There are 63 National Parks in the United States, each offering a truly unique experience.
From majestic old-growth forests, magnificent mountain ranges and even an underwater national park. Whether it is splendid natural scenery, an adventure vacation, including some of the best hiking in the USA, flora and fauna or even fascinating history you are after, these are some of the best national parks in the USA.
Invest in an Annual National Park Pass
If you think you might visit more than one of America’s incredible national parks in one year, buying a National Parks Pass is a very economical option.
America The Beautiful Annual National Parks Pass gives you access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites across America, including all national parks, for a one-time fee.
The pass covers entry for the driver and all occupants per personal vehicle or up to four adults at sites that charge per person (children under 15 are free). Check entry charges for each park before visiting. The pass is valid for one year from the date of purchase.
Get more details or purchase the National Parks Pass here.
Download Self Guided Audio Driving Tours
Enhance your driving experience of America’s best national parks with the 16 National Parks Self-Guided Driving Tours Bundle.
The app comes with self-guided audio tours of 16 of the best national park in the US. Once you have downloaded the app and the audio guides, they never expire. Use them again and again.
Each tour includes.
- Live GPS map on your phone (useable offline)
- Audio narration
- Written text explanations
- Route from stop to stop
Most Visited National Parks in the USA
Based on the latest annual visitation records for 2021 from the National Parks Service, these are the top 5 most visited National Parks in America. Interestingly, the Grand Canyon dropped a few places in 2021, but we can safely assume the pandemic and lack of international visitors contributed to this.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/ North Carolina
14.1 Million Visitors
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has incredibly rich biodiversity – lush green forests, magnificent waterfalls and densely wooded mountain ranges. The park covers more than 50 million acres making it one of the largest protected areas in the US. It is also one of the top-rated national parks in America based on annual visitors.
Along with immense natural beauty, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park also has a rich cultural heritage. There is a lot to do and see in the Great Smoky Mountains NP – Clingman’s Dome, at 6,643 feet, is the highest point in the park, offering jaw-dropping 360-degree panoramic views of the Smokies from an observation deck. It’s also a hot spot for climbers.
Cades Cove has historic homesteads surrounded by natural beauty and opportunities for spotting wildlife. Newfound Gap also offers magnificent views and access to the famous Appalachian Trail.
Entry to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
There is no entry fee for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (you can find out the fascinating story of why here), Although activities such as camping cost between $14-$23 per night. The main towns and gateways to the park are the cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge which cater well to visitors with plenty to do and lots of accommodation options.
Accommodation in Great Smoky National Park
Unless you plan to camp within the park, you can find a range of accommodation options in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, from luxury hotels to historic homesteads and cozy budget cabins. Search Smoky Mountains Accommodation Deals here.
Zion National Park Utah
5 Million Visitors
Zion National Park is a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts with some of the best hiking trails in the States. Vibrant landscapes in hues of red and pink, towering sandstone cliffs, narrow canyons and natural stone arches. The famous Virgin River flows into the Emerald Pools with waterfalls and a hanging garden. A stunning desert oasis believed to have been occupied by the ancient Anasazis people.
There is so much to do in Zion National Park beyond hiking, even if you only have a few hours to spend in the park. Take the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which takes you through the central section into forest trails along the Virgin River. Or, take the high road along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway from the South Entrance to the East for magnificent vistas over the valley. You can download a Zion National Park Self Driving Tour, so you don’t miss a thing.
There is a free shuttle bus system within Zion National Park and from the town of Springdale to the park from mid-March to late November. The shuttle route within Zion stops along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Be aware that cars are not permitted along the shuttle bus route during these months.
There are some incredible hikes in Zion National Park, including the famous Zion Narrows hike through deep chasms in the canyon walls and the Angels Landing hike, which is well worth the effort.
Entry to Zion National Park
There is a fee to enter Zion National Park, which is charged by car or per person for those with no vehicle and is valid for seven days. See the Zion National Park site for more information.
Accommodation and Camping in Zion National Park
There are three campgrounds in Zion National Park, but only Watchman Campground is open all year round. If you are not planning on camping, the town of Springdale is closest to the Parks entrance. You can find a range of accommodation options for Springdale here.
Yellowstone National Park Wyoming
4.9 Million Visitors in 2021
Holding the honour of America’s oldest national park, Yellowstone is unquestionably one of the best national parks in the USA.
Yellowstone encompasses a staggering 2.2 million acres of rich and diverse wilderness. There are so many jaw-dropping and iconic views from canyon walls splashed in red, dense forests and meadows, massive waterfalls, geyser basins, and peaceful alpine lakes.
Some of the best attractions in Yellowstone include Old Faithful, a geyser that erupts like clockwork. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone features a stunningly-beautiful waterfall, while Grand Prismatic Spring is a thermal wonder known for its bright dazzling colours. Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are where you’re sure to see Yellowstone’s world-renowned bison herds and other fascinating wildlife. A Lamar Valley Hiking Safari with a guide is a highlight.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Yellowstone – we’ve got seven of the best Yellowstone hikes here to get you planning. But there is so much more to do, such as horseback riding, Yellowstone River rafting tours, camping, and fishing. We recommend adding a trip to Grand Teton National park to your Yellowstone itinerary (information further on)
Entry to Yellowstone
There is an entry fee to enter Yellowstone National Park, per car or person for those on foot or by bike. See the NPS site for rates. There are also five Free Entry Days per year. You can find the calendar of free admission days here.
Accommodation in Yellowstone National Park
There are 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone with over 2,000 sites. All sites can be reserved in advance through NPS, which is advisable. There are also quite a few accommodation options in Yellowstone National Park, such as lodges and cabins, but you will need to book well in advance and expect to pay a premium. There is a good selection of hotels close to the gate entrances. Search for hotels, resorts and self-contained accommodation near Yellowstone here. You can also find some luxury glamping resorts such as Under Canvas Yellowstone.
Grand Canyon National Park Arizona
4.5 million visitors in 2021
As we mentioned earlier, the Grand Canyon typically attracts more than 6 million visitors a year. One of the most beautiful places in Arizona, there isn’t an image that can truly convey the size and beauty of the Grand Canyon. Considered one of the most iconic and best national parks in the USA, it’s not surprising the Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most visited national parks in America.
Etched out over 6 million years by the Colorado River, the expansive canyon’s dramatic vistas and rock formations are just one reason to visit Grand Canyon National Park.
Thanks to the park’s size, it is still easy to find plenty of day hikes in the Grand Canyon, where you can escape the crowds. You can enjoy the canyon’s magnitude from the South Rim, the most popular part of the park for day visitors. Or, you can head to the North Rim, where you can still find some solitude. If you wish to experience the Grand Canyon away from the hiking trails or the tourist routes, whitewater rafting down the Colorado River or a helicopter ride over the canyon are two incredible experiences you can have. Camping beneath the stars, biking, and donkey riding is also possible in the park. In addition to the natural beauty, there are other attractions such as the incredible Grand Canyon Sky Walk, Grand Canyon IMAX theatre, historic Grand Canyon Railway and the Desert View Watchtower.
Of course, one of the best things to do in the Grand Canyon National Park is to experience sunrise or sunset.
Entry to Grand Canyon National Park
You will have to pay an entry fee for the Grand Canyon per car or person for those not travelling in a private vehicle. See here for entry fees and a list of Free Entry Days.
Accommodation in Grand Canyon National Park
There is accommodation available inside the Grand Canyon National Park; it is advisable to book well in advance. You can find accommodation options here through NPS. There are also campgrounds within the park but be mindful that bookings are required. You can do this through the NPS Campgrounds online. There is also a good selection of accommodation options outside the park but be aware that hotels located as far as a 1.5-hours drive away can still carry the “Grand Canyon” label. You can find a selection of Grand Canyon hotels here that are less than a 15-minute drive from the park gate – perfect for early morning starts to beat the crowds or catch the sunrise.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
4.4 million Visitors in 2021
The snow-capped mountains of Colorado are one of the most magnificent natural sights in the USA.
Rocky Mountain National Park is most known for its towering landscapes and gorgeous scenery. With elevations ranging from 7,860 feet to 14,259 feet, Rocky Mountain is one of the highest national parks in the USA. There are 77 mountain peaks over 12,000 feet in elevation, with Longs Peak being the highest at 14,259 feet. The Alpine Visitor Center within the park also holds the highest National Parks Service sites record.
Located about 70 miles north of Denver and 38 miles of Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park spans the Continental Divide and encompasses protected mountains, ancient forests, sub-alpine regions and alpine tundra. It also has some of the best wildlife watching in the United States, including elk, bighorn sheep and moose and more than 280 bird species.
Some of the most popular attractions in the Rocky Mountain National Park are the Emerald Lake Trail, a moderate hike that features a pristine lake surrounded by jagged mountains. Bear Lake trail with tranquil mountain views, The Keyhole Route, a climb that crosses vertical rock faces, leading up Longs Peak, the highest mountain in the park.
Some of the most popular “motor nature trails” are the Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the States and Old Fall River Road, the first auto route in the Rocky Mountain National Park. The Mount Evans Scenic Byway, 60 miles west of Denver, the highest paved road in North America, is another popular driving route. You can download the Rocky Mountain Self Drive Audio Tour here.
The Rocky Mountain National Park offers incredible scenery. Still, outdoor enthusiasts enjoy fishing, hiking, mountain-climbing, horseback riding, camping, and some of the best winter activities, including skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling.
Entry to Rocky Mountain National Park
Note that Timed Entry Reservations are required to enter the park during the summer between May 27 and October 10. (You can find information on timed entry permits here). To enter the park during the summer season will your timed entry booking and payment or pass such as the America The Beautiful Annual National Parks Pass. Entry fees are per vehicle or person for individuals on foot or bike.
Accommodation in Rocky Mountain National Park
There is no accommodation in the Rocky mountain national park, but there are five established campsites. You can find many accommodation options in Grand Lake and Estes Park close to the park. Or, if you prefer more variety, the city of Boulder at the foot of the Rockies is an excellent base. There is also a good variety of hikes near Boulder and only 38 miles from the national park.
Best National Parks East and East Coast USA
Free National Parks on the East Coast USA
You don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy some of the best national parks in the USA. These are some national parks on the east coast with free admission.
- Biscayne National Park, Florida
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
- Mammoth Caves National Park Kentucky
- Cuyahoga National Park Ohio
- Congaree National Park, South Carolina
- Hot Springs National Park Arkansas
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park is a 47,000-acre natural coastal paradise where the forest meets the Atlantic coast in Maine. Wild woodland, rocky beaches along the stormy Atlantic and glacier-scoured granite peaks such as the famous Cadillac Mountain – the highest point on the East Coast are what await outdoor enthusiasts. Acadia National Park is also the easternmost national park and the first place to see the sunrise in the United States.
The park has over 158 miles of hiking trails and 27 miles of historic motor roads, making it a popular addition to any Maine road trip itinerary. It is a top-rated stop on East Coast fall foliage leaf peeping itineraries when the park is in full colour.
The majority of the park covers Mount Desert Island, with the other half covering smaller islands and the mainland. The varied geography offers a diverse array of wildlife encounters, from moose and bears to whales and seabirds.
Bubble Rock, the Ocean Path, the Wonderland Trail, or the Great Head Trail are great options for beginning level hikes. For experienced hikers or those looking to spend more time in the wilderness, options include the Precipice Trail, the Beehive Trail, the Dorr Mountain Trail, or a hike to the Cadillac Mountain summit.
Along with hiking and wildlife encounters, you can take a drive along the Acadia National Park Park Loop Drive. The 27-mile loop road takes you past many of the park’s highlights and best observation points, including Thunder Hole, Jordan Pond and Sand Beach.
The Park Loop Drive will take an hour, direct or half-day with stops. It is an excellent introduction to the park and can help you decide how to spend the rest of your time at Acadia NP.
If you wish to see the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain, you can make the hike to the top or take a leisurely drive to the summit – but be aware, vehicle reservations are required to access the Cadillac Summit Road from May 25 through October 22. See NPS for reservations.
You can take a half-day narrated bus tour of Bar Harbour and Acadia National Park, and Mt. Desert Island to get an overview of the area or download the Acadia National Park Self Drive Audio Tour.
Entry to Acadia National Park
There is a fee to enter the park and is per vehicle for all occupants for seven days. Prices are per person for individuals on foot or travelling by bike. See the NPS site for a complete list of fees and the list of free entry days.
Accommodation in Acadia National Park
If you wish to camp in Acadia National Park, there are two campgrounds on Mount Desert Island, one campground on the Schoodic Peninsula, and five lean-to shelters on Isle au Haut. Camping in Acadia must be booked in advance – see here for camping reservations.
The famous bayside fishing village of Bar Harbor is the gateway to the park and offers a good selection of restaurants, quaint shops and a chilled coastal vibe. It also provides a good array of accommodation with easy access to the park—search accommodation options in Bar Harbour here, from self-contained to luxury hotels and budget cabins.
It is home to many rare and endangered species such as manatees, alligators, crocodiles, flamingos, panthers, and an immense variety of wetland bird species. It is such a unique wilderness; the Everglades is a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty.
The wild beauty of the Everglades is a treat for both nature lovers and adventure junkies. While activities such as hiking, cycling and bird watching are popular, much of the Everglades is made up of water. Boating, kayaking and canoeing tours and the famous Airboat Safari Tours are all incredible ways to experience this natural wetland. If you are prepared to get your feet wet, you can try “Slough Slogging“, a ranger lead walk off the hiking trail to experience a side of the Everglades many never see.
Entry to Everglades National Park
Entry to Everglades is charged per vehicle or individual for pedestrians, cyclists or paddle craft. Tickets are valid for seven days. See the NPS site for a complete list of prices.
Accommodation in Everglades National Park
There are several camping possibilities in Everglades, including two drive-in campsites and numerous wilderness campsites. Reservations during the busy season are highly recommended. Get more information on NPS or make reservations.
If you don’t want to stay in the park, Everglades City is the closest option, and there are lots of great hotels and resorts in Everglades to choose from.
Dry Tortugas National Park Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park is a cluster of seven idyllic and historically significant islands 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the most unique and popular parks in the Florida Keys.
Dry Tortugas National Park covers 101 sq miles, most of which are surrounding coral reefs and water. The national park is steeped in a history of pirates and shipwrecks and tales of sunken treasure.
The central facility of the islands, Fort Jefferson, reminds us of the park’s significant military past. Dating back to the 1800s, the fort was also used as a prison during the Civil War. Fort Jefferson is also the largest brick structure in the western hemisphere, with over 16 million bricks. You can take a tour of the fort to learn about its history and construction.
A day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park is not all about the national park’s fascinating military history and swashbuckling tales of shipwrecks and pirates. There are also many impressive natural activities and abundant opportunities for marine and birdlife encounters.
Enjoy snorkelling and diving in the park’s stunningly clear waters teeming with coral reefs, marine life and shipwrecks. You can go kayaking around the islands or opt for a proper Robinson Crusoe experience camping on the mostly uninhabited Garden Key Island. It is also possible to fish on the islands, or maybe you prefer a relaxing picnic on the beaches.
Entry to Dry Tortugas
There is a fee to enter Dry Tortugas National Park, which is per person and valid for seven consecutive days. The only way to access the park is via ferry or seaplane. The Yankee Freedom III is the official Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry and takes approx 2 hours each way.
Entry is included with your ferry ticket, whereas the seaplane will charge admission on check-in. See the Dry Tortugas NPS site for fees and Free Entry days. You can also book an all-inclusive Dry Tortugas Day Trip from Key West, including all transfers and entry fees, guides, a tour of Fort Jefferson, snorkel equipment, breakfast and lunch. See here for full tour details.
Accommodation in Dry Tortuga National Park
While dry land only makes up around 1% of the park, there is a campground at Garden Key where you can pitch a tent. The six-person campsites are on a first-come, first-serve basis and have minimal facilities, so bring everything you need. You can find more information about camping on Dry Tortuga here.
Key West is the closest town to Dry Tortuga. You can search for a full range of accommodation options here.
Stretching over 270 square miles south of Miami to the Florida Keys, 95% of the Biscayne National park is underwater. The park is home to four different ecosystems and many endangered species, including manatees, sea turtles, and crocodiles. The Biscayne Bay Lagoon boasts healthy populations of dolphins, turtles and pelicans. The park also includes the Florida Reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the States and one of the most extensive offshore reefs in the world.
Only accessible by boat, there is so much to do in the Biscayne National Park. Follow the marker buoys to explore the six shipwrecks and snorkel around the base of Fowey Rocks Lighthouse. Snorkel or dive the underwater Maritime Heritage Trail, where you will find abundant marine life and colourful coral reefs.
Walk the Convoy Point Jetty Trail from the Visitors Centre through the mangroves to the Colonial Bird Protection Area. Hike the one-mile loop trail on Elliot Key, take a boat to Boca Chita Key to climb to the top of the iconic lighthouse. Kayak to Adams Key to see the historic buildings and spot baby sharks and turtles in the surrounding clear waters from your kayak. Take a guided stand up paddle tour on Jones Lagoon to spot turtles, stingrays and manatees in the clear, calm waters.
Explore the remaining buildings constructed offshore in the 30s during Prohibition. Affectionately called “Stiltsville”, they housed illegal clubs, bars and gambling halls.
Entry to Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park is entirely free to explore. No entry fee or passes are required.
Most of Biscayne National Park is only accessible by boat. If you have a private boat, you can access the park from several marinas, but you must follow the Biscayne Boating Guidelines. If you don’t have your own boat, you will need to take a tour. You can book a Private Small-Group Sightseeing Tour or book a guided tour through the Biscayne National Park Institute, the main authorised tour company for the national park. They run all kinds of tours, from scuba to SUP tours.
Accommodation in Biscayne National Park
There are two campgrounds in Biscayne National Park on the islands of Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key. The campsites cannot be reserved; they are first-come, first-served. See here for information on camping.
Most visitors to Biscayne stay in Miami or the town of Homestead. From Homestead, you can take the Homestead National Parks Trolley to Biscayne (and the Everglades), which runs from late November to April.
Congaree National Park South Carolina
Congaree National Park in central South Carolina preserves 26,276-acres of astonishing biodiversity.
Located 18 miles southeast of Columbia, the park is home to the largest intact old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the southeastern United States.
One of the lesser-visited national parks on the east coast, Congaree offers a more tranquil experience than other national parks in the US. Explore the park by foot kayak or canoe, and you can expect to see an array of wildlife, including turtles, otters, alligators, white-tailed deer, bobcats, and wild boar.
There are over 25 miles of hiking trails in the park, including incredible “big tree hikes” through forest landscapes of massive cypress, pine, champion, and loblollies. There are also ranger-led hikes for those who want a guided tour of these impressive giants and like to explore a little off-trail.
The Boardwalk Loop Trail is an easy 2.4-mile hike that, in parts, takes you 6 feet above the forest floor. Check the flood situation before heading off, as the lower portion of the trail can be submerged.
Explore the primitive swamplands of the park on a kayak or canoe where magnificent bald cypress and tupelo grow in the water. Paddle a canoe down the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, a managed route that winds for 15 miles through the Congaree wilderness, where you can see turtles, otters, birds, and alligators. There are free Ranger-led tours, but you need to rent your own canoe.
Between mid-May and mid-June, one of the most spectacular highlights of the park happens at night when the synchronous fireflies, a rare species of firefly, put on an incredible light show during their spring mating season. Congaree is one of only three places in the Western Hemisphere where this happens. Because of the popularity of this rare and fleeting natural event, there are only 120 cars permitted for each night of the spectacle and permits are granted on a lottery basis. See Recreation.gov for more information.
Entry to Congaree National Park
Entry to Congaree National Park is free (except for events like the synchronous firefly viewing).
Accommodation in Congaree National Park
There is camping in Congaree – two front country campgrounds (Longleaf Campground and Bluff Campground). You require a reservation to camp in either or have a valid permit to camp in the backcountry. See here for information on camping in Congaree.
Columbia, South Carolina, is the closest city to the park approx. 20 minutes drive. You can find lots of accommodation options in Columbia here.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Extending along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Shenandoah is a wilderness wonderland of spectacular vistas, waterfalls and mountain streams, caves, gorges, wetlands and magnificent mountain peaks.
From hiking to rock climbing, fly fishing and biking, there is much to enjoy in Shenandoah National Park.
For those wanting to enjoy the magnificent vistas by car, there is the historic 105-mile Skyline Drive that runs the length of the park. The drive will take about 3 hours, but there are over 75 scenic lookouts to stop at that can easily fill a day. More noteworthy overlooks are Hogback Overlook, Big Run, Range View Overlook, Spitler Knoll, and Crimora Lake Overlake.
The park has a vast network of hiking trails– nearly 500 miles, including a 100-mile section of the iconic Appalachian Trail. One of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park is the 2-mile round trip hike to the top of Hawksbill Mountain summit – the highest mountain peak in the park at 4,050 feet. You can try the leisurely 1-mile hike to Blackrock Summit or, for the more advanced hiker, the 9.2 mile Old Rag Mountain hike, complete with rock scrambles and 360-degree views. Old Rag is also one of Virginia’s most popular climbing spots.
For great waterfall hikes; the Whiteoak Canyon hike, Overall Run Falls hike – the highest waterfall in the park with an awe-inspiring drop, and the most famous waterfall in Shenandoah, the Dark Hollows Falls Trail.
Shenandoah also delivers on wildlife with deer, bird species, squirrels, and black bears. Shenandoah National Park has the largest black bear refuge in the state and is the only place in the world you can find the endangered newt species, the Shenandoah Salamander.
Entry to Shenandoah National Park
There is an entry free (or valid pass such as America The Beautiful Pass) per vehicle or individual for those on foot or by bike. Entry is valid for seven consecutive days. See here for a complete list of prices and a list of free entry days.
Accommodation in Shenandoah National Park
There are five campsites in Shenandoah, as well as backcountry camping. You will need to reserve a campsite, especially during busy periods. Backcountry camping requires a permit. Get more information here.
If you want to stay in the heart of Shenandoah National Park, you will find multiple lodging options, from comfortable and elegant, to rustic and quaint. If you don’t want to stay in the park, the town of Front Royal is the most convenient with lots of accommodation for all budgets.
New River Gorge National Park West Virginia
New River Gorge National Park, one of the newest national parks in America (added to the National Parks System in late 2020), is home to the second oldest river in the world, estimated to be between 10 and 360 million years old.
The New River is also unique in that it flows from south to north (as the Nile in Egypt does) – most rivers in North America flow north-south.
At almost 320 miles end to end, the New River Gorge National Park section of the river includes 53 miles of unencumbered rapids, from Bluestone Dam to Hawks Nest Lake. It’s no surprise New River Gorge is a hot spot for whitewater rafting.
Within the park, you will find varying ways to enjoy the river. For those who like adventure and are experienced paddlers, the Lower Gorge has Class IV and V rapids. These rapids are very forceful with powerful currents and cross-currents, boulders and hazardous undercut rocks. Only experienced paddlers should hit the Lower Gorge, and having a local guide is highly recommended.
If you still want some adventure but not quite the thrill of Class V rapids, try the Upper Gorge, consisting primarily of long pools and relatively easy Class I to Class III rapids. Perfect for families or beginners.
There are plenty of opportunities for a rafting tour. You can try a thrilling rafting tour for adventurous paddlers that takes you through class III and IV rapids or a more leisurely, family-friendly rafting tour where you can experience Class I and II rapids.
The park encompasses over 70,000 acres of land offering scenic and recreational dry land opportunities. The 12 mile out and back Glade Creek hike is a beautiful day with swimming holes and lots of great picnic stops for a full day hike. The Canyon Rim Boardwalk from the New River Gorge Visitor Center is a beautiful hike for something shorter. Try the 2.4 mile Endless Wall Trail, a forest hike with magnificent views of the New River and the New River Gorge Bridge. There are also many possibilities for rock climbing and bike trails for all levels, and the river has excellent fishing and camping facilities.
If you are visiting in the fall, check the annual Bridge Day Festival dates where extreme sports reign supreme. The New River Gorge Bridge is the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere and 3rd longest in the world. On Bridge Day, it becomes the platform for extreme sportsmen and women to strut their stuff. You can sign up to take a guided walk from the catwalk beneath the bridge – securely tethered, of course. For the not so courageous, you can watch BASE jumpers, rappellers, and high line riders hurl themselves from the bridge.
Entry to New River Gorge National Park
New River Gorge National Park is free to enter. No fees or entry passes are required.
Accommodation in New River Gorge National Park
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve have several primitive camping areas along the river and one at the Gauley River National Recreation Area. The camping areas have no drinking water and limited restroom facilities.
There is no fee for camping, and sites are first-come, first-served. Stays are limited to 14 consecutive days in one location. See NPS for more information on camping.
There is no accommodation within the New River Gorge Park. There are many accommodation options in Fayetteville, the closest town to the park 2 miles from the entrance.
Mammoth Caves National Park Kentucky
Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world. Four hundred miles of the magnificent underground system have been discovered, but it is estimated to extend a further 600 miles. The cave is home to over 130 species of animals and tells the story of thousands of years of human history. It is not surprising Mammoth Caves is one of the 13 natural sites in the United States to be given UNESCO World Heritage status.
The entire 400 miles are not open to visitors, but there are still plenty of narrow passageways and otherworldly canyons to discover, some several stories high. You may only visit the cave system as part of a tour. But, there are many great tours to choose from, including tours aimed at families and kids, for people with limited mobility, historical tours, or for the more adventurous, you can try a guided spelunking tour. Tours change according to season, so check the National Parks Site for season tour availability. Tours book up quickly, so it’s best to book in advance.
The fantastic cave system makes it one of the most unique national parks in the US, but there is much to see above ground as below.
Mammoth Cave National Park covers over 53,000 acres in the rolling hills of southcentral Kentucky. Explore river valleys, lush forests, sinkholes and historic churches and cemeteries. Over 80 miles of hiking trails cover diverse habitats, and over 60 miles of backcountry trails are suitable for horseback riding.
The Green and Nolin Rivers trace through the Mammoth Cave National Park, offering over 30 miles of recreational opportunities on the water. From canoeing and kayaking to camping by the river, on islands or in the floodplain.
There is also ample opportunity for anglers – muskellunge, bluegill, catfish, bass, perch, crappie, and other game fish are all up for grabs.
Entry to Mammoth Cave National Park
Entry to Mammoth Cave National Park above ground is free of charge. However, there are charges to tour the cave, stay in campgrounds, or reserve picnic shelters. See the NPS site for a complete list of tour fees and costs.
Accommodation at Mammoth Cave National Park
There are three developed campgrounds within the park, and you need a permit for the 13 designated backcountry campsites. It is recommended to reserve your site in advance. See Mammoth Caves Camping information for rates and reservations.
Best National Parks West and West Coast USA
If you wish to visit multiple national parks on the West Coast but don’t want to do it independently, it is possible to join a multi-night, all-inclusive National Park tour such as the Hiking the Best of the West’s National Parks Tour – 16 days Los Vegas to San Francisco. You will visit the following national parks to see some of the best attractions and the hit the best hiking trails:
- Yosemite NP
- Kings Canyon Np
- Sequoia NP
- Zion NP
- Bryce Canyon NP
- Canyonlands NP
- Arches NP
- Capitol Reef NP
Olympic National Park Washington
On the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle, the Olympic National Park is a stunningly diverse natural attraction covering close to a million acres.
Olympic National Park has a staggering array of wildlife, ecosystems, and terrains, from lush rainforests to rugged coastlines, a dry area and an alpine region thanks to its immense size. You’ll never get bored in Olympic National Park.
For outdoor enthusiasts, there is plenty to do at Olympic National Park.
With over 611-miles of trails, there are some incredible hikes in Olympic National Park. There are loads of impressive waterfalls to discover, such as Sol Duc Falls and Marymere Falls and plenty of opportunities for water activities on lakes, rivers, and the coast. There’s even surfing between Rialto Beach and First Beach in the small town of La Push. Or, for a surf adventure off the beaten track, hike the 4 miles to Shi Shi Beach for some backcountry surfing. For adventure travellers, you can find opportunities for whitewater rafting in the right conditions and rock climbing and hiking the glacier-capped mountains.
Olympic National Park is made up of five major regions to help you choose your preferred activities or focus –
- Hurricane Ridge – Mountains and sweeping vistas.
- The Coast – Beaches, sea stacks, and 57 miles of rugged coastal wilderness.
- Kalaloch Beach – Long stretches of sandy beach and bird populations.
- Hoh Rainforest – Iconic old-growth moss-covered forest with diverse wildlife.
- Lake Quinault – Beautiful lake and rainforest.
- Eastern Olympic National Park – The driest and sunniest side of the park. Rivers and forests along the Hood Canal.
An easy day trip from Seattle, it’s no wonder Olympic NP is one of the most popular national parks for both locals and visitors to the state.
Entry to Olympic National Park
There is a fee to enter Olympic National Park. It is a per-vehicle charge which covers all occupants for seven days. Prices are per person for individuals on foot or by bike. See the NPS site for a complete list of fees, valid National Park Passes and the list of free entry days.
Accommodation in Olympic National Park
In addition to camping, there are lodges and cabins located throughout Olympic National Park from historic inns dating back to the early 1900s, modern motel style accommodation, or rustic cabins. You will need to book early, especially between July and August. You can find lodging options in the park here.
If you want to stay outside the park, remember Olympic NP is huge, so consider your focus when choosing which gateway town to stay in. You can search for different accommodation options here.
Mount Rainier National Park Washington
Snow-capped peaks and a 14,410-foot active volcano tower over 369 square miles of natural protected wonderland. Mount Rainier National park is one of the most diverse national parks in the west.
Hike through pine forests to magnificent rivers, discover towering waterfalls, crystal lakes and prairies awash with wildflowers – always with the mighty Mount Rainier in view.
No matter the time of year, Mount Rainier National Park dishes up splendid beauty and something new for visitors to enjoy. While the hiking season is at its peak from April to September, late July to early August is when areas like Paradise Valley really come alive. Thanks to the unique cold climate this is when you can see the most colourful wildflowers in full bloom. Mid to late summer is when the waterfalls will be in full cascade.
Mount Rainier is also known for its incredible reflecting lakes such as Tipsoo and Reflecting Lake which offer some of the best hikes.
Other notable hikes are the snow-covered Skyline Trail and the Mount Fremont Lookout Trail for jaw-dropping panoramic views.
Mt. Rainier has the largest alpine glacial system outside of Alaska with the world’s largest volcanic glacier cave system in the summit crater. As many as 10,000 people a year brave the extreme cold and storms in a bid to make it to the Mount Rainier summit.
Only 1.5 hrs from Seattle, there are lots of fabulous day tours to Mount Rainier.
Entry to Mount Rainier National Park
Entry to Mt. Rainier is per vehicle (up to 15 passengers) or individual for walkers or cyclists, valid for seven days. See here for fees and a list of free days.
Accommodation in Mount Rainier National Park
There are a number of campgrounds within the park with varying facilities. While they are on a first-come, first-served basis, you can reserve in advance. See NPS for details and reservations.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Established in 1976, the Joshua Tree Wilderness Park covers nearly 800,00 acres of California desert. Spanning two deserts – the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, the unique landscape of Joshua Tree has captured imaginations for decades. The intrigue of the landscape and flora has lured famous musicians on spiritual pilgrimages and inspired artists such as Dr Suess to create characters that tickle our imaginations – Joshua Tree National Park is never dull.
Joshua Tree National Park represents the beauty of California deserts in all their unique glory.
The proximity of Joshua Tree National Park to LA, only a few hours (approx 130 miles) or an hour from Palm Springs, makes it a very attractive escape from the city.
There are plenty of great hikes in Joshua Tree, including the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, an easy first-timers and family-friendly hike with iconic landscapes. The Skull Rock Nature trail for giant rocks, the Cholla Cactus Garden for “teddy bear cactus” or the Barker Dam Nature Trail for wildlife.
The 4-mile loop hike to the Lost Horse Mine offers hikers a glimpse into the gold rush and one of the most successful mines in the history of Joshua Tree. Download the Joshua Tree Self Drive Audio Guide to make the most of your time in one of the most intriguing national Parks on the west coast.
Entry to Joshua Tree National Park
Seven-day entry permits are required to enter Joshua Tree NP. Passes may be pre-purchased online at recreation.gov but you must have a printed or digital copy to present at the gate.
Accommodation in Joshua Tree
There are more than 500 campsites available in the park. It is recommended you reserve which can be done up to six months in advance. There is also camping outside the park. See NPS for information and reservations.
If you don’t want to camp, you have lots of amazing options nearby. From tastefully restored roadside inns to small refurbed 50’s hotels with a modern, desert retreat vibe to luxurious desert spa hotels. You can also try something different in a luxe Airstream retro caravan with a stargazing swing bed for some next-level glamping. Or the amazing Castle House Estate where you can stay in a guard tower, a luxury tent or a chic container home.
Pinnacles National Park California
California’s youngest national park and one of the lesser-visited, Pinnacles National Park offers visitors an extraordinary wilderness only two hours from San Francisco.
One of the few parks with no road running through it, hiking is the way to explore this magnificent national park.
Named for the towering rock formations formed by a volcano on the San Andreas more than 20 million years ago, Pinnacles is known for its talus caves accessed by relatively easy and family-friendly trails.
There are more than 30 miles of hiking trails, many of them intersecting, you can customize a hike to suit everyone.
At higher elevations, you can look for roosting Californian condors, the park’s most precious resident. Pinnacles National Park is one of the last places you can see the endangered bird with its magnificent nine-foot wingspan.
There are two entrances to Pinnacles with no connecting roads. The western side is popular with hikers and rock climbers looking for off the beaten track or visiting Balconies Cave. Whereas the eastern side has easy access to Bear Gulch Cave and services such as the campground.
Entry to Pinnacles National Park
Entry fees for Pinnacles National park are per vehicle or individual for walk-in or bicycle, valid for seven days. See NPS for a complete list of fees and valid passes.
Accommodation in Pinnacles National Park
In addition to campsites (including a pool), if you don’t fancy camping, you can rent 4 person tent cabins within the park. See camping and lodging information for rates and reservations. There are also lots of accommodation options within 30 miles of the park’s two entrances.
Sequoia National Park, California
While not the tallest trees in the world, sequoias are the biggest and Sequoia National Park is a refuge for these living giants. Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, around 80 miles east of Fresno California, Sequoia National park was established in 1890 to protect these ancient trees from logging. It was America’s second national park. Eventually, Sequoia would be linked with Kings Canyon National Park, established in 1940.
The park has a wonderfully diverse landscape of mountains and rugged foothills, vast caverns and huge canyons. There are plenty of outdoor activities, from exploring caves to hiking, skiing and snowshoeing, fishing, rock climbing and horseback riding. There are also some incredibly scenic driving routes.
Of course, the highlight of the park is the magnificent sequoia trees. Some are so special they have been given names. The most notable is the General Sherman Tree at the start of the Congress Trail, a three-mile easy loop past many other ancient trees. The largest in the world, General Sherman is 275 feet tall and measures more than 36 feet in diameter at the base. The General Grant Tree in Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park is another noteworthy tree in the park. And then, there is the myth of the tree you can drive through.
Entry to Sequoia National Park
There is a per vehicle entry fee for Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and Hume Lake District of Sequoia National Forest/Giant Sequoia National Monument valid for 1-7 days. See entry fees and valid passes here.
Accommodation in Sequoia NP
Sequoia national park has lots of accommodation available in the park. In addition to plenty of campsites, you can also choose from three lodges offering nearly 150 rooms. The Grant Grove cabins offer six different types of cabins and two types of wilderness lodging – The Bearpaw High Sierra Camp on the High Sierra Trail offers comfortable cabins for wilderness hikers. The Pear Lake Winter Hut is a rustic cabin for wilderness skiers. See NPS Lodging for details and reservations.
Yosemite National Park California
One of the most popular national parks in the USA, Yosemite National Park is 1,200 square miles of vast wilderness ripe for an outdoor adventure vacation.
Famous for its roaring waterfalls, some over 1000ft high, the park is also home to giant ancient sequoia forests, magnificent rivers, picturesque meadows and valleys, majestic mountain peaks and unique rock formations.
Nearly 95% of Yosemite is a designated wilderness, free of constraint to let nature prevail, and prevail it does. There are more than 400 species of animals in Yosemite, 40 of which have special status under the endangered species act. Yosemite’s wildlife encounters can range from birdwatching to black bears, mountain lions, and Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.
Over 750 miles of hiking trails cover a diverse range of habitats. There are plenty of excellent Yosemite day hikes for all abilities and longer multi-day hikes. You can explore Yosemite by bike, on horseback or take one of the scenic driving routes. See some of the most notable viewpoints made famous by photographer Ansel Adams – Glacier Point for striking views of Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley. Tunnel View, Inspiration Point or Cook’s Meadow.
Summer is the perfect time to enjoy the High Sierra. While much of the park is inaccessible in winter, it’s an excellent time for skiing at the Badger Pass Ski Area. Yosemite Valley is a lovely place to spend Christmas with snowshoeing and celebrations at the lodges. Winter is also when you can witness nature’s most stunning displays at Horse Tail Falls. When the setting sun hits the upper cascades of the falls, it creates the illusion of liquid fire. This natural phenomenon usually takes place around the second week of February. Fall brings a magnificent display of colour, and spring is the time to visit Yosemite Valley. There are fewer crowds, and the waterfalls are at their peak.
There is so much to do in Yosemite, including rock climbing, hiking, skiing, fishing and boating, rafting and swimming. You have lots of tour possibilities and ranger-led programs. There are even daily art classes offered and guided photography walks, classes and workshops from spring through to fall. You must register in advance online for these classes.
Entry to Yosemite National Park
There is a fee to enter Yosemite National Park – per car (up to 15 passengers), motorcycle or per person for individuals on foot or bicycle, valid for seven days. You may need a reservation to drive into Yosemite during peak hours (6 am – 4 pm ) from May through September. See here for a complete list of entry fees and reservation information.
Accommodation in Yosemite National Park
In addition to extensive camping facilities (reservation is required all year round – see here for details), there are plenty of accommodation options inside the park, from simple tent cabins in the High Sierra to luxury hotels and historic lodges, cabins and ski huts. See here for lodging options in the park.
Grand Teton National Park Wyoming
If you plan a trip to Yellowstone National Park, it would be silly not to include Grand Teton National Park in your itinerary. The two parks are only around an hour apart, linked by the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway (the 82-mile parkway between the Grand Teton National Park south entrance and West Thumb in Yellowstone National Park).
Grand Teton is around 310,000 acres of wilderness with some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the western United States. It encompasses the Teton mountain range, the 4,000-meter Grand Teton peak, and the valley known as Jackson Hole.
Jackson Hole is a 40-mile long, 15-mile wide valley and home to the charming town of the same name. There is a lot to do in Jackson Hole in terms of attractions, ski resorts, restaurants, and accommodation, making it an excellent base for Grand Teton.
Grand Teton National Park is a popular summer destination for mountaineering, hiking, fishing and backcountry camping. Thanks to approximately 100 miles of paved roads within the park offering spectacular views of the Teton Range, it is also a popular place for cyclists. You can also drive the 42-mile scenic loop drive through the park, the length of the Teton range, along Jenny and Jackson Lakes, with plenty of scenic lookouts along the route.
There are nearly 200 miles of trails for hikers to enjoy in Grand Teton National Park, covering a diverse range of habitats from alpine meadows to sagebrush flats and magnificent pine forests. There is also no shortage of mountain streams and waterfalls. Two notable waterfall hikes are the strenuous 6-mile round trip hike to Bancock Falls or the 5.2-mile round trip hike to the 200 ft cascade Hidden Falls west of Jenny Lake.
There is also plenty of historical sites within the park, such as the Chapel of the Transfiguration and Mormon Row, homesteads established when Mormons from Salt Lake City settled in 1890.
Entry to Grand Teton National Park
There is a fee to enter Grand Teton National Park per vehicle. Passes are valid for seven days. See here for a complete list of fees and passes.
Accommodation in Grand Teton National Park
There is a good selection of campgrounds within the park and the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. Reservations are required, and you will need a permit for backcountry camping. See NPS for a complete list of campsites and rates.
There is also a good selection of accommodation in the park, from simple cabins to luxury lodges and ranches. See NPS for a complete list of accommodations. There is also a good selection of lodging in Jackson Hole.
Arches National Park Utah
Utah dishes up a whopping five national parks, including one of the most popular national parks in the US. Arches National Park attracts more than two million visitors each year to see its unique landscapes and iconic rock formations.
Conveniently located a short drive from Moab, a hot spot for hikers, thanks to the proximity to both Arches and Canyonlands National Park – Arches can get busy at times but this doesn’t make it any less appealing.
As the name suggests, Arches National Park has the highest number of natural arches anywhere in the world. There are over 2,000 documented arches in the park (even more in the area beyond the park). It is such a fascinating and fun national park. Rocks to clamber over, sandstone tunnels to explore and serene sandy trails that can easily be hiked in sandals. Of course, Arches has its more strenuous hikes as well.
Two days in Arches will give you enough time to see the highlights in the park, including Delicate Arch which features on the Utah licence plate, Balanced Rock, Double Arch, The Windows, Skyline Arch, Turret Arch, and the famous Devil’s Garden which offers an array of arches along the 2-mile hike.
Tours of Arches National Park: If you don’t want to visit Arches independently, it is possible to take a guided tour, although most are half or full-day tours leaving from Moab. You can see a selection of Arches tours here.
Arches National Park Tip: Enhance your experience in Arches National Park with a Self Guided Driving Tour App. Simply download the tour to your phone which includes:
- Self-guided tour via an app
- Live GPS map on your phone
- Audio narration
- Written text explanations
Entry to Arches National Park
There is an entry fee for Arches NP, per vehicle valid for seven days. Note that between April 3 through October 3, timed entry reservations are required to enter the park. See the NPS site for details.
Accommodation in Arches National Park
There is camping within the park at the Devil’s Garden Campsite but no hotels or lodges. See NPS for camping information and reservations.
The best place to stay is in the nearby town of Moab. Moab has a great vibe with lots of restaurants, bars and local breweries as well as plenty of excellent accommodation options. From glamping in luxury tents like Moab Under Canvas, full-service hotels with pools like the Hyatt Place Moab or My Place Hotel Moab and lux retreats like the Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection By Hilton or the Sunflower Hill Inn.
Canyonlands National Park
While often overshadowed by nearby Arches National Park, Canyonlands is by no means any less impressive. One of Utah’s great 5’s, Canyonlands makes a fantastic national parks bundle itinerary when combined with Arches.
Covering a whopping 337,598 acres, Canyonlands is divided into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and The Rivers. Each of these areas is easily an hour’s drive from the next which is why Island in the Sky is the most popular district. It’s easy to get to and offers a 34-mile round trip scenic drive.
The most popular things to see in this part of Canyonlands are the famous Mesa Arch – a fantastic photo opportunity of the canyon through the arch, Green River Overlook for epic views of Green River and Grand View Point Overlook. Each is only a short walk from the car parks along the scenic route.
Beyond exploring the incredible vistas of Canyonlands, there are loads of activities such as hiking, climbing and boating.
The Colorado and Green rivers have been integral in shaping the landscape of Canyonlands, so seeing the canyon from the water offers a unique perspective. Near the heart of Canyonlands, above the confluence of the two rivers, there are miles of calm water for kayaks and canoes.
For those looking for adventure, below the confluence, the combined flow of both rivers creates a fourteen-mile stretch of Class III to V whitewater. For private river trips, you will require a permit, otherwise, there are lots of tours available including a 3 hr Jet Boat Tour to Dead Horse Point State Park or a Canyonlands 4×4 Drive and Colorado River Rafting.
Entry to Canyonlands National Park
There is a per-vehicle fee to enter Canyonlands National Park, valid for seven days.
Accommodation in Canyonlands National Park
There are two campgrounds in Canyonlands – Island in the Sky and The Needles. Backcountry camping will require a permit. See NPS for camping details and fees.
As with Arches, the best place to stay for Canyonlands is in the nearby town of Moab.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Not far from Zion National park but on a higher elevation, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of Utah’s more unique national parks.
Home to thousands of hoodoos – irregularly shaped stone pillars formed from frost weathering and stream erosion, The pillars create an alien-like landscape when clustered together. It’s not surprising people refer to the Bryce canyon as otherworldly. The largest collection of hoodoos in the world, Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre has the largest concentration within the park providing spectacular views.
The four main viewpoints in the park are Sunrise Point and Sunset Point, Inspiration Point and Bryce Point. Each is worthwhile at different times of the day and can be reached by car if you don’t fancy hiking along the Rim Trail. There is also a shuttle service available between April and October.
If you do like hiking, the Queen’s Garden and the Navajo Loop 3-mile hike take you past many of the best hoodoos. It’s a steep in-and-out canyon hike but well worth it.
The 17- mile Rainbow Point drive is another way to enjoy some great hoodoo views following the rim of the canyon. If you don’t want to go it alone, there are some fabulous tours and activities available within the park, or you can download the Self Drive Audio Tour.
Entry to Bryce Canyon National Park
There is a fee to enter Bryce Canyon National Park on a per vehicle basis (or per individual for bikes and people on foot), valid for seven days. See NPS for a complete list of fees and details.
Accommodation in Bryce Canyon National Park
There are numerous campgrounds and backcountry camping available in Bryce Canyon on a reservation basis or with a permit. You can find information on camping here. There is also one lodge within the park – the historic Lodge at Bryce Canyon which has 114 rooms.
For more accommodation options, good restaurants and facilities, Bryce Canyon City have a good selection of accommodation close to the park. For something special, try glamping at Bryce Canyon Under Canvas.
Scattered all throughout the country, these incredible national parks offer visitors diverse experiences, amazing scenery, dozens of thrilling activities, and rich history.