The Best US National Parks to Visit - Part 1
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
If the US National Parks have been a miss for you, there is no better time to check them off your list. Whether it's this summer or next, there are plenty of US parks that will seduce even the savviest of travelers.
Yellowstone National Park
Established in 1872, Yellowstone was the first National Park in the U.S. and the world. It is located in the extreme northwestern part of Wyoming, with small sections of the park crossing state borders into Montana and Idaho.
Size and Vibe: Yellowstone covers approximately 3,471 square miles. There are several notable distinctions within those miles. Yellowstone Lake is one of the largest high-elevation lakes in North America. It is also home to many geothermal, the Old Faithful geyser being it's most famous resident.
The park also contains a dormant supervolcano. Known as the Yellowstone Caldera, it is the largest supervolcano on the continent. The Caldera is at the center of the park on a broad, elevated volcanic plateau. Also, there are endless lakes, hot springs, canyons, rivers, and mountain ranges. There are hundreds of Yellowstone species, including grizzly bears, wolves, elk, and the most significant and oldest bison herd in the U.S.
Best time of year to go: The best time to visit this iconic park depends on the kind of trip you are after. The park is in its full bloom and most popular in the summertime. Services are at their most comprehensive, and all roads are open to the public. If you prefer fewer crowds, the best times to visit are from April to May and between September and October, as it is less busy and offers mild weather.
How many people per year - 4.02 million (2019)
One of the most popular activities people indulge in is watching geysers erupt and viewing the colorful hot springs. People also love to watch wildlife, hike, bike, horseback ride, and camp on land. On the water, people enjoy boating, fishing, rafting, and stand-up paddling. As far as the winter season, skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling are favored activities. The adventure options are endless in Yellowstone!
One of the most iconic spots to grab a picture is at Old Faithful. 99% of the park's visitors snap a geyser eruption photo at that spot. A second spot is the granddaddy of Yellowstone's hot springs, the Grand Prismatic Spring. Its rainbow colors pop in any picture. Arguably, one of the best scenic views is the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, where the waterfall drops into a canyon. You can capture this from Artist Point.
Closest Small City – Jackson, Wyoming. Closest Big City – Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Closest Airport – Jackson Hole Airport. Closest International Airport – Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport
Yosemite National Park
Say WAT – Located in central California, Yosemite was declared a national park in 1890, soon after Yellowstone, making it the third national park in the U.S.
Park Points –
Size and Vibe: Yosemite spans over 1,169 square miles of the central Sierra Nevada, a mountain range in eastern California. While most of the park is high country, two river valleys give this park the scenery that first inspired the government to make it a national park.
If you take a hike, you can see Yosemite’s well-known granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, and giant sequoia groves. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for wildlife, as the park is home to over 400 species, including the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep, mule deer, bobcat, and coyote.
Best time of year to go – The best time to visit Yosemite is from April to May. There are fewer crowds, precipitation is low, and temperatures are warm but not blazing like the summer months. Waterfalls flow from melted snow, and trails and roads begin to open again.
How many people per year – 4.59 million (2019)
As Yosemite is 95% wilderness, you can only reach most of the park by foot or horse. It's no surprise that hiking, biking, and horseback riding are popular activities. You can also explore the park through tours, ranger programs, and by car. Put door activities range from water activities to stargazing, fishing, bird watching, and winter sports. It's also known as one of the world’s greatest rock climbing areas.
The most iconic photo to take at Yosemite National Park captures El Capitan and Half Dome rock formations alongside Bridalveil Falls from an overlook called Tunnel View. Another top shot is Yosemite Falls. It is one of the highest falls in the world, pouring over 1,850-foot cliffs. You can get a bird’s eye view from Glacier Point.
Closest Small City – Merced, CA. Closest Big City – Fresno, CA
Closest Airport – Merced Regional Airport. Closest International Airport – Fresno Yosemite International Airport
Grand Canyon National Park
Say WAT – Located in the northwest corner of Arizona, this iconic Grand Canyon took some time to become a national park. It started in the 1880s with several failed bills and ended almost 40 years later. In 1919 it was finally granted national park status.
Size and Vibe: Covering about 1,902 square miles, Grand Canyon National Park is 7,000 feet above sea level. It rests on the Colorado Plateau, straddling the Four Corner states of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico.
While the canyons steal the spotlight, the park also encompasses other ecosystems such as forests, rare grasslands, scrublands, springs, and hidden cave systems. Because of the many ecosystems, the park is home to a diverse number of species. Mountain lions, snakes, scorpions, bald eagles, and canyon bats all have a home in the Grand Canyon.
Best time of year to go – March to May is considered the best time of year for several reasons. Springtime offers moderate temperatures compared to the summer, making it ideal for hiking. Crowds are a lot thinner, as they peak in the summer season for most national parks. The bloom of wildflowers in the canyon in spring makes it picture perfect.
How many people per year – 5.97 million (2019)
The park is primarily undeveloped backcountry, which gives visitors hundreds of miles to explore. That's perfect as the most popular activity in the park is hiking. There are several ways to capture the abundance of beauty, including a desert jeep tour, a bike ride, ranger programs, helicopter tours, riding a train through the canyon, and hopping on a mule. Camping is a big hit with visitors, as are river rafting trips on the iconic Colorado River.
You are hard-pressed to take a bad pic anywhere. For top options, head to the South Rim. You can capture a classic Grand Canyon picture at Mather Point with an unobstructed view of Vishnu Temple and Zoroaster. A second selfie spot on the South Rim is at the Desert View Watchtower, where you can capture the river below the observation deck. On the North Rim, from the Colorado Plateau, you get to see a 270-degree bend in the Colorado River, known as Horseshoe Bend. For photo nirvana, grab a bird’s eye view of the Grand Canyon from Point Imperial, the highest viewpoint at the park.
Closest Small City – Flagstaff, AZ. Closest Big City – Phoenix, AZ
Closest Airport – Flagstaff Pulliam Airport. Closest International Airport – Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
Zion National Park
Say WAT – Zion National Park is located in southwestern Utah near the town of Springdale. Established in late 1919, it was Utah’s first national park.
Size and Vibe: Significantly smaller than the previously noted parks, Zion National Park only spans about 229.1 square miles. The park occupies the high portion of the Colorado Plateau, surrounded by colorful deep canyons, cliffs, and freestanding arches.
There are 291 bird species, 37 reptile and amphibian species, and 8 fish species that live in Zion National Park. The mountain lion, ringtail cat, peregrine falcon, western rattlesnake, and desert tortoise are just a few of these species.
Best time of year to go – Fall is the best season to visit Zion; asarethreee shuttle busses are running, there is less traffic, and no spring runoff. While spring brings milder temperatures similar to fall, the spring runoff makes hiking more difficult. There isn't necessarily a bad time to visit Zion, but fall is your best option.
How many people per year – 4.49 million (2019)
Because of its geography, Zion is an adventurous oasis. Among the most challenging and fun are climbing and canyoneering along Zion’s many canyons. Top that off with a dip into whitewater trips, kayaking, and horseback riding. You can explore the park hiking, bicycling, backpacking, or through various ranger-led programs. For a more serene scene, camping, birding, and stargazing are always in vogue.
Stunning selfies are well-earned in Zion. Your first photo hot spot is the Narrows, a narrow area where the Virgin River flows through the canyon. To get there, you have to trek through knee to waist-deep water. Your next spot, Angel’s Landing, involves some heavy trekking but well worth the view. If you’re looking for a less challenging hike, make your way to the Canyon Overlook. It's a mere mile round-trip to the viewpoint.
Closest Small City – Saint George, UT. Closest Big City – Las Vegas, NV
Closest Airport – SGU Regional Airport. Closest International Airport – McCarran International Airport
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Say WAT – The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934 and is the most visited U.S. national park to date. The park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Park Points –
Size and Vibe: Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans over 800 square miles, spread evenly between Tennessee and North Carolina. Elevations vary greatly in the park, ranging from 875 feet above sea level to the highest peak of 6,643 feet above sea level.
While forests and mountains are obvious features of the park, wetlands and caves are also present. As for wildlife, bobcats, elk, black bears, and salamanders are a few species seen.
Best time of year to go – Fall is by far the best time to visit. Summer crowds are gone, and lodging rates drop considerably during this time. Also, the fall foliage is spectacular.
How many people per year – 12.55 million (2019)
Biking, hiking, horseback riding, camping, fishing, picnicking, and wildlife viewing are what many visitors get into. In addition, history buffs can explore the historic buildings in the park, dating as far back as the early 1800s. Before being named a national park, this region was home to settlers who farmed and milled in its valleys.
As the name implies, the Great Smoky Mountains are blanketed with a smoky haze mesmerizing in pictures. Clingman’s Dome is an observation tower and the highest point in the park. Cades Cove is one of the most popular sports in the park. It is a valley surrounded by mountains and used to be the location of a small settlement. Mount Le Conte is the third highest peak in the park and offers another great view of the iconic mountains.
Closest Small City – Maryville, TN. Closest Big City – Knoxville, TN
Closest Airport – Asheville Regional Airport. Closest International Airport – McGhee Tyson Airport
Rocky Mountain National Park
Say WAT – Located in n north-central Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park was first acquired by the government in 1803. It was made a national park in 1915 with the Louisiana Purchase.
Park Points –
Size and Vibe: With elevations ranging from 7,860 to 14,259 feet above sea level, this park is one of the highest parks in the U.S. It covers about 358 square miles of mountain lakes, evergreen forests, meadow valleys, and glaciers.
The park is an important habitat for many wildlife species and acts as a haven for several endangered species. Moose, gray wolfs, tiger salamanders, and mountain chickadees all live in the park. As for endangered species, the park is a home for the Canada lynx, greenback cutthroat trout, Mexican spotted owl and North American wolverine.
Best time of year to go – The best time to visit the park is during the summer from June to September, when the snow is mostly melted, and hiking trails and attractions are accessible. It's also the busiest time of year. Winter offers fewer crowds and snow activities.
How many people per year – 4.67 million (2019)
Hiking is by far the most popular activity at Rocky Mountain. However, horseback riding, camping, and wildlife viewing are favored, fishing with the parks many lakes. If looking for a more leisurely approach, a scenic drive is always an option.
Rocky Mountain contains approximately156 lakes, many of which make for great photos. Bear Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake are but a few of the top selfie spots. Adam Falls, a 55-foot waterfall, is another photo hot spot. Last, the Gore Range Overlook, off of Trail Ridge Road, offers an unobstructed view of the mountains at 12,048 feet above sea level.
Closest City – Boulder, CO. Closest Big City – Denver, CO
Closest Airport – Cheyenne Regional Airport. Closest International Airport – Denver International Airport
Olympic National Park
Say WAT – Established in 1938, Olympic National Park rests on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest.
Park Points –
Size and Vibe: Given its location, the park encompasses several different ecosystems and is home to various wildlife. The park covers about 1,442 square miles of meadows, rocky alpine slopes, glacier-capped summits, coastline, and temperate rainforest.
Olympic is home to many animals on and off the land. Just offshore, whales, dolphins, sea lions, and seals live in the Pacific Ocean. Inland, you find beavers, raccoons, Roosevelt Elk, mountain lions, bald eagles, and cougars.
Best time of year to go – The best time to visit the park is from July to August, as many ranger-led activities and services are still open. There are also fewer chances of rain, and temperatures are warmer.
How many people per year – 4.67 million (2019)
A diverse landscape brings a wide range of activities. In and around the water, visitors enjoy boating, fishing, and tide pooling. Inland, you'll find plenty of people hiking, backpacking, and camping. Due to the abundance of species, wildlife viewing is a big draw to the park.
For shore shots, head to Rialto Beach to capture Little James Island and Ruby Beach at sunset. Cape Flattery is another stunning shore shot, capturing the most northwestern point in the U.S. Crescent Lake and Sol Duc Falls are also top spots. Last, head to Hoh Rain Forest for some selfies and some serious tree-hugging. The giant mossy trees and old-growth forests will make you feel like you slipped into a fairy tale.
Closest Small City – Port Angeles, WA. Closest Big City – Tacoma, WA
Closest Airport – William R. Fairchild International Airport
Acadia National Park
Say WAT – In 1919, Acadia National Park became the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Located primarily on Mount Desert Island in Maine, it originally was named Lafayette National Park. The park was then renamed in 1929.
Park Points –
Size and Vibe: The sea and the mountains come together in this park, covering 65 square miles of beaches, shorelines, forests, subtidal zones, lakes, mountains, and wetlands.
The park is known for its rock formations from a geologic history that persists in today's forces of erosion. The wildlife is abundant with approximately 40 mammal species, 330 bird species, 30 fish species, 7 reptiles, and 11 amphibians. Herons, dolphins, sea stars, skunks, and deer are but a few examples of those that call Acadia home.
Best time of year to go – Summer is the most popular time to visit, but fall is our best bet. The weather has not dropped below freezing yet, crowds are light, and there are fewer rain chances.
How many people per year – 4.67 million (2019)
Game On! –
Climbing, fishing, biking, hiking, and horseback riding are the favored activities in the park. Water-wise, there is plenty to do, from boat cruises to swimming to tide pooling.
Picture Perfect –
There are several hot spots in the park. The most iconic image in the park is of the Bear Island Lighthouse. Constructed in 1889, this lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If you’re not afraid to get a little wet, grab a quick pic of the seas crashing into the rocky shore at Thunder Hole. One of the most photographed pix is the view from Jordan Pond. Finally, you can capture Maine’s rocky shoreline at both Otter Cliff and Schoodic Point.
Closest Small City – Ellsworth, ME. Closest Big City – Bangor, ME