America is home to some of the most awe-inspiring national parks in the world. From the desert sand dunes of Death Valley to the glacier mountains in Alaska, the country is filled with natural wonders just waiting to be explored.
In total, there are 61 national parks within the United States. While most travelers are familiar with the big parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, there are dozens of other lesser-known parks that are equally worth visiting.
So if you're looking for fresh air, breathtaking scenery, and acres of untouched wilderness, then grab your hiking clothes and plan a trip to one of America's 20 best national parks.
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
With cascading waterfalls, roaming wildlife, and colorful hot springs, Yellowstone National Park is America's first national park. It also happens to be one of the largest parks in the US, and you could easily spend one or two weeks driving through the sprawling landscape of mountains and canyons.
The Old Faithful Geyser is arguably the most famous attraction in Yellowstone. Named for its predictable eruptions, this spectacular geyser can shoot water up to 185 feet in the air.
2. Glacier National Park, Montana
Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park is an unspoiled wonderland of lakes, mountains, and of course, frozen glaciers. If you want to get up close and personal with the glaciers, your best option is to take a boat tour.
Covering over 1 million acres, the park is also home to a variety of outdoor activities for even the most adventurous of travelers. From backcountry camping in the Lake McDonald Valley to boating across the pristine Two Medicine lake, there's no shortage of things to see or do in Glacier.
3. Acadia National Park, Maine
With over 120 miles of hiking trails, Acadia National Park is an outdoor lover's paradise. Not only will you be surrounded by rocky coastlines and mountain peaks, but you'll also trek through sandy beaches, sparkling lakes, and floral meadows.
Take a leisurely stroll across the coastline of Ocean Path, or trek up the Cadillac Summit Loops for panoramic views over Bar Harbor. Thrill-seekers can also attempt the Precipice Trail, an exhilarating cliff walk up to the summit of the Champlain Mountain.
4. Denali National Park, Alaska
Surrounded by glacial valleys and snowy forests, Denali National Park is a spectacular sight in rural Alaska. At the heart of the park is Denali, the highest mountain in North America. At over 20,000 feet high, it dominates the Alaska skyline with it's jagged, granite slopes and snow-capped peaks.
Hiking, cross-country skiing, rafting, and dog-sledding are a few of the best activities offered within the park. And starting in August, it's also one of the best parks to spot the majestic Northern Lights.
5. Yosemite National Park, California
Marked by towering sequoia trees and massive granite mountaintops, Yosemite National Park is one of America's most beloved parks. As part of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Yosemite boasts several significant attractions, including the Yosemite Valley, Half Dome rock formation, and the Tuolumne Meadows.
However, the most jaw-dropping site is the Yosemite Waterfall. This tiered waterfall drops over 2,400-feet, making it the largest waterfall in the entire park.
6. Zion National Park, Utah
The otherworldly backdrop of colossal canyons and steep jagged cliffs of Zion National Park are guaranteed to take your breath away. Snaking through the basin of the canyon is the Virgin River, whose vibrant blues are starkly contrasted to the red walls of the rocks.
The park is home to a number of hiking trails, including the 8-mile Observation Point and the iconic, adrenaline-fueled Angel's Landing. Horse-back riding, kayaking, and canyoneering are also all possible in Zion.
7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The Grand Canyon might be the most recognized natural landmark in the entire United States. Formed by the Colorado River 70 million years ago, this 277-mile long canyon meanders through the heart of Arizona.
Walk to the edge of the South Rim to admire the layers of rusted reds and golden yellows that extend over 6,000-feet down. It's also possible to spend the day boating down the river or hiking down to the canyon floor.
8. Joshua Tree National Park, California
The unusual geography of Joshua Tree National Park makes it one of the most fascinating parks to visit in the United States. You'll see thousands of twisted Joshua Trees, dominating the landscape with their green cactus-like leaves and small white flower. As you drive through the barren desert, you'll also spot giant smooth boulders dotted throughout the park - some of them crawling with rock climbers.
If you're eager to do some hiking, then venture down the Hidden Valley Nature Trail or Barker Dam Nature Trail. However, you can still admire the scenic beauty from the comfort of your car by driving up to Key View. Here, you'll be treated to sweeping views of the Coachella Valley.
9. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park is just a stone's throw away from Jackson Hole, making it an easy day trip for those visiting Wyoming. Considered to have some of the best wildlife sightings in the United States, the entire region is teeming with moose, elk, bison, bears, and eagles.
Like other parks, Grand Teton is also a great place for water activities. You can raft down the Snake River, fly fish at Jenny Lake, or go canoeing across Colter Bay.
10. Mount Rainer, Washington
The glacier-capped peak of Mount Rainer can be seen for miles around Washington State. However, this 14,400-foot tall mountain isn't the only thing worth seeing in Mount Rainier National Park. If you visit in July or August, you'll see over 230 species of blooming wildflowers scattered throughout the park's meadows.
To make the most of your visit, spend the day hiking on one of the many trails in the park. Paradise Park, Gobbler's Knob, and Tolmie Peak Hike can all be done within a few hours.
11. Sequoia National Park, California
Standing underneath the giant General Sherman tree will easily put mother nature's work in perspective. At 275-feet tall, this behemoth sequoia is not just the biggest tree in the park, but also the largest tree in the entire world. Although Sequoia National Park is home to over 400,000 acres of forested terrain, General Sherman is the most notable.
Besides the admiring the sequoias, you can also visit the marble stalagmites in Crystal Cave or trek through the alpine valley of Mineral King.
12. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
The crisp, fresh air of Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park is the best destination for a wilderness escape. Whether you're hiking up to the cascading Alberta Falls or admiring the high-altitude views from Trail Ridge Road, there's a certain subtle peacefulness about this park.
The national park is also home to an abundance of elk and bighorn sheep. Prancing along the canyon walls, it's easy to spot them during your hike or drive.
13. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Stretching for hundreds of miles, the tiered cliffs and carved rock formations of Badlands National Park is a spectacular sight to behold. The best view of the eroded landscape is atop "the Wall", which stands 150-feet above the billowing grasses of the prairies.
The best way to see the park is by driving along the Badlands Loop State Scenic Highway. This 38-mile drive takes you across the park's most magnificent buttes, spires, and cliffs.
14. Death Valley National Park, California
The extreme climates and ecosystems of Death Valley have the reputation of being one of the driest, and hottest national parks in the world. One one side, you have miles of rolling sand dunes and cracked mud beds completely void of any living matter. On the other side, you'll find high-walled canyons filled with deer, lions, and bighorn sheep.
Although it's not recommended to hike in the middle of summer, you can still drive through to see the park's most alluring attractions. Dante's View, Zabriskie Point, and the Badwater Basin are just a couple of must-see landmarks.
15. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
The mysterious landscape at Bryce Canyon National Park can be summed up in one word - otherworldly. Scattered throughout the park are thousands of red rock pillars called Hoodoos. These towering fairy chimneys belong more on Mars than they do in Southern Utah.
Although it's worth a visit just to see the Hoodoos in person, there are also plenty of other activities to keep you occupied, including hiking, fishing, and ATV off-roading.
16. Arches National Park, Utah
With over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, Arches National Park is one of the most iconic parks in the US. The 19-mile scenic drive is the best way to see as many of these arches, although hiking can also be done in good weather.
Although most people are eager to see the famous Landscape Arch, they often miss the other astonishing landmarks in the national park. Balance Rock, Windows Section, and Delicate Arch are just a few other formations that should be added to your bucket list.
17. Olympic National Park
The diverse ecosystems in Olympic National Park is a testament to the ever-changing climate of the Pacific Northwest. The rugged coastline of ocean surf and tide pools are juxtaposed against the moss-covered trees of the temperate forest. In the center of the park are the glacier Olympic Mountains, which stretch for 60-miles along the peninsula.
Like other parks in the area, it's also possible to hike, camp and boat. In the winter, unwind in the bubbling hot springs or ski down the side of the Hurricane Ridge mountains.
18. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
With over 12.5 million visitors a year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the world. As part of the Appalachian Mountains, it's home to wildflower meadows, remote waterfalls, and tree-lined forests. Hiking is the preferred activity here in the Smokies, and there are over 800-miles of trails to choose from.
You don't even have to leave your car to enjoy the landscape. Cades Cove and Roaring Fork Motor Trail boast dramatic views over the forests and mountain peaks.
19. Kings Canyon National Park, California
Many consider Kings Canyon to be the little brother to the neighboring Sequoia National Park. This creviced valley is over a mile-deep and littered with some of the largest sequoia trees in the world, including the 1,650-year-old General Grant tree. Although much of the national park is forested, you can also find roaring waterfalls, steep canyon walls, and even a small lake.
Unlike other parks in California, Kings Canyon remains relatively tourist-free. Whether you're soaking up the sun in Zumwalt Meadow or photographing the impressive Grizzly Falls, you're guaranteed to find a bit of relaxation in Kings Canyon.
20. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
No trip to the Big Island would be complete without a visit to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Centered around the still very active Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanos, this national park has the potential to be a boiling cauldron of lava and magma.
Although parts of the park have been closed due to Kilauea's 2018 eruption, you are still able to walk around the craters and martian-like landscape of dried lava tubes. If you're up for the challenge, you can also trek to the summit of Mauna Loa, which takes anywhere from three to five days to complete.
Explore These National Parks
Sometimes, we need to escape to the great outdoors for a bit of fresh air. Whether we're trekking up snow-capped mountains or kayaking across sparkling blue lakes, there's nothing more rewarding than immersing yourself in nature. Spending a few days exploring the surreal landscapes of America's national parks are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression for years to come.
About the author
Jeremy Scott Foster blogs about travel at TravelFreak as a way to connect and reach people who reject the status quo. He believes there are an infinite number of ways to lead a fulfilling life - you just need to create them.
He focuses on helping readers manifest their dreams of traveling the world by pushing them out of their comfort zone. Because it's there - when you're the least comfortable - that remarkable transformations start to take shape within.