Best National Parks
From the vibrant hues of Glacier National Park’s lakes and the endless rolling hills of Yellowstone to the brimming glacial landscape of the Rocky Mountains, there isn’t a stunning landscape among the U.S. National Parks that you’ll want to miss. Founded in 1916 by former President Teddy Roosevelt, the National Parks Service offers a plethora of experiences, breathtaking views, and trails to millions of people hailing from all over the world. While there are so many amazing places to visit internationally, don’t sleep on what the U.S. itself has to offer!
The breathtaking scenery has inspired the works of countless artists including Ansel Adams (photographer) and Rudyard Kipling (author of The Jungle Book). Founded in 1916, the National Park Service is celebrating its centennial year, and there has never been a better time to embark upon an adventure of a lifetime, see the wildlife unlike ever before, and experience the visually stunning scenery that the National Parks offer. Biking or hiking, canoeing or driving, there are so many ways to explore them all!
Lastly, consider the costs! Recent reports show that a typical family vacation can now cost more than $4,000. However, the average American lives within one day’s drive of a U.S. National Park. So for a tank of gas and the very reasonable 7-day family National Park pass cost of at most $30, you’ll on your way!
Before you go, decide what kind of adventure you want. For large families, a cabin or an RV may be a good way to go. For those looking to experience the deep wild, you may want to pack a tent and backpack the terrain. If you are planning on staying overnight at any of the national parks, call ahead of time to reserve a spot, whether it’s at a campground, a cabin, or a hotel. This is particularly important during the peak season of summer, as many places fill up several weeks in advance. Activities such as whitewater rafting at the Grand Canyon or climbing the Half Dome at Yosemite National Park may need reservations several months or more in advance.
Remember to check the weather of the park beforehand so you dress accordingly, but keep in mind that as you hike and move around, your body temperature will rise. Also, always pack several quarts of water (at least one per person) and several snacks because some of the trails will be long and strenuous. Bringing your own meals is also encouraged.
Finally, keep a camera handy! You’ll want to capture the scenery of these parks as you go. If you’re still uncertain about which national parks to visit, we’ve picked out the top ten below!
Death Valley National Park
Don’t let the name fool you! Death Valley is home to a diversity of life. While the park is below sea-level and the weather is often extreme, Death Valley offers not only a glimpse into the incredible desert ecosystem, but also offers lush oasis and wildflowers during the rainy season. In late winter and early spring, Death Valley is filled with yellow flowers spanning across the area. You won’t want to miss the amazing wildflowers here!
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park offers a unique blend of two different deserts: the Mojave and the Colorado Desert. The Mojave Desert Area is filled with bare rocks and hills, sparsely filled with Joshua Trees, making it a fantastic area for rock climbing enthusiasts. On the other hand, the Colorado Desert is a desert dune filled with cacti and shrubs. These two distinct features of the park make it an incredible area to explore. Its desert atmosphere also makes it a one-of-a-kind place to stargaze. As two different ecosystems in one, be sure to add this park to the top of your list!
Glacier National Park
In addition to the immense glaciers that rest atop the peaks, Glacier National Park is also home to rugged mountains and pristine blue lakes. The hues of the lake change multiple times throughout the day and turn spectacularly aquamarine during the daytime. If you enjoy hiking be sure to hike the trails around Logan Pass, which offer a unique view of wildlife, streams, and mountains. If you’re lucky, you may encounter a ground squirrel or a big-horned sheep.
Glacier National Park is also known for its scenic drive across the Going-on-the-Sun Road. While the drive is rather windy and narrow, you’ll encounter magnificent glaciers, lush alpine, cascading waterfalls, and spectacular lakes at every turn that will make the journey incredibly rewarding. From scenic hikes to drives, make sure you don’t miss the beauty Glacier National Park has to offer!
Arches National Park
Arches National Park may be small, but it’s rich in wonder and belongs on the list of best national parks. Not only does this park contain naturally crafted arches, but there are also large pinnacles, balanced rocks, and other magnificent rock formations scattered throughout the park, all carved by the winds and sands of Utah. Arches National Park is also stunning in its color. During sunset, the arches turn fiery red as the horizon fades into a pink hue. The textures and formation are unlike anything you’ll ever see. Be sure your camera is ready when visiting this park!
Big Bend National Park
Located on the west side of Texas, Big Bend National Park offers large rivers, canyons, and rolling hills that stretch beyond the horizon. This desert area contains hundreds of birds and cacti, each one offering a unique color and texture to this diverse park. One of the most popular day hikes is the South Rim by the Chisos Basin, which offers a glimpse into all sorts of wildlife throughout the park. Another popular attraction among visitor is the view of the night sky which many say is impossible to beat. Known for its dark sky during the New Moon phase, nothing stands between you and the Milky Way Galaxy!
Canyonlands National Park
Located only a few miles away from the Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park is almost an entirely separate world. This Park is a stunning place filled with countless canyons and buttes, all carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. There are plenty of scenic drives all around especially in the backcountry and each canyon you’ll encounter will leave you feeling breathless by its immensity. One of the most popular areas, Islands in the Sky, is a mesa standing over a thousand feet tall. It offers a unique glance into the sheer landscape of Canyonlands.
Yosemite National Park
As a highlight of the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite is certainly one of the best national parks. An area over almost 1,200 square miles, Yosemite is filled with deep valleys and Sequoia trees almost as tall as the city skylines that span hundreds of years old. Yosemite is a popular place to backpack and camp, and for some, it’s one of the best places to rock climb and raft. It’s also a landmark of the superlatives, from Yosemite Falls (North America’s highest waterfall) to El Capitan (one of the tallest granite monoliths in the world). Make sure you add this park to your next vacation!
Rocky Mountain National Park
With many of its peaks standing over 12,000 feet tall, Rocky Mountains National Park makes you feel on top of the world, quite literally. Filled with miles of alpine woods, wildflowers, snow and more, the Rockies are a breathtaking sight, featuring majestic mountain views and pristine lakes. The Trail Ridge Road takes you through a winding path across the Continental Divide, through the streams, valleys, and snow-capped mountain peaks. Of course, driving isn’t the only way to enjoy the park; the national park also offers several hundred miles of trails across these views. As John Muir famously wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Indeed, the Rockies are an absolute must for your next vacation!
Grand Canyon National Park
Over a mile long in depth and nearly 300 miles long, the Grand Canyon is an incredible window into the marvels of nature. Carved over a span of thousands of years, the Grand Canyon offers a look into the vast history and science of geography. There are also great trails on the South Rim , which has a stunning overlook into the canyon, as well as opportunities to explore the depths of the canyon by riding a mule through the North and South Rim. If you’re feeling adventurous be sure to try out the whitewater rafting through the Colorado River. To the far west of Grand Canyon, you have the unique opportunity to step across a glass skywalk, as if you are walking on air, with a breathtaking view of the canyon rim. However, if hiking isn’t really your thing just hop onto one of the helicopter tours to get a bird’s eye view of the majestic canyon and see everything it has to offer visitors!
Yellowstone National Park
Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park was the very first national park in the U.S. and is brimming with wildlife and beautiful landscapes. One of the best national parks, at every bend you’re met with a whole new scenery. Yellowstone stretches several million acres and offers views of geysers, hot springs, waterfalls and rolling hills. It is also home to a plethora of wild animals from bison to big-horned sheep.
There are many hiking opportunities, from easier trails like the Calcite Springs Overlook to more strenuous ones like Mount Washburn, each with its own beautiful views of waterfalls and hills. Other popular attractions include Old Faithful, a massive and “faithfully” predictable geyser, which spews a puff of smoke every hour. Be sure to keep your eye on the clock to be able to find a good seat as this famous geyser tends to attract many tourists that surrounding area will fill up quickly. Another popular attraction is the Mammoth Hot Spring; a calcium carbonate travertine terrace which looks like a waterfall frozen in time. Whether you are planning your vacation for one day or one week, Yellowstone is a park that you’ll want at the top of your list.