The United States is home to some truly unique natural sites. With otherworldly orange canyons, lush ancient forests, multi-coloured volcanic pools, and snow-capped mountain peaks — the US is not short of natural attractions to visit. With over 423 national parks within the country, it can be a challenge to pick which ones to visit. Here is our guide to the best national parks in the USA.
This article is inspired by our Rough Guide to the USA — your essential guide for travelling in the United States.
Spreading over one million acres, Olympic National Park in Washington State encompasses three ecosystems. At this park, you'll find rushing rivers and swirling ocean tidepools. Move further into the park to experience sweeping meadows of wildflowers framed by some of the most ancient forests on the continent. Finally, the park culminates in craggy, snow-covered mountain ranges.
Redwood National Park, stretching out along the coastline of northern California, is home to many giant redwood trees and endangered species. Fiercely protected –there are few roads to the park and none venture any real distance into it, while camping is strictly monitored. Here, if one is lucky, one can spot rare wildlife such as the brown pelican, bald eagle and northern spotted owl.
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park attracts ambitious and energetic hikers, who come to scale its spiky peaks. A particular favourite is Longs Peak, the park’s only “fourteener” (over 14,000 ft). The views from the top are simply magnificent, taking in shimmering blue lakes, emerald forests and stony, snow-streaked mountaintops.
The Giant Saguaro cactus is the universal symbol of the American West. Saguaro National Park, located near the city of Tucson, Arizona, protects the majority of the USA’s quota. Hiking and backpacking are the main activities on offer here. Beware, however, of the sweltering hear of the summer months.
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Teamed with its neighbour, Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park is part of Sierra Nevada's project to protect North America’s most famous trees – giant sequoias. The vast majority of the park is roadless wilderness and is home to some of the most ancient trees in the world. The largest tree of all, the General Sherman tree, is here, too.
Shenandoah National Park, near Washington D.C. is a popular retreat for city-dwellers. This park is known gushing waterfalls, sun-streaked forests and fresh, mountain air. A highlight of the park is Skyline Drive, which uns alongside the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is most spectacular in the autumn when the surrounding trees are changing colour most dramatically.
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Located near the northern border of the United States in Minnesota, Voyageurs National Parks is known for its beautiful forests. With its four large lakes and extensive web of waterways, the park encompasses a vast amount of water, making it a very popular area for canoeists, kayakers and fishermen.
The first national park ever, Yellowstone, needs little introduction. Here a stunning collection of geysers perform dizzying spectacles with boiling water. Meanwhile moose, wolves and bears traverse the mountain ridges above. At the heart of the park lies the Yellowstone Caldera, one of the largest active supervolcanoes in the world today.
Those on a budget can do no better than Three Bear Lodge which offers comfortable family-friendly cabins. For something more high-end and luxurious, try Yellowstone Village Inn.
Browse more accommodations in the Yellowstone area at any budget.
A red-and-tan labyrinth of canyons, mountains and monoliths, Zion National Park in Utah is a major rock-climbing and hiking destination. This park offes many well-established routes of varying difficulty. At the heart of the park is Zion Canyon, a spectacular gorge plunging 800m and 24km across.
Glacier Bay is a favourite stop for cruise ships. Many come to this park to see to its glistening icy landscape and snow-laden mountain peaks. The park encompasses 3 million acres of breathtaking glaciers, mountains and fjords.
An immense, jagged wilderness, Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park is one of the world’s most popular natural attractions, and one of the best national parks in the USA. A whopping five million people visit each year, and for good reason. Its central feature is its vast canyon – a vivid sunset blend of red, yellow and orange sedimentary rocks – stretching an incomprehensible distance.
Hotel Weatherford in nearby Flagstaff offers antique furnishings and is an elegant place when venturing to the Grand Canyon. For somewhere closer to the park, try Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams.
Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, located near Yellowstone National Park, boasts a pristine ecosystem. This park is known for its alpine peaks, clear blue lakes, shady forests and a large number of black and grizzly bears. The park’s Snake River is celebrated among fishermen, who come to try and catch the fine-spotted cutthroat trout.
Great Basin National Park is located in Nevada, north of Las Vegas. This park is a swathe of desolate, dry and mountainous desert land peppered with groves of ancient bristlecone pines. While here, visit the impressive marble Lehman Caves (visit by guided tour), ridden with spiny stalactites and stalagmites.
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This park – affectionately known as the Smokies– wins the prize for being America’s most visited national park. Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the park has over 1000km of walking trails. One of the best national parks in the USA, you'll find at this park gorgeous pointed peaks and the remnants of South Appalachian mountain culture.
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Encompassing Texas' highest peak, Guadalupe Peak, the Guadalupe Mountains offer beautiful vistas and night sky views like no other. Other famous national sights, such as Mckittrick Canyon and El Capitan can be found here. Visit in autumn to see the Bigtooth maple trees metamorphose into a riotous blaze of colour.
Gunnison National Forrest is known for its steep canyons. The Black Canyon in particular is one of the steepest in North America. As most of the rock climbing here is for advanced climbers only, visitors generally come to drive around the southern rim of the canyon for magnificent views down into the shadowy gloom.
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Along with its beautiful rainforests harbouring numerous endangered species, the highlight of Maui island’s Haleakala National Park is its dormant volcano. This enormous crater attracts daily visitors for mesmerizing views of both the sun rising and setting. Once the sun has disappeared, Haleakala, with its extraordinarily clear night skies, is one of the best places for amateur astronomy.
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Isle Royale is the largest island in Michigan’s Lake Superior, stretching 72km in length and 14km across. Accessed only by boat, the island has one of the largest wolf and moose populations. Hikers tend to attempt the 60km-long Greenstone Ridge Trail. However, there are plenty of diving and kayaking opportunities for those who want to spend time on the water.
A predominantly rock and scrub-strewn wilderness covering two deserts – Mojave and Colorado – California’s Joshua Tree National Park is best known for its namesake plant, the Joshua Tree. These gnarled, contorted trees are indigenous to the higher-altitude, cooler Mojave Desert. Vegetation aside, Joshua Tree National Park is an ardent favourite among campers, hikers and particularly climbers.
Although it can be accessed by car, Kenai Fjords National Park is a popular pitstop on cruises in Alaska. This park is home to the largest icefield on the planet, the Harding Icefield. This park is known for wonderful views of jagged and beautiful fjords. Spot sea lions, porpoises and orca whales gliding through the waves.
A steaming, smoking stretch of volcano-laden land in northeastern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park was, after a series of violent eruptions, created to protect local residents as much as to protect the land. The focal point of the park is the largest plug dome volcano in the world, Lassen Peak. Take a walk down Bumpass Hell — an exhilarating boardwalk trail round bubbling mud pots, boiling pools and hissing fumaroles.
For campers — try Manzanita Lake Group Campground – excellent for fishing and kayaking. For those who appreciate modern comforts, look no further than Highlands Ranch Resort — a comfortable place to stay in the heart of nature.
Some of the oldest human dwellings in the world are protected by Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. The sturdy dwellings were carved into cliff faces by Ancestral Pueblo people between AD 600 and 1300. While here you won't want to miss “Cliff Palace” — the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
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Of the total number of hikers who attempt to summit Mount Rainier, the 4390m-high glacial volcano in Washington state, only around half make it. It’s a tough climb, with the peak often shrouded in swirling, rain-sodden clouds. The rain is responsible for spring’s spread of wildflowers around the volcano’s rim and forested flanks.
Sitting below sea level, Death Valley is the lowest and driest place in North America. It is also the hottest spot on the planet, its temperatures reportedly reaching 56ºC/133ºF. With measurements like these, supported by its morbid name, it’s surprising to find that the valley is home to an array of wildflowers, fish and animals such as coyotes and roadrunners. Despite its low depths, the valley also sports ice-covered tips around its basin – it certainly covers the extremes.
Alaska’s Denali National Park comes into its own during the winter months. This park is massive six million acres with the equally massive Mount McKinley standing proud and tall in the centre. Snow and ice make Denali one of the best national parks in the USA for dog-sledding, skiing, snow-shoeing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.
Dry Tortugas National Park n the Florida Keys, boasts incredibly clear waters and a terrific mix of tropical marine life, the area is a haven for scuba divers and snorkelers. Here you'll find For Jefferson — an enormous, unfinished coastal fortress constructed – and never fully completed – during the nineteenth century.
The heart of Florida’s Everglades National Park can only be accessed by boat or canoe. This park is a complex ecosystem combining coastal swamps, estuarine mangroves and sawgrass prairie fields – to name but a few. There are hiking trails around some of the islands but these require a decent pair of wellies and a strong nerve. The ‘glades are home to plenty of beasties such as alligators, snakes and spiders.
The northernmost park in the US and approximately the size of Switzerland, Gates of the Arctic National Park is virtually untouched by man. There are no rail lines or roads in the park, only barren mountains, vast wild meadows, meandering rivers, migrating caribou and captivating skies lit up by dancing aurora lights. One of the least visited national parks, this area offers completely unspoiled nature.
The United States is home to some truly unique natural sites. Plan your trip to the US without the hassle of planning or booking. Our tailor-made trips are created by local travel experts and are completely customisable.
South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is one of the best national parks in the USA. and most visitors come to walk along the Boardwalk Loop. This trail is 4km and penetrates deep into the dark floodplain forest, which makes up the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood trees in the US. Visit in May or June to witness the glowing of the Congaree National Park fireflies.
The name gives it away: the deep, dark blue lake in Oregan’s only national park occupies a large caldera, the remains of a now dormant volcano. There are no rivers or streams running into or out of the lake, leaving the water crisp and breathtakingly pure. Trout and salmon fishing is a popular pursuit here, as is hiking and camping in the surrounding forests.
Located in southeastern Utah, Canyonlands National park is a chaotic, colourful wilderness of canyons, buttes and mesas. The terrain here has been eroded and shaped over the years by the mighty Colorado and Green rivers. The park is split into four areas – the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the rivers themselves – each one offering plenty of sporting activities.
The Waterpocket Fold, a spectacular 65 million-year-old wrinkle in the earth’s crust is enclosed in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. It’s a rugged and arid mêlée of cliffs, canyons, ridges, arches and monoliths. This park provides a dramatic backdrop to hikes, horseback rides and driving tours.
Discovered in 1898 by intrepid teenager Jim White, the enormous Carlsbad Cavern is the main attraction in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. There is a hiking trail to the cave or an elevator straight there from the visitor centre.
Of the eight Channel Islands off California’s coastline, five are protected under national park status. Despite being relatively close to the people-packed mainland, the islands have remained surprisingly isolated and undeveloped. It’s mostly water-based fun here: the complex Sea Caves attract plenty of kayakers and spear-fishermen, while in the winter months, migrating grey whales draw their own hefty fan base.
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Maine’s Acadia National Park is an alluring mixed bag of beaches, ocean coastline, granite peaks, calm woodlands and rippling lakes. The park covers Mount Desert Island, the largest island off the coast of Maine. It is also home to the green, lichen-swathed Cadillac Mountain — said to be the first place in the US that is warmed by the sun’s rays each morning.
Of the 2,000 naturally formed arches in Utah’s Arches National Park, Delicate Arch is the most famous. It features on the Utah license plate and the 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay was passed through it. This arch, and its less famous siblings, are all made of livid red and orange sandstone and are particularly stunning at sunrise or sunset.
Inca Inn is known for being a fun budget motel with comfortable rooms and disco-light showers. Located in nearby Moab, this hotel has affordable prices and an outdoor pool. Or, browse hundreds of fantastic accommodations near Arches National Park,
The black-footed ferret, the most endangered land mammal in North America, calls the wild and grassy prairies of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park home. These prairies cover what was once a sea bed, and many fossils belonging to mysterious sea creatures have been discovered. There is a fascinating fossil quarry and laboratory in the park that show off the most recent finds. This beautiful park is one of the best national parks in the USA.
Big Bend National Park in Texas is one of the largest, most remote and least visited parks in the United States. It’s the place to come for peaceful hikes, tranquil boat trips and excellent, varied birdwatching. There are many species of plant and animals here, both living and dead: archaeologists have unearthed fossils dating back a staggering 9000 years.
Despite the name, Bryce Canyon – in southwestern Utah – is not a canyon. It’s actually a series of bizarrely shaped, giant stone amphitheatres made up of red, orange and yellow hoodoos (thin spears of rock, also known as fairy chimneys or earth pyramids). Today visitors hike and drive to look out points around the park to watch the sun rise and set over this extraordinary, fiery landscape.
Yosemite is known for its stunning views. One of the best national parks in the USA, one can spend many days hiking through the natural beauty of this area. You'll find here waterfalls, towering cliffs, thick pine forests, peaceful meadows and more. Home to the infamous Half Dome and Old Faithful.
Kildrummy Lodge is a stunning private, 3-bed holiday home. Enjoy gorgeous mountain views from its balcony. Camping is also popular at this park, but make sure to book in advance.
We'll conclude our list of the best national parks in the USA here, though the list could go on for much longer. The United States has over 200 national parks that did not make our list. Dreaming of travelling to the US? Check out the Rough Guide to the United States. Read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and the best things to do in the US.
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