Last Updated on August 2, 2018
Dust off your hiking boots for the Easter holidays; family, friends, couples or solo adventurers, here are the six best national parks to visit in the USA.
We could wax-lyrical about America’s national parks all day. The country was home to the first national park in the world and is blessed with 59 protected areas, all offering something different to explore. Soaring peaks, sandstone towers, deep canyons, glassy lakes, majestic mountains, abundant wildlife – you name it. But to spare you hours of reading, we’ve narrowed down the list to six of the best national parks not to miss Stateside.
1. Yellowstone, Wyoming
We couldn’t leave the first-ever designated national park off the list. In 1872, President Ulysses S Grant signed a law creating Yellowstone National Park, marking the birth of the modern-day national park. Yellowstone is more than two million acres of volcanic playground, full of enthralling natural beauty and wildlife, soaring peaks, epic canyons, thick forests, thundering waterfalls, humbling wilderness, not to mention its generous concentration of thermal features from technicolour hot springs and bubbling mud pools, to steaming fumaroles and the world’s largest concentration of geysers. The park’s most famous feature has a misleading name though – the cone geyser known as Old Faithful boisterously spouts water every 35 to 120 minutes, perhaps not as frequent as its name suggests! The park is abundant with wildlife – in fact, it has the largest concentration of mammals in the continental US. Some are more notorious than others (grey wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and lynx are not uncommon), which is why many dub Yellowstone the ‘American Serengeti’.
Don’t miss: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Lower Falls, one of the most photographed sites in the park. Take the hike to the edge of the Falls for a truly exhilarating experience.
Nearest airports: Jackson Hole Airport, Yellowstone Regional Airport, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, Idaho Falls Regional Airport
2. Yosemite, California
‘Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.’ American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams got it spot-on when describing the jaw-dropping Yosemite National Park. From the rounded shape of Half Dome and the sheer granite face of El Capitan, to the thickly forested Yosemite Valley, powerful waterfalls (including North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls), surprising subalpine meadows, glass-like lakes and towering sequoia trees, Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada is awe-inspiring and epic on every scale, not to mention a UNESCO World-Heritage site. It’s one of the most popular national parks in the US and so can get extremely busy during the holiday periods. But head upwards out of the Valley and you’ll find no-one for miles around (except other keen hikers or long-distance backpackers). In fact, almost 95 percent of the park’s 747,956 acres is classified as wilderness.
Don’t miss: Take in the picture-perfect landscape at Tunnel View (a scenic viewpoint along State Route 41), which provides a sweeping vista of Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan and Half Dome. If you’re travelling in February, you might just be lucky enough to witness one of the most incredible and rare sights in the park. Around the second week of February, if the setting sun hits Horsetail Fall at the right angle, the falls glow orange and red as if lava and fire are tumbling down the face of El Capitan.
Nearest airports: Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, Modesto City-County Airport, San Francisco International Airport, Oakland International Airport, San José International Airport
3. Arches, Utah
Challenge your perspective and visit a land of extremes and contrasts at Arches National Park in Utah, located 8 kilometres north of Moab. From fins and towers to hoodoos (tall, thin spires) and balanced rocks, Arches is a red-rock wonderland of more than 70,000 acres of sandstone formations. But you don’t come to a park called ‘Arches’ without expecting some pretty fine examples of the namesake. Thankfully, you won’t be disappointed: the park has the largest concentration of arches in the world, with more than 2,000 (an arch is considered an opening with one side at least 3 feet wide). See the most iconic and famous arch in the park, Delicate Arch. Or head to Landscape Arch, which has one of the longest spans of natural arch in the world at 306 metres. Brave Fiery Furnace (ranger-led hikes only, or permits required), but don’t get lost in the labyrinth of sandstone passages. Extreme temperature ranges, barely-there precipitation, dramatic colours, and high elevation add to the feeling you’re on another planet. There are hiking trails ranging in difficulty as well as scenic driving routes to major viewpoints, making the park a perfect choice for families and keen hikers alike.
Don’t miss: Sunset, when the red rock appears to absorb all of the sun’s power and radiate from within, or sunrise, where dawn breaking over the Mars-like landscape will have you checking you really are still on planet Earth.
Nearest airports: Salt Lake City International Airport, Grand Junction Regional Airport
4. Denali, Alaska
Denali National Park & Preserve is all about soaring grandeur and epic wilderness. Raw, untamed, it’s here that you can see the ‘Big 5’ – moose, caribou, wolves, grizzly bears and Dall sheep – roaming along an ever-changing landscape of boreal forest, glacial rivers and alpine tundra, framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Alaska Range, home to North America’s tallest mountain – the 20,320-foot Denali. If you’re lucky and the day is clear and still, you’ll see the picture-perfect views twice thanks to the reflection of the mountains in the glassy Wonder Lake. The park can only be accessed by one road, adding to the sense of remoteness and brilliant wilderness of the 6-million acre park. Driving the 92-mile road, it can be a challenge to keep your eyes on the road when you’re faced with such awe-inspiring landscapes, so thankfully no cars are allowed past Mile 15, after which all visitors must take the shuttle bus. If you’re looking to experience the Great Outdoors away from the comfort of a vehicle, don a backpack and hike some of the adventurous trails, face the rapids with some white-water rafting, or for the truly adventurous, head for the mountain peaks.
Don’t miss: The Savage River Loop trail. The hike starts from Mile 15 at the Savage River check station, and has the benefit of being away from the park entrance, where trails can get busy, but also being a maintained trail (there aren’t many fully-maintained trails in the park) in the true Denali wilderness. It’s great for kids as well as adults, being an only hour or so walk.
Nearest airports: Fairbanks International Airport, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
5. Glacier, Montana
Majestic, magnificent, pristine, awe-inspiring… Glacier National Park straddles the US and Canadian border and is unsurprisingly referred to as the ‘Crown of the Continent’. Think soaring peaks, acres of dense forest, thundering waterfalls, alpine meadows awash with wildflowers, roaming wildlife, sapphire alpine lakes (762 of them, in fact), and glistening glaciers. Don’t miss the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 52-mile route that takes visitors deep into the park, crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. Along the way you’ll see sweeping vistas of everything this national park is so famous for. Head out early morning to avoid the crowds – it’s the best time to spot some of the park’s wild residents too.
Handy hint: With more than 700 miles of hiking trails in Glacier National Park, it can be overwhelming knowing where to start. Take note from an expert: Jake Bramante became the first person to hike all 734 miles of trails in the park in one summer in 2011, and documented his experiences on his blog Hike 734. The website is an excellent resource full of detailed information about all the types of hikes on offer (including other national parks).
Nearest airports: Glacier Park International Airport, Missoula International Airport, Spokane International Airport
6. Zion, Utah
Yes we know… Utah again. But seriously, this state is so blessed with astounding national parks and we couldn’t overlook Zion. While some parks encourage you to head up and look down over incredible panoramas, some of Zion’s most astounding views are from the ground up. Soaring pink and red sandstone cliffs rise up to the skies above (which are blanketed in stars at night) while clear river waters flow along canyon floors and emerald pools gisten in the sunlight. With a name meaning a place of peace and refuge, it’s hard not to feel humbled and inspired by the beauty of this popular national park. The Angels Landing hike is probably one of the most popular, and for good reason. The uphill ascent may be strenuous and intimidating to some (there are steep cliffs and dizzying drop-offs either side of the trail), but it is along well-maintained trails and the reward at the end is worth it; magnificent aerial views in every direction along the canyon. From here you’ll see why the park got its name. If you prefer to keep your feet firmly on the ground, don’t miss the Emerald Pools and the Weeping Rock.
Don’t miss: Canyon Overlook, to get the most perfect shot of the famous canyons. Head there as the sun is setting, when the rocks glow with colour.
Nearest airports: St George Municipal Airport, McCarran International Airport, Salt Lake City International Airport
Heading to the US and in need for some useful travel information before you go? Check out our essential guide to travelling in America. Before you head off on your national park adventure, be sure to pre-book your airport transfer so you can get to the hiking trails as quickly as possible.