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The Best National Parks in the United States

Jessica Spiegel
By 
Jessica Spiegel
Freelance Writer
7 min read
Last updated 
July 1, 2020

If you’re making a list of the greatest feathers in the proverbial cap of the United States, the national parks would be among the most prominent. Since President Grant created the country’s first national park in 1872, more than 84 million acres of land and 4.5 million acres of waterways have been protected by the National Park Service.

The NPS runs 62 national parks in the United States, ranging in size from 192 acres to more than 8.3 million acres. While there are arguments to be made about what constitutes the best among them, we think these 20 showcase the best of what the national parks represent—including the preservation of natural wonders, archaeological sites, and fragile ecosystems.

Acadia National Park

lighthouse at acadia national park in Maine
  • State: Maine
  • Nearest airport: Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport is less than 10 miles from the park; the larger Bangor International Airport is a little more than 46 miles away. Portland International Jetport is around 170 miles away (about three hours drive). 

The oldest national park east of the Mississippi may not have the expansive grandeur of its cousins out west, but the combination of rugged landscapes, ocean views, and killer sunrises make Acadia an excellent place to visit. The park is entirely located on Mount Desert Island (about half the island is designated parkland) and offers some 125 miles of hiking trails to enjoy. What’s more, the adorable town of Bar Harbor is nearby, in case you need a lobster fix.

Sample deals to Acadia National Park: 

Arches National Park

  • State: Utah
  • Nearest airport: Salt Lake City International Airport is about 230 miles from the park; smaller airports that are closer are Grand Junction Regional Airport (109 miles) and Canyonlands Field (11 miles).

As the name implies, Arches National Park is home to more than 2,000 red sandstone arches—some small, some incredibly large. Each formation, created over eons by water and wind, is an impressive testament to Mother Nature’s power. You’ve probably seen photos of the one called Delicate Arch, but there are many more to take in. Photographers will want to camp to capture images of the arches with a starry background—it’s one of the best places in the country to see the stars.

Sample deals to Arches National Park: 

Bryce Canyon National Park

woman overlooking Bryce Canyon National Park
  • State: Utah
  • Nearest airport: Two major airports are about 270 miles from the park: McCarran International in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City International.

Other-worldly rock spires, called hoodoos, are the main attraction at Bryce Canyon National Park. Formations like these occur naturally in lots of locations around the world, but the largest concentration of them is in this park. You can hike through the series of canyons for spectacular vantage points over the hoodoos and then walk among the spires themselves on the canyon floor. For shorter visits, an 18-mile road through the park offers excellent views—including from the park’s highest elevation.

Sample deals to Bryce Canyon National Park: 

Denali National Park & Preserve

  • State: Alaska
  • Nearest airport: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is about 240 miles from the park and Fairbanks International Airport is just under 120 miles away.

The Grand Dame of Denali National Park and Preserve is the mountain that gives the park its name. The tallest mountain in North America, Denali stands at more than 20,000 feet above sea level and provides not only recreational activities but also a stunning backdrop for photographs. Most of the trails are unmarked and relatively short, but experienced hikers can also go off-trail to explore the glacial landscape.

Sample deals to Denali National Park & Preserve: 

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park
  • State: Florida
  • Nearest airport: The nearest major airport is Miami International Airport, more than 160 miles away from the Dry Tortugas ferry dock; the closest airport is Key West International Airport (three miles from the dock).

Dry Tortugas National Park is composed of seven little islands and the historic Fort Jefferson, itself occupying nearly an entire island. The 19th-century hexagonal fort is one of the country’s biggest (it covers 16 acres) and is the centerpiece of many tours of the park. Since a great deal of the park’s “land” is actually water, it’s a good spot for snorkeling and diving as well as boating. Underwater scenery includes colorful corals and several shipwrecks. The most popular shipwreck dive is the Windjammer, which sank in 1901.

Sample deals to Dry Tortugas National Park: 

Everglades National Park

  • State: Florida
  • Nearest airport: Miami International Airport is just over 35 miles from the park and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is a little more than 61 miles away.

There are a number of superlatives associated with Everglades National Park. It’s one of the largest national parks in the United States, the biggest tropical wilderness in the country, home to the country’s biggest mangrove ecosystem, and it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The extensive park is famous for its wetlands, which are home to wildlife like manatees, dolphins, flamingos, panthers, and crocodiles. Exploring by boat is arguably the best way to see this delicate environment, either on your own with a rental canoe or kayak, or by guided tour. 

Sample deals to Everglades National Park: 

Glacier National Park

glacier national park
  • State: Montana
  • Nearest airport: Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell is the closest airport to the park at roughly 30 miles away from the West Entrance. Missoula International Airport and Great Falls International Airport range from 130–165 miles from the park’s four entrances.

While Glacier National Park is (as the name suggests) home to 25 glaciers, the park’s entire landscape is informed by glacial movement spanning millions of years. Visitors get an excellent overview of the many terrains glaciers leave in their wake with a leisurely drive (or bike ride) along the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road—stop at the many viewpoints to admire the scenery and (possibly) wildlife like bighorn sheep. If you have more time, explore some of the 700-plus miles of fantastic hiking trails to see glaciers, lakes, and waterfalls.

Sample deals to Glacier National Park:

Grand Canyon National Park

  • State: Arizona
  • Nearest airport: Flagstaff-Pulliam Airport is closest to the South Rim (87 miles away); the larger McCarran International in Las Vegas and Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport are 263 and 229 miles away respectively.

The Grand Canyon is the very definition of the word “epic.” It’s truly impossible to grasp the scope of the canyon’s size without seeing it in person, but here are some numbers to give you an idea of what to expect: The canyon gets up to a mile deep and a whopping 18 miles across at its widest point. It’s the second-busiest U.S. National Park with more than six million visitors annually so, as you’d expect, the day trip spots along the popular South Rim get crowded. If you’re hoping to escape the bulk of the crowds, either head for the North Rim or (if you’re an experienced hiker) spend a couple of days backpacking in the canyon itself.

Sample deals to Grand Canyon National Park: 

Grand Teton National Park

  • State: Wyoming
  • Nearest airport: Jackson Hole Airport is less than five miles from the park; Idaho Falls Regional Airport is a little less than 96 miles away.

With Yellowstone so close to Grand Teton National Park, the latter sometimes gets overlooked—and that’s a shame. The tallest peak in the Teton Range gives the park its name and stands at 13,775 feet above sea level and some 7,000 feet above nearby Jackson Hole. Rock climbers love the craggy mountains, hikers are handsomely rewarded with striking scenery for the effort of climbing those steep trails, and rafters flock to the Snake River running through the park. Best of all, you can get a combined admission to Grand Teton and nearby Yellowstone at a discount. And, in case you’re wondering, the name comes from the French, les tétons, which means “teats.” Yes, really.

Sample deals to Grand Teton National Park: 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • States: North Carolina and Tennessee
  • Nearest airport: The nearest airport is McGee-Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, about 45 miles from the Gatlinburg entrance; North Carolina’s Asheville Regional Airport is about 60 miles from the park’s Cherokee entrance. From Nashville, it’s about 200 miles, three hours by car. 

The most-visited national park in the United States may not be one you’d think of at first, but Great Smoky Mountains National Park gets more than 12 million visitors annually. Some of that is due, no doubt, to nearby Dollywood, but a US highway and the popular Appalachian Trail also run through the park—so it ends up being a stop along the way for many. Still, since the Great Smoky Mountains is free to enter and covers an enormous 816 square miles, it’s absolutely worth making it the focal point of a trip. There are 850 miles of hiking trails for all skill levels to see waterfalls, lakes, and rivers.

Sample deals to Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

  • State: Hawaii
  • Nearest airport: The park is located on Hawaii’s “Big Island,” which has two airports. Hilo International Airport is the closest major airport to the park at just under 30 miles away. Kona is the larger airport, where most flights to the island arrive, and is about 80 miles from the park. 

It would be totally understandable if you needed no more encouragement to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park than the word “volcanoes”—but more details never hurt. The park has two active volcanoes, Kīlauea (one of the most active volcanoes in the world) and Mauna Loa, both of which regularly put on truly spectacular shows of lava eruptions and flows. Drive the Crater Rim Drive or Chain of Craters Road for viewpoints overlooking lava tubes, steam vents, and craters—or, depending on current volcanic activity, you can even hike along the rim of the Kīlauea crater itself.

Sample deals to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: 

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua tree national park at night
  • State: California
  • Nearest airport: Palm Springs Airport is closest to the park at 45 miles away, but there are several other big airports in the area that aren’t too much further away: Ontario International Airport (92 miles), Los Angeles International Airport (147 miles), Hollywood Burbank Airport (145 miles), and Long Beach Airport (133 miles).

Joshua Tree National Park is relatively close to busy Los Angeles, making it a favorite escape of city dwellers, but it’s far enough away that it’s one of the best places in Southern California for stargazing. For this reason, overnight camping is recommended—even more so if you go during the annual Night Sky Festival to peek through telescopes and learn about the constellations. During daylight hours, there are more than 300 miles of hiking trails to explore and the many boulders and rock formations are extremely popular with rock climbers.

Sample deals to Joshua Tree National Park: 

Mammoth Cave National Park

  • State: Kentucky
  • Nearest airport: Louisville International Airport is just under 89 miles from the park.

Mammoth Cave National Park comes by its name honestly. The eponymous cave is the longest known cave system on earth, spanning more than 400 miles of surveyed caves—and they’re not done mapping the network yet. There may be as many as 1,000 miles of caves in total. Ten miles of caves are open to visitors, all of which require guided tours. There are tours of varying difficulty levels and visitors are strongly encouraged to make reservations for cave tours, as they sell out regularly. In between cave excursions, you can enjoy “surface activities” like boating, horseback riding, and hiking on more than 90 miles of trails.

Sample deal to Mammoth Cave National Park: 

Mesa Verde National Park

  • State: Colorado
  • Nearest airport: Durango-La Plata County Airport is about 50 miles from the park.

With so many national parks focusing on unspoiled natural landscapes, it’s easy to forget that the park system has also worked to protect and preserve a number of culturally important sites. Mesa Verde National Park, for instance, contains more than 5,000 archaeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo people, including 600 impressive cliff dwellings. The biggest and best-known is Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America with 150 rooms, which dates from the late 12th century. Visitors can see some of the archaeological sites on self-guided walks, but going into some of the dwellings (highly recommended) is only possible with a guide. For added drama, book a spot on a sunset tour of Cliff Palace.

Sample deal to Mesa Verde National Park: 

Rocky Mountain National Park

rocky mountain national park in winter
  • State: Colorado
  • Nearest airport: Denver International Airport is a little more than 77 miles from the park.

Colorado’s “Rocky Mountain high” might well be due to the thinner air at those elevations, but that doesn’t make Rocky Mountain National Park any less awe-inspiring. Drivers can survey the spectacular landscapes from the 48-mile-long Trail Ridge Road, which reaches 12,000 feet—above the treeline—at its highest point. For most visitors, though, the real appeal of the park is the more than 350 miles of hiking trails. Of particular interest is the Continental Divide cutting the park almost in half. The climates and ecosystems are notably different on either side (more mountains to the east, more lakes and waterfalls to the west), so it’s a bit like two national park experiences in one.

Sample deals to Rocky Mountain National Park: 

Sequoia National Park

  • State: California
  • Nearest airport: Fresno Yosemite International Airport is just over 65 miles from the park. Los Angeles and San Francisco are 300 and 250 miles away, respectively.

One of the main draws of Sequoia National Park is, without question, seeing one of the largest trees on earth—nicknamed the General Sherman Tree. The General stands at nearly 275 feet and is more than 102 feet around at the base, soaring over the surrounding forest (called the Giant Forest, as it’s also home to several other trees also among the largest in the world). The tree is estimated to be more than 2,300 years old. Easy trails wind through ancient sequoia groves, but visitors with more time can also see the other-wordly stalactites and stalagmites in Crystal Cave, hike the backcountry to see Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48), and explore the adjacent Kings Canyon National Park—the two parks are administered together, so one admission covers both.

Sample deals to Sequoia National Park: 

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park
  • State: Virginia
  • Nearest airport: The park is only 75 miles from Washington D.C., so both Washington Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport are close (56 and 70 miles away, respectively).

Although the river that gives Shenandoah National Park its name lies to the west outside the park’s borders, the scenic road that snakes through the park offers incredible views of the Shenandoah Valley. The aptly-named Skyline Drive more or less follows the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles and is the perfect way to get an overview of the park. Go at a leisurely pace. Stop at the viewpoints along the way or to watch the animals—including bears—that cross the road. If you’d rather get closer to nature, there are more than 500 miles of hiking trails to choose from in the park, including 105 miles of the famous Appalachian Trail.

Sample deals to Shenandoah National Park: 

Yellowstone National Park

  • States: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
  • Nearest airport: The closest airport to any of the park entrances is Yellowstone Airport (two miles away), but note that it’s not open year-round. The closest year-round airports are Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (88 miles from the North Entrance and 91 miles from the West Entrance), Yellowstone Regional Airport (67 miles from the East Entrance), and Jackson Hole Airport (49 miles from the South Entrance).

Yellowstone National Park is home to so many national park “greatest hits” that it might be hard to choose what to explore. Established in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park and remains one of the most iconic. The 2.2-million acre landscape includes mountains, waterfalls, and forests, but perhaps its best-known natural features are geothermal. The hot springs, mudpots, and geysers will give you a whole new appreciation for the wild science of Mother Nature. The most popular geothermal site is the Old Faithful geyser, so named because it erupts on such a regular and reliable schedule, but don’t stop there. Admire the riotous colors of Grand Prismatic Spring or Fountain Paint Pot, watch herds of majestic bison graze in valleys, or hike some of the 900-plus miles of trails in the park.

Sample deals to Yellowstone National Park: 

Yosemite National Park

yosemite national park
  • State: California
  • Nearest airport: Merced Regional Airport is 83 miles from the park, and the larger Fresno-Yosemite International Airport is 94 miles away. The San Francisco and Oakland airports are farther options at 180 miles away; Reno-Tahoe International Airport and Sacramento International Airport are each about 150 miles away. 

While Yellowstone was the country’s first national park, the effort to preserve the land that now makes up Yosemite National Park drove the creation of the national park concept—it’s been a protected area since 1864. The Tunnel View overlook offers a perfect picture-postcard view down the heart of the Yosemite Valley, with steep cliffs rising on either side of a dense forest. The park is known for stunning waterfalls, ancient sequoias, and imposing rock formations beloved by climbers around the world. Two of the most famous attractions in the park are rock formations—Half Dome and El Capitan—that are world-class climbing locations. but there are rock climbing routes for all skill levels and even a rock climbing school that runs lessons in the park.

Sample deals to Yosemite National Park: 

Zion National Park

  • State: Utah
  • Nearest airport: St. George Regional Airport and Cedar City Regional Airport are closest to the park at 49 miles and 60 miles away respectively; the closest major airport to the park is McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas at 170 miles away.

Utah’s first and most famous national park, Zion National Park gets busier every year. Zion Canyon gives the park its name and is where you’ll find one of the most popular slot canyon hikes—The Narrows. It’s the (you guessed it) narrowest part of Zion Canyon, the red sandstone cut by the Virgin River, and hiking The Narrows means walking in the river—there’s no trail. Some of the park’s attractions are even less accessible, requiring canyoneering skills and equipment (or at least a guided tour), though experienced climbers are handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Zion’s most famous hike up to the Angels Landing viewpoint is considered one of its most strenuous, but there are hikes at all skill levels.

Sample deals to Zion National Park: 

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Last Updated 
June 25, 2020
The Best National Parks in the United States
Jessica Spiegel
Freelance Writer

Jessica Spiegel is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. She's an obsessive knitter and loves Italy, pho, Sazeracs, the Portland Timbers, and altruism.

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