Planning a road trip to the USA National Parks this summer? The country has many beautiful popular national parks including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. All of these national parks offer hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing and are the perfect summer vacation for families. Explore the best national parks to visit in the US to enjoy the great outdoors. You may also like our post on the Best Places to Visit in the USA.
The USA has 61 national parks and they are visited by millions of visitors every year. Age of the national parks in the country promises something unique: from one of a kind natural wonders to memorable landscapes and from breathtaking trails and scenic drives to remote camp-sites and glamping opportunities. They also offer a variety of outdoor adventures including spelunking, white water rafting, kayaking, snorkeling, rock climbing, fishing, and birding.
Needless to say, the National Parks are a very popular summer road trip attraction. Each year, we love planning road trips that combine at least 3 to 4 popular national parks, monuments, and state parks for a memorable trip. A national parks trip is the ultimate family vacation: kids can participate in the national parks program and become a junior ranger, they can see geological formations outside of textbooks, and have inspiring wildlife encounters.
Best National Parks to Visit in the USA
To inspire your travels within the heartlands and dense forests, we have created this epic list of best national parks to visit in the country. While most of these are perfect for a summer road trip, some like Death Valley and Big Bend are better in the fall and winter. Nevertheless, they should be high on your bucket list for cooler days and so we have included them in this list. Here are the most popular and stunning national parks to visit in the USA:
Yellowstone National Park
Old Faithful, the cone geyser that shoots steaming hot water 190 feet up into the air every 44 minutes to 2 hours, isn’t the only spectacle in this heartland of geothermal activity. In fact, the land reserved for Yellowstone National Park is located on top of a volcanic hot spot which also provides the heat for the Grand Prismatic and Mammoth Hot Springs.
The Grand Prismatic Spring is probably the most recognizable feature of the park: an imperfect circle of incandescent light and dark blues surrounded by shades of bright yellow and orange that makes you feel as if you’re staring into a lake from another planet.
While rumors abound that the volcano lying beneath Yellowstone is overdue for an eruption, you have nothing to worry about as scientists say there isn’t enough magma to cause another eruption. The park is great for trips to the Western United States and is located primarily in Wyoming with small parts in Montana and Idaho.
Yosemite National Park
The terrain in Yosemite National Park is dramatic with massive cliffs towering over the forest filled valleys. Tucked into the Northern California countryside, Yosemite is consistently ranked among the top five national parks in the US.
The park receives thousands of visitors annually, most come to see the twin features of the park: the mountains and the giant sequoias. Half Dome, Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, and El Capitan are the most famous mountains in the park. All of the peaks have hiking trails that go up their sheer granitic rock faces; from here you can get incredible views of the valley below.
The steep faces of the cliffs aren’t the only things you’ll crane your neck at in the park. The giant sequoia trees in Yosemite grow up to 400 feet high and live for over 2000 years. Beyond the mountains and trees, the park has several hiking trails, waterfalls, flower-filled meadows, and some of the freshest air you can breathe in the USA.
Also Read: Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary
Grand Canyon National Park
What would a trip across the United States be without a stop in Arizona to see the Grand Canyon? World-renowned for its size and splendor, the Grand Canyon was originally carved out by the mighty Colorado River millions of years ago.
Today the river has mostly dried up and is just a ribbon of water dwarfed by the canyon walls. It flows deep within the canyon, over 6,000 feet below on the ground. You can see the panoramas from the Yavapai Point on the south rim. Drive around the rim road to see the canyon from different viewpoints.
Hike the Bright Angel Trail from the south rim to descend deep within the canyon and reach the river below. Carry along water, sunscreen, and hat to protect yourself against the heat and exhaustion. On the trail, you can look at the oddly shaped sandstone, shale, and limestone layers harshly cut by the river. You can see various geological landforms created by erosion. You can also take a mule ride to the bottom of the canyon but they get booked far in advance.
At Grand Canyon West – outside the park limits but pretty close – there is a transparent glass bridge extending over the canyon floor. Those feeling adventurous can brave standing on the glass and gaze between their feet to take in the full immensity below. Another amazing way to explore the Grand Canyon is to go on white water rafting trips down the Colorado River.
Also Read: Zion Bryce Grand Canyon Road Trip Itinerary
Zion National Park
One great source of pride for the state of Utah is the beautiful Zion Canyon. Consistently ranking at the top of Utah’s Mighty 5, Zion National Park is a perfect road trip away from Las Vegas in the great American Southwest.
The most distinguishing part of the national park is the towering walls of the Zion Canyon. The canyon walls are composed almost entirely of Navajo Sandstone which gives them their distinct reddish hue. The canyon was carved by the Virgin River thousands of years ago. You can walk along the Riverwalk to admire the beautiful surroundings.
Take a hike deep within Zion’s Narrows at the north fork of the Virgin River and upstream from the main canyon. The Narrows is where the canyon walls close in upon each other and you can see beautiful swirling patterns on the steep cliffs. This watery walkway might get your feet wet, but it will also take you under a series of crevices and magnificent rock formations. This hike is one of the best in the USA and something to be experienced.
However, this is not the only thing to see in Zion National Park. The park’s Angels Landing hike is equally famous – but strenuous – and leads to spectacular bird’s eye view over the canyon. Or, if you want to see something truly unique, take a walk over to the Checkerboard Mesa. The grid-like grooves on its surface resemble the tiles from the famous board game and create a beautiful pattern unlike any other in the country.
Arches National Park
If you like art made by Mother Earth, then this is the right stop for your vacation. Also located in Utah, Arches National Park is known for having more than 2,000 naturally formed rock arches in addition to a number of spires, balanced rocks, sandstone fins, and monoliths. Located near Moab, this park is truly one of its kind.
The park has the feel of walking through the sculpture gallery of a giant. Geologists say the structures are formed due to the presence of a thousand feet thick layer of the salt bed beneath the surface of the park. The weight of the above layers caused the salt bed to liquefy under pressure and thrust up rocks in dome shapes. Wind and water erosion of the salt domes created the famous arches.
Probably the most iconic arch in the national park is the massive free-standing Delicate Arch. It is 52 feet tall and truly stunning. Its massive stature invites you to stand underneath and pose for a photo. Made of red crimson sandstone, the arch looks spectacular at sunset. Other famous arches include Landscape Arch, Double Arch, and Turret Arch.
Glacier National Park
The deep valleys and snowy peaks of Glacier National Park were cut by glaciers millions of years ago. The park is located in Montana and straddles the Northern Rocky Mountains. The best time to visit the park is in summer when the Going to the Sun Road is open, but if you happen to visit early on in the season you can see northern lights in the park.
Glacier National Park stretches all the way up to the Canadian border and is known for spectacular scenery. Along with glaciers, you will also find turquoise glacier-fed lakes, densely wooded alpine forests, wildflower-filled meadows, and abundant wildlife in the park.
The park has over 700 miles of hiking trails. One of the more famous hikes is the Hidden Lake Nature Trail which takes you 1.4 miles through the Rockies to the Hidden Lake Overlook. From here, you can appreciate the dark blue waters of the lake. Its beauty and secluded location amidst mountain peaks make it the perfect spot for a photograph. Then continue all the way down to the lakeshore for a quiet picnic by the lakeside.
The Going-to-the-Sun-Road that cuts through the park is a spectacularly scenic drive. You will wind up and down the mountain slopes and can look out at the valley spread below. The park is also home to clear alpine lakes including Lake McDonald and Saint Mary Lake. The lakes are great for water activities and you can even swim if it’s warm enough.
Grand Teton National Park
Wyoming is home to abundant wildlife and rugged terrain that characterized the American frontier during the beginning era of the nation. And there is no better place to experience it yourself, than the wonderful Grand Teton National Park.
Grizzly bears, moose, elk, wolves, mountain lions, bald eagles, and even wolverines can all be found within the confines of the park. Drive along the scenic Grand Teton Loop Road for some of the best views of the snow-capped rising Teton ranges. You will also be treated to vistas of lush green valleys, rivers and streams, mountain lakes, and meadows.
But that’s not all that the Grand Tetons have to offer.
The park also has 200 miles of hiking trails for a variety of experience levels. You can even go mountain climbing in the park. On the trails, study the brush and canopy for friendly – and maybe not so friendly – creatures. Have a picnic on the meadows with the famous peaks towering over the horizon. Tie up a hammock in dense pine forests and look up at the blue sky.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Welcome to the country’s only free park! The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee and is one of the best parks in the country. The mountain ranges in the park are called ‘smoky’ because of the pale blue mist that constantly hovers over them.
The park is not just for hikers and nature lovers but also for history enthusiasts. See historic Appalachian cabins on the Cades Cove Loop. See a working grist mill with a waterwheel at the Visitor Center. Understand the history of the communities that resided along the Appalachians. Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail for off the beaten path views.
Most of the trees in the park are deciduous, making the Smokies an awesome place to visit in autumn. The leaves begin to change colors in mid-October and paint the mountain slopes in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and deep orange. The town of Gatlinburg also hosts many fall events and is great to visit.
The East Coast of the US has many awesome national parks and the famed Appalachian Trail, that begins in Georgia and goes all the way north up to Maine, passes through almost all of them. However, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park comprises some of the most visually appealing portions of the trail: hikers have breathtaking views of mountains, dense forests, and waterfalls.
Rocky Mountain National Park
In Northern Colorado lies the gateway to the Rocky Mountains. Featuring spectacular mountain scenery, snow-capped peaks, clear mountain lakes, and inspiring wildlife encounters, this park is one of our favorites to visit year-round.
The national park has many great things to do and is good for visitors of all ages because depending on the activity you choose, you might never even have to leave your car. The Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River road both offer splendid sights of alpine tundra, pine forests, and gorgeous valleys. You can easily see and enjoy the scenic views from behind the wheel.
However, we do recommend stepping out of the car for at least a little bit so you can see Bear Lake. This awesome alpine lake is almost 9,500 feet above sea level and has several hiking trails – from easy and short to long and exhausting – where you can stop and enjoy the spectacular mountains of the Continental Divide. Go on the lake loop trail for an easy hike.
The park is a winter wonderland and must-visit for skiers, snowshoers, and snow lovers in the colder months. You won’t spot bears but can still see elk, deer, and even mountain lions. Estes Park makes a perfect base to explore the Rocky Mountain national park and is just 2 hours away from Denver.
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park is one of the few island-based national parks in the mainland US. It is primarily focused on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, but also extends out in the surrounding archipelagoes and partly on the Schoodic peninsula of the mainland. Because of its unique location, Acadia will give you an experience like no other nature reserve on this list.
The islands around Desert Island: Frenchboro, the Cranberry Isles, Swan’s Island, and several others are great for day trips. Rent a boat or take a cruise to see not only them but also other parts of the famous New England coast.
In addition to the water-based activities, you can also find over 158 miles of hiking trails within the park. Most trails have awesome views of the wild coast, the park, and wildlife. Watch the dark blue-grey waters of the Northern Atlantic crash against the smooth stones on the beach.
Once you’re finished hiking, head over to the charming fishing village of Bass Harbor for some delectable Maine Lobster and take a short walk to see the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse; a historic landmark in the area. If you prefer a more urban vibe, make the gateway town of Bar Harbor your base for exploring the park.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Do you know what a hoodoo is? Well, Bryce Canyon, located in Southern Utah, is the perfect place to learn about them! These eroded red sandstone rock formations look a lot like intricately carved chess pieces and Bryce Canyon National Park has literally thousands of them.
The main area where most of the hoodoo rock formations are present is known as the Bryce Amphitheater. You can walk either along the Rim Trail to see the hoodoos from above or descend down into the canyon using the Queen’s Garden Trail.
The trail takes you down among the hoodoos and is great for hiking enthusiasts and landscape photographers. There are several lookout points along the way where you can stop and admire the intriguing and at times, absurd, hoodoo formations.
There are several other ways to explore the park. Hike the trail to Sunrise Point at dawn to get a stunning aerial view of the sun lighting up the park’s landscape. Or, hike the Navajo Loop trail and view the famous Thor’s Hammer formation.
The Navajo trail also takes you both along the rim of the canyon and through the amphitheater passages and is one of our favorites in the park. The trail is also good to see the ponderosa pine trees growing between the hoodoos.
End your trip with a drive along the Bryce scenic drive and see beautiful formations such as Natural Bridge and the view of Grand Staircase from Yovimpa Point.
Denali National Park
If you’re taking a trip to Alaska why wouldn’t you stop in Denali National Park? The reserve is Alaska’s most famous and most visited land attraction.
It is easy to see why with its enormous and untouched wilderness, beautiful and majestic wildlife, and endless lakes and rivers. At all times, you can see the massive shadow of Mt. Mckinley – the tallest mountain in the entire US – cast over the park, like a watchful overlord.
This is a world-famous place for hunting. Thousands of hunters travel from all over to get a fair shot at the deer, elk and other big game in the area while also enjoying the seclusion of the forest around them.
If you’re feeling brave, try the hike up Mt. Mckinley. The journey can take 17 to 21 days and definitely isn’t for the faint of heart but is definitely rewarding with spectacular views of snowy white mountain peaks all around you.
Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier National Park is located 59 miles south of Seattle, Washington. Mount Rainier isn’t actually a mountain at all, but a volcano located on the Pacific Ring of Fire. It last erupted in 1895 but despite its long dormancy, is still categorized as an active volcano.
The two most popular areas of the park are Paradise and Sunrise. The Paradise Jackson Visitor Center is open year-round while Sunrise is open only during the summer. From both the areas, you will experience stunning views of Mt. Rainier and the Cascades, the glaciers, and alpine meadows.
Beyond the two regions, one of the more popular attractions within the park is Narada Waterfall. The falls have two distinct tiers at different heights. The upper fall is the more gorgeous of the two because it is much higher and has a horsetail shape that causes the water to fall down in several different streams.
If you’re looking to admire tall trees, take the Groove of the Patriarchs trail. This hike follows a suspension bridge over the Ohanapecosh River and transports you to a forest of giants. The area is full of cedars, Douglas-firs, and hemlocks that can reach up to 40 feet in diameter and grow 300 feet tall.
Badlands National Park
Located in South Dakota, the Badlands kind of look like a fascinating mixture of Utah’s colorful rocks and the eroded depths of the Grand Canyon. You can’t help feeling stunned as you marvel at the silence and remoteness of the landscape.
The numerous hills, buttes, mounds, gullies, peaks, and plateaus of the Badlands have every color from a pale grey-brown to vibrant red and deep yellow. The prairies add in the contrast of lush green, making this national park exotic and alien at the same time.
The desolateness of the badlands is real but that doesn’t take away from the powerful vastness and interesting shapes of the park. The view from Big Badlands Overlook shows a rolling valley of otherworldly grey mountains with thin red stripes while the vistas spread before you below the Badlands Wall bring out a feeling of both unease and awe.
If you want a little more adventure, try visiting the Conata Basin Overlook or hike up the Notch Trail. If you want to spot wildlife, keep your eyes peeled on the Badlands Loop Road. You can spot everything from bison, deer, antelopes, prairie dogs, and coyotes.
Shenandoah National Park
Virginia isn’t the most well-known destination in the US however Shenandoah National Park located in the Old Dominion should definitely be. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the park has thousands of acres of forest, wetlands, and rocky peaks. It is also an important part of the Appalachian Trail.
Take a hike up to Hawksbill or Old Rag mountain if you want a better view of the park. Auto tour the Skyline Drive in fall and see the mountains turn golden red with fall colors. The scenic road takes you all the way up to the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A number of lookouts are located close to the edge and make your jaw drop from the sheer mountain beauty.
Grand Caverns, located in the Shenandoah Valley near the town of Grottoes, is a vast limestone cave and one of the first caves in the country to be converted into a tourist attraction. Take a guided tour deep within the labyrinth passages and snap a picture of the stalactites and stalagmites formations.
Death Valley National Park
Situated on the border between California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park is the largest American National Park. The nearest major city to the park is Las Vegas, Nevada at approximately 115 miles. As the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the USA, the Death Valley National Park is also known as ‘A Land of Extremes’.
With impassable badlands, golden sand dunes, unique flora and fauna, and untouched natural beauty, the park attracts adventure seekers looking for a mysterious and extraordinary place to explore. The best time to visit Death Valley is in the winter when the mild temperature makes it comfortable to explore the park.
Visitors can hike the 1.8 miles long trail to Badwater Salt Flats, the lowest point in America at 282 ft below sea level. The hexagonal patterns of salt crystals at Badwater Basin are beautiful. You can also pay a visit to the Devils Golf Course, popular for its interesting large salt formations in the middle of the desert, or Racetrack Playa, a beautiful dry lake with mysterious moving stones.
Experienced hikers can go on a 12-mile hike that will take them to Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park. There are also many scenic drives in the park including the Artists Drive. The entrance fee to the park is $30 per vehicle for 7 days. Within the park, there are nine camping facilities, as well as a few inns and resorts.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Known for its pristine golden sand beaches, Indiana Dunes National Park is the perfect place to visit this summer in the USA. Located just 60 miles away from the urban skyline of Chicago, Indiana Dunes is a place to relax and find solitude. A large portion of the park’s 15,000 acres is along the southern coast of Lake Michigan.
Not only is Indiana Dunes National Park a fantastic spot to sunbathe and lounge at the beach, but it also offers over 50 miles of hiking trails. Our favorite is the Mount Baldy Beach Trail and the Bailly Homestead Trail. The former will take you up and down the 126 feet tall Mount Baldy dune while the latter will take you past dense woods, prairies, and historic structures.
Visitors can enjoy various outdoor activities such as biking, horseback riding, fishing and boating, bird watching, kite flying, sandboarding, dune climbing, etc. The Dunewood Campground is especially popular as it offers overnight camping by the beach from April till October.
Nearby smaller towns and communities in Porter County – such as Valparaiso and Chesterton – are perfect to base your stay. You can try local dining, find treasures in antique stores and art galleries, or just stroll down the charming downtown areas. The nearby Indian Dunes State Park is also a great place to visit.
White Sands National Park
Resembling a sea of sparkling white powdery sand, White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. The park is situated in the state of New Mexico, with the closest major city being El Paso, Texas approximately 43 miles away. It is the geology of the park that makes it quite unusual and interesting to visit. It is one of our favorite national parks to visit because of its remote location and stunning beauty.
The story of this park goes back to even before the gypsum dunes were formed. Thousands of years ago, the area was covered with a large lake known as Lake Otero. The area had abundant vegetation and large ice age era mammals lived here. Fossilized footprints of the prehistoric animals including the Columbian mammoths and ancient camels have been found at the park. Though it is really hard to imagine the lush greenery when all you see around for miles is a sea of white gypsum.
Visiting White Sands National Park is an amazing experience. You can immerse yourself in the mesmerizing, beautiful landscape of stunning white sand dunes and feel like you are on another planet. Read about the flora and fauna of the park at the Visitor Center and while there, rent a board to go sledding on the white dunes. This is the most awesome experience at the park and enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
A great way to walk over the sand dunes and learn about the habitat is by taking one of the hiking trails. Some of the most popular trails are the Dunes Life Nature Trail, Interdune Boardwalk Trail, Playa Trail, and the Alkali Flat Trail. The farther you walk, the more undisturbed are the dunes. Go on the 16 miles roundtrip scenic Dunes Drive to travel deep within the park. The entrance fee to the park is $25 per vehicle or if you are planning to visit numerous parks in the year, then get the National Parks Annual Pass.
Olympic National Park
Washington’s Olympic National Park covers an area of almost a million acres. With its relaxing hot springs, stunning Pacific coastline, and a valley of lush green rainforests, Olympic National Park is one of the best national parks in the USA. If you are flying, then Seattle is the primary gateway city and located approximately 80 miles away.
It makes the perfect starting point to your adventures in the park and we recommend driving around the scenic Olympic Peninsula loop to reach the park. However, there are numerous other charming coastal towns located closer to the park where you can base yourself, such as Port Angeles or Sequim.
The park is famous for its sea stack formations and stunning 48 miles of beaches. The star attractions include Rialto Beach, Shi Shi Beach, and Ruby Beach. Even though it attracts many beachcombers, Olympic National Park is also equally famous for its many rainforests and especially Hoh Rainforest, a UNESCO site.
Giant green conifers that reach a height of over 300 feet, hanging mosses, ferns, and old vine maples quietly dominate the rainforest. When combined with the narrow winding hiking trails, you can’t help but feel like going on a jungle adventure deep in the trees.
Another popular spot to visit is Lake Crescent, known as the second deepest lake in the state of Washington. The lake is located on Highway 101 and is popular for camping, hiking around the lake, and watersports. Other great things to do in the park include the Hurricane Ridge and Sol Duc hot springs.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
Known as the Land of Giants, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is home to the world’s largest trees. Covering a mountainous terrain of over 400,000 acres, the parks are located in the Sierra Nevada mountains and are approximately 57 miles away from Fresno, California. The two park units are considered as a single national park.
In the parks, visitors can find both, the largest tree on Earth – the General Sherman Tree – and the highest mountain in the contiguous United States – Mount Whitney. To visit General Sherman Tree, hike to the Giant Forest Sequoia Groves in Sequoia National Park. Hiking deep within this forest of over 8000 towering trees – that reach a height of 250 ft and grow up to 25 ft in diameter – is an essential part of your trip to the park.
On the hiking trails, you can also enjoy the beautiful forest scenery, walk under the shade of the giants, and see abundant wildlife. From Sequoia, take the drive to the King’s Canyon Scenic Byway in Kings Canyon National Park. The byway is 50 miles long and an excellent way to see the park’s highlights in a short time.
The approximately three-hour-long scenic drive offers many overlooks with stunning views of the canyon. You can also explore the trailheads located along the road and see the General Grant Sequoia Tree, tour the limestone wonders of Boyden Cave, or have a picnic at Grizzly Falls. The drive is open only during summer.
Volcanoes National Park
Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, Volcanoes National Park is home to two active volcanoes, Kilauea, the largest active volcano on the planet, and Mauna Loa. The park covers an area of more than 520 square miles and over 150 miles of hiking trails. Due to the presence of the volcanoes and the rare flora and fauna in the park, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
There is so much to see and do at the park that you need to spend a minimum of 2 to 3 days to fully explore it. Exploring both Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes is a must. On the way, you can see hardened recent lava flows. The rocky landscape resembles that of a moon and you cannot see any vegetation for miles.
You can also visit the unique Nahuku – Thurston Lava Tube, located on the Kilauea crater. This fascinating cave was formed by lava flowing out to the sea over 500 years ago. Volcanoes National Park is also known for its two scenic drives, the Chain of Craters Road and Crater Rim Drive. Visitors can also go backcountry hiking to explore the park beyond the popular attractions.
Redwoods National & State Park
Redwood National and State Park is an entire complex of several parks located in Northern California. These parks preserve ancient coastal redwood forests and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The park complex consists of Redwood National Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park along the Pacific Coast. The parks cover an area of approximately 140,000 acres and preserve 45% of old-growth redwood forests.
Famous as home to the world’s tallest trees, the parks draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. They are popular to visit during the summer holidays because of the available hiking, biking, and horseback riding over 200 miles of park trails. Visitors can explore old-growth temperate rainforests, prairie grasslands, rivers and streams, and the craggy coastline while in the parks.
Looking for a hiking adventure? Hike the 0.5 miles long Fern Canyon in Prarie Creek Redwoods State Park. You will be walking between 50-foot walls of ferns that surround the Home Creek on each side. Feels scary and primeval? This was a filming locale for the movie The Lost World: Jurassic Park!
You can also take the Newton B. Drury Scenic Drive, which passes through the redwood forests and open meadows, which is a habitat for Roosevelt elks. Another popular attraction is the Wilson Creek Beach at Del Norte Park.
Known as the American Alps, North Cascades is the perfect spot for outdoor lovers. The park consists of 3 units: North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. All 3 units are an easy day’s trip from Seattle.
The parks together cover an area of more than 500,000 acres and are home to over three hundred glaciers, wildflowers, glacier-fed turquoise lakes, and old-growth forests. Diablo Lake Overlook is one of the most popular spots to visit while in the Ross Lake area. Visitors can enjoy outdoor activities such as kayaking and canoeing on the lake during summer.
Popular hiking trails include Ladder Creek Falls Trail and Sterling Munro Trail. Washington Pass Overlook on North Cascades Highway has the most beautiful bird’s eye view over the parks. In winter, the park attracts skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and snowboarding enthusiasts.
Channel Islands National Park
Comprising five out of the eight Channel Islands located off the Pacific Coast in California, Channel Islands National Park is the perfect spot to escape from the busy city life. The park, while one of the least visited in the country, is just a short boat ride from Ventura and easily accessible from the Greater Los Angeles area.
The national park protects the rich marine life and environment in the Santa Barbara Channel. The five islands that are part of the national park are San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa Island, and Santa Barbara. The park covers a total area of 249,561 acres.
There are many things to do on each island. Visitors can explore the hiking trails and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. If you can visit only one island and hike only one trail, then hike the rewarding Inspiration Point Trail on Anacapa Island. The deep blue water, steep cliff edges, and distant islands on the horizon make this hike truly stunning.
Visitors can also try various water activities such as diving, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, etc. Channel Island National Park is also known for interesting sea cave formations. Kayakers can take a trip to one of the world’s deepest sea caves, the Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island. The park is also great for whale watching, spotting seals, sea lions, and other marine life as well as birding.
Capitol Reef National Park
Situated in the heart of southern Utah, Capitol Reef National Park preserves over 375 square miles of sandstone deserts, deep canyons, and unique rock formations. The town of Torrey is the closest town 11 miles away, however, most visitors see Capitol Reef National Park on a road trip from Las Vegas.
The most unique rock formations in the park are the white Navajo sandstone domes, similar to the domes on capitol buildings. These have earned the park its name, Capitol Reef. The park is divided into three districts: Fruita Historic District, southern Waterpocket District, and northern Cathedral Valley district.
Visitors can hike, bike, camp, backpack, drive, and go horseback riding in the park. The park is also popular for canyoneering and rock climbing. Another popular activity is fruit picking from the years-old Mormon orchards in summer. Fruita District is the most popular to visit while other two areas receive very few visitors.
Thousands of hiking enthusiasts from all over the country visit Capitol Reef National Park every year for its beauty and remoteness. The park has many backcountry trails as well as shorter one-day hikes of varying difficulty levels. Fruita District is the most popular for hiking. This area also has historic buildings, petroglyphs, scenic drives.
Joshua Tree National Park
To explore the striking beauty and wilderness of the Californian desert landscape, visit the popular Joshua Tree National Park. Situated in the southeastern part of California, the park has unique geography – the two distinct environments of the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet here.
The park is home to a variety of cacti, palm trees, yucca plants, and other diverse vegetation that has adapted itself to the desert environment. Covering a total of 790,000 acres, the park is a delight for rock climbers, hikers, and off-roading enthusiasts.
Scrambling over the bare rock formations, hiking to see palm oases, spotting ancient pictographs, and seeing the San Andreas fault from Keys View are some of the park’s amazing adventures. If you are looking for less intense outdoor activities, take a sunset stroll through the Cholla Cactus Garden and spot the flowering ocotillos.
Of course, you cannot leave the park without seeing the unique Joshua Tree which is native to the Mojave desert. The park is named after these abundant plants that thrive in the desert for miles. Located far away from city life, Joshua Tree National Park is also a fantastic place for stargazing. Camp in the park and admire the stars overhead as you feel close to nature in this unique landscape.
Mesa Verde National Park
Situated in southwestern Colorado, the Mesa Verde National Park covers an area of more than 52,000 acres. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most extraordinary and unique places to visit for history and archeology lovers.
The park preserves the homes of the Ancestral Pueblo people that lived in the area from the 9th century to the 13th century. These homes, known as cliff dwellings, were built on the sides of the cliffs and were several stories tall. The park protects approximately 600 cliff dwellings, dating as far back to the 600 CE.
On a trip to the park, visitors can see several of the cliff dwellings on ranger-guided tours. The most popular is the Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling on the continent. Situated at 7,000 ft elevation, the Cliff palace has over 150 rooms and is fascinating to visit. Something to keep in mind: the tours go over steep and uneven terrains and require climbing steep ladders and crawling in small spaces.
The park also has many hiking paths to choose from, such as Prater Ridge Trail, Spruce Canyon Trail, and Point Lookout Trail. Plan a trip to Mesa Verde National Park to step back in time, explore ancient archeological sites, and experience spectacular views.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote, island park located in the Gulf of Mexico. It is approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, and can be visited only via a boat tour or plane tour. Consequently, the park is one of the most secluded national parks in the country.
The national park comprises 7 islands or keys as well as the surrounding coral reefs. Fort Jefferson, located on the Garden key, is the highlight of this park. One of the largest fortresses in America, Fort Jefferson is built from over 16 million bricks and is a formidable hexagonal structure. On a guided tour, visitors can see barracks, fortifications, and walk around the moat surrounding the fortress.
The water surrounding the national park is very clear and excellent for snorkeling. You can see parrotfish, angelfish, sea turtles, eels, and other marine life. Other water activities such as diving, swimming, sunbathing, etc are also popular with tourists. You can also camp overnight on the island to enjoy its solitude. The park is also great for birding.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is famous for its huge sand dunes. The sparkling golden dunes combined with the backdrop of beautiful snow-covered peaks, dense aspen forests, and alpine tundras make this national park one of the hidden gems in the country.
Situated in south-central Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park covers an area of 149,028 acres. The views across the park are absolutely surreal, both during the day and at night. The dark sky is great to photograph the Milky Way.
Visitors can hike, run, sandboard, and sled down over 30 square miles of dune fields. Kids and adults alike enjoy playing on the sand. You can rent sleds or boards near the Visitor Center. Other park activities include offroading, horseback riding, camping on the dunes, kite flying, and ranger-led hikes at night.
Another popular activity in the park is climbing to the top of the highest dune and seeing the panoramas from above. The park has no actual trails to follow if you want to explore the dunes, so be cautious with supplies and avoid getting lost. The park temperature can get unbearable in the summer and it is better to plan an early morning visit from May to August.
Big Bend National Park
Situated along the Texas-Mexico border, Big Bend National Park is the biggest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert ecology in the USA. The park encompasses an area of more than 800,000 acres and is a favorite with nature lovers. Over 75 species of mammals, 450 species of birds, and 1,200 plant species thrive in the desert habitat of the park. Over 40 dinosaur species fossils, as well as other prehistoric animal remains, have also been found in the park.
Big Bend National Park is also known for its rich cultural history. Many Native American tribes, as well as European settlers, lived here in the past. The park has many archeological sites that date back to almost 10,000 years ago. Visitors can see the pictographs in limestone cliffs at Hot Springs, Indian rock art at the Chimneys trail, and the stone quarry at Burro Mesa Archeological District.
The park is an outdoor paradise. Popular mountain hikes at Big Bend include the strenuous Emory Peak Trail to the highest point in the park, the moderate Lost Mine Trail, and the easy and accessible Window View Trail. If you are not up for hiking up to the mountain peaks, the national park also has trails that go over the dry flat desert topography.
Choose the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail for an easy walk or the moderate Chimneys Trail or Dog Canyon to explore this unique environment. The park also has many scenic drives for auto touring. If you have limited time, drive the 6 miles long Chisos Basin Road or for a longer scenic route, head to the 30 miles long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. On both the drives, you will find stunning desert views, interesting rock formations, and historic sites.
We hope you like our guide to the best national parks in the country. Did we forget to include any amazing national parks in the USA? Let us know in the comments.