Towering mountains. Rushing white water rivers. Opalescent alpine lakes. Endless forests. Are you sold yet? America’s National Parks are one of our greatest treasures – and they’re perfect for travel right now! From Arches to Zion, the National Parks in the west represent the best natural beauty our country has to offer. There are 63 National Parks in the United States; 40 of them are located in the west! They span across all 11 western states.
I’ve been fortunate to visit 19 of the 40 National Parks in the west; after growing up in Alaska, I’ve lived in Washington and California – and obviously, I enjoy traveling in the West! I’ve previously shared my favorite National Parks, and unsurprisingly, most of them are in the west too!
Some people love the idea of visiting all of the National Parks, and planning a road trip or several trips to visit all West Coast National Parks is a great way to visit the majority of them. If you want to learn about all 40 National parks in the west, read on for the complete list – updated for 2020!
Through my site and especially in this national parks post, I promote travel to lands that are the traditional lands of Indigenous and First Nations peoples. 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 peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Tips on Visiting National Parks
Before jumping into the list of National Parks in the west, here are a few quick tips to keep in mind as you plan a lifetime of trips. (So you too can have photos of yourself decades before, like this one of me working a summer near Denali National Park in Alaska!)
National Parks vs National Park Units
You might be wondering: What is a “National Park?” How is that different than other National Park units?
The National Park System is comprised of 419 units owned and/or administrated by the National Park Service. These range from “National Battlefields” (there are 11) to “National Historic Sites” (there are 76) to “National Recreation Areas” (18) to “National Parks” (62). There are also National Rivers, Lakeshores, Memorials, Preserves, Military Parks, and more.
So what makes the National Parks special? According to the National Park Service, National Park designation is specific: “a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.” Additionally, National Parks must provide inherent “natural value” – that’s why you see some of our country’s most incredible natural wonders protected as National Parks.
In this post, I’m focusing just on National Park units that have the National Park designation (though I do list other National Park units in each state). This isn’t to diminish the importance of other sites in the National Park System; it’s just one type of travel people particularly love.
National Park Fees & Passes
Almost all National Park units have admission fees to visit them. These vary depending on the popularity of the park and the resources needed to maintain it. Typically, they cost between $25 and $35 for a seven-day pass.
If you’re planning to visit multiple National Parks in the West based on reading this post, you should invest in an America the Beautiful pass. For $80, you’ll get unlimited access to all National Park units, plus other government-managed lands across the country – for an entire year.
You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.
National Park Free Days in 2021
If you don’t want to (or can’t afford to) buy an America the Beautiful Pass, there are days each year where you can access the National Parks for free. In 2021, there are six free days:
- January 18: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- April 17: First day of National Park Week
- August 4: One year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- August 25: National Park Service Birthday
- September 25: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
These dates were updated as of December 2020, so they’re definitely accurate for the coming year!
Map of National Parks in the West
It can be helpful to see all of the National Parks in the west on a map, to get a sense of how many there are – and where they are. Click here or on the above image to open an interactive map in a new tab!
Now without further ado, let’s go through an entire list of the West Coast National Parks, state-by-state!
I feel fortunate to have grown up visiting Alaska‘s National Parks; they’re some of the largest, grandest, most impressive National Parks in the west. Since Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959, the National Park Service was much more intentional in designing the units to better protect the natural resources. This means it’s much harder to reach many of Alaska’s national parks – and access to those parks is more limited (such as the bus tours in Denali). Despite this, Alaska’s parks receive over 3.2 million visitors a year!
Denali National Park & Preserve
Did you know that Denali National Park was established while Alaska was still a territory? It was established in 1916 – over 40 years before Statehood!
Denali National Park is the crown jewel of the National Park units in Alaska; it draws many of those millions of visitors each year. The park is over 6 million acres in size, but has just one road. The only way to access the park is by taking a NPS bus into the park, on one of three tour options.
If you’re lucky though, you’ll see Denali – the tallest mountain on the North American continent and namesake of the park. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for Denali’s Big 5 animals too: moose, bear, wolf, caribou, and Dall sheep. (You can also do these other things in Denali too, in addition to seeing the mountain and wildlife.)
Gates Of The Arctic National Park & Preserve
As its name suggests, Gates Of The Arctic National Park & Preserve is north. Like, really north. In fact, it’s the northernmost national park in the National Park system, and entirely north of the Arctic Circle.
Gates Of The Arctic is a “wilderness park,” located entirely within the Brooks Mountain Range. There are no roads or trails in the park at all! The only way to visit is by booking a flight from Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk Pass and then booking an air taxi into the park – or by hiking from the Dalton Highway.
Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
Like Denali, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is one of the most popular parks in Alaska – in part because so many of the cruise companies make it a stop on their itineraries. Covering 3.3 million acres, Glacier Bay is largely land but really only accessible by water. This means it can only be accessed by plane or boat – but you can book day tours from Juneau or Sitka if you’re not on a multi-day Alaska cruise.
Katmai National Park & Preserve
Following on the theme of difficult-to-reach but jaw-dropping National Parks, Katmai National Park & Preserve is only reachable by boat or plane. This helps protect the nearly 3.6 million acres, 9,000 years of human history, and 2,000 brown bears that you can find in the park.
Most people visit to see the bears catching salmon during the summer months of June through September, and base from Brooks Camp which has amenities.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords is the other National Park I used to visit a lot growing up in Alaska – it’s an easy 90-minute drive from Anchorage to Seward where you can board a boat to tour the park. (Yes, this is another park that’s not accessible by car and only accessible by boat.)
I recommend Major Marine Tours for a day trip of Kenai Fjords; there are other tour operators too. Expect to see loads of sea birds, sea otters, whales, and glaciers in this beautiful marine park.
Kobuk Valley National Park
Looking for another Alaskan national park where you can escape the crowds? Kobuk Valley National Park is a good contender. Yet again, it’s only accessible by plane, like nearby Gates of the Arctic National Park. The only way to reach Kobuk Valley and see the natural beauty and caribou that call the area home is by air taxi from the towns of Kotzebue or Bettles.
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
Despite how close I lived to Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, I had actually never heard of the park until a few years ago. Like so many others in Alaska, you can only access this national park by plane – you’ll need to fly from Homer or Anchorage. Lake Clark is a great opportunity to see Alaskan grizzlies.
Wrangell-St Elias National Park & Preserve
Last, but certainly not least, the final National Park in Alaska is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. I say “certainly not least” because Wrangell-St. Elias is actually the largest National Park in the system – a whopping 13.2 million acres!
Wrangell-St. Elias is actually accessible by car along the Richardson Highway; there are two roads that run into the park, making it the “most accessible” National Park in Alaska… But it’s a long drive from Anchorage or Fairbanks to reach the park entrance.
Other National Park Units in Alaska
In addition to the National Parks in Alaska, there are a number of other units in the National Park service that help preserve the history and culture of The Last Frontier:
- Alagnak Wild River
- Aleutian Islands World War II National Historic Area
- Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
- Cape Krusenstern National Monument
- Iñupiat Heritage Center
- Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
- Noatak National Preserve
- Sitka National Historical Park
- Yukon – Charley Rivers National Preserve
Arizona is one of only two Western states where I’ve visited all of the National Parks. There are 22 National Park units in Arizona – but only three have reached the coveted status of “National Park.” Don’t let that deter you from visiting “The Grand Canyon State;” with a nickname like that, I’m sure you already know what you’re in for at Arizona’s national parks!
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon is the second most visited National Park in the entire system! (Great Smoky Mountains is the first, the result of being much closer and easier to access from major metropolitan areas.) There’s a reason almost six million people per year make the journey from Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Las Vegas to see a giant hole in the ground: it’s freaking breathtaking.
The Grand Canyon formed over billions of years and we’re lucky enough to live at a time where we can admire the natural wonder in all its glory. While I’m sure you want to visit every national park if you’re reading this list, Grand Canyon should be at the top of your must-see.
Petrified Forest National Park
I visited Petrified Forest National Park as a youngin’, probably around 10 or 11 years old. I was big into geology, and while many National Parks have cool geology – Petrified Forest has something special: trees turned to stone!
In addition to walking among the Giant Logs and in the Crystal Forest, Petrified Forest is home to other fascinating geological features, and is part of the Painted Desert. (You can see why it’s called that, above!)
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is the first park on this list that is a good example of parks comprised of different districts. (Districts are areas of the park that may or may not be connected, but which are all considered part of the same park). Saguaro National Park has two districts: the Saguaro West/Tucson Mountain District (northwest of Tucson) and the Saguaro East/Rincon Mountain District (southwest of Tucson).
The park is obviously named for the colossal cactus, the Giant Saguaro, that is found only in a small part of the Southwest – and which is protected largely as part of Suagaro National Park.
Other National Park Units in Arizona
Arizona may not have many National Parks – but there’s no shortage of other National Park units you can also visit if you’re looking for more history and culture in this southwestern state!
- Canyon de Chelly National Monument
- Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
- Chiricahua National Monument
- Coronado National Monument
- Fort Bowie National Historic Site
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (also in Utah)
- Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
- Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail (also in California)
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area (also in Nevada)
- Montezuma Castle National Monument
- Navajo National Monument
- Old Spanish National Historic Trail (also in California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah)
- Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
- Parashant National Monument
- Pipe Spring National Monument
- Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
- Tonto National Monument
- Tumacácori National Historical Park
- Tuzigoot National Monument
- Walnut Canyon National Monument
- Wupatki National Monument
I have a guide to all of the national monuments in Arizona if you’re curious to learn more about them too!
California is the state I now call home; it’s also home to the greatest number of West Coast National Parks! It’s no surprise that these parks are as diverse as the natural wonders here, from islands to giant trees to towering rock formations. I can’t say for sure when I’ll visit all of the nine National Parks in California, but they’re definitely on my list.
Channel Islands National Park
Located off the coast of Santa Barbara, Channel Islands National Park is the hardest California National Park to access. While there are visitor centers on the mainland in Santa Barbara and Ventura, the Islands themselves are only reachable by concessionaire boats, plane, or private boat. The chance to explore these uniquely preserved ecosystems by water is one of many reasons to visit Channel Islands National Park.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park – aka the lowest point in North America – aka the hottest place in North America – is primarily in California but also crosses the border into Nevada (so it’s mentioned below as well). I’ve had Death Valley on my list; I was supposed to visit in early 2020 before, well, you know.
Part of what inspires me to visit Death Valley is the chance to explore the oases and hike a bit before it gets too hot each day. I’d also love to try and visit during the spring, when occasional rains cause a wildflower bloom that brings the desert to life.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is definitely one of my favorite National Parks in the west, and I’ve been fortunate to visit twice – once in 2018 and again in 2020. I love waking up early to see sunrise at the Cholla Cactus Garden, followed by a few hikes among the big boulders and spiky Joshua Trees. Oh, and let’s not forget that stargazing is pretty epic there, and you know how much I love that!
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Maybe I watched Dante’s Peak too many times as a kid (more on that later), but there’s something which has always fascinated me about volcanos and volcanic landscapes. It feels like the raw creative power of Mother Earth is on display – even after the rock has cooled and millennia have passed.
That’s part of what makes Lassen Volcanic National Parks so neat: you can not only see the remnants of eruptions, but the ongoing volcanic processes on earth including at fumaroles where hot gasses are escaping from beneath the earth’s crust.
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is another California National Park that was formed through volcanic activity. Even better, it’s only two hours south of San Francisco, making it the closest National Park to the Bay Area. (Though it’s also among the least visited National Park in California, along with Channel Islands and Lassen!)
From hiking among the weird and wild rock formations to exploring caves that bats and other pollinators call home, Pinnacles sounds perfect if you’re into nerdy science and beautiful scenery, just like me!
Redwood National and State Parks
Y’all already know I love the Redwoods; Redwood National and State Parks are the crown jewel of my Coastal Redwoods road trip itinerary. This area is home to some of the oldest and tallest trees in the world and has long drawn humans to explore in the dusky daylight among the trunks. The National and State Parks also protect coastline, prairie lands, and riverways too, if you somehow manage to get bored of the trees.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
On the final day of our honeymoon road trip, Mr. V and I stopped in Sequoia National Park. (We had originally intended to also visit neighboring Kings Canyon National Park but were overwhelmed by the traffic, people, and travel time.) These two California National Parks are home to the largest trees in the world… but wait, doesn’t that conflict with what I just said about Redwoods National and State Parks?
While Redwoods is home to the tallest trees by height, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are home to the largest trees by volume. Be sure to visit some of them: General Sherman Tree is the world’s largest; some of the other big ones include General Grant, President, and Lincoln.
Yosemite National Park
Last, but never least, Yosemite National Park rounds out the list of National Parks in California. This is the park that inspired John Muir to advocate so fiercely for the preservation movement and helped spark the National Park system. In fact, Yosemite is among the oldest legally protected land in the country (1864) – predating Yellowstone’s protection (1872) by almost a decade.
If you’ve never been to Yosemite before, focus your trip on the Yosemite Valley, where you can see the sights above: El Capitan, Bridal Veil Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point. (Here’s my suggested itinerary for one day in Yosemite or a weekend in Yosemite.)
Other National Park Units in California
In addition to the National Parks, it should be no surprise that California is also home to more than two dozen other National Park units. These help preserve other natural wonders, as well as some fascinating cultural and historic sites.
- Alcatraz Island
- Cabrillo National Monument
- California National Historic Trail (also in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming)
- Castle Mountains National Monument
- César E. Chávez National Monument
- Devils Postpile National Monument
- Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site
- Fort Point National Historic Site
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- John Muir National Historic Site
- Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail (also in Arizona)
- Lava Beds National Monument
- Manzanar National Historic Site
- Mojave National Preserve
- Muir Woods National Monument
- Old Spanish National Historic Trail (also in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah)
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Pony Express National Historic Trail (also Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming)
- Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
- Presidio of San Francisco
- Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park
- San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
- Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
- Tule Lake National Monument
- Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
After Arizona, Colorado is the other Western U.S. state where I’ve visited all of the National Parks. The state slogan is “Colorful Colorado,” and as you’ll see, the four National Parks in Colorado live up to the slogan: black canyons, dusty yellow dunes, ochre cliff dwellings, and steely blue mountains… yep, Colorado is a colorful place!
Bonus: You can see all four of Colorado’s National Park on a road trip!
Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park
Mr. V and I made our trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in 2020 as part of our honeymoon road trip; it’s Colorado’s least-visited National Park! Though it’s no harder to reach than Great Sand Dunes or Mesa Verde from major cities like Denver, Boulder, or Aspen, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is where you can escape the crowds.
Instead of people, you’ll find towering canyon walls that are among the sheerest drops on the continent. The Painted Wall (pictured above), gives you a good sense of what makes Black Canyon special: dark gneiss stone and streaks of pinkish pegmatite give the landmark its name.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
Do you like my photos of Great Sand Dunes from 2007? They are literally so small after a decade+ of compressions and file transfers that I can’t even use photo editing software on them!
Hopefully, despite their small, semi-pixellated presence, you get a sense of how unusual Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is. It’s literally the tallest sand dune in North America, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains! Formed over millennia, you can try sand sledding and other fun Dune references if you visit.
Mesa Verde National Park
While I visited cliff dwellings in Arizona as a child, I took my first trip to Mesa Verde National Park in 2020. The Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings tell a fascinating – if still somewhat mysterious – tale of the people who once called this massive mesa home.
The best way to experience the cliff dwellings is on a guided ranger hike; these weren’t available during my visit (it was also over 105°F!) but it’s on my list for my next visit.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado rounds out its colorful National Park quartet with a section of the Rocky Mountain range, preserved as a national park. Rocky Mountain National Park is the most popular, and probably the most “crowded,” though it’s not hard to escape others if you’re up for hiking and exploring the wilds of the Rockies.
If you prefer day hikes to backcountry camping, base yourself in Estes Park – it neighbors the park and you can stay in the haunted Stanley Hotel (which inspired The Shining!).
Other National Park Units in Colorado
While Colorado’s National Parks primarily protect its unique geologic features, there are a number of other National Park units in Colorado that also protect the state’s historic culture and geologic history.
- Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
- California National Historic Trail (also in California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming)
- Colorado National Monument
- Curecanti National Recreation Area
- Dinosaur National Monument (also in Utah)
- Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
- Hovenweep National Monument (also in Utah)
- Old Spanish National Historic Trail (also in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah)
- Pony Express National Historic Trail (also in California, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming)
- Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
- Santa Fe National Historic Trail
- Yucca House National Monument
Not to be too prescriptive, but it shouldn’t take National Parks to get you to visit Hawaii… though since you’re there, you should also try to visit the two Hawaiian National Parks, which are both on the slopes of volcanoes. (Remember what I said before about Dante’s Peak? I’m so in.)
Actually, since the Hawaiian islands are volcanically formed, pretty much everything is on the slope of a volcano when you visit Hawai!
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is located on the Big Island. It recently made headlines when the primary active volcano on the Big Island, Kīlauea, became active in 2018. During that time, there was lots of lava activity in the park – and outside the park boundaries too, since lava does what lava wants.
The lava activity in the park has since diminished, but you can still visit to see steam vents, old calderas and lava flows, and even explore a lava tube! I’ve got a guide for making the most of one day in Hawai’i Volcanoes if you’re planning a visit.
Haleakalā National Park
Located on neighboring Maui, Haleakalā National Park is Hawaii’s other national park; it too is located on a volcano, Haleakalā. What draws people to this National Park is the chance to explore the volcanic landscape, as well as the epic sunrise and sunset views. People often arrive early or stay late to enjoy the pristine stargazing too.
Other National Park Units in Hawaii
In addition to these two National Parks, many of Hawaii’s islands have other National Park units – and what I most appreciate is how many of them protect the Traditional Hawaiian heritage and history of the Hawaiian islands.
- Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail (Big Island)
- Honouliuli National Historic Site (Oahu)
- Kalaupapa National Historical Park (Moloka’i)
- Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park (Big Island)
- Pearl Harbor National Memorial (Oahu)
- Pu`ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site (Big Island)
- Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park (Big Island)
If you can believe it, there actually aren’t any National Parks in Idaho! While there are other National Park units in the state, none have been established at that coveted “National Park” status.
Technically, a small portion of Yellowstone National Park in Idaho, but it is only accessible by Forest Service roads and backcountry hiking trails.
Other National Park Units in Idaho
Here are the six other National Park units in Idaho; Craters of the Moon actually counts as two: the Monument and the Preserve.
- Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
- City of Rocks National Reserve
- Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
- Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail (also in Montana, Oregon, and Washington)
- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail (also in Montana, Oregon, and Washington)
- Minidoka National Historic Site (also in Washington)
- Nez Perce National Historical Park (also in Montana, Oregon, and Washington)
Montana is widely known as Big Sky Country – and having driven through many years ago on a cross-country road trip, I can definitely verify the accuracy of that description. When it comes to National Parks in the west though, it has only one… but that one park alone is magnificent enough to draw over 3 million visitors each year! You already know what it is…
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park sits on the border between Montana and Canada, far from major cities. The effort it takes to reach Glacier is well-rewarded though, with some of the most stunning views of the Rocky Mountain range in the world especially from the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.
There are also over 700 miles of hiking trails to explore, through forests and meadows, over peaks and in valleys. Oh, and let’s not forget the glaciers: 25 are still active in the park today.
Note: When Glacier National Park was explored in the 1850s, over 150 glaciers were noted. Glacier National Park is widely considered to be a diminishing natural wonder due to climate change. Scientists expect the glaciers to disappear entirely between 2030 and 2080. Plan your visit now – but be resource conscious when you do!
Yellowstone National Park
As Yellowstone National Park is primarily in Wyoming, you can read more about it in that section of this post. (Click to jump to the Wyoming section!)
Other National Park Units in Montana
There are a number of other National Park Units in Montana commemorating historic events and sites across Big Sky Country. It’s also cool to learn more about the various historic trails that cross Montana, connecting it to the rest of the country despite its oft-overlooked status.
- Big Hole National Battlefield
- Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
- Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
- Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site
- Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail (also in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington)
- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail (also in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington)
- Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
- Nez Perce National Historical Park (also in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington)
Can I admit something? I’ve started to become a little bit obsessed with Nevada. I don’t know what it is – being stuck at home for six months, or just looking closely at the map of California and becoming curious about that neighboring state most people overlook. In any event, Nevada – of all places! – is calling out to me, and the National Parks in Nevada are one of many reasons why.
Death Valley National Park
I’ve already mentioned Death Valley National Park since it is primarily located in California. (Click to jump to the California section!)
Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park is Nevada’s primary national park, fully enclosed along the eastern state border with Utah. It’s most famous for caves, stargazing, and ancient Bristlecone Pines that have been growing in this far-flung corner of the country for over 5,000 years. Yes, you read that right.
If you, like me, feel drawn to visit Great Basin National Park, it’s actually easiest to drive from Salt Lake City. The drive is an hour shorter than from Vegas.
Other National Park Units in Nevada
Nevada is a state of wide open space, and is crisscrossed by trails from past chapters in human history. These form the majority of other National Park units in Nevada, along with a few natural wonders.
- California Historic Trail (also in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming)
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area (also in Arizona)
- Old Spanish National Historic Trail (also in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah)
- Pony Express National Historic Trail (also in California, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming)
- Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
Like Nevada, New Mexico is high on my list of someday destinations. Quintessentially Southwestern in every way, the idea of exploring unique landscapes, enjoying adventure activities, and enjoying distinct cuisine (bring on the chiles!) sounds like a welcome change of pace from everywhere else. Add in the two unique National Parks in New Mexico, and you’ve got a destination that will appeal to everyone.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
While most National Parks in the west offer the chance to explore earth’s beauty above the crust, and some have caves to explore (like Pinnacles and Great Basin), at Carlsbad Caverns National Park – the underground steals the show.
There are 119 caves within Carlsbad Caverns National Park, of all sizes and shapes. Towering stalactites and massive stalagmites reach toward one another as you wander between them – don’t be surprised the hours slip by with no daylight to indicate the passage of time!
White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is the newest National Park in the United States! It was named a National Park in 2019, prompting a flurry of visitors keen to tick another box in their National Park Passports. As the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, White Sands is a fascinating place to explore. It’s also an epic stargazing location, far from city lights – but still relatively close enough to cities like Las Cruces and El Paso to be accessible.
Other National Park Units in New Mexico
Despite having only two National Parks, New Mexico has a number of other great National Park units. From natural wonders that predate human history to ancient ruins to 20th Century sites – there’s plenty else to explore in New Mexico after you tick off the two parks.
- Aztec Ruins National Monument
- Bandelier National Monument
- Capulin Volcano National Monument
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park
- El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historical Trail
- El Malpais National Monument
- Fort Union National Monument
- El Morro National Monument
- Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
- Manhattan Project National Historical Park (also in Washington)
- Old Spanish National Historical Trail (also in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico)
- Pecos National Historical Park
- Petroglyph National Monument
- Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
- Santa Fe National Historical Trail (also in Colorado)
- Valles Caldera National Preserve
I’ll admit it: I was surprised to learn that Oregon only has one National Park. As parks go though, it’s wholly unique: a lake inside a volcanic caldera – with a number of islands formed from the volcanic cone of this sleeping giant. Without further ado…
Crater Lake National Park
7,700 years ago, Native American people watched – from a distance – as the tall cone of what we now call Mount Mazama erupted, and then collapsed in on itself. In the millennia since, that collapsed volcanic caldera filled with water, creating what we now call Crater Lake National Park.
Today, the most popular activity is to circumnavigate the lake, admiring it from every angle. Whether you choose to do that by bicycle or car, and with a night or two of camping and stargazing added in, the adventure is yours to choose.
Other National Park Units in Oregon
In addition to a number of historic trails, Oregon’s other National Park units preserve other natural wonders: fossils, caves, and sites of historic import.
- California National Historic Trail (also in California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming)
- Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (also in Washington)
- Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail (also in Idaho, Montana, Washington)
- John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail (also in Idaho, Montana, and Washington)
- Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (also in Washington)
- Nez Perce National Historical Park (also in Idaho, Montana, Washington)
- Oregon National Historic Trail (also in Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming)
- Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve
Utah may only have five of the 42 National Parks in the west, but don’t let that number fool you: there’s a reason they’re called Utah’s Mighty 5! As you’ll see, the five National Parks in Utah are breathtaking and surprisingly diverse given their close proximity.
Arches National Park
I first learned about Arches National Park by reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, an account of his life as a park ranger in Arches in the mid-20th Century. After I finally had a chance to visit in early 2020, I could immediately see the magnetic power of this place. You can really feel how time has passed and left its imprint on this part of the world, exposing the arches for us to enjoy today.
I don’t need to dive much into what to see and do in Arches. Be sure to see Delicate Arch, try hiking to a few arches (Landscape Arch or The Windows are both great easy options), and enjoy as many sunrises and sunsets as possible over the picturesque landscape.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is a small park – as these things go – but don’t let that fool you. A relatively short two-hour drive from Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon is a totally different experience. Instead of Zions towering red cliffs, Bryce Canyon is known for its Hoodoos – the funky rock columns that remain after millions of years of erosion. Wander among them on the some 50 miles of trails in the park.
Canyonlands National Park
I haven’t had much time to explore Canyonlands National Park – especially as it is technically three districts each with their own offering: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Whether you admire the views of Island in the Sky, hike in The Needles, or go into the backcountry of The Maze, Canyonlands is a place you could explore for a lifetime and still discover wondrous sights.
Capitol Reef National Park
If you draw a straight line connecting Utah’s Mighty 5 from Arches to Zion, Capitol Reef is right along the middle of that line. Capitol Reef has many of the impressive features of Utah’s other National Parks: canyons, arches, cliffs, and rock formation.
But, it also has one special feature that geologists will love: the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold, a geologic wrinkle on earth. This fascinating feature is relatively rare – especially in such a large and well-preserved condition after the billions of years in Earth’s history.
Zion National Park
I’ll be honest – and a little controversial here: though it reminded me of beloved Yosemite, I liked Zion National Park tons more. There’s something captivating about the towering red cliffs, and I really appreciate how Zion has controlled access via Shuttle, cutting down (somewhat) on crowds. (I blame that on my growing up in Alaska, where all the National Parks have controlled/restricted access!)
Zion National Park is a hiker’s dream destination, with some of the most picturesque and popular hikes of the National Parks in the west: Angel’s Landing and The Narrows among them. If you want to escape the crowds, there’s also Kolob Canyon district nearby.
Other National Park Units in Utah
Utah’s Mighty 5 protect some of the state’s most impressive and precious natural wonders; the rest of Utah’s National Park units protect others as well as culturally significant sites from Native American to American Pioneer history.
- California National Historic Trail (also in California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon)
- Cedar Breaks National Monument
- Dinosaur National Monument (also in Colorado)
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (also in Arizona)
- Golden Spike National Historical Park
- Hovenweep National Monument (also in Colorado)
- Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail
- Natural Bridges National Monument
- Old Spanish National Historic Trail (also in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico)
- Pony Express National Historic Trail (also in California, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah)
- Rainbow Bridge National Monument
- Timpanogos Cave National Monument
Washington is one of my favorite states in the American West – which is probably why I lived there for four years! It has the perfect mix of outdoor experiences and urban areas (including smaller towns, which I loved exploring). Washington is home to three West Coast National Parks, each tapping into Washingtonian’s love of the Great Outdoors to protect some of the best areas of the Evergreen State.
Mount Rainier National Park
I haven’t explored Mount Rainier National Park nearly as much as I should have, given that I lived in Washington for four years. (To be fair, I only started hiking within the last few years since moving away!) This National Park protects Mount Rainier, the highest peak in the Cascade mountain range and an active (but sleeping) volcano. There are over 260 miles of trails on and around the mountain – perfect for those of you who have loved hiking a lot longer than I have!
North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park protects another portion of the Cascade mountain range (the same range that includes Mount Rainier and Crater Lake!). Primarily backcountry and perfect for hiking and camping, North Cascades is only crossed by one road (North Cascades Highway) which is open during the summer months.
There’s plenty to explore though: North Cascades is home to 300 glaciers and 400 miles of trails. It also includes Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas, if you’d rather explore North Cascades’ alpine lakes than mountain peaks.
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is the National Park in Washington that I’ve visited the most, especially by road tripping around the Olympic Peninsula. Like the other National Parks in Washington, Olympic National Park is a primarily backcountry park, perfect for outdoor adventures.
Whether you choose to hike inland among the Olympic mountains, explore the stunning Pacific Coast, or wander among the trees in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park offers great diversity to the other Washington National Parks.
Other National Park Units in Washington
In addition to the National Parks, there are a number of other National Park units to explore.
- Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve
- Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (also in Oregon)
- Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail (also in Idaho, Oregon, and Montana)
- Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park – Seattle Unit
- Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail (also in Idaho, Montana, and Oregon)
- Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (also in Oregon)
- Manhattan Project National Historic Monument (also in New Mexico)
- Minidoka National Historic Site (also in Idaho)
- Nez Perce National Historical Park (also in Idaho, Montana, and Oregon)
- Oregon National Historic Trail (also in Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming)
- San Juan Island National Historical Park
- Whitman Mission National Historic Site
Like Montana and Nevada, it might be easy to dismiss Wyoming. These wide open states aren’t known for big cities or stunning scenery from border to border. But Wyoming at least takes the cake when it comes to its two National Parks in the west. It’s home to the first National Park – and a younger sibling that gives it a run for its money on wow factor.
Grand Teton National Park
Often overlooked for more flashy and popular Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park has been drawing attention over the past few years as a great alternative with many of the same features and experiences – and fewer crowds. (Not by much though; Grand Teton only receives 15% fewer visitors per year.)
Explore over 200 miles of trails to hike in Grand Teton, or float the Snake River, and admire the scenery… it’s impossible not to!
Yellowstone National Park
It’s funny that Yellowstone is the final National Park on this list of West Coast National Parks… Yellowstone National Park is the original one, established in 1872!
You likely already know what makes Yellowstone special: stunning Rocky Mountain scenery, geothermal features, and fascinating wildlife (bison! wolves!). I haven’t personally been to Yellowstone yet – but I’m willing to brave the crowds for the experience. (Over four million people visit Yellowstone annually, putting it on the list of 10 most visited parks!)
As a reminder, parts of Yellowstone are also in Idaho and Montana, though the majority of the park’s main features are in Wyoming.
Other National Park Units in Wyoming
In addition to the two stunning National Parks in Wyoming, a number of other units offer opportunities to learn about American history – and the geologic history of our planet!
- Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (also in Montana)
- California National Historic Trail (also in California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah)
- Devils Tower National Monument
- Fort Laramie National Historic Site
- Fossil Butte National Monument
- Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail (also in Utah)
- Oregon National Historic Trail (also in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington)
- Pony Express National Historic Trail (also California, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah)
I won’t ask which of these National Parks in the west you want to visit… Instead, I’ll end by asking “how many?” If you have any questions about these western National Parks, let me know in the comments.