1. Great Smoky Mountains National Pak
1420 Fighting Creek Gap Rd., , 37738
It's no surprise that the Great Smoky Mountains is America's most visited national park. According to the NPS, more than 12 million people visited the park in 2020 alone. This is almost 9 million more visitors than the runner up, Yellowstone.
With easy accessibility from several major southern cities, free admission (now $5), close proximity to two very touristy cities, and a variety of wonderful hiking trails, the Smokie's has become one of America's favorite recreational destinations. The Smokies is home to one of the largest black bear populations in the country. Hiking here is a pretty unique experience in that you have a good chance of seeing a bear.
A few must-sees during your visit include Laurel Falls (the prettiest waterfall in the Smokies viewable via a moderate 1.4 mile hike), Clingman's Dome (a short half mile walk up to an observing area with 360 degree mountain views), and Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail (a 5 mile scenic drive home to numerous trails and historic sites).
Gatlinburg, Sevierville, and Pigeon Forge are the most popular base destinations for exploring the park. Each city offers its' own unique amenities, including shows, themed restaurants, shops, arcades, rustic cabin rentals, and more. Most importantly, access to hundreds of miles of beautiful rustic trails, lies a simple drive away.
2. Zion National Park
1 Zion Park Blvd., , 84767
Towering red rock formations, quaint views of the Virgin River, and a breathtaking scenic drive, easily make Zion National Park one of the country's most stunning natural wonders. Fitness buffs from around the world come to embark on the challenging, immensely scenic journey to Angel's Landing. It's been called one of the scariest and most dangerous hikes in the world! Challenging for sure, but a must for avid hikers seeking the best-of-the-best!
For the less adventurous, there are several enjoyable easy hikes/bike rides (the 3 mile Pa'Rus trail), a moderate hike to a waterfall (Emerald Pools), and the picturesque Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (only open to vehicles from Nov-March). The beautiful sandstone formations against a clear blue sky truly give this park an otherworldly vibe. For photographers and nature lovers alike, there really is no place quite like Zion.
According to the NPS, Mormon settlers named the area "Zion," which means a place of peace, a sanctuary in Hebrew. During your visit to this enchanting park, you will easily see why the park was named as so.
3. Saguaro National Park
2700 N. Kinney Rd., , 85743
Located in the mesmerizing Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park truly offers some of the most exciting and unusual scenery of all the parks on this list. If you love cacti, then you will definitely want to plan a trip to Tucson to enjoy the incredible variety of cacti which call the desert home.
The park is massive at 92,000 acres, and thus, split into 2 distinct sections. The East entrance (Rincon Mountain) is known for being home to the more incredible mountain vistas, while the West entrance (Tucson Mountain) is the way to go if you want to see a lot of cacti. Both are actually fantastic, and your ticket includes entry to both for 7 days. I highly recommend taking the time to explore both of these incredible parks.
Hands down, Saguaro is the best place to visit in Tucson, and also one of America's most exciting and underrated national parks. Must-dos include a drive along the 8 mile long paved Cactus Forest scenic drive at the Rincon park, exploring the Desert Discovery trail at the Tucson park, signing up for an informative ranger led event, and taking in the magnificent views from the visitors center.
4. Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park, , 82190
"America's First National Park" is a definite bucket list contender. Located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, it's the top thing to do if you find yourself vacationing anywhere in the vicinity. Featuring ancient geysers, beautiful canyons, waterfalls, gorgeous lush forests, and ample wildlife, it's a prime place to enjoy the great outdoors in a totally natural setting. The whole region is so desolate that being amongst such uninterrupted wild nature truly feels like a step back in time.
Hiking here can be a bit of a scary thought with the high population of bears, wolves, and bison. The perfect alternative is taking a cruise on the Grand Loop. This super lengthy 142 mile long drive will give you plenty of opportunity to wildlife watch, enjoy nature, and take in the beautiful scenery of one of America's most pristine national parks. The most notable sight of interest along the way is Old Faithful, the most predictable geyser.
This drive will take at least 5 hours, possibly more depending on how many stops you make and attractions you choose to explore, so plan for an adventure packed full day out. Bring with a picnic, snacks, plenty of water, and enjoy the ride!
5. Grand Canyon National Park
S. Entrance Rd., , 86023
The stunning Grand Canyon is rightfully so the most visited tourist attraction in Arizona. Frequently added to "Places to visit before you die" lists, the Grand Canyon lives up to its' reputation as a magnificent natural wonder. In fact, it's considered one of the "7 natural wonders of the world." The massive canyon measures 1 mile deep, and up to 18 miles wide. Enjoying the various overlooks and hiking trails at the park will enable you to take in the beauty of this marvel of nature with your own eyes, as no picture does justice.
NPS reports that scientists estimate the canyon to be between 5-6 million years old. The presence of minerals has led to the striking variety of colors which we see today. During your visit, you will want to take a walk along the Rim trail to learn more about the geology of the park. You will also want to enjoy the various overlooks, especially Mather Point.
Avid explorers and hikers will want to embark on the challenging, exhilarating hike to Skeleton Point (or to the river if time permits and you have the endurance) via the South Kalibab trail. Few places in the US offer the incredible vistas, and sense of inspiration you will experience, while hiking within the canyon.
Other means of exploring the canyon include smooth whitewater trips along the Colorado river, mule riding trips, and a picturesque 23 mile cruise along Desert View Drive.
6. Redwood National and State Parks
1600 US-199, , 95531
A sanctuary for the tallest trees on Earth, Redwood National Park (together with 3 state parks (Del Norte, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek) in Northern California, is a must visit for any nature lovers. These trees can grow over 300 feet. As the park is located in the middle of nowhere on California's Pacific coast, it stays much quieter than the more popular national parks. If you are seeking solitude combined with awe-inspiring scenery, Redwood should surely please. Standing next to these giants truly is an incredible experience.
The park preserves over 110,000 acres of redwood forest. San Francisco and Sacramento are the closest airports. The drive from San Fran is a long 311 miles, however, the scenery along US 101 is amongst the best in the country, with numerous fun detours along the way and endless sightseeing opportunities.
Popular attractions within the park include Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway (a beautiful 10 mile drive), Stoute Memorial Grove trail (a hike through gorgeous groves of redwoods next to the Smith River), Prairie Creek-Foothill Loop (a family-friendly 2.5 mile loop), and picnicking (Prairie Creek Redwoods SP is home to a scenic picnic area).
7. Congaree National Park
100 National Park Rd, , 29061
One of the lesser known national parks, Congaree, sits amongst the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest. Hiking, kayaking, picnicking, and fishing are all popular pastimes at this South Carolina gem. Not only are the trees super old (many are over 500 yrs), but the forest also happens to be home to one of the tallest deciduous hardwood forests. According to the NPS, the park is home to the highest concentration of Champion trees (the tallest of their species) and is currently home to the tallest loblolly pine (167ft).
The best thing to do here is to take a stroll along the 2.4 mile long boardwalk trail. This is an easy loop which travels alongside an old growth hardwood forest. Plant life is diverse and includes bald cypress, loblolly pines, maples, oaks, and holly. Birdwatching is popular here, with over 200 species identified thus far in the park.
While the park is located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, this adds to its' rustic appeal. The closest city is Columbia (about a half hour drive), although Greenville (2 hours away) offers many more amenities including a charming tree-lined historic district. Late October-early November is the best time to plan your visit as the heat and humidity have finally died down, plus the fall color is terrific.
8. The Petrified National Park
1 Park Rd., , 86028
While Arizona is mostly known for the Grand Canyon, the state is actually home to 2 additional national parks, plus over a dozen incredible national monuments. The Petrified National Forest is quite an unusual, yet fascinating place to explore.
At this park, you will have the most unique opportunity to see petrified wood up close. The colorful wood (due to the presence of silica and various minerals replacing the original wood) is estimated to be over 200 million years old. These fossils are said to date back to the Triassic Period. According to the NPS, the park is home to one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the world (a lot can also be found in North Dakota, Egypt, and Argentina)
The best thing to do here is to take a cruise along the 28 mile long paved drive. Here you will be treated to a number of scenic overlooks (including a few dramatic vistas of the painted desert). You will also pass a number of historic sites and can add on the option to hike at various points (The Crystal trail will provide more than enough opportunity to see petrified wood).
9. Cuyaghoa Valley National Park
5793 Boston Mills Rd, , 44264
This Ohio treasure is quite easy to access as it is located just 13 miles away from the city of Cleveland. Despite being so close to a major urban center, there is plenty of nature to enjoy here. The plant life is diverse with almost 80% consisting of mixed-mesophytic forest. Over 250 species of birds call the park home and many small mammals including coyotes (the est. population is over 100). One of the most popular destinations here is Brandywine Falls, an easily accessible 60 foot waterfall. A scenic ride on the Cuyahoga Valley train is another tourist favorite.
The Ohio and Erie Towpath Canal follows the historic route of the Ohio and Erie Canal, and is perhaps the best way to enjoy the park, whether by walking or biking. The 20 mile path connects to various natural and historic sites of interest. One really cool feature of this trail is that there are multiple train stops so you can bike one way and take the train back. Pretty cool program as you receive a major discount.
10. Grand Tetons National Park
1 Teton Park Rd., , 83012
Often bypassed in favor of nearby Yellowstone, the quiet Grand Tetons is a beautiful 310,000 acre national park which is known for its' spectacular mountain scenery and abundance of wildlife. This park is quite unique as it is the only park home to a commercial airport (Jackson Hole).
Besides hiking, wildlife watching, and fishing, the park's beautiful scenic drive is one of the top destinations. The 42 mile long Scenic Loop will offer endless views of the amazing Grand Tetons mountain range, plus endless opportunities to see wildlife in their natural habitat. Moose, elk, and bison are frequently sighted, and occasionally black or grizzly bears.
Jackson Hole offers a number of attractive amenities of its' own including 3 ski resorts, the National Elk Refuge, and the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Even better, you can also add in a Yellowstone trip (at least a whole day is needed), to knock out 2 parks on one vacation. Both parks are connected via the Rockefeller Parkway, with the south entrance of Yellowstone lying a mere 57 miles from Jackson Hole.