Amidst the generic tourist traps, countless museums, and theme parks, national parks often take a backseat. Year after year, travelers all over the world end up ignoring these natural attractions, not stopping to consider how much of a mistake it is.
There is nothing like the great outdoors. It sounds somewhat cliché but with all the hustle and bustle of crowded cities, escaping to a remote and tranquil location could be what the doctor ordered. And a visit to a national park could just be the perfect spot to get that much-needed rest and relaxation.
You would think that with the innumerable options, these parks would get better attention from the public. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Spending time outdoors, connecting with nature and just unplugging have all kinds of benefits, physically and mentally.
The shortlist compiled below is just a small portion of natural reserves to visit when stateside. Though just a handful, they are however some of the best national parks in the United States.
So put those gadgets aside, get into some hiking gear, and venture out.
1. Yosemite National Park
Best time to visit: Anytime. Park is accessible year-round
Home to giant sequoia trees, 3,000 foot slabs of towering granite, amazing waterfalls and epic rivers, Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular destinations in the US. Situated in the north — central portion of California, the park has been a well-loved attraction for many centuries. An easy favorite amongst national parks scattered across the US and for a good reason.
Summer months see the park busy and buzzing with activity, crowds gather from far and wide to explore the park on foot and on mountain bikes. With miles and miles of well-kept trails, and the fantastic Yosemite wilderness around, a month-long trek won’t even cover half of what the park has to offer.
Defined by its immensely large granite walls; the direct result of erosion and glaciation through the course of a millennium. The park’s indescribable grandeur is truly a sight to behold. Imagine standing at the bottom of El Capitan, looking up and picturing yourself climbing it in 4 hours (and without a rope to boot) just like Alex Honnold did back in the day.
Why not check out the bears and wildlife? Guests are advised to store their food properly, lest you want to attract the attention of the park’s residents. It might be cool to see a black bear in person but it’s best to keep at a safe distance.
Eager to try out camping? The park has campsites and of course a massive landmass where visitors can pitch their tents and sit around the campfire at. Just bring along an air mattress or a sleeping bag and you are all set for the night.
If you visit during the colder seasons, there’s an ice skating dome to practice your turns on. Families traveling with kids are encouraged to have the tykes join a ranger-led educational tour.
No matter what your age is, there’s something in the park for you to do. Obviously, a trip to California would be incomplete without a visit to Yosemite National Park.
2. Denali National Park
Best time to visit: Great anytime of the year. Perfect for snow sports enthusiasts to visit during the winter months.
Head over to Alaska and you will find the Denali National Park. This 6 million acre park is a wilderness wonderland of towering peaks, immaculate rivers, and rolling gorgeous valleys. For those who enjoy outdoor activities and adventure, Denali is loaded with options to keep anyone busy for several lifetimes.
With its sweeping dramatic views and awe-inducing landscapes, there is but one thing to do — and it is to explore. Considered by some as America’s final frontier, Alaska has so much more to offer.
Alaska’s remoteness offers a quiet solitude that is difficult to find elsewhere, certainly not in the cities. Those who intend on a multi-day trip for some backpacking or river exploration should come prepared.
The countless popular trails are a highway of hikers during the warmish summer months. The park itself is over millions of acres of uninhabited and untamed areas and jumping onto the beaten path is of no difficulty. Definitely a park worth checking out.
Other worthwhile activities include a bike ride around the many biking trails. There are shuttle buses available where guests can jump in with their bikes to get to spots that are a little farther from the visitor center starting point.
If you find sled dogs fascinating, you are in luck, these four-legged furry beasts are an integral part of the park, particularly during the winter months. The park keeps several dog kennels that guests can visit during the day. Park staff even offers demonstrations along with the pups. Just head over to the visitor center to inquire about this.
Last but not least, guests will be amazed to find a near railroad depot. Just adjacent the visitor center, the depot offers guess with interpretive displays discussing Alaska’s tourism and railroad history.
3. Everglades National Park
Best time to visit: November to March
If developers as well as politicians in Florida could have it their way, this World Heritage Site would no longer exist today. Nature, however, has an incredible way of protecting itself against such threats.
Virtually impossible to develop thanks to the very wild environment and swampy surroundings, the Everglades National Park is hands down one of the most biologically diversified parks open for exploration in the USA.
Find rare flora, unique bugs, venomous snakes and of course a healthy population of gators. Truly a nature lover’s haven, the Everglades that was once home to Native Americans continues to blow the minds of those who wander to this wild wetland.
The “backcountry” is quite a challenge for hikers with the vast majority of the park best experienced by boat. Regardless of the challenge, there are several trails that are sought out by many hikers.
Some examples are: Shark Valley Trail, Anhinga Trail, Coastal Prairie Trail, and biking trail to name a few.
Additionally, hiring a tour guide or boat to help you explore the wetlands in the Everglades is a fairly easy task. There are tours specifically catering to bird watchers, those with interest in gators and even services geared towards those who simply want to enjoy fishing in this swampy section of Florida.
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: On the border of North Carolina and Tennessee
Best time to visit: Any season, excluding winter
Fondly called GSM, this US national park is one of the most important ones. Data indicates that the park is the most visited one. Its close proximity to numerous east coast states has contributed to the massive tourist activity. Hordes of holidayers seeking the great outdoors, troop to the Smoky Mountains year after year.
With over 500,000 acres of protected land, this park is pretty large and is an ecological powerhouse of diversity. From the wide selection of flora and fauna that call the Smokies their home; the parkland is brimming with life. Deer, birds, rattlesnakes, and a few bears are typically spotted here.
Furthermore, this portion of America is teeming with rich cultural heritage from both Anglo settlers and the Native Americans. So much so, that the remains of old cabins and houses can be seen throughout the land. Guests are encouraged to try other outdoor activities such as biking, bird watching, zip line, whitewater rafting, and relaxing on a hammock to name a few things.
If a view is the only thing you are after then a ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel could just be the thing for you. Grab a camera and even a friend and hop onto a gondola. Sit back and marvel as the expansive land slowly comes into view.
5. Yellowstone National Park
Location: Wyoming with some parts within Montana
Best time to visit: Just avoid the middle of summer
Undeniably the most recognized park in the roster of national parks in the US. Yellowstone receives a staggering 4 million visitors annually. Guests come from all over the globe to see the unbelievable geothermal activity that has turned Yellowstone’s topography into something that is just jaw-dropping.
Experts have deduced that the volcano beneath the park could cause a catastrophic natural disaster should it erupt. For now, the volcano quietly contributes to the insane geysers found all over the park. The most famous of all geysers, Old Faithful with its bubbling pools of hot sulfur always draws in the crowds. Though guests may not take dips in sulfur pools or guzzling geysers, a swim in Yellowstone Lake is very much allowed.
Home to innumerable mammal species like the American buffalo and grizzly bears, the park still remains a crowd favorite and tops tour itineraries. Be reminded that although the park gets crowds, the animals that roam the park grounds are still wild and are very much dangerous.
No matter how tempting it is to take a selfie with one of these creatures, they are better photographed from afar. Don’t be the uninformed tourist who lacks enough common sense to stay a good distance away.
You should know that the only way to explore the grounds is by foot and it’s incredibly easy to find tranquil spots far away from the buzz and the flashing cameras.
The park is home to a variety of different hikes, including hikes that are suitable for all levels of fitness. There are also a number of trails that lead through beautiful scenery and up into some of the highest peaks in the park. If you’re looking for a hike that will take your breath away, be sure to check out one of the hikes in Yellowstone National Park.
6. Canyonlands National Park
Best time to visit: It is said that the most opportune time to hike here is during in the spring or falls when temperatures are between 60°F to 80°F
If you happen to have caught James Franco’s movie 127 Hours, then the Canyonlands should be a familiar sight. This adventurer’s playground is a natural erosion marvel.
Travelers shouldn’t worry as self-amputation is not necessary to experience this location fully. Picturesque desert terrain engulfs visitors the minute they step foot in this park.
Rock paintings done by Native Americans provide insight into the past. Sandstones that peak towards the sky offer a dramatic backdrop to an otherwise desolate space.
Not far is the Colorado River with turquoise waters contrasting perfectly with the red and orange hues of the Canyon walls. With absolute certainty, the Canyonlands is one of the top desert national parks.
7. Grand Canyon National Park
Best time to visit: Summer months bring in large crowds so if you are looking to avoid this, come between March – May or September – November.
If the landscape could talk, it would have more than enough to fill several books. Another popular attraction, the Grand Canyon has a geological history that dates back to millions of years. Before the colonization of the Native Americans by the Europeans, the area was a place they would visit regularly. Their presence is evidenced all over the park. Red rocks of the canyon stretch roughly 277 miles with the Colorado River flowing through it.
Its quintessential hiking trails, spectacular views and expansive wilderness areas are just a portion of the full glory of the Grand Canyon National Park. For a unique experience, consider going on a ride at Bright Angel Trail. Not just any ride, but one by mule. Since sitting on a saddle for an extended period can be quite grueling, guests are advised to bring along some camping equipment for an overnight stay. It’s not required but it is definitely a good option to have.
Kayaking down the Colorado River is an ideal sport for those thrilling seeking folks out there. It’s a good way to see this part of the canyon and is also an excellent way to cool down during a hot summer day.
Hands down the king of all desert landscapes, Grand Canyon has two entrances. Guests can come in from the North or the South Rim. Since they are far apart from each other, getting to the entry requires some driving. Of the two, the South is favored for its accessibility since the North has steeper elevation making inaccessible during certain seasons.
In the Pacific Northwest, Mount Rainier National Park is just one of the countless gems in the region. A magnificent specimen of a landscape where fire and ice meet. Rising over 14,400 feet, Mt. Rainier, a massive volcano is the highest peak in the park and is listed as the 5th largest in the US, not counting Alaska.
And yes, Mt. Rainier is in fact considered as one of the world’s most deadliest volcanos, so it’s no surprise that the park is gaining some attention. Slowly growing in tourist visits, Mt. Rainier National Park however, is mostly dominated by many locals who flock the trails regularly.
Lush and green all year round, the park’s damp and foggy climate makes outdoor activities very bearable. The spring and summer months bring about a stunning display of wildflowers, with green forests, and majestic glaciers. Needless to say, there is no shortage of outdoor activities for guests to enjoy. Unlike most parks, Mt. Rainier is just as enjoyable during the winter season with visitors enjoying a variety of winter sports.
9. Joshua Tree National Park
Best time to visit: Early spring is your best bet
Yuccas or Joshua trees as they are also known are in abundance in the area.
Situated in the Southern portion of the California desert, the park is one of the few places hikers can truly be one with nature. Far from the bright city lights, the wilderness of J-Tree offers a quiet reprieve.
Many of the park’s newcomers are often surprised to find the sudden transition between the ecosystems of the Mojave and Colorado. This SoCal park, after all, sits between the two, with the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert on either side.
Dotted with rugged mountains, huge boulders made of granite monoliths, a healthy population of cactus, and interesting long-abandoned mine shafts, there are obviously much to see here. You can be a rock-climbing enthusiast, avid mountain biker, or just a weekend hiker, whatever the activity level you are at, Joshua Tree has something perfect for you.
Individuals who intend on exploring the park by bike are advised to avoid paved main road which tends to be rather narrow and are without shoulders. Mountain bikers find it safer to cycle through the backroads and dirt trails.
10. Glacier National Park
Best time to visit: Come during the warm summer months to early fall
Hidden away in Montana Rocky Mountains is the Glacier National Park. Unlike any other parks, there are miles and miles of mountains carved from glaciers, pristine lakes, rich forests, seas of wildflowers. Snowcapped mountain peaks are just some of the beautiful sights that welcome guests.
Located in a far-flung corner of Northern Montana, Glacier National Park does not get as much attention as compared to the likes of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. However, those who do get the chance to visit will find that the park has a different vibe to it. How? To begin with, the average tour bus isn’t something that typically makes its way to this park. Instead, backpackers and hikers tend to dominate the grounds.
Included in the list of World Heritage Sites, Glacier National Park boasts of a diverse biosphere. This hiking dream destination is a refreshing reminder of the once untamed, isolated, and wildlands that make up the States. A bit on the off the beaten track but definitely worth exploring if you are a nature lover.
11. Zion National Park
Best time to visit: During the springtime and fall season
Don’t be fooled by Zion National Park’s barren lands and its red canyon walls. This park is just not your typical desert landscape.
With its slot canyons, refreshing waterfalls, emerald pools, unique rock formations and beautiful rivers, it is not just another barren landscape. Arguably one of the best scenic destinations especially for those who are on an American road-trip, Zion National Park is most definitely worth the stopover.
Take on the paths used by Native Americans as you explore this vast wilderness. With trails that impressively weave through hidden swimming holes, canyons, and awe-inspiring terrains. These impressive sights are the main reasons behind the humble 3 million visitor count the park receives each year.
Biological diversity paired with Zion’s rich history contributes to the park’s “wow factor”. Countless hiking trails for the novice and the experienced are ready to be explored. Get to know Zion’s red-orange canyons and clear waterfalls, just some of its trademark attractions.
Easily one of the best national parks in all of its 50 states, Zion should be on everyone’s bucket list.
12. Rocky Mountain National Park
Best time to visit: September, just as the snow has melted making trails and paths accessible.
Another widely recognized national park in the US, the Rocky Mountain is revered for its natural tundras, lakes, lush forests, and gorgeous peaks. From the mountain peaks, hikers will find themselves surrounded by a sea of clouds.
Meanwhile, the valley below with its grasslands is home to a large variety of deer and elk species. Farther past this grazing ground, park visitors will find trailheads that lead to Glacier Gorge, Sprague Lake, Hollowell Park, Storm Pass, and the path around Bear Lake — trail hikes that vary in difficulty based on the elevation.
Guests will also find the rivers nearby to be filled with trout and other wildlife creatures. Aside from treks, guests can enjoy the outdoors with friends and family by setting up in one of the many camping grounds in the park.
Whether you are into mountain ecology, animal tracking, or watercolor painting, there’s a selection of educational programs offered here and countless activities to try out.
Can’t go outside? Explore these virtual national parks right here.