Wide-open spaces and natural wonders of the United States: The best National Parks to visit
August 28, 2023
From the famed geysers of Yellowstone to the snowy peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park to the lush rainforests of the Olympic National Forest, the wonders of United States National Parks are not to be missed. The United States is home to some of the most beautiful and diverse national parks in the world, and people come from around the globe to enjoy them, with at least one in eight foreign tourists scheduling a stop in a U.S. national park during their trip4.
Fortunately, for residents of the U.S., most national park trips are an easy car drive, and offer an affordable way to immerse yourself in incredible scenery and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. As with any vacation, there’s the risk of unexpected circumstances that may affect your travel plan, so be sure to research a travel protection plan that’s appropriate to your itinerary. For instance, for a multi-day driving excursion, consider SafeTrip Travel Protection as your road trip travel insurance. It comes in handy if weather or health issues change your plans mid-trip.
National parks offer an incredible range of biodiversity, wildlife and experiences. If you’re a devoted camper, you can plan an escape from technology and civilization for a truly off-the-grid journey. However, those who prefer a soft bed and restaurant meals can find accommodations both within and near national parks, and still get to fully enjoy all the hiking, exploring and sights to be seen. And for each visitor, the health benefits of spending time outdoors can’t be beat, combining exercise, fresh air and a mental break from work and screens to reboot your mood.
Best National Parks to visit
The most popular U.S. National Parks are at the top of many people’s must-see lists for good reason: From craggy canyons to rarely seen wildlife, pristine lakes to thundering waterfalls, there’s no end to the variety of nature experiences. These are a few of the top parks to consider:
Yellowstone National Park
With 2.2 million acres1 to explore, Yellowstone is an ecosystem in itself, plus features world-famous geologic and geothermal features including geysers, hot springs and mud pots. In fact, half of the world’s active geysers are in this park alone1. Things to do in Yellowstone National Park include driving on designated roads to spy a variety of wildlife, including bison, elk, and bears, plus a variety of tribal community events representing the original nations of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Also, visiting Yellowstone to witness the majestic waterfalls is an awe-inspiring experience that is sure to delight all who behold its beauty.
Grand Canyon National Park
The incomparable vistas of the Grand Canyon include a spectacular view of the Colorado river and its nearby uplands in Arizona. Things to do at the Grand Canyon include the shorter in-and-out hiking trails and easy car access to lookout points for people who want a less-intense experience, to multi-day backcountry adventures such as backpacking and rafting (be sure to do deep research and careful planning ahead of time).
Yosemite National Park
With towering waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, and stunning views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite in California is a vast wilderness area unlike any other. Things to do in Yosemite include climbing to the top of cliffs to overlook Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Yosemite’s high country, or drive into the heart of sub-alpine meadows and relax by the winding Tuolumne river.
Glacier National Park:
Over 700 miles of trails criss-cross Glacier National Park in Montana, with historic chalets and lodges dotting the landscape. Must-dos during your trip to Glacier National Park include fishing in its pristine lakes, exploring its glaciers, and taking in stunning views of mountains by driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road over the Continental Divide.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Home to snow-capped peaks, alpine meadows, and forests, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is a popular destination for hiking, camping, and fishing. So popular, in fact, that timed entry permits may be necessary to enjoy its beautiful 265,807 acres of lakes, peaks and meadows1, so be sure to check online ahead of time to confirm your planned visit.
Zion National Park
Utah’s first national park, Zion includes gorgeously colored sandstone formations and prehistoric walking paths through winding narrow canyons. The most popular things to do in Zion National Park
are checking out Zion Narrows and Angels Landing, as well as exploring its forested highlands and lowland deserts. Want to avoid crowds? Check out Observation Point (however, be sure you’re up to the 3-mile hike in — and another 3 miles out).
Olympic National Forest
Human and natural history collide in Olympic, with old-growth temperate rain forests, over 70 miles of wild Washington coastline1 and glacier-capped mountains that attracted prehistoric peoples to fish, hunt and live. An educational and outdoor experience like no other, Olympic must-sees include the enchanting Hoh Rain Forest, Hurricane Ridge and Kalaloch and Ruby Beaches.
Pre-travel planning: What you do before you go
As with any outdoor adventure, planning ahead for a national parks trip ensures your entry and accommodations, plus increases your safety while exploring the wilderness. Many national parks are crowded during peak vacation times of the year, so be aware of when you are visiting and either allow for longer waits and more crowded trails and shuttles or shift your plans to spring or fall for more relaxed hikes and drives. Do research online via the National Park Service website or pick up a National Park adventure guide. Some other things to consider when visiting a national park:
- Are you a hiker, or like to see vistas from the comfort of a car? Be aware of the level of exertion that a park’s trails might require, including length of hike, ruggedness of trail and elevation changes.
- Do you want to go deep into the wilderness to camp or fish? Do research about appropriate gear for the terrain and weather, or even hire an outfitter to provide gear and advice.
- Pack a day backpack with must-have essentials, including more water than you think you’ll need, snacks, sunscreen, insect repellent and a first-aid kit. Be sure to wear sturdy hiking boots and bring binoculars and a camera.
- Planning on seeing more than one park during your vacation season? The America the Beautiful National Parks Pass gives you unlimited entry to all national parks and federal recreational lands for a year.
- Camping is a great way to control your vacation costs, but be aware that national park campgrounds fill up months and even years in advance. It does, however, allow you to cook your own meals over a roaring campfire, and enjoy incredible ultra-dark nighttime views of the starry skies above. Also, if you plan your trip for when your child is in 4th grade, the Every Kid in a Park program offers a free pass that year — and senior citizens get a discount as well. Several national parks offer free admission on certain days of the year as well.
- Another cost-saving idea: Find campervan relocation deals. Campervan relocation companies often offer discounted rates on campervans that need to be moved to a new location.
Tips for when you are at a national park
- Be prepared for any weather. The weather can change quickly in the many ecosystems of our national parks, so be sure to pack accordingly with layers for warmth and lightweight, breathable pieces for heat.
- Leave no trace. Be a guardian of each park and leave it as you found it, or as they say, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints
- Respect the wildlife and be safe. Don’t feed or approach the wild animals.
Time of year tips
While all national parks are open all year long, some are particularly exceptional during specific times of year.
Best national parks to visit in summer
Rangers recommend seeing Glacier National Park in Montana and Badlands National Park in South Dakota in the summer months, both for the abundance of natural beauty and wildlife during this time, but also because it means the roads will be more reliably free of snow and mud.
Best national parks to visit in spring or fall
Shoulder season is ideal for national park tourism because the crowds are much smaller than in the summer months. In addition, in heat-intensive parts of the country, the experience can be more pleasant and temperate. For instance, check out the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado (visitors love sledding down the sand hills as if it is snow) during cool fall days. Love waterfalls? Mount Rainier National Park and other waterfall-rich parks are best visited in the spring when snowmelt adds extra waterpower to your view.
Best national parks to visit in winter
Visiting national parks in the winter is a seasoned traveler's secret, as there are specific destinations that are at their best from November through February. For instance, check out Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, and you’ll enjoy 56°F temperatures in the caves. Another great option: Joshua Tree National Park in California loses its desert-level heat in the winter, and offers scenic drives as well as great rock climbing for all skill levels — including first-timers.
The best things to do in the National Parks in the U.S.
There are hiking trails for all levels of experience and fitness in every national park. Some of the most popular hikes include the Half Dome Trail in Yosemite National Park, the Canyon Overlook Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, and the John Muir Trail in Sequoia National Park.
Camping is a great way to immerse in nature, plus unplug completely from your everyday life and distractions. There are campgrounds in every national park, with a variety of amenities to choose from including camper cabins, drive-in sites for car camping, and hike-in campsites for backpackers. Be warned: these sites are often reserved far in advance, so start planning as early as possible.
Many national parks have lakes, rivers, and beaches where you can swim. Some of the most popular swimming spots include Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald, Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic Spring, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Clingmans Dome.
Fishing is a popular activity in many national parks, from fly fishing to crabbing and more. Please note that, since the sport has the potential to affect fish populations, the National Park Service does regulate fishing on park lands.
There’s nothing like seeing animals in their natural habitat, especially the magnificent species that populate the national parks. However, wild bears, wolves, bison, elk and deer can be dangerous, and visitors should be aware and wary of getting too close — no touching, no feeding, no harassing. You can often see these animals from the comfort of your car or on a guided wildlife viewing tour, as parks have roads strategically routed to maximize viewing potential.
Many national parks are dark sky parks, which means they have very little light pollution. This makes them perfect for stargazing after sunset, whether from a campsite or at a drive-up or hike-in outlook.
Protect your National Park trip
With all the advance planning and gear needed for a national park trip, travelers end up investing quite a bit into the experience. Consider purchasing travel protection for extra coverage and perfect for a trip to explore the wilderness:
- SafeTrip Travel Protection covers the unforeseen costs of delays, cancellations and lost baggage, plus you can choose from optional add-ons to protect your gear in case it is lost in transit, to cover a rental car in case it is damaged or stolen, or even other benefits like an extreme sports add-on for bungee jumping in Zion National Park, white water rafting in Glacier National Park, rock climbing through the Rocky Mountains, or other once-in-a-lifetime adventures.
Planning a trip to one or mulitple of the famous U.S. National Parks? Make sure to have a back-up plan for when things go awry.