White sand beaches, swamps, stalagmite-filled caves, glaciers, hot springs you can swim in (and ones you definitely can’t), rainforests, scorching deserts, volcanoes (dormant and active): The national parks scattered throughout the United States and its territories truly have it all. And while the 63 recognized parks only make up a fraction of the 423 sites that comprise the National Park Service, they represent some of the finest natural environments America has to offer. (And for six days a year, visiting these parks is free, too.) Here, our national parks, from A to Z.
This article was last published in April 2020. It has been updated with new information.
- photogenic lighthouses, weathered pine trees, and sunrises atop Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park is an essential stop on any Maine road trip. The park also happens to house one of our favorite national park beaches: Sand Beach, a wide expanse of yellow sand with crystal-clear water.
- without a passport, though.) Instead of log cabins and campgrounds, expect to see coral-colored sand beaches, secluded villages, tropical rainforests, and wildlife ranging from fruit bats to humpback whales.
- Mighty Five,” Arches National Park is known for its—you guessed it—stone arches. The park has over 2,000 of them, plus hundreds of balanced rocks and soaring pinnacles. Make sure you time at least visit around sunset, when the contrasting landscapes become an incredible palette of red, orange, and gold.
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- South Dakota, Badlands National Park greets visitors with an otherworldly landscape of rust-colored buttes, spires, and pinnacles rising across thousands of acres. Blink and you might think you’ve been transported to another planet.
- Big Bend consists of more than 800,000 acres of river canyons, desert, mountains, and much, much more. We’re talking 1,200 species of plants, 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, and more than 70 species of mammals.
- Florida Keys (a quick boat ride from Miami), Biscayne National Park is perhaps best known for its colorful coral reefs. But if you must visit the park above-water, head straight to the lighthouse at Boca Chita Key—you can’t beat the views of the Miami skyline from its observation deck.
- this park in western Colorado is home to dramatic peaks and cliffs of dark Precambrian-age rock. Come for the variety of hiking and rafting choices, stay for the jaw-dropping overlooks.
- Astronomy Festival (which takes place in June each year) for guided tours and next-level stargazing.
- rugged fashion.
- Mighty Five is its prehistoric and early-settler history, best seen in the petroglyph rock art etched by the Fremont people over a thousand years ago. Don’t miss the park’s other rocky attractions, including the Chimney Rock pillar, the Hickman Bridge arch, and the towering structures of Cathedral Valley.
- New Mexico, the Carlsbad Caverns are famous for its population of—count ’em—400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. Between May and October, you can watch as the bats come barreling out of the caves and take flight for the night.
- undeveloped and isolated look at nature (expect to see sea lions and blue whales). The islands are only accessibly by park concessionaire boats and planes or private boat, but upon arrival, you can participate in activities like kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, camping, and viewing the diverse wildlife.
- first-rate bird watching and wilderness tours, plus kayaking, canoeing, and camping. The Spanish moss–covered tree trunks make for gorgeous photo ops as well.
- Crater Lake Lodge—the only accommodation within the National Park borders.
- Cleveland and Akron, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is an easy (and can’t-miss) day trip for travelers. The winding river gives way to deep forests, rolling hills, and open farmlands, while a walk on the Towpath Trail allows you to follow the historic route of the Ohio & Erie Canal.
- hottest month on earth), but is also the subject of some of the world’s most awe-inspiring photos. Come for the mauve- and ochre-colored sunrise over Zabriskie Point.
- Denali National Park gets more than a half-million visitors a year, and it’s easy to see why. The park is a wild and massive (we’re talking 6 million acres) landscape of snowy amphitheaters, glaciers, ice caves, and mountains that would look right at home in the Himalayas. You can even climb Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. Just like Everest, though, it’s a major undertaking, so know all the information before attempting.
- Florida Keys, Dry Tortugas National Park is actually closer to Cuba than the U.S. and is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Once there, enjoy the views and history of the island and famous Fort Jefferson, whose military moat resembles an infinity pool at a luxury hotel.
- airboat tour, not hippos and elephants.
- pristine mountain views, scenic rivers, and diverse wildlife, like wolverines, polar bears, and caribou.
- St. Louis was designed by Eero Saarinen and originally built as a monument to the Louisiana Purchase. It’s still the tallest arch in the world today. The park also includes the Old Courthouse of St. Louis, noted for its role in the Dred Scott case. The Arch, the courthouse, and the surrounding acres were named a national park in 2018, with visitor sites including green space, historical buildings, and museums.
- Going-to-the-Sun Road, the park represents some of the best nature the U.S. has to offer.
- crashing glaciers and breeching whales in the same day as temperate rainforests and mountain goats.
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- the Grand Canyon has become nearly synonymous with America. We could tell you all about the sunsets and views and epic hikes along this 277-mile-long chasm, but honestly? This is one you need to see for yourself.
- Teton mountain range feels almost like a mirage. Visitors can enjoy nearly 200 miles of hiking trails, go rafting in the Snake River, and maybe even spot a grizzly bear or two.
- Great Basin is Nevada’s only national park, providing visitors with some of the state’s most beautiful sites—both above and below the surface. Aside from the dozens of outdoor activities (including fishing and backpacking in the summer and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter), the guided tours of the Lehman Caves are the park’s main draw.
- Namib deserts. It takes hours to climb to the top of the dunes from the parking lot, but the feeling of standing alone, hundreds of feet in the air, is well worth the trek.
- most-visited park in the U.S. (yep, it even beats the Grand Canyon’s visitor numbers by several million people per year). Whether you hike past waterfalls or set up camp under the stars, there’s no wrong way to experience the 800 square miles of this natural wonder.
- El Paso, this park offers deserts, canyons, gypsum sand dunes, and spectacular views of the night sky and Milky Way. There are hiking trails ranging in difficulty and time constraints, as well as campsites, horseback riding paths, and the nearby McDonald Observatory.
- Maui is also one of its most visited, and for good reason: Haleakalā Crater provides epic, sweeping views of the island from an elevation of just over 10,000 feet. In fact, the sunrises from the park’s highest points are so popular, you have to make a reservation in advance (and pay) to see it.
- Volcano House hotel, situated on the rim of the Halema’uma’u Crater, to get 24-hour views of towering Kilauea.
- got a major upgrade in February 2019, when the landmark’s official name changed to the Indiana Dunes National Park. The Indiana Dunes stretch for 15 miles along the shores of Lake Michigan, making it a popular spot for swimming—and even surfing—during the summer. (It’s also one of many easy day trips from Chicago.)
- Yellowstone receives more visitors per day than Isle Royale gets in an entire year, but don’t overlook the beauty and activities of this Michigan national park. Although it’s consistently chilly and foggy, Isle Royale offers some of the most pristine views you’ll get of Lake Superior. If you’re willing to brave the cold, you can even take a scuba diving trip to the lake’s many shipwreck sites.
- Joshua Tree National Park is a must-visit in your lifetime. Don’t miss the Cholla Cactus Garden, where the iconic plants stretch on as far as the eye can see. Make sure to spend at least a few hours here post-sunset, as the park was officially recognized as an International Dark Sky Park back in 2017.
- Iceland. Make sure you take a detour to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, whose stark terrain makes for excellent photo ops.
- dog mushing), and viewings of the Northern Lights from September through April.
- America’s lakes so beautiful (think clear waters and tons of wildlife). As an added bonus, you’re almost guaranteed to spot some foraging brown bears along the shore.
- UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
- day trip from Seattle. For the best animal sightings (including caribou, wolves, and black bears), head to the 725-acre Northwest Trek Wildlife Park.
- New River Gorge is the newest addition to the national parks lineup as number 63 and marks the first national park in the Mountain State. The park (formerly a national river) has long been renowned for the 53 miles of rafting within its borders, as well as some 1,400 climbing routes on sandstone cliffs. The park is also a national preserve—the only dual-designated park and preserve outside of Alaska—with 65,000 acres offering hunting and fishing access.
- Hoh River valley—aside from its beautiful, lichen-covered trees, the spot happens to be home to the quietest spot in the contiguous United States.
- tallest trees, but the park also encompasses prairies, rivers, and about 40 miles of rugged coastline. Aside from the beautiful flora, you can expect to see tons of wildlife here, including sea lions, gray whales, coyotes, and 280 species of birds (that’s one-third of all recorded species in the entire United States).
- film buffs can hole up in the Stanley Hotel (aka the hotel that inspired The Shining) in nearby Estes Park.