When we start to plan our next big vacation we’re quick to start researching cities, beaches and hot spots located in far away places. While there’s something undeniably romantic and exciting about exploring ancient Roman ruins or diving the Great Barrier Reef, constantly seeking out such foreign adventures can cause us to miss out on those that are right in our backyards.
America’s national parks are nothing to be scoffed at. Many of them are arguably among the most beautiful places in the world thanks to their stunning land formations, crystalline waters and abundance of largely untouched flora and fauna. Sure, traveling abroad can be transformative and eye opening in ways that staying on your native soil can’t. But when that soil is as strikingly Mars-like as Arches National Park or as arrestingly awe inspiring as Glacier National Park, taking some time to explore the lands where you come from is a pretty sweet alternative.
While boiling down America’s 58 national parks to a list of the top ten is a nearly impossible feat, those included within the list below boast something extra special. Take a look at each of them and you’ll see what we mean.
Yellowstone National Park
Known primarily for its geothermal features including Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs and the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park is also unique for the fact that it was the first national park in the entire world. Spanning across parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, it boasts nearly 3,500 square miles of extraordinary terrain to explore. Deep canyons, dense forests and scenic rivers also hold court within the park, making it the perfect place to backpack, hike, boat, bike, fish and more. Buffalo, foxes, bear and wolves all call Yellowstone home, so keep an eye out for a cool animal sighting or two.
Yosemite National Park
Famously known for its world-class rock climbing (it’s home to the notoriously tricky El Capitan wall), Yosemite is a thrill seeker's dream. Ancient sequoia trees, breathtaking waterfalls and valleys filled with lush trees serve as beautiful contrasts to the park’s iconic rock formations, and hikers will be delighted with the views of any of the park’s 800 miles of trails. Spanning across 750,000 acres in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s a seemingly endless cacophony of jaw-dropping sights. If heights and hikes aren’t your thing, you can also enjoy camping, fishing, and bird-watching within the park. And for all you snowbirds, Yosemite is home to Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, the oldest downhill skiing spot in California.
Grand Canyon National Park
This spot is one of the most well known of the bunch, and for good reason. Located in the north of Arizona, the park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is famous for its 18-mile-wide and 1-mile-deep gorge, through which the Colorado River rushes. Experience it from below by rafting the river, or see it from above by walking trails on its North and South Rims. Notable viewpoints include Yavapai Observation Station, Mather Point and the Desert View Watchtower. Looking down into the gorge is an absolute must.
Glacier National Park
Located in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park boasts nearly 700 miles of lush hiking trails, over 130 turquoise lakes (Hidden Lake being the most famous), and uncountable jagged peaks. True to its name, the park is home to 25 active glaciers—impressive, but a steep decline from the 150 that existed at the end of Little Ice Age approximately 168 years ago. It’s a beautiful place to do some backpacking, cycling and camping and to see wildlife ranging from mountain goats to grizzly bears. Encompassing nearly 1,600 square miles, you won’t run out of terrain to explore.
Grand Teton National Park
Encompassing the Teton mountain range as well as the northern section of Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park boasts staggering peaks and expansive lush valleys, alike. Mountaineering, camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and bird watching are just a handful of the popular outdoorsy activities enjoyed in the park. If you want to hit another national park during your trip, Yellowstone is less than an hour’s drive away via the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway.
Zion National Park
Best known for its dizzying sandstone cliffs that are striped with colors of cream, blush, and rusty red as they rise, Zion National Park boats a myriad of gorgeous routes for rock climbing enthusiasts. Located in southwestern Utah, the park is also home to a section of the North Fork of the Virgin River, which cuts through the bottom of Zion Canyon. This gorge that stretches 15 miles and can get up to half a mile deep. One of the park’s most unique traits is that includes four life zones: desert, riparian, woodland and coniferous forest. If you’re into to spotting an array of unique animals, plants, and natural land formations all in one trip, Zion should definitely be on your bucket list.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Denver, Colorado is emerging as one of the coolest cities on the map, both for its burgeoning tech and brewery scenes and its close proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park. Located 75 miles northwest of the capitol, the park is one you’ll definitely want to hike in, especially during the fall when turning aspen trees set mountainsides on fire. After taking advantage of some of its 355 miles of trails, chill out and spend a day kayaking on a lake, enjoying a leisurely horseback ride or seeking out some of the 70 mammal species and 300 bird types that live in the park.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The crimson spires that Bryce Canyon is famous for look more like ancient ruins than natural rock formations. A truly breathtaking and dramatic sight, the canyon spans 35,835 acres across southern Utah and is ripe with hiking trails of all levels. Go in the summer for the striking combination of blue skies, green pines and orangey rocks, or in the winter to enjoy the stark contrast of snow against the desertscape.
Olympic National Park
For anyone living in the Pacific Northwest, this park is a mere 75 miles west of Seattle, meaning there’s no excuse not to visit. Looking like something straight out of Lord of the Rings, it boasts a smattering of flowery fields, mossy creeks, lucid lakes and rugged peaks. If you’re an animal lover, keep an eye out for Olympic marmots—this park is the only place in the world where the squirrel-like rodents live. Hike, fish, boat, camp—no matter your adventurous vice, this is an excellent place to indulge.
Arches National Park
On the northern edge of Moab, Utah lies nearly 77,000 striking acres of red rocks composing a landscape that looks akin to that of Mars. Massive sandstone monuments in the shapes of grand arches and imposing monoliths are scattered throughout the park, with some of the most impressive being Delicate Arch and Balanced Rock. Hikers, climbers and photographers with a taste for the otherworldly, this spot’s for you.