The U.S. National Park System is among the greatest treasures that the United States of America has. It includes over 400 sites and is spread across every corner of the continental U.S., as well as Hawaii, Alaska and territories like Puerto Rico and Guam. In our national parks, you’ll find the plants, animals and geographic features that have shaped America’s story.
Every National Park has unique features that make it worth seeing and experiencing. But if you’ve gotta choose just 10 of the best, these are our picks for the ones that you absolutely must experience during your lifetime. Some are well-known, others slightly less so, but all epitomize the spirit of discovery and connection with nature on which the U.S. National Park system is built. (Before visiting any of these parks, be sure to check local COVID-19 restrictions and follow all government guidelines.)
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Joshua Tree National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park (named after its signature thorny plant) is a collision zone between two substantially different desert ecosystems, the Colorado desert and the Mojave desert. The result of this mash-up is a landscape unlike any other, with fascinating geological features and plants and animals that have adapted to survive in a bone-dry environment that’s also occasionally blasted by downpours. (Having U2’s The Joshua Tree playing on your stereo or motorcycle helmet speakers is optional, but recommended.)
- Zion National Park, Utah
The jaw-dropping red-walled sandstone canyons of Zion National Park are among the most arresting pieces of scenery in the entire continental U.S. Numerous hiking trails cross this majestic area, including a variety suitable for novice hikers, but hiking diehards will get access to the best views, including the legendary Angels Landing. The park’s popularity has exploded in recent years, which has caused some overcrowding in its sometimes twisted and narrow confines, so be prepared to wait your turn—but seriously, we promise that it’s worth it.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina
America’s number one most popular national park, the Great Smoky Mountains, encompasses a massive swath of forest land along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The Smokies are home to a cornucopia of unique plant and animal life as well as many relics of the quickly-vanishing Appalachian mountain culture. Check out the views from Clingman’s Dome, and make sure to stop in at Cades Cove for an opportunity to view white-tailed deer, black bear, wild turkeys and much more.
- Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite is another of America’s most popular national parks, thanks to the incredible variety of landscapes that it contains. From dramatic stone cliffs like El Capitan to peaceful groves of giant sequoia trees, Yosemite has many things that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Camping and backpacking are extremely popular here, so make sure to grab a camping reservation and an overnight pass if you want the full Yosemite experience.
- Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The rolling landscape of the Shenandoah National Park is stocked with showpiece waterfalls, verdant hills and secluded hollows where you’ll hear nothing except the chirping of birds and buzzing of insects. What’s more, it’s only a little over an hour’s drive from Washington, DC, which makes it an ideal one- or two-day trip if you’re in town to see the nation’s capital.
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Shenandoah National Park
- Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The forbidding landscapes of Badlands National Park are seemingly plucked from science fiction, with their layers upon layers of colored rock bands created by millions of years of erosion. The Badlands are home to one of North America’s most important fossil beds, but wildlife is far from a thing of the past here. You’ll find that it’s home to everything from bison to bighorn sheep to the extremely endangered black-footed ferret.
- Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
What is there to say about the Grand Canyon that hasn’t already been repeated a thousand times? It’s iconic, it’s massive, it’s a landscape unlike any other in the world. Pro tip: Try visiting the North Rim for a viewing experience that’s just as spectacular, but less crowded than the more popular South Rim. And make sure to book lodging far in advance, as it fills up more quickly here than in most other national parks.
- Yellowstone National Park, Idaho/Montana/Wyoming
Volcanic activity does some truly wild things to a landscape, and Yellowstone National Park puts those volcanic features on display in the most exciting possible way. Millions of visitors every year flock to the rainbow hues of the hydrothermal hot springs, not to mention the incredible variety of wildlife that includes some of America’s largest remaining populations of elk and buffalo.
- Olympic National Park, Washington
Did you realize there are honest-to-goodness rainforests right here in the U.S.? Olympic National Park has all that and more, with incredible biodiversity of ecosystems that includes the famous Hoh Rain Forest as well as snow-capped mountains and roaring rivers. Speaking of which, Olympic is a fisherman’s paradise, with the Northwest’s greatest remaining runs of wild salmon, trout and char.
- Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
The Rocky Mountains are a uniquely rugged and beautiful landscape, and their beauty shines especially bright within the borders of Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road reaches a staggering height of 12,000 feet, and you’ll find unique alpine ecosystems here that are scarce elsewhere in the U.S. (Another car stereo/motorcycle helmet speaker suggestion: Either John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” or Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” depending on your preferred vibe.)
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Rocky Mountain National Park
National parks provide something that’s all too rare these days: A chance to see nature in its purest and most spectacular form. It’s good for the body and good for the soul, too—so make some time in next year’s schedule for a trip into America’s wildest places.