Writer Wallace Stegner called the National Parks “the best idea America ever had,” and it’s not hard to see why. The park system represents the absolute cream of America’s wilderness. For many visitors, they’re a second home, a gym, and a church, all rolled into one. Find your new favorite national park below, in our guide to some of the best parks in America.
The oldest national park east of the Mississippi, Acadia is beloved for its beautiful landscapes. Carriage roads and hiking trails weave around granite peaks and along the Atlantic shoreline, offering breathtaking views of coastal Maine. Trails tend to be low mileage, making Acadia an ideal spot for a family day trip. Don’t forget to pack binoculars: the park is packed with diverse wildlife such as moose, falcon, and even black bear. The park can get quite busy — over 2 million visitors pass through annually — so plan on coming in early spring to beat the crowds.
Best Acadia Hikes
Known for its harsh desert landscape and spectacular rock formations, Utah’s Arches National Park is one of the most iconic parks in the United States. Massive sandstone arches carved by a millennia of erosion are scattered throughout the park, giving the terrain an otherworldly feel. The 7 mile long Devils Garden trail is the best way to see Arches; it runs the length of the park and connects to side trails leading to Delicate Arch and The Windows. Due to its small size, Arches is not a great spot for backpackers. Backcountry permits are required, and cannot be reserved in advance.
Best Arches Hikes
The Badlands of South Dakota is rugged and barren, and distinct in the parks system. It is a geologic mecca, and is littered with rich fossil deposits. Hikers passing through the Badlands can expect to see an array of rock formations such as canyons and cliffs. Backcountry thrill-seekers won’t be disappointed, as the Badlands’ Sage Creek Wilderness Area has miles upon miles of empty, permit-free backcountry.
Best Badlands Hikes
Tucked away near the souther border, Big Bend National Park is a sprawling complex of outdoor activities. The park is a major regional attraction, netting over 300,000 annual visitors. Hikers can trek alongside the Rio Grande, wander through the forested Boot Canyon, climb high into the Chisos Mountains, and sink low into the south Texas desert. The backcountry features 42 permit-required campsites, and unmarked, off-road terrain. After a long day of hiking visitors can look up to the stars: Big Bend is an International Dark Sky Park.
Best Big Bend Hikes
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, located in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, is a popular spot for canoe and fishing trips. The wilderness covers one million acres of woodlands and wetlands, and straddles the Canadian border. Though Boundary Waters is best known for water activities, many of the area’s 250,000 annual visitors come to hike and camp. Boundary Waters trails take hikers on a journey through the North Woods and past countless lakes, seeing wildlife on the water, in the air and on the ground. The area is listed as the most visited wilderness zone in the United States.
Best Boundary Waters Hikes
Bryce Canyon National Park is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. High up on the Colorado Plateau, the park’s fierce landscape was slowly shaped by years of frost erosion. Fire-orange hoodoos dot the amphitheater with their odd shapes and bright colors, and butt up against dark green forests. An perfect site for a day trip, Bryce is best explored on its many footpaths and trails. Though relatively small for a national park, Bryce Canyon’s otherworldly feel makes it a favorite spot in Utah. Over 1 million visitors flock to the park every year.
Best Bryce Canyon Hikes
With over 337,000 acres, Canyonlands is Utah’s largest national park. The park has four districts, each with their own character. Island in the Sky is the most popular district, with miles of scenic drives and accessible trails. The Needles district features longer, more difficult trails, as well as access to Puebloan and Old West historic sites. The Rivers district is popular for canoe and kayak trips. But for the ambitious, experienced backpacker, the Maze district is a must. Not for the faint of heart, this district is defined by dead-end canyons, primitive trails and blistering heat.
Best Canyonlands Hikes
Capitol Reef National park was established in 1971 to recognize and protect its unique geology. The park encircles Utah’s 100 mile-long Waterpocket Fold, the largest such feature in North America. Capitol Reef’s name is derived from its geology: Capitol refers to the stately white Navajo Sandstone dome formations, and reef refers to the park’s many rock formations. Arches, canyons and bridges are common sights throughout Capitol Reef, as are historic Native American and Mormon landmarks. Backcountry dominates the park, and maintained trails often lead backpackers through trying geologic obstacles, such as slot canyons.
Best Capitol Reef Hikes
Channel Islands National Park is a collection of five islands along coastal California’s Santa Barbara Channel. The islands are awash with animal life found nowhere else on earth, and are cherished for their natural beauty. Tourists often snorkel the islands’ many coves, kayak into darkened sea caves, traverse the islands on foot, and watch the native sea lions play. Around 70,000 people visit Channel Islands National park every year, making it one of the less popular, though no less beautiful, of the national parks.
Best Channel Islands Hikes
The largest national park in the lower 48, Death Valley National Park is a park of extremes. The valley is 156 miles long, running between the Panamint and Amargosa mountain ranges. It is a unique and challenging hiking destination, and has few marked roads or trails. Summer hikers be warned: in July, the average temperature is as high as 116˚F. The park’s lowest point is Badwater Basin, which lies 282 feet below sea level. But a mere 15 miles away is the 11,049 foot Telescope Peak. Racetrack Playa is another notable feature of the park. This barren lake bed is completely flat.
Best Death Valley Hikes
Located in Interior Alaska, Denali National Park is home to North America’s highest peak: Denali. Formerly known as Mount McKinley, this 20,000+ foot tall mountain was recently renamed to recognize its traditional, local name. Conquering Denali—one of the world’s Seven Summits—is no easy task: expeditions generally last 20 days or more, and the annual successful summit rate hovers around 50%. For less hardcore mountaineers, Denali National Park still has plenty to offer. Trails blanket the landscape, giving backpackers views of the meadows, creeks and glaciers surrounding Denali, and breathtaking views of the mountain itself. Nearly 590,000 people visited Denali National Park in 2015, making it by far Alaska’s most popular park.
Best Denali Hikes
Hidden beyond the big cities and raucous beaches of Florida os Everglades National Park, home to the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Its fragile ecosystem of lowlands, mangroves and swamps is perpetually threatened by northern development, as are the park’s many endangered species. A few trails venture into the park, but the Everglades are best explored by water. Canoes, kayaks and powerboats are popular among visitors, who can camp year-round within the park. Campgrounds are available in the frontcountry and backcountry, though backcountry camping requires a permit.
Best Everglades Hikes
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve stretches out over 3 million acres of Alaskan forest, glacier and fjord. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and overwhelmingly comprised of wilderness with no maintained trails. Backpackers looking for an multi-day trip can make use of the park’s alpine meadows and coastal beaches. Casual hikers searching for a tamer trek should visit Bartlett Cove, home of the National Parks Service’s sole outpost within the park. Though the park has few hiking opportunities, it is perfect for kayakers. Paddling through the bay is the best way to see the park’s many glaciers.
Best Glacier Bay Hikes
Nicknamed ‘The Crown of the Continent,’ Montana’s Glacier National Park is a world in itself. The park stretches over one million acres of northern wild, hugging the Canadian border. Its twin mountain ranges, Lewis and Livingston, display the raw power of the park’s many glaciers: they were carved into their current form by eons of glacial erosion. Though the glaciers are quickly receding, Glacier National Park is still a remarkable natural landmark. Park visitors have access to over 700 miles of trails, and backcountry hikers can hunker down in one of Glacier’s 65 campsites. Both the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail cross through the park.
Best Glacier Hikes
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a popular summer spot for hikers, boaters and backpackers in the Southwest. The area’s dominating feature is Lake Powell, a massive artificial lake created in the 1960’s by the construction of the Glen Canyon dam. In addition to water sports, the million acre national recreation area has plenty of geologic features for hikers to explore. Rainbow Bridge National Monument — one of the largest known natural bridges in the world — is administered by Glen Canyon. The monument is located within Navajo Tribal lands.
Best Glen Canyon Hikes
Located in Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park protects and commemorates the Grand Canyon, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. The massive canyon was carved out over millions of years by the mighty Colorado River, which still flows on the canyon floor. Every year millions of tourists come to experience the magnitude of the canyon, which can at times span 18 miles across. It is a geologic landmark as well as a haven for hikers and backpackers. Trails run down the canyon and along the ridges. Due to extreme heat and weather conditions, Grand Canyon hikes are potentially dangerous.
Best Grand Canyon Hikes
Located in northwest Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park spans 310,000 acres. It is a popular park, receiving approximately 2.5 million visitors annually. Even so, its remote, grand ranges are excellent for backpacking. The park encompasses 200 miles of trail, with terrain ranging from flat and easy, to steep, challenging ascents of the mountain passes. Among the dozen glaciers within the park is The Teton Glacier, which sits below the northeast face of the Grand Teton, the park’s namesake peak. The Grand Teton, which rises above 13,000 feet elevation, attracts 4,000 climbers annually. It is a classic destination in American alpinism.
Best Grand Teton Hikes
Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the largest sand dunes on the continent. Located in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, Great Sand Dunes sits at the base of the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Range. The dunes are thought to be about 500,000 years old, and are composed of sediment washed away by the Rio Grande. Medano Creek runs along the side of the 30 square-mile dune-field. Great Sand Dunes is a major summer tourist draw, and the creek-bed is often packed with tourists basking in the mid-mountain sands.
Best Great Sand Dunes Hikes
One of the most popular national parks in the United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is awash with tourists. It brings in over 10 million annual visitors, many coming to experience its famous scenic drives. The park spans across Tennessee and North Carolina border, and is a part of the Blue Ridge Mountain Range. Family-friendly trails with easy terrain run through the park, as does a section of the Appalachian Trail. History buffs also enjoy Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for it has many historic buildings and landmarks. To escape the crowds, avoid the park during the busy summer months.
Best Great Smoky Mountains Hikes
Located on the island of Maui in Hawaii, Haleakala National Park is home to a huge shield volcano. The park was established in 1961 by an act of congress. The park’s namesake volcano is responsible for 75% of Maui’s landmass, though it is currently dormant. Park visitors often hike to the volcano’s summit early in the morning to watch the sunrise, and others stay out late into the night to watch the skies. Spectacular hikes and drives wind around the park’s unique geologic and volcanic features, and give visitors a sense of the power of the volcano. Over half of the park is designated wilderness.
Best Haleakala Hikes
Far beyond Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a collection of over 400 northwestern Lake Superior islands that together comprise Isle Royale National Park. The park covers half a million acres, though its remote location makes it among the least visited of all national parks. Isle Royale has a variety of day hiking and overnight camping options, many of its 36 designated wilderness campsites can be reached only by kayak or canoe. Isle Royale National Park is notable for its unique ecosystem: just under half of the 40 mainland mammals can be found on the island.
Best Isle Royale Hikes
Located in southeast California, Joshua Tree National Park is best known for its desert views and bouldering opportunities. But the park, which includes parts of the Colorado Desert and Mojave Desert, is a mecca for desert backpackers. Over half of Joshua Tree National Park is wilderness, replete with many backcountry campsites and trailheads. The native Joshua tree thrives in the high elevation and cool temperatures of the Mojave desert, and give the park its name. Joshua Tree is also famous for its geologic features: large piles of spherical boulders are popular among rock climbers, who flock to the park during the Yosemite offseason. Joshua Tree’s night skies are free of light pollution, and an excellent location for star gazers.
Best Joshua Tree Hikes
Kenai Fjords National park covers 600,000 acres of southern Alaskan wilderness. The park’s dominating feature is the 700 square mile Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the United States. Most of the action at this park takes place on the water, where boat tours guide visitors through fjords and past calving glaciers. There are few maintained trails in the park, and most of the backcountry is uncharted wilderness. Off-trail hiking is not recommended.
Best Kenai Fjords Hikes
Kings Canyon National Park, established in 1940, is an excellent choice for hikers of all types. Located in the Sierra Nevada range, the park connects directly with Sequoia National Park to its south. The parks share hundreds of miles of marked trails, both within wilderness designated zones and outside. Backcountry travel is a popular within Kings Canyon. It is the best way to experience the parks geologic features and giant sequoias.
Best Kings Canyon Hikes
Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park is a goldmine of volcanic features. At the center of the park is a plug-dome volcano known as Lassen Peak, one of only two volcanoes in the Lower 48 to have erupted since 1900. Every type of volcano can be be found within Lassen, as can many distinct hydrothermal features such as hot springs and mud pits. All can be seen by way of the park’s many trails, both for day hikers and backpackers. The park receives around 400,000 annual visitors, and it is crossed by the Pacific Crest Trail.
Best Lassen Volcanic Hikes
Mount Rainier National Park’s namesake peak towers over the surrounding landscape. At over 14,000 feet elevation it is the highest peak in the Cascade Range, and a popular destination for experienced experienced backpackers and climbers. Day hikers can travel across 260 miles of marked trail, taking in views of subalpine meadows and old-growth forest. Getting to the top of Rainier is no easy task: trips can take anywhere from 4 to 6 days depending on the route, and may require ice climbing. Mount Rainier is visible from Seattle, and the parks attracts over 1 million annual visitors.
Best Rainier Hikes
North Cascades National Park showcases the jagged peaks, sprawling forests and imposing glaciers of Washington state’s North Cascades Range. The vast majority of the park is designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness, giving North Cascades a raw and undeveloped feel. North Cascades is three hours drive time from Seattle. Hikers and backpackers love North Cascades for its pristine, relatively uncrowded trails, and rugged backcountry.
Best North Cascades Hikes
Olympic National Park encompasses nearly one million acres, and receives nearly three million visitors annually. A vast majority of the park has been designated as the Olympic Wilderness, untouched by buildings or roads. The park has four distinct environments: Pacific coastline, alpine tundra, temperate rainforest, and drier forests created by the Olympic Mountains’ rain shadow. At the center of the park is the 7,980 foot Mount Olympus — one of the most heavily glaciated peaks outside of the Cascade Range. Most of the park’s highest peaks can be reached only on foot, as no roads run deep into the park. The park’s two rainforests, the Hoh and Quinault, receive over 150 inches of precipitation a year.
Best Olympic Hikes
Located in northern California, Redwood National Park preserves much of the world’s remaining coastal redwoods. The trees — revered for their towering height, astounding mass and staggering longevity — are found in old-growth rainforests along the pacific coast, almost exclusively in California. Redwood National Park was designated in 1968, and grew in size through a series of state and federal land acquisitions. It is now covers over 110,000 acres of endangered forest land. Hikers, campers and backpackers can traverse the park on 200 miles of trails. Long under threat by commercial loggers, these behemoth trees are best experienced in person.
Best Redwood Hikes
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is one of America’s classic backpacking destinations. From woodland to alpine tundra, the park’s varied environments make for excellent hiking. The rugged peaks of the Front Range dominate the park, which offers 349 miles of trails, 150 lakes, and 60 named peaks over 12,000 feet elevation. Long’s Peak, at 14,259, is the park’s highest. The Continental Divide runs through the park, splitting its western and eastern regions. The eastern portion tends to be drier, with heavier snowpack and more rugged peaks, while the western portion is more lush and forested.
Best Rocky Mountain Hikes
Southern California’s Sequoia National Park is famous for its old-growth forests. One giant sequoia known as the General Sherman Tree, is among the largest trees on Earth. Portions of the Sierra Nevada Range run through Sequoia, and most of the park is backcountry wilderness. Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48, stands on the park’s eastern border. Famous Long Trails such as the John Muir Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the High Sierra Trail also traverse the park. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park share hundreds of miles of trails popular with day hikers and backpackers alike. Much of the landscape still looks as it did before Western settlement occurred.
Best Sequoia Hikes
Shenandoah National Park is best known for Skyline Drive, the National Scenic Byway that runs the length of this long, narrow park. The views of Shenandoah Valley from Skyline Drive may be beautiful, but the experience out in the woods are far more memorable. Shenandoah follows the path of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and protects spans of wilderness where black bears still roam. The park’s trail system spans 500 miles, including a 101-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail. The park is also famous for its many waterfalls, some of which rise 80 feet high.
Best Shenandoah Hikes
Southeastern Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is absolutely massive. The park covers an area larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined, with a wilderness larger than any other in the United States. It is a rugged park, defined by towering mountains, infinite ice-fields, unstoppable glaciers and dormant volcanoes. The park is so expansive and remote that many travelers, unable to trek through Wrangell-St. Elias’s interior, see the park from above in air taxis. The backcountry has few marked or maintained trails, and backpackers must forge their own path through the wild. Backpacking trips often stretch into weeks.
Best Wrangell-St. Elias Hikes
The Granddaddy of the parks system, Yellowstone National Park is the one that started it all. Established in 1872, it is the world’s first national park. It sits atop the Yellowstone hotspot, and is one of the largest supervolcanos on the planet. Geothermal activity produces Yellowstone’s signature geysers and hot springs. Yellowstone spans two million acres in three different states, and is a part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the continent’s last remaining intact ecosystems. Yellowstone’s sprawling backcountry attracts many backpackers hoping to explore and experience the raw wilderness it preserves.
Best Yellowstone Hikes
Yosemite National Park is the second oldest park in the United States, and one of the most famous. It is located within California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and covers over one thousand square miles. Millions of tourists visit the park every year, though the majority explore no further than Yosemite Valley, the park’s iconic site. The valley is home to famous rock formations such as El Capitan, Sentinel Dome and Half Dome. Beyond the packed trails of the valley are vast expanses of designated wilderness through which hundreds of miles of trails run. During peak summer months, expect long lines and little parking in Yosemite Valley.
Best Yosemite Hikes
Utah’s Zion National Park is a geologic wonder. The park is a part of the Grand Staircase rock formation that runs from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon, and is famous of its white sandstone cliffs. Zion Canyon, the park’s central feature, was carved out over millions of years by the Virgin River. Hikers from around the United States and the world flock to Zion every year to experience Angel’s Landing and the Narrows, the park’s signature hikes. Backpackers looking to escape the blistering crowds flowing through Utah’s most popular park need not fear. Beyond the busy trailheads lay miles of wild backcountry, replete with mesas, slot canyons and arches.