UPDATED: This article was originally published in March 2016.
There’s a lot to love about America‘s national parks. From deserts, canyons and mountains, to alpine forests, lakes, tropical reefs, even volcanoes – wilderness-wise, the USA has it all.
These pockets of land are resolute protectors of wildlife, landscapes and communities that have been here far longer than anything else. From the highest peaks to the deepest fjords, here are 10 of the very best American national parks (in no particular order).
1. Zion National Park – Utah
You know those famous pictures of waved canyon walls flooded with a light so fiery it looks unnatural? Well, chances are they were taken at Zion National Park. With its striped pink cliffs, emerald pools, clear streams and slot canyons, the park inspires the sort of reverence its name – meaning ‘heavenly city’ – demands. The two most famous hikes are Angels Landing and The Narrows, and are some of the best you’ll find anywhere. A surprising amount of vegetation thrives among the rocky landscape. In spring, the park is dotted with colourful wildflowers; in autumn it turns a rusty yellow; and in winter, the snow dusts the cliffs like icing sugar.
Visit Zion National Park on our 4-day Zion Ranch Stay.
2. Denali National Park – Alaska
Tunda trails, ancient glaciers and the tallest peak on the continent are just some of the reasons visitors flock to Denali National Park, the state’s most popular land attraction. In addition to unspoilt geography (most of the park’s land is untouched by humans and there’s only one road that weaves through), Denali is also home to plenty of native wildlife – keep your eyes peeled for caribou, moose, wolves and grizzly bears.
Explore the Alaskan wilderness on our 6-day Denali National Park Walking Tour.
3. Bryce Canyon – Utah
Bryce Canyon, a vast amphitheater of red rocky hoodoos, has often been described as a ‘forest of stone’ and a ‘cave without a roof’, and it’s easy to see why. Hoodoos (say it out loud – it’s fun) are pillars of rock that have been left standing due to erosion. You may have seen something similar in Turkey’s Cappadocia region, or Australia’s Pinnacles Desert, but nowhere have you seen them like this. This is rocky scenery at its best – especially at sunrise and sunset.
Check out Bryce Canyon on our Zion Family Ranch Stay.
4. Arches National Park – Utah
Home to over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, the appropriately named Arches National Park is a wonderland of ancient red rock formations. Giant balancing rocks, towering pinnacles and “honeycomb” formations will make you feel like you’ve landed on Mars. And while, no, Arches isn’t actually on another planet, it is unlike anywhere else on Earth. In addition to boasting the world’s highest concentration of arches, it’s also home to the famous Landscape Arch, the world’s largest rock arch.
Explore the many arches of Arches National Park on our 5-day Moab Adventure.
5. Kenai Fjords National Park – Alaska
Towering peaks, rocky outcrops and pristine glaciers await in Kenai Fjords National Park, nestled along the Gulf of Alaska. It’s also home to some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities. If you’re lucky, you could spot orcas, humpback whales, sea lions, puffins, otters, eagles, moose and more. The park also boasts the Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the USA; the stunning fjords that make up the coastline are carved by glaciers moving down the mountains from the 23,000-year-old ice field.
Explore the fjords of Alaska on our 6-day Kenai Discovery.
6. Yellowstone – Wyoming, Montana & Idaho
The first national park to be established anywhere in the world, Yellowstone is king of the American wilderness. Home to hot springs, waterfalls and its own grand canyon, the diversity of Yellowstone is mind-blowing. While the most famous landmark is undoubtedly Old Faithful, it’s only one of 300 geysers within the park – the world’s greatest concentration, along with 10,000 other thermal features. Just up the road from Old Faithful is Grand Prismatic Spring, a hot spring with spectacular orange, green and blue hues. At the other end of the park is the open Lamar Valley, which is a great place to spot wildlife such as bears, wolves and the ubiquitous bison.
See Old Faithful in real life on our 6-day Yellowstone and Grand Teton Adventure.
7. Grand Teton National Park – Wyoming
Just a short drive down the road from Yellowstone is the vastly different Grand Teton National Park. Rather than the volcanic features of its more famous neighbour, Grand Teton is all about granite peaks and glacial lakes. Each turn in the road delivers another astounding view, as well as the possibility of spotting a bear or moose. Some of the best hikes can be found around turquoise Jenny Lake, including Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls.
Keep your eyes peeled for moose (and bears – gulp) on our Yellowstone and Grand Teton Family Holiday.
8. San Juan Island National Historical Park – Washington
A trip to the San Juan Islands is like escaping away to paradise. Delightful fishing villages, charming art studios and a laidback pace are all reasons visitors love to explore this corner of Washington state. But they also come for a bizzare bit of American history, when the death of a pig almost started a war between American and British soldiers. Today, you can visit the American and English camps of San Juan National Historic Park, where the two nations co-occupied San Juan Island for 12 years before the end of the “Pig War” in 1874.
Discover the islands on our 6-day San Juan Islands cycling tour.
9. Acadia National Park – Maine
There’s a reason why Acadia National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi, is one of the nation’s most beloved parks. The rugged, rocky coastline offers mesmerising viewpoints, like witnessing the wild waters of Thunder Hole, as well as peaceful spots, like where golden sand meets turquoise water at the picturesque Sand Beach. Even the beautiful Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse is one of the most photographed lighthouses in New England. But Acadia’s charms extend beyond the coast. Inland are the picturesque Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake, plus Cadillac Mountain – famous for being the first spot that the sun’s rays touch US soil every dawn.
Explore Acadia and the rest of Maine on a 6-day cycling tour.
10. Yosemite National Park – California
World Heritage-listed Yosemite National Park is an icon. With its granite cliffs, towering waterfalls (including the highest falls in North America) and famous landmarks, such as the Half Dome and El Capitan, Yosemite is on the bucket list of hikers everywhere. The range of elevation in the park (from 600 to 4000 metres) means a huge diversity of flora and fauna flourishes here. Conservationist John Muir said that it was “by far and grandest of all the special temples of nature that I was ever permitted to enter.” Visit the park and you’ll understand what he meant.
See a different side of Yosemite on our 6-day Walk Yosemite National Park Tour.
Explore the USA’s exceptional national parks now, on an Intrepid small group adventure.