The 12 Best National Parks To Visit in America
There’s no end to the adventures that await in America’s national parks. Whether you want to stand atop a glacier, paddle to your own private island, hike into the desert or watch a herd of bison brush past your car window, there’s a park for you.
After a year that forced many of us to stay indoors, visiting national parks scratches a very specific itch. The National Park Service has recorded record-breaking attendance at many parks in 2021, and there’s a very good chance that next year will see even more people hitting the road on their very own national park road trip.
It’s impossible to say which national park is best, but these 12 parks are some of the most unique. Each of them is a place unlike any other. Your favorite park might be one of the most-visited sites in the United States, or it might be way, way off the beaten path. Either way, now is the time to start planning your adventure.
I’ll just make one important distinction before we dive in. The National Park Service manages more than 400 properties across the United States, including national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, national battlefields… the list goes on.
Only 63 of these sites are proper national parks, and only these are eligible for inclusion on this list, although that doesn’t mean you should ignore all the others.
1. Yellowstone National Park
Let’s start with the OG. Yellowstone National Park was founded in 1872, making it America’s oldest national park. This park was first advocated by the geologist and surveyor Ferdinand V. Hayden and created by the executive order of President Ulysses S. Grant. Those guys were really onto something.
Yellowstone National Park is made up of more than 2.2 million acres of some of America’s most unique and spectacular landscapes. The bulk of the park lies in Wyoming, but it also reaches across into Idaho and Montana. It’s a genuine national treasure, home to herds of bison and elk, healthy populations of grizzly bears and grey wolves, and some of the country’s most instantly-recognizable landmarks.
The park is arguably most famous for geysers like the iconic Old Faithful, and geothermal features like Grand Prismatic Spring. Visiting these sites is certainly part of the Yellowstone experience. But it’s also a great place to simply absorb the magnificent scenery around you, which includes mountain ranges, grasslands, canyons, and some of America’s highest-elevation lakes.
Yellowstone can get pretty busy during its short summer season, but this vast park offers ample opportunities to get away from the crowds that congregate around all the famous attractions. The park includes nearly 300 backcountry campsites that can only be reached on foot, many of them at elevations above 7,000 feet.
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Encompassing more than 522,000 acres in North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National park represents one of the largest protected areas east of the Mississippi. It’s also one of the most dramatically beautiful, with layers of ridges and valleys extending as far as the eye can see.
Elevations in the park range from 875 feet to the 6,643-foot summit of Clingman’s Dome, one of the highest peaks in the East. Visit the summit early in the morning before the fog burns off to learn why they call them the Smokies.
Opportunities for recreation and adventure abound, whether you’re driving through the mountains on the Blue Ridge Parkway or hiking through it on the Appalachian Trail, which swings through the national park on its 2,190-mile course from Georgia to Maina. The Smoky Mountains also host one of the world’s most spectacular displays of synchronous fireflies every year for a brief period in late May or early June.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most-visited national park – more than 12 million people saw the park in 2020 – partly because it’s one of the only national parks that doesn’t charge an entrance fee. Expect all the major landmarks and campgrounds to be busy, especially on summer weekends. Plan your visit mid-week or during the off-season if you can.
3. Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali National Park and Preserve takes “wild” to a whole other level. The borders of this sprawling Alaska Park encircle more than six million acres of uninhabited wilderness, accessible by only one single ribbon of road.
Its centerpiece is North America’s tallest peak, 20,310-foot Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley). The peak’s name, which it shares with the park surrounding it, means “the tall one” in the language of the native Koyukon people who inhabit the area. Dinosaurs roamed this landscape over 65 million years ago, and the northern lights dazzle in its night sky every winter.
The majority of Denali National Park and Preserve contains no roads, no fences, and no marked trails. Wild animals like grizzly bears, lynx, Dall sheep, and moose live here just as they have for thousands of years, mostly uninfluenced by man’s interference. The few designated hiking trails here are mostly short and located near the park’s entrance.
Parks like Denali exist to protect their precious landscapes and the animals who live there but also to give people an opportunity to experience the rarest of things: true wilderness.
4. Yosemite National Park
California’s Yosemite National Park has everything. The park is arguably best known for its waterfalls, which include Vernal Fall and Bridalveil Fall, but it also has giant sequoia groves, grand meadows, snow-capped peaks, and glacier-scoured valleys. When John Muir famously said, “the mountains are calling and I must go,” these are the mountains he was talking about.
The heart of the park is the expansive Yosemite Valley, with its sheer rock walls and one of America’s tallest waterfalls, 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls. This valley is also the location of the park’s two most iconic landmarks: El Capitan and Half Dome.
These features make Yosemite a mecca for rock climbers. There are thousands of climbing routes here, but El Capitan, with its 300-foot vertical drop, is the true prize. Half Dome is a challenge of a different kind. You can hike to the top, but doing so requires a 14-mile round-trip trek that gains 4,800 feet in elevation and traverses perilously exposed rock faces.
There’s a quieter, more peaceful side to Yosemite as well. Hiking trails meander through untouched old growth forests, and the shady, secluded campgrounds in this park are some of the most popular in California. Opportunities abound for outdoor activities of all kinds, from kayaking and fly fishing to bird watching and nature painting.
5. Glacier National Park
Nicknamed “The Crown of the Continent,” Glacier National Park is a little over a million acres of wilderness in the heart of Montana’s Rocky Mountains. The park extends all the way to the Canadian border and is actually one-half of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Glacier National Park is an absolute paradise for hikers, with over 700 miles of trails that visit remote summits, serene forests, and picturesque alpine lakes. One of the most famous landmarks is Hidden Lake, tucked away between the peaks of Bearhat Mountain and Dragons Tail, and accessible via a 5-mile out-and-back hike.
The most famous feature of Glacier National National Park may be the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s one of America’s great scenic drives, bisecting the park from southwest to northeast, and crossing the continental divide at Logan’s Pass. You’ll see some of the park’s most spectacular views from this 50-mile route and can access some of its best hiking trails. Several trails offer an opportunity to get up close with the park’s namesake – and rapidly receding – glaciers.
Glacier is also a designated International Dark Sky Park, one of a handful of US national parks to be given this distinction. Exceptionally dark night skies and virtually nonexistent light pollution make it one of the best places in America for stargazing.
6. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
One good thing happened in 2020: the New River Gorge got a promotion. This wildly beautiful waterway was designated a national river in 1978 but is now America’s newest national park. That alone makes it a worthy place to visit.
The newly-minted New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses one of the most striking landscapes in the eastern United States. Spanning 70,000 acres of land along a 58-mile stretch of West Virginia’s New River, this park includes rolling Appalachian Mountain peaks, over 50 miles of hiking trails, and the rugged rock walls of the gorge itself.
The New River Gorge is known for some of America’s best whitewater rafting, Including the legendary run from Cunard put-in to the Fayette Station take-out. Rapids range from Class III to Class V, and the surrounding scenery is unbeatable. It’s a fantastic smallmouth bass fishing river too.
If you’re into rock climbing, this is probably the best destination east of the Mississippi. The New River Gorge offers more than 1,400 established climbs, and the intricately featured Nuttall sandstone of the gorge makes it ideal for climbing.
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7. Arches National Park
Utah is home to five national parks, each of which preserves a unique slice of the state’s striking desert landscape. It’s not easy to pick just one, but Arches National Park is perhaps the most awe-inspiring of the bunch. It’s an otherworldly red-rock dreamland of strange geological formations.
Most notably, the park’s landscape is adorned by more than 2,000 natural stone arches. Carved over the course of many millennia by wind, water, and gravity, these arches are scoured out of sandstone and other rocks, often extending hundreds of feet in the air. The largest, known as Landscape Arch, spans 306 feet despite being just six feet thick. The 52-foot Delicate Arch may be the park’s most photographed landmark.
In addition to these arches, the park is also made up of massive rock fins and pinnacles, rugged canyons, and giant balanced rocks. The Devil’s Garden area of the park contains one of the greatest concentrations of geological features connected by fairly easy-to-access hiking trails.
Arches National Park offers incredible opportunities for canyoneering, rock climbing, backpacking, and horseback riding. The climate here can be unforgiving, so be sure to plan ahead and do your homework before heading off into the backcountry. Bring sun protection and lots of water.
8. Olympic National Park
It’s hard to imagine that the glacier-encrusted pinnacle of Mt. Olympus and the mossy depths of Hoh Rainforest exist side-by-side. That’s part of what makes Olympic National Park special. This vast, wild playground on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula might be America’s most diverse and varied national park.
From the windswept coast with its towering, wave-scarred rock formations to the depths of Olympic’s old-growth forest, this ancient landscape offers a little bit of everything. Sea lions sun themselves on the coast, northern spotted owls hunt in the forests, and salmon surge up the park’s rivers and streams to spawn every year. A handful of species, like the Olympic torrent salamander, are found nowhere else on earth.
Hiking through the rainforests of Olympic National Park is an experience you simply cannot replicate anywhere else in America. These lush, almost surreal forests receive nearly 12 feet of rain every year, making them the wettest places in the US.
Some of this park’s most alluring attractions are off the beaten path. Don’t miss Hurricane Ridge, with its panoramic views and wildflower-adorned subalpine meadows. Camp on the shores of secluded Crescent Lake, and hunt for anemones in the vibrant tide pools along Ruby Beach.
9. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is next-door neighbors with Yellowstone National Park, and as a result, it never quite gets the attention it deserves. It’s easy to be overshadowed by America’s most iconic park, but there’s a case to be made that Grand Teton is even more beautiful than its more famous neighbor.
The park encompasses much of the Teton Range, which includes eight peaks that top out over 12,000 feet. The tallest, Grand Teton, looms 13,775 above the surrounding landscape. Schwabacher Landing on the Snake River offers one of the most awe-inspiring views of the Tetons, and the former settlement at Mormon Row is a must-visit for its sweeping meadows and dramatic mountain backdrop.
Wildlife abounds in the park. Anglers cast flies for native cutthroat trout while bull elk bugle in the mountains and bald eagles circle overhead. More than 300 bird species inhabit or visit Grand Teton National Park at various times of the year, making it a bird watcher’s paradise.
Another highlight of Grand Teton National Park is Jenny Lake. Hikers in particular can get a lot out of this area, with trails bearing evocative names like Inspiration Point, Hidden Falls, and Cascade Canyon. The road that encircles Jenny lake also offers one of the park’s best scenic drives.
10. Grand Canyon National Park
What is there to say about the Grand Canyon that hasn’t been said? I mean, it’s the Grand Canyon. It’s one of those places that words fail to describe. You simply have to see it in person.
The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles across, and, in places, more than a mile deep. More than two billion years of the earth’s history is exposed in the rock strata of the Grand Canyon from top to bottom. This is all interesting information, but none of it prepares you for the actual sight of the Grand Canyon. It’s definitely a place everyone should visit at least once.
Most of the canyon is contained within Grand Canyon National Park, and the park’s often-photographed viewpoints offer the most arresting views of this natural wonder. There are also campgrounds on both the South and North Rim, with hiking trails that take you along the canyon’s edge, all over the surrounding landscape, and even deep into the canyon itself.
The Bright Angel Trail is the most popular route from the rim to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and it’s just shy of 10 miles each way. If you go this route, plan on staying the night in the canyon itself at Bright Angel Campground. And be prepared for the challenges. It can be a transformative experience, but for some, it becomes an ordeal. Around 250 people have to be rescued from the Grand Canyon every year.
11. Redwood National and State Parks
Giants still live along the coast of Northern California. Coast Redwoods, the tallest trees on earth and some of the oldest, once grew across more than 2 million acres. Today, only a fraction remain, but 45% of the remaining redwoods are preserved within Redwood State and National Parks.
Redwood National and State Parks are unique in that they’re made up of four interconnected properties, some managed by the National Park Service and some by California State Parks. In a way, it’s all one park. In a way, it’s several.
Within the parks you can hike among groves of towering redwoods, many of them well over 200 feet tall. You can also pitch a tent and camp beneath them, and join an illuminating ranger-guided tour. There’s also much more to this park than just the giant trees. Redwood National and State Parks include a 40-mile stretch of rugged coastline, including the eight-mile scenic Coastal Drive and numerous overlooks that are popular for whale watching.
The world’s tallest known living tree, known as the Hyperion Tree, resides somewhere within Redwood National and State Parks. The Hyperion Tree’s exact location is a closely guarded secret to protect it from damage, but you may spot the 380-foot giant if you venture deep enough into the park’s backcountry.
12. Voyageurs National Park
Encompassing a spectacular chain of lakes in Northern Minnesota along the Canadian border, Voyageurs National Park is one of the wildest places in the lower 48 states. The park spans a little over 218,000 acres, most of it water. It’s a paradise for canoeists, kayakers, boaters, and fishermen.
Voyageurs National Park gets its name from the early trappers and fur traders – the French-Canadian voyageurs – who were among the region’s earliest explorers. The park encompasses all or part of four major lakes: Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, Namakan Lake, and Sand Point Lake. The Kabetogama Peninsula makes up the majority of the park’s land area, and most of it is accessible only by boat.
If you’ve ever dreamt of packing a tent and fishing rod in your canoe and heading off on an adventure, this is the place to do it. Voyageurs is a vast maze of interconnected waterways with rocky shores, secluded wetlands, rugged cliffs, lakes, streams, and forests.
There are a few developed amenities near the park’s entrances, but for the most part, Voyageurs is truly wild. Backcountry campsites are strewn across the lakes and islands, most of them reachable only by canoe or kayak. In winter, when the lakes freeze over, the park becomes the domain of snowshoers, snowmobilers, and hardy ace fishermen.
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