The USA’s best national parks
More than 330 million people visited U.S. national parks last year to camp, fish, hike, scuba dive, climb and relax. But don’t let those numbers scare you. With 85 million acres spread across 418 sites, you can still find as much solitude as you like.
While the U.S. National Parks system wasn’t formally created until 1916, several of the parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite, were officially under the protection of state and federal governments long before the 20th century.
Today, these parks fulfil a variety of purposes: preservation, education, recreation and relaxation. If you love the great outdoors, there’s a park waiting for you. From Florida’s wetlands to Wyoming’s high-altitude wilds, these eight destinations will entertain and impress you, and possibly soothe your soul.
Best time to visit: May - September
Best trails: Uncle Tom’s, Lava Creek, Mount Washburn
Holding the distinction of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone sits on Earth’s largest supervolcano. Perhaps that explains the wonder and strangeness of the park, which sprawls across the corners of three states: Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
No visit to Yellowstone is complete without taking a dip in the Firehole River (where a hot spring merges with snow run-off), and you certainly wouldn’t want to miss being showered by Old Faithful’s geyser spray. Marvel at geothermal features like the other-worldly mud pots, and keep your eyes open for wildlife.
One of the more popular lodgings in the park is the Old Faithful Inn, the world’s largest log structure. Keep your camera handy during your visit, especially while you explore one of the park’s high-altitude lakes. You’ll never run out of interesting terrain to explore at Yellowstone.
The elevation and dry air can lead to dehydration and sunburn, so don’t forget to pack a refillable water bottle, sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.
- Book accommodation very early, particularly if you plan to visit during peak season (July and August)
- Keep a safe distance from wildlife
- Visit big attractions early in the morning to avoid the crowds
Fly into: Jackson Hole, WY (JAC); Idaho Falls, ID (IDA); or Bozeman, MT (BZN)
Best time to visit: April - September
Best trails: Half Dome, Panorama, Cathedral Lakes
From Ansel Adams to Thomas Hill, artists have long been fascinated by the dramatic waterfalls and sweeping valleys of Yosemite National Park.
Maybe you’ll be inspired to take up art as well, especially after gazing up at the towering sequoia trees or seeing the sky’s reflection in Mirror Lake. Few waterfalls in the world can match the spectacle of Yosemite Falls with its 2,425-foot drop onto granite rocks; the sound can be deafening.
A popular place to stay for hikers is the Half Dome Village at the foot of Glacier Point. A day hike will take you to the point itself with its breathtaking views. And don’t forget to take a ride on the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. The journey takes you back in time on a scenic four mile ride through logging country.
Mobile phone coverage is spotty at best in the park, so pack walkie talkies if you want to communicate with your group.
- Consider visiting in the off peak season (autumn or winter) for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing
- Book accommodation one year in advance if you want to stay in the park
- Take the free shuttle along Tioga Road in the summer (note that this road often closes in winter due to snow)
Fly into: Fresno-Yosemite (FAT) or Merced (MCE)
Best time to visit: May - September
Best trails: Ptarmigan Tunnel, Cracker Lake, Siyeh Pass
Nestled at the U.S.-Canadian border, Glacier National Park offers over 700 miles of trails through rugged wilderness and pristine forest. If you’re looking for solitude and nature undefiled, you’ll find it at Glacier.
This is big mammal country, and if you keep your eyes open, you just might see moose, grizzly bears and mountain goats roaming freely through the park. Favourite Glacier activities include fly fishing, bike riding and cross-country skiing. On your relaxed days, take a ride on one of the historic wooden tour boats and the iconic Red Jammer bus.
The weather can change rapidly in Glacier National Park, so pack plenty of synthetic layers and extra socks so you’ll always be comfortable enough to enjoy the spectacular beauty of the place.
- Be prepared to pay an entrance fee for your park permit
- Participate in ranger-led activities
- Stock up on groceries in Columbia Falls or Whitefish
Fly into: Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, MT (FCA)
4. Grand Canyon
Best time to visit: October
Best trails: Hermit, South Kaibab, Plateau Point
As iconic as a national park can be, the Grand Canyon stuns visitors with its immense size and spectacular colours. You’ll find much more to do, though, than gaze at the view; spend your visit camping, hiking, riding a mule down the historic trails or rafting on the Colorado River.
Before you leave, make sure you tiptoe out onto the glass skywalk over the West Rim, eat a meal at El Tovar and take in the art at Hopi House. Havasu Falls is another must-see, with its vivid blue-green colour (created by a high concentration of calcium carbonate in the water).
The Arizona sun is intense, so pack your sunglasses, favourite lip balm and high-SPF sunscreen. On hot afternoons, pay a visit to Bright Angel Lodge for their celebrated ice cream.
- Book a mule trip early (a year in advance, if possible), and if you’re on a family trip, riders must be at least nine years old, and children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult
- You can access the South Rim (open all year round) via a free shuttle bus
- Avoid visiting at the end of May and the beginning of September, as the park is often crowded
Fly into: Flagstaff Airport (FLG)
5. Grand Teton
Best time to visit: June - August
Best trails: Paintbrush Canyon, Jenny Lake Loop, Death Canyon
You thought mountains like these only existed in fantasy stories. With their soaring peaks and glasslike lakes, the Grand Tetons will inspire you as you hike their trails, float down the Snake River in their shadows and listen to the wind in the aspen trees.
If there’s one view you absolutely cannot miss, it’s the reflection of Mount Moran at Oxbow Bend (in the Snake River). Try your hand at fly fishing, or rent a kayak for exploring Jenny Lake.
Watch a documentary about the park at the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center in Moose, Wyoming, and book a dinner cruise on Jackson Lake. When seeking out accommodation, check out Colter Bay Village and Jackson Lake Lodge.
Pack layers of clothing; nighttime temperatures can be chilly, even in July and August.
- Get up early for spectacular sunrises and more wildlife
- Bring a telephoto lens for your camera for capturing the park’s wildlife and the layered mountain peaks
- Store food in bear-resistant food lockers if you must leave it outdoors overnight
Fly into: Jackson Hole (JAC)
6. Isle Royale
Best time to visit: July - August
Best trails: Greenstone Ridge, Scoville Point Loop, Feldtmann Lake Loop
Hoping to escape civilisation for a while? Isle Royale National Park in Michigan provides a level of solitude you won’t find in most parts of the world. With your everyday life far away, you can canoe, kayak and hike to your heart’s content.
Stay out late to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights, and spend some time moose-watching and visiting the Rock Harbor Lighthouse. Years ago, the Wendigo copper mines supported a community of 135 people, and you can visit the mines’ ruins today. Hire a scuba guide to take you diving in Lake Superior, but remember that the water is cold year round.
- The island closes from 1 November through to 15 April annually so plan your trip around these dates
- Wear layers, and buy or rent a drysuit for swimming; the water is frigid even in July and August
- Emergency services are limited, so pack extra medications and keep a copy of the park’s emergency services contact information
Fly into: Houghton County Memorial Airport (CMX); you’ll need to take a boat or seaplane to get to the island.
Best time to visit: October - March
Best trails: Gumbo Limbo, Anhinga, Pahayokee Overlook
Home to elusive species like the manatee, Florida panther and American crocodile, Everglades National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a visitor, you’ll get to kayak, slog and bicycle through 1.5 million acres of fascinating terrain.
Go slough slogging with a ranger, or if you want to keep your feet dry, enjoy hiking popular trails. Geocaching is another favourite activity in the glades, and it’s a perfect place for moose- and bird-watching.
Look for accommodation in Key Largo or Homestead, and be sure to include a rain poncho, hat, sunglasses and insect repellent in your luggage.
- Take the free guided trolley into the park from Homestead
- Check out the park rangers’ offerings and join a guided tour
- Bring your binoculars for watching the wildlife
Fly into: Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood (FLL) or Miami International (MIA)
8. Great Smoky Mountains
Best time to visit: May - October
Best trails: Appalachian, Clingmans Dome, Ramsey Cascades
Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited for good reason. You can see historic homes and churches, rolling forested hills and meadows of wildflowers.
From waterfall hikes to trout fishing in shimmering rivers, you’ll find plenty of activity in the Great Smoky Mountains. History lovers will enjoy visiting one of the park’s historic cemeteries, and photographers will enjoy capturing the 1,500 flowering plants in the park.
For accommodation, check out LeConte Lodge, East Fork Farm or The Inn at Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where it’s Christmas every day of the year. Book a horseback ride, and wear those sturdy shoes you packed. It’s also wise to bring a refillable water bottle.
- Make sure you read up on animal safety before your head out on a hike, so you know what to do if you have an encounter with a bear
- If you visit in May or June, plan outdoor evening activities so you can watch 19 species of fireflies light up the night sky
- Be prepared to not have mobile phone service
Fly into: Knoxville McGhee-Tyson (TYS) or Asheville Regional (AVL)
Whether you’d like to explore the wetlands of Florida or the snow-capped peaks of the Grand Tetons, you’ll find your perfect adventure in one of the USA’s national parks.
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