From swivel chairs to space rockets, the US has had some darn bright ideas over its short history. But of all the ideas that have changed the world, the national parks system is surely close to the top. It was way back in 1872 that the sulfur-belching lands of Yellowstone were designated as protected lands by President Ulysses S Grant. Fast forward to the 21st century and there’s now more than 60 protected areas representing some of the most iconic natural landscapes on the planet.
You’ve got mighty canyons, snow-capped volcanos, huge forests of redwoods and Douglas-fir, rolling wastelands of whistling dunes, salt lakes that spread out below sea level, glaciers that spread out above the clouds, slopes speckled by bison, salt-sprayed beaches, palm-fringed coasts, and great deserts that make the horizon look like nothing but a mirage. Sorry for the long sentence, but we had to at least scratch the surface! Let’s explore.
What is the National Park Service?
The National Park Service was signed into law on August 25, 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. However, the move was a culmination of decades of lobbying by towering environmentalist figures like Gifford Pinchot and John Muir (check out the hipster beard on him!), while Ulysses S. Grant had really set the ball a-rolling with his designation of Yellowstone some 44 years before.
In an attempt to unite the conservation and preservation movements (the two main strands of thought in early environmentalism), the mission of the NPS took on two directions. It was both to “conserve the scenery” and to “provide for the enjoyment” of these wild areas, but with an overarching aim of sustainability that it retains to this day.
How Many National Parks Are There in the US?
There are hundreds of properties managed by the National Park Service from coast to coast, including designated wilderness areas and national monuments. However, there are currently 63 national parks, which are the spots that most intrepid travelers will be looking to check off their bucket list.
America the Beautiful Pass
Take a breath. The full name is: America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. Sounds fancy, eh? Well that’s because it really is. This bad boy gets you access to a whopping 2,000 federally managed recreation sites.
It covers all entry fees for a full vehicle across America’s most amazing outdoors spots for a whole year. It’s also sure to save you some dosh if you’re a junkie for the backcountry; the cost is $80 per year. Not a bad deal considering entry into a single park can often cost as much as $35 a pop!
List of National Parks by State
Ready to explore? Here is a list of all 63 national parks in US, organized by state.
National Parks in Alaska
Setting the ball rolling is the Alaskan land of superlatives and mind-bending dimensions. Ready? This one boasts the highest peak on the continent of North America: Denali. The park spans 4.7 million acres. It’s larger than the whole state of New Jersey. Yep, you could literally put this one on top of the Garden State — but there wouldn’t be a tanned Jersey Shore bod in sight. Instead, you’d find only ice-caked mountains and wandering grizzly bears. One for real intrepid types, Denali National Park includes highlights like the glacial Toklat River and the Stony Hill Overlook.
The nation’s second-biggest national park clocks up a country-dwarfing 7.5 million acres as it stretches across the breadth of the Brooks Range. Thinking of a weekend visit? Think again. Ice truckers are the only usual passersby. You have to fly out of Fairbanks to a remote town on the edge of the Arctic Circle just to get in. Then, hiking boots, a dog mush or Nordic skis are probably your ticket the rest of the way. There are no marked trails at Gates of the Arctic National Park, only sweeping herds of caribou and packs of howling wolves.
Glacier Bay National Park marks the spot where the colossal ice fields of the Saint Elias Mountains spill into the sub-zero waters of the North Pacific Ocean. Sounds dramatic? Well…that’s because it is. So dramatic, in fact, that over half a million people head to gawp at the mighty fjords and mountains each year, many of them on cruise ships — the park is only accessible by boat and plane. Must-sees include the great Johns Hopkins Glacier and the calving Margerie Glacier.
Formed by the magma-belching chambers of the primeval Novarupta volcano, the peaks and troughs of the Katmai National Park are something to take the breath away. They cluster around the north-eastern end of the huge Alaska Peninsula, where they roll through endless swathes of designated wilderness untouched by human hands. Most travelers willing to fork out the time —and the cash—to get here come to see the Katmai brown bears during the annual salmon catch.
Kenai Fjords National Park protects nearly 550,000 acres of some of the most impenetrable but wonderful natural landscapes close to Anchorage. As the name implies, this one would be worthy of a spot on the Norwegian coast. Fjords flanked by black-rock mountains and sweeping spruce-fir forests abound, while icebergs and glaciers meet along the shoreline of the Pacific. Common draws are the whales, who pass by on a migration in April and May.
Kobuk Valley National Park is where the Arctic meets sand dunes. Yep, you read that right. High hills of dappled sand rise as the Kobuk River weaves through the wastelands of central Alaska in the heart of this huge reserve. In the distance, the jagged peaks of the Brooks Range keep watch, gleaming with permafrost before endless tundra and trees. Great for photographers; awesome for those who love to go truly off the beaten track.
Just as you might expect, Lake Clark National Park is anchored on the aquamarine waters of Lake Clark itself. That means an adventure here will take you deep into the reaches of off-grid Alaska. Really, it’s a land open to solely floatplanes and ATVs. The reward for the excursion will be rivers teeming with wild salmon, vistas of the craggy Chigmit Mountains, and potential sightings of brown and grizzly bears (is that a good thing?).
Welcome to the largest single protected wilderness in the whole of the United States. At Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, think large, then double it! Not including adjoining preserves, there’s a compass-spinning eight million acres to get through in these parts. That’s enough to merge 5,400-meter-high Mount Saint Elias (the second-tallest peak in the country) and the sprawling Malaspina Glacier (one of the biggest by area on the continent). Of course, it’s a rather impenetrable place, but the jaw-dropping Edgerton Highway does offer access from the west.
National Parks in American Samoa
The first ever US national park to be situated in the Southern Hemisphere is a Polynesian dream come true. Capping of a stunning duo of islands that lay right on the fringe of the International Date Lane, National Park of American Samoa ranges through emerald green cloud forests and gnarled volcanic peaks that look like the twisted fingers of sleeping giants. Of course, the beaches – especially those on Ofu – are worthy of Castaway. But you’re probably more likely to see a leatherback turtle and some parrotfish than Tom Hanks and his FedEx haul.
National Parks in Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park might just be the headline act of America. Yep, there’s probably no more iconic a natural feature on the continent than the colossal gorge that carves its way through this corner of the West. Second only to the Great Smokies in terms of annual visitor numbers, the preserve draws millions to the snaking Colorado River. The South Rim is the most popular, with lookouts at Navajo Point and the Desert View Road. The North Rim is more remote and higher, but gets seriously dramatic at spots like Toroweap Overlook if you’re willing to make the drive.
If you’re imagining a woodland fresh from an Alfred Hitchcock screening, you can stop right now. The ‘petrified’ in the Petrified Forest National Park refers to a process of fossilization that sees minerals turn organic matter into stone. It’s a process that’s worked wonders on the I-40 between Sanders and Holbrook, where 230 square miles of land contains ancient stones that were once actually trees. In addition, you’ll see Mars-like landscapes of painted badlands and the ruins of pre-historic Pueblo villages.
Not a Clint Eastwood western goes by without a saguaro cactus popping up somewhere or other. A veritable symbol of the frontier lands of the Southwest, the great long-armed desert dwellers make a fantastic show at the Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Encapsulating over 90,000 acres in the midst of the Sonoran Desert, the reserve pulls in visitors with the promise of dramatic sunsets and sightings of the Tucson Mountains with the spiny cacti all around. Visit in April to catch the saguaro in full bloom.
National Parks in Arkansas
The steaming pools of mineral-rich water that bubble up from the ground in central Arkansas have been magnetizing pilgrims since anyone can remember. First came the Native American shamans; then came the Prohibition gangsters (Al Capone even had a dip here). These days, the springs – which can hit temperatures of up to 143 F – can still be visited in the vintage spa houses of Bathhouse Row. Hot Springs National Park itself has hiking paths and nature trails and scenic drives on the edge of the Ouachita Mountains.
Take five islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. Add 145 endemic species of animal, circling blue whales, myriad dolphins, underwater forests of sea fans and kelp, white-tinged beaches, and hills of sand dunes speckled with rushrose and oak. Viola – that’s the amazing Channel Islands National Park. Access is solely by boat from the classic North American surf town of Ventura on the California mainland.
Phew! It’s hot in here. Well…get used to it folks, because Death Valley National Park can bust thermometers with heat that scorches over 134 F. That’s hot enough to fry an egg on the floor! But don’t do that – they’ve actually asked people to stop. Highlights include the stunning view of the crumpled badlands from Zabriskie Point. Low points (literally – at -85 meters below sea level) include the salty flats of Badwater Basin. It’s an amazing place.
Beyond the manicured golf courses of Palm Springs and the hedonistic party grounds of Coachella, there lies a land of strange and wonderful features. They include bouldering spots with names like the Great Burrito. There are also anthropomorphic oddities cast in stone in the midst of the mysteriously monikered Hidden Valley. And you’ll find forests of bloated yuccas with twisted branches and spiney blooms. Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park!
Don’t want the crowds of Yosemite but do want hulking granite domes in the Sierra Nevada? Kings Canyon National Park could be your ticket. Butting up to the south side of the Sierra National Forest, this one’s a Shangri-La of giant sequoia trees (don’t miss the General Grant specimen that’s 1,650 years old and a whopping 107 feet high!) and soaring mountains. Iconic tramping routes abound – both the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail cross the entirety of the preserve.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is a world of stark contrasts. One minute you’ll be gazing at harsh lava fields and smoking calderas, as plumes of sulfur and smoke twist and turn in the dry air. The next, you could be navigating a forest of fragrant red firs and aspens, spotting wildflowers and butterflies in hidden alpine valleys. Most visitors come to see geothermal sites like Bumpass Hell, but you can also hike and camp to your heart’s content in this corner of Cali.
The Pinnacles National Park reveals a world forged by volcanos and the shifting tectonic plates of California. More than 20 million years ago, multiple mountains blew their lid and spilled lava across a vast swathe of uplands just east of the 101 Highway. Today, it’s a mecca for hikers and cavers, wildlife seekers and wild campers. You can enter from east or west but be sure to mark highlights like the Bear Gulch talus cave and the cross-park High Peaks Trail.
A tree-hugger’s paradise, the Redwood National and State Parks spill down the California Coast Ranges to a roaring Pacific Ocean. Together, the conglomeration of reserves covers nearly 140,000 acres, ranging from the CA-OR state line to the woods south of the Klamath River. The ginormous specimens of Tall Trees Grove (some trees there are over 370 feet!) are one of the main draws, but you’ve also got fern-filled canyons, bridle trails, and deserted beaches.
Where else in the world could you drive through a toppled tree trunk and scale to mountain lookouts above the clouds on the Great Western Divide? Answer: Nowhere except the Sequoia National Park. A glimpse at General Sherman can start the ball rolling. No, that’s not a famous army vet, but the largest tree on the globe at 84 meters high. Then, hit the switchbacks of the High Sierra Trail for sweeping views you’ll never forget.
Yosemite National Park is one of the headline acts of the Golden State. Legendary among free climbers (if you haven’t watched Free Solo yet, now’s the time) and visited by more than four million people each year, it’s something truly special. The heart of it all is the awesome Yosemite Valley, which is guarded by the sheer walls of El Capitan and the Half Dome. Hiking is abundant. Waterfall watching abounds. Scenic drives are everywhere. What more could you want?
So-called because the sunlight only touches the depths of the Black Canyon for a few minutes each day, the great gorge that lies at the heart of this park is something you’ll want to have the camera handy for. There are a few simply outrageously stunning viewpoints to make for, like the Devils Lookout and the sheer-cut Pulpit Rock Overlook. Intrepid types can also plan hikes into the Inner Canyon of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, where the terrain gets truly off-piste.
Clutching the sides of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado is a land that looks more Arabia than USA. It encompasses sweeping, shifting dunes that whistle in the wind. But, instead of camel caravans and Berbers, the landscape here is speckled with adrenaline-hungry sand sliders and rumbling ATVs. You can expect some strange encounters in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, especially if you make for the hulking High Dune or the desert-top Medano Creek.
Mesa Verde National Park is a prime example of how the US national parks system isn’t only about preserving Mother Nature. Counting a whopping 5,000 individual archaeology sites, this one’s a glimpse at the pre-history of the continent. The land here was once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans, who raised enthralling adobe-rock settlements like the Cliff Palace nearly 1,000 years ago. You’ll also get to see ancient pictographs and petroglyphs and cave dwellings.
Think Colorado, think Rocky Mountains. That’s just how it goes. So, where else to get you fix of the legendary Continental Divide than at the much-loved Rocky Mountain National Park? There’s a handful of climactic zones to get through, from the moose-spotted meadowlands to the alpine tundra of the windy mountaintops. With Denver just on the doorstep, the reserve is a major recreational attraction. Climbers, hikers, snowshoe walkers, skiers – they all come for a taste of the wild beneath the gaze of wise old Longs Peak (the northernmost fourteener in the Rockies).
National Parks in Florida
Mostly underwater, save for a few white-sand keys that could easily feature in Robinson Crusoe, the Biscayne National Park is where the Sunshine State meets the ocean. The piece de resistance is the Florida Reef, which unfolds in an aquatic wonderworld of elkhorn corals and star corals and zebrafish. Of course, it’s a snorkeling and scuba heaven, with potential sightings of manatees (the sea cow) on the menu.
The Dry Tortugas National Park is the reward for sailors and seaplanes willing to venture beyond the rum-spilling bars of Key West. And what a reward it is! Crystal-clear waters abound. They teem with all sorts of curious creatures – amberjacks, stingrays, sea turtles – and brim with coral gardens. The main island is dominated by hexagonal Fort Jefferson. History buffs should be sure to check it out to learn all about the fight against swashbuckling pirates in the Caribbean back in the 1800s.
The Everglades National Park is to Florida what Yosemite is to California. A real chart-topper, it spreads its great grass rivers and hardwood hammocks through a whopping 1.5 million acres at the southern end of the Sunshine State. Airboats are the main MO of visiting. They’ll whiz you on high-octane tours through prairies and waterlogged swamps. Keep your eyes peeled for snapping alligators, marsh rabbits and monitor lizards as you go!
National Parks in Hawaii
Revered as the ‘House of the Sun’ by the Early Hawaiians, mighty Haleakalā stands tall above the legendary beaches and resort towns of Maui that spread below. Peaking at over 10,000 feet, it’s a smoke-belching volcano that hisses and splutters and seethes across a Mars-like landscape of cinder cones and lava rocks. Go for a hike right on the cusp of the crater rim and keep your eyes peeled for the white domes of the Haleakalā Observatory, which makes the most of the crisp and cloudless skies to peer into the cosmos after dark.
Forever shifting and changing shape thanks to the magma spews and eruptions of active Kilauea, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the place to go to get a feel for the Aloha State’s untamed geology. The 150+ miles of marked trail here weave and wiggle past scree slopes and deserts, but also plunge into lush jungles and pine forests. Unmissable POIs include the Chain of Craters Road, where parts of the asphalt are dashed, disconcertingly, by recent lava flows.
While in Hawaii, don’t forget to check out the stunning black sand beaches.
National Parks in Kentucky
UNESCO World Heritage credentials join with national park status to mark out the great Mammoth Cave as one of the largest underground tunnel systems in the world. It runs for a mega 400 miles through the subterrane of Kentucky, sprouting into hidden chambers and rooms and bottomless pits that are said to descend to the very center of the planet. The human history of the site is also enthralling, with tales of more than 5,000 years of habitation to unravel.
National Parks in Indiana
Just across the water from the hustle and buzz of Chicago, the Indiana Dunes National Park is a haven of shimmering beaches and thistle-topped sand hills. That terrain extends for over 10 miles from the edge of Michigan City to Burns Harbor, offering a taste of the wild in the midst of the built-up Midwest. Indiana Dunes are a doozy for families looking for an escape from the Windy City in the hot summer months. There are top campsites between the pine woods and oodles of wholesome fun to be had on the shoreline.
National Parks in Maine
Breathe deep. The salt air is strong on the granite domes of the Acadia National Park. Peering off the edge of the Atlantic North East, this majestic garden of summits, forests and beaches is New England through and through. It covers about half of the beautiful Mount Desert Island as it ranges from wave-lapped Sand Beach to the grykes of Cadillac Mountain – one of the first places that sees the sunrise in the United States. Also don’t miss nearby Bar Harbor, one of the region’s best whale watching outposts.
National Parks in Michigan
The Isle Royale National Park is about as close to Canada as it’s possible to get without straying over the border. Like a stroke of a paintbrush, it dashes through the waters of Lake Superior just eight miles from the top edge of the United States. And it’s a frontier in more ways than one. Come to wander on paths like the Tobin Harbor Trail through twisted pine trees. Come to kayak in deserted bays and pebbly coves. You won’t be disappointed!
National Parks in Minnesota
Virtually contiguous with the lake lands of Ontario, the Voyageurs National Park accounts for 218,000 acres of northern Minnesota. By winter, it’s a snow-covered wasteland of icy plains and dusted forests, drawing ice fishers and snowmobilers. By summer, kayakers flock to Rainy Lake and Kabetogama to drift through mirror-like H20 on trails once used by French trappers. Remember that the official NPS campsites here are only accessible by water!
National Parks in Missouri
The Gateway Arch National Park isn’t your run-of-the-mill sort of US reserve. First off, it’s the smallest of all the parks in the country, clocking up under 200 acres. Second, it’s smack bang in the middle of downtown St. Louis. Yep, there are no arduous hiking trails to the tops of volcanos to be found here. However, you do get a startling monument to the westward expansion of the United States and loads of history about the Louisiana Purchase. Not a bad trade off, eh?
National Parks in Montana
The Glacier National Park is a window onto what America was before the railways and metropolises. A whole land of peaks and troughs carved by the ancient movements of massive ice fields, it’s sculpted into jagged summits and echoing ravines. Grizzly bears and lynxes roam within. Hiking trails pierce high-alpine plateau. It’s the sort of place you can feel totally alone and immersed in nature. One noteworthy human touch is the amazing Glacier Park Lodge, with its rustic interior hall made from Douglas-fir trunks.
National Parks in Nevada
Small but stunning, the Great Basin National Park and the ridges of the South Snake Mountains dash across the eastern edge of Utah with their twisted bristlecone pines and wild sage and juniper. The reserve runs from the crests of Wheeler Peak to the ancient tunnel systems of the Lehman Cave, which are a whopping 550 million years old! Unlike its compadres in the Wasatch and the Rockies, this one rarely gets crowded. So, hit one of the 12 managed hiking trails and get ready to go off-track with bobcats and bald eagles.
National Parks in New Mexico
You can dive under the Guadalupe Mountains and discover what’s certainly one of the most enthralling cave systems in the USA at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Discovered in 1898, the seemingly endless array of chambers and channels here weave through strange mineral formations and resplendent water pools fringed by dustings of oxide, not to mention stalactites with curious names like the Totem Pole and the Iceberg Rock. A planned walking route through the caves starts at the excellent visitor’s center.
Wear the sunnies for this one, folks! Yep, the ‘white’ in White Sands National Park really is white. It unfolds along more than 270 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert, dashing a scintillating patchwork of shifting gypsum hills across the southern heart of New Mexico. Yucca and skunkbush pepper the landscapes as strange lizards dart this way and that over the dunes. However, most human visitors come for amazing experiences like full-moon hikes and sandboarding sessions.
National Parks in North Dakota
Named for the US president that once escaped to this corner of the North Dakota backcountry after a family tragedy in 1884, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park mixes badlands with mountains and offers glimpses of the iconic American bison. The reserve is split into three: North, South and Elkhorn. The first sports rugged canyons dotted with colossal boulders. The second is about rolling grass badlands and buffalo. Elkhorn, meanwhile, is the place to go to trace the history of Teddy Roosevelt.
National Parks in North Carolina
The Great Smokies are the jewel in the crown of Appalachia. They roll through Tennessee and North Carolina in a fog of hazy ridges and moss-caked forests, babbling streams and rock bluffs with lookouts you’ll never forget. Well…you and the other 12 million people who choose to visit this iconic reserve each year. Yep – Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the single most popular US national park of them all. It’s a well-deserved accolade, too, what with 850 miles of hiking path to conquer, wild fly-fishing spots, and fun-filled nearby towns like Asheville and Pigeon Forge to get through.
National Parks in Ohio
Sandwiched between Cleveland and Akron on the eastern fringes of the built-up Midwest, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is something of an unexpected bout of wilderness in the Buckeye State. It might only be 35,000 acres big, but there are stirring moments to be had: When there’s a rust-red morning glow amid the fall-time hickory forests; when the wildflowers bloom between the gushing falls of Brandywine Creek in summer. A rich Native American history and the 21-mile Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail are both top draws.
National Parks in Oregon
Just when you thought the West Coast couldn’t give you anymore scorchers on the national park front, Oregon comes up with the magnificent Crater Lake National Park. The deepest of its kind in the whole United States, it descends more than 1,900 feet from its perfect blue surface through the core of an ancient volcano high up in the Cascades. Sections of the Pacific Crest Trail weave their way through the park, so there’s a steady stream of thru hikers. Meanwhile, the scenic Rim Drive means roadsters can also get their fix of high mountain scenery with ease.
National Parks in South Carolina
A great inland sea of loblolly pines, oaks, cypresses, and gums that spreads through South Carolina, the Congaree National Park is home to some of the largest trees in the US – nay, the world! It’s said that the heftiest specimens of a whopping 15 species reside within, between the snaking boardwalk trails and mosquito-buzzing creeks. You can go a-looking for them on a kayak or a canoe. It’s the way people have been venturing through the hardwood hammocks and swamps for years.
National Parks in South Dakota
A C-shaped swathe of carved mountains all dappled by different hues of red and orange, the Badlands are South Dakota both raw and wild. Those on the 240 highway that wiggles through the upper and more accessible part of the reserve are treated to visions of sun-cracked canyons and painted walls of rock ad infinitum. Down south, things switch from grassy plains roamed by bison to dusty ridges watched over by bighorn sheep. Inside Badlands National Park, there are some good short hikes, an excellent visitor’s center, and fossil viewing to boot.
The Wind Cave National Park holds the honor of being the first ever cave to gain national park status anywhere on the globe. It’s another of the American reserves dedicated by keen naturalist Teddy Roosevelt, which means it got its tags way back in 1903. The focal point? How about one of the longest and densest underground systems going? A whopping 150 miles of tunnels and chambers exist here beneath the rolling South Dakotan prairie.
National Parks in Texas
Rolling down from the Chisos to the Chihuahuan – from mountains to desert – Big Bend National Park of the Lone Star State could just be your chance to channel that inner John Wayne. It’s daunting stuff at 1,200+ square miles that hosts all sorts of habitats and corners, from the babbling Rio Grande to the pine-scented pinnacles of Emory Peak. But that’s Texas for you: Nothing in half measures. Especially not rancher-trodden outback, canyon trails, rivers, bluffs, and waterfalls.
Virtually contiguous with the southern end of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park over in New Mexico, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the remoter joys of Texas. It’s pretty far from anything, although El Paso and the Mexican border is usually the main jump-off point. Temptations for adventurers flit from the soaring heights of Guadalupe Peak – the tallest in the state – to the depths of McKittrick Canyon – where the Southeast does its best impression of New England come the fall.
Arches, arches, and more arches – that’s what’s on the sightseeing map of the aptly-named Arches National Park. In fact, there are more than 2,000 of the naturally formed wonders in this stunning corner of Utah. And that’s not it, either. Slacklining, road biking, hiking, bouldering, and more all ensure this one lives up to its rep as Moab‘s main adrenaline-giving playground. Not feeling anything too hardcore? Don’t worry. There are also simply gorgeous vistas of the Colorado Plateau and the desert to boot.
You can only imagine how the first Mormon pioneers would have felt when they roamed westwards to discover the eye-watering Bryce Canyon back in the 1850s. Probably not unlike how the first visitors to this awesome Utah park feel these days, the moment they lay eyes on that sea of vanilla and vermillion rock, stacked in jagged hoodoos for as far as the eye can see. Rugged doesn’t quite do it justice. Let’s just say you forget the rappel and harness and boots at your peril here.
In Moab you get two for one: The Arches and the Canyonlands. This second part of the great Utah southeast is a true majesty of a reserve. It’s split into a few sectors all bisected by the snaking Colorado and Green rivers. The iconic area known as the Island in the Sky is best for sweeping views of the stunning White Rim ridge that stands more than 1,200 feet up. Beyond that are the pinnacles of The Needles area, followed by the inaccessible mesas and cliffs of The Maze.
Scarring across the heart of the Beehive State in a 60-mile stretch of Western-worthy outback, Capitol Reef National Park spreads over massive clefts and cuts in the crust of the planet. It’s named for the peaked domes of Navajo sandstone that loom like the tops of US capitol buildings throughout the preserve. Other features include enormous walls of red rock and dark and shady gorges. Strangely, there’s also a small oasis of orchards in the midst of it all; clusters of almond and pear trees once planted by the pioneers.
Catch your breath. Look up. Zion National Park is Utah at its finest. Flaming rocks dashed with crimson and salmon tower to the cloudless skies. Prickly pear cacti jut from the dust. Bighorn sheep hop over the rock faces. Lofting above the Virgin River is Zion Canyon and its surrounding reserve, marking the point where the Great Basin, the Mojave, and the Colorado Plateau meet in one heck of a display of geology and geography. Gorge walking is the star, but you might also want to think about hopping in the saddle to evoke the real Wild West.
National Parks in Virgin Islands
Greek blue and rainforest green are the color palette of the US Virgin Islands, the home of the simply paradisiacal Virgin Islands National Park. Covering the heart and two coastlines of the island of Saint John, it ranges from resplendent coral reefs to bird-tweeting jungles awash with orchids and palms. Do not miss Trunk Bay and its cotton-hued sand, or the uber-romantic Honeymoon Beach. Around the island, meanwhile, is a greater national monument that protects gorgeous underwater habitats filled with turtles and reef fish.
National Parks in Virginia
Not far from the glimmering domes of the White House in DC, Shenandoah National Park beckons folk away from the big city with its sylvan hills and scenic motor routes. Covering the bucolic Virginian quarters of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the park is long and thin, centering on the 105-mile Skyline Drive that offers a new vista of valley bottom or distant peak at every turn in the road. Waterfalls and lovely backcountry campsites are all ripe for the taking if you’re looking to leave the asphalt and hit the trails instead.
National Parks in Washington
The Mount Rainier National Park emanates out from the hulking peak – the highest in the Cascades – that sits at its center and gives it its name. Wherever you are in the reserve, there’s rarely a moment when the snow-mantled summit of the mighty mountain won’t be within eyeshot. Around it swirls beautiful springtime wildflower meadows and gushing waterfalls fed by ancient glaciers. If you’re okay with staying off the main peak (reserved for the veteran mountaineers), there’s loads of alpine hiking and wildlife viewing to be had.
One road in, one road out – that’s the remoteness of the North Cascades National Park. Even the winding, wiggling route of the 20 highway offers only glimpses of this 500,000-acre wilderness, which reaches all the way north to the US-Canada border in a medley of summits that easily surpass 9,000 feet. This ain’t your bite-sized sort of place, just as Buckner Mountain and the twisted Black Peak should reveal, although there are some excellent off-piste adventurers for those who don’t mind being all alone out there a la John Muir.
Wet but wonderful, Olympic National Park spans the vast Olympic Peninsula to the west of Seattle. With an average precipitation level of more than nine inches for three months of the year, it should be easy to see where the verdant, moss-caked rainforests get their fuel from. But take it to the westernmost extreme and you can also find stunning beaches and sea stacks shrouded in fog along the Pacific Ocean. Up high and the woods drop away for ski runs and snow-covered tundra.
National Parks in West Virginia
New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia’s first national park, is an underrated adventure spot located in the center of the Appalachian Mountains. Previously a mining town that boomed in the late 1800s, the now protected area consists of 53 miles of free flowing white water that continue to carve out the 1000 foot sandstone cliffs. It is the deepest river gorge in the Eastern United States and offers countless opportunities for exploration. With whitewater rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, fishing, and picturesque riverscapes, there’s an activity for any type of visitor.
National Parks in Wyoming
Mountaineers like the legendary Jimmy Chin have cut their teeth on the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. Straddling the Snake River and the ski runs of Jackson Hole, and counting some of the most gnarled and craggy peaks in the Rockies in their number, Grand Teton National Park can seem like a tailor-made playground for those who like to whiz downhill or scramble up it! If you prefer, simply hit the scenic byways and make for the picture-perfect John Moulton Barn to get that compulsory Insta shot.
Yellowstone hardly needs any introduction. The oldest of the parks, and one of the most visited, it continues to wow all who pass its way with a world of spouting geysers, hot springs, and prismatic pools, all set strikingly on the top of a brooding mega volcano. The great reserve spreads through three states but is primarily in Wyoming. It’s a haven for geothermal stuff – of which there’s oodles! – but also a wildlife mecca, hosting buffalo, bears, foxes, wolves, and more.