Our national parks are sometimes called “America’s Best Idea.” While all of them are beautiful, some are so spectacular that everyone should visit them at least once. Here are 12 that make my list because there really is nothing else like them.
1. Denali, AK
If you’re lucky enough to get a clear day, you’ll see the summit of Denali, North America’s highest mountain. Denali is also one of the world’s biggest mountains; it rises almost 18,000’ from base to summit, compared to 12,000’ for Everest, the world’s highest peak. If the peak isn’t “out,” you’re still likely to see a variety of wildlife, such as bears, wolves, Dall sheep, moose, and caribou.
2. Hawaii Volcanoes, HI
The unforgettable highlight of this park is the sunset hike out to a viewing point where you can watch glowing-red lava flowing from a cliff opening into the Pacific Ocean. Elsewhere in the park, you can hike through a cave, walk on black volcanic rock, see a sea arch, and more.
3. Crater Lake, OR
When the volcano Mount Mazama blew its top, water from rain and snowmelt eventually filled the opening. This deep-blue lake is now the deepest lake in the U.S. at nearly 2000’ deep. It’s best at dawn when the still waters reflect the glowing rim around it.
4. Yosemite, CA
John Muir’s “Incomparable Valley” is a must-see for features such as El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls. However, what keeps bringing me back to Yosemite is the high country around Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass, where you wander among peaks, domes, meadows, and alpine lakes of the High Sierra, Muir’s “Range of Light.”
5. Death Valley, CA
“Otherworldly” and “surreal” are apt adjectives for the landscape here. On my first visit, I was entranced by the colorful badlands at Zabriskie Point, and in the late afternoon, my brother and I returned to climb Manly Beacon, which towers above the badlands, to watch the sun setting over snowy Telescope Peak.
Since then, I’ve returned many times to explore the badlands, peaks, sand dunes, narrow canyons, and other features of this massive park. Don’t let the fact that this is the hottest place on Earth keep you away; in fact, after a rare big rain, the valleys come to life in colorful wildflower blooms.
6. Glacier, MT
The first time I was here, clouds were obscuring the mountains, and while the cliffs, streams, and lakes were pretty, the park wasn’t anything special. Then the sun broke out and the clouds scattered as we approached Logan Pass on the incomparable Going-to-the-Sun Road, and we were in awe. Nowhere else in the U.S are the mountains so dramatic and so colorful.
I’ve been back at least every other year to experience the magical peaks, lakes, and waterfalls of this park, one of the system’s crown jewels.
7. Yellowstone, ID-MT-WY
The world’s first national park, Yellowstone has the highest concentration of geysers and other geothermal features in the world. It’s also known for its rugged mountains and its wildlife, particularly in the Lamar Valley, known as the American Serengeti.
One of my favorite things to do in Yellowstone is to wander among the hills and ridges of the northeastern section, where you can see countless elk antlers, petrified wood specimens, and colorful minerals (all are illegal to remove).
8. Zion, UT
Southern Utah is home to 5 impressive national parks, but if I could only visit 1, it would be Arches or Zion, with a leaning toward Zion. This park has features such as sandstone pinnacles, slot canyons, natural arches, and Native American petroglyphs. Hiking the Virgin River Narrows is a unique and unforgettable experience, as is seeing the towering walls of Zion Canyon, often referred to as the Yosemite of the Southwest.
9. Grand Canyon, AZ
Unless I’m hiking down into the canyon, this park has gotten too busy for me, but the crowds shouldn’t stop you from making at least one trip here. After all, the Grand Canyon is one of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World. It’s especially amazing at sunrise and sunset when intense colors contrast with deep shadows.
10. Big Bend, TX
Because it’s so remote, Big Bend never gets crowded. Certain trails and locations do, but the park is so big that you can always find solitude if that’s what you want. Among the highlights are the Chisos Mountains, Santa Elena Canyon, and Boquillas Canyon, but there are many other wonders to discover.
11. Acadia, ME
Acadia captures the best of Maine all in one place. Mountaintops with sweeping views, rocky coasts where the Atlantic Ocean pounds cliffs and boulders, lakes carved by ancient glaciers, and quiet tidepools teeming with life await visitors. Fall is the rainiest season, but it’s also when the leaves change to the vibrant colors that make New England autumns so legendary.
12. Everglades, FL
Except for a dramatic sunrise or sunset over Florida Bay, Everglades National Park can’t vie with the others here for amazing natural scenery. However, it’s the wildlife that’s the main draw. The most famous might be the alligators, but the park is also the home or a migratory stopping point for millions of birds, including several rare and endangered species.
The Florida Bay area is also where you can see manatees, and it’s the only place in the U.S. where you can find American crocodiles.
Best Place to See the Grand Canyon Sunrise at South Rim
If you’re wondering where the best place to see the Grand Canyon sunrise at South Rim is, you’re not alone. With more than six million visitors to the national park each year, there are plenty of people trying to find the best place to see the show.
And what a show it is! Mother Nature does not disappoint. It was easily one of the most memorable sunrises we’ve ever seen! There are some things you should know before you go, though, and we’ll do our best to answer all your questions for you.
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Robert Sihler is an educator, freelance writer, and rock climbing guide and instructor living with his family in Driftwood, Texas. In his spare time, he enjoys reading fiction, streaming films, completing crossword puzzles, and rock climbing. When he goes on vacation, he likes to visit the mountains of the West and climb remote, obscure peaks that have seen few or no prior ascents.