Travel Experts Share the 27 Best National Parks in the USA For Your Next Road Trip
Spring is here and summer is around the corner, meaning it’s time for road trips to America’s prized national parks. People come from all over the world to witness these natural wonders. However, tracking down bucket list-worthy destinations can be a daunting task. So, we’ve rounded up the best national parks in the USA from travel experts who share the top things to see and do at each destination. Read on to start planning your next national park road adventure.
1. Blue Ridge Parkway
Winding through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Many people flock to the Parkway in the fall for the gorgeous foliage but spring and summer bring wildflowers, mild temperatures, and beautiful waterfall hikes.
Hiking or picnicking at the overlooks are popular activities but you’ll also want to stop and explore some of the small towns off the parkway.
Stop to hike at Devil’s Courthouse, Craggy Gardens, Linville Falls, or Crabtree Falls in North Carolina. Make sure you check out things to do in Black Mountain, Blowing Rock, or West Jefferson.
On the Virginia side, stop at Mabry Mill, Chateau Morrisette Winery and Vineyard, and Peaks of Otter. Lexington, Roanoke, and Waynesboro are great cute towns a short distance from the Parkway.
Be sure to pack a picnic blanket, hammocks, and your camera for the drive!
By Anna | Stuck On The Go
2. Crater Lake
Crater Lake is located in southwestern Oregon. It is the deepest lake in the United States at 1,943 ft. The water is the most magnificent blue. The best time of year to visit is July through September. Make sure to do the Rim Trail by car or via the park trolley (reserve in advance).
There are a lot of hikes to do, but if you want to say you’ve “done” the park, try the Cleetwood Cove hike that takes you down to the lake. The boat is a fantastic way to get a better look into the crystal-clear water and get a completely different perspective from what you see riding around the rim. The ascent back is deceptively tough – take your time, wear shoes with good traction, and bring plenty of water.
By Chrissy Trotter | Destined Globetrotter
3. Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is one of the most unique, diverse, and beautiful national parks in the US. Located across the Puget Sound from Seattle (about a 2-hour drive), it’s a relatively easy location to access.
Spring and summer are the best times to visit as the weather will be mild and drier. November through April bring the rainy season. As the home of the only mainland US rainforest, it is lush, green and even covered in beautiful carpets of moss in areas like the Hoh Rainforest.
Waterfalls like Marymere Falls and Madison Falls are relatively easy to hike to, making it great for many abilities. The beaches are gorgeous and covered in smooth rocks.
Go from sea level to 6,000+ feet all in the same park by visiting Hurricane Ridge. This alpine location has gorgeous views and unique hikes.
By Megan | Letsjetkids.com
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Sitting on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an oasis of lush forests, incredible wildflowers, and stunning waterfalls that span an incredible 522,419 acres of land.
Just be sure to fly into McGee-Tyson Airport near Knoxville, Tennessee, and drive to the park from there.
Upon arrival, be sure to tackle sections of the Appalachian Trail, like an 8-mile stretch that takes you to Cherlie’s Bunion, before visiting the Newfound Gap near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
You could also do the Alum Cave Trail and visit the Alum Cave Bluffs and Arch Rock as you climb to the summit.
Afterward, visit Clingsmans Dome and admire stunning views from the highest mountain in the area, which sits at 6,644 feet tall. You can drive to the top any time between May and November.
Also, visit in October since the weather will be cooler. The fall foliage is absolutely stunning.
By Victoria | Southern Trippers
5. Big Bend National Park
No list of the best national parks would be complete without Big Bend National Park. It’s located in southwest Texas, kind of in the middle of nowhere. So, if you are looking to get away from it all and experience gorgeous desert mountain scenery – this is the place!
Spring and fall are the best times to visit when temperatures are mild. Summer in Big Bend can be swelteringly hot and should be avoided unless you really like it hot. No reservations are needed to access the park.
Hiking should be at the top of your Big Bend to-do list. The Window Trail winds through the valley- black bears are frequently seen. Lost Mine Trail leads you high up into the mountains with incredible views at the top.
Lodging in the park is very limited, but there are many great places to stay in the surrounding area. Be sure to book well in advance.
By Jody Phifer | My Travel Obsession
6. Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park is the most popular destination in New England, and for good reason. It’s home to some of the most iconic coastline views in the region, and offers breathtaking hiking, gorgeous nature trails and even a scenic restaurant.
If it’s thrills you’re looking for, you’ll want to head straight to the Beehive Trail, which offers some of the best bird’s eye views in the park.
One of the most epic things to do in Acadia is to wake up early for sunrise at the Cadillac Mountain Summit. Take the auto road for the easiest option, and experience one of the first places you can see the sun in the US!
Be sure to walk Ocean Path for views of the famous Otter Cliffs, and squeeze in lunch at Jordan Pond House for their popovers (and more views of the mountains). And definitely don’t leave without driving Park Loop Road.
By Sam | New England Wanderlust
7. Rocky Mountain National Park
Located outside Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best national parks in the USA. It is only a 90-minute drive from the Denver International Airport (DIA).
It’s the fourth most visited national park in the United States and is home to incredible alpine scenery that can be seen from Trail Ridge Road. In fact, this is the highest continuous paved road in the country sitting at an elevation of 12,183 feet. Be sure to stop at Many Parks Curve, Forest Canyon Overlook, and Fairview Curve during this incredible, 48-mile drive.
Next, enjoy local hikes like Sky Pond, Dream Lake, Longs Peak, and Bear Lake.
Just know that you’ll need a timed entry permit when visiting the park between May 26 to October 22, 2023. However, permits cost $2.00 and week-long passes cost $30.
Additionally, try to visit between mid-June and September since the weather is comfortable and the park’s main attractions will be open.
By Meg | Fox in the Forest
8. Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas is a one-of-a-kind national park that includes seven islands located 70 miles off the coast of Key West.
Therefore, to visit the park you need to fly into Key West and then grab a ride aboard the Yankee Freedom III Ferry. Tickets typically cost $190 per adult and include lunch.
And while the journey takes two hours, it’s worth it to visit gorgeous coral reefs, the historic Fort Jefferson, and to take in iconic views at South Swim Beach. Afterward, you can snorkel at Moat Wall, and see if you can spot sea turtles that regularly visit the area. Next, rent a kayak and paddle to Loggerhead Key before enjoying even more snorkeling at Garden Key.
And while there is no bad time to visit this park, February through April and October through November are great times to visit since crowds are small and the weather is mild.
By Victoria | Southern Trippers
9. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the Big Island of Hawaii and is home to two active volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Visitors can explore Volcanoes Park themselves or take a volcano tour from Kona or Hilo.
The most popular attraction of the park is the active Kilauea Volcano which erupts within the Halema’uma’u crater. The Volcanoes Park has several hiking trails like the Kilauea Iki trail which involves walking on a former lava lake inside a volcano crater. There are several scenic drives to enjoy such as Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. The Thurston Lava Tube is a huge cave formed by volcanic activity.
Any time of the year is great to visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but the busy tourist season is during the summer and winter months.
By Anu Agarwal | Destination Checkoff
10. Hot Springs National Park
Though not your typical nature-infused park, Hot Springs National Park is an urban park and is considered one of the oldest in America. Located in the Ouachita Mountains of Hot Springs, Arkansas, you can enjoy the natural hot springs along the historic Bathhouse Row. Two bathhouses are available for soaking: The Quapaw Bathhouse and Buckstaff Bathhouse.
Be sure to walk the Grand Promenade trail behind Bathhouse Row. You’ll also want to make time for a rootbeer float at Superior Bathhouse. They make their brews from the natural spring water, and it’s the only brewery in all of the national parks.
There are so many things to do in Hot Springs. Be sure to add it to your national park bucket list!
By Ashlee Fechino | The Happiness Function
11. Mount Rainer National Park
Mount Rainier is the highest peak in Washington state. It stands tall at 14,411 feet. Although Mount Rainier National Park is open year-round, the best time to visit is the late summer to early fall. In the late summer, visitors can take in the park’s stunning wildflower meadows, crystal-clear lakes, and alpine vistas. This season offers ample opportunities for wildlife viewing, bird watching, hiking, and camping. There are over 260 miles of trails to explore ranging from easy walks to challenging alpine hikes.
As fall arrives, the park’s foliage explodes into an array of colors, and the crowds begin to disperse. While summer and early fall offer the most favorable weather and access to facilities, each season in the park has a unique charm for recreational opportunities. So, you can visit and experience the park’s beauty and activities all year round.
By Tammi Kaeberlein | Wander Healthy
12. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is located just south of Yellowstone National Park. The park is full of gorgeous scenery with soaring mountains, beautiful lakes, and plenty of wildlife.
One of the best things do in Grand Teton National Park is drive the 42-mile scenic loop route through the heart of the park. The road has plenty of turnouts where you can stop to admire jaw-dropping views.
Another must-do activity is the boat cruise on Jenny Lake. It gives you up-close views of the Teton mountains and the guides do a great job of explaining the local history and culture. The cruise also drops you off at the trailhead for one of the best short and easy hikes in the park: Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls.
Since it is high in the Rocky Mountains, May through September are the best times to visit since those months are typically snow-free.
By Taryn Eyton | HappiestOutdoors.ca
13. Joshua Tree National Park
Located about an hour away from the Southern California resort city of Palm Springs is Joshua Tree National Park. This is one of the best national parks to visit as it offers visitors incredible views of the Mojave Desert.
One of the main attractions at Joshua Tree are the larger-than-life jumbo rocks. Witnessing these towering rock formations in person will leave you speechless. Visitors can climb or scramble on top of them to see sweeping views of the striking desert landscape.
If you prefer to stay on the ground, consider hiking one of the many trails. Two crowd favorites with great sightseeing opportunities include the Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Arch Rock Nature Trail.
For those interested in visiting, the best time to visit is the fall and spring, when the area experiences beautiful weather with mild temperatures.
By Kristin | Global Travel Escapades
14. Denali National Park
Denali National Park should be on every national park bucket list. Not only is it home to the largest mountain in the US, but the park’s vast wilderness is an important reminder of humanity’s relative smallness.
There is so much to see and do in Denali including witnessing Alaska’s Big 5: bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves. To protect the ecosystem, private vehicles are restricted after mile 15 so don’t plan on driving.
If your budget isn’t a concern, plan a once-in-a-lifetime flight over the park to see Mt. Denali. Or reserve a ride on one of Denali’s daily bus tours to go beyond mile 15. However you see Denali, its stunning beauty will not disappoint.
Summer is the main season to explore the park. Buses run from the end of May until mid-September. Due to the short visiting season, reservations are recommended to book campsites, bus rides, and hotels.
By Faith | 3Ticketsplease.com
15. Arches National Park
Arches National Park is one of the best national parks in the US. Hidden away in the red rocks of Utah, it’s a destination full of adventure and fun. There are so many things to do in Arches!
The park can be explored in a variety of ways. Take a scenic drive, or hike as you make your way through one of the park’s legendary trails. Delicate Arch and Balanced Rock are two highlights you definitely don’t want to miss.
Due to the desert climate, spring is the best time of year to plan your trip to Arches. The weather can still be a bit brisk in the early mornings and evenings at this time of year, but the days will be perfect. Plan a fun getaway to the rugged, outdoor paradise that is Arches National Park.
By Candice | GS Ginger
16. Everglades National Park
The Everglades National Park is full of Florida wildlife and wonder.This park is about four hours south of Clearwater and less than an hour west of Miami. November through April are the best times of year to plan a visit.
There are three entrances to the park: Shark Valley, Homestead and Everglades City. The park is so varied, that visitors will have entirely different experiences at each location.
Everglades City is a wonderful place to experience the water and paddle around in a kayak. Biking is an amazing way to experience Shark Valley. You might spot alligators along the way. Ranger tours and, of course, the Anhinga Trail, where you’re almost guaranteed to see alligators and water-wading birds, are highlights of the Homestead location. Enjoy the magnificence of the Everglades!
By Candice | Exploring the Gulf
17. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in central California. It’s one of the most visited national parks in the US. Yosemite is famous for its El Capitan and Half Dome summits.
When visiting Yosemite National Park, don’t miss the breathtaking views from Glacier Point. If you’re a hiker, use the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point to Curry Village. It’s a hard 8.5-mile hike with a 3,200 feet descent, but it’s so worth it. The views are amazing, and you’ll see a few of Yosemite’s waterfalls including Yosemite Falls, Mist Falls and Nevada Falls.
Then, the Mariposa Grove area is worth a visit where you can see impressive ancient Sequoia Trees. The Big Trees Loop Trail and Grizzly Giant Loop Trail allow you to walk through the giant Sequoias.
Note that reservations are not needed in 2023 (like the last two years).
By Emilie | Love Life Abroad
18. Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is one of the oldest parks in the US. The park is large and located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
People from all over the world visit Yellowstone to see its geothermal features, especially the famous Old Faithful geyser and the beautiful Grand Prismatic Spring.
Wildlife is another reason to visit Yellowstone. Some wildlife you’ll see here include bison, elk, moose, grizzly bears, and wolves.The best time of the year to visit Yellowstone is during the summer because the weather is at its best and all the park roads and facilities are open. Summer is especially great for those traveling to Yellowstone with kids.
By Kim Swanson | Traveling Swansons
19. Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park is located about 1.5 hours south of Louisville, Kentucky. You can visit this park year-round, but the best time to schedule a trip is during the summer or fall. The park provides everything you need, including cottages, campgrounds, a hotel, and a restaurant, so you can truly relax during your vacation.
Most people travel here just to tour the cave and forget to enjoy the rest of the park. When you visit, make sure you take the time to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the hiking trails. The trails can be a bit confusing, so it is recommended to carry a trail map.
Highlights include two springs, the Green River Bluffs, and several historic churches and cemeteries.
Cave tour reservations are recommended but not required. Mammoth Cave National Park is also one of the few dog-friendly national parks, so your whole family can come!
By Tiffany | Pennies, Places, and Paws
20. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia is one of the newest additions to the National Park Service. The New River is one of the oldest rivers on the continent.
Located near Fayetteville, WV, there are four visitor centers for the park, two of which are seasonal. However, October is considered the best time of year to visit. Not only is the fall foliage on full display in mid to late October, but also, the third Saturday in October is Bridge Day at the New River Gorge. Bridge Day is when the brave and daring base jump from the steel arch bridge into the gorge!
There is something for everyone at New River Gorge, including whitewater rafting, hiking, ziplining, and traversing the catwalk under the steel arch bridge spanning the New River Gorge. Some activities require a reservation, but not all.
By Audra | The Nerd Traveler
21. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is one of the most fascinating and unique destinations in the US. Located in both California and Nevada, Death Valley covers over three million acres.
Death Valley is an incredible natural beauty and wonder, with diverse and otherworldly landscapes. You can explore rolling sand dunes, a massive volcanic crater, rainbow-colored mountains, panoramic views of the golden badlands, and much more.
A pro tip is to visit Badwater Basin at sunset. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America and offers expansive views of the salt flats. Enjoy the mesmerizing hues of orange, pink, and purple reflecting on the surface of the honeycomb salt flats.
Death Valley experiences scorching hot summers. To avoid the unbearable heat, the best time to visit is mid-October through mid-March. Death Valley is a one-of-a-kind destination and worth a visit!
By Alisha | Travel Today Work Tomorrow
22. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore protects the barrier islands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Composed of parts of Bodie Island, Hatteras Island, and Ocracoke Island, the Outer Banks is full of natural and historical intrigue.
Ocracoke Island can only be reached by ferry and was home to Blackbeard, the infamous pirate. Be sure to visit the wild ponies cared for by the National Park Service on the island.
The best time to visit the islands is in the summer for water activities on the miles of silky sand beaches. Swimming, surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing, and fishing are popular. Nature lovers will enjoy the hiking trails, shell collecting on the beach, or kayaking through the salt marshes or surf. Ocean front campgrounds will also delight visitors. The lighthouses that protected the ship graveyard of the Atlantic are interesting to visit.
By Karen | Outdoor Adventure Sampler
23. Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods, located a short drive from San Francisco, California, is a nature paradise. This federally protected forest is home to redwood trees, some of the tallest and oldest trees in the world. Often reaching over 350 feet, they can live for over 1,000 years.
The best time to visit is during the summer when the weather is warm and conditions for hiking through the woods are perfect. Many people visit in the winter thanks to California’s warm climate, but it is riskier and more likely to have bad weather.
The most popular activity in Muir Woods is hiking through the lush forest. There are trails for every fitness level, including easy ones that are wheelchair and stroller-accessible and difficult full-day trails. The best trail is the Canopy View Trail. This moderate hike brings you above the trees, so you can experience the forest from a different perspective.
By Shar | Sightseeing Shar
24. Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is one of the more remote parks in North America, but you wouldn’t know it from the crowds that pour in every summer. Tucked away in far northern Montana, it actually has a twin park just across the border in Canada – Waterton Lakes National Park.
Due to winter closures of some of the most popular sites dragging on late in the year, the window to visit Glacier is brief, with mid-July through September being the high season. You can still appreciate many sites in the park in October but expect weather closures to hit earlier than you might expect!
Must-sees in Glacier NP include driving the full Going-to-the-Sun Road, seeing beautiful Lake McDonald and Saint Mary Lake, and spotting the park’s namesake glaciers. This is a great park for families, as there are accessible trails like the Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail.
By Stephanie Craig | Oklahoma Wonders
25. Padre Island National Seashore
Padre Island National Seashore (PINS) is a beautiful stretch of North Padre Island along Texas’ portion of the Gulf of Mexico. North Padre is a barrier island, and the park protects one of the last coastal prairie habitats left intact in the US.
While you can visit year-round, this park is most popular in summer. Beachgoers come to stretch out on Malaquite Beach, which, shockingly, doesn’t get as crowded as nearby beaches in Port Aransas and Mustang Island State Park.
Unlike national parks, where hunting is not allowed, you can fish in the waters of the PINS, including in the channel. Local anglers know that this place will likely provide a good catch in late August and September.
One special event not to miss is the sea turtle hatchling release. Come at sunrise to watch these babies make their way into the Gulf!
By Stephanie Craig | History Fangirl
26. Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park is probably the most well-known and one of the most jaw-dropping national parks in America. Located in northern Arizona, most people visit the South Rim, but the North Rim is just as beautiful and with fewer crowds. The best time to visit the Grand Canyon is during the spring, summer, and fall when the snow is gone.
There are many things to do at the Grand Canyon for kids and adults alike. You can visit all the viewpoints and marvel at the incredible, varied scenery at each one (there are over a dozen viewpoints along the South Rim). There are also many hikes at the Grand Canyon. The South Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Trail are popular hikes that take you from the rim down into the canyon. Hike a few miles or go all the way to the Colorado River!
By Stephanie | The Unknown Enthusiast
27. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Located on the western slope of Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the best places to avoid the crowds and enjoy the views of some of the steepest cliffs in North America.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a perfect alternative to Rocky Mountain National Park if you’re wanting to see one of the national parks in Colorado.
The park contains the deepest and most dramatic section of the canyon. The Gunnison River drops an average of 34 feet per mile through the entire canyon, making it the fifth steepest mountain descent in North America.
For the best experience, visit from July through October when there’s no snow and the temperatures are perfect to be outside.
By Daria | The Discovery Nut
Plan Your Next Road Trip to the Best National Parks in the USA
From coast to coast and even the islands of Hawaii, the National Park Service manages 424 locations, with 63 having “National Park” designated in their name. So, don’t be fooled by the naming system- there are a lot of incredible destinations waiting to be explored. These are rated as some of the best. Happy road-tripping!
Featured Image Credit: bennymarty/Depositphotos.com.
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This article was produced and syndicated by The Happiness Function.