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National Parks have a long history in the United States and special meaning to many Americans. Before air travel was overwhelmingly popular people in the U.S. would load their families up and go on a road trip to see the natural beauty close to home. The best National Parks in the United States worth visiting are a testament to the diverse beauty in states from the rugged mountains in Alaska and Colorado to the alien landscape in the southwest. Visiting these top National Parks in the U.S. will leave you with a fresh love for what makes the states so amazing!
- 1 Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
- 2 Denali National Park, Alaska
- 3 Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
- 4 Yosemite National Park, California
- 5 Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
- 6 Channel Islands National Park, California
- 7 Glacier National Park, Montana
- 8 Big Bend National Park, Texas
- 9 Arches National Park, Utah
- 10 Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
- 11 Joshua Tree National Park, California
- 12 Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Jess Stom of Thrifty Traveler Tips
Nestled in the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado is one of my favorite national parks in the entire world, Rocky Mountain National Park. It features diverse wildlife from Big Horned Sheep to moose to elk and many other beautiful animals. The entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is conveniently located an hour and a half from Denver International Airport and features a scenic drive as you wind your way up into the mountains to Estes Park, a charming mountain town right outside the gates to the park.
Because of the high elevation, the main road through Rocky Mountain National Park, Trail Ridge Road, is buried under snow for most of the year. Though the park opens on Memorial Day, I recommend waiting until the 1st or 2nd week of June to make sure that Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in the nation, is 100% open. This year, they are still trying to dig the road out from under the snow as of June 1st. If you’ve never seen the leaves change, plan a trip in September-October to see all of the beautiful Aspens.
We love driving through the park and stopping at all of the scenic lookouts, waterfalls, wildlife crossings, camping spots, and hiking trails throughout the park. It seems there is an unlimited number of things to do in RMNP! Plan for at least 6-8 hours to make your way through the park on Trail Ridge Road. My personal favorite parts of the park are the very first clearing where there is a little lake with the mountains peeking through in the background and the very end of Trail Ridge Road, around 2-3 miles before you hit the Southern entrance because that’s where the moose like to hang out! If you drive down to Granby, you will also have a good chance of seeing moose in their natural habitat and it is an incredible experience. As you can tell, Rocky Mountain National Park has a very special place in my heart. If you ever need any recommendations for the area, feel free to reach out to me.
You can follow Jess and her adventures on Pinterest.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Susanna Kelly-Shankar of Wandering Chocobo
The first time I brought my father-in-law here he cried. He was raised in a city in India, with thousands of people surrounding him all the time, coming to Denali and seeing pure wilderness was something that moved him to the core.
Denali is raw and untouched wilderness. This national park was created to let everything, including the bears, moose, caribou, wolves, eagles, and ground animals within its massive 6 million acre border continue living life just the way they were supposed to. When you enter the park you have the chance to see wolves take down a caribou as the hunt in synchronized packs. You can see mother bears guide their cubs over their rough terrain as moose graze in the background. As far as the eye can see rolling green mountains lead away to North America’s largest peak, Denali. No matter the time of year the mountain is covered in snow creating its own weather pattern making those who see it blessed with a treat.
In order to remain a pristine place, only park service busses are allowed in the park, so you will need to book a guided bus tour of 4,8, or 12/14 hours. The further into the park you go, the more chance you have at seeing Denali and wildlife. I always suggest, as a born and raised Alaskan, you book the 8 hours. It is a long day, but you too just might be moved to tears. Of course, you can also enter the park on foot, but those who do must be equipped with extreme survival skills, able to read a map and know how to hike in harmony with animals and be prepared to defend one’s self from predators.
To get to Denali, you can take the train or rent a car and drive from the Anchorage or Fairbanks Airport. I recommend you spend at least 2 full days in the park. One day going into the park and the other enjoying the quirky Denali Village with historic pubs and good food.
You can follow Susanna and her adventures on Instagram.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Sophie Sanchez of Cosmic Chicago
Indiana Dunes has long been the quick and easy beach vacation Chicagoans take when they want to getaway from the lights and sounds of the city. As the nation’s newest National Park, Indiana Dunes was named a national park in February 2019, Lake Michigan is about to be the summer destination for everyone wanting to experience lake life.
Growing up, I only ever cared for and explored the dunes and beaches in the months that followed the long winters. Over twenty miles of soft sand and gentle lapping water along the lake shore is enough to distract even the most determined sightseer from the rest of the park. The famous dunes act as a buffer between the beach and the rest of the world, creating a wall of sand that requires a decent amount of effort to climb. Walk along the dunes, away from the parking lots, and you can easily block out the rest of the world and every other beach-goer, claiming entire inlets of sandy lakeshore for yourself.
I’ve since learned that when you leave the beach there is a whole other world to explore, a side of the lakeshore that offers you the ability to step back in time to before the skyscrapers, factories, and cities changed the landscape. Hike the dunes, and over 50 miles of trail, and you cross through forests in the sand, thriving wetland, and beach prairie. My favorite time in the park though is late summer evenings, when the light of the stars shines down on Lake Michigan. Light pollution is a serious issue, and Indiana Dunes National Park, local astronomers, and the cities surrounding the park have worked hard to find solutions to limit their impact and keep the sky as dark as possible.
Astronomy clubs from Chicago love the area so much that they work with the National Park Service to provide free public star parties throughout the year. Take my advice and spend a night looking up.
You can follow Sophie and her adventures on Instagram.
Yosemite National Park, California
Meghan Miranda from Meg Moves Mountains
Located in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the U.S. The famous Yosemite Valley, with views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, is the most popular place in the park to visit and can get quite busy in peak summer months. (Pro tip: Explore Yosemite Valley by bike to avoid the crowds on weekends and busy summer days.) If you plan your itinerary well, you can see Yosemite Valley in just a day.
But Yosemite Valley is just over 5.5 square miles of the 1,170-square-mile park. There’s so much to see outside of the Valley, including Hetch Hetchy, giant sequoia groves and Tuolumne Meadows (where you’ll find some of my favorite hikes in the park), that you really need 4-5 days to fully explore Yosemite National Park.
While summertime is the most popular time to visit, Yosemite National Park truly is a four-season destination. Yosemite Valley comes alive in the spring, when snowmelt contributes to high flows at the park’s famous waterfalls and the dogwood trees are in full bloom. The fall is one of the quieter times in the parks. On quiet fall days, you can relax on the banks the Merced River or wander through groves of giant sequoia without the summer crowds. Or visit in the winter to cross-country ski to Glacier Point, ice-skate with views of Half Dome or downhill ski at Badger Pass and see a side of the park most people never experience.
Stay connected with Meghan on Facebook.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Maura Elko of Cameras and Canvas
If there’s one park in the US that I’d recommend as a must see, it’s the Grand Canyon! It’s vastness and depth rivals any other landscape and is truly one of the natural wonders of the world!
Mid to late Fall and Spring are ideal times to go visit as the temperature is a lot cooler(it gets very hot in the summer!), and you’ll want at the very least 2 days to experience the South Rim, especially if you plan to do any hiking! I would even say 3 days would be best, more if you plan to also take a drive to explore the North Rim of the canyon(which is about a 4-hour drive away).
There are many viewpoints all along Desert View Drive, and it’s hard to say which has the best view-they’re all amazing! Definitely stop at the Desert View Watchtower, however, and right next to the main visitor’s center is Mather Point which is great for one of your first views!
Obviously, one of the main attractions is hiking and going down into the canyon. If you have the time and ability, hike to the bottom and stay at Phantom Ranch. You can also take a mule ride down!
You don’t have to go all the way down though if you’re short on time or out of shape. There are rest stops located at 1.5 and 3 miles down that will give you a good experience too. Also, if you’re not big on hiking or just like to go for an easy walk-no worry! The South Rim Trail is perfect for you!
One last thing I highly recommend is viewing the sunrise or sunset. You can take the shuttle out towards Hermit’s rest and view the sunset from any of the viewpoints there, Hopi point being a good one as it juts out the farthest giving you views of both the east and west.
You can follow Maura and her artistic adventures on Facebook.
Channel Islands National Park, California
Jennifer Melroy of National Park Obsessed
Channel Islands National Park is an overlooked National Park in California. The park is made of 5 islands in the Pacific Ocean across from Ventura. The islands are often referred to as the North American Galápagos Islands. The islands are home to an amazing selection of unique wildlife. The most famous residents of the islands are the Channel Island Foxes. These foxes have unique coloring and are the largest mammal on the islands.
Access to the islands is limited via boat and two islands offer air service. Island Packers offers regular ferry service to the islands. The two most popular islands are East Anacapa and Santa Cruz. These two islands are close to shore and make a great day trip. East Anacapa is a cliff island and known for the 10,000 Western Gulls who nest on the island. As visitors land on the Anacapa, they are greeted by the famed sea arch. The island has two miles of hiking. Santa Cruz is the largest island in the National Park. There are two ferry landing sites – Scorpion Ranch and Prisoners. Scorpion Ranch offers a range of activities from guided kayaking tours to scenic hiking opportunities such as Potato Harbor. Prisoners Harbor has a lot of hiking opportunities.
Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa are the best Channel Islands for camping. They have water and a regular ferry service. Camping on the Channel Islands allows visitors to more time to explore the islands.
You can follow Jennifer and her adventures on Instagram.
Glacier National Park, Montana
April Blaszak of The Unending Journey
There are some US national parks that constantly leave your jaw dropping from the sheer beauty all around you and Glacier National Park is one of those parks.
Located in northern Montana, Glacier is also one of those parks that can be appreciated both by driving and hiking. It’s famous Going to the Sun Road traverses the park from east to west. Along the drive, visitors can take in the iconic view at Wild Goose Island Overlook. Take short strolls to several waterfalls or another iconic viewpoint of Hidden Lake. Though the road is only 50 miles long, plan on spending an entire day on it as you’ll be constantly pulling over.
As great as driving is, the best way to explore Glacier National Park is by hitting the trails. And, there is a bevy to choose from! One of top trails is the Highline Trail (trailhead directly off the Going to the Sun Road). However, my personal favorite area is the Many Glacier portion of the park. The entire place is a dream. And some of the parks best hiking is found here, from the Iceberg Lake Trail to Grinnell Glacier. Just beyond stunning scenery! And, you may see moose or even bears in the area
And what makes Glacier National Park extra special is that it’s only accessible for a short period of time. Due to the massive amount of snow it receives, many trails and the Going to the Sun Road are open from late May to early October. When at Glacier National Park, you’ll find yourself smiling the entire time.
You can follow Jennifer and her adventures on Instagram.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Erin Mushaway of Sol Salute
One of the most beautiful national parks in the United States is also one of the smallest and difficult to reach. Big Bend National Park is tucked away in isolated West Texas. It may be small but it’s the only National Park in the country to house an entire mountain range within its borders. The Chisos Mountains offer a stark contrast to the surrounding Chihuahua Desert and make visiting Big Bend a truly unique experience.
There are 150 miles of hiking trails in Big Bend so pack your boots. Trails are divided between desert, river, and mountain, so if you select your hikes right, you’ll see all three topographies the park has to offer. Santa Elena Canyon is a short and easy hike along the Rio Grande in one of the parks most beautiful canyons. Mule Ears is an iconic hike through the desert. And the three best mountain hikes are The Window Trail, the Lost Mine, and the South Rim. The latter offers stunning panoramic views of Mexico.
Despite being in the desert, this park is teeming with wildlife. The mountains are home to black bear, mountain lions, and deer. While in the desert, watch your step. There are rattlesnakes (we saw two!).
Stay in the mountain lodge inside the park or rent quirky accommodation in the neighboring ghost town, Terlingua. It isn’t feasible to conquer Big Bend on a day trip, spend at least three days. You’d be surprised by how much you can do here from the hikes to even crossing the border to Mexico for the day!
You can follow Erin and her adventures on Instagram.
Arches National Park, Utah
Jamie Joyner of Photo Jeepers
I visit Arches National Park multiple times each year and never get tired of exploring and photographing the natural rock formations that include 2,000 stone archways, giant balanced rocks, and massive pinnacles. Arches in located in southeastern Utah. The best time to visit the park is during the cooler months of spring, fall and winter. The summer sun and temperatures are brutal against the slick rock environment with little shade.
If you only have one day to see Arches, then get up early to avoid the crowds and head straight to The Windows to explore the arches and windows in the area. After that, you’ll need to visit Devil’s Garden and hike the short distance to see Landscape Arch, which is the largest arch in the world! Spend the rest of the day driving along the scenic road to see and photograph the other points of interest. Delicate Arch is the iconic location in the park, but it’s a moderate 3.2-mile round trip hike, with a steep elevation gain. You can see the arch from afar at the Lower Delicate Viewpoint if you don’t have time to hike to the base of the arch.
One thing you must do when visiting Arches is stargazing. This area has some of the darkest skies remaining in the contiguous 48 United States. The best time to stargaze is during the new moon when the sky has no bright light to wash out the stars. When you visit Arches National Park, you’ll quickly discover why it’s one place I can visit over and over and never get bored!
You can follow Jamie and her adventures on Facebook.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Stephanie Withers of Stephanie on the Road
Shenandoah National Park, located along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, was my first experience in a National Park and I’ll never forget it. From the breathtaking views along the park’s famed Skyline Drive (the 105-mile road with over 70 overlooks that cuts through the park) to the 500 miles of hiking trails throughout the park, you wouldn’t believe the natural beauty that exists so close to the major cities on the East Coast.
Any day of the year, you could take a day trip and follow along Skyline Drive, stopping for a short hike or two. Keep an eye out for all kinds of woodland creatures. I’ve seen deer, black bears, wild turkeys, hawks and more. I highly recommend the Big Meadow and Dark Hollow Falls trails, but you can find trails of various difficulties and landscapes all throughout the park.
From March to November, spend the night in one of the park’s five campgrounds or three lodges. The Lewis Mountain campground runs right alongside a section of the Appalachian Trail, one of the most exciting points for me. From the campground, I hiked about a mile south on the AT and found a beautiful place to rest on a cliff face with a stunning view of the Shenandoah Valley that was clear for miles.
With so much to offer, I think Shenandoah National Park is one of the best in the U.S. Make sure to visit and I think you’ll agree.
You can follow Stephanie and her adventures on Twitter.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Stella Jane of Around the World in 24 Hours
I did not realize that Joshua Tree was a national park until an embarrassingly advanced age. My mother was an Irish-American rock aficionado, so I grew up thinking Joshua Tree was merely the name of a U2 album. Little did I know that a Joshua Tree is a fascinating plant with its very own national park located in Southern California. The best time of year to visit is definitely during the fall or winter. This is especially true if you are planning to go as a day trip from Palm Springs, which is as hot as Bono in the 80s during the summer.
You can’t visit this park without getting to know some fun facts about the Joshua Tree itself. The plant is a member of the agave family, and it mostly grows in the Mojave Desert. Nobody is 100 percent sure how Joshua Tree got its name. The story I heard on my trip is that Mormon settlers named the tree after Joshua from the Bible. But it’s definitely possible that this story is apocryphal.
Many people visit Joshua Tree National Park as part of a road trip through Southern California. However, since I cannot drive, I visited the place as a day trip from Palm Springs, California. If you are a non-driver like me, going with a tour is really your only option for getting there. I went with a company called Adventure Hummer Tours. It was a small group, just my guide, an English couple, and me. Our guide was full of facts and good humor, and he even played some songs off the Joshua Tree album to entertain us as we drove. But whether you go with a tour or on your own, don’t miss out on these stunning views from Eureka Peak! It’s one of the highest points in the whole park.
You can follow Stella and her adventures on Facebook.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Amanda Bowers of VeraVise
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in the beautiful Appalachian mountain region of Northeast Tennessee and is the most visited national park in the US. Clearly, I’m not alone in thinking it is the best National Park in the United States. I’ve spent my entire life visiting the Smokies; a tradition I have continued with my own children.
One of the best things about the Smoky Mountains is experiencing all seasons and enjoying something different in each season. In Winter, you can rent a cabin and enjoy skiing at Ober Gatlinburg. In the Spring, waterfalls like Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls are flowing freely and the wildflowers along every trail are a sight to behold. My favorite time of year is the Fall when the changing leaves turn the beautiful smoky mountains into bursts of color and if you want to see Elk up close, a drive through Cataloochee Valley in the Fall will bring them up close and personal. Finally, the Summer brings warmer weather, camping season, and opportunities to take a river rafting adventure on the Little Pigeon River. Finally, one of the reasons the Smokies are a great national park to visit is they are completely free. A historical statute passed when the park was initiated keeps the Smoky Mountains one of the few national parks with no entrance fee. As you can see, The Smoky Mountains National Park has something to offer everyone in every season and it continues to remain my family’s favorite National Park.
You can follow Amanda and her adventures on Facebook.