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The best national parks in the U.S. for exploring

Craving some American beauty? Discover the best national parks in the U.S. that you have to check off your bucket list.

Grand Canyon
Photograph: Shutterstock/Francesco R. Iacomino Grand Canyon
By Rebecca Dalzell and Tim Lowery |

Ready to explore this glorious country of ours? Same here. And you can’t do much better than hitting up the best national parks in the U.S. during an epic road trip or camping adventure. Find the most stunning places to bask in the great outdoors (we’re talking the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Arches National Park in Utah, Acadia National Park in Maine, among many other attractions). Whether you’re into chilling out, snapping sweet views, rafting, cross-country skiing or just about anything else you can do in the fresh air, these spots have you covered. Looking for more inspiration? Check out the best places to visit in the USA right now. 

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Best national parks in the U.S.

Glacier Bay
Photograph: Shutterstock/Ruth Peterkin

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, 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.

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Photograph: Shutterstock/f11photo

Yosemite National Park, 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.

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Photograph: Shutterstock/Darren J. Bradley

Arches National Park, Utah

More than 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.

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Photograph: Shutterstock/Patricia Hofmeester

Acadia National Park, 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, 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.

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Grand Teton
Photograph: Shutterstock/Phillip Rubino

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Towering 7,000 feet 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. 

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.

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Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Vicente Villamon

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Aside from the desert climate and sweeping natural beauty, there's something you'll notice pretty quickly upon arriving in Joshua Tree: Things to do abound here, whether it's hiking and climbing or wildflower sightseeing. You can visit the park on a day trip or plan a Joshua Tree camping trip and stay awhile. Either way, you'll discover that for what at first glance seems like a monochromatic swath of rock, there's more going on here than meets the eye in its 429,690 acres—enough to keep you busy for days, and coming back again and again.

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Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Photograph: Shutterstock

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

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. 

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.

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White Sands National Park
Photograph: Shutterstock
Things to do

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

America’s newest national park, 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.

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Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
Photograph: Donnie Sexton

Glacier National Park, Montana

Welcome to Big Sky Country, where you can go dog sledding, skiing, hiking and whitewater rafting to your heart's desire. Established in 1910, Montana's vast gem—it takes up more than one million acres—is older than the national park system itself and boasts one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes.

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Photograph: Shutterstock

Badlands National Park, 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.

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

Mammoth Cave National Park, 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.

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Chaco Canyon
Photograph: Shutterstock/James Mattil

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, 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. 

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