15 incredible national parks in America

If you love snow capped peaks, walking among giant trees, trekking through canyons, exploring glacial lakes, sleeping under the stars and road tripping through diverse landscapes, then you are going to love exploring the national parks of America.

While soaking up the beautiful nature America has to offer, I’ve hiked up hills under the desert sun, roamed through mist-shrouded forests, walked through rivers, captured mountain reflections on bright blue lakes, and got priceless views from the edges of vertigo-inducing cliffs.

Glacier National Park.

Before you head into these national parks, make sure you buy an Annual Parks Pass. For only $80 USD, you have unlimited entry into every US National Park. You can buy these online, at National Park offices and at some entrance stations. You need to present your pass and photo ID every time you enter a national park. After traversing dozens of trails throughout America, here’s my selection of the best national parks.

The Narrows, Zion National Park.

1. Zion National Park, Utah

Raging rivers, rain, wind and snow have shaped the American state of Utah into the unique landscapes of today – and now these landscapes are a playground for adventurers.

In Zion National Park, you can wade through rivers, gaze up in awe at towering rock walls, explore inside the depths of canyons and even find dinosaur footprints.

The Zion Narrows Trail is a good place to start your explorations of the park. The canyon hike starts at the Temple of Sinawava – located on the east side of the national park.

The trail takes you down the Virgin River – actually in the river. There’s no choice but to get your feet wet as you zig zag across the river to go forward.

The Zion Narrows trail is wide at first before the canyon narrows around you and becomes a tunnel of rock walls. How long you continue along the trail is up to you.

The complete Narrows trail is 15km return, but you can turn around at any point and go back the way you came. Allow about four to eight hours for the return trip depending on your fitness levels and how far into the canyon you want to go.

Be aware that it’s a very strenuous hike due to the fact you have to negotiate the river.

You can also tackle the popular Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park – however be aware that you need a permit for this trail. Permits are issued via a lottery system.

Angel’s Landing.

This 8.7km return hike takes you up a series of seriously steep switchbacks before levelling out, but then it’s up again – ascending the rockface with the help of a chain. But the views across the park are all worth it – it has to be the best view in the park.

Where to stay: You can camp inside Zion National Park but book your site early as campgrounds book out quickly in the summer months. There’s also some private campgrounds located outside the park entrances or you can stay at motels in nearby St George or Hurricane.

Glacier National Park.

2. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

About an hour’s drive from Zion National Park is the equally impressive Bryce Canyon – a bright orange landscape filled with tall, thin spires of rock called hoodoos.

Bryce Canyon.

The best bang for buck way to see the park is via the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop trails. These trails link up and make a 5km loop into the canyon and past the hoodoo rocks. There are some steep sections – including a lot of switchbacks – which offer sweeping views.

The most scenic way to do the hike is clockwise starting from Sunset Point and ending up at Sunrise Point.

Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park.

3. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I visited Rocky Mountain National Park from Boulder, located about an hour from Denver. Bustang runs public bus services on weekends from Boulder’s Table Mesa station between late May and early October to the park. You can also catch the bus from Denver’s Union Station.

The Bustang bus departs from Boulder at 7.55am and 8.55am every Saturday and Sunday and takes about two hours. Taking this bus gets around the timed reservation system and you just need to buy a National Park day pass online or have an Annual Pass (also able to be purchased online but you need to have some lead time for it to be posted to you).

The bus drops you off at the Park n’ Ride station in the national park and then you need to take a free shuttle bus to get to the trailheads.

One of best hikes in the park is a circuit passing several beautiful lakes, including Nymph, Emerald, Dream and Haiyaha Lakes. This trail starts at the Bear Lake trailhead.

Haiyaha Lake.

From Haiyaha Lake, you can then start heading downhill following signs for Bear Lake. After about 45 minutes, you’ll reach a junction. You can opt then to take a detour to include Mills Lake, which offers up reflections of nearby snow capped peaks.

After Mills Lake, return to the junction and continue back to Bear Lake, passing Alberta Falls on the way out. This trail took about 6 hours, however I’m a fast walker so it may take up to 8 hours.

Another great hike takes you past Bear Lake up to Lake Helene. From there, head right and continue down to Odessa and Fern lakes before returning the way I came. This hike takes about 4-5 hours.

Fern Lake.

Keep in mind the Bustang bus departs daily to return to Boulder and Denver at 3.15pm and 4.15pm, so you’ll need to plan accordingly to make sure you’re back in time for your return trip.

Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park.

4. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Grand Teton National Park also offers up stunning hiking trails, mostly to picturesque lakes.

Must do hikes and photo spots include:

  • Inspiration Point and the Cascade Canyon Trail, returning via Jenny Lake. Start the hike by taking the boat across Jenny Lake. Cost is $12 USD one way or $20 return. The journey takes less than 10 minutes. This hike takes about 6 hours, depending how long you walk down the canyon as there’s no specific marked end point. You can also opt to take the boat both ways. I walked for about 90 minutes from Inspiration Point through the canyon before turning around. I recommend doing the hike around Jenny Lake in at least one direction as it’s very beautiful.
  • String Lake (you can walk around the lake or it’s also a great photo stop in the morning for mountain reflections)
  • Bradley and Taggart Lakes. This hike takes about 3 hours to do a circuit stopping at each of the lakes.
  • Phelps Lake. You can choose to just walk to the lake or add in a walk around it.

I recommend carrying bear spray on your hikes in this park. There’s also plenty of pullouts throughout the park to get photos of the Teton peaks.

Cascade Canyon Trail.
View of the Tetons from String Lake.

Where to stay: There’s a couple of campgrounds in Grand Teton National Park, including Jenny Lake and Gros Ventre Campgrounds. Campsites are equipped with a picnic table and bear locker. There are flush toilets at these campgrounds.

Gros Ventre campground.

5. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

A couple of hours north of Grand Tetons National Park is Yellowstone National Park. This national park is huge and you would need weeks to see it all.

Much of the park is situated on the huge caldera of a supervolcano, which is why there’s thermal springs and geysers everywhere. There’s also waterfalls, lakes, canyons and forests.

Thermal springs in Yellowstone National Park.

Sightseeing spots include:

  • The Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser Crater
  • Biscuit Geyser Basin
  • Norris Geyser Basin
  • Old Faithful Geyser and surrounding geysers and springs.
  • Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser. It takes about an hour to reach Fairy Falls from the trailhead and then you can continue on for another 15 minutes to reach the Imperial Geyser. This trail also has a great view of the Grand Prismatic Spring – better than what you get from the main viewing area as you’re above it and can see the colours.
  • Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls, which both run into an impressive canyon. There’s a number of viewpoints in this area to get a great view of the canyon formed by the Yellowstone River.
  • Mammoth Hot Springs, a small hot springs complex near the national park‘s northern entrance.

Many of the trails in Yellowstone National Park are short and along boardwalks, passing by the main geysers and hot springs in the park.

Fairy Falls.
Grand Prismatic Spring.

Where to stay: There’s plenty of accommodation options in the national park ranging from fancy hotels near the Old Faithful Geyser to camping spots. I stayed in Madison Campground ($33 USD per night) on the west side of the park, and mostly concentrated my time around here as this is where a lot of the geyser basins are. I also thoroughly enjoyed exploring Madison Campground itself. There’s a river by the campground and a small hill above it, so it offers great views for sunset and sunrise. It’s also a very peaceful place to relax after a day of exploring.

Madison Campground.

6. Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park is in northern Montana near the Canadian border. It offers up beautiful lakes, scenic mountain views, glaciers and lush forests.

View from Going to the Sun Road.

Driving the Going to the Sun Road is the must do activity in this park if you get the chance. Unfortunately, I was one day too late to do the entire Going to the Sun Road with icy conditions closing the road at Logan Pass when I visited in early October.

Avalanche Lake.

But I was still able to do the hike to Avalanche Lake. This trail takes you through beautiful forest along boardwalks before heading onto a wooded trail to the lake. The hike takes about 3-4 hours return.

Glacier National Park has grizzly bears so it’s a good idea to take bear spray with you on any hikes. 

I didn’t have time to do any hikes on the East Glacier side of the park owing to the pass closure and having to take the long way around, but it’s a pretty drive past lakes and mountains and definitely worth doing simply for the views. But if you have time, the Highline Trail is worth a look.

View from Going to the Sun Road.

Where to stay: Like many other national parks, there’s hotels you can stay at in the park or you can camp. I stayed at Agpar Campground, a well positioned campground across the road from picturesque Lake McDonald near the western entrance to the park. Cost is $25 USD per night and reservations must be made online. This campground offers flush toilets and hot showers. Each site has a picnic table, and bear lockers are spread throughout the campground. There’s also a campground at Avalanche Lake.

Lake McDonald.

7. Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Devil’s Tower is a unique rock formation seemingly in the middle of nowhere on the eastern edge of Wyoming, and it’s definitely worth a stop.

It’s thought to be the remnants of volcanic magma that eroded away over time.

You can walk around the base of the rock in less than an hour.

Devil’s Tower.

Where to stay: The Belle Fourche campground is a very peaceful spot with a great view of the tower. The cost is $20 USD per night, payable in cash via an honesty box system.

Badlands National Park.

8. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

A few hours drive west from Devil’s Tower is Badlands National Park, via the town of Wall in South Dakota.

Conveniently, the national park is located not far off US Highway 14. Enter via the Pinnacles Entrance Station and then you can take a 20 mile loop, see some of the park at the many viewpoints, exit through the North East Entrance Station and then jump back a little further along on the interstate highway. 

I spent about three hours driving through the park as there’s lots of cool viewpoints.

Great Smoky Mountain viewpoint.

9. Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee

To visit this park, I stayed with a friend in Knoxville, which is about a 90 minute drive by car.

However, there are options to stay nearby such as in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge.

I did a couple of hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains including Charlie’s Bunion, Alum Cave and up to LeConte lookout.

View from Charlie’s Bunion.

The Charlie’s Bunion hike takes you along part of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a steady uphill trail and then you come out to a rocky outcrop to get a view of the Great Smoky Mountains area. The return hike takes about 4-5 hours.

The Alum Cave/Le Conte hike takes you first up to Alum Cave – a large cave carved out of the limestone.

Further along is the LeConte Lodge and from there it’s a short walk to the LeConte lookout, which again has a great view of the Great Smoky Mountains.

On the LeConte trail.

The latter part of the hike is interesting as it offers views, some narrow rocky sections, and the hike between the resort and the lookout is filled with moss covered trees and it feels like you’re in an enchanted wonderland. The return hike is about 6-8 hours.

10. Yosemite National Park, California

You’ll find the famous Yosemite National Park in eastern California. Yosemite is one of America’s most popular national parks owing to its distinctive granite peaks, which were formed over thousands of years by glaciers.

Trails in Yosemite National Park range from easy to hard so there’s something for everything.

One of the most spectacular trails is the 3.5km return Taft Point hike. Taft Point is located off Glacier Point Road.

Taft Point.

For a taste of what you’re about to hike to, drive to the end of the road to the Glacier Point lookout. Here you’ll get sweeping views across the mountains – including over to the park’s iconic Half Dome – and look 1km down into the valley below.

About 3.5km before Glacier Point is the trailhead for the Taft Point and Sentinel Dome hikes. Taft Point goes to your left and finishes at a vertigo inducing cliff. If you’re scared of heights, this may not be the hike for you. The hike is easy to moderate with only a couple of short steep sections.

The trail on your right from the trailhead goes to Sentinel Dome. This hike is a little harder than Taft Point but you’ll get views of Yosemite’s most famous peaks including Half Dome and El Capitan, as well as Yosemite Falls if they’re flowing at the time. The trail is a gentle ascent before you climb up to the top of the Dome. You can also continue on to Glacier Point from Sentinel Dome.

Many of Yosemite’s star attractions can be found in the well trafficked Yosemite Valley near the park entrance and tourist amenities. Trailheads for Half Dome, Bridal Veil Falls and Vernal Falls start here.

Yosemite National Park not only has mountains or peaks to climb – you can also explore the meadow areas such as Toulomne Meadows, or go on a road trip through the Tioga mountain pass.

Where to stay: You can camp inside Yosemite National Park but book your site early as campgrounds books out quickly in the summer months.

Huge trees in Sequoia National Park.

11. Sequoia National Park, California

Sequoia National Park is south of Yosemite National Park and it’s where you’ll find giant trees – most likely the biggest trees you’ve ever seen.

Forests of giant sequoia trees are spread throughout the park on the aptly named Giant Forest Trail, and you’ll also come across the General Sherman Tree here – the biggest tree in the world by volume. The General Sherman Tree is estimated to be more than 2,200 years old and measures 40 metres in circumference at its base.

The hike up to Moro Rock is also a must do in the park. It’s a steep hike up 400 steps to the top, but you’ll get great views across the park.

Where to stay: There’s a number of drive in campgrounds in the park and many work on a honesty system for payment.

Canyonlands National Park.

12. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

To set your eyes on some seriously unique and breathtaking landscapes, then you need to make your way over to Canyonlands National Park.

Located in the south east of Utah near the town of Moab, the national park features unparalleled landscapes carved by millions of years of extreme weather.

Canyonlands National Park has three distinct sections – Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze.

The Island in the Sky section is the most accessible and popular section of the park.

The Needles is on the eastern side and is about a 45-minute drive from Moab.

The Maze is located on the west side of the park and is only accessible by 4WD vehicles or experienced hikers on multi-day back country hikes.

The Island in the Sky section features a number of short trails and viewpoints. The Grand View Point Trail is an impressive but easy 3.5km hike along the Canyonlands mesa. The trail offers stunning views of the white rimmed canyons below carved by the Colorado and Green River. You will also see Monument Basin, Junction Butte and the La Sal Mountains.

Canyonlands National Park’s most popular trail is a short hike to the Mesa Arch – a window-like view out to the canyons and mountains beyond. The loop trail is only 1.1km – and you can also opt to follow a rough trail up to another vista point atop a boulder to the right of the arch.

Where to stay: You can camp in the park, or there’s plenty of other campgrounds and also motels in nearby Moab.

Crater Lake.

13. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake was the result of an eruption of a 3,600-metre volcano about 7,700 years ago.

The volcano’s crater collapsed in the eruption and formed a caldera that then became a lake fed from rain and snow. The lake is the deepest in the USA.

You can get spectacular views of the crater by hiking to the top of Mt Scott – a 2,692-metre high mountain located above the lake.

The hike isn’t as hard as it sounds with an elevation climb of only 400 metres. The 4.2km hike (one way) gradually winds up the mountain before you reach a fire lookout tower at the top of the peak and look down at the blue waters of the lake.

If hiking isn’t your thing, you can also get good views of the lake from the Cloudcap Lookout opposite the Mt Scott Trailhead.

In the summer months, you can drive around the entire lake in about an hour. Hiking and driving around the lake is only possible during the summer months when the roads are open. The area receives heavy snow during the rest of the year.

Where to stay: You can stay nearby Crater Lake at the Diamond Lake Resort or camp at the Diamond Lake Campgrounds.

14. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is one of America’s most popular natural attractions. But did you know that there’s two sections of the Grand Canyon? Most tourists will head to the South Rim. The North Rim is said to receive only 10 per cent of visitors to the Grand Canyon and there’s a high chance you’ll have hiking trails and viewpoints all to yourself.

One of the best bang for buck hikes on the North Rim is the 6.8km return Cape Final Trail. The Cape Final Trail is an easy walk along a forested path before you come to a spectacular view of the canyon and over to the Painted Desert.

Not far from the Cape Final trailhead is the 1.3km return Cape Royal Trail, which is a paved walk to more views of the canyon and the Angel’s Window rock formation.

For sunset, your best bet is the lookout at the end of the Bright Angel Point Trail. A short but steep walk along a paved trail brings you to a rocky outcrop overlooking the canyon. Stick around for sunset and you’ll be rewarded with hues of pink, orange, and purple in the desert landscape.

Where to stay: The North Rim Campground is the only campground inside the North Rim section of the Grand Canyon National Park. The park has pay showers and free wifi at the General Store.

15. North Cascades National Park, Washington

The North Cascades National Park is overflowing with beautiful viewpoints and hikes through its old growth forests.

One of the best hikes is the Cascade Pass Trail. This trail is about an hour’s drive along a gravel road from the small town of Marblemount, the gateway town to the park.

After hiking for about an hour through tall trees and past glimpses of towering Johannesburg Mountain, you’ll be greeted by a view down into a saddle of beautiful valleys, meadows, glaciers and mountains.

The Narrows, Zion National Park.

Not a national park – but worth a visit

There’s dozens of beautiful natural areas across America that aren’t national parks – but are worthy of a footer to this blog. Here’s a few of my favourite outdoor areas near some of America’s best national parks.

Silver Falls National Forest, Oregon

You’ll find Silver Falls State Park only a 90-minute drive from Portland. The park is home to the Trail of Ten Falls – a moderate 14km trail looping past 10 waterfalls.

The waterfalls range in size and you can even walk behind a handful. North and South Falls are among the most stunning waterfalls in the park. The trail will take around four hours and is best in spring when water levels are at their highest.

Lake Tahoe, California

East of San Francisco, you’ll find North America’s largest alpine lake. Lake Tahoe straddles the Californian and Nevada border, and is so big it’s split into two distinct sections – north and south. Attractions include kayaking or swimming in Emerald Bay, hiking into the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountain to Eagle Lake, Eagle Rock or Mt Tallac, or simply driving to various viewpoints around the lake including the Inspiration Point Vista.

Smith Rock State Park.

Smith Rock State Park, Oregon

Smith Rock State Park is the place to go to see Oregon’s desert landscapes. There’s a number of trails in the park – but one that will give you sweeping canyon views as well as river views is the challenging Misery Ridge Trail. The trail starts on the short Canyon Trail leading from the carpark – then winds steeply uphill past rock climbing walls and rocky outcrops with views of the river below. The complete loop is about 6km. Not far from Smith Rock State Park you’ll find Oregon’s volcanic landscapes.

Upper & Lower Antelope Canyons, Arizona

The Upper and Lower Antelope slot canyons were carved from the soft red sandstone by flash floods over time. When sunlight hits the sandstone, it reflects brilliant shades of red, yellow, orange and purple. A guided tour is mandatory and requires a reservation with an authorised Navajo guide. These tours need to be booked in advance and will usually leave from nearby Page.

Horseshoe Bend, Colorado

Horseshoe Bend is located about 6km southwest of Page off Highway 89. A parking fee applies and is not included in the National Parks Annual Pass. It’s about a 15-minute walk in along a 1.2km sandy path to reach the viewpoint, which looks down at the azure coloured bend in the Colorado River. The Colorado River is what created the Grand Canyon – carving out the canyon over thousands of years.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona

You’ve probably seen a photo of Monument Valley – it’s distinctive landscapes towering above the straight road through the desert. You can choose to pay to enter Monument Valley and get up close to the rock monuments, or you can take the cheap backpacker option and simply get a good view at the viewpoints along the highway leading up to the valley.

Mount St Helen’s National Volcanic Monument, Washington

Mount St Helens is an active volcano that last erupted in a massive explosion on May 18, 1980. You can approach Mount St. Helens from the east, west or south. One stunning drive is up to the west side to the Johnson Ridge Observatory. Along the journey, you’ll get many interrupted views of Mt St Helens and the destruction it caused in past eruptions. The viewpoint at the observatory is also worth a look. The mountain’s south side was not affected by the 1980 eruption, but lava flows from previous eruptions have shaped the area, and you’ll find lots of lava tubes and canyons to explore. The upper and lower Ape Cave trails take you underground to explore the fascinating lava tubes. The caves are open between May and November. You’ll need to bring a torch and warm clothing. The Lava Canyon trail is also an interesting hike into a gorge past waterfalls, across rocky outcrops and a bouncy suspension bridge.

Bear Peak, Colorado

Boulder has some excellent hiking trails near the town. One of my favourites was up to Bear Peak, one of the highest mountains in the area. The hike starts and ends at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). I took the Fern Canyon trail up then got onto the West Ridge trail to descend the peak. I then returned to the NCAR via the Bear Canyon trail. The hike will take 6-7 hours return.

View along the Bear Peak trail.

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