The Best National Parks to Visit for an Outdoor Adventure
Out of the 420+ options, these are the best national parks to add to your bucket list.
Your National Park Bucket List
After spending all your winter months — okay, and the entire pandemic — cooped up indoors, you're likely eager to get outside and be reenergized by nature. This is the perfect time to visit one of the hundreds of national parks throughout the country. These majestic nature preserves offer all kinds of heart-pumping activities, including biking, rock climbing, and white water rafting. But you can also take long hikes through peaceful forests, enjoying the serenity and getting an up-close view of natural wonders such as alpine meadows, towering rock formations, and crystal mountain lakes. Or discover quiet spots, where you can simply sit for a while, set up a picnic, and soak in the gorgeous views.
While there are countless amazing spots across the country, these are the best national parks to visit, with activities and scenery that can't be beat. Whether you want a day trip close to home or a weeklong road adventure, there's something here for everyone. (Note: Be sure to check the park's website for hours of operation and COVID-19-related restrictions.)
Montana: Glacier National Park
With more than 700 miles of trails that weave paths through icy blue lakes, jagged glacier-carved mountain peaks, and stunning fields of wildflowers, this Montana gem is an absolute must-see. For a serious photo op, grab a bike and cycle down the Going-to-the-Sun road. It cuts through the Rocky Mountains and crosses the Continental Divide with stunning views along the way. At the end, try SUP or kayaking in one of the 100+ lakes. This pick for best national park almost hits Canada, though, so be sure to bring warm layers as the weather can change quickly.
Utah: Zion National Park
There's no disagreeing that the Grand Canyon has spectacular canyon views, but the pink, red, and orange sandstone cliffs in Utah make for a sight unlike anything you've ever seen. But it's not all dry desert in this Southwestern locale. At this pick for best national park, you'll find waterfalls, a hanging garden, and rivers that cut through the rocks as well. (Don't forget to pack these hiking snacks to stay fueled on your journey.)
North Carolina and Tennessee: Great Smoky Mountain National Park
This may be the most visited park in the country, but with 816 square miles spanning two states, you'll find plenty of space for solitude. The park is filled with forests, rivers, waterfalls, and (of course) mountains. Clingman's Dome, the tallest at over 6,600 feet, has stunning views — be sure to climb the observation tower on top. You can spend part of your day on the 800 miles of hiking trails, including the Appalachian Trail – one of the country's most iconic pedestrian passageways. (Related: What It's Like to Hike 2,000+ Miles with Your Best Friend)
The lush greenery and rolling hills at this pick for best national park create a sunset reminiscent of a watercolor painting. Wildflowers bloom year-round, and you can spot wildlife, including black bears, deer, and wild turkeys. You can also bike, or go horseback riding or white water rafting. This is the country's most visited national park. Insiders advise going in May through mid-June or in September, when it's less crowded.
Wyoming: Grand Teton National Park
This pick for best national park shows Mother Nature at her finest. Nothing beats the majestic stance of the Grand Teton Mountains, jagged and snowcapped under a bright blue sky. While summiting the Grand Teton peak at 7,000 feet is a popular bucket list item for serious mountaineers, there's plenty to do for the slightly less extreme. As this is one of the wilder and more rugged parks on our list, you'll want to be prepared for some tough climbs, forceful rapids, and possible encounters with big-time wildlife. Hey, we said you'd get an adventure.
Virginia: Shenandoah National Park
We love this park for its accessibility to Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area. Just a few hours outside of the country's capital, you'll find sprawling greenery with manageable hills. Seriously, you don't have to ascend very high to catch some spectacular shots, so this best national park is great for family day hikes or trail running for serious adventurers.
Washington: Olympic National Park
This best national park has it all — craggy coastline, towering mountains, and an almost Amazonian rainforest. It rains here, so you'll want to pack a waterproof jacket. But you'll be so distracted by the scenery that you won't even notice the drizzle. Shameless Instagram plug: The contrast of well-watered greenery and glacier-clad mountain peaks create an image that needs no filter. (Thinking of kayaking? Here's what you need to know before heading out on the water.)
Texas: Big Bend National Park
As one of the most remote and least visited national parks in the country, this park is a nature-lover's playground. Plus, its large ecological diversity makes it educational as well as fitness-friendly. This park is especially cool at night, as the wide-open Texas sky spreads over the vast landscape, revealing every constellation. (Related: 7 Easy and Creative Ways to Exercise Outside)
Maine: Acadia National Park
Sea, mountains, forests, rocky shoreline, even a sandy beach. This pick for best national park — situated on Mount Desert Island, the crown jewel of the north Atlantic coast — has it all. For outdoor adventurers, Acadia is a mecca. Head out on the 158 miles of hiking trails; climb one or more of the park's 20 mountains; bike or go horseback riding on the 45 miles of peaceful carriage roads. After you've explored the land, head to the ocean or one of the lakes or ponds, where you can kayak, canoe, or even swim — if you can brave the freezing-cold water.
End the day with a drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the eastern seaboard at 1,529 feet. On a clear night, you can gaze at what seems like millions of shimmering stars and views of the Milky Way. BTW, June to mid-September is peak visiting season. Go in late May, or in late September, when the foliage is starting to turn but the leaf-peeping crowds haven't arrived.
Oregon: Crater Lake National Park
Known for the collapsed volcano turned epic lake, this pick for best national park is all about the water. As it turns out, the lake is the deepest in the entire country, and arguably one of the most untouched. In summer months you can hike the rim; when it gets cold, you can snowshoe for unimaginable views. (Related: The Benefits of Exercising in Cold Weather — and How to Do It Safely)
Alaska: Glacier Bay National Park and Reserve
At this best national park, float along pristine, glassy waters as you wind between centuries-old glaciers. Keep your eyes peeled for humpback whales, sea otters, and orcas, and you may even notice some glaciers shifting. If kayaking isn't your thing, try ice climbing to get familiar with the looming glaciers and gain a new perspective on the hood.
California: Joshua Tree
Hit up this best national park, and you'll experience true wilderness and three different ecosystems just a few hours from Los Angeles. Spread over nearly 800,000 tranquil acres, two major deserts come together here: the Colorado, with its stunning cacti, and the Mojave, habitat for the namesake Joshua tree. In the west stand the Little San Bernardino Mountains, soaring more than 4,000 feet tall and offering sweeping views. Hike, rock climb, go bouldering — the best way to get the feel of
this magical place with its incredible rock formations and ruggedly beautiful landscape is to interact with it. The park's busiest season is October to May, so late spring — before the 100-degree temperatures of summer but while the wildflowers are still blooming — makes for a great visit.
Colorado: Great Sand Dunes
In southern Colorado, spread over 150,000 acres amid forests and grasslands, stands a surprising site — the tallest sand dunes in the United States. The dunes, believed to be thousands of years old, originated from large lakes that dried up and are framed by a stunning backdrop of soaring mountains. Once you've taken in the incredible views at this best national park, experience the dunes "feet-on" by hiking to the top and sand sledding or sandboarding down (you can rent equipment near the entrance to the park). At night, for an even more surreal experience, take a walk on the dunes in the moonlight. It's otherworldly. Visit in June or September, which has some of the best weather. (Before you start your adventure, make sure you stock up on this must-have outdoor gear and clothing.)
Utah: Bryce Canyon
For a truly dazzling look at what nature can do, hike through this pick for best natural park. It features a series of large natural amphitheaters carved into the sides of a high plateau and filled with mazes of crimson rock spires called hoodoos and slot canyons, which are narrow walls of rock. Be sure to go early, or stay until day's end, to experience the beauty of the hoodoos under the rising or setting sun, when they glow with color. Late spring and fall are ideal times to visit for good weather and fewer crowds. (Related: 15 Active Volcanoes You Should Climb Before They Blow)