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Top US National Parks

From sea to shining sea, here are America’s most spectacular national parks.

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Hi, I'm Jacqueline!

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer with work seen in National Geographic, Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, and more. Find her out on the trails or at jacquelinekehoe.com.

It can be challenging to keep track: In the United States, how many national parks are there?

As of this writing, there are 63—from Hawaii to Alaska, from Montana to Maine. Of these 63, which rise to the top? That’s a tougher question to answer. While they’re all worthy of your wonder and attention, some offer travelers more than others. To narrow it down, here are nine of the best national parks to visit if you want to explore the great outdoors.

1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

people photographing hot springs in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is a good reminder that there's always something going on underground...Bildquelle: Eustacio Humphrey / Viator

The world’s first national park.

One of the most geothermally active spots in the US, Yellowstone National Park offers its visitors the chance to hang out with geysers, scout out bears and wolves, stand next to waterfalls, and smell the earth’s sulfur. There’s nowhere quite like it—which is why this park receives roughly a few million visitors each year.

To skip the driving woes, hop on a tour, where a guide can take you to the best spots. Or, opt for something like a kayaking trip or backcountry geyser tour to leave the crowds behind.

2. Glacier National Park, Montana

forest, river, and mountains in Glacier National Park
There are some two dozen glaciers in Glacier National Park, but there used to be hundreds more.Bildquelle: Vaclav Sebek / Shutterstock

A jagged peek into the past.

Once home to hundreds of glaciers, Montana’s Glacier National Park now claims roughly two dozen as the world warms. But that doesn’t mean the reason to visit is melting—Glacier is still full of ice. Go to admire carved peaks, glistening lakes, and alpine meadows.

Between late May and September, you’ll need a reservation to drive through the park via the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road (in addition to your national park pass). If you go in winter, you won’t need a reservation, which means it’s an excellent time to visit. Opt for a snowshoe or ski tour.

3. Yosemite National Park, California

granite cliff face in Yosemite National Park
The views from the Yosemite Valley are breathtaking.Bildquelle: Brittany Hosea-Small / Viator

Hiking trails in national parks don’t get better than Yosemite.

One of the most spectacular glacier-carved valleys in the world, Yosemite National Park was a favorite of John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Teddy Roosevelt. Driving down Yosemite Valley feels like the stuff of Avatar, with 2,425-foot (739-meter) Yosemite Falls tumbling away and Half Dome and El Capitan monoliths lurking high among their granite brethren.

Most visitors spend their time in the narrow Yosemite Valley, which is only 7.5 miles (12.1 km) long, but the rest of the park is considerably less crowded. Wherever you go, be sure to get out on foot to explore this cathedral of nature, whether that’s a discovery walk or an epic guided hike.

4. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Big Island

lava pouring into the sea at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you've ever wanted to see an eruption, this is a good place to go.Bildquelle: Brian Fulda / Viator

Catch a volcano in action.

It’s not every day that you get to gaze into the lava lake of an active volcano. But you can (usually) at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is on the big island of Hawaii. (When the lava is flowing, sometimes the sky even glows orange.) The park makes for a phenomenal experience even when the rocks aren’t liquid, as you can still enjoy black-sand beaches, fresh lava rocks, views across the Pacific, and more.

Many travelers will make this a day trip from Hilo—it’s about a 45-minute drive south. But if you can visit at night on a stargazing tour, that’s when the park truly shines the brightest.

5. Denali National Park, Alaska

mountains in Denali National Park, Alaska
Book a flightseeing tour to appreciate the scale of Denali National Park.Bildquelle: Lukas Bischoff Photograph / Shutterstock

Spot national park wildlife.

Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres (900,000 hectares), but Denali National Park in Alaska is 6.1 million acres (2.5 million hectares). Here, landscapes seem to stretch beyond the horizon. You won’t find a single “official” trail; there’s only wilderness to inspire your imagination.

Despite its large size, there’s only one road that goes through Denali. The formerly 92-mile (148-kilometer) road through the park is now closed at its halfway point thanks to a landslide. While bus tours will take you as far as possible, to get that deep, backcountry experience, you’ll want to book a flightseeing tour.

6. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

red rock arch in Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its rock formations called hoodoos.Bildquelle: RedRumStudio / Shutterstock

Where hoodoos, towers, and red rock spires rise out of the Utah desert.

You’ve heard of Grand Canyon National Park, and it, too, would be worthy of this list. But Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park is just as spectacular. Its massive amphitheater teems with thousands of red rock hoodoos unlike anywhere else on the continent.

Once you’re here, you can skip the parking lots by exploring with a guide via e-bike, or you can hop on a guided hiking trek down into the canyon itself and picnic there—just make sure to leave no trace.

7. Olympic National Park, Washington

rainforest in Olympic National Park
Did you know that not all rainforests are tropical?Bildquelle: f11photo / Shutterstock

Where the rainforest, the ocean, and the mountains meet.

While many national parks tout their contrasts, Olympic National Park takes the cake with landscapes spanning rocky shorelines, ancient rainforests, and snow-capped mountaintops—a nearly 8,000-foot (2,438-meter) elevation change across the Olympic Peninsula.

Well-known and well-loved for spots like Rialto Beach and the Hoh Rainforest (one of the largest temperate rainforests in the US), there’s always somewhere in Olympic to go, year-round. What’s more, getting there is easy: day tours from Seattle abound.

8. Acadia National Park, Maine

rocky coastline and forest in Acadia National Park
See the first sunrise in the US from Mount Cadillac in Acadia National Park.Bildquelle: Brian Logan Photography / Shutterstock

A historic outpost on the crashing Atlantic coast of Maine.

The only national park in America’s northeast, Acadia National Park is an old Rockefeller haunt, where the country’s wealthiest families once escaped into nature. Here, discover national park history between the rocky shorelines, gentle mountains, and fjord-like waters. Visitors can spot historic lighthouses, nosh on traditional popovers and afternoon tea, and travel down old carriage roads.

Hiking here, especially on a guided tour, is apt for beginners and family-friendly. If you get an early start, you can catch the nation’s first sunrise atop Mount Cadillac.

9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

forests over rolling hills in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
It's free to enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park.Bildquelle: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

For scenic drives in national parks, look no further than the Great Smoky Mountains.

Unlike most parks—especially the big-ticket ones—Great Smoky Mountains National Park has zero national park entrance fees. That’s right: It’s free to visit this national park and traverse its hardwood forests, spot black bears in Cades Cove, climb up to the top of Clingmans Dome, and more.

A self-guided driving tour is an easy way to explore this ancient, biodiverse wonder, but you could also opt for a waterfall hike or overnight backpacking adventure.

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