From deep canyons and towering forests to alpine lakes and geothermal wonders, United States' National Parks are home to some of the most dramatic scenery you’ll ever feast your eyes upon.
And these natural wonders aren’t just for the hiking-elite and wild at heart. They’re for anyone itching for an escape, a jaw-dropping view, or simply a place to pitch a tent and soak up the stars. With 59 in total, let’s just say there’s a national park to suit everyone’s tastes. But to make your choice a little easier, I’ve narrowed it down to my top six picks.
1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
No doubt you’ve seen the photos. But let’s be honest – nothing really prepares you for the vast and surreal beauty of Arizona’s most famous gorge. The Grand Canyon is around 450 kilometres long, 1.6 kilometres deep, and 1,800 million years old. With numbers like that, it’s no surprise this geological wonder is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
First-timers will have plenty of hiking paths to choose from. But for some of the park’s most eye-popping views, travel the South Rim’s Bright Angel and Rim trails. For something a little different (away from the crowds), take a deep dive to the canyon’s bottom. Churning beyond eyesight, the mighty Colorado River dishes up some of the best white-water rafting the world has to offer.
The Grand Canyon is a diverse destination which you can make what you want - whether you’re taking a day trip from Las Vegas, camping in the park, or booking into a lodge, you’re promised once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities and a vast, unique landscape that will almost have you reevaluating your whole perspective of life on this planet.
2. Joshua Tree National Park, California
California’s southernmost national park splits itself into two desert systems – the Colorado and the Mojave deserts. The Colorado (low desert) is a sparse and starkly beautiful expanse thriving below 3,000 feet, while the Mojave (high desert) is the wetter and more vegetated counterpart. The contrast is dramatic and abrupt – and never ceases to amaze the 1.3 million visitors each year.
The park’s main attractions are undoubtedly its strange and photogenic giant yuccas (Joshua trees), found on the sandy plains of the Mojave. However, hikers can also find beauty in the fan palm oases fed by natural springs. If you’re a rock climbing or slacklining enthusiast, you’ll likely already know that ‘JT’ is one of the best places to climb in California.
3. Yosemite National Park, California
Located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, Yosemite woos millions of visitors every year – and for good reason. Known for its top-notch rock climbing and stunning waterfalls, the park also features striking granite cliffs, lush meadows, giant sequoias, and hiking trails to suit all ages and levels.
Whether you’re in the park for a day, or shacking up for a week or two, make sure you climb the park’s famous Half Dome, or face off with El Capitan – the world’s tallest exposed monolith. Chasing epic views? Then the drive to Glacier Point won’t disappoint. For a less crowded (yet still impressive) option, consider exploring the Tuolumne Meadows area.
4. Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park is where rugged coastline meets lush forest. Where serrated mountains tower above glacially formed lakes. It’s the oldest national park east of the Mississippi and the biggest tourist attraction in Maine. For keen photographers and outdoor enthusiasts, it’s also heaven on earth.
In this 50,000-acre park, there’s so much to see and do. But for the uninitiated, Park Loop Road is the best way to take it all in. Take a car and drive part or all of its 27 miles around the park's lakes, mountains, forests, and rocky coast. For sunset chasers, the views from Cadillac Mountain will take your breath away. The highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard, this 1,530 ft mountain will afford you views of several islands and the rest of the park.
There are also plenty of hiking trails and carriage roads ideal for strolling and taking in the surrounding forests and cliffs.
5. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana
Yellowstone is an immense volcanic playground spanning Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Boasting more than 10,000 thermal wonders, brilliant waterfalls, craggy peaks and alpine lakes, it’s both rugged and serene. It’s also the first national park in the US – and arguably the most impressive.
On the west side of the Yellowstone Supervolcano you’ll find the largest hot spring in the US, Grand Prismatic Spring. The bright colours rimming the spring make it a photo opportunity that’s not-to-be-missed. Other must-see attractions include the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls, the majestic peaks of the Rockies, and of course, the legendary Old Faithful geyser – the park’s most famous landmark which erupts every 60-110 minutes. Yellowstone is also teeming with wildlife, so keep your eyes peeled for grizzly bears, bison, elk and wolves.
6. Redwood National Park, California
The tallest people on earth with feel tiny in Redwood National Park. Hugging the northwestern edge of California, this lush area houses the world’s tallest living trees – the redwoods. Growing upward of 107 metres, these natural skyscrapers put some of the world’s biggest buildings to shame.
But there’s more to Redwood than giant trees. Here, you’ll find wild beaches, tumbling rivers, grazing Roosevelt elk, and a range of great hiking trails. Popular vistas include the Klamath River Overlook and the High Bluff Overlook, while the coastal Yurok Loop will give your hiking boots the workout they deserve.
Take your pick
Ready to chuck on the boots, whip out the camera, and go exploring? These national parks are bound to appeal to your inner adventurer. The United States is a vast land of beautiful extremes, and for all adventure travel enthusiasts, these national parks are destinations that should be high up on the bucket list.
Matthew Todd has a strong love of travel and regularly contributes to online travel and lifestyle titles to share first-hand knowledge on small group adventure travel. True to his passion for travel and his experience as a digital marketing specialist, he currently works as an Online Marketing Guru at G Adventures Australia and New Zealand.
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