If you love wide open spaces, working up a sweat on a hike, sleeping under the stars and road tripping through diverse landscapes, then you are going to love exploring America’s west coast.
Together with The Wandering Westerner, I embarked on a month long adventure across USA’s west coast from the Canadian border to Las Vegas – with stops in a range of national parks throughout the states of Oregon, California, Utah and Arizona.
I sweated hiking up hills under the desert sun, roasted marshmallows by campfires, camped under the stars, looked out for bears, roamed through mist-shrouded forests, walked through rivers, and got priceless views from the edges of vertigo-inducing cliffs.
After traversing dozens of trails on the west coast, here’s my selection of the best national parks in the USA.
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 they are a playground for adventurers.
Zion National Park is one of the top spots to see these unique landscapes. Here 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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, 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. 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 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.
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. Tent sites cost $18 USD per night. Reservations are recommended May to October, however there are usually a handful of sites available daily on a first come, first served basis. There is also another campground outside the park entrance. Tent sites at De Motte Campground are also $18 USD per night.
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.
Not a national park
There’s dozens of beautiful natural areas across America’s west coast that aren’t national parks – but are worthy of a footer to this blog.
Here’s a few of my favourites 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, 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 or 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.
Both canyons attract separate fees and you must take a guided tour.
The best time to visit Upper Antelope Canyon is around lunchtime when light filters into the canyon. It’s possible to buy tickets on the day, but you will need to be there at 8am when they first open to have a chance at securing a ticket.
The optimal time to visit the Lower Antelope Canyon is around mid-morning. However, the lower canyon offers a much larger window for good lighting, so it’s the best option if you can’t get the midday tour at Upper Antelope Canyon.
Horseshoe Bend, Arizona
Horseshoe Bend is located about 6km southwest of Page off Highway 89 and is free to view. 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.
Mt 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.