The Best National Parks in the U.S.A. You Must Visit
On August 25, 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act”, creating a tradition to secure, protect and maintain the country’s natural wonders and historical sites. Yellowstone was America’s first national park and the most recent addition to the 59 federally protected areas is Pinnacles National Park.
These sites preserve and highlight the stunning beauty to be found in America and are definitely bucket list material. See iconic Half Dome at Yosemite or witness the remaining remnants of Appalachian culture at Great Smoky Mountains. While each have their own unique draw, the locations in GAYOT’s list of Top 10 U.S. National Parks offer rich and varied natural experiences, unparalleled scenery and exciting activities.
And for more unforgettable getaways, don’t miss our selection of bucket list destinations around the world!
1. Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon in Utah stands alone among natural phenomena with its vibrant red rock structures and spires that are hundreds of feet tall.
The horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters that make up the park provide stunning views of the hoodoos: unique geological formations shaped like oversized totem poles that are a result of frost weathering and erosion. While most visitors experience the scenic drive with access to 14 viewpoints along the way, Bryce Canyon’s magical beauty is best seen on foot.
With eight marked trails, most of which can be hiked in less than a day, and two overnight hiking trails that require backcountry permits, there are plenty of areas to explore from within. For an elevated experience, opt to see the park on horseback for a day. Canyon Trail Rides offers a two-hour tour of the canyon floor and half-day expeditions with views of the Wall of Windows in the Peekaboo Loop and 1,600-year-old Bristlecone Pine trees.
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2. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Situated in the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, far away from city lights — or any lights, really — Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a great place to view the night sky in a whole new way.
The park offers full moon and star party tours to take in the natural illumination, but the real highlights are the 119 absolutely marvelous caves formed by sulfuric acid that has eaten away at the limestone. The rock formations and stunning cathedral-like interiors are nearly without rival. Visitors can take guided and unguided tours of the Hall of the White Giant and the Spider Cave, and watch Mexican free-tailed bats burst from Carlsbad Cavern at dusk in the summertime.
See it on a map: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Albuquerque NM 88220 U.S.A.
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3. Denali National Park
For overachievers who always need to be at the top, Denali National Park is a choice destination.
It’s home to Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America. The area’s myriad landscapes, from deciduous taiga forests to glaciers, rocky terrain and snow-covered mountains, change with the seasons. Visitors enjoy mountaineering and backpacking in the warmer summer months, and in the snowy winters, dog sledding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling bring in a different group of travelers. A 92-mile road runs east to west through the park, though it is only available for driving in the summer months, and just the first 15 miles are accessible by personal passenger vehicles.
From that point, concessionary buses take visitors deeper into the park and air taxis take the most intrepid of explorers into the mountains where they can land atop a glacier. There are plenty of campgrounds for those who don’t mind the nighttime chill, but the luxury-minded would enjoy a stay at Camp Denali, which boasts sweeping views and was inspired by the homesteader lifestyle.
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4. Everglades National Park
As the largest subtropical wilderness and the third largest national park in the United States, Everglades National Park is in a league of its own.
First created to protect a fragile ecosystem, it is home to 36 endangered species including the Florida panther, American crocodile and West Indian manatee. Immersing yourself in the wild with a canoe or kayak excursion or an airboat safari is the best way to get inside the world of the Everglades.
High season is December through March when temperatures take a dip and mosquitoes aren’t as bloodthirsty. The park has miles of biking and walking trails for all levels of skill, a 15-mile bike loop at the Shark Valley entrance, as well as tram tours year-round. For a different view of the Everglades, consider staying near the southern end of the park in nearby Homestead or Key Largo.
See it on a map: Everglades National Park, ,Everglades City FL 34139 U.S.A.
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5. Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park was established in 1910, with 1 million acres of land and 25 “active” glaciers that are constantly on the move due to thawing and melting.
The park contains more than 700 miles of hiking trails, including “Going-to-the-Sun Road” — a 50-mile walk that provides some of the most spectacular views of Montana, making it the most popular tourist destination. Located on the Canada-United States border, the park encompasses two mountain ranges, over 130 lakes, more than 1,000 species of plants and hundreds of animals.
For a taste of true wilderness, an overnight hike through the backcountry is a great getaway. If you prefer a warm bed and a hot shower, there are four Glacier Park lodges nearby, but be sure to reserve a room ahead of time as these hotels book up fast.
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6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Bordering Tennessee and North Carolina and covering more than 800 square miles, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s most visited.
Nearly 10 million people flock here annually to hike the countless trails, see the array of flora and catch a glimpse of the wildlife. The name “Great Smoky” derives from the patches of fog that settle over the range. This haze is produced by the vegetation that releases water and hydrocarbons into the atmosphere covering the area in mist.
The Great Smoky Mountains are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains and the park has made great efforts to protect its history. Seventy-eight historic structures are preserved, including churches, cabins and farmhouses of the people that migrated to the area during the late 18th century. Visitors can take in the view from the observation deck atop Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky, at an elevation of 6,643 feet. On a clear day, you can see hundreds of miles into the distance.
See it on a map: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nashville TN U.S.A.
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7. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
For a primordial experience, head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, home of two active craters: Kilauea and Mauna Loa, the world’s largest.
On Thanksgiving Eve 2007, Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, had a massive eruption. This eruption produced numerous new lava flows that significantly expanded its already existing lava fields. The event was so significant, it is known as “TEB” or “Thanksgiving eve breakout” among scientists. Volcanic activity on this scale has not been seen since 1990, when hot lava poured out of Kilauea, burying a highway, the town of Kalapana and its famous black sand beach while adding several thousand acres of new land to the shoreline of the Big Island. This spike has excited volcanologists and visitors alike with an unprecedented opportunity to study the dynamic forces at work.
The vivid landscape changes daily due to continuous lava flow. Be sure to check in at the Kilauea visitor’s center which has everything you ever need to know about the park including an educational movie, a fascinating three-dimensional map and a live ranger’s orientation. They will also advise you as to any closures of trails or roads — please heed all warnings as this is real nature, up close and potentially dangerous. The more you know, the more you will appreciate the marvels surrounding you. Visitors can participate in a number of ranger activities that vary from day to day, or you can simply grab a map and start exploring.
A helicopter tour (which focuses on the Pu’u O’o vent) truly brings home the grandeur of this landscape, while a boat expedition gets you up close and personal with the newest land on earth when molten lava flows right into the water. While you can easily experience the area in one day by driving through it, we recommend settling down for a few days near the summit of Kilauea. Located within the park on the rim of Kilauea caldera, the Volcano House offers 33 guest rooms, a dining room, snack bar, lounge and gift shop, along with cultural events and demonstrations.
See it on a map: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Volcano HI 96718 U.S.A.
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8. Rocky Mountain National Park
Hikers will rejoice over Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park with more than 300 miles of trails and the opportunity to gain some real altitude: the tallest of the 60 peaks tops out at 14,259 feet.
If you’re not a skier, but still want to take advantage of Colorado’s great outdoors, spend the day in Rocky Mountain National Park, located 65 miles northwest of Denver. This breathtaking beautiful natural wonder welcomes an average of 4.5 million annual visitors. The park’s Trail Ridge Road (the highest continuous highway in North America), open late May through early October, crests at more than 12,000 feet, and the surrounding 415 square miles encompass alpine wonderlands and stunning vistas. The highest peak in the park is Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet.
Taking advantage of the great outdoors, travelers can experience a field seminar or a free ranger led program to learn about the surrounding flora and fauna. Capture the beauty of the Rockies for posterity with a guided photo safari, get up close and personal on an “Elk Rut Safari“ between September and October or surrender to the sublime quiet and beauty of a guided safari in the winter. Other activities include fishing, camping, and superb wildlife viewing, including elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bears and mountain goats. If you didn’t bring lunch, two nearby resort villages tout many restaurants to satisfy your hunger: Estes Park to the east or Grand Lake to the west.
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9. Yellowstone National Park
Classic destinations always stand the test of time, and as the world’s first national park, Yellowstone certainly qualifies.
Most notably the home of Old Faithful Geyser, the park features an impressive collection of lakes, mountain ranges, canyons and rivers. Centered over the Yellowstone Caldera — the largest super volcano on the continent — the park is a singular destination for wildlife viewing in the spring, summer and fall, and is ideal for skiing in the winter. For a first-rate photo opportunity, don’t leave Yellowstone without venturing into the Hayden Valley, a prime location for grizzly bear sightings and bison encounters.
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10. Yosemite National Park
The indelible images of Yosemite National Park made famous by the photographer Ansel Adams in the early 20th century still pale in comparison to the real thing.
A half-day’s drive from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Yosemite cuts a wide swath through the Central Sierra Nevada, characterized by grand views, hidden waterfalls, glacial lakes and boulder fields. A backpacker’s paradise and a rock climber’s mecca, the park offers innumerable options for adventurers and casual naturalists alike. Yosemite Valley, home to iconic features such as Half Dome and El Capitan, covers less than 1 percent of the park but is the most widely visited. Accommodations range from basic campsites to the grand Château du Sureau (located outside the park) to a National Historic Landmark, The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly The Ahwahnee).