America’s Thirty Best National Parks

by on March 14, 2012

Visit the Beautiful Scenic Destinations Seen in the National Parks of the United States

The National Parks of America provide some of the best scenic wonders in the world, like the famous Grand Canyon, the mighty Yellowstone, and the majestic Yosemite. High profile parks like the Everglades, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, and Carlsbad Caverns are well known world wide, but the U.S. offers incredible hidden and lesser known scenic gems like Big Bend National Park, Isle Royale, and Lassen Volcanic National Parks. Some of these parks you may know about, others you will be equally impressed by. Read on to see some of America’s most visited as well as underrated National Park destinations, and why you should plan a trip to one today!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Wildflowers, bears, the Blue Ridge Parkway… these are some of the things that attract the millions of people that visit Great Smoky National Park every year. It’s the nation’s most popular National Park, and with good reason. Not only is it accessible for much of the midwest, but it lies near the Tennessee/North Carolina border, making it a popular destination for the South. It doesn’t hurt that the park contains the majestic Blue Ridge Parkway, the most beautiful road east of the Mississippi.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Photo by scmikeburton under Creative Commons 2.0.

Hundreds of species of birds, 66 mammals, 50 species of fish, 39 reptile species, and 43 species of amphibians gives the area the largest biodiversity of a temperate zone than anywhere else.

Grand Canyon National Park

You knew this one was going to be on the list. The Grand Canyon is also a spectacular National Park in the United States, with some of the best hiking trails you’ll ever get to experience. It also has old architecture and ruins, like the Watchtower, the new Skywalk (which has received mixed reviews), and an entire seperate rim besides the southern rim to explore. If you’re more of a loner and would like to stay away from the crowds, the Northern Rim offers a serene environment and higher elevation. Some also say it has better views of the canyon in general. The Southern Rim is more convenient, with the main entrance and Visitor’s Center being located there. On either rim, make sure you take the time to view the canyon during the late day or early morning, when the vibrant hues of warm colors are really at their peak.

Grand Canyon

The awe inspiring panoramic beauty of the Grand Canyon, photo by Paraflyer on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Zion National Park

Perhaps America’s most beautiful canyon, Zion National Park and canyon are located in the southwestern corner of Utah, and offer great views of the surrounding mountain range and Virgin River below. The Virgin River slows and slims down to section deep in the canyon called the Narrows. This skinny section of the Zion canyon is one the most memorable and visited hiking destinations in the United States, and a formidable challenge to all hikers. Only accessible when the Virgin River starts to recede slightly, the unforgettable hike will lead to the areas of the canyon which are as narrow as only 30 feet.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Like an army of soldiers, the hoodoos formations of Bryce Canyon National Park stand guard in the giant ampitheatre area, with tall red, brown, white and orange spires jutting into the desert sky. Over millions of years, erosion from water and wind have formed these unique rocks to look the way that they do today. Close to Zion National Park, a trip here is often nicely complimented by Zion. The high elevation of the park makes it slightly cooler than the rest of the Utah desert, and a popular camping retreat.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon's famous hoodoos covered in snow. Photo by Chris Isherwood, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore is just north of San Francisco and the Bay Area of California. The peninsula points out slightly into the Pacific, and is well known for its pristine beaches and hiking. The area also had a tremendous shake up where an earthquake moved the entire peninsula 18 feet away from the mainland of California in a testament of how powerful Mother Nature really is! If you’re headed to San Francisco, this is the perfect day trip away from the busy city. A quick 45 minute – 1 hour drive will get you there.

Yellowstone National Park

The most dramatic and powerful park in the United States is by far Yellowstone. With live, active geysers like Old Faithful, gurgling sulphur pools, the vast scenic Yellowstone Lake, herds of wild bison roaming the park, and the stunning Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, you can take an entire week in the park and still just see a glimpse of the park. Underneath the surface of Yellowstone, a sleeping giant remains waiting to unleash its destructive capabilities on the surrounding land. This giant supervolcano has not erupted in around 630,000 years, and on the average has erupted every 600,000 years or so. It’s useless fretting about the possible damage from this volcano, since we have no idea when or if the volcano will erupt again. We just know that it has happened before, and may again someday. In the meantime, enjoy the incredible sites and views of Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone geyser

A bubbling pool geyser in Yellowstone. Photo by kangotraveler on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Grand Teton National Park

If you’re headed to Yosemite, you might as well take a trip to neighboring Grand Teton National Park as well. Just miles from Yosemite, the Teton Range of Wyoming is largely made of three distinctive snow capped peaks, with the mountain Lake Jackson below. Wildlife is abound in the park, as Black Bears, Elk, and Bison freely roam the area for all to view and enjoy. Wide open fields at the base of the mountains give you gigantic, panoramic views of the peaks, with the lake in the foreground. Further into the valley is the town of Jackson Hole, a small, rustic town with a lot of charm and authentic Wyoming style.

Acadia National Park

It’s often the first place that sees the morning sun on the east coast of the United States, and it’s an unusual area of the eastern seaboard. Most of the coastline along the east coast is relatively flat, but the mountains finally reach the Atlantic in Acadia National Park. Acadia National Park protects the largest island of Maine, Mount Desert Island. These high cliffs and seaside mountains of Maine have spectacular views of the pine lined rocky beaches below. Drive up famous Cadillac Mountain, or bike the 45 miles of old carriage roads that are still in existence.

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park of Maine's rocky shoreline. Photo by Lee Coursey on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Everglades National Park

The Everglades have shrunk tremendously from development over the past century, but the outermost peninsula of the Everglades habitat has been preserved. Witness first hand the extraordinary wildlife the Everglades have to offer, like the native Alligator and American Crocodile. You’ll also see plenty of Great Blue Heron and Ibis wading in between the mangroves, but you might sneak a peak at the endangered manatee or the very endangered Florida Panther further inland. Plan your trip before the brutal heat of late June, July and August, or after for more comfortable temperatures and less bugs.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Drive the famous Trail Ridge Road of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, or hike and backpack the near 400 miles of trails. The pristine mountain views of this Colorado National Park afford incredible views of the Continental Divide and Rocky Mountain range, with pine lined mountains and snowcapped mountaintops even in the summer months. At the base of the mountains, you can find the rustic towns of Boulder and Estes Park, each beautiful in their own right. Bighorn sheep, pumas, elk, black bear, coyotes, and hawks all impress viewers and campgoers, while the craggy slopes display different color and foliage in the spring through fall months. Rocky Mountain National Park is an easy drive from Denver, around 90 minutes. The main road is often closed until June or July and allows only a partial view of the park, so call ahead to see what roads are open.

Joshua Tree National Park

Located in southern California, Joshua Tree was designated a National Park in 1994. A quick drive through the park will give you a glimpse of just some of the incredible sites the park has to offer, but the real attractions lie off the road. Quail families, desert flora, and the famous Joshua Tree, only found in this area of the Mojave Desert, are all found within the park boundaries. The lower elevation Colorado Desert area of the park has less moisture, and lower, ground cacti and cholla cactus. This area of the park is close to the major Interstate I-10.

From one of the highest points of Joshua Tree, an incredible view of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley can be seen right from the main road.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Trees, like the ones seen in Joshua Tree National Park, after a rare snowfall. Photo by Tom Saint on flickr under Creative Commons 2.0.

Canyonlands National Park

Near the town of Moab and close to Arches National Park lies the vast, wide canyons of Canyonlands National Park. This area has some of the most well known mountain biking and hiking in southern Utah, with a picturesque canvas of reds, browns and orange rock gorges and winding rivers. The area is divided into four unique districts: The Needles District, Island in the Sky, the Maze, the Rivers, and Horseshoe Canyon. Each area has its own unique personality, like the unique rock spire formations of Needles, and the steep, winding river canyons of Horseshoe.

Canyonlands National Park

The dramatic red rock scenery at Canyonlands National Park. Photo by Michael D Martin under Creative Commons 2.0.

Arches National Park

Near the town of Moab in eastern Utah lies thousands of ancient sandstone arches in Arches National Park. The park has a concentration of these unusual formations that have been created through the process of erosion. Beneath the park lies a giant salt bed layer, which pushed the sandstone layer up and exposed it to the air. Wind, water and harsh desert environment over the years have sculpted the works of art from the bottom up, leaving arch formations all over the area. Visit famous Delicate Arch, the Utah state symbol, briefly hike to the world’s longest arch, Landscape Arch, or go off the beaten path to experience lesser known formations like Skull Arch. The park is located close to Canyonlands National Park, just miles down the road.

Arches National Park

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, the state symbol. Photo by Navin75 on flickr under Creative Commons 2.0.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park experiences a short vacation life. Opening in late May or even into July, the Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs to magnificent heights high above the mountains of Montana. The glaciers are slowly melting away, so get your trip into this incredible National Park sooner than later. You’ll also have to plan it before late October, since snow and ice starts to reform early.

Mount Rainier National Park

Beautiful Mount Rainier National Park is a challenging hike, most often visited in the comfortable summer months of July and August. The mountain has vivid wildflower displays in the peak summer, and incredible views from the peak reaching all the way to Seattle, the ocean and beyond. If you’re headed here, keep in mind that the peak is often covered by clouds much of the time. It’s the highest peak in the Cascade Range, and the park was the 5th National Park established in the United States.

Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier's snowy peak, from the Skyline Trail. Photo by Jeff Pang on flickr licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Denali National Park

Pristine wilderness isolated from large cities and the intervening of man have left the 9,000 square miles of Denali National Park largely untouched and ready for you to explore. Like Mount Rainier, the peak of Denali, or Mount McKinley, is shrouded in clouds most days of the year. Consider yourself priveliged to see the peak if you do! The largest mountain North America, it can be found in the epicenter of Alaska, closest to the city of Fairbanks. Grizzly bears, caribou, foxes, moose and lynx are all found within the park. Denali is a great example of how the world looked before the involvement of man. The inaccessibility of the park is one of the biggest reasons to go there. The main road to the park is mostly unpaved, and blocked to private vehicles except for a small portion. A shuttle bus will take you the center of the park.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Some of the most active volcanoes in the world are located in the Hawaii islands, and specifically on the big island of Hawaii. Volcanic activity is a constant on the island, as steam arises from the peaks and rocks all day and night. Evidence of prior lava flows can be seen all the way to the gorgeous black sand beaches. The island is one the least visited and inhabited, but is the largest and probably most interesting. Sites like the Thruston Lava Tube, a 500+ year old remnant of a prior eruption, and the amazing Mauna Loa volcano, the world’s largest.

Hawaii volcano erupting

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and a recent eruption. Photo by eye of einstein on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Kenai Fjords National Park

The amazing work of glaciers and time have resulted in the stunning Alaskan Kenai Fjords National Park. The park has steep cliffs and glacial peaks, sloping vertically into the icy waters below. The park is largely inaccessible by road, but is often visible through Alaskan cruise tours that visit the awe inspiring blue walls. The narrow inlets in the seas are inpassable except in the summer months, so planning your trip would be advisable during July or August. While it might be a pricey trip, it will be one that you’ll never forget.

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park, which is best seen by boat in the summer months. Photo by dmcdevit on flickr under Creative Commons 2.0.

Olympic National Park

One of the most dramatic parks in the United States is Olympic National Park of Washington state. The park sprawls from the rugged, beat up coast to the high temperate rainforests like the Hoh Rainforest. Old growth forest descends into the alpine lowlands and tree lined coasts, which are decorated with sea weathered logs that rest on the beaches. This moist, dense area is the wettest area of the continental United States, with more living organisms per square foot than nearly anywhere in the U.S. (or world).

Yosemite National Park

It’s hard to describe the majestic feeling the landscape of Yosemite Valley provides at first glance. Gazing out onto the wide open valley of tall conifers framed by sculpted granite peaks and cascading waterfalls will immediately wash your troubles away. The powerful Upper and Yosemite Falls display the park’s natural force, and provide a distant rumbling from almost anywhere in the valley. Half Dome never ceases to amaze, with the its sheer edge providing unique photographs from all angles (you might recognize it from the California state quarter). Off to the northeast, the Tuolumne Meadows beg to be explored and hiked, with the tranquil streams weaving between hunks of granite and grass high atop the mountains. It’s a short 3 hour drive from San Francisco, well worth the trip to Yosemite National Park.

Death Valley National Park

California and Nevada share the largest National Park in the continental United States, Death Valley National Park. The wide open desert comes into bloom in the late winter and early spring months, teeming with wildflowers, and offering cooler temperatures for hiking and exploring. The lowest elevation in all of North America can be found within the park boundaries, at Badwater. Across the valley, ancient salt beds have left strange patterns and formations of rock at Devil’s Golf Course. Deeper into the park, you can find the odd Scotty’s Castle, a true desert mansion in the heart of the valley. It’s preceded by the rolling Death Valley sand dunes, and the often photographed Racetrack area. This area is perplexing to visitors and scientists alike. Stones have somehow moved across the giant dried lake bed, leaving deep grooves in the bed, during storms and heavy winds. These movements have never been caught on tape!

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park has not experienced an eruption in a long time, since 1915, but is more of a piece of standing evidence of the power of volcanoes. Bubbling mud pots and steam vents are constant reminders of the sleeping giant that lies just underneath the surface of this magnificent California National Park. A relatively remote area, Lassen is east of Eureka in the northeast of the state. Beautiful panoramic views can be found from the massive peaks in the park, or you can hike up the cinder cone to view the newest eruption’s devestation.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The famed deep, cool caverns of Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico are world renowned and one of the most highly visited parks in the United States. Ancient stalagmites and stalagtites have formed over hundreds and thousands of years to leave us with the enigmatic limestone formations we see today. The cave can be accessed by the elevator above the caves, or through the hike that leads to the natural cave entrance. The cavern to this day is still being explored, and new areas of the cave are being found. These underground rooms remain a near constant 56°F.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. Photo by The Javelina on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Redwoods National Park

In Northern California, trees that are as old as 2,000 years grow skyward up to 337 feet in Redwood National Park. When photographing the ancient Redwoods, it’s nearly impossible to get an entire tree into your photograph. The park stretches along the jagged coastline near Crescent City, and contains some of the oldest trees on Earth.

Chaco Culture Historic Park

While not a traditional National Park, this area is rich in Navajo history. The area of northwestern New Mexico is located in the Chaco Canyon area, northwest of Albuquerque. Millions of these artifacts left behind from the Puebloan culture are available to view at the Chaco Culture Museum.

Chaco Culture Historic Park

Chaco Culture Historic Park ruins. Photo by karlala karlala on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

North Cascades National Park

Washington State’s North Cascades National Park might be on the must-visit destinations in the United States. The glaciers are retreating at an alarmingly quick rate, which could be due to global warming. The park is located near the Canadian border, and is home to black bears, moose, and wolves. The park is hard to reach by car, having very few roads leading into the park. This park is even more inaccessible and visited fewer than Mount Rainer National Park, also in Washington.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

One of America’s newly established National Parks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located in northeast corner of the state along the Cuyahoga River. Established in 2000, the park was designated the area a National Recreation area in 1972. The park includes the scenic areas surrounding the river and parts of the old Erie Canal, which can be accessed via the Towpath Trail. Deep forests, waterfalls, and farmland are amongst the sites to mountain bike or hike to, while the river remains the focus of much of the park.

Isle Royale National Park

It’s one of the most unpopular National Parks in the United States, and that’s a good thing. Isle Royale is an island located on Lake Superior, Michigan, near the Canadian border. The untouched wilderness covers 894 square miles of wilderness and lakeshore coastline, and is closer to Canada’s Thunder Bay, just around ten miles away, than the mainland Michigan shore. Accessible only by boat or plane, the park can be visited via ferry during the warmer months but completely shuts down during the icy winter months. The NPS boat, the Ranger III, is one of the more popular ferries running to the island.

Isle Royale National Park

Isolated Isle Royale National Park. Photo by Ben+Sam on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Dry Tortugas National Park

The United States’ southernmost National Park, Dry Tortugas is located four hour west of Key West, accessible via boat only. The famous For Jefferson stands on these grounds as a gateway to the open Gulf of Mexico. Just under the surface, massive coral reefs can be explored by scuba or snorkeling. The island is accessible only be seaplane or boat, which frequently leave from Key West.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys. Photo by dominic sherony on flickr under Creative Commons 2.0.

Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande provides a welcome oasis of sorts in the arid desert of southwestern Texas. Dividing the countries of Mexico and the United States, the Rio Grande is the southern border of the park’s boundary. One of the most photographed areas of the park is the stunning Santa Elena Canyon. As the Rio Grande cuts between the canyon walls, one side of the canyon is Mexico, the other the United States. The park is one of the least visited in the United States, and is a very remote location. Hundreds of miles from the nearest large cities, San Antonio and El Paso, Big Bend National Park is closest to Fort Stockton, Texas.

Saint Helena Canyon Big Sur National Park

The beautiful and dramatic walls of St. Helena Canyon in Big Sur National Park, right along the Texas-Mexico border. Photo by Tyco Moon, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

How about you? Which National Park is your absolute favorite? Is there a secret gem of a park that you think everyone should visit, or one that didn’t meet your expectations? Share in the comments below which parks you think are worth visiting, and why!

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