There are 59 national parks in the United States of America; 47 national parks are in the Contiguous United States. During our US road trip, we visited 24 national parks plus multiple national monuments, forests, grasslands, and seashores. Prior to our road trip, we have also visited Shenandoah National Park and Jon has been to Acadia National Park.
One of the most amazing aspects of our travels was that each national park is unique and different from the rest. Every park has its own personality and heritage, and all of the national parks we have visited have been completely amazing. It might be hard for you to visit the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or another ‘famous’ national park, but if you can get to any of the 59 parks, you really should. For me, the most disappointing part of our adventure was that we were not able to see even more national parks.
Finally, after 4 months on the road, here are our Favorite National Parks. It is impossible to experience everything each national park has to offer and our list is skewed by what we were able to accomplish, the weather and season, and the current open amenities. Speaking personally, we enjoy having a variety of hiking options and look more favorably on those parks than on parks with limited hiking options. (For example, the Grand Canyon is amazing, but unless you have several days and did a lot of advance planning to hike across it, there isn’t as much to do there.)
Top 5 Favorite National Parks
1) Zion National Park (and here)
We have been to Zion National Park twice now and it is a special place for us. There is something amazing about standing in the bottom of a canyon looking up at the high walls, which we find more awe-inspiring and intimate than looking down into a canyon from the top. Both of our trips to Zion have been in the crisp fall during very nice days.
As for hiking, Zion has a very diverse range of hikes. Our two favorites are the 2.4 mile trail to Angels Landing and the watery Narrows. Angels Landing is a peak rising 1,500 feet above the valley floor. The hike to the top is along switchbacks carved into the cliffside. The last 0.5 miles is along a narrow ridge which is not for the tame. The Narrows hike follows (and is mostly in) the Virgin River as it cuts a deep canyon through the rock. Small tributaries offer a change to test your canyoneering skills along the way. Zion also offers many shorter hikes and many less strenuous options, such as the Canyon Overlook trail, the Emerald Pools, and the Riverwalk trail.
Additionally, just steps from the entrance to Zion is the town of Springdale. Springdale might be the nicest town we’ve found outside of a national park. The town is filled with boutique hotels, cool restaurants, and art galleries and there isn’t a chain store in sight. The town also has several independent outdoors companies offering guided tours, canyoneering, climbing, and rafting on the regions other many canyons. Our favorite is the Zion Adventure Company.
The instant we had our first look at the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, we knew this was a special place. Thin rock caps protect fragile soils from erosion creating the towering hoodoos which make this park famous. Besides for amazing views overlooking the hoodoos, the hikes through the hoodoos are very accessible, providing an even more unique experience. Once we started down into the hoodoos, there was no lack of wonder and we actually ended up doubling our hike from 3 to 6 miles on the Figure 8 Combination trail.
I also really enjoyed the park’s interaction with the guests; creating benchmarks along the hiking routes to encourage hiking and rewarding the participate with a small souvenir pin. For those who can’t hike, the park newsletter also had a coupon for a free magnet at the gift shop.
Yosemite National Park is a large area of preserved nature with a jewel at its very heart, the Yosemite Valley. Like Zion, Yosemite is seen mostly from the floor of the valley as steep rocks rise up around you. Yosemite’s most famous sites, El Capitian and Half Dome attract hikers and climbers. The 16+ mile round trip hike to the top of Half Dome was the most strenuous thing we did on our US road trip, but was a once in a life-time opportunity. If you want shorter hikes, Yosemite has many to waterfalls and other breathtaking view points.
Yosemite offers a variety of camping options for those who want to experience a night in the park without roughing it. The Housekeeping Camp provides open air structures equipped with electrical outlets, lights, beds, and a communal bathhouse. Similarly, Curry Village provides large, private tents with beds. Of course you can also camp at a traditional campground if you want.
Besides for Yosemite Valley, Mariposa Grove in the southern area of the park is also worth visiting. Mariposa Grove features some of California’s famous giant sequoia trees which can be visited on foot or from a shuttle tour.
Glacier National Park was another park with something for everyone; amazing views, beautiful lakes, wildlife, day hikes, and backcountry camping. We were fortunate that we gave ourselves almost 4 full days to explore this park. Go to this park to experience nature and not just to see the glaciers (which are disappearing rapidly from the park).
Our time in Glacier consisted of short hikes to Avalanche Lake and around Many Glacier, a long hike along the amazing Highline Trail, a day driving the Going to the Sun Road, and one night backcountry camping at Otokomi Lake. On our hikes we saw mountain goats, big horned sheep, and even a bear.
Our first look at Mt. Rainier was of it looming behind the Seattle skyline, and we knew right away this active volcano would be a beautiful park. The volcano is covered by 26 glaciers whose melting runoff create waterfalls, canyons, rivers, and streams which run throughout the park. Short hikes take you to several of these water-created features around the lower portions of the mountain.
The Longmire area of the park is for history buffs with remains of an original homestead and an early hot springs resort. The area near the center of the park is named Paradise for its beautiful wildflowers and mountain views. We found Paradise to be crisscrossed with many hiking trails for all hiking skills, including our favorite trail in the park, Skyline. Finally there is the Sunset area where you can experience the tundra. Sunset is as close to the volcano as you can get without backcountry hiking.
Wild Cards – Great Sand Dunes National Park / Badlands National Park
Great Sand Dunes (Jon’s Pick) – Although all the national parks are unique, the Great Sand Dunes National Park was the most singularly different park we visited. Sand dunes rise almost 800 feet, making the park look like a slice of the Sahara desert.
Badlands (Alexis’s Pick) – The excitement was high when we visited Badlands National Park, the first park of our trip. Despite the extreme 90+ degree heat, hiking through this park’s other worldly landscapes was breathtaking.
Best Camping – Joshua Tree National Park
Jon and I are in agreement that Joshua Tree National Park was our favorite park to spend a night in. Joshua Tree is named after its large number of it unique looking Joshua trees throughout the northern end of the park. We camped in the Jumbo Rocks campground, and although there are only a few small Joshua trees there, the large boulders make each campsite unique and isolated. The night sky at Joshua Tree was the best of our entire trip. We camped in October and the weather was mild but warm, and we didn’t need to put the rain fly up on our tent.
Due to time constraints when we arrived, we were a bit unprepared. We hadn’t shopped for dinner food, so we scavenged from cans left in our car. We also didn’t have firewood for a campfire, and Jumbo Rocks is a primitive campground without any running water for cooking or bathrooms. We still had a fun evening playing cards by lantern light, making flashlight shapes in our camera, and watching the light from adjacent campsites reflect off of the tall rocks.
The unique rock outcroppings also were fun in the daylight when we spent an hour before breakfast trying to hike, climb, and boulder our way to the top of the rocks next to our tent. From Jumbo Rocks, there is also a nice short hiking trail to Skull Rock which was an enjoyable trek for us to do at dusk.
Best Park to Tour by Car – Yellowstone National Park
If you can’t, or don’t want to hike as much as we do, most national parks are also great to see by car. Overlooks let you pull off the road to enjoy amazing views and most of the parks’ features are only a short walk from the roads through the park. For us, seeing Yellowstone by car was necessary in order to see most of the popular features of the park. Because of its large size, a car and several days were needed to see the Geyser Basins, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and Mammoth Springs.
Favorite Ranger Talks/Tours – Grand Canyon Star Talk / Arches Fiery Furnace / Mammoth Wild Cave Tour
We only did a few Ranger Talks (something we should have discovered earlier in the trip) but we enjoyed most of them almost too much to pick between them.
The best ranger talk we heard was the Grand Canyon Star Talk, which met after dark and walked to the canyon rim on a clear moonless night. The sky was incredible and the ranger was both passionate and knowledgeable.
The ranger guided Fiery Furnace Tour at Arches National Park was the most educational and passionate tour we did. Our ranger guide truly loved the park, from the geology to the plants. She was knowledgeable and read poetry from Edward Abbey as she guided us. She even led us through sections requiring some rock scrambling through the maze-like terrain.
The most exciting ranger tour we joined was the Wild Cave Tour in Mammoth Cave National Park. This 6 hour guided tour is not for the faint of heart. The rangers led a group of up to 14 people as they crawled, climbed, and squeezed through 5 miles of cave passages. The rangers on this tour are also left with the task of tailoring the tour route to the abilities of the group that day.
Best Park to See Wildlife – Channel Islands National Park
This pick might seem a little out of the box. In general, parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, and even Grand Canyon were full of bison, bighorn sheep, bears, elk, and mule deer. Also, in Everglades, we saw alligators and birds galore. However, at Channel Islands National Park we saw sea lions, seals, crabs, fish, a bat ray, hundreds of dolphins, and I swear I saw an octopus once when the ocean receded from some rocks. The animal experience in Channel Islands also seemed more intimate; a seal swam right under Jon’s kayak, fish were inches from our face while snorkeling, and friendly dolphins played in the wake of the ferry boat.