Our national parks have been called "America's best idea," and you won't find any argument here. The very first park was Yellowstone, created in 1892, and since then, dozens more of these majestic lands of mountains, meadows, rivers, and red rocks, have joined the protected-forever party. You know the big three: Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, but here are a few more natural stunners to add to your list. America the beautiful, indeed.
Located in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite has something for everyone. There are hikes for all levels and numerous waterfalls — each more scenic than the next. Bridalveil Falls is reached via an easygoing trail, while the trail to Yosemite Falls is more challenging, but you'll be rewarded with a view of the famous Half Dome rock formation in the distance.
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Best for Sunrise
Located on Mount Desert Island, a postcard-perfect island where Rockefellers and Astors summered, Acadia National Park is rich with rocky shorelines and one of Maine's most historic lighthouses. Hike to the top of 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain to catch the sunrise, then back in Bar Harbor, treat yourself to a lobster roll at Stewman's.
Best for Adventure
The red sandstone monoliths of Arches National Park in southeast Utah make for a giant playground for hikers, bikers, climbers, off-roaders, rafters, and other adrenaline junkies. Throughout the park, there are 2,000 natural arches, including the famous Delicate Arch, which you might recognize from Utah's license plate.
Best for Geysers
When you think of Yellowstone National Park, geysers come to mind — and more specifically, Old Faithful, which does indeed live up to its name by erupting every 90 minutes or so. Another superstar of America's oldest national park is the Grand Prismatic Spring, which is the park's largest single hot spring.
Best for a Scenic Drive
Shenandoah's famed 105-mile Skyline Drive is one of the prettiest drives in the Northeast. This National Scenic Byway runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it features sweeping panoramas of rocky peaks and the fertile Shenandoah Valley. (Springtime, when the wildflowers are in bloom, is one of the best seasons to visit.)
Best for the Whole Family
There are some things you just have to see during your lifetime — and the Grand Canyon is one them. One of our most visited national parks, the Grand Canyon will wow even the most finicky teen. You'll see jaw-dropping views along the 13-mile Rim Trail, and outside of the park, in Grand Canyon West, is SkyWalk, a glass horseshoe-shaped platform that takes you out 70 feet over the canyon.
Best for Mountain Lovers
The snow-capped Teton Mountain Range is nothing short of majestic. During winter, the park is a snowy wonderland for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. In the warmer months, hike through wildflower-filled meadows, pretend to be a cowboy (or cowgirl) on a horseback-riding excursion, and try your hand at fly-fishing along the Snake River.
Best for Coastline Views
Located in the northwest corner of Washington, Olympic National Park has 60 miles of wilderness coastline — the longest undeveloped coast in the contiguous United States. One of the most scenic and Insta-worthy beaches (especially at sunset) is Kalaloch Beach, where you might spot bald eagles, western gulls, and puffins.
Best for Beaches
Off the coast of Key West is Dry Tortugas National Park, an uninhabited island that's home to 19th-century Fort Jefferson, plus miles of unspoiled beaches (it's only accessible by boat or water plane). Wear your bathing suit, because this park has thousands of acres of coral reef, making it a prime snorkeling spot — keep an eye out for parrotfish, butterflyfish, moray eels, and nurse sharks.
Best for Red Rocks
This popular national park, in Utah's southwest corner, is known for its towering red rocks, some of which reach 2,000 feet. You can hike or bike alongside them, but one of the best ways to view these beautiful monoliths is to take a shuttle ride (you board at the visitor center), along the 6-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive — be sure to have your camera ready!
Best for Snorkeling
While you might associate America's national parks with snowcapped mountains and otherworldly rock formations, Biscayne National Park, about an hour from Miami, offers underwater treasures. Sign up for a snorkeling tour, where you might spot colorful parrot fish, trumpet fish, corals, sea fans, and maybe even a moray eel.
Best for Wildlife
The top sights of this northern Montana park (which extends into Canada) are Cracker Lake, with its ice-pop blue waters, and the rectangular-shaped Chief Mountain, but Glacier is also known for its abundance of wildlife. There's a sizable grizzly bear population, and elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats have also been spotted.
Best for Sand Dunes
You'll feel like a kid in a giant sandbox during a visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado. The park is home to North America's largest sand dunes — the biggest is 755 feet high! Spend the day climbing up the dunes, then zooming down them on a sled. You can even camp out beside these natural wonders, which, when combined with a star-filled sky, creates an otherworldly scene.
Best for One-of-a-Kind Desert Scenery
Joshua Tree in Twentynine Palms (3 hours east of LA) isn't just the title of a U2 record; it's a national park with some pretty spectacular natural scenery. Its setting, at the intersection of the Colorado and Mojave deserts, has resulted in unique flora. The Colorado side is rife with creosote bush, while the Mojave side is a habitat for the rare Joshua tree — the only place in America where it grows.
Best for Seeing America's Highest Peak
In Denali National Park, an approximately 6-hour drive from Anchorage, a few of the breathtaking wilderness vistas you'll see include glacial rivers, alpine tundra, and, of course, snowcapped Mount Denali, North America's highest peak. Keep the camera ready for wildlife spotting of moose, caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, and Dall sheep — see all five and you'll have scored what's known as a "Denali Slam."
Best for Waterfalls
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker's paradise, and many of its trails lead to gorgeous waterfalls. Some of the most popular hikes include Trillium Gap Trail, which winds through an old-growth hemlock forest to Grotto Falls and Rainbow Falls Trail, which leads to an 80-foot-high waterfall of the same name. Don't feel like hiking? Get in the car and drive the famed Blue Ridge Parkway.
Best for Active Volcano Views
Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to the active Kilauea volcano, is a can't-miss attraction for anyone visiting the Big Island. To see incredible views of Kilauea's steaming caldera, take the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive, while the 19-mile Chain of Craters Road will take you past expansive lava fields, craters, prehistoric petroglyphs, and, possibly, active lava!
Best for Caves
Kids will love pretending they're Batman in the caves of Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico. There are 83 caves in all, but the big draw is the self-guided tour of Carlsbad's massive Big Room — 14 football fields in length. The more adventurous can join a guided tour of Spider Cave or Lower Cave, where you'll find yourself up close and personal with stalactites and stalagmites.
Best for Desert Flora
This remote Texan park, along the Rio Grande River, is known for its beautiful desert flora, including plants, wildflowers, and more than 60 species of cacti — the most in the National Park System. Depending on the weather, you may spot blooming ocotillo, giant dagger yuccas, claret cup cactus, Big Bend bluebonnets, and the purplish-red fruit of the prickly pear.
Best for Lakeside Hikes
You'll never forget the brilliant blue color of Crater Lake, the centerpiece of Oregon's only national park. Located within the caldera of Mount Mazama, the lake is seven miles long and said to be the country's deepest. There are tons of scenic trails in the park with sweeping lake views, but the only one that descends to the lake itself is the mile-long Cleetwood Trail, which features switchbacks through a fir-tree forest.
Best for Towering Trees
You'll find yourself saying "wow, that's big" a bunch of times during a visit to the Sequoia National Park in California's Sierra Nevada, but the biggest exclamation point goes to the General Sherman tree. This skyscraper-sized tree, the largest living thing on the planet (based on volume), is just one of the many ancient sequoias in the Giant Forest grove, which has an extensive network of hiking trails.
Best for Water Activities
Voyageurs National Park, on Minnesota's northern border, is dominated by water — the freshwater kind. There are more than 30 lakes, including Rainy and Kabetogama, spread among 218,054 acres. Naturally, most of the activities have to do with getting wet: swimming, boating, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing (there are hundreds of coves and bays just waiting to be explored). You can even rent a houseboat for the night.
Best for Glaciers
Alaska is famous for glaciers and fjords, and one of the prime spots to see both is Glacier Bay National Park, located within southeastern Alaska's fabled Inside Passage. Take a boat tour to see the park's awe-inspiring scenery of protected coves, tidewater glaciers, cascading waterfalls, deep fjords, and rugged mountains. You may also spot wildlife, such as humpback whales and harbor seals.
Best for Birding
Be sure to bring your binoculars to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, just 30 minutes south of Cleveland, because you're going to need them to get up-close views of the park's many birds. In fact, Cuyahoga boasts 250 species, including yellow-throated warblers, great blue herons, wood ducks, and bald eagles. You can spot them via hikes, or better yet, from aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway.
Best for Old-Growth Forest
Congaree National Park, 15 miles southeast of Columbia, is one of the oldest and tallest forests east of the Mississippi. Some of the trees found here include bald cypresses dripping with Spanish moss, water tupelos, and loblolly pines. Explore the park, named for the the Native American tribe that lived here centuries ago, via hikes or a canoe ride along Cedar Creek.
Best for Rugged Wilderness
Located in northern Washington, North Cascades National Park is an adventurer's paradise. The 500,000-acre park is known for its rugged peaks in the North Cascade range and hundreds of glaciers. Hike along scenic trails, where you can stop to take in the silence, save for the sounds of cascading waters.
One of the park's can't-miss natural wonders is Diablo Lake, where you can follow a trail, passing forested peaks, gorges, and waterfalls, until you get to the showstopping lake, which is known for its bright turquoise color.
Best for Alligator Spotting
For a visit to a park with a one-of-a-kind ecosystem, visit Everglades National Park, which is home to cypress swamps, mangroves, and wet prairie — it's the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. It's also an important habitat for rare and endangered species, including manatees, the American crocodile, and the Florida panther. While you're there, be sure to take an airboat tour through the swamps to see wild alligators.
Best for Hydrothermal Features
This national park, in Mineral, California (150 miles from Sacramento), is a densely forested area with dozens of volcanoes scattered on its 106,000 acres. The largest, Lassen Peak, last blew its top in 1921, and it's technically not considered extinct.
Take a self-guided walking tour along the Devastated Area Interpretive Trail, and walk beside hydrothermal (or "hot water") areas, which include steaming fumaroles, boiling pools, and steaming mudpots.
Best for Fossil Viewing
Once submerged under the sea, Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota is known for its abundance of fossils. You can see small fossils, such as lizards and rabbits, as well as larger animals, such as rhinos and horses. As you hike through the arid terrain, you'll have opportunities to spot these ancients skeletons, which is pretty cool! The park also has plenty of live animals, including bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.
Best for Viewing Petrified Wood
You may have heard of the petrified forest, but do you know what it is? Don't worry, you're not alone! Petrified wood, in the simplest terms, is when tree or tree-like plants have turned to stone through a process called petrification. Some of the top spots to see petrified wood and logs is along the Crystal Forest Trail and on the Giant Logs Loop. The park also has a portion of the Painted Desert — giant rock formations in various colors that are due to erosion and other factors.