10 Best National Parks in the US – Tips, tickets, accommodation

  • 15.11.2022 19:20
  • Bruno Arcos

Our countdown of the very best national parks in the US and what not to miss in each of them! This post also provides information on tickets, passes, hotels and accommodation, with valuable tips and recommendations for your upcoming visit.

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Popular for their vast, empty spaces and majestic sky-shattering mountains, we dare to say no other continent does natural parks quite like North America. And although you can actually find some pretty decent (and this is clearly a euphemism) nature north of the border, the US clearly stands head and shoulders above its neighbors when it comes to national parks.

Regardless of whether you’re exploring the East or the West Coast, gambling your money away in Vegas, doing the iconic Route 66 or just driving your way around the American Midwest, you are always guaranteed to be less than a few hundred miles away from a world-class natural park.

In this post, we’ll be discussing the best national parks in the US, showing you how to plan your trip, where to stay for accommodation and providing some useful tips for your upcoming adventure across the pond!

Without further ado, here’s our guide for the best national parks in the US.

When should you visit the best national parks in the US?

Actually, this question may be a bit trickier to answer than one would expect.

When strictly taking weather conditions into account, summer months are definitely the ideal time to visit the best national parks in the US. You won’t find unexpected closures, the days are long and – apart from the excessive heat you might experience from time to time – the weather is usually just perfect for long hikes.

However, if you’re seeking a rawer, more tranquil experience, you might want to steer away from the “Summer Rush”. Naturally, national parks tend to get overflooded with visitors every summer, not just due to the weather, but also because kids are usually away from school, making it easier for families to plan their trips.

That being said, shoulder seasons are a pretty great alternative. We specifically recommend September as the best overall month to visit national parks in the US. The weather is usually still nice and warm, and by this time children will have returned to school, meaning you won’t find the same swarms of visitors you would if you had visited during July or August. At the same time, September is a safer bet than June (before school holidays). Depending on the national park and on how harsh the previous winter was, if you visit in June, you can still find some closed-off roads and inaccessible areas if all the snow hasn’t been plowed yet.

How to plan your trip to a US National Park – Tips, etiquette and recommendations

General Tips

As a rule of thumb, always make sure to carefully plan your visit. This will help you avoid any surprises and leave you better equipped to deal with potential setbacks when visiting the best national parks in the US.

For a start, you should book your accommodation way ahead of time, especially if you’re visiting the most popular parks during the summer months. Campsites and lodges at those parks, as well as nearby hotels, usually get booked out many months in advance, so if you want to spare yourself the disappointment, do NOT leave things to the last minute.

The same goes for planning how long you should spend in each specific park. We’re talking about unimaginably huge areas of land, so it would be quite easy to feel overwhelmed unless you know exactly where you want to go and what you want to see.

Also, considering how remote and untouched some of these areas can be, safety is something you definitely don’t want to overlook. Always make sure to check for any alerts issued for the park you’re visiting, since some areas may be off-limits due to specific hazards. Also, running your plan through one of the park rangers can’t hurt. Not only will they be able to advise you on which areas/paths to avoid, but they can also recommend specific hikes, activities or spots more suited to your wishes and needs. After all, no one knows the parks better than they do!

Regarding national park etiquette, you should always strive to leave no trace of your visit. This obviously includes not leaving any kind of waste behind and not touching or disturbing any form of wildlife you might encounter along the way. Also, do not mess with any streams of water, meaning no camping, washing-up or doing dishes nearby lakes.

Finally, when it comes to packing, less is more! Even though we will share some further tips down below on what to bring along when you’re visiting the best national parks in the US, having to carry a needlessly heavy backpack on a hike is something you’ll want to avoid. Most parks have laundry facilities on site anyway, so don’t overpack on clothing.

Gear you should pack when visiting the best national parks in the US

That being said, and although you do want to be selective about what you’ll pack, there are a few things that will definitely come in handy when hiking and trekking in the US:

  • Hiking boots. If you don’t want to get to the end of the day feeling like your blister-covered feet are killing you, a good pair of resistant, sturdy boots is a must;
  • Fanny pack, or any other small backpack where you can take water, a few snacks and other “essentials” for the day, such as sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat;
  • Walking stick. Not required per se, but always helpful to help relieve some of the strain from your sore legs;
  • Hiking map. You won’t have internet or cell coverage in some areas. And even if you download an offline map, you don’t want to be lost and stranded in the middle of nowhere if your phone battery dies;
  • Binoculars. Great for birdwatching and spotting wildlife;
  • Headlamp or flashlight. Extremely useful if you venture out at night or – worst case scenario – get lost after sunset;
  • Reusable water bottle. Water is probably the number one thing that should be on you backpack for the hike. You may be fine without anything else on this list… but not without water!

Apps you should download when visiting the best national parks in the US

Aside from your physical gear, there is a handful of mobile apps you should download before spending some time in the wild. Though not strictly required, these will help make your life a lot easier when you’re out and about:

  • Gaia GPS. An app which allows users to download trail and offroad maps and use them offline. You can also record your hike on the app’s database and share it with other travelers;
  • Weather Channel. Ideal to consult weather conditions ahead of your hike;
  • Compass. Just like the real thing! It helps you find your way if you get lost and nothing else works;
  • KOA Camping App. Though definitely not the only one, KOA runs multiple camping sites near pretty much all the best national parks in the US. You can use their app to check for availability, campground facilities and much more;
  • FarOut. Specialized app featuring hiking guides for long-distance trails;
  • Cairn. Best app to help you stay safe during your hikes. Features real time location, information on cell coverage and trail alerts;
  • National Park Service. Includes all relevant information found on each of the national parks’ websites, such as parking fees, accesses, road closures and maps;
  • RunKeeper. Though originally targeted towards runners, it is nevertheless a great app to monitor your progress and pace while hiking.

 

US National parks fees, tickets and passes

Although most national parks in the US are actually free to visit, that naturally doesn’t seem to apply to the most famous and popular sites.

Fees depend on whether you’re bringing a vehicle inside the park or not. For example, if you and your party of 4 are visiting the Arches National Park without a car, each person will pay the individual fee of $15 (total = $60). But if you are traveling with a vehicle, you just need to pay the regular vehicle fee of $30, so the “per person fee” no longer applies.

As you can see, if you’re visiting several different national parks throughout your visit, costs can add up quite quickly. For that reason, you might want to have a look at the America the Beautiful Pass. For an $80 fee, this pass grants you access to every single one of the best national parks in the US within a 1-year period. If you buy this pass and are traveling with a car, the same pass covers all people inside the vehicle. If not, you can at least share the same pass with one other person, with both having to sign their names on the back of the pass. These passes are non-transferable, which means people whose names don’t feature on the back of the pass are not allowed to use it.

In order to assess whether the pass might be worth it or not in your specific case, you need to have in mind how many parks you are visiting, how many people you are traveling with, if you’re traveling with a car and what are the entrance fees for the US national parks you are planning to visit.

US National Park Accommodation – Where to stay

There are actually several different options for tourists planning to stay at one of the many US national parks. As mentioned earlier in the post, booking in advance is key, especially in the summer, otherwise you might end up overpaying for a needlessly expensive hotel room located way outside the park.

The toughest deals to snatch are the ones pertaining to the historic lodges located inside the parks. These get the biggest demand among visitors by far, frequently selling out even one full year in advance.

Another pretty looked up option is to simply camp at one of the designated campsites inside the park you’re visiting. Still, you can’t just unload your stuff and pitch a tent. You need a permit, which can be purchased directly at the national park’s official website. For the best national parks in the US – which are obviously the most popular as well – these also tend to sell out months in advance, so make sure to book way ahead of time.

Your last resort is to take a look at hotels and motels located outside the park. Considering some of these parks are completely isolated and are still lacking proper infrastructure, your best bet is to stay at one of the nearby cities for accommodation and sit-down meals. This is obviously a lot more doable if you’re driving.

Map of the best National Parks in the US

10 Best National Parks in the US

So, let’s get down to business and name the 10 best national parks in the US! Needless to say, this is a purely subjective selection. You may do your own research and figure out that there are other parks which may be more of your thing – and that’s ok!

For our selection, we tried to be as diverse and inclusive as possible, compiling a list that we feel confident to reflect all of the US wonderful and varied landscapes. So that we could also mention as many different places as possible, and because some US States are just unfairly blessed with too much natural beauty (we’re lookin’ at you, Utah and Colorado!), we placed a maximum cap of one national park per state.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

We felt nothing would be more appropriate than to kick things off with the very first national park in the world, having gained such status way back in 1872. Famous for its steamy hot springs, which make up about half of all active geysers in the world, some of Yellowstone’s main highlights are naturally related to this phenomenon.

As such, a visit to this park must include a photo op at the insanely colorful Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest of its kind in the US (as well as the 3rd largest hot spring in the planet) and Yellowstone’s iconic postcard picture. If you want to see the geysers erupt, then your safest bet is to visit Old Faithful, so called because of its rare consistency, religiously erupting every 90 minutes or so. While you’re at it, take the time to walk the pathways along the Upper Geyser Basin, before setting out to explore the bison habitat of the Lamar Valley or marvel at the countless viewpoints along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

Although Yellowstone National Park actually encompasses the borders of 3 different states, over 95% of its territory is located within Wyoming. Another national park in this state which could have very well made our list is the equally stunning Grand Teton National Park. Admission to Yellowstone costs $20 per person or $30 per vehicle.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Containing dozens of mountain peaks, many of which over the 4000 meter-threshold, Rocky Mountain National Park is a true paradise for serious hikers and thrill-seekers. Home to one of the highest drivable roads in the entire country – the Trail Ridge Road – its swinging altitude range means there are extremely different landscapes, weather conditions and wildlife within the same park, depending on how high/low you go.

And speaking of the Trail Ridge Road, driving along this course is precisely one of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain, taking in the views over Forest Canyon and trying to spot elk until you reach your destination. However, and no matter how amazing of a drive that might be, there is no better way to experience this national park than by taking a hike. Luckily for enthusiasts, Rocky Mountain boasts some pretty amazing trails, whether you want something short and easy (Alpine Ridge Trail), moderate (Gem Alpine Lake or Deer Mountain) or a bit more hardcore (Sky Pond or Mount Ida).

Although Rocky Mountain is definitely one of the best national parks in the US, there are other amazing parks in the honorable State of Colorado worthy of a visit, such as the Great Sand Dunes or the Mesa Verde National Park. Admission to Rocky Mountain costs $20 per person or $35 per vehicle.

Olympic National Park, Washington

Located in the far northwest of the country, Olympic National Park displays at least a sample of all the things that make the continent of North America one of the most visually stunning across the globe. From its rugged Pacific coastline to ancient alpine glaciers and vast lands of either dry or rainforest, this park has a bit of everything for everyone.

So that you can get an overlook of Mount Olympus, probably the park’s most prominent symbol, we recommend that you either visit Hurricane Ridge or hike to the peak of Mount Angeles, two of the park’s most breathtaking viewpoints. Follow that up with a visit to Lake Crescent before exploring the Pacific Coastline. Along this portion of the park, you can visit Cape Flattery and stroll through some of its rocky, hazy beaches, such as Rialto Beach or Ruby Beach. Finally, upon entering the rainforest section of the park, do not leave without doing some of the trails through the ever-green Hoh Rainforest, arguably the most famous “attraction” in the entire national park.

The Olympic National Park is located in Washington (the state, not the city), where you can also find the Mount Rainier National Park. Honestly, Mount Rainier gives the Olympic a run for its money, which is why it was truly a coin-toss to decide which one would feature on our list of the best national parks in the US. Admission to Olympic costs $15 per person or $30 per vehicle.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Needing no introduction, the Grand Canyon National Park is certainly one of the most famous in the US. Mostly due to the insanely popular canyon after which the park is named, there is absolutely no way we could ever leave it out! Besides standing as one of the prime examples of rock erosion in the planet, it is also a culturally and historically relevant site for Native-Americans, serving as the original home to several different surviving native tribes in the US.

Naturally, the Grand Canyon is the centerpiece around which everything unfolds. You can admire the gigantic natural landmark in its full glory by doing the Desert View Drive, one of the most stunning road trips you can find in any of the best national parks in the US. Make sure to keep stopping along the way to enjoy the views from the Moran Point and the Lipan Point. On the other hand, do not freak out if you don’t have a car. You can still enjoy the canyon views by visiting the Mather Point or by taking the Upper Tunnel trail, a 30-minute walk which is a sample of the much bigger, more demanding (but also more impressive) Bright Angel Hiking Trail. Setting the Grand Canyon aside for a bit, we also recommend a visit to the Tusayan Pueblo Ruin, an archaeological site with the remains of an ancient indigenous village.

Although most people like to take a detour to the iconic Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon before or after visiting the Grand Canyon, the formers are actually not a part of the same national park, with both being located in ancient Navajo lands. Be that as it may, and considering their proximity, it is very much worth pairing the two together for a visit, when in Arizona. Admission to the Grand Canyon National Park costs $20 per person or $35 per vehicle.

Yosemite National Park, California

Yet another national park deeply steeped into everyone’s collective memory, the sheer name Yosemite has for long conjured up images of spectacular waterfalls, dramatic cliffs and densely forested, U-shaped valleys. Definitely worthy of its world-wide fame, it is one of the best national parks in the US.

Although the park is divided in several different areas, the most commonly visited is the section around the Yosemite Valley, where you can find the national park’s main highlight: the thrilling Yosemite Falls! Aside from this magnificent cascade, the valley also boasts two authentic Meccas among climbing enthusiasts, such as the Half Dome and El Capitan, two huge granite rock faces that you can admire from the iconic Tunnel View, the inescapable image that instantly pops up whenever you google any kind of information about Yosemite. For yet another amazing viewpoint, this time over the entire valley, you can either drive or take the scenic Four Mile Trail (which, funny enough, is actually 5-miles long) to Glacier Point.

The Yosemite National Park is located in California, where you may also visit the eerie and desolate Death Valley or marvel at the world’s highest trees at Redwood National Park. Admission to Yosemite costs $20 per person or $35 per vehicle.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Moving further north to Montana, on the state’s border with Canada, Glacier National Park is a colossal nature reservation, home to over one hundred lakes and thousands of living species. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most endangered national parks on account of climate change, with many of its ancient glaciers disappearing as time progresses and temperatures rise.

Probably the park’s most famous feature, the poetically-named Going-to-the-Sun Road is the area’s main thoroughfare and one of the most scenic drives in the country. In fact, driving along it has become so popular that a $2-special permit (which must be purchased well in advance) is needed during the busier summer months! We specifically recommend stopping at Logan Pass to take in the views of the surrounding area and kick-off the Highline Trail. Away from the road, a visit to Many Glacier – a completely different region within the park – is also a must! Here you can take several different hikes to Grinnell Glacier and Iceberg Lake, or cruise the Josephine Lakes by boat. Finally, it is also worth mentioning that Glacier National Park is home to loads of historic Swiss and Bavarian-style chalets and lodges, built over 100 years ago by Great Northern Railway. Therefore, if there is one national park where you might want to splurge a bit on accommodation, this is it!

Admission to Glacier costs $20 per person or $35 per vehicle.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina & Tennessee

America’s most visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains are definitely a sight to behold. Straddling two different states, both North Carolina and Tennessee are understandably happy to call dibs on one of the best national parks in the US and a certified UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of the greatest things to do at the Great Smoky Mountains is to take the designated Appalachian Trail. Although this trail stretches from Georgia all the way up to Maine (over 3500 km), a particularly picturesque portion actually cuts through this national park. If driving is more of your thing, then you can do it along Cades Cove, a scenic mountain valley where the native Cherokee people used to hunt. Therefore, you can expect to spot plenty of wildlife along the way, including the cuddly-yet-scary Black Bear. As for the best views, you can either climb all the way up to Clingmans Dome, the single, highest point in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or visit the Newfound Gap Overlook, a mountain pass with unobstructed views of Mount LeConte! Add a little culture to the mix with a tour of the historic Mingus Mill and you got yourself the complete US national park experience!

Not just that, but the Great Smoky Mountains is also the only national park on our list that doesn’t charge any admission fee! Therefore, gaining access to the park will cost you a total of $0!

Zion National Park, Utah

When it comes to selecting the best national parks in the US, no other state packs as much punch as Utah. Seriously, the amount of natural beauty in this state is nothing short of mind-boggling! Enter Zion National Park, arguably Utah’s crown jewel, with its massive sandstone cliffs and dramatic canyons.

The first thing you should do upon arriving in this park is the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, a shuttle bus ride through the base of the canyon where you’ll be able to check some of the park’s most popular highlights, such as the Angels Landing rock formation. During summer months, you cannot drive your own car through the canyon, hence why using the shuttle is the only viable way to go. Afterwards though, we recommend that you hop back in your car and drive along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway for some pretty sick views over the surrounding valley. Once you’re finally done with driving and feel like activating your legs a bit, there are several easy hikes that will lead you to some other attractions inside the park, such as the Weeping Rock, the Narrows or the Lower Emerald Pools.

Like mentioned earlier, Zion is far from being the only must-see in Utah when it comes to national parks. Therefore, you should definitely visit Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon as well, as if it wasn’t for our “1 park per state” rule, both of them would be on our list too! Admission to Zion costs $20 per person or $35 per vehicle.

Everglades National Park, Florida

Remember when we said we were going for variety, here? Yep, the Everglades might not have the most dramatic landscapes, magnificent peaks or lushest valleys, but we can guarantee you it is nonetheless one of the best national parks in the US! An intricate network of wetlands and mangrove forests, this national park was actually created as a means to protect the hundreds of endemic species to this special and very sensitive ecosystem.

Thus, spotting wildlife is the number 1 thing people usually want to do when they visit the Everglades! You can start off your visit with a short walk along the Anhinga Trail. Named after one of the most common birds you can find in the Everglades, this boardwalk paved over the wetlands is one of the best places to spot these little fellows… as well as alligators! Afterwards, check the Paurotis Pond, one of the main bird nesting sites in the park, before driving all the way up to the freshwater marshes of the Shark Valley, arguably Everglade’s main highlight and the best place in the entire park to see its star inhabitants.

Just like the Everglades, other national parks in Florida – such as Dry Tortugas and Biscayne – are also oriented towards wildlife and habitat preservation. Admission to the Everglades costs $15 per person or $30 per vehicle.

Denali National Park, Alaska

Guess we’ve finally reached “the last frontier”! Not just because Denali is the final entry on our list of the best national parks in the US, but also because we’re wrapping things up in Alaska. Home to the tallest mountain peak in North America at a whopping 6000 meters, the Denali National Park is also the 3rd largest in the country, occupying a mind-blowing area of 6.1 million acres!

Remote, rugged and largely untouched, there is plenty to see and do at Denali. In order to actually enter the park, you’re going to have to take a shuttle bus along the unpaved Denali Park Road, a trip that is already an attraction in itself! Along the way, you’ll find yourself constantly having to pick your jaw up off the floor, as the desolate views and sightings of the Alaskan Big 5 (dall sheep, brown bear, caribou, moose and wolf) are nothing short of amazing. Upon reaching the Savage River, you can do the challenging-but-rewarding Savage Alpine Trail, or, if you don’t really feel like taking the bus in the first place, just complete a couple of the hikes starting at the visitor center, such as the Horseshoe Lake Trail or the Mount Healy Overlook Trail. Last, but certainly not least, we recommend going all the way to Eielson, a region within the park where you can find the undisputed best views of the Alaskan Mountain Range.

Up above we told how Denali was the 3rd biggest national park in the US… but we failed to mention the top 2 spots are also located in Alaska! Therefore, and if you have plenty of time in hands (because you’ll definitely need it), consider a visit to the equally stunning Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic national parks. Admission to Denali costs $15 per person.

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