U.S. National Parks: A Short Guide to America’s 10 Most Popular Parks

Travel
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Some of the most beautiful natural wonders our planet has to offer are located right in your backyard. Okay, maybe not quite. But they’re close enough for you to manage a much-needed escape into the wilderness for some exploration, adventure, or just a good ol’ mental reset.

America’s 63 national parks are truly a treasure. From Acadia’s picturesque maritime landscapes tucked into the coast of Maine to Glacier’s towering expanse of jagged peaks throughout western Montana, there is a vast protected wilderness to be explored and enjoyed. We’ve compiled a detailed list of 10 of the nation’s most popular parks along with their points of interest and the best activities to do in each.

Yosemite National Park – California

Just a three-hour drive from San Francisco, Yosemite National Park is a spectacular escape from routine. Yosemite Valley is the focal point with beautiful hikes to waterfalls situated throughout. Lower Yosemite Falls Trail proves to be short and easy while Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is an all-day excursion. Mirror Lake is a wonderful place to have a picnic with the family while enjoying breathtaking views of Half Dome – one of the best and most difficult hikes in Yosemite. Overseeing the valley is El Capitan, the famous 3,000-foot-tall granite behemoth that countless climbers attempt to scale each year.

Another must-visit area is the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which is home to an enormous reservoir of the same name that provides much of the water and electricity to San Francisco. Trails of varying difficulties snake through the forest around the reservoir and lead to beautiful waterfalls. Yosemite is also home to three sequoia groves with Mariposa Grove being the largest. Here you’ll find some of the oldest trees in the world, including the Grizzly Giant (2,700 years old). Visiting the park in late spring or fall is recommended since Tioga Road and Glacier Road are closed during the winter, making traversing the park from east to west impossible by car.


Rocky Mountain National Park – Colorado

America’s most famous mountain range is home to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. With experiences for all ages and interests, the park is perfect for those seeking adventure with the family. Numerous easy hikes like Alpine Ridge Trail, Gem Lake, Ute Trail, and Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes are incredible ways to make the most of the stunning landscape. The subalpine area of the park is home to evergreen forests, crystal-clear lakes, and is one of the best places in the country to watch wildlife. Higher up in the park’s alpine tundra, there are 77 peaks towering above 12,000 feet awaiting serious hikers. A drive on Trail Ridge Road will have you at the highest elevation in the entire national park system and you can stop at the Forest Canyon Overlook for a spectacular view of the park’s tallest point, Longs Peak. Although it sees most of its visitors in the summer, the park is a skier’s domain in the winter. Winter sports enthusiasts can enjoy endless back country trails throughout seemingly unexplored areas of wilderness.


Acadia National Park – Maine

As the first national park to be established east of the Mississippi River, Acadia is a unique oceanside playground for hikers, cyclists, campers and lovers of all things nature. Situated along Maine’s rocky coast with no shortage of mountains, forests, lakes, ponds, wetlands and swamps, the park offers wonderfully diverse ecosystems. Located on Mount Desert Island, Cadillac Mountain is the highest point on the east coast and can easily be summited by foot or car. If traveling by car, the 27-mile-long Park Loop Road is the best way to take in the scenery as quickly as possible. At the southern end of Mount Desert Island, you can find the picturesque Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, an iconic landmark of Acadia.

Another incredible way to explore the park is by traveling on its Carriage Roads – 50+ miles of paved paths created by John D. Rockefeller that can be traveled by horse-drawn carriage. If so inclined, allow yourself to be whisked down the roads in a carriage to experience the fullness of nature around you as you would have over 100 years ago. Alternatively, you can also bicycle on these small roads. Visiting Acadia during October when the leaves are changing will make for unforgettable postcard views along the coastline. Not to mention, there will be far fewer crowds than the summer months, which is the busiest time of year.

Grand Teton National Park – Wyoming

If you’re into the peacefulness of mountains and meadows, the Grand Teton Mountain Range is one of pure fascination. It is home to rocks over half as old as the Earth itself. Over 2.5 billion years old to be exact. Teeming with elk, bison, grizzlies, and black bear there is no shortage of wildlife here. You may even spot a bald eagle or two. With its gorgeous scenery and unimpeded views of the surrounding mountainscape, visiting Jenny Lake is simply a must. You’ll quickly realize why this spot is popular among painters. It’s the perfect area to relax and enjoy a host of activities like kayaking, fishing, swimming, and camping against the natural backdrop of granite grandeur.

Grand Teton Peak itself is just shy of 14,000 feet and is immensely popular among top-level hikers and climbers. For the intermediate hiker, Cascade Canyon Trail and Jenny Lake Trail will do the trick. Those looking for a more leisurely adventure will enjoy the Taggart Lake Loop and Hidden Falls Trail, where a marvelous waterfall awaits. An additional appeal of Grand Teton is its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, which offers an entirely different experience and is absolutely worth adding to your trip.

Great Smoky Mountains - North Carolina, Tennessee

It’s no wonder why the Great Smoky Mountains are the country’s most visited national park. Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee you’ll find it to be steeped in Appalachian history and perfect for a family trip with the kids. The adventure should begin at the Sugarlands Visitor Center where you can get an overview and history of the park. Some of the best scenery is accessible by car, like Clingman’s Dome, which should not be missed. Drive to the top for panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, forests, and brilliantly blue lakes, which can be enjoyed from the observation tower. The Newfound Gap Overlook and Cades Cove can also be reached by car and offer magnificent views of the mountains and valleys.

The Great Smokies are home to insanely gorgeous waterfalls that can be reached via relatively short hikes. The most well-known are Laurel Falls, Rainbow Falls, and Grotto Falls, each unique in its own beauty. For those interested in Appalachian history, the park has roughly 80 historic buildings throughout. Also consider taking a peaceful drive along the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, which will lead you north to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia if you’re feeling up for another adventure.

Glacier National Park – Montana

This park gives meaning to Montana’s nickname as Big Sky Country. A million acres of jagged peaks tower through the state’s western region, making Glacier a prime destination for hikers, climbers, and those just looking to absorb the beauty of the great outdoors. The first thing to do is go for a jaw-dropping 50-mile drive along the famous “Going-To-The-Sun Road”. It’ll take about 2-hours and there are many stops along the way to enjoy the views. Make sure to stop at Logan Pass, the highest point in the park accessible by car (6,646 feet), to witness mountain goats, wolves, and wolverines.

Much like many of our national parks, Glacier is a hiker’s paradise. If you’re looking to explore at a leisurely pace, then St. Mary, Trail of the Cedars and McDonald Creek Trails will do the trick. For the intermediate hiker, Avalanche, Hidden, and Iceberg Lake trails will keep you busy for hours while the more experienced adventurer will enjoy Grinner Glacier, Highline, and Cracker Lake Trails. Visiting this park puts the environment into perspective as it is home to 25 active Glaciers that are slowly melting. The most beautiful of which arguably being Many Glacier. You can even stay at Many Glacier Hotel situated directly on Swiftcurrent Lake with majestic views of the surrounding landscape.


Joshua Tree National Park – California

Joshua Tree National Park encompasses an area the size of Rhode Island within the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Tortured by millions of years of harsh weather it is home to a surprisingly diverse plant and animal habitat. The park’s namesake, the Joshua Tree, thrives in this unforgiving climate along with dozens of species of mammals and other wildlife. Indian Cove nature trail is one of the best areas to see the famous trees and backpackers will find refuge at the nearby campground. Hidden Valley is a one-mile loop also filled with Joshua Trees and is a fantastic place to enjoy a picnic while surrounded by the area’s most unique geological wonders.

The park has dozens of hiking trails of all difficulties. One of the most popular is Arch Rock Trail – an easy hike with some of the most beautiful scenery in the park including Arch Rock and Heart Rock. Rock climbing enthusiasts will never run out of options as the park has 8,000+ climbing routes waiting to be scaled. Before leaving, be sure to visit the Cholla Cactus Garden – a sprawling area of seemingly (and deceptively) fuzzy cactus. The plants glow orange in the sunset and make a spectacular backdrop for a photoshoot.

Yellowstone National Park – Wyoming, Montana, Idaho

Spanning across three states, Yellowstone is America’s first national park for good reason. Its spectacular geological features are unlike any other place in the world. From stunning waterfalls and mud pots to hot springs, geysers, and snowcapped peaks, nature’s magnificence surrounds you here. For those looking to get a glimpse of the park’s wildlife, Lamar Valley offers the best chance. The land abounds with grizzly bears, wolves, bison herds, and bald eagles. For those seeking an adrenaline rush, one of the many rafting tours will quench the thirst for adventure.  

The main event of Yellowstone are its geysers. Located in the Midway Geyser Basin, The Grand Prismatic Spring Trail leads you to the vibrant blue-green geyser that is one of the most photographed landmarks of the park. The Upper Geyser Basin is home to Old Faithful, one of the most famous in the world. But the Largest Geyser Award goes to the Steamboat Geyser that shoots water a staggering 300 feet into the air. Whether taking a relaxing family vacation or channeling your inner Lewis and Clark, you’ll find Yellowstone’s beauty simply unmatched.

Grand Canyon National Park – Arizona

Undoubtedly one of the most recognizable landscapes in the world, the Grand Canyon might be the most iconic symbol of the American west. Located in northwestern Arizona, the canyon is a top tourist destination. The South Rim of the park is the most popular and easily accessible. The best vantage points are Mather Point, Yavapai Point, Yaki Point, and Ooh Aah Point, with Mather Point being the most popular. Hermit Road and Desert View Drive also offer insanely gorgeous views to marvel at.

Hikers can enjoy trails along the edge of the Rim, such as South Rim Trail, but one of the most beautiful ways to experience the grandeur of the park is to hike below the rim. The most popular below-the-rim trail is Bright Angel Trail, which has a few rest houses along the way. During summer months it can be too hot to hike comfortably, so visitors can opt for a mule ride into the canyon or even take a helicopter flight over it for the best view of them all. Though not part of Grand Canyon National Park, Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon are also magnificent sights to behold and worth a day trip from the park.

Zion National Park – Utah

The towering red walls of Zion Canyon are the main attraction of Zion National Park. The floor of the 150-million-year-old canyon is ideal for hikers with an area known as “The Narrows” being one of the most of the most popular. Trekking through this region requires a unique and unavoidable hike through the Virgin River. A more difficult hike through “The Subway” is for more serious adventurers. The canyon’s 2,000-foot sandstone walls also make for some of the best rock climbing in the world with dozens of well-traveled routes.

If you’re seeking a more relaxed adventure through the park, there are two particularly beautiful scenic drives down Mount Carmel Highway and Kolob Canyons Road wind through the sandstone peaks. For sunset views, the Zion Human History Museum is the place to be. And if the cosmos interest to you, stick around a bit longer. The park’s buildings have special lights to reduce light pollution, creating optimal conditions for viewing the night sky. You can enjoy the beauty of the park year-round, but April, May, October, and November are the most temperate months while summer months can soar past 100 degrees.

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U.S. National Parks: A Short Guide to America’s 10 Most Popular Parks
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