If you’re planning a vacation, forget the expensive, touristy spots. America’s national parks let you appreciate the country’s public lands, reconnect with nature, and spend time with those you love.
But among the dozens of parks, which are most worth your time? We’ve sorted through them all to find the group of must-sees for every kind of traveler.
How Do You Pick Which National Park You Should Visit?
One of the best things about America’s national parks is how unbelievably different they can be from one another.
You can explore the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park or the swamps of the Everglades. Or what about baking in the desert sun of Big Bend or getting iced down at Glacier National Park. You can even explore more urban parks like Gateway Arch National Park or slip away to remote expanses of the wilderness like Gates of the Arctic.
You just have to decide which you’d prefer, and what activities suit you best.
Pro Tip: Do you dislike the idea of crowds? Keep these two national parks off your list for now!
The 10 National Parks You Absolutely Cannot Miss
No matter what environments or activities you prefer, there are a few crown jewels of the national park system that you simply can’t miss. These ten incredible places offer some of the best landscapes, activities, and history that America offers.
#1. Glacier National Park, Montana
About Glacier National Park: Known as the “crown of the continent,” Glacier National Park is in northwestern Montana near the Canadian border. This million-acre park includes over 700 miles of trails crisscrossing various ecosystems from prairie to lakes to tundra and, of course, the park’s namesake glaciers. It’s also home to one of the national park system’s most famous scenic drives, Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Why You Must Visit: Remote and wild in a way that few other parks in the lower 48 states are, Glacier National Park is one of the most unique spaces in the national park system. There are very few other places on earth where you can see dramatic landscapes of lakes and mountains sculpted by massive ice sheets.
The park is also well-known for its various ranger-led programs. Most involve guided hikes that give you “behind-the-scenes” details of the gorgeous landscapes here and their history.
#2. Acadia National Park, Maine
About Acadia National Park: This breathtaking area along coastal Maine preserves mountains, lakes, beaches, and other diverse ecosystems. It’s all interwoven with signs of man’s impact, including small towns, scenic drives, and quaint lodges and cabins.
Hikers will love the challenging trails, and bicyclists will love the bike-friendly carriage roads with paths through the park not accessible to those not on two wheels.
Why You Must Visit: There are few other places featuring the dramatic contrast of mountains this close to the sea. We’d argue that nowhere else can compete with the preserved beauty of Acadia’s quality.
Plus, there’s no comparison to the only-in-Acadia experiences you can find here. Enjoy popovers at the Jordan Pond House restaurant. Take a drive (or hike) to the top of Cadillac Mountain to see the first rays of sun hitting the continental United States for part of the year. Or climb the iron-runged ladders up a rock face on the Beehive Trail. Visitors can even take a dip in the chilly northern Atlantic Ocean waters at the park’s famous Sand Beach.
3. Olympic National Park, Washington
About Olympic National Park: Olympic is home to three distinctive landscapes that make the Pacific Northwest famous: ocean coast, mountains, and old-growth rainforests. Just a short drive from both Seattle and Portland, it offers fantastic outdoor recreation opportunities for millions. Still, with over a million acres of land, you’ll have plenty of wilderness all to yourself if you so desire.
Why You Must Visit: Nature lovers will enjoy exploring the park’s tidepools and primeval, undisturbed forests. Both day hiking and extended backpacking will yield fantastic wildlife watching opportunities.
It’s also a great destination to get out on the water, with many top spots for boating, kayaking, and fishing. Visitors can also enjoy the rustic but comfortable lodges and cabins throughout the park.
4. Yosemite National Park, California
About Yosemite National Park: One of America’s oldest national parks, Yosemite is a nearly 1,200 square mile area of dramatic valleys, forests, lakes, and other habitats of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. But among the most famous are the massive granite cliffs, including the well-known El Capitan and Half Dome.
Why You Must Visit: One look at the one-of-a-kind waterfalls and unbelievable rock formations of the Yosemite Valley, and you’ll understand the allure of this remarkable place. Yosemite is also a rock climber’s paradise with some of the best camping in the region. Hikers can enjoy 750 miles of trails, and those looking to kick back can enjoy some exceptional stargazing.
5. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
About Grand Canyon National Park: Stretching through dozens of miles of northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon offers some of the southwest’s best hiking. Not to mention striking scenic drives and rafting for all skill levels on the Colorado River.
The park is divided into two areas; the more tourist-friendly South Rim, with hotels, restaurants, several visitor centers, and numerous scenic viewpoints along a paved road. This contrasts the more wild North Rim with fewer amenities but more diverse landscapes and pure solitude.
Why You Must Visit: It’s all well and good to see photos of the Grand Canyon. But it’s hard to truly appreciate the scope of this gargantuan space without seeing it in person. Visitors can easily experience miles of unique canyon views along the mostly paved Rim Trail.
But you’ll get the best views by hiking into the canyon on the South Kaibab or Bright Angel Trails. You can even take one of the famous mule rides down the canyon if you’re not up for walking.
6. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
About Bryce Canyon National Park: Head to this southern Utah park for some of the national park system’s most otherworldly landscapes. Bryce is primarily known for its hoodoos, which are distinctive spire-like rock formations. They number in the thousands through the park’s natural amphitheaters.
Why You Must Visit: Nowhere else on the planet can match Bryce when it comes to its hoodoos, and the park boasts lovely scenic drives and viewpoints to take in the natural wonders.
For those without a lot of time, Bryce is also doable in a single day or even a half-day, making it a worthwhile stop. Those who want to stay two days or more can enjoy the park’s challenging but rewarding hiking trails into the Bryce amphitheater.
7. Zion National Park, Utah
About Zion National Park: Zion National Park is aptly named as it centers around the breathtakingly gorgeous Zion Canyon. The park is in southwestern Utah, with views of unbelievable rock formations and the Virgin River.
The park also protects thousands of years of rich history, from the ancient Native Americans to modern Mormon settlers who gave the park its current name.
Why You Must Visit: Zion is not only the most famous of Utah’s “Big 5,” but it’s also one of the national park system’s most famous parks. And the hype is worth it. Where else can you wade through a river as canyon walls soar hundreds of feet high around you? And then you can hike a perilous trail to a spectacular viewpoint. This is exactly what you can find at Zion’s The Narrows and Angel’s Landing, respectively.
8. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
About Grand Teton National Park: Grand Teton National Park is in western Wyoming, protecting the most prominent peaks of the Teton Range and other nearby landscapes and historic sites.
Set to the south of the more famous Yellowstone, the park is especially memorable for its wildlife-watching, mountain climbing, and hiking opportunities, especially along its many backcountry trails.
Why You Must Visit: You can stick to the car and explore via the park’s scenic drives or set out on a multi-day hiking expedition into the wilderness. Either way, Grand Teton features splendid opportunities to interact with the natural environment.
Animals lovers will enjoy the chances to see wildlife like moose, bison, elk, pronghorn, wolves, and even bears. Those who appreciate history and architecture along with nature will love Teton’s historic buildings and districts, including the much-photographed barns of Mormon Row.
The park also benefits from its proximity to Yellowstone and the nearby ski town of Jackson, WY, nicknamed Jackson Hole.
9. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
About Crater Lake National Park: South-central Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park protects the deepest lake in the United States. Crystal blue water fills the massive hole created by a collapsed volcano. With no inflows other than rain and snow or outflows other than evaporation, the lake’s waters are famous for their crystal clarity and deep blue hue.
The park offers amazing activities in all seasons, from hiking and scenic drives to snowshoeing or sledding. You can also camp in one of the several campgrounds or stay in the park’s famous lodge.
Why You Must Visit: While there are many lakes in the national park system, none are quite like the vibrant blue of Crater Lake, almost hidden away atop a mountain. In addition to the one-of-a-kind views, Crater Lake also offers some unbelievable weather-related scenes, with iced-over snow frequently lasting well into the summer before melting!
Fishermen, take note: Not only is fishing allowed in the lake; it’s encouraged by the park service with no license required or limits on catches.
10. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
About Yellowstone National Park: America’s first national park, Yellowstone straddles three states and protects a massive expanse of forests, valleys, lakes, and most prominently, geothermal features like geysers.
Yellowstone offers activities for visitors of all tastes, from scenic drives and easily accessible viewpoints to extensive hiking and other exploring opportunities. And there are plenty of places to stay, from lodges to rustic campsites.
Why You Must Visit: Once you see Yellowstone, you’ll understand why people felt compelled to protect it. Not to mention, start the series of events that led to all of our other national parks.
Yellowstone’s Old Faithful is one of the most famous spots in the entire national park system, and it would be hard to call yourself a fan of national parks without seeing this monument to nature’s capabilities. It’s also a top stop for wildlife lovers–especially to see the park’s famous herds of bison and the occasional grizzly bear. Just don’t get too close!
Which National Park Is Your Favorite?
Each of the dozens of national parks offers something special and unique, but these ten parks stand above the rest in their natural beauty, historical value, and outdoor recreation opportunities.
So whether you’re a lover of the mountains, a devotee of the desert, or just love the varied landscapes of the United States, all of these parks are worth a trip. They deserve to make the cut for your travel bucket list.
But be warned–visiting them once may not be enough! You could get hooked on touring national parks as often as possible.
What’s your favorite national park on this list?