Keep close to nature’s heart…and break away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. – John Muir, the Father of the National Parks
The beautiful words of environmental philosophers such as John Muir and Edward Abbey have always inspired me. As a kid and teenager I didn’t have many opportunities to go camping or hiking, but I romanticized the wild of America and it’s something as an adult I’ve loved exploring.
One of the most brilliant things about the United States is its National Park System. And we have advocates like John Muir to thank for that. Over 100 years ago, he, along with others, had the foresight to understand the importance of protecting so much of America’s land.
Yellowstone was the first National Park to be established and today there are 59 national parks across America. From Alpine lakes and jagged peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park, to desert sand dunes in Grand Sand Dunes National Park, glacier lagoons in Kenai Fjords National Park and sandstone formations in Arches National Park, America’s park system truly has it all.
It’s important to not take this system for granted though and to treat the parks with care and respect. With millions of visitors each year, the “Leave No Trace” principles are important for all of us to keep in mind and practice when spending time not only in the parks but in the outdoors. Curious about what the seven principles are? REI has a great post explaining them here.
I spoke with a group of adventurous female travel bloggers to gather a list of their favorite and most recommended national parks to visit. Here is a list of their 24 favorite, including a few of my own!
Tip: If you are planning a great American road trip in which you will be visiting several parks, you might consider buying an annual pass for $80. This covers entrance to all of the parks! The separate park entrance fees indicated below are as of January 2018. Check the National Park Service website for the most up-to-date entrance costs.
1. Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park in Maine is unlike any other US National Park for one simple reason: this is a park geared toward leisure, not adventure. While there are definitely some very beautiful hikes in Acadia, and the views from hikes like the Beehive are incredible, in general Acadia is more about relaxation. This is a park meant for slow drives along Park Loop Road, for watching the sunset at the top of Cadillac Mountain, and for enjoying popovers (delicious pastries served with jam and butter) with a view of the lovely Jordan Pond.
Come to Acadia in the summer for warm weather, or in the fall to enjoy some of New England’s iconic fall foliage!
Acadia National Park charges $25 per individual car (including all occupants) or $12/person without a car for a seven-day pass into the park. While shuttles run during the summer months, it’s easiest to enjoy the park (and gives you far more flexibility in lodging) to come with your own car.
- Location: Maine
- Where to Stay: There are no hotels or lodges in the park but there are plenty of cute B&Bs in the nearby town of Bar Harbor, such as the Kingsleigh Inn (from $160). If camping is more your thing, there are several in and around the park.
- Entrance Fees: Park entrance is $25 per vehicle
- Hikes: The Beehive Loop Trail (strenuous, 1.3 miles); Cadillac North Ridge Trail (moderate, 4.1 miles); Ocean Path Trail (easy, 2.2 miles)
2. Arches National Park
Arches National Park seems to be the picture of Utah. Delicate Arch is on the license plates, the signs when you enter the state, and all of the marketing and tourism information. It’s a relatively small park nestled just outside of Moab and right next door to Canyonlands. While it may be on the smaller side, it certainly packs a punch for all visitors.
The park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle and well worth it. Some of the must-do hikes in the park for a shorter visit are Delicate Arch, Park Avenue, and Double Arch. There are more than 2000 arches scattered throughout the park boundaries, some after a long hike and others right on the side of the road. For a longer visit, consider hiking the Devil’s Garden Loop, and if you’re a more experienced hiker, think about getting a permit for the Fiery Furnace.
If you’d like to camp, the Devil’s Garden campground is in the park and takes reservations up to six months in advance. For desert glamping, check out Moab Under Canvas. And if neither of those sound good to you, there are tons of hotels just a short drive away in Moab.
Arches can be supper crowded in the summer, so go early in the year and early in the day. No matter what, it’s still one of the coolest parks in Utah!
- Location: Southern Utah near Moab
- Where to Stay: Devil’s Garden Campground ($75); Moab Under Canvas (from $89)
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle
- Hikes: Delicate Arch (moderate, 5 miles); Park Avenue (easy, 2 miles); Double Arch (easy, 0.5 miles); Devil’s Garden Loop (moderate, 7.8 miles); Fiery Furnace (moderate, 2 miles, permit required)
3. Badlands National Park
Badlands is an overlooked national park. South Dakota, in general, is usually overlooked, but it actually has a lot to offer. Badlands is not a park know for wildlife, but keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and prairie dogs along the road.
The park entrance fee is $20 per vehicle for seven days, and totally worth it. It’s an otherworldly feeling park once you get out into the badlands formations. Strap on your hiking shoes and head out to any one of the awesome trails in the park. The Window Trail and the Fossil Exhibit Trail are the easiest, coming in at just a quarter mile round trip. The Saddle Pass is just as short, but more strenuous. It brings you up a badlands formation to overlook the White River Valley. For a longer hike check out two moderate trails. The Notch Trail is 1.5 miles round trip and the Medicine Root Trail clocks in at four miles round trip. No matter which you choose, it’s going to be a good day.
There are two campgrounds in the park, which make great options during a summer visit. If that’s not your thing, consider staying in Wall, making a stop at the Famous Wall Drug, of course, or a little further away in Rapid City.
Rapid City is a great jumping point for the area. From there you can easily explore the Badlands, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Black Hills.
- Location: Soyth Dakota
- Where to Stay: Sage Creek Campground (camping is free); Badlands Cedar Pass Lodge (cabins from $176, camping from $22)
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $20 per vehicle
- Hikes: The Window Trail (easy, 0.25 miles); Fossil Exhibit Trail (easy, 0.25 miles); Saddle Pass (moderate, 0.7 miles); Notch Trail (moderate, 1.5 miles); Medicine Root Trail (moderate, 4 miles)
4. Big Bend National Park
Big Bend is one of the largest national parks in the United States. In fact, it’s so big that it’s the only national park in which an entire mountain range is located! But it’s also one of the least visited due to its remote location in the eponymous “Big Bend” of Texas, along the border with Mexico. This park’s lands are diverse, ranging from desert biomes to forested mountains, and lush river valleys to deep limestone canyons. Big Bend is also located in the darkest skies of the lower 48 states, making it one of the best places to stargaze.
There are a few important things to know in considering a trip to Big Bend. To enter the park costs $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass. There is only one lodge in the park and rooms book up fast so if you plan on staying there, make reservations well in advance. There are three established campgrounds (Chisos, Rio Grande Village, and Cottonwood) and many more reservable roadside campsites. Other than that, the nearest town with lodging options is Terlingua, which is a good 45 minutes away from the hub of activities in the park.
Hiking is, of course, the most popular activity in the park. There are some fantastic trails to explore! Some of my favorites include The Window Trail, Grapevine Hills, Hot Springs, and Santa Elena Canyon Trail. You can also [legally] cross the border into Mexico in the park. This makes for a nice half-day trip for lunch! There are many outdoor activity companies who lead river expeditions and ATV tours of the park as well. All in all, there are so many things to do and see in the park, you will definitely want to come back for subsequent adventures!
- Location: Texas
- Where to Stay: Camping
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance is $25 per car for a 7-day pass
- Hikes: The Window Trail (moderate, 5 miles); Grapevine Hills (easy, 2 miles); Santa Elena Canyon Trail (easy, 1.4 miles)
- Other Activities: River expeditions, ATV tours
5. Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is located in Utah. Like Arches National Park, it’s very close to the town of Moab but is much less visited. The real beauty of Canyonlands lies in the backcountry, hence the lack of RV’s and tour buses.
A great way to see the park is to spend 4 days rafting through on the Colorado river with the outfitter, OARS. Each day filled with thrilling whitewater rapids, scenic lazy float sections and a sandy beach to set up camp.
Canyonlands also has many amazing hikes, some of which are accessed from the river, and others are accessed from 4WD roads within the park. Canyonlands is a great option, if you enjoy wilderness backpacking, although your navigation skills should be top-notch!
If you don’t have time for multi-day adventures into the park, be sure to stop at a few overlooks and stop in at the visitor’s center for more info. If you really want to treat yourself, see if you can schedule a flight over the park.
- Location: Southern Utah near Moab
- Where to Stay: There is no lodging in the park but plenty of options in nearby towns like, the Archway Inn ($70)
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle
- Hikes: Mesa Arch (easy, 0.5 miles); Horseshoe Canyon hike to Great Gallery (strenuous, 7 miles); Grand View Point (easy, 2 miles)
- Other Activities: Whitewater rafting
6. Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is a diverse park that you’ll find is very different compared to the neighboring National Parks in Utah. Some of the rock formations that formed Capitol Reef range from 80 million years old to 200 million years old. The park also has rich soil, so rich that there’s a fruit orchard. You can actually pick some of the fruit during certain times!
The entrance fee to the park is $10 for vehicles and $7 for individual pedestrians or bicyclist and can be paid at the ranger station.
If you enjoy scenic drives, take the “road” through Capitol Gorge, it’s a breathtaking adventure. Then, enjoy a short 1-mile hike to discover more of Capitol Gorge. Check with the ranger station to ensure that the roads are safe. At times a high-clearance vehicle is needed.
And if you’re a history buff don’t forget to stop at the petroglyphs that date back approximately 2,000 years. Walk the boardwalk to view this interesting piece of history. And finish off the day with a dreamy sunset view at Panorama Point. It gives you a 360 view of the park and does not disappoint.
- Location: Utah
- Where to Stay: Rim Rock Inn (from $95); Capitol Reef Resort (from $60)
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $10 for vehicles and $7 for individual pedestrians of bicyclists
- Hikes: Cassidy Arch (moderate, 3.5 miles); Hickman Bridge (easy, 2 miles); Golden Throne (moderate, 7 miles)
7. Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake in Oregon is one of America’s most incredible national parks and, at almost 600 meters (2,000 feet), is the deepest lake in the country. Almost 8,000 years ago, a volcanic eruption created the enormous caldera in the Cascade Mountain Range, and since then it has been filled with nothing but rainwater and snow melt. Its purity is reflected in crystal clear blue water that attracts thousands of photographers and hikers each year. The water is so pure you can see more than 40 meters (140 feet) into the water.
Visiting is worthwhile anytime but is perhaps best in the summer, when hiking is easier and roads aren’t impacted by the snow. For an entry fee of $20/car ($10 during winter months) visitors have access to gorgeous hiking trails, stunning overlooks, and spots to swim and picnic. If you’re looking for a challenging but manageable hike, the Garfield Peak Trail is a great choice; the Sun Notch Trail is easier and provides equally beautiful viewing points. Don’t miss a boat tour for a great orientation to Crater Lake’s history and geography (including Phantom Ship Island), and consider spending half a day hiking around Wizard Island to round out your visit.
Because Crater Lake is a bit removed from Oregon’s major cities, a stay at the Crater Lake Lodge will help you maximize your time in the area. Camping options are available if you want to spend a night under the stars, and more budget-friendly hotel options can be found in Medford (1.5 hours by car) and Roseburg (2.5 hours by car).
If your travels take you to the USA’s west coast, don’t miss Crater Lake—its stunning blue waters will enchant you long after your trip is over!
- Location: Southern Oregon in the Cascade Mountain Range
- Where to Stay: Crater Lake Lodge (from $200); Mazama Village Campground (from $23)
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $20 per vehicle ($10 in winter months)
- Hikes: Garfield Peak Trail (difficult, 1.7 miles); Sun Notch Trail (moderate, 0.8 miles)
- Other Activities: Boat tour
8. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park, which straddles both California and Nevada, is a place for extremities. It is not only the hottest spot in the US but also the lowest and driest.
There are many stops to make while on a road trip across the valley. Badwater Basin, 85 meters (282 feet) below sea level, is one of them. There is the opportunity to take a short walk on the salt flats nearby. Zabriskie Point is also a great spot to visit and there is a walk you can take between the weirdly shaped and colored badlands. Make sure you have plenty of water with you, even during the winter, it can be hot and you won’t find any shade!
The entry fee to the park is $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass. You can purchase it at the visitor center, ranger stations or at major attractions. There are a few inns and camping options, but you can also visit Death Valley as a day trip from Las Vegas.
- Location: California and Nevada
- Where to Stay: Furnace Creek Campground (from $22)
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle
- Hikes: Badwater Basin (easy, 1 mile); Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop via Zabriksie Point (moderate, 6 miles)
9. Denali National Park
Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska is home to North America’s highest peak – Mt. Denali or ‘The Great One’ (20,310 feet). On a clear and cloudless day the view of its snow-capped peak is truly captivating.
The park is bisected by a single road made mostly of dirt and gravel. Every turn on this winding road has a surprise awaiting. It could be in the form of wildlife sightings, vast valleys, a slowly running creek or river or a stunning view of Mt Denali (erstwhile Mt McKinley). Most visitors spot caribou, bear, moose, mountain sheep and different birds. The range of vegetation from the low elevation taiga to the high elevation tundra, the vast extents of permafrost and the richness of wild habitat is mesmerizing.
The interpretive displays at Toklat River and Eielson Visitor Center provide a better understanding of the park’s ecology. The view from the Polychrome Overlook is breathtaking. Wonder Lake is one of the most serene spots after a 6 hour bus ride.
The park buses are the best way to explore this wilderness as private vehicles are permitted only on the first 15 miles of the park road. The bus driver is also your tour guide and is very well-informed about the park.
- Location: Alaska (park entrance is at Mile 237, Highway 3)
- Where to Stay: There are 6 campgrounds in the park like the Savage River Campground ($30). Keep in mind that some campgrounds are only open in the summer.
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $10 per person
- Hikes: There aren’t many marked trails in Denali. The ones that exist are located by the visitors center and less than 2 miles. Off trail hiking is an exciting experience in Denali but speak to a ranger before setting out!
- Other Activities: Narrated bus tours (advance booking highly recommended)
10. Everglades National Park
The air is so warm it sticks to you. Dark purple clouds roll onto the horizon in the distance. You look into the water to discover two small eyes looking back at you – an alligator has you in sight. Welcome to Everglades National Park!
Everglades National Park in Florida is a massive wetlands area (so massive, that it is the third largest National Park in the continental US), and is often compared to a very slow-moving river.
For a brief intro to the park, take the Anhinga Trail (located near the Royal Palm Visitor Center), where you can spot turtles and alligators – you’ll be at a safe distance up on the walking path on planks above! If you have more time to explore the area, consider doing a kayak tour in Florida Bay where you could see dolphins or manatees. If you’re up for some fun, consider taking an airboat tour from one of the authorized airboat tour companies in the park – the roar of the fan and the feeling of gliding over the water is something you will never forget!
Before you go, know that there are 3 main entrances to Everglades National Park: one in the south east near Homestead (Earnest Coe), one in the northwest (Tamiami Trail), and one on the northwest shore (Gulf Coast).
- Location: Florida
- Where to Stay: Hampton Inn and Suites (from $100), which is a 20 minute drive from the Earnest Coe visitor center
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle
- Hikes: Anhinga Trail (easy, 0.4 miles); Pinelands Ecotone (moderate, 5.9 miles); Westlake Mangrove Trail (easy, 0.4 miles)
- Other Activities: Kayak or airboat tour
11. Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is located in Montana. The park is home to hundreds of glacier-carved peaks, over 600 lakes, hundreds of rivers, waterfalls and streams, and over 730 miles of maintained hiking trails. Glacier National Park is known as “The Crown of the Continent” and the “American Alps” for a good reason. This place is so beautiful and so spectacular that words cannot begin to describe it.
The park is open year-round. Glacier’s weather is highly variable and can be extreme. In the summer expect warm sunny days and in the winter the temperatures can fall well below freezing.
The most popular activity at the park is hiking. There are trails for all levels. Check with the Visitor Center for up-to-date information since many hikes close due to snow or bear activity. As you hike be sure to make a lot of noise and clap, and better yet, carry bear spray!
The entrance fees for a 7-day visitor permit are $30 for a private, noncommercial vehicle; $25 for a motorcycle; or $15 for each visitor 16 years and older entering by foot, bicycle, ski, etc.
Accommodation options at the lodges in the park are only available from May or June through September. There are 13 different campgrounds and approximately 1,009 sites to choose from during the summer. Primitive winter camping is offered at a few campgrounds.
- Location: Montana
- Where to Stay: Many Glacier Hotel (from $200). There are also lots of camping options ranging from $10-$23 a night in the summer months.
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee for a 7-day visitor permit is $30 for a car; $25 for a motorcycle; or $15 for each visitor 16 years and older entering by foot, bicycle, ski, etc.
- Hikes: Highline Trail or Loop (strenuous, 11.8 miles); Grinnell Glacier (strenuous, 7.6 miles); Hidden Lake Overlook (easy, 2.7 miles); Iceberg Lake (moderate, 10 miles)
12. Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is, without a doubt, (if you’ll pardon my pun) GRAND. Even if you think you know how much your mind will be blown by your first sight of the canyon, I promise you that it will be blown even more. It’s just that crazy.
To really fathom just how big the Grand Canyon is though, be sure to complete one of the many day hikes, such as the South Kaibab Trail – or hike the whole thing rim-to-rim if you dare!
One thing’s for sure: if you want to visit the Grand Canyon, plan ahead. Hotels book out more than a year in advance, and costs only go up the longer you wait. If you want a rim-to-rim hiking permit, you have to apply several months in advance as well. Trust me though, all the planning is absolutely worth it!
- Location: Arizona
- Where to Stay: There are lots of options for lodging, and it’s good to check which are open during the winter months. Keep in mind that many of them book up fast!
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $30 per vehicle or $15 per person (walk, bike, shuttle bus in)
- Hikes: South Kaibab Trail (strenuous, 7.1 miles); North Kaibab Trail (strenuous, 14 miles); Rim-to-Rim Hike (strenuous, 24 miles)
13. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is located in Wyoming, south of Yellowstone National Park and north of the town of Jackson. The park’s 310,000 acres includes lush valley floors, mountain meadows, alpine lakes and the rising peaks of the Teton Range.
There are 7 Best Places to Photograph Grand Teton National Park to capture the jagged peaks of the mountains complimented by the surrounding landscape and wildlife.
Open year-round, the park has four distinct seasons. Summer is best for hiking and fishing. Fall provides stunning color for photography and the wildlife is very active. Winter has limited lodging options in the park, but offers cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Spring is a quiet time at the park, and the only time you can see the elk migration.
The lodging options within the park are only available from May or June through September or October. Campgrounds in the park are only open in the summer. The Moose section of the park offers grocery services year-round, where the rest of the park is only open during the summer.
No matter what time of year you visit, there are endless opportunities to see and photograph nature at its best.
- Location: Wyoming
- Where to Stay: Lodging ranges from expensive options like the Jenny Lake Lodge (from $400) to more budget lodging like Grand Teton Climber’s Ranch ($27).
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $30 per vehicle; $25 per motorcycle; $15 if entering by foot, bicycle, etc.
- Hikes: Marion Lake (moderate, 13 miles); Alaska Basin (strenuous, 17 miles); Taggart Lake (easy, 3.3 miles); Amphitheater Lake (strenuous, 10.2 miles); Garnet Canyon (strenuous, 8.4 miles)
14. Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the southernmost end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a mountain range that runs across the Eastern coast of the United States of America. Officially located in the state of Tennessee, this is one of the few National Parks where no entrance fee is charged.
On your scenic drive through Smoky Mountains, stop by at Newfound Gap to admire the beauty of rolling mountains from an elevated vantage point. It is even better if you can catch a sunrise at the Newfound Gap. There are plenty of great hiking trails in the park but a few popular and easy to moderate hikes are Andrew’s Bald, Grotto Falls, and Spruce Flat Falls.
A couple of towns around the park where you can find accommodation are Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. If you want to camp inside the park then you must reserve your campsite in advance. For a more luxurious retreat we recommend renting a cabin in the mountains with an overlook at the park.
Although this park is great all year round, it is tremendously beautiful in spring and autumn with much less crowd.
- Location: Tennessee
- Where to Stay: Backcountry camping is allowed in the park. There are also 10 other more developed frontcountry camp grounds, which start at around $14.
- Entrance Costs: Free!
- Hikes: Andrew’s Bald (moderate, 3.6 miles); Grotto Falls (easy, 3 miles); Spruce Flat Falls (moderate, 2 miles)
15. Haleakala National Park
Haleakala National Park is one of the coolest parks in the United States. Located on the island of Maui in Hawaii, this giant volcano crater is about 33,265 acres of land, nineteen miles of it being a wilderness area. It is home to the Nene, Hawaii’s adorable and native goose.
There are two sections of the park. One is at the top of the volcano and the other is on the far east side of the island in Kipahulu past Hana. The park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, except during severe weather closures.
Head to the top of Haleakala to view the sunrise. Due to the popularity of doing this, the park is now taking sunrise reservations which you can do here. Sunrise reservations are $1.50 per car but do not include the park entrance fee. The landscape is so unusual up there, seeing it at sunrise is unbelievable. Sunset is equally beautiful.
Tip: This section of the park is at a high elevation so it is very cold, especially during sunrise and sunset. Dress appropriately.
On the east side of Kipahulu, hike the Pipiwai Trail. It’s about 4 miles and will show off some beautiful waterfalls, a giant banyan tree and boardwalk through a bamboo forest.
- Location: Island of Maui in Hawaii
- Where to Stay: Nalu Kai Lodge (from $142) Kula Lodge (from $175)
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle (valid for 3 days), $20 per motorcycle (valid for 3 days) and $12 per person (valid for 3 days). Youth 15 and under are free.
- Hikes: Pipiwai Trail (moderate, 4 miles)
- Other Activities: Watch the sunrise from the top of Haleakala
16. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is not just a fantastic park in the US but it is also a World Heritage Site recognized the world over. Here you can explore the gorgeous grounds of Hawaii, see an erupting volcano and explore a lava tube. The volcano of Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1938 and produces enough lava every single day to resurface a 20 mile road. This is what makes Hawaii the only US state that is constantly getting bigger!!
Drive the 10.6 mile Crater Rim Drive which takes you around the Kilauea caldera to see the main sites: Kilauea overlook, Jagger Museum, Halemaumau Crater, Devastation Trail, Kilauea Iki crater overlook and the Thurston Lava tube. Take the time to hike the Thurston lava tube which will take you underground!
Hawaii Volcanoes National park is open year round – ALL the time – 365 days a year and 24 hours a day so no matter your holiday plans you can be sure to get a chance to visit!
- Location: Hawaii
- Where to Stay: Inside of the park is the Hawaii Volcano House where you can camp (from $15) or stay in cabins (from $80) or live it up in one of the hotel guest rooms (from $200). There are also lots of Bed and Breakfasts located just outside of the park in Volcano Village.
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fees (valid for 7 days) are $25 per vehicle, $12 per pedestrian or bicycle, and $20 per motorcycle. A Hawaii Tri-park Annual Pass is $30.
- Hikes: Kilauea Iki Trail (moderate, 4 miles); Sulphur Banks (easy, 1.2 miles); Crater Rim Trail (strenuous, 11 miles); Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs (moderate, 1.4 miles)
17. Joshua Tree National Park
Of all the incredible National Parks located in California, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best. Named after its namesake the yucca palm, Joshua Tree is where the Colorado desert and the Mojave desert meet, resulting in an ecologically diverse and unique landscape. From rock formations like the Hall of Horrors that are unique and loved by rock climbers, to the unique flora and fauna – think Prickly pear cacti and Mojave yucca, Joshua Tree seems to have it all.
There’s so much to see and do in Joshua Tree that a day trip isn’t nearly enough time. But if you only have a day, visit Keys View where you get to see the San Andreas fault line across the floor, the Hall of Horrors, the Cholla Cactus Garden, and Skull Rock. Read more here on planning a day trip to Joshua Tree.
- Location: California
- Where to Stay: At any of the nine campgrounds. These can get crowded during peak season (from September to early December, and from mid-February to May) so it’s best to plan ahead and book your campsite as early as possible.
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle (valid for one week), $12 per motorbike, and $12 per person on foot, bicycle or horseback.
- Hikes: Ryan Mountain (easy, 3 miles); Lost Palms Oasis (strenuous, 7.2 miles); Barker Dam Nature Trail (easy, 1.3 miles)
18. Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska is an abode of glaciers, sea creatures and vast forests. Nearly forty glaciers flow from the Harding Icefield in this part of the Kenai Peninsula. The park is unique in it’s topographical diversity and ecological abundance.
Exit Glacier is only section of the park accessible by road. It is amazing to witness how this retreating glacier has carved the adjoining landscape over the years and is still active. Trails diverging in the woods take you to different points to get a different perspective of the glacier. The most adventurous of them is the Harding Icefield Trail. The trail passes through cottonwood and alder forest and then some open meadows climbing higher towards its end.
The rest of the park can be accessed by water. You can board a day cruise from Seward port for an extraordinary experience of wildlife sightings from whales, harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters and different birds. You can also witness the glacial ice plunging into the sea with massive sounds referred to as ‘roar of Gods’ by locals.
The best time of the year to explore the park is in summer (June to September). Adventurous travelers can also choose to visit the park in winter but with limited accessibility and minimal daylight time.
- Location: It is just outside the town of Seward in south-central Alaska, 126 miles south of Anchorage
- Where to Stay: There are two coastal cabins ($75) but these book up fast. There are lots of other options in the cute nearby town of Seward.
- Entrance Costs: Free! A six hour cruise costs around $170 per person though (advance booking recommended)
- Hikes: Harding Icefield Trail (difficult, 8.2 miles)
- Other Activities: Day cruises and guided kayaking tours
19. Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It protects nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. In Spanish ‘mesa’ means ‘table’ and ‘verde’ means ‘green’. This table-land was home to hundreds of Ancestral Pueblo people, an ancient Native American race from AD 600 to AD 1300.
There are primarily two types of dwellings found in Mesa Verde, mesa-top and cliff. The major attractions in the park being the cliff dwellings like Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, Long House. These structures, mostly built around 1200 A.D., are pure architectural wonders. One is amazed by the level of scientific thinking and genius craftsmanship seeing buildings made of sandstone, wooden beams and mortar of soil, water and ash. No visit to Mesa Verde is complete without a ranger-guided tour of the Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Round and square towers, the tallest being 26 feet, key-hole shaped ‘kivas’ (round pit structures) and perfect arrangement of rooms used for various purposes like storage and living, speak of an advanced civilization living centuries ago.
- Location: Southwestern Colorado Park entrance is along Highway 160 between the towns of Mancos and Cortez, Colorado and about 35 miles west of Durango, Colorado.
- Where to Stay: Morefield Campground (from $30), Far View Lodge (from $130)
- Entrance Costs: Private vehicles – $15 to $20 (varies based on season), good for 7 days. Ranger-guided tours are $5 per person (can be booked up to 2 days in advance)
- Hikes: Ranger-guided tours of Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House.
- Other Activities: Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
20. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore offers more than one hundred miles of trails through lush forests, towering waterfalls, and sandy dunes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. During the summer months, you can go swimming on sandy beaches and kayaking along the Lake Superior shoreline.
For hiking, the best time to visit is during the autumn season, when you can explore the park feeling like you have it all to yourself. The crowds are almost non-existent, the temperatures aren’t quite as sweltering, and the leaves are a stunning palette of crimson and gold.
The winter months offer their fair share of fun at Pictured Rocks too. It gets an average of 144 inches of snow per year, and has miles of trails for cross country skiing and snowmobiling. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can also try your hand at climbing the dozens of frozen waterfalls!
While you’re in the area sure to try some traditional pasties as well. When the state was first he region was dominated by Cornish immigrants who had come to work in the copper mining industry. Today, you can still try the traditional recipes handed down through generations at any number of restaurants and shops. They’re also perfect for packing for a picnic in the forest!
- Location: Michigan’s upper peninsula
- Where to Stay: Backcountry and drive-in camping ($5-$25) permit required and fills up fast in summertime; Historic Hotel Grand Marais, an independently-run bed and breakfast that’s the perfect mix between modern and rustic.
- Entrance Costs:
- Hikes: Miners Falls Trail (easy, 1.2 miles); Au Sable Light Station (easy, 3 miles); Miners Castle Overlook to Miners Beach (easy, 2 miles)
- Other Activities: Kayaking, cross-country skiing; snowmobiling, climbing
21. Redwoods National Park
Where can you hike through fern-lined gullies, gaze spellbound at 370-foot tall trees scraping the skyline, and comb the beach for hidden treasures while looking for whale spouts? At Redwoods National Park, you can do all of these. This World Heritage Site stretches through 37 miles of pristine California coastline and holds more than 200 miles of trails ranging from wheelchair-accessible and family friendly to multiple day treks to secret waterfalls.
With so many miles of trails to explore, it’s hard to choose. If you’re new to the park and looking for a sample, try the Lady Bird Johnson Grove trail, where rhododendrons bloom in a riot of color at the base of giant redwoods. Tall Trees Grove Trail is just under four miles, but requires a permit to access to protect the root systems of trees such as Libbey, once known as the tallest tree in the world. If you’d rather take in the sights by car, you can take the 31-mile Avenue of Giants, a truly spellbinding drive that will make you feel like you’re in a Jurassic Park movie.
In the nearby town of Leggett, you can drive through the Chandelier Tree. Visit Ferndale, and you’ll step back in time to a Victorian village. Or in Fort Bragg, you can see Glass Beach with a kaleidoscope of sea glass.
- Location: Northern California
- Where to Stay: Developed campsites ($35) and cabins ($85-100):Jedediah Smith, Mill Creek, Elk Prairie and Gold Bluffs Beach; Backcountry camping (free but a permit is required)
- Entrance Costs: Free!
- Hikes: Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail (easy, 1.4 miles); Tall Trees Grove Trail (easy, 4 miles) permit required
- Other Activities: Drive the 31-mile Avenue of Giants; drive through the Chandelier Tree in Leggett
22. Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado has the highest dunes in North America. Some of these tower over 750 feet above the park! If sand dunes aren’t your thing, the park also has alpine lakes, six 13,000-foot mountains and ancient forests.
The park has two sides to it – the obvious dune field and then the preserve, which can often get overlooked. The dunes are fun to walk up, particularly at sunrise and sunset, and sand board down. The contrast of the dunes against the mountainous and green preserve stands in beautiful contrast and is what makes the park so striking.
There are two main entries into the preserve’s backcountry: the Mosca Pass Trail (the trailhead is near the visitor’s center) and the Medano Pass Primitive Road (for which you’ll need a high-clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle at minimum).
Unlike a lot of other national parks, Great Sand Dunes does not have a lodge or nearby hotels. While this turns many visitors away from spending the night, camping provides the opportunity to do some really unobscured stargazing!
- Location: Colorado (4-hour drive from Denver)
- Where to Stay: Pinon Flats Campground (from $20 a night), wild camping (permit required)
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance fees are $15 per vehicle and $10 per motorcycle
- Hikes: High Dune Trail (strenuous, 3.7 miles); South Zapata Lake Trail (moderate, 9 miles); Mosca Pass Trail (moderate, 7 miles)
- Other Activities: Sand-boarding!
23. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National park is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. It’s iconic for its sequoia trees, sweeping valleys, incredible hiking, dramatic water falls, and towering granite cliffs like El Capitan and Half Dome. It’s beautiful wilderness has been captured in photographs by the famous Ansel Adams and in books and essays by John Muir. And even they do little justice to what it’s like to truly experience the magic of Yosemite in person.
As you head into Yosemite through the Arch Rock Entrance, enjoy the breathtaking drive into the park, passing along the Merced River and through incredible mountain passes. Once inside, head to Yosemite Falls Parking. You’ll pass El Capitan that is famed for it’s difficult rock climbing routes. Often you can spot banana shaped silhouettes on the face of it. Those are climbers in hammocks suspended from the rock face!
There are so many activities to do in the park from rock climbing, both for the beginning and professional, to hiking or lazing around on a picnic in meadows with the most incredible views. Some great hikes include the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, Mirror Lake and Vernal and Nevada Falls.
Any easy way to get around Yosemite during your visit is on the Valley Shuttle Bus, which is free and allows you to jump on and off as you wish.
- Location: California
- Where to Stay: There are 13 campgrounds in Yosemite but these book up in busier months so book ahead.
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance is $30 for a car or van
- Hikes: Lower Yosemite Falls Trail (easy, 1 miles, stop #6 on the shuttle bus); Mirror lake (easy, 2 miles, stop #17 on the shuttle bus); Vernal and Nevada Falls (strenuous, 5.4 miles); Valley Loop Trail (moderate, 7.2 miles half loop or 11.5 mile fill loop, stop #14 or 15); Sentinel Dome and Taft Point (moderate, 2.2 miles)
24. Zion National Park
Zion National Park in southwest Utah is the state’s first National Park and one of the most popular in the United States. It’s known for it’s unique landscape of steep red sandstone cliffs, emerald pools, waterfalls and forests. One of the most interesting features in the park is Zion Canyon which is half a mile deep at points. One of the best hikes in the park, Angels Landing, provides sweeping views of Zion Canyon from the top.
There are two main areas of the park: the Zion Canyon area, perfect for a first visit to the park, and the Kolob Canyon area, perfect for finding a bit more solitude and big peaks. In Zion Canyon there are so many hiking options – from the famous Angels Landing to the adventurous 16-mile Zion Narrows which, depending how far you go, involves walking through water upstream.
Like many of the national parks, keep in mind that it is scorching in the summer months so hike early and pack lots of water! Also keep in mind that from November-March you can drive your car through Zion Canyon but from April-October cars are not allowed. Zion Canyon Shuttle is available though and it’s free and very easy to use!
If you plan to do any overnight wilderness camping or the Narrows Top-Down hike, a permit will be needed.
- Location: Utah
- Where to Stay: There are two campgrounds in the park – Zion’s Watchman Campground and Zion’s South Campground (both from $20). There are also some campgrounds a short distance from the entrance to the park.
- Entrance Costs: Park entrance is $25 per vehicle
- Hikes: Angels Landing (strenuous, 5.4 miles, shuttle stop The Grotto); The Narrows (easy to moderate, 2.2+ miles, shuttle stop Temple of Sinawava); Observation point (moderate, 8 miles, shuttle stop Weeping Rock).
While all of these National Parks are AMAZING, there are also so many other great ones not included in this list. What’s your favorite National Park? I’d love to hear which ones you love that didn’t make this list!