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Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, USA
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The best national parks in the USA

Craving some American beauty? Reconnect with nature by visiting the best national parks in the USA

Scott Snowden
Written by
Sarah Medina
Contributor
Scott Snowden
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Sometimes—and let's not beat around the bush, quite a lot recently—it feels like society itself is unravelling. And when that happens, we all need to take a deep breath, pause...and go somewhere nearby to just appreciate nature. And once you've realized how well that works, you might want to ponder taking this enlightening experience one step further and plan either a roadtrip that incorpoates one or two of the best national parks in the USA, or even a dedicated visit to one a little bit further away.

See the forces of nature at work at stunners like Arches and Bryce (two of Utah’s 'Big Five'), witness the power of water that carved out the Grand Canyon over thousands of years, or view geysers and sulphurous lakes in Yellowstone. These national parks offer unforgettable experiences (ever gotten caught in traffic due to a bison crossing or seen a hoodoo by the light of the full moon?) no matter where you go.

Visiting a national park can be as easy or challenging as you want. For diehard backcountry types, there are trails and rustic campsites that can keep you out in the wilderness for days. For the average tourist, paved roads through the parks offer the opportunity to easily see the best views and features of the park in a short amount of time.

There are 63 major national parks (in addition to hundreds of smaller sites) spanning the whole country, including Alaska and Hawaii. Next time you hit the road, pick up an America the Beautiful pass and check out the best national parks in the country (but trust us, all of the parks are amazing and all should be on your list).

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Best national parks in the USA

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 writer who helped create the park in 1890.

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. Look for elk, mountain lions and condors along the way, plus the 1,000 species of plants that survive in this semi-arid desert.

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Fun fact: America’s first national park is bigger than Rhode Island and has been a jewel in the NPS's crown since 1872. Critters are everywhere in Yellowstone; geysers spurt regularly; sulphurous lakes bubble and boil; and massive waterfalls glint in the sun. Plus, don’t be surprised if you spot buffalo wandering right down the center divider of the two-lane road that connects the park. With challenging hikes into the backcountry as well as handicap-accessible wooden boardwalks, the wonders of Yellowstone are awesomely plentiful. 

Located in northern Minnesota, just south of the Canadian border, Voyageurs National Park is the definition of a 'hidden gem' because of its relative inaccessibility, it's also one of the least-visited national parks in the country. Incredibly, over a third of the park is made up of water; 84,000 out of 218,000 acres are waterways. These provide access to 655 miles of pristine, unspoiled shoreline and more than 500 island. Rent a canoe and spend a night under the stars at one of the boat-access tent sites on the Lake Kabetogama peninsula – you might even catch the aurora borealis. 

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You've seen Utah's wild landscape in almost every John Wayne western, but now its time to see it for yourself. The incredible thing about Zion National Park is that it hasn't changed an iota over the years—you'll see the same massive sandstone formations, twisty caves and dark skies bursting with stars that Wayne himself walked through and people have been admiring for thousands of years. Mosey to spectacular overlooks, hike to Emerald Pools, walk to Weeping Rock, or stroll on Riverside Walk and you'll get a sense of the grandeur of this spectacular national park. 

Towering 7,000ft above the valley floor, the Teton Range welcomes more than 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. 

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Located north of Moab, Utah, Arches National Park is so named for the 2,000 wind-sculpted sandstone arches gracing the area—the largest such concentration in the world. The most famous of these is the iconic 52ft-tall Delicate Arch, whose image can be seen on Utah license plates, but Arches will amaze you with its sheer range of soaring pinnacles, massive rock fins, and giant balanced rocks. Arches is also one of the few national parks where many of the top formations can be seen from the comfort of your car—perfect for those who want the sights without the sweat. 

Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 415 square miles of breathtaking, protected mountain wilderness. With more than 300 miles of trails, panoramic vistas of snowcapped peaks, picturesque meadows, valleys, and meandering rivers, and Trail Ridge Road (the highest continuous paved road in the United States, hitting 12,183ft in elevation), the choose-your-own-adventure options are endless. Hike it, bike it, fish it, climb it, drive it, camp it, photograph it…or all of the above.

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Hidden in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, America's newest national park attracted over one million visitors last year so clearly, the secret is out. It's already been called the Grand Canyon of the east and this park's most prominent feature is a wide, fast-flowing whitewater river that snakes through the gorge. Inside, you can hike on any number of different trails, traverse the iconic New River Gorge Bridge, the third-highest bridge in the US, or indulge in a full-on class five whitewater raft trip along the 53 miles of accessible river. Just bring some dry clothes.

Death Valley is the hottest, lowest and driest place in the United States, with temperatures topping an insane 130 degrees. It's home to Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in North America. That being said, the park is home to a diversity of colorful canyons, desolate badlands, shifting sand dunes and sprawling mountains, as well as more than 1,000 species of plants, plus salt flats, historic mines and hot and cold spring oases. Want to seek out a few spooky relics? Death Valley is also home to ghost towns just waiting to be explored. 

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Encompassing nearly a million acres, Olympic National Park protects a vast wilderness, thousands of years of human history, and several distinctly different ecosystems, including glacier-capped mountains, old-growth temperate rain forests, and over 70 miles of wild coastline. You'd need more than a week to see everything this park has to offer, but don't miss attractions like Hurricane Ridge (for panoramic views of Mount Olympus), Lake Crescent (rent kayaks), the Hoh Rainforest, and the seasonal sight of salmon cascading along the Sol Duc River in the fall. Oh, and one more thing: you will get wet. It's Washington and rain is inevitable. 

Red rocks, pink cliffs and endless vistas await at this Insta-famous national park in Utah. People travel to Bryce Canyon from around the world to see the largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) in the world, but the park's high elevation also makes it a great place for star gazing. One of the country's more compact national parks, you don't need a ton of time to hit the highlights like Thor's Hammer, Inspiration Point, and the Queens Garden Trail. 

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Between them, these two neighboring national parks contain some of the oldest trees on the planet...and just standing in their presence is a humbling experience. Many of these ancient wooden giants have been on Earth for 3,000 years and there are even a couple of trees where you can actually drive your car through. There are some gorgeous hiking trails here in addition to a small number of campsites. If you're on a roadtrip, try to allocate a reasonable amount of time to explore these wonderful parks.

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.

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White Sands, takes up 275 square miles of breathtaking landscape in New Mexico. Its most noticeable feature: miles of undulating dunes made of blindingly white gypsum crystals which were formed 10,000 years when shallows sea that had existed for millions of years dried up, leaving the gypsum behind. Though long a National Monument, White Sands was elevated to park status in December 2019. Four marked trails allow hiking, and since gypsum, unlike sand, reflects the sun’s heat, the dunes are easy on your feet. And if you’re so inclined, you can rent plastic sleds to slide down them.

You'll probably notice that Utah features quite prominently in this list and there's good reason—its natural geology and geography make it arguably the most exciting state to visit if you're the outdoors type. This particular park is not one of the Beehive State's most well known, but that's precisely why it's on our list. As you'd expect there's plenty offer here, including 15 hiking trails to explore, along with four-wheel-drive road tours, mountain biking and rock climbing. Or you could just marvel at the colors, canyons and rock formations and even harvest fruit from orchards in the Fruita Historic District in the summertime.

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The most visited national park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains is also home to the highest number of animal species—1,778 species of animals, including a notable populations of black bears and elk, and more than 2,600 different plant species call this national park home. But you might be most familiar with the parks' famous fireflies. Every year, the synchronous fireflies, Photinus carolinus or Elkmont fireflies put on a synchronous light display in order to find a mate. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns.

he 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.

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Despite the millions that flock here every year, many don't realize that Joshua Tree National Park is actually made up of two different deserts; the southern tip of the Mojave Desert makes up its western edge and the Colorado Desert covers its eastern and southern areas. And as such, The Joshua trees for which the park is named are more prevalent in the higher elevations on the Mojave side, but here's the funny thing, they're not actually trees. The plants are a member of the Yucca genus and they can grow up to 70 feet tall, though they can take up to 50 years to reach their full size.

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.

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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, as well as 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.

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.

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