The Best National Parks to Visit

Johnna Kaplan

In 2018, America’s National Park Service (NPS) will be celebrating its 102nd birthday. Since its creation over a century ago, the agency has grown to include 59 national parks as well as hundreds of national historic sites, national monuments, national recreation areas, parkways, and more. Some parks are instantly recognizable icons of the United States, whereas others are hidden gems that few visitors take advantage of.

With such a diversity of sites, it’s impossible to state definitively which park is the best. But there’s a national park for every type of traveler, and the following ten picks are all unique in their own ways. You’re certain to find at least one that piques your interest, or you may want to visit them all.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park.jpg

Where it is: North Carolina and Tennessee

Why it’s unique: With over ten million visitors a year, Great Smoky Mountains is the country’s most popular park. This scenic swath of the Appalachians receives almost double the number of visitors as the second-most popular park, the Grand Canyon. If you like to cross major destinations off your list and love having a range of activities to choose from, this park is for you.

What to look out for: You can get around Great Smoky Mountains in your car, on your bicycle, on foot, or on horseback. During your trip, 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 too.

When to visit: The park’s primary roads are open all year, weather permitting, but secondary roads are closed seasonally.

Another option: Another popular Southern park is Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, where visitors can explore the longest known cave system in the world.

Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park.jpg

Where it is: Michigan

Why it’s unique: 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. Part of the reason for this is that 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.

What to look out for: 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.

Another option: Another park that’s only accessible by boat (or seaplane) is Dry Tortugas National Park near Key West, Florida. Here, an impressive 19th-century fort is surrounded by small islands and coral reefs.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park.jpg

Where it is: Montana

Why it’s unique: Nicknamed the “crown of the continent,” Glacier is often called the most beautiful of the national parks. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but Glacier’s snow-capped mountains, reflective lakes, and dramatic vistas are undeniably stunning.

What to look out for: Glacier offers an array of relaxing activities to choose from. 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.

Another option: To immerse yourself in a completely different rugged and scenic landscape, try the stark and otherworldly Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park.jpg

Where it is: California

Why it’s unique: If you’re a fan of emerging destinations, take note: Pinnacles is America’s newest national park, created in January of 2013.

What to look out for: 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.

Another option: A very different but also relatively “young” park (it was created in 2000) is Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. Follow the towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal to see historic mills, waterfalls, and wilderness areas, without ever straying far from a city.

Virgin Islands National Park

Virgin Islands National Park.jpg

Where it is: U.S. Virgin Islands

Why it’s unique: 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.

What to look out for: 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.

Another option: If you want to venture even farther afield, consider the National Park of American Samoa, a Polynesian paradise on the tiny U.S. territory of American Samoa in the South Pacific.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park.jpg

Where it is: California

Why it’s unique: 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.

What to look out for: 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 coach is used instead of a tram for tours.

Another option: Another park for train lovers is the Grand Canyon, which can be reached by Amtrak and also has its own historic rail line, the Grand Canyon Railway.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park.jpg

Where it is: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho

Why it’s unique: 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.

What to look out for: 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.

Another option: If you love exploring vast, iconic landscapes, you might be drawn to Arches National Park in Utah. The stunning red stone formations here make for amazing photos.

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park.jpg

Where it is: Florida

Why it’s unique: 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.

What to look out for: 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 you should visit: Everglades is open year-round.

Another option: For tourists (and wildlife) who prefer a colder clime, Acadia National Park in Maine offers a glimpse of moose, peregrine falcons, seals, whales, and numerous other forest and marine creatures.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park.jpg

Where it is: Alaska

Why it’s unique: If you like extremes, you’ll appreciate the fact that Denali—North America’s highest peak—has been called the windiest national park in the country and the coldest mountain in the world.

What to look out for: 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 you should visit: Denali is open year-round, but the park’s single road closes in winter. When in doubt, contact the park before visiting.

Another option: If you want to experience extreme weather, but aren’t into icy temperatures, there’s always the hottest place in the world, Death Valley National Park in California and Nevada, where daytime temperatures have been recorded at above 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Before you visit any of America’s national parks, prepare by packing proper clothing, footwear, and equipment. If you’re planning to drive, make sure your car insurance is up to date, just in case something unexpected occurs. It’s also vital to remain informed regarding local safety tips and seasonal or emergency closings. For that information, as well as directions, entry fees, holiday closures, and visitor center locations and hours, visit each park’s website.

33 Responses to "The Best National Parks to Visit"

  • Kent Taylor | September 8, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    Have been fortunate to visit most of the continental U.S. National Parks on Hartford's list as well as all of the parks listed in additional comments. One of my favorites not on any of the lists is Big Bend in Texas. You can enjoy a lot of solitude in even the most crowded National Parks once you get on the hiking trails. For the disabled, even the paved accessible trails will get you away from some of the crowds. If the purpose of a vacation is to visit natural beauty, there is more than enough to keep you busy for a lifetime in the U.S. alone (although I would highly recommend the Canadian Rockies National Parks as well).

  • Paul | September 4, 2018 at 11:24 pm

    thanks for inspiring article, Johnna. I would have liked it better if you had listed ALL national parks (see the wikipedia List_of_national_parks_of_the_United_States), give a thumbnail review and then allow users a rating based on, "of the parks you visited (check those), rate your favorite (the checked list is re-ordered by user)", and then show the ranked ratings. Somehow Grand Canyon isn't here in your list? or Zion, Sequoia, Hawaii volcanoes, Canyonlands, Everglades, Carlsbad Caverns, etc etc ... ?

  • Carl Ted Stude | September 2, 2018 at 1:12 am

    I have been to all of the parks mentioned other than the one in American Samoa. The two in Washington State -- Mount Rainier and Olympic -- deserve inclusion for their spectacular virgin evergreen forests at lower elevations, their spectacular displays of wildflowers near timberline, and the last remaining substantial "wild" coastline in the lower 48 states in the coastal part of Olympic National Park, which -- by definition -- is only accessible to hikers.

  • Phillip Morse | August 31, 2018 at 5:53 pm

    I have been to only a few so far, but plan many more during upcoming retirement; two of which are Great Smokey Mountains and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is located on the northwestern edge of the lower peninsula of Michigan. That one is special to me as I am the Assistant United States Attorney who oversaw the Park Service's acquisition in the late 70's and early '80's of 77,000 acres and approximately 21 miles of lake Michigan's Northeastern shoreline (formerly owned by private individuals), which, to me, is one of the most beautiful of the Great Lakes. The park is named after the 400 ft. high sand dune on the shore, which from out in lake Michigan you can see what appears to be a sleeping bear on top of the dunes.

  • Janet Schenk | August 31, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    I have visited five of these nine national parks.

  • John sarff | August 31, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    My wife and I have camped in 48 states. to hike in the states is a adventure that gives you memories forever. Untold beauty awaits

  • Mary Jane Graham | August 31, 2018 at 2:33 am

    Have been to many of these parks but some we haven't Enjoyed it so much.

  • Jennifer | August 31, 2018 at 2:26 am

    Thank you to the author for clearly mentioning in the written article, about visiting the Arches in Utah. They sound gorgeous. The author supplied a nice variety of different options. The list is enormous and the beauty is in the eyes of the visitors .

  • Patsie Griffin | August 31, 2018 at 1:12 am

    Acadia National Park is amazing, and Assataque Island National Seashore Park is lovely.

  • Mary Ann | August 31, 2018 at 12:16 am

    Agree with another comment on here. Vacation in our wonderful USA National Parks, along with state parks, as said no passport needed. If possible stay within the parks. We are in our 80's and enjoyed many on the list. Glacier may have a slight edge for us, however all have something unique.

  • Stuart Naterman | August 30, 2018 at 9:08 pm

    BI went with my wife and daughter and son in law this past month to Arches. This is the most breathtaking place that I have ever been to. Being disabled and requiring a cane and rolator didn’t stop us from seeing almost every site. I would recommend to everyone that you take the time and effort to see what we have here in our backyard. We also went to the Canyon where one sight is more breathtaking then the next. I only wonder how God created such beauty for us all to see.

  • darlene edwards | August 30, 2018 at 9:08 pm

    Glacier NP is not open year round! The western lower part may be open part of the winter but not the rest of the park.

  • Dennis Toth | August 30, 2018 at 8:33 pm

    I won't name it, but it holds Hurricane Ridge, Crescent Lake, Sol Duc Hot Springs. Mountains, lake, ocean ... outdoor activities and sightseeing for all of them. No other National Park in itself, or with adjacent activities, can compare. None.

  • richard bahr | August 30, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    I fell in love with the big trees. Don't miss Sequoia and Redwoods and the most inspirational of all (although not a park) Mount Rushmore.

  • Lee | August 30, 2018 at 8:28 pm

    Pick 1 - any one! Mountains = Yellowstone Desert = Death Valley Water = Keys Will not find 1 that is not worth the time / effort / or expense!! What you see / experience enroute is often as rewarding as what you get on arrival. BUT it is all an AMERICAN experience!

  • Ardys Stickney | August 30, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    How did Isle Royale slide all the way over to Michigan? It used to be in Minnesota!!

  • Jim Santagata | August 30, 2018 at 6:02 pm

    I was really disappointed that you didn't see fit to include any of Southern Utah's wonderful red rock National Parks! Bryce Canyon, Zion and Arches are some of the most magnificent places in the entire USA! But then again, maybe a few less people will show up there, which will be very welcome for those of us who are so much in love with their incomparable hiking trails and mystical rock formations!

  • Pat McKee | August 30, 2018 at 5:58 pm

    Grand Teton National Park in all its grandeur is my favorite. We hiked to Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls 3 times with grandkids, to Cascade Canyon with grand and great-grandkids, many of the trails, taken our kayaks and paddled Jackson, Leigh, Jenny Lakes and the Snake River. The grandkids counted over 25 species of animals, birds and fish that they saw. Kids and I all have our G.T.N.P. Junior Ranger badges! My heaven on earth.

  • louis cooker | August 30, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    I visited the Great Smokies Nat. Park in July 2017. While I was in the area, I climbed the highest peak east of the Mississippi River - Mt. Mitchell, in N.C. And rode the "Tail of the Dragon" on my motorcycle. Both activities that were very simulating and enjoyable.

  • Carol | August 30, 2018 at 4:52 pm

    Nothing more beautiful than Bryce Canyon, just a short distance from Zion. Also agree that Acadia Park in Maine is incredeible.

  • Nicola Patrinos | August 30, 2018 at 12:47 am

    Another extremely beautiful park, Rocky Mountain National Park (if I missed it, I apologize ) in Colorado! I recommend July, Aug as the weather can be unusually cooler end of Aug into October. The mountains, animals and wildflowers are sure to take your breath away! There is hiking for all fitness levels too.

  • Russ R | August 29, 2018 at 9:18 pm

    As a side note, I would offer for your consideration the option of snowmobiling in Jellystone in the Winter. There are tour operators that visit this Park in the near total desolation that Winter brings. It hearkens back to times before man. The geysers and waterfalls are eerily prehistoric during this lonely season. I have found nothing else like it anywhere.

  • C.E. Lee | August 29, 2018 at 7:51 pm

    The Sneffels Range of the San Juans in SW Colorado is so gorgeous in late Sept. and early Oct. when the abundant Aspens blanket entire hillsides ranging from light yellow to almost reds.The peaks are around 13,000 ft. The brilliant colors are limited to about a third of that height because of thinning atmosphere, and lessening of soil base. The absolute best is after a snowfall caps the peaks and the morning and afternoon sun light lift the brilliant color to its peak. A major part of John Wayne's movie "True Grit" was filmed there. Portions of the drive are on the "million dollar highway".

  • Mitzi | August 29, 2018 at 7:22 pm

    I live about 30 miles from Glacier National Park. Not much is open there now, until sometime next year. Too many forest fires!! 😢

  • K Kelley | August 29, 2018 at 7:20 pm

    I've been to all of these except Denali which is on my bucket list. I have been to many other National Parks and love them all. We must maintain the current Parks, Monuments and other federal lands so everyone can enjoy them.

  • Becky Stout Higgins | August 29, 2018 at 7:03 pm

    Rocky Mountain National Park is also worth a visit.

  • Deborah A Therriault | August 29, 2018 at 7:01 pm

    You missed Arcadia National Park. Visit Cadillac Mountain and whatc the sun rise. It is where the sun rises first in the United States and its beautiful!

  • Karen | August 29, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    A beautiful place is The Breaks of the Mountains in Virginia. Just over the border of Pikeville, Kentucky. Many beautiful floral in its natural habitat, OMG the Rodedanderium (sp) is to die for. There is a moonshine still, with instructions on how it is made, and what each piece is. There is a Salt Kettle there that was used in The Battle of Saltville, (my Grandfather fought in that battle). You can see a train go into a mountain and part of it disappear only to come out down the way. You can stand in one spot and you are in Virginia, look one way you can see Kentucky, another West Virginia, another Tennessee and another North Carolina! You will not be disappointed with this day trip!

  • Franklin Forster | August 29, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    There are many more great National Parks in America. We have the most beautiful country in the world and you don't need a passport to visit them. If American's would spend their vacation time exploring our many wonders, it would take them the rest of their life in doing so..... ENJOY OUR COUNTRY FIRST

  • Nancy | August 29, 2018 at 5:21 pm

    I would include Grand Canyon. It’s my favorite!

  • John | August 29, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    I agree with Ron about Arches and Zion but feel I should mention that if you make it to Zion you should include a visit to Bryce Canyon - it is stunning! Also, you mentioned that Glacier is open year round but plan ahead if you want to travel Going To The Sun Highway as it is closed for a good part of the year due to snow. I arrived at the St. Mary entrance to Glacier around Memorial Day one year to find that Going To The Sun Highway was closed at the 13 mile marker in the park. Check before you go.

  • Carol | August 29, 2018 at 4:18 pm

    You missed Grand Teton. Hiked the Jenny Lake trail yesterday whil vacationing with family. Seven mile workout, but worth the effort. The Grand Tetons truly are GRAND

  • Ron | October 29, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    You overlooked Zion and Arches in Utah. But maybe it's just as well you did. 4.5 million visitors each year. Yes, go to the others so it's less crowded here amidst this gorgeous scenery.

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