America’s national parks are beloved by travelers from all over the world; in 2017, they welcomed 330,882,751 visitors. The 59 national parks (plus hundreds of national historic sites, national monuments, national recreation areas, and parkways) overseen by the National Park Service (NPS) range from world-famous destinations to hidden gems.
In 2017, we published a list of some of the best national parks to visit, highlighting 10 parks chosen for their unique features. We received so much great input in response to that article that we have updated the list to include 10 more parks, based mostly on your recommendations. The following list has something for everyone who’s eager to experience the natural beauty of the United States.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Where it is: North Carolina and Tennessee
Why you should go: With over 10 million visitors a year, Great Smoky Mountains is the country’s most popular national park. This scenic swath of the Appalachians receives almost double the number of visitors as the second most popular park, the Grand Canyon. You can get around Great Smoky Mountains in your car, on your bicycle, on foot, or on horseback. Keep an eye out for waterfalls, historic cemeteries, and a large collection of restored buildings. Wildflowers bloom year-round here, and, if you time it right, you can catch spectacular fall foliage.
When to visit: The park’s primary roads are open all year, weather permitting, but secondary roads are closed seasonally.
2. Isle Royale National Park
Where it is: Michigan
Why you should go: Isle Royale National Park, situated on an isolated island in Lake Superior, is one of the least visited national parks in the country, and the least visited in the lower 48 states. This is partly because you can’t just drive or hike up to these trail-heads—visitors must take a ferry to the island, and a camping permit is required to stay overnight. Along with solitude, this park offers a plethora of water-based adventures like fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and scuba diving.
When to visit: The park is open from April 16 through October 31.
3. Glacier National Park
Where it is: Montana
Why you should go: Nicknamed the “crown of the continent,” Glacier is often called the most beautiful of the national parks. Beyond snow-capped mountains, reflective lakes, and dramatic vistas, Glacier offers an array of relaxing activities. You can observe the flora and fauna, drive the evocatively named Going-to-the-Sun Road, visit Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the Canadian border, and, in the summer, learn about the region’s culture and history from members of local Native American tribes.
When to visit: The park is open throughout the year, although portions of the Going-to-the-Sun Road may be closed due to seasonal weather conditions.
4. Pinnacles National Park
Where it is: California
Why you should go: If you’re a fan of emerging destinations, take note: Pinnacles is America’s newest national park, designated in January 2013. Ancient volcanic eruptions and seismic shifts created this diverse natural environment. Pinnacles features towering rock formations, caves, and numerous species of plants and animals. You’ll experience some magnificent views here, and you might even spot an endangered California condor.
When to visit: The park is open year-round, but it’s most popular for hiking in the spring. The NPS advises visitors to check the weather if hiking between late May and early September, as temperatures can reach dangerous highs.
5. Virgin Islands National Park
Where it is: U.S. Virgin Islands
Why you should go: A national park that’s not located in one of the 50 states? Yes! This Caribbean park covers most of the island of St. John, plus thousands of acres of the surrounding ocean. This tropical landscape is home to several acclaimed beaches and offers boating, camping, and snorkeling. Hiking trails lead visitors past ruins of the island’s historic plantations.
When to visit: The park is open year-round.
6. Yosemite National Park
Where it is: California
Why you should go: Most visitors drive into this popular park, but travelers who can’t or don’t wish to drive can simply catch an Amtrak train to the park. You can even take the train between Yosemite and Yellowstone to experience two of America’s best-known tourist destinations without relying on that other American favorite: the car. There’s a lot to see in Yosemite but, if you arrive by train, why not continue exploring with public transportation and take a Valley Floor Tour on an open-air tram? On the tour, park rangers cover history, nature, and other park highlights.
When to visit: The park is open year-round, but some roads may be closed due to snow from fall through early summer. In colder weather, a heated bus is used instead of a tram for tours.
7. Yellowstone National Park
Where it is: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
Why you should go: This geothermal landscape is not only one of the most famous national parks in America, it was also the first national park in the world, preserved as parkland in 1872. Yellowstone is famous for its geysers, hot springs, and bison. But there’s also snowshoeing, fishing, and guided backcountry trips with horses or llamas. Just beware of the bears.
When to visit: Yellowstone is open year-round, but some roads and areas of the park are closed seasonally, so double check your route before you go.
8. Everglades National Park
Where it is: Florida
Why you should go: As the largest subtropical wilderness area in the country, Everglades National Park is one of the top picks for travelers wanting to see diverse forms of wildlife. As you explore the park by foot, boat, or canoe, you might see alligators, crocodiles, greater flamingos, ibises, and maybe even a Florida panther or manatee.
When to visit: Everglades is open year-round.
9. Denali National Park
Where it is: Alaska
Why you should go: If you like extremes, you’ll appreciate the fact that Denali—North America’s tallest peak—has been called the windiest national park in the country and the coldest mountain in the world. Climbing Denali, the NPS warns, is a serious undertaking meant for experienced climbers only. But this park offers other challenging, snowy activities for visitors of varying skill levels, such as cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, and snowboarding.
When to visit: Denali is open year-round, but the park’s single road closes in winter. When in doubt, contact the park before visiting.
10. Arches National Park
Where it is: Utah
Why you should go: If you’ve ever seen a vehicle with a Utah license plate, you’ve seen Delicate Arch, the most famous natural attraction at Arches. But there are over 2,000 arches to be found in this 76,679-acre park, as well as countless other surreal red-rock formations. These fanciful structures make this park a jaw-dropping place to spend hours – or days – hiking, driving, rock climbing, horseback riding, and taking in the sights of this awe-inspiring natural environment.
When to visit: Arches is open year-round, and is busiest between March and October.
Have you chosen the National Park you plan on venturing to next? If not, maybe the next ten will win you over. Whichever park you decide on venturing to, keep reading for five tips to help you prepare for your visit.
11. Zion National Park
Where it is: Utah
Why you should go: For active travelers, Zion is a vast playground of slot canyons, towering multi-colored cliffs, and natural features with intriguing names like the Narrows, the Emerald Pools, and Angels Landing. This park offers multiple opportunities for challenging activities like canyoneering, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, and strenuous hikes through dramatic landscapes. That said, Zion’s not solely reserved for hard-core adventurers; there are easier day hikes, scenic drives, an impressive variety of plant and animal life to watch out for, and a lodge with dining options.
When to visit: Zion is open year-round, but some services and facilities may be closed or their hours limited at some times of year.
12. Grand Teton National Park
Where it is: Wyoming
Why you should go: The NPS calls Grand Teton “the mountains of the imagination.” And this park lives up to two very different fantasies about the ideal high-elevation vacation. On the one hand, there’s the rugged terrain; the Teton Range, Jackson Hole, the Snake River, and numerous lakes make for challenging conditions for hiking, mountain climbing, rafting, snowshoeing, and other activities. On the other hand, there are rustic-yet-luxurious accommodations (with options like a resort hotel, dude ranch, and private cabins) and opportunities to experience the park’s stunning scenery without the workout, like a 42-mile scenic loop drive and a tram that climbs over 4,000 feet, stopping at a restaurant known for gourmet waffles.
When to visit: Grand Teton is open all year, but some roads may close in the winter, limiting access by car to some areas of the park.
13. Grand Canyon National Park
Where it is: Arizona
Why you should go: The Grand Canyon is 277 river miles long, an average of 10 miles wide, and one mile deep – so immense it has to be seen to be believed, which is why tourists have been drawn to it for centuries. Today, most visit the relatively easy to access South Rim, but there’s more to this park than the dizzying view from the canyon’s edge. From mule trips into the canyon, to backcountry hiking and camping, to rafting on the Colorado River, there are numerous ways to navigate these 1,904 square miles of wilderness that many visit but few take the time to get to know.
When to visit: The South Rim is open year-round, though some facilities may close in winter. The North Rim is fully open from May 15 through October 15, and open for limited use at other times. Check with the NPS for information about seasonal closures and reservations, which may be recommended or required.
14. Rocky Mountain National Park
Where it is: Colorado
Why you should go: As its name implies, Rocky Mountain National Park lets visitors get close to the natural wonders of the Rockies. The park’s scenic drives include Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in America, which climbs to above 12,000 feet. If alpine peaks make you think of snow, this park has plenty, and the corresponding opportunities for winter sports. For wildlife watchers, the colder months are also a good time to spot elk and moose. But the busiest season is summer, when visitors flock here to camp, fish, picnic, and hike on hundreds of miles of trails of varying difficulty.
When to visit: Rocky Mountain is open year-round, weather permitting; some roads close seasonally.
15. Big Bend National Park
Where it is: Texas
Why you should go: Not every park lets you gaze up at picturesque canyons while floating down the Wild and Scenic River that doubles as an international border, but Big Bend, named for a bend in the Rio Grande, does just that. And that’s not the only cool feature of this 801,163-acre park. It’s also home to the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the United States that’s contained within a national park. It boasts an impressive collection of fossil discoveries covering a period of 130 million years. And it’s full of historic sites, scenic drives (on paved or “primitive” roads), hikes (choose desert, mountain, or river), and many other activities.
When to visit: Big Bend is open – and popular – all year. You’ll need to plan ahead if you want to visit on a long weekend or another especially busy time.
16. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Where it is: Hawaii
Why you should go: In May 2018, a series of earthquakes and lava flows forced much of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to close. The park has since reopened, and while some restrictions remain in effect, there’s still plenty to see and do. Visitors can follow two main driving routes, the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive loop or the longer Chain of Craters Road leading to the coast. Both pass scenic overlooks and noteworthy natural features. A range of day hikes and backcountry camping take you further into the park. Visitors to this ever-changing place will not see the same sights others have seen here months or years before. But for those who wish to understand the geology and wildlife of this unique region, that in itself is a reason to go.
When to visit: Hawaii Volcanoes is open year-round, but some areas have reduced hours. Check with the NPS before you go to ensure the area you are vising isn’t closed due to volcanic activity.
17. Saguaro National Park
Where it is: Arizona
Why you should go: Saguaro, which is split into two sections located at the eastern and western edges of Tucson, makes the Sonoran Desert easily accessible from the city. Visitors can observe a wide variety of desert plant life, including, of course, a seemingly endless array of iconic Saguaro cacti; you might also spot a prehistoric petroglyph, a roadrunner or javelina, and a stunning sunset. Explore the park by car or bike (each section has a loop drive that takes you past some prime spots for cactus viewing and photography), or on foot (there are more than 165 miles of hiking trails here, with options ranging from short walks to challenging treks), or venture into the backcountry to camp overnight.
When to visit: Saguaro is open year-round. Both sections are open to pedestrians and cyclists 24 hours a day; drivers can enter the Tucson Mountain District (west) from sunrise to sunset and the Rincon Mountain District (east) from 7:00 a.m. to sunset.
18. White Sands National Monument
Where it is: New Mexico
Why you should go: Though it’s technically a national monument and not a national park, White Sands is as spectacular as any place in America, and one of the most unusual landscapes you’ll encounter anywhere. This remote, 275-square-mile area looks like a cross between a snowy mountain range and a wind-swept beach, but is in fact the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. Rent a sled to slide down the dunes, stroll along a boardwalk, hike, camp out, or simply drive the 16-mile road through the monument to appreciate its otherworldly beauty.
When to visit: White Sands is open year-round. The monument may close temporarily for extreme weather conditions or missile tests at the adjacent White Sands Missile Range, so check for up-to-date information before you visit.
19. Acadia National Park
Where it is: Maine
Why you should go: The only national park in New England, Acadia is 47,000 acres of quintessential Maine, with vast swaths of forest, rugged rocky coastlines, and unspoiled natural beauty in every season. At Acadia, you can do nearly everything you might imagine at a place the NPS calls the “Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast”: take scenic drives with lighthouse views, go leaf-peeping, catch a ferry to a campsite on a remote island, ski, dog-sled, watch for wildlife, hike mountains and valleys, stroll beside the ocean, bike, swim, go boating, enjoy a picnic, and the list goes on.
When to visit: Acadia is open throughout the year, but roads may be closed and facilities may reduce their hours during the winter.
20. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Where it is: Alaska
Why you should go: You may have seen news coverage over the past few years about growing issues of overcrowding at America’s best-known national parks. One way to experience the splendor of these protected lands without becoming part of the crowd is to visit during the off-season; but to seriously get away from it all, there’s nothing like a trip to the least-visited national park in the country: Gates of the Arctic. To be clear, this park is not for everyone. In fact, it’s only for the few who are determined enough to fly or hike to its remote location; experienced enough to be fully self-sufficient in a region with no facilities, no services, no roads, and no marked trails; and intrigued enough by this truly unspoiled environment to risk it alone or hire an outfitter to guide you.
When to visit: The park itself is always open, but hours at visitor centers (in the nearest towns) vary by location and season.
Preparing for Your National Parks Visit
Before you head to any of America’s national parks:
- Inform yourself about the local climate and terrain, as well as what the park offers in terms of food, water, and shelter.
- Make sure the dates you’re planning on visiting are optimal ones; some parks are closed on Thanksgiving and/or Christmas Day, and the best-known parks can get extremely crowded at certain times of year.
- Remember that many national parks are wild places with the potential for extreme conditions, and that roads or sections of any park may close for various reasons. To avoid a disappointing experience, check the NPS website for park closures and alerts.
- If you’re driving your own vehicle or a rental car, keep up to date with local weather and traffic conditions and make sure your car insurance is up to date.
- Be careful to pack proper clothing, footwear, and equipment.
When you’re well prepared, a trip to one of America’s national parks can be the trip of a lifetime. To learn more about your options within the national park system, you can search the complete list of U.S. national parks by state, by activity, and by topic. If you are eager to visit any state parks along the way, check out our list of the 25 best state parks in America.
Calling road trip readers:
Have you had a memorable experience at any of the national parks listed above, or one that we haven’t mentioned? Share in comments.