Happy 100th birthday to America’s national parks! And what a party it will be, with more than 300 million people flocking to these wonders each year. But with 59 national parks, how do you decide which ones to visit? In honor of National Park Week, here’s our roundup of 8 of the top national parks to explore.
Acadia National Park, Maine
From October to March, the first daylight to reach the U.S. arrives at 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. A crowd gathers on the mountain, the highest point on the U.S. Atlantic coast. When the sun appears over the horizon, they erupt in cheers.
There’s plenty worth cheering about at this 47,000-acre site, one of America’s top national parks. Almost three million visitors a year take in its rugged shoreline, protected coves, rocky islands, spruce-fir forests, wetlands and mountains. See a variety of terrain on the 20-mile Park Loop Road, which takes you above the sea before veering through mountainous forests and valleys. Or hike on the 125 miles of trails, or bike along the 55 miles of historic carriage roads.
Another stunning view is from Champlain Mountain. It’s a 6.5-mile hike to the top, where you’ll enjoy vistas of the Atlantic and Frenchman Bay. The park is considered premier birdwatching territory, and is also great for spying marine life such as seals, porpoises and even whales. For the best scenery, take a boat cruise or rent a kayak or canoe.
Glacier National Park, Montana
More than two million visitors a year head to Glacier, one of the top national parks, for its namesake 25 active glaciers, including Grinnell and Sperry. But you’ll discover so much more here. Take in the towering Rocky Mountains, scenic waterfalls, forests, meadows, and colorful wildflowers each spring. The park also features 762 deep blue alpine lakes, including Lake McDonald and St. Mary Lake. See them up close from the deck of a classic wooden boat. Or do the work yourself by kayaking or canoeing.
This one-million-acre park extends south from the USA-Canada border, and wildlife such as mountain goats and grizzly bears roam its vast plains. Head into its interior on the 52-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which crosses the Continental Divide. The narrow road twists and turns, offering spectacular views of the park’s dramatic peaks and valleys. Opened in 1933, it’s a National Historic Landmark in its own right. Follow it by car, bike or historic tour bus.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Everyone has seen images of the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Grand it is – a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide. But you’re still taken by its enormity the first time you stand on its edge. Join the more than five million people a year who venture to the Grand Canyon for this incomparable experience.
Most people see the canyon from the South Rim. Yavapai Point, near the South Rim visitor area, provides a gorgeous view of the inner canyon, Bright Angel Canyon, and the Colorado River. But it’s worth the short hike down one of its trails on foot or by mule for a fresh vista. Even a mile or two, perhaps along the flat paved Rim Trail, makes a difference.
For more adventurous visitors, enjoy classic whitewater rafting along the 277 scenic miles of the Colorado. The mighty river carved out the canyon’s multicolored layers; the oldest goes back a whopping 1.8 billion years. Admiring the canyon while on its floor is an unforgettable experience. And you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete. Anyone in reasonable health can enjoy it.
Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina/Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited of the top national parks, with more than 10 million people admiring its wonders each year. That’s partly because of the busy scenic highway that runs through the park. If you drive through quickly, though, you’ll miss the rest of its 522,000 acres.
Instead, explore the park through its 584 miles of roadways. The ancient mountains are the main draw. Take in the views of seven states from the tower atop Clingsmans Dome. It’s the park’s highest point at 6,643 feet.
The wildlife is also astonishing. The park houses more than 17,000 animal and plant species. Almost 95 percent of the park is forest, a quarter of that old growth. More than 1,500 flowering plants range from trillium and orchids to azaleas and sunflowers. The park also features more than 500 miles of fishing streams.
Relics of Southern Appalachian culture survive in the park as well. It features one of the best collection of historic log buildings in the eastern U.S., with more than 90 structures including houses, churches and grist mills.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Just 1.5 hours north of Denver, Rocky Mountain attracts more than four million visitors each year for its incredible alpine scenery. It’s home to 72 peaks taller than 12,000 feet.
You can’t miss a drive up the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road, a winding path across the Continental Divide. It’s the highest continuous paved road in the country. You’ll see valleys, spruce and fir forests, snowcapped peaks and glaciers on your way up to 12,183 feet. An early summer treat are the wildflower meadows.
Another popular drive is Old Fall River Road, opened in 1920. It’s a slow trip along a narrow, curving, largely gravel road to its highest point, 11,796 feet above sea level.
Wildlife abound over the park’s 415 square miles. Be on the lookout for moose, bighorn sheep, mule deer and elk. The park also boasts 141 species of butterflies. Black bears, mountain lions and bobcats are much harder to spot, but they’re park residents as well.
Get out on some of the park’s 355 miles of hiking trails. They range from an easy lakeside walk to the challenging journey up the 14,259-foot Longs Peak.
The first national park in the world, Yellowstone was designated in 1872. Mainly located in northwest Wyoming (with small portions in Idaho and Montana), the park attracts more than four million visitors a year.
Over its 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone houses the world’s most impressive concentration of hydrothermal features. There are more than 10,000 of them, including mud pots, hot springs and 300 of its famed geysers. The park’s icon is Old Faithful, a cone geyser that erupts every 35 to 120 minutes.
Of course, Yellowstone offers other types of magnificent scenery. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is 4,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet deep. The grand peaks of the Rockies tower above the park. Boat around Yellowstone Lake, North America’s highest lake. Explore vast forests, including one of the world’s largest petrified forests formed by volcanic eruptions about 50 million years ago.
Yellowstone also has the largest concentration of mammals in the Lower 48. They include grizzly and black bears, deer, moose, elk, bison, bighorn sheep, wild horses, grey wolves, coyotes and pronghorn.
Yosemite National Park, California
A shining star among the U.S.’s top national parks, Yosemite covers more than 1,000 square miles in east central California, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s blessed with an abundance of natural wonders, particularly in the commonly visited Yosemite Valley. Every year more than four million visitors here take in its dramatic sights like the granite hills of Sentinel Dome (3,000 feet above the valley floor) and Half Dome (4,800 feet). Another granite landmark: El Capitan, a 3,000-foot cliff that’s one of the most popular rock climbing destinations in the world. Its Dawn Wall may be the hardest rock climb on Earth.
Yosemite’s natural wonders don’t stop there. Its incredible waterfalls change character along with the four seasons. They include Yosemite Falls, North America’s highest waterfall at 2,425 feet. Visitors also delight in the groves of ancient giant sequoia trees and the glaciers, such as Lyell Glacier, covering 160 acres. The park offers plentiful hiking, rafting, fishing, climbing, camping and wildlife viewing opportunities. Deer are common sights, and bears and coyotes also inhabit the park.
Zion National Park, Utah
Utah is a national park wonderland, but even so, Zion stands out. It’s the state’s first national park and its most popular, with 3.6 million visitors a year.
Located in southwestern Utah, the park’s 232 square miles include some of the country’s most scenic canyons, created thanks to a million years of flowing water. Massive sandstone cliffs in shades of beige, pink, orange and red surround you. Narrow slot canyons make for interesting hiking, including the narrowest gorge. It’s appropriately named the Narrows – up to 1,000 feet tall and only 20 to 30 feet wide at places. Waterfalls and springs maintain colorful hanging gardens. One thousand species of vegetation flourish – everything from pine and juniper trees to desert plants such as prickly pears and yucca.
Three park superstars are breathtaking. Zion Canyon, carved by the Virgin River, is nearly 3,000 feet deep at spots. The 287-foot-long Kolob Arch, perched high on a canyon wall, is one of the world’s largest freestanding arches. Angels Landing provides an incredible view if you can make it up 5,785 feet along a intimidating trail.
Planning Your Trip to Top National Parks
Expert travel advisors can help elevate your trip to top national parks from good to great. They can plan a trip that takes in a park’s highlights at a specific time of year. And they can also provide insights on where to stay and what to do in the vicinity of the park.
Which is your favorite of the top national parks – and why?