My Top 5 Favorite National Parks
& Why I Love Them
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Every so often, I feel the need to share a post just because I want to – not because Google is going to show it to lots of people. Instead, I write stories like this one because I know that you and I share something in common: we love exploring and finding new places to call our favorites and recommend to our friends and family. After all, what is a blog if not a big megaphone to share my travel advice with (future) friends like you?
To that end, I decided to put together a list of my favorite national parks. I was inspired to write this post as part of my annual national parks trip in 2023, when I realized that everyone has different things they love about the parks, and maybe you might be curious what I love.
Below I’ve picked five national parks (of the 32 I’ve visited and 63 in the whole system) that I think are well worth a trip. You may agree or not, but hopefully, you’ll at least be inspired to think about your own favorite parks too – or plan a trip to discover one for yourself.
So give this post a read and let me know in the comments: do you agree with this list of my favorite national parks? What are your favorite national parks, and why? Are there any common themes between them? I can’t wait to hear what you share!
In this post, I promote travel to national parks that are the traditional lands of the Tanana, Goshute, Popeloutchom (Amah Mutsun), Chalon, Mescalero Apache, Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache), and Tolowa Dee-ni’ peoples, and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the people who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
1. Denali National Park
If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, it will come as no surprise that my “home” national park – Denali National Park – is my favorite. I call Denali my “home” park because it’s one of two national parks in Alaska that I grew up near (the other being Kenai Fjords National Park), I have very fond memories of visiting as a kid, and I spent a summer living and working near Denali National Park. Honestly, no trip to Alaska feels complete to me without a visit to Denali!
What makes Denali special to me is its vast unspoiled wilderness; it is a place that is virtually untouched by humankind, though there is some evidence of Alaska Natives in the park, as well as a single road that runs some 92.5 miles into the 7,408 square mile park. Seeing wildlife – bears, moose, and Dall sheep, among others – and the awe-inspiring majesty of North America’s largest mountain are just two of the experiences that make the park special.
I have lots of articles about Denali (understatement!), but here are some of the essential ones I think are most helpful in showing why this is one of my favorite national parks:
- Is Denali National Park Worth It? An Alaskan’s Perspective – I wrote this article recently to address questions I have received and seen about whether Denali is worth visiting at all. Spoilers, my answer is YES. Denali is so so so worth it.
- 15 Incredible Things to Do in Denali & Denali National Park – Beyond wildlife and the mountain, there’s lots to see and do in Denali park and the surrounding area. This post covers my favorites.
- The McKinley Park Hotel: Why Alaska’s Best National Park Has No Hotel – I wrote this story to share the history of the park in a different way; it’s one of my favorite travel stories on this site!
2. Great Basin National Park
After my #1 most favorite national park – which was honestly easy to pick – I struggled to order the rest of the parks I most love. In the end, I settled on placing Great Basin National Park second, because it has all of the things I most love about national parks in one small, accessible area.
It’s worth noting here that the things I most love are (1) mountain hiking, (2) caves and all the goodies therein, (3) cool trees, (4) evidence of native history (such as petroglyphs or ruins), and (5) stargazing opportunities. Not everyone will love these same things – and not every park offers them. That’s why the list of my favorite national parks will probably not be the same as your list – and that’s totally cool. Love what you love, travel where you wanna travel; if you want some inspiration from me, this is the post to help.
Anyway, coming back to Great Basin, it does have all of the things I most enjoy experiencing. After taking a tour of Lehman Caves (2) for which the park was originally established, I went on an incredible hike up through the ancient Bristlecone Pines (3) to the Rock Glacier on Wheeler Peak (1); I also went stargazing (5) at Baker Archaeological Site (4) just outside the park boundary. All boxes ticked, all around happy Valerie!
Here are some articles to help you get started planning a trip to Great Basin if you’re sold on it:
- How to Make the Most of One Day in Great Basin National Park – I love writing these posts for each park I visit because I know we’re all short on time. Great Basin is worthy of a few days, but you can see a lot even if you only have one day.
- The Perfect 2- or 3-Day Great Basin National Park Itinerary – If you have those few days, this post covers more to see and do.
- The 13 Best Things to Do in Baker: Gateway to Great Basin – This post complements my other resources in that it offers even more to do in the area if you’re staying a couple of days.
3. Pinnacles National Park
For a small and relatively new national park, Pinnacles is particularly special to me: it’s the park that made me put “mountain hiking” on my list of favorite things to do in parks – or at all! I didn’t consider myself a hiker before visiting Pinnacles for the first time in early 2021.
See, Mr. V and I took a day trip to Pinnacles in February 2021, and accessed the east side of the park. While there, I laid eyes upon the High Peaks – the towering pinnacles that give the park its name – and knew I had to come back and explore them more. I spent several weeks planning, training, and generally getting psyched up because it would be the longest and most challenging hike I’d ever done (though not by any means excessive on the scale of all hikes out there – it’s just 6.4 miles with 1,840 feet of elevation gain).
At the beginning of April 2021, Mr. V and I went back, did the High Peaks trail, saw the California Condors reintroduced in this park, and just had an incredible day. I was sold on visiting again someday – and on admitting maybe I did like hiking… especially for the right trail.
Additionally, Pinnacles is home to two Talus Caves – Bear Gulch Caves and Balconies Caves – that I’ve never had a chance to visit due to my trips during the pandemic. As I said, I love caves too, so a return trip is definitely in my future!
I only have one article about visiting Pinnacles, but it’s all you need to plan a trip like we did: The Best Things to Do at Pinnacles National Park for 1-2 Days.
4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Speaking of caves, my next favorite national park is one that I only visited recently, and really cemented to me that caves are one of my favorite natural wonders to explore, especially in national parks since they’re usually mind-blowingly cool if they achieve that level of protection.
In March 2023, my friend Marissa and I made our annual national parks trip to hit three parks in quick succession: Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands. Each park was interesting and different, but it’s Carlsbad Caverns that stole my heart – and it was (unsurprisingly) all about the caverns!
One of the most impressive and extensive cave systems in the world, Carlsbad Caverns is also astonishingly accessible: you can walk down a nice path through the Natural Entrance to the Big Room, or take an elevator from the Visitor Center straight down. Either way, the Big Room alone has a 1.25-mile trail past some of the most fascinating formations of every variety – and the Big Room is just part of the cavern system. I definitely need to get back to do a few ranger-guided tours in other parts of the system.
I have just one post about Carlsbad Caverns National Park at this point, but it’s essential reading if you want to plan a trip: How to Make the Most of One Day in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (Due to partial closures inside the park, one day is more than enough to visit right now.)
5. Redwoods National Park
Last but certainly not least! I debated a lot on which park might round out my list, and eventually settled on one I hope everyone can visit someday – though it maybe isn’t as inspiring in the “natural wonders” kind of way that other parks on this list are.
Instead, the final park on this list of my favorite national parks focuses entirely on the #3 thing I love at national parks: cool trees! I am a huge nerd about the Redwoods, and the system of protected areas that makes up Redwoods State & National Parks is essential for anyone who wants to be awe-struck by the natural world of the plants around us. (I especially love coastal redwoods, but I like giant sequoias too, though they are a different set of parks…)
After all, coastal redwoods can live to be up to 2,000 years old – longer than almost any well-documented history or civilization. These towering sentinels have stood watching the passage of time, drinking moisture from the damp ocean air that gives their forests an ethereal quality. Can you tell I just love them?!
There are lots of places you can encounter coastal redwoods (and giant sequoias), so here are a few resources I have to help you plan a trip:
- How to See California’s Sequoias on Two Redwoods Road Trips – This post helps you plan a road trip to the coastal redwoods, the giant sequoias, or both!
- The 4 Best Places to See Redwoods Near San Francisco – A starter guide to seeing redwoods near San Francisco, if you can’t travel far to see them.
- I also have city guides for a few coastal Northern California cities where redwoods are easy to reach: Crescent City, Fort Bragg, and Mendocino. (There are lots of others too.)
While I know that not everyone loves the same things that I do when it comes to our national parks (or, well, anything!), I hope this list has inspired you to look at these parks in a different light. After all, if you trust my travel advice for other things, surely my advice on these parks is solid too! Have any questions about my favorite national parks, or want to share your favorites list with me? Let me know in the comments!