The National Parks system was established in 1916 to preserve the vast, iconic wilderness across the United States.
Here are 15 of the most amazing parks across the country.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
Established as the first National Park by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park is one of the largest geothermically active regions in the world, with nearly 500 geysers and more than 10,000 thermal features. Plumes of steam are visible rising into the air for miles and colorful hot springs cover the volcanic landscape, teeming with microorganisms.
Yellowstone is habitat to a wide array of wildlife, including herds of bison, the National mammal, as well as Grizzly bears, moose, elk, wolves, fox, coyotes, eagles, and more. The park is massive, encompassing varying ecosystems and natural features, from lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and dense forests to immense and rocky canyons, calderas, and boiling hotsprings.
Yellowstone National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our photograph of Grand Prismatic Springs beneath the Milky Way was featured in the May 2016 edition of National Geographic Magazine, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park system with Yellowstone, the first National Park in the United States.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
The Grand Canyon in Arizona is renowned for dramatic, mile-deep canyons cut by the Colorado river. Millions of years of Earth’s history are visible in the canyon walls – the Grand Canyon is an extensive geological record.
The Grand Canyon is an incredible landscape with tons of spectacular lookouts and miles and miles of trails and unique lookout points along the rims. The North Rim and the South Rim are the two major divisions of the park, and offer vastly differing landscapes. Still, the surface is only where the adventures begin. Trails weave into the canyon extensively, leading to hidden oases deep within with waterfalls and turquoise pools.
Grand Canyon National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
California’s Yosemite National Park is where the valley meets the Sierra Mountains. These mountains were cut by rivers and carved by ancient glaciers, leaving behind steep ridges and unique rock formations unlike anywhere else. The slopes and valleys are covered in dense forests, including the giant Sequoia tree and redwood trees.
Yosemite National Park is home to spectacular waterfalls, enormous granite mountains, and pristine forests and rivers. The park includes many mountains and points of higher elevation that provide dramatic views of the cliffs and the valley floor far below. With hundreds of miles of trails and so much to experience, Yosemite has endless opportunities to explore.
Yosemite National Park a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Glacier National Park is located in the Rocky Mountains of Northwestern Montana. This park is a part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a beautiful alpine wilderness area that ranges from Montana in the United States into Alberta, Canada.
Glacier National Park is filled with dense forests and glacier-carved mountains. Among the mountains are hundreds of pristine alpine lakes, and living in these dynamic ecosystems is a variety of wildlife. Local wildlife includes Grizzly bears, black bears, mountain goats, and Bighorn rams.
Waterton-Glacier International National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
HALEAKKALA NATIONAL PARK
One of the most famous places to see the sunrise in Hawai’i is the summit of the Haleakalā Crater. Haleakalā is a dormant volcano located at the top of the island of Maui. Epic views of rolling fog over the volcanic landscape, illuminated by the sunrise are a regular on the summit.
Few animals inhabit this hostile landscape, however this region is a native habitat for the Hawaiian official state bird, the nēnē. Among the volcanic rocks live a few varieties of rare vegetation. Haleakalā National Park is a showcase of the fascinating history of formation and geology of the chain of Hawaiian Islands.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
Arches National Park in Utah is an iconic desert landscape – an area with one of the highest numbers of natural arches in the world, at over 2,000 arches and monuments of sandstone that defy gravity. These arches are slowly eroded by the forces of nature, and are sure to collapse one day, but for now they are an incredible natural phenomenon.
Dark, clear skies and high elevation makes Arches National Park an incredible location for stargazing in the summer months. However, summer monsoons can be unpredictable and intense, including frequent lightning strikes and flash floods. These weather systems are one of the major eroding forces in the creation and destruction of these unique natural formations. Arches National Park is a fragile desert wilderness with a fascinating geologic history.
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
Sequoia National Park in California is covered by incredible forests of massive Sequoia trees, one of the largest species of trees in the world. The incredible Sequoia trees live up to and beyond 2,000 years.
This is also the home of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. The immense heights and stone faces of the Eastern Sierras are awe-inspiring. The park is filled with miles of hikes, massive waterfalls, lush forests, and an incredible summit for hikers and mountain climbers. The diverse landscape of Sequoia National Park also includes miles of underground cave systems.
ZION NATIONAL PARK
Established within the colorful, massive mountains and canyons of Southwestern Utah, Zion National Park is a desert landscape unlike any other. Zion has trails leading up along steep cliffs and rock formations to sweeping valley views and trails winding down steep canyon walls along the Virgin river into underground caverns carved by water.
This vast wilderness has miles of deep and narrow canyons with high walls to explore. The desert vegetation, much of which is unique to Zion, as well as the geologic formations of this landscape are part of what makes this National Park such a unique wilderness.
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
Mesa Verde in Colorado is the largest archeological preservation in the United States, with over 4,000 ruin sites and hundreds of cliff dwellings. Tucked away in the canyon cliffs, these dwellings were inhabited by ancient ancestral Puebloan civilizations.
The ruins of these civilizations are built within caves and beneath overhangs.
These homes were sheltered by the cliff, protected from the elements. The Cliff Palace is the largest intact site in North America. At some point in history, these sites were abandoned, for unknown reasons. Today, Mesa Verde has some of the best preserved cliff-dwelling sites in the world.
Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
Olympic National Park in Washington covers three distinct ecosystems: the rugged coasts, the epic mountains, and the lush rainforests. The shores are lined with sea stack formations, which have been eroded by the ocean, and the coastline is covered with lush green forests, right off the numerous beaches, often shrouded in fog. The Olympic mountains are covered in hundreds of glaciers and snowfields. These mountains are surrounded by renowned temperate rainforests with waterfalls, lakes, and rivers.
A vast variety of wildlife call these Washington shores and forests home, including the US National bird, the majestic bald eagle. Other inhabitants of this region are elk, seals, bears, and many species of birds. Giant logs of driftwood, hundreds of years old and bleached bone-white, have been washed ashore from high tide, and stacked on the beaches. These logs now serve as protection for the beaches from erosion, and provide habitats for certain creatures. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails are found throughout the park, both through the forests and along the beaches.
Olympic National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Mount Rainier is a volcanic peak in Washington that is covered in glaciers and beautiful forests. Mount Rainier National Park encompasses the wilderness that surrounds this epic mountain.
Although the park predominantly consists of untamed mountain wilderness, it is close to the city of Seattle. Along the mountain are alpine vistas that look in all directions. Mount Rainier is the peak most intensely covered by glaciers in the contiguous US with over 25 glaciers.
At the alpine heights of the mountain there are snowscapes no matter what the season. In the summer, beautiful wildflowers bloom in the meadows and intermittently alongside the trails. Old growth forests in have ancient trees that are over a thousand years old. More unique natural features are hidden on the mountain, such as the ice caves that form within the melting glaciers of Mount Rainier.
ROCKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Located in Colorado, the wilderness in Rocky Mountain National Park consists of alpine forests, meadows, and crystal clear lakes. Numerous wildlife, including elk, bighorn sheep, turkeys, and many other species call this landscape home, including dozens of species of migratory birds.
This National Park in Colorado is an amazing place to see the geology of the Rocky Mountains. The Continental Divide runs through the park, dictating the direction of the flow of water toward either the Atlantic or the Pacific. Incredible trails wind through thriving alpine wilderness to hundreds of tranquil lakes and breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains.
CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK
Crater Lake National Park is a unique geological formation located in Oregon. The crater itself was formed from the collapse of a stratovolcano known as Mount Mazama thousands of years ago. The lake formed in the dormant volcano’s caldera due to the eventual collection of precipitation. This park experiences heavy snowfall each winter, resulting in some areas of the park still being covered in thick snow in the summer.
Due to its unique geology and formation, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. There are many other geologic features that make the lake even more unique, including features such as Wizard Island and the rock formation known as the Phantom Ship. The edge of the crater is forested, with trails leading around the rim providing numerous vistas of the lake and even down to the water’s edge.
HAWAI’I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
The Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii offers visitors a chance to witness some of the volcanic forces that create our earth, forming new land.
The visitor center at the Jagger Museum is located less than one mile away from the active Halema’uma’u Crater. Within this crater is a lake of lava that rises and falls, often spewing sprays of molten lava into the air.
The museum has incredible scenes depicting the legends of the Hawaiian people in relation to the Goddess Pele, the goddess of the Volcano. The museum also includes an informative gallery of historic photographs and videos from past eruptions, as well as interesting element specimens from the volcano itself. Check on current eruption conditions here.
For those willing to hike and brave the volcanic conditions, the lava flow is currently making entry into the ocean from the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent.
Hawai’I Volcanoes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
The Grand Tetons National Park is known for pristine forests, rivers, and jagged mountains that line the park. The impressive mountain peaks can be seen towering over the landscape from most regions within the park.
A wide variety of wildlife thrives in the wetlands, prairies, and around the vast lakes. Resident wildlife ranges from large mammals such as moose, bison, and bears, to aquatic animals such as beavers and swans. This national park is an excellent place to experience incredible mountain vistas, and spend the days observing local wildlife.
These are some of our favorite examples of the best National Parks we visited on our travels across the United States – but there are dozens more, each with completely unique landscapes and diverse wildlife. Find the closest park near you and start exploring!
What are your favorite National Parks? Let us know in the comments below!