The best national parks in the USA have to be seen to be believed – photos just don’t do them justice. The vast swathes of protected countryside come in all shapes and sizes, from bone-dry deserts and vibrant underwater worlds to deep canyons and towering peaks. If you’ve got a passion for the great outdoors, the hiking trails and camping facilities available in almost every American national park will definitely delight. If you just want to enjoy the views, most are easily accessible by road.

    The names of individual landmarks are as well-known as the names of celebrities, but have been around a lot longer. If the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone aren’t already on your bucket list, they should be. We’ve got a few more suggestions for that list, too.


    Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

    For the Blue Ridge Mountains

    The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the single most visited park in the US thanks to its year-round beauty and outstanding hiking routes. Spanning several counties in both Tennessee and North Carolina, the park is among the largest in the east of the country. The highest point of the park is the summit of Clingmans Dome at 6,643 ft, offering amazing views over the Blue Ridge Mountains from the observation tower there.

    Cades Cove is another popular spot, where you can see a number of historical log cabins, churches and other buildings from the pioneer days. The landscape changes radically with each season, making it a stunning place to visit at any time of year.

    Phone: +1 865-436-1200


    Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

    For the Grand Canyon (obviously)

    At 226 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep, the Grand Canyon is a truly staggering natural wonder to behold. It was carved through the many-layered rocks of Arizona by the Colorado River over the course of 5 or 6 million years. The mindboggling scale of it now attracts millions of visitors each year, mostly to the South Rim. You can get views from Hopi Point, Powell Point and Desert View.

    There are some excellent viewpoints on the North Rim, but they are only open for about half of the year. Alternatively, if you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can take a helicopter ride over the canyon or even raft down the river.

    Phone: +1 928-638-7888


    Zion National Park, UT

    For the view from Angels Landing

    Utah’s Zion National Park is formed around the verdant Zion Canyon, which provides a home for many plant and animal species in the middle of a desert landscape. While nothing like the size of the Grand Canyon, the sheer walls of Zion Canyon reach as much as 2,640 ft down. Angels Landing is an especially peaceful spot, giving you the ideal view down the canyon.

    Down by the waterside, the Narrows are well worth checking out. As the name suggests, it’s the narrowest point of the Zion Canyon, forming a striking slot canyon.

    Phone: +1 435-772-3256


    Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

    For the Continental Divide

    The Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is home to a stunning alpine landscape of snow-capped peaks and vibrant glacial valleys. One of the main attractions is the Continental Divide. Rain falling on one side of this ridge will wind up in the Pacific Ocean, while rain on the opposite side starts a long journey to reach the Atlantic.

    You can see the Divide along Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile route that winds its way past some especially beautiful scenery, including the massive Grand Lake. There are many more crisp mountain lakes worth seeing in the heart of the park, including Emerald Lake and Bear Lake.

    Phone: +1 970-586-1206


    Yosemite National Park, CA

    For Tunnel View

    Yosemite National Park is one of America’s most famous national Parks, thanks to iconic photographs of Tunnel View taken by Ansel Adams in 1934. It’s an amazing vista, looking down the Yosemite Valley with the 3,000-ft-tall El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Falls on the right and Half Dome in the distance. The park is open all year, but it’s best to take your own version of the famous photo in spring, when the falls are at their peak flow.

    The park also contains some beautiful lakes, historical buildings, and viewpoints, with Glacier Point being especially worth a look.

    Phone: +1 209-372-0200


    Yellowstone National Park, WY

    For Old Faithful

    Yellowstone National Park is the oldest and undoubtedly one of the best national parks in the USA, and possibly even the whole world, as well as the home of half of the world’s geysers. Formed in 1872, it covers over 2 million acres, spreading into Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Undoubtedly its most famous feature is Old Faithful which throws a column of boiling water over 100 ft in the air for over a minute on a fairly regular basis. The average time between eruptions is 90 minutes, but it’s far from accurate enough to set your watch by.

    The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is less dramatic, but equally beautiful. If you love seeing wildlife, you should check out the vast grasslands of Lamar Valley, which are home to herds of bison and elk, as well as packs of wolves and coyotes.

    Phone: +1 307-344-7381


    Arches National Park, UT

    For Delicate Arch (among others)

    Arches National Park is an Instagrammer’s dream come true, with some 2,000 sandstone arches forming ideal natural frames for the stunning Utah sunsets. Among the most popular named arches (there are too many for all of them to have names) are Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch and Double Arch.

    The Courthouse Towers area is a wonder to behold for its monolithic stone columns, as is Balanced Rock. If you visit during winter, you get more bearable temperatures as well as the unusual sight of a snow-covered desert landscape.

    Phone: +1 435-719-2299


    Mesa Verde National Park, CO

    For Cliff Palace

    Mesa Verde National Park is a treasure trove of Ancient American history in Colorado, with over 4,000 Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites. The very first human beings to arrive in North America, they built villages in crevices on the sides of cliffs. The largest of these – Cliff Palace – has about 150 rooms and is the star attraction of the national park. Other interesting spots include Balcony House and Long House.

    Phone: +1 970-529-4465


    Biscayne National Park, FL

    For the Florida Reef

    Biscayne National Park has one of the most diverse selections of environments of any park in the US, including mangroves, coral reefs, and tropical islands. The park is 95% water, but contains more than 200 species of animals, including fish, coastal birds, marine mammals and hard corals.

    The Florida Reef is among the largest barrier reef systems in the world, and the northern end of it is protected by the park. It’s a fantastic spot for diving and snorkelling. If you want to stay on dry land, you can check out the wildlife-rich mangroves.

    Read more

    Phone: +1 305-230-1144


    Redwood National and State Parks, CA

    For Hyperion, the tallest known living tree

    Redwood National and State Parks covers 139,000 acres of North California with varying levels of protection, and is famously home to the staggeringly tall coast redwood trees. These are tallest trees in the world, with the biggest of the lot – named Hyperion – standing over 380 ft tall. At 600 years old, Hyperion is a spritely youngster compared to other trees in the park, which are thought to be about 200 years its senior.

    The forest is also home to a number of rare animal species, including bald eagles, northern spotted owls and Steller’s sea lions. You won’t find any ewoks among the wildlife, but you will perhaps recognise the forest as one of the filming location for Endor in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

    Phone: +1 707-464-6101


    Katmai National Park and Preserve, AK

    For the salmon run

    Katmai National Park and Preserve is most famous for its massive population of brown bears, which catch salmon leaping up waterfalls on their way to spawn each year. Brooks Falls is the most popular place to see this remarkable spectacle, and you can find as many as 70 bears fishing at once. The best times to visit to see the bears are July or September, with July being the most popular for its better weather.

    The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is the park’s other key attraction. It’s a deep, narrow gorge left by a massive volcanic eruption in 1912. The striking landscape was used to help train Apollo astronauts to recognise volcanic features they might encounter on the moon.

    Phone: +1 907-246-3305

    Ben Reeves | Compulsive Traveller

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