A Guide to Exploring America’s Most Iconic Landscapes
Want to go on a national park adventure, but not sure where to start? How about visiting the most beautiful National Parks in the Lower 48! After having completed a 50,000 mile road trip across the USA, these are our top 10 picks for the most beautiful national parks in the contiguous United States. We’ve also included a complete list of all 62 national parks in case you want to visit them all someday!
Death Valley National Park, California
Known as the hottest place on earth, Death Valley is truly a land of extremes. The unrelenting heat of the summer makes it almost unbearable to be outside, while the daily temperatures in the middle of winter makes it a comfortably cool place to explore. Don’t miss the highlights of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, or the breathtaking Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. If you have several days to explore, driving through Titus Canyon is an incredible experience where you can visit what remains of a mining ghost town.
- Iconic Shot: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise or sunset.
- Best Time to Visit: Mid-October through Mid-May when temperatures are still comfortable.
- Tip: Rent a 4WD vehicle if you want to access the more remote areas of the park such as Titus Canyon, Eureka Dunes, etc.
- Info: www.nps.gov/deva
Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier is one of only five national parks in the lower 48 states that have remaining active glaciers (the others are Olympic, Mt. Rainier, North Cascades and Yosemite). The most popular is Grinnell Glacier which you can hike to from both the West and East side of the park. A must do for any first time visitors is driving the narrow two-lane Going to the Sun Road in its entirety and watching the elevation climb 3,000’ before your very eyes, just don't look down!
- Iconic Shot: Hidden Lake from the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail.
- Best Time to Visit: Mid-June through Mid-September when the going to the Sun Road is still open (closed in winter due to snow).
- Favorite Hike(s): Grinnell Glacier Trail or The Highline Trail
- Tip: The parking lot at Logan Pass (which is start of both The Highline and Hidden Lake trails) fills up by 8am, so make sure to arrive before then. Make a day of it – pack a lunch and keep it in a cooler in your car!
- Info: www.nps.gov/glac
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina & Tennessee
As the #1 most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains has captured the hearts of millions of Americans. The iconic Smokies are actually a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains and are aptly named for the hazy fog that surrounds them. Along with being the most popular national park, it also has one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America.
- Iconic Shot: The famous silhouette of the Smoky Mountains.
- Best Time to Visit: June through October
- Tip: October is a gorgeous time to visit the Smokies as the park is bursting with fall color.
- Info: www.nps.gov/grsm
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Whether you visit the north or the south rim, you cannot go wrong with a multi-day visit to the Grand Canyon. At 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide, the canyon stretches as far as the eye can see. Having been carved by the force of the Colorado River over millions of years it is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
- Iconic Shot: Toroweap Overlook
- Best Time to Visit: March-May and September-November when daytime temperatures are bearable, and crowds are less intense. Summer months can bring monsoon storms and dramatic light as well.
- Tip: Reserve a campsite at Toroweap so you can enjoy sunset as well as sunrise the next morning! Make sure you have a high clearance 4WD vehicle for the rugged drive!
- Info: www.nps.gov/grca
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Seeing the Teton range for the first time is a memory you won’t forget! Rising over 7,000’ from the valley below, the Tetons do not have foothills. The dramatic vertical relief of the peaks is visible for miles around and is one of the most impressive sights in the park system. Not only is this park incredibly picturesque, but it is also one of the best places to see wildlife in America. Elk, bison, antelope, moose, black bear and grizzlies all roam these lands.
- Iconic Shot: The Teton Range from TA Moulton Barn.
- Best Time to Visit: Mid-May through September when trails are accessible and wildlife is abundant.
- Tip: Carry bear spray! While bears can be seen anywhere in the park, the most consistent viewing is usually just south of Coulter Bay.
- Info: www.nps.gov/grte
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
At 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier stands as the highest point in the Cascade Range. More than 25 glaciers descend the flanks of this stratovolcano, which is often shrouded in clouds that dump enormous amounts of rain and snow. Surrounding Mount Rainier are endless valleys, waterfalls, subalpine meadows and old-growth forests to explore on foot.
- Iconic Shot: Mount Rainier from Reflection Lake
- Best Time to Visit: July through September when most hiking trails are accessible and wildflowers bloom in abundance.
- Tip: Mount Rainier is known to hide underneath the clouds, sometimes for several days at a time. Therefore, plan your trip for with an extra day or two in case its playing another game of hide and seek.
- Info: www.nps.gov/mora
Sequoia National Park, California
Home to the largest trees on earth, Sequoia National Park was created to preserve the old growth forests in the mountainous terrain of the Sierra Nevada. The title of "King of the Forest" goes to General Sherman, a Giant Sequoia more than 2,500 years old which is the largest tree on earth by volume. With their iconic reddish hue and extraordinary size, these Giant Sequoias are truly a sight to see.
- Iconic Shot: Giant Sequoias in fresh winter snow.
- Best Time to Visit: June through August offers the most reliable weather. However, if you are up for adventure and have the right equipment (snow chains), winter is far less crowded and is arguably even more beautiful.
- Tip: Plan your trip in winter, when you can photograph the giant Sequoias powdered in fresh snow. Rent snowshoes to hike into the winter wonderland of giants!
- Info: www.nps.gov/seki
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
America’s very first national park is indeed a treasure full of unique landscapes and geothermal activity. From Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring to the many waterfalls, Yellowstone has something to offer for everyone who visits. The park is the centerpiece of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest remaining nearly-intact ecosystem in the Earth's northern temperate zone.
- Iconic Shot: Grand Prismatic Spring from above.
- Best Time to Visit: April/May and September/October when the temperature is mild, and the park is not buzzing with crowds.
- Tip: Get off the beaten path to experience the true Yellowstone that few visitors see. Hike a trail in the backcountry and camp overnight to feel like you have the park to yourself.
- Info: www.nps.gov/yell
Yosemite National Park, California
There was a reason Yosemite was one of John Muir's and Ansel Adams’ favorite places on earth. With sheer granite cliffs like the monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome to the breathtaking waterfalls of Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls, this majestic valley nestled in the Sierras is truly nature’s wonderland. Don’t miss the view from Glacier point which you can drive or hike to in summer or access by cross-country skis in winter.
- Iconic Shot: Tunnel View overlook at sunrise or sunset.
- Best Time to Visit: May and September, when most of the park is accessible but not overwhelmed by crowds.
- Tip: Double check Yosemite road closures prior to leaving for your trip as access from the eastern Sierras typically opens sometime in May/June depending on snow.
- Info: www.nps.gov/yose
Zion National Park, Utah
The most prominent feature within Zion National Park is the 15 mile long Zion Canyon, which was formed over millions of years by the Virgin River’s unrelenting power of erosion. Other iconic features in Zion include The Watchman, Angels Landing and of course The Narrows slot canyon. Don’t miss the east side of the park and the Kolob Canyon area to the northwest.
- Iconic Shot: Canyon walls glowing bright orange with reflected sunlight in the Zion Narrows.
- Best Time to Visit: April/May and September/October when the temperature is comfortable and the park is not too crowded.
- Favorite Hike: Zion Narrows Trail
- Tip: If you do the Zion Narrows hike (which we highly recommend!), rent gear from an outfitter (dry pants, canyoneering shoes, a hiking stick) to make the hike even more enjoyable.
- Info: www.nps.gov/zion
National Park FAQs:
- How many national parks are there in the US? Answer: 63
- How many US states have national parks? Answer: 30 states & 2 territories
- What is the oldest national park? Answer: Yellowstone National Park was the first national park created on March 1, 1872.
- What is the newest national park? Answer: New River Gorge became the newest National park on December 22, 2020.
- Which is the most visited national park? Answer: Great Smoky Mountains National park is the most visited park with over 12.5 million visitors in 2019.
- Which is the least visited national park? Answer: With no roads leading to it, Gates of the Arctic National Park is the least visited park with just 10,519 visitors in 2019.
2021 Complete List of US National Parks
- Acadia National Park, Maine
- American Samoa National Park, American Samoa Territory
- Arches National Park, Utah
- Badlands National Park, South Dakota
- Big Bend National Park, Texas
- Biscayne National Park, Florida
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
- Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
- Canyonlands National Park, Utah
- Capitol Reef National Park Utah
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
- Channel Islands National Park, California
- Congaree National Park, South Carolina
- Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
- Death Valley National Park, California & Nevada
- Denali National Park, Alaska
- Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
- Everglades National Park, Florida
- Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
- Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri
- Glacier National Park, Montana
- Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
- Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
- Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
- Great Basin National Park, Nevada
- Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina & Tennessee
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
- Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
- Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
- Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
- Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
- Joshua Tree National Park, California
- Katmai National Park, Alaska
- Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
- Kings Canyon National Park, California
- Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
- Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
- Lassen Volcanic Park, California
- Mammoth Cave Park, Kentucky
- Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
- Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
- New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
- North Cascades National Park, Washington
- Olympic National Park, Washington
- Pinnacles National Park, California
- Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
- Redwood National Park, California
- Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
- Saguaro National Park, Arizona
- Sequoia National Park, California
- Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
- Virgin Islands National Park, US Virgin Islands
- Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
- White Sands National Park, New Mexico
- Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
- Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
- Yosemite National Park, California
- Zion National Park, Utah