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Best National Parks in the USA

Are you thinking of visiting one of the National Parks in the USA but not sure which one is best for you? In this blog we are sharing what National Parks we have enjoyed the most and which ones we think you should visit first.

National Parks in the USA are one of our favorite places to visit, especially in the summer. But since 2020, there are a lot of new requirements especially related to entry permits, making it a little more challenging to plan a trip to the US National Parks.

The #1 Reason You Should Visit a National Park

Ummm…It’s the National Park, duh 😜?! The US National Parks are in some of the most gorgeous locations! For me, hiking and camping in the national parks are some of the best things on Earth.

National Parks are so easy too! With well-marked trails and infrastructure either inside the park or very close by, you don’t have to be a hardcore adventurer to enjoy nature and the outdoors.

If you’re a national park newbie, be sure to read all the way to the bottom where I give you some great tips on visiting the national parks.

The #1 Reason You Might Not Want to Visit a US National Park

They are often super crowded. Our family has been visiting a lot of national parks over the past decade and I was shocked at how much more crowded National Parks in the USA are getting. Plus, the headache of entry reservations makes it more work than it’s worth.

Reserving a Day-Use Access Pass To Visit Some National Parks

The following National Parks require advanced reservations for their busy season. Each park has different rules in regards to which dates, for what specific times of day, how far in advance you can purchase, and if your hotel, campground, or wilderness permit counts as a reservation. Check their individual website for the exact details. Note that National Parks require an entrance fee in addition to the entry reservation.

  • Arches National Park (April 1 through October 31)
  • Glacier National Park only for Going-to-the-Sun Road and North Fork areas (May 24 through September 8) and Many Glacier (July 1 through September 8)
  • Haleakala National Park for sunrise 3am to 7am
  • Mount Rainier National Park for both the Paradise Corridor and Sunrise Corridor 
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a parking tag
  • Shenandoah National Park just for Old Rag Mountain area
  • Acadia National Park for Cadillac Summit Road (May 24 through October 22)
  • Rocky Mountain National Park for Bear Lake corridor (May 24 through October 20) and the rest of the park (May 24 through October 15)
  • Yosemite National Park on weekends (April 13 to June 30 and August 17 to October 27) and daily (July 1 to August 16)
  • Zion National Park but just to hike Angel’s Landing (year round)
Views from the best hike in Zion, Angels Landing
Views from the summit of the best hike in Zion National Park

Summit STOKE

If I wasn’t so obsessed with hiking mountain peaks, I’d probably look into spending more time in the less popular national parks. However, I must say, the popular ones are popular for a reason and if this is your first trip to a national park you probably want to see the most epic ones!

Things to do Badlands South Dakota
Rockin the Patagonia Down Jackets in Badlands, SD

Pack List For The National Parks

12 Things I Love About Visiting National Parks

Hiking Paradise Mount Rainier NP

1 | Hiking is safe and easy

We love that the trails in national parks are so well marked and even labeled beginner, intermediate and advanced to ensure you don’t bite off more than you can chew. 

2 | Camping in the parks is so much fun

Camping inside the National Parks makes visiting a National Park even more memorable. While they often don’t have full hookups, most do have water, toilets, and a camp host to help you. 

The only downside to camping in the national parks is that, because they are so wonderful, it’s often hard to get a campsite at them. Some are reservable but you often need to book 6 months in advance. If you are planning last minute and don’t have reservations, try using Camp Scanner or use our How To Find Free Camping blog.

Best campground Zion, Utah, Watchman
Sleep right under the towering red rocks of Zion, Utah at Watchman Campground

3 | Ranger talks are so informative

In the summer, the campgrounds often have ranger presentations in the amphitheater and my kids absolutely love attending these. One year, at Kalalau campground in Olympic National Park, a ranger gave a one-hour PowerPoint presentation that taught me more than I had learned in all my high school science classes.

4 | My younger kids love earning junior ranger badges

If you’ve never been to a national park and have kids, be sure to go straight to the visitor center (assuming it’s open this summer) and get a junior ranger book. After they complete the book, you take it back to the ranger and they receive a badge and will be sworn in as “junior rangers”. My kids loved doing this when they were younger and in Denali NP, they give the kids full backpacks filled with science projects for free!

Junior Rangers, Denali National Park, Hiking and Camping, Alaska
Tati and Jiraiya getting initiated as Junior Rangers in Denali

5 | No cell service is common

This may be a downside, however, I definitely see it as an upside considering how much time I spend working on my computer. There is rarely cell service inside the national parks which means I get to disconnect and chill out.

6 | Wildlife Viewing

One of the most powerful gifts you can give yourself and your family is to see the animals inside these parks. We have been to some pretty amazing places and have had the opportunity to share space with bears, bison, raptors, elk, fox, wolf, and moose.

Be smart. These are wild animals, give them their space and I highly recommend to mind by the rules the park recommends about the distance you give each animal.

Invest in a good pair of binoculars or many places you can rent. When we went to Lamar Valley to view the wolf packs we learned you can rent high-powered viewing equipment to see the animals from 1/4 mile away. Thankfully some kind strangers allowed the kids to take a peek through their lenses so they could see the wolves and the pups.  

Wildlife in Denali National Park, Hiking and Camping, Alaska
Walking past a lone Caribou while hiking a river bed in Denali

7 | It’s easy for RV’s to get around

If you are traveling in an RV, know that most of the major attractions and popular trailheads have parking lots for RV’s. Now, I wouldn’t tow my 5th wheel into these parking lots, but if you are traveling in a 35 ft class C or smaller, you’ll probably be fine.

Winter in Bryce Canyon
Winter hiking on the Rim Trail in Bryce Canyon

Tips For Visiting The USA National Parks

1. Journal the memories

If I knew back then how much I was going to love the national parks and how often I would be visiting them, I would’ve been better at documenting the memories. We did buy the National Park Passport book and that has been fun, but I wish I had bought a vest or something like this to save all the kid’s badges on.

2. There are amazing adventures just outside the National Park boundaries

While I love the national parks, there are a lot of great hikes and camping spots just outside the parks too. If crowds aren’t your thing and you are going to visit during the peak of summer, you might want to plan your trip so that you can go early in the morning or late in the evening and do something else during the day. 

For instance, you can hike Angel’s Landing In Zion by starting before sunrise ad then go spend the day exploring all the great hikes in St George or drive Kolob Canyon. 

Owens Loop trail, downtown St George
Owens Loop trail on the edge of downtown St George

3. An early start can make all the difference

 I know you’re on vacation but crowds and noise tend to scare off animal life so if you can, get up early to explore. Plus early morning provides the best photo ops, trails are less crowded, and you will have better luck getting parking.

4. Visit during the shoulder season

If you want nice weather with fewer crowds, try to plan your trip for May, early June, September, or early October. 

5. Leave no “emotional” trace

While yes, everyone wants to protect the outdoors and you should absolutely pack out what you pack in and stay on the trail, I want to end this blog post with a mindfulness message. Hey! Emotions are hot these days, when you go to a national park, you see people from all walks of life which means you are guaranteed to see or talk to you with different opinions. The Golden Rule still applies post-Covid, ‘Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.’ Enjoy your national trip vacation and tag us on IG @nomadswithapurpose✌️

Top 8 MUST SEE National Parks in the USA

These are the National Parks that we think you have to check off your bucket list and should prioritize before visiting the others. They are not ranked in any specific order.

Denali National Park

Raw nature and an abundance of wildlife is what makes Denali National Park a must see. While we find it not the best national park for hiking, the feeling of being in the open wilderness and getting to see Mount McKinley is pretty rad.

Eilson Visitor Center, Denali National Park, Hiking and Camping, Alaska

Glacier National Park

Driving the Going-to-the-Sun-Road is a must do when visiting Glacier National Park. But there is more to Glacier than just a steep, windy road. We love the number and diversity of hikes there are here and that there are numerous areas to explore between Apgar, Many Glacier, and Two Medicine. If you love mountains, alpine lakes, and wildlife, then Glacier is a must for you. Plus, we think the nearby town of Whitefish is pretty rad.

Glacier National PArk, September Fall Colors
If you thought summer in Glacier was beautiful, wait till you see fall. (Photo taken on Going to the Sun Road in late September)

Zion National Park

You have to experience the magic of Zion’s red rocks looming over you and the beauty of Zion’s Virgin River meandering through the narrow valley. Unlike Glacier, you don’t really need to love hiking to experience the beauty of this National Park. While Angel’s Landing is a popular hike, you can just ride the shuttle and take short strolls at various stops and soak in the positive energy field here.

Winter on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
In Winter, you’ll have full freedom to explore Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in your own vehicle

North Cascades

The first time I visited North Cascades I was impressed with the beautiful teal green of Diablo Lake however, it wasn’t until this last time, when we finally got to explore the area of North Cascades by Mount Baker ski area and the beautiful hikes near Cascade Pass made me really fall in love with this National Park.

There are actually more glaciers here than in Glacier National Park, making the hiking even more jaw dropping than the other National Parks on this list. The only negative is that everything is spread out and there isn’t a lot of infrastructure in the park.

Yellowstone National Park

Like Denali, this park is a must if you love seeing wildlife. While you may not see a bear, there is a really good chance you will see bison and possibly even wolves, moose, and elk.

The geothermal activity is pretty impressive and even though it’s not one of my favorite National Parks, I do think it is something everyone should get to experience once in their life.

Grand Teton to Yellowstone to Glacier National Parks Road Trip Grand Prismatic

Grand Teton National Park

Pretty much every summer we come to the Tetons to do some epic hike or climb one of the many of peaks. The nice thing about visiting the Tetons is that you don’t have to hike or climb to take in its beauty

Just driving alone Teton Road and stopping at the various overlooks is worth the effort.

Of course, you easily could spend a week here adding in Jackson Hole and the area of Driggs and Grand Targhee on the back side of the Tetons.

Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park

Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year both locally and internationally. It’s not hard to see why when you gaze at the glaciated summit from the lush meadows of Paradise (rightfully named).

The cool part of Mount Rainier are the various regions and aspects of the mountain for you to explore and the abundance of beautiful hikes. Paradise is the most popular area and a must-see but be sure to explore the less crowded Sunrise side.

Mount Rainier is also home to an iconic backpacking route called the Wonderland trail, a worthy objective if you can manage to get a permit.

Skyline Trail, Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park
Enjoying views from Rainier’s most famous hike, Skyline Trail from Paradise

Yosemite National Park

Home to legendary granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and towering sequoias, Yosemite is a haven for nature enthusiasts and avid hikers. For those seeking a memorable day of exploration without the constraints of obtaining a hiking permit, you’ll love hiking the Four Mile Trail to Panorama Trail to Mist Trail.

Yosemite Falls

Click here to read about our favorite hike in Yosemite and why we prefer camping in Tuolumne Meadows.

Rocky Mountain National Park

As the prized gem of Colorado’s mountains, Rocky Mountain National Park is a hub of alpine beauty that offers endless adventures for every skill level. From the easy hikes around Bear Lake to summiting the prestigious Long’s Peak, every view and trail throughout the park will take your breath away.

You could spend days here if the park allowed it! Unfortunately, this is one of the few parks that requires a reservation permit just to get inside which can be a challenge if you don’t plan ahead. Make sure you read our blog about how to get a reservation to visit Rocky Mountain.

Lake of Glass, Best Day Hikes from Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park + Camping Tips
Lake of Glass

Runners Up National Parks in the USA

The following national parks are not our favorite despite the fact that we realize many people would disagree. This is just our two cents and is mostly based on the fact that we love sharp jagged and snow-capped mountains.

  1. Death Valley
  2. Mesa Verde
  3. Joshua Tree
  4. Badlands

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