Though I was raised in Alaska, in my heart I’m a city gal. I love living in cities, and I love traveling to new cities. But, over the years I have wandered outside the city limits a few times. Some of my favorite outdoor experiences have been in national parks across the U.S. I realized that I’ve never pulled all of those stories into one place to encourage you to explore our national park system.
From the national parks I used to visit as a kid to the ones I’ve recently discovered that I love as an adult, here are the best national parks across the country. This isn’t an official list based on stats and metrics – it’s just the list of those greatest national parks I’ve been fortunate to visit and think you should too!
10. Saguaro National Park
Why #10? Saguaro National Park is a small but fascinating natural wonder in the Arizona desert, and a great stargazing destination.
It’s easy to miss Saguaro National Park if you’re planning to visit any of Arizona’s showstopper parks. Up north, Grand Canyon grabs all the attention, and that’s okay – it’s an amazing national park too. Saguaro is located south, near Tucson, and small enough you can drive through the main part of the park and not realize you’re in a national park.
I love Saguaro and consider it one of the best national parks because it exemplifies one of the common themes you’ll see in all of the parks I’ve included on the list: it protects a unique natural wonder that might be lost if it weren’t protected.
Saguaro National Park encloses a massive forest of saguaro cacti in this park. In an otherwise arid climate, these saguaro hug the mountain slopes collecting moisture as it moves across the desert. If you drive around the mountain, their numbers dwindle – making Saguaro a special place to see so many of these huge, slow-growing plants in one place.
Because Saguaro is protected, it’s also a great dark sky destination for stargazing near Tucson too!
9. Volcanoes National Park
Why #9? Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park is a living part of planet earth – and one of the few parks that creates its own new land!
As a kid in Alaska, Hawaii was a popular vacation destination, but I had never visited the Big Island before my trip with UnCruise in Hawaii earlier this year. After finishing our weeklong trip from Molokai to the Big Island, Mr. V and I spent a few more days exploring the largest and newest island in the Hawaiian chain.
Volcanoes National Park is one of the highlights on the eastern part of the island, even with ongoing closures in parts of the park following the 2018 eruptions. You can stand on the edge of a massive volcanic crater, or step lightly on huge floes of razor sharp black lava. It’s even possible to spot Pele, the volcano goddess, letting off steam (though no flowing red lava for now).
I recommend visiting Volcanoes National Park as part of a multi-day itinerary for the Big Island; for example, 3 days on Hawaii is plenty of time to see the national park and other wonders the island has to offer. (Like the night sky – Hawaii is great for stargazing!)
8. Olympic National Park
Why #8? Olympic National Park offers adventure from rugged mountaintops to the rocky beaches of the Pacific Ocean. Oh, and a rainforest!
When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, a road trip around Olympic National Park was one of the first weekend getaways from Seattle that I planned. You can also do a long day trip for a good hike if you want – but the wonders of Olympic National Park really open up if you take the time to drive up into the mountains or out around the Pacific Coast.
My favorite parts of Olympic National Park are out in the western part of the park. Hoh Rainforest is a fascinating hiking spot: this dense forest is actually considered a rainforest for all the precipitation it receives! Ruby Beach is also a beautiful spot to admire the sea stacks (rock formations) and do a bit of beach-combing among the seafoam.
If you want to visit, I recommend planning a weekend road trip around Olympic National Park. There are also some cute towns to visit on the Olympic Peninsula.
7. Mount Rainier National Park
Why #7? A familiar specter over the Seattle skyline, Rainier is an awesome national park for hiking close to a major metropolitan area.
Part of what I love about the Seattle skyline is the sight of Mount Rainier looming over the city. It’s a great contrast of modern development and natural power. (I also have a healthy respect but weird obsession with volcanoes, as mentioned above!)
Mount Rainier is great for hikers and campers of all styles: you can certainly try to summit this sleeping giant, or just hike the multi-day Wonderland Trail around her skirt. I actually took a winter hike on Mount Rainier a few years ago, so it’s even a four-season outdoor destination.
6. Yosemite National Park
Why #6? It’s hard to deny Yosemite’s appeal – and there’s way more to explore than the main valley if you have the time and want to escape the crowds.
I feel like a lot of people rave about Yosemite, but among the national parks I’ve visited – and those I consider to be the best national parks – it’s got pros and cons.
Obviously, Yosemite is a beautiful natural space. Just look at my photo above, taken from a spot called “Tunnel View.” The whole of the Yosemite Valley is home to amazing rock formations waterfalls. But Yosemite is also super popular, and the national park can be overrun with visitors – many of whom aren’t polite or smart tourists in the wild.
That said, it’s still one of the national parks that inspired the Preservation Movement. It’s still breathtaking to me. It’s definitely worth a weekend trip to Yosemite if you’re planning a getaway from San Francisco.
5. Joshua Tree National Park
Why #5? If you want to feel like you’ve left planet earth, Joshua Tree is one of the best parks for to find that feeling. Alien trees and otherworldly rock formations dominate the day; the stars wheel overhead at night.
In early 2018, my blogger friend Marissa and I started a new tradition: a weekend girls getaway to one a national park somewhere in the West. We picked Joshua Tree National Park for our first trip, for a weekend of hiking and stargazing.
Rising up out of the desert on a high plateau, Joshua Tree truly feels like another planet. It’s hard to not stop and photograph every odd-looking Joshua Tree from which the park takes its name; the Cholla Cactus garden is equally unusual on a sunrise photo shoot. (That’s where the featured photo from this post was taken.)
That’s nothing to say about the rock formations and hiking opportunities. Joshua Tree is a collection of interesting and unusual sights protected in a small area. Whether you have just one day in J-Tree or a whole weekend in Joshua Tree, it’s an easy drive from L.A. and well worth it to escape earth for a few days.
4. Kenai Fjords National Park
Why #4? Kenai Fjords special opportunity to see wildlife you can’t see almost anywhere else in the national park system.
I’ve heard Norway’s fjords are breathtaking – but I’m pretty sure the ones in Kenai Fjords National Park will always be my favorite. I grew up visiting Kenai Fjords with my family in Alaska. The only way to see the vast majority of this park is by boat, so I spent most of those visits seasick… but I still have amazing memories on days with calmer waters.
Because Kenai Fjords is a park comprised of deep-water waterways, visiting offers a rare chance to see wildlife you might not ever see in another park. It’s common to spot Humpback whales and Orcas on a good day, and you’ll probably see more eagles and puffins than you can count. It’s even likely you’ll get tired of seeing cute sea otters because they’re so common here.
I’ve got a story about visiting Kenai Fjords National Park with Major Marine Tours, an operator from Seward, Alaska. I’ve cruised with them every time and they’re my top recommendation for operators with access to the park.
3. Acadia National Park
Why #3? A departure from the West, Acadia offers the Eastern Seaboard natural beauty and a sense of remoteness that I love in the best national parks.
Maine’s rugged coastline is all beautiful, but there’s something special about small Acadia National Park. I visited Acadia in May 2019, just before the primary tourism season kicked off. I explored the park under steely skies with leaf buds on the trees – but it is easy to see why this park draws so many crowds in the warm summer months.
Acadia is a fascinating mix of coastline ecosystems and unique geologic formations. There are awesome hiking trails and campgrounds, and plenty of small seaside towns near the park if you’re not as interested in roughing it after a day communing with Mother Nature.
You don’t need a ton of time to see the highlights of Acadia National Park; I wrote about how to make the most of one day in Acadia. If you have longer, you can try stargazing in Acadia at night or exploring the nearby town of Bar Harbor.
2. Zion National Park
Why #2? Zion packs an enormous wow factor with towering red rock features – and better crowd control than Yosemite.
In early 2019, I took another trip with my blogger friend Marissa – this time we went to Zion National Park in southwest Utah. We flew to Las Vegas and drove from there for a weekend of hiking among the red rocks and stargazing under Zion’s open skies.
Maybe it’s a controversial opinion, but I actually liked Zion Canyon far more than Yosemite Valley. I’d definitely recommend it instead of Yosemite if you have to choose between the two.
You also don’t need a whole weekend to explore Zion. Since Zion is located in an area with lots of great national parks (like Bryce Canyon, Arches, and even Grand Canyon), you can do a 5-7 day trip to all of these parks. If you only have one day in Zion National Park, I’ve got tips to help you make the most of it and what to do.
1. Denali National Park
Why #1? The biggest mountain on North America is a beautiful centerpiece for this massive, remote, undisturbed area of Alaska.
Here’s how you know my list of the best national parks is a little bit biased: Denali is wonderful, but I’m not sure anyone else would put it #1. That’s okay – you’re on my blog, so obviously you want my top choice.
After visiting many times in childhood, I spent a summer working near Denali National Park. I have never hiked or explored the outdoors so much, and I was privileged to see Denali, “The High One,” many times during those months. I still get a sense of awe whenever I’m visiting Alaska and spot her massive white outline on the horizon; Denali National Park is the closest you can get to the mountain unless you book a flightseeing tour.
Oh, and Denali National Park offers a rare chance to see Alaskan wildlife in almost entirely untouched wilderness. Moose, mountain goats, caribou, bear, and wolves all call Denali home, and it’s amazing to see these animals in their natural habitat.
I have lots of Alaska guides to help you get to Denali: you can use my guide to the best Denali viewpoints (some are in Denali National Park) and my guide for spending 10 days in Alaska to plan your trip. I also have a list of things to do in Denali to help spend the rest of your time there.
Do you have questions or did I leave one of your favorite national parks off the list? Let me know in the comments!