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The best national parks in the U.S.

The top American national parks for camping, exploring, kayaking and ogling this beautiful country of ours

By Rebecca Dalzell |
Grand Teton
Photograph: Shutterstock/Alexey Kamenskiy Grand Teton

Sometimes we at Time Out find ourselves sitting back, taking a deep breath of fresh, smog-free air and saying to ourselves: Damn, America, you are one beautiful country. This mostly happens when we find ourselves in one of the country’s jaw-droppingly beautiful and diverse—Volcanoes! Canyons! Glaciers!—national parks. Whether you’re looking for a road trip to remember, a camping spot with views to make you melt, an extreme outdoor adventure or you want to come up close to some ancient history, our national parks are a perennially excellent vacation options. So go on, get back to nature: as park advocate John Muir wrote, “Going to the mountains is going home.” Follow Time Out USA on Facebook; sign up for the Time Out USA newsletter

Best national parks in the US

Grand Canyon
Photograph: Shutterstock/Francesco R. Iacomino

Grand Canyon, Arizona

This natural wonder cradles two billion years of geologic history, with 40 layers of rock shaped into buttes, spires and cliffs. Carved by the Colorado River, the 277-mile gorge is magisterial from any perspective, but it’s thrilling to venture below the rim. The safest place to start is the well-maintained Bright Angel Trail, which follows an ancient route past sculpted sandstone to a cottonwood oasis. For an overnight at the Grand Canyon, hikers can switchback steeply down to the river, a mile below the rim, where secluded campsites reward the effort. Look for elk, mountain lions and condors along the way, plus the 1,000 species of plants that survive in this semi-arid desert.

Camp: Ponderosa pines and aspens shade the quiet North Rim Campground.
Best for: A multigenerational getaway.
Don’t miss: A rafting trip on the Colorado River.

Glacier Bay
Photograph: Shutterstock/Ruth Peterkin

Glacier Bay, Alaska

With the glaciers fast retreating, now is the time to see this 3.3-million acre arctic paradise. Most visitors experience Glacier Bay’s fjords and ice rivers from a cruise ship, but those who go by kayak or skiff discover sheltered coves and hear trills of ruby-crowned kinglets. Boaters often spot humpback whales, sea otters, puffins or bald eagles perched on icebergs. On land, beaches reveal wolf tracks and trails wind through spruce-hemlock rainforest, crossing paths with black bears or moose. With so much to absorb, you’ll want to take a ranger-led walk or boat tour, held daily in the summer.

Camp: Scenic Bartlett Cove Campground offers free, tent-only sites.
Best for: A once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Don’t miss: A flight over the ice-capped mountains.

Photograph: Shutterstock/f11photo

Yosemite, California

Millions of people come to this Sierra Nevada wilderness each year to see jagged peaks, glaciers, lush meadows and some of the world’s tallest waterfalls. Spanning 1,200 square miles, Yosemite offers activities ranging from child-friendly to extreme. Massive granite slopes like Half Dome and El Capitan dominate the landscape, taunting rock-climbers. Paddlers dip into lakes and rivers, drivers cruise the dramatic Tioga Road, and day hikers walk by sequoias and canyons. Backpackers take to the rugged John Muir trail, named for the farsighted writer who helped create the park in 1890.

Camp: Secluded in a pine forest, White Wolf campground is near trails and flush toilets.
Best for: A family vacation.
Don’t miss: The commanding view from Glacier Point at sunset.

Hawaii Volcanoes
Photograph: Shutterstock/Eduard Moldoveanu

Volcanoes, Hawaii

Encompassing two of the world’s most active volcanoes, this Big Island treasure is constantly changing. Erupting Kilauea churns up plumes of gas and its lava glows in the night sky. Hikers who brave the rim of its crater encounter steam vents and wide ocean views, while others find gentler trails through rainforest, with giant ferns and blooming ohi’a trees. The park is also a biosphere reserve that rivals the Galapagos for its wealth of rare native species, such as Hawaiian honeycreepers and hawksbill sea turtles. As if that’s not enough, it also packs in petroglyphs and 13th-century ruins.

Camp: Book a simple wood cabin at Namakanipaio campground, located in a eucalyptus grove 4,000 feet above sea level.
Best for: A family vacation.
Don’t miss: The spectacular Chain of Craters Road, which descends 3,700 feet in 18 miles.

Photograph: Shutterstock/Patricia Hofmeester

Acadia, Maine

Acadia spans 47,000 acres of rugged Atlantic coast, where fog rolls across granite boulders and spruce-fir forests catch the first rays of sun. Most of the park is on Mount Desert Island, which it shares with several charming towns, but it also extends to the Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut. It offers moments of serenity, like an early-morning swim in Echo Lake, and adventure, like hanging off cliffs on the Beehive Trail. For a genteel take on mountain biking, cycle the 45 miles of carriage roads, which hug hillsides and reveal majestic sea views.

Camp: Reserve a site at Duck Harbor Campground on the car-free Isle au Haut, accessible only by mailboat.
Best for: A romantic unplugged weekend.
Don’t miss: The sunrise from Cadillac Mountain.
Grand Teton
Photograph: Shutterstock/Phillip Rubino

Grand Teton, Wyoming

Towering 7,000 feet above the valley floor, the Teton Range welcomes over two million people a year. In the winter, they come to snowshoe or cross-country ski through fir-lined backcountry trails. In the summer, hikers explore 200 miles of trails and scale rugged granite peaks. The Snake River is a magnet for amateur rafters, pelican-watchers and fishermen, who cast lines for trout. Nestled within the mountains are glaciers, alpine lakes and fields of larkspur and lupines.

Camp: Jenny Lake Campground is popular for its proximity to trails and peak views.
Best for: Big sky seekers.
Don’t miss: A leisurely bike ride on the 30-mile path from Jenny Lake to Jackson, which passes through an elk refuge.

Photograph: Shutterstock/Darren J. Bradley

Arches, Utah

Over 2,000 red sandstone arches fill this park’s 76,519 acres, the greatest density in the world. They draw an increasing number of thrill seekers (and Instagram braggarts) each year, who rappel into sinuous canyons or squeeze through narrow labyrinths. Yet even from a car window the looping rocks are plenty engaging, especially in the ruddy glow of sunset. Other natural features are subtler, like multicolored lichen, white-throated swifts and ephemeral pools that host tiny ecosystems.

Camp: The only campground in the park, stunning Devils Garden has 50 sites available year-round.
Best for: An adventurous guys’ weekend.
Don’t miss: The Devils Garden Trail, which hits eight arches and the Dark Angel spire.

Photograph: Shutterstock

Badlands, South Dakota

This bizarre moonscape was created millions of years ago, when ash deposits and erosion sculpted sedimentary rock into rippled peaks. Fossils show that rhinos and camels once roamed here, but today these 244,000 acres are home to bison, bobcats and bighorn sheep. As long as they stay hydrated, the park’s 800,000 annual visitors find the Badlands fascinating to explore. Hikers scale the rocks to take in otherworldly views of the White River Valley and cyclists coast by colorful buttes and grass prairie. At night, the pitch-black sky reveals 7,500 stars and a clear view of the Milky Way; telescopes provide close-ups of moons and planets.

Camp: Spot bison from the free Sage Creek Campground.
Best for: Amateur geologists.
Don’t miss: Sunset at the Pinnacles Overlook, off the Route 240 loop road.

Chaco Canyon
Photograph: Shutterstock/James Mattil

Chaco Culture, New Mexico

On the long, dusty road to Chaco Culture, it’s hard to believe that you’re heading to the heart of an ancient civilization. But when you reach the park, monumental sandstone buildings rise from the desert valley. From 850 to 1250, Pueblo peoples built ceremonial sites and great houses here, connected by roads and trade. A UNESCO world heritage site, it’s an awesome and haunting place, with over 3,000 ruins, elk and bobcats, and phenomenal stargazing. Most visitors drive between six major sites on a self-guided tour, but intrepid hikers follow backcountry trails to outlying sites and panoramic overlooks. They also find solitude: Chaco Culture’s remote location makes it one of the least-visited national parks in the country.

Camp: Sleep among fallen boulders and petroglyphs at Gallo, the park’s only campground.
Best for: History nerds.
Don’t miss: Pueblo Bonito, a three-acre public building that once had 600 rooms.

Mammoth Cave
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Allie Fox

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

The world’s largest known cave system is hidden beneath the Green River valley of central Kentucky. Limestone caverns, dripping stalactites and gypsum formations span 400 miles and are home to 130 species of wildlife. Only about 10 miles of Mammoth Cave are open for tours, which range from easy to arduous. Aboveground, 84 miles of hiking trails wind through old-growth forests, sandstone ridges, salamander-filled wetlands and hemlock ravines. On the Green and Nolin Rivers, paddlers drift past islands and springs, while fishermen await bass and catfish.

Camp: Avoid the crowds and get a permit for a quiet backcountry campsite on the babbling First Creek.
Best for: Adventurers unafraid of bats.
Don’t miss: The ranger-led Domes and Dripstones tour, which includes large trunk passageways and Frozen Niagara.

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Allie Fox