangled Spanish Moss, roaring Redwoods, or misty mountains – the USA is home to some of the most striking national parks in the world. Imagine, drives that immerse you in nature, riding across ridges, stepping out to stretch your legs with a hike to glacial lakes or thundering falls, keeping your eyes peeled for grizzly bears, and finally sleeping soundly with a full and spinning cosmos above your head.
With over four hundred national parks to pick from, we’ve handpicked a whole bunch of our faves that should certainly be added to your next road trip. With the travel landscape changing and a new era of domestic adventures on the agenda or those looking to sojourn into the great outdoors to get away from the crowds and find their own space and sense of self out on the hiking trail, national parks can be a great choice for your heart and your head. From velvet rainforests to remote deserts, east to west – we make sure that this selection of national parks has everything you need. Keep reading to find out which national parks are making the must-see list…
Where To Stay When Visiting The National Parks
What To Pack For Your National Park Trip
Summer or winter, travel journalist of joyrider your packing list for your national park adventure will vary greatly depending on season and location. Put it this way, you will certainly have a different packing list for Florida’s Everglades in the summer compared to Colorado in the winter. Yet, there are a few outdoor essentials that should certainly be stashed in your backpack so you can make the most of the hiking, biking, canoeing, and adventuring that America’s best national parks have to offer. Here are a few essentials to stock up on…
- Hiking boots or proper walking shoes
- Hiking socks
- A raincoat
- A hat
- Water bottle (with water filter)
- Insect repellent
- A first aid kit
- A physical map (you can’t always rely on phone signal and googlemaps)
- SPF sunscreen (even in the winter the sun on those ridges can be fierce)
- High protein snacks
- Hand sanitizer
- Portable phone charger
- Clothing layers
- Hiking daypack
- Camera and spare batteries
America's 25 Most Popular National Parks
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Everything is bigger in Texas so the saying goes and Big Bend National Park is no exception. Valleys and vistas and the curve of the mighty Rio Grande set the backdrop for that Texan big sky to bloom with desert-like sunrises of orange and gold and nights full of a thousand stars. While the terrain is almost desert-like, there is endless scope for wildlife gazing. From bears and reptiles to close to five hundred different types of bird, life teems in southwest Texas.
Hiking trails can be matched to any level, with one of the more strenuous offerings taking you out past the Outer Mountain Loop. For those who don’t want to strap on their hiking boots, you can admire the best of Big Bend National Park from behind the wheel as you weave through the Chisos Basin Road or opt for the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Be sure to hit up the charming town of Marfa close by.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Perhaps the most famed National Park road trip in the whole of the US, the Grand Canyon is a must for anyone who hasn’t marveled at the UNESCO desert dream. Over a billion years old and with no less than 277 miles of rivers cutting through the weather bitten sandstone cliffs, there’s a poetry to this landscape that can’t be matched. For thrill seekers, the Grand Canyon is the land of flaming sunset colors, drives so epic they are dizzying, and rushing white water rapids that leave your heart in your mouth if you opt to go whitewater rafting along the Colorado River.
Take the Bright Angel Trail or the Rim Trail to see one of the most scenic trails in the United States of America, swing by Lipan Point to catch the birds on their flight paths, and marvel at the geological details that meet you every step of the way. For those people who are camping, here in the canyon, the nights offer an endless sea of stars.
Zion National Park, Utah
Soaring granite walls, deep-cut canyons, and some of the most breathtaking trails of all America's national parks can be found in the Zion National Park of Utah. Those with a head for heights should take a deep breath and head for the dizzying Angel's Landing Hike that seems to take you over the very crest of the world. If heights aren't your bag, fear not - this national park has plenty other impressive trails to hit the spot whether it's pushing through the narrows or gazing at glorious visions of the landscape arch.
Those rosy colors that make Utah such a dreamy destination are resplendent in the rusty cliff walls. Go horse riding beneath the mighty rock formations, raft down the racing Virgin River, listen to the calls of beautiful birds float above the canyon walls, and take the jaw-dropping switchback drive that passes beneath the delicate arch of the Zion Mt. Carmel Tunnel with its narrow ridges hewn right into the sandstone.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
With over 200 backcountry camping spots, roaming Elk, and more than 350 magical miles of hiking trails, the Rocky Mountain National Park is the gem in the crown of Colorado’s mountain scenery and one of the world champions in best places to embrace winter wonders. Just a couple hours out from Denver showcases snowy mountain peaks that seem to puncture the sky as they rise to a staggering 12000 feet. Explore the wild basin where some of the best waterfalls in the park can be found, thundering alongside fragrant orchids and snowshoe hares. Hit the Alpine Tundra or straddle the wild Atlantic and the Pacific as you stand on the Continental Divide at Milner Pass. Be sure to swing by Alberta Falls, one of the most visited falls in the whole of the Rockies.
Whether stargazing in Beaver Meadows, being enchanted by the magic bugle call of the Elk, catching sight of Mountain Blue Birds, or fishing in Glacier Creek, Colorado certainly knows how to pull out all the natural wonders when it comes to the Rockies.
Yosemite National Park, California
Giant Sequoia trees, steamy hot spring and geysers shooting into the air, and the mighty glory of El Capitan looming - it's no wonder that Yosemite National Park is everyone's favorite national park in California. Offering a wild array of old growth hiking trails, blazing alpine meadows, and some of the best backcountry camping in North America, Yosemite boasts over 1200 square miles of natural magic and is a year-round destination especially down in Yosemite Valley where the main sights can be found. Whether you head there for a weekend scenic drive, a bucket list day trip, or for longer and more challenging hiking opportunities, Yosemite is a must. Just make sure to keep an eye out for mountain lions.
From Half Dome to Glacier Point, the Sierra Arts Trail or rafting down the sweet flowing Merced River, Yosemite holds a wealth of spots for stargazing and natural attractions, soaking up natural beauty, witnessing one of America's highest waterfalls at Yosemite Falls, and seeing exactly all the reasons why four million visitors hit the visitor centers and explore this national park every year.
Acadia National Park, Maine
A patch of coastal Maine where fragrant forests spill down to meet the surge of the salt Atlantic, Acadia National Park is a treasure trove of sprawling wilderness. You can visit charming fishing villages famed for being Victorian-style getaways with old carriage roads, places where generations of artists would visit for periods of whale watching, misty mornings painting, and sleeping in rustic lodges beneath a bounty of stars. Take the jaw-dropping scenic loop, covering 27 miles that run you up Cadillac Mountain before plunging into the pristine cool waters of Sand Beach and even catching sight of the harbor seals.
Sleep in historic inns, opt for canvas walls with the many campgrounds and spend your summers eating lobster and hiking, your falls watching the world turn into a blaze of color, and winters snowshoeing through blankets of white. Rock climbers will love the plentiful rock climbing opportunities at Acadia.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee
With a name that is pure poetry evoking visions of morning mist rising over shadowy peaks, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a vision of endless ridges, velvet forests, and over 150 different hiking trails. Cool water streams babble and sing as they course through the creeks, there are endless falls, coves, and cascades to keep you fresh of mind and heart. There are 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail to pick up and conquer and there’s bears and fireflies and scenes straight out of wilderness fantasies.
For those who aren’t behind the wheel, you can hit up moonshine tastings along the way and even veer off track for a taste of the famed and fun Dollywood.
Glacier National Park, Montana
For those who dream of alpine lakes, hulking stone structures dusted with snow, and glacier-carved valleys that seem to rise and fall for as far as the eye can see, the Glacier National Park stays true to its name. Nicknamed the Crown of the Continent, Glacier Park offers drives that aren’t for the faint of heart. The 50 mile Going to the Sun Road takes you on a fairground ride up and down over the Continental Divide. But along the way, there are ancient forests, bighorn sheep, hidden pathways, and thundering falls to keep you soft of heart.
Hikers will fall hard for the endless trails offered in Glacier National Park – some stretching on for as far as 700 miles. There are stunning chalets for resting easy and the chance to spot grizzly bears and howling wolves along the way.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Sitting pretty in Southern Utah’s Dixie Forest the Bryce Canyon National Park is a vision of carved red canyon, snowy woodlands, and colorful slot canyons and gorges that earn it its accolades as being one of the most beautiful national park destinations in the United States. Whether hiking the famous Navajo Loop Trail or gazing in awe at the orange glow of the rising hoodoos, Bryce knows how to take your breath away. Walk through the Slot Canyon where walls turn to narrows and old Douglas Firs press in on you. See the epic amphitheater and climb above the Fairytale Canyon for shimmering sunset views that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Take the ancient Bristlecone Loop or head out on the short but sweet Mossy Cave Trail to get your national park fill. For those who want to delve even deeper, you can take the almost 6-mile ranger-guided Rim Walk or go horseback riding along the canyon trail. Winters in Bryce are all about winter sports whereas summers invite you to cycle and car camp beneath the night sky where a million stars shine.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
With a (pardon the pun) mammoth cave system that stretches for 400 miles and endless domes and dripstones adorning the deep dark cave walks, Mammoth Cave National Park is a limestone labyrinth. A UNESCO world heritage site that boasts the worlds longest cave system, this national park makes for a sublime subterranean adventure. Take a tour with rangers as you duck down into the underbelly of Kentucky. Opt for the historic tour to learn a little about the epic history wrapped up in this sandstone eroded land.
The biosphere reserve of the Mammoth Cave National Park is also home to 130 different species of animals. Even above the ground, the national park is home to one of the lusher green forests in the whole of Kentucky. There are a bunch of short easy hikes and backcountry trails for those who want to drink in fresh air after being underground.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Take note - America’s West Coast is home to many amazing sites but Joshua Tree National Park has to be one of southern California’s most impressive natural wonders. Undoubtedly one of the best national parks for visits in the United States, this three thousand kilometer span of the sweltering desert is perfect for impeccable stargazing, wide-open roads ripe for driving with the top down and hot wind blasting through your hair, moonlit dancing and meditation, and authentic hippy hideouts and hotels like the Mojave Sands Hotel.
When you finally shake the sand and dreams from your hair, there’s plenty of rich hiking trails to take like Ryan Mountain with its lofty views of powdered peaks or the Fortynine Palm Oasis with its cooling pools. Of course, one of the best ways to experience the best national parks in the USA is to wild camp. Bed down in Hidden Valley where the yucca plants and sculpted rock formations get soaked in Southern California sunset coloring.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Sprawling across the Rocky Mountains in Northwest Wyoming, National Park Yellowstone is a tour de force of lakes, cascading falls, high peaks, mountains, and deep-cut canyons. Home to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and with the greatest number of grizzly bears outside of Canada along with black bear, moose, elk, and bighorn sheep – Yellowstone is as picture-perfect wilderness as you could ever wish for. Watch the colorful geysers and mud pots erupt and gaze in wonder at Old Faithful as it earns Yellowstone its accolades for being the largest active geyser field in the world.
With 1300 miles of trails and meadows that bloom with beds of wildflowers, hiking in Yellowstone Park is a must especially as you take the off the beaten track to Uncle Tom’s Trail. Those who prefer to explore by water can get their fill of white-water rafting, sink into bliss at the mammoth hot springs, paddle out across the numerous lakes. It's no wonder that this is the most visited national park in the USA (not to mention the first national park) earning around 4 million park visitors every year.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Occupying 2000 acres of the southern Appalachians, the Shenandoah National Park sits in a great spot, only a stones throw from the pulsing cities of Washington DC and Baltimore. Its proximity to city life makes it a well-placed escape for those craving a touch of wilderness and a weekend out hiking or sleeping beneath the stars. The Skyline Drive is the perfect gateway to the scenic vistas of Virginia. Just over a hundred miles long, you can mosey along jaw-dropping overlooks and even take up the route that covers 40 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
One of the best things about Shenandoah is the fact that it isn’t a park just about the sit and stare. While huge swathes are certainly protected, the park encourages you to get involved with everything from climbing to trout fishing and even road biking.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Over 1.5 million acres of steamy mangroves, prehistoric monsters, and serene sun dappled lakes makes the Everglades National Park one of the most beloved slices of wilderness in North America. From air boat rides to alligator watching, cycling through Shark Valley, and tackling some of the most diverse ecological trails imaginable, the Everglades is the gift that keeps on giving. Home to some of the most exciting nature, plant and animal species imaginable, the Everglades is stuffed full of wildlife viewing opportunities– alligators, pythons, bears, panthers, gumbo trees, sawgrass marshes, and millions of other delights.
You can either strap on your hiking boots or pick up a paddle, pedal across boardwalks or snorkel down in Biscayne Bay – a trip to the Everglades goes beyond the usual trailhead idea. For those who need a little fuel stop in-between all that exploring, Everglades City is home to some of the best stone crab dishes.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Towering peaks, velvet meadows of pure green, clearwater lakes, and famed fly fishing – do you need any more reasons to fall hard for the majesty of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. This picturesque beauty is a poster child of what mother nature does best. Expect to be smitten by the vision of jagged teeth like mountain ranges and roaming elks. Take the 42-mile scenic drive that loops around the park and right through the heart of the mountains to drink it all in. Head up to Signal Mountain for incredible views and swing by Jenny Lake to snap a thousand photos of the Teton range reflected in the silver bright mirror-like waters.
Those who want to explore the historical side of the national park can head to the Mormon Row Historic District where old creaky settlements sit washed in fire by the light of the sunrise. Drift down Snake River and head out on a hike to Leigh Lake. Tiny pleasures are everywhere in the Grand Teton’s from the bursting sweet huckleberries to the spotting moose calves splashing and the choice to head out on multiday hikes or dream away the afternoon finding inspiration and enjoyment in the simpler things.
Arches National Park, Utah
True to its name, the Arches National Park in Utah is the land of 2 000 hanging ribbons. Rosy in red rock and flaming with orange, the road that runs through the Arches is simply spellbinding. Pick your jaw up off the ground as you gaze in awe at the incredible rock sculptures rising out of the desert floor of canyon country. Being able to pitch a tent beneath the yawning arches of ancient sandstone formations lends an otherworldly feel to this magical place, as does your first sight of the highly photogenic ‘balanced rock’ standing almost 40ft tall.
Big skies and signature sunsets over this Utah national park flood everything in shades of amethyst and with a wealth of delicate and dreamy arches, the untamed Devil’s Garden trail, and the narrow cuts and fins of the Fiery Furnace, the Arches National Park is a must for your bucket list. Arches also boasts the slogan of saying that ‘half the park is after dark’ so be sure to stick around for some sublime star gazing.
Death Valley National Park, California
Outside of Alaska, California boasts the largest national park in the whole of the USA – also known as Death Valley. Ominous in name and impressive in nature, Death Valley National Park is a heady vision of singing rocks, luminous sandstone canyons, and soaring temperatures that have the power to play with your mind. The whole vibe of Death Valley is one soaked in mythology. It’s enormous 3.3 million acres is home to a mountain-like sand dune that ripple out of the earth and even the parks lowest spots dive down well beyond sea level. In short, even for hardy travelers Death Valley National Park is a world of extremes.
Leave the sand dunes behind and be sure to head up to the Golden Canyon cliffs to capture a sunset that will strike gold in your memory. Visit Mosaic Canyon to witness the marbled cliffs soar to the sky and pull over at Badwater and Artists Drive to snap photos of this epic expanse of salt flats.
Kings Canyon National Park, California
Home of one of the USA’s only rain forests, the Kings Canyon National Park in California seems a world and a half away from the haunting landscape of Death Valley. Kings Canyon is all rugged remote beauty with huge swathes of shade, slick thundering waterfalls, and deep-dark woods. Yet even beyond the velvet green borders, Kings Canyon is a multi-terrain paradise, also boasting beaches, lakes, ridges, mountains, and more. In the winter months, this place turns into a skiers paradise and in the fair sweet summers, there’s hikes, backcountry camping, and hot springs to soak away all cares.
It’s worth noting that this Californian calling card can be wet, even in the dryer months. But with everything from fine dining to luxury lodges or backpacking and wild camping, the Kings Canyon National Park has a little something of everything for everyone.
Denali National Park, Alaska
One of Alaska’s most iconic parks, the Denali National Park is vast and wide and enchantingly wild. Stretching out to a staggering 6 million acres, space and sky, snow and stars, forest and tundra all come together here in Denali. With stats like this its no surprise that Alaska is home to some of the world s largest national parks. This Alaskan gem is also home to the tallest peak in North America and the parks namesake – Mount Denali. Soaring above twenty thousand ft, the mountain range is effortlessly imposing and dwarf everything in their eye line. Still, their monolithic size doesn’t take away from the clear water lakes, the booming cry of moose wandering through the meadows, and the black bears that tend to wander out in the open tundra.
Take a flight over the mountains to truly soak up the vast expanse of Alaska and to take some action shots of groaning glaciers. If flying isn’t your thing you can also take a sightseeing bus along the 92-mile stretch to get perfect views without having to worry about driving conditions. Tickets and tours can be organized at the Wilderness Access Visitor Center.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
So beyond Biscayne National Park and sail on down to the Dry Tortugas. With over 99 percent of the national park underwater, the Dry Tortugas National Park is a must-visit even if it only accessible by seaplane or boat. In shimmering shades of blue and sitting 70 miles outside of Key West, this fascinating spread of sea is home to shipwrecks, colorful coral gardens, loggerhead sea turtles, and a wealth of rare birds. Leave the hiking boots at home and instead pack your snorkel and water shoes so you can delve down beneath the turquoise hues.
While swimming alongside angelfish, watching dolphins on a boat tour, and kayaking into iridescent shades of blue are certainly a few highlights to be had of a trip to the Dry Tortugas, history buffs will also be smitten by this slip of seven small islands. The masonry fort to be found in Fort Jefferson is a perfectly preserved piece of history that dates all the way back to the 1800s. Be sure to snorkel at Loggerhead Key and head to Bush Key to witness thousands of Sooty Terns take to the skies. Dine on broiled lobster and lost yourself in the endless blues that make the Dry Tortugas feel like another world.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Smoldering volcanoes, intricately carved black lava fields, sea arches that suffer the roar of the ocean, and the bright and gauzy feathers and cries from Hawaii’s exotic birds – when it comes to national parks, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has the chance to make every contender pale in comparison. Hawaii is famed for her glut of gorgeous nature and the Big Island national park is where you can walk through five-hundred-year-old lava tubes, drive across a chain of craters, see the destruction caused by active explosions, and admire sacred ancient petroglyphs.
Take the 11-mile long Crater Rim Trail to see the steam vents and sulphur banks and to soak up the sheer wonder of driving through an active volcano. Fall in love with the stark beauty of the lava flows and rocky wasteland and hike the stunning Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail to see the wealth of cultural sites and the cinder cones that puncture this fantasy-like landscape.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Utah keeps topping this list of the best national parks in the USA and for good reason – simply look to Canyonlands National Park for yet another example of Utah’s impressive natural architecture. One of the biggest national parks in Utah, Canyonlands certainly knows how to pack a punch. From the snaking curve of the Green River carving its way through the red-hued rock to the Island in the Sky district, Canyonlands is a mash-up of Dali esque dreams and a living Star Wars landscape.
Take the Shafer Trail which will take you high up the steep cliffs to the white rim for wondrous lookouts across the canyon floor. Duck into the Needles District and skirt along the sculpted formations. Admire the pictographs at Horseshoe Canyon (said to be over two thousand years old), and watch the moon rise in all her orbed glory over the tourist attraction spot of Chesley Park.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Home to the deepest blue waters in the USA, the Crater Lake National Park is one of Oregon’s most impressive natural wonders. A shimmering sapphire lake with its highest peak perched 2000 feet in the sky, the Crater Lake is a scenic vision surrounded by rippling cliffs and fragrant pines that shine beneath an even bluer sky. Almost eight thousand years old, this national park was created when a mammoth eruption caused a volcano to collapse, creating a hole that would eventually fill with shimmering water and an impressive depth.
In the winter months, the Crater Lake is all snow-capped forests, snowshoe trails, and epic skiing. In the summer, the meadows blaze and the Cleetwood Cove Trail entices sweaty walkers down to plunge into the cold clear waters. Take the Rim Drive at 33 miles to see the whole of the crater either by car or bicycle. Take a boat trip out to Wizard Island, the cinder cone that sits in the midst of the lake and hike up Garfield Peak for some of the most impressive views out across the park.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Buttes, granite boulders, and Spires map out the mesmerizing terrain of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. A place where saber toothed cats are immortalized in fossil forever and where the ancient seafloor rolls and rises creating shifting layers of colorful sediment, the Badlands are a breathtaking example of what 75 million years can do to a place. With 244 thousand acres to explore, this naturally excavated patch of wild paradise brings a wealth of birdwatching wonders, remote and dreamy desolate hikes, and fossil hunting adventures that invite you to embrace your own hunter-gatherer history.
Take the Park Loop Road to soak up those rich colors of the hills striped in shades of orange and yellow, take the 10-mile hike to see the Castle Trail and swing by to feed the prairie dogs at Roberts Prairie Dog Town.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Nearly a million acres of wilderness hugging a peninsular in Washington marks the Olympic National Park on the map. High alpine forests, wet lowlands, and tranquil lakeshores capture all the enigmatic grace and beauty that makes the Pacific Northwest so striking. Kickstart your journey at Port Angeles where the visitor center makes a great gateway into the park with its short nature trails and hiking loops. Head out cross-country skiing in the seasons when the snows bear down on Hurricane Ridge and in the summer months dangle your feet and fish for indigenous trout at Lake Crescent.
Douglas and spruce fir forests, and majestic hemlock mark the way on the rainforest route and the closer you get to the coastal edge, the more opportunity for saltwater wild swims, shoreline walks, and tide pool hopping there is.
We know we have missed a bunch of great national parks from the list, from Carlsbad Cavern to Isle Royale, Voyageurs National Park, the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, and Mount Desert Island - from Sierra Nevada to Rhode Island, the list of incredible landscapes, one of a kind landmarks, and epic ecosystems goes on and on. Which names and places are getting your vote as the best national parks in USA? Share your opinions and viewpoints in the comments and together let's give thanks for the wonder of mother nature.
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