Blog Post Jennifer Errick Aug 3, 2016

The 14 Parks You Can't Get Enough Of

The results of our recent poll are in, and we can’t think of a better way to celebrate the National Park Service centennial this month than to share what you, the parks’ biggest advocates, love most in our park system.

1. Favorite Park for Waterfalls

Yosemite National Park, California

It’s no surprise that this park took the top honor for waterfalls, with 25 percent of survey respondents picking it as their favorite. Waterfalls are a major tourist attraction at this iconic park, for good reason. Yosemite Valley’s high granite walls offer dramatic settings for falling water, and the copious snowmelt creates rushing cascades throughout the park in spring. Visitors can easily drive or take short hikes to reach some of these falls, including Sentinel Falls, Ribbon Fall, Bridalveil Falls, Vernal Falls (shown above) and Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America.


2. Favorite Park for Wildflowers

Glacier National Park, Montana

The best park for wildflowers was the closest contest in the survey, with the top four choices only 53 votes apart. Still, Glacier National Park managed to edge out Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks, respectively, with its spectacular alpine blooms. Glacier is home to nearly a thousand different kinds of flowering plants. In April, glacier lilies begin to bring color to the lower altitudes, blooming at higher and higher elevations as the season progresses. In summer, purple asters dot the park’s eastern meadows. And profusions of beargrass cover the landscape in curious spikes of white blossoms at the height of the park’s wildflower season, roughly late June through August.


3. Favorite Park for Fall Foliage

Acadia National Park, Maine

New England is known for its spectacular fall colors, and Acadia draws thousands of leaf-peepers each year to witness its vibrant displays. Visitors may not realize that much of the fall color in this national park is owed to a disaster. The autumn of 1947 brought the driest conditions ever recorded to Acadia’s Mount Desert Island; a fire broke out and raged for 10 days, burning 17,188 acres. Mature spruce and fir were destroyed, replaced by fast-growing birch, aspen, poplar and maple. Now, instead of the uniform year-round green of conifers, Acadia displays brilliant reds, oranges and yellows. Peak season is generally mid-October.


4. Favorite Park for Wildlife-Watching

Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming

Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, earning it the nickname “the American Serengeti,” so it’s no wonder it easily won first place with 46 percent of the vote. The park not only hosts an abundance of charismatic megafauna, such as bison, bears, wolves, elk, moose, pronghorn, coyotes and bighorn sheep, visitors can also see rare trumpeter swans and other birds, as well as a range of fascinating smaller species, including otters, martens, bats, bobcats, native fish and spadefoot toads.


5. Favorite Park for Bird-Watching

Everglades National Park, Florida

The Everglades’ proximity to the tropics gives it a geographic advantage in the great number of birds that make their homes there. In all, visitors have spotted more than 360 kinds of birds at this park, from rare species such as snail kites and red-cockaded woodpeckers to common and equally spectacular varieties, including burrowing owls, cormorants, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills and wood storks. The Everglades is one of the best places in the country for seeing large, diverse flocks of birds, from waterfowl to shorebirds to raptors, and one of the only places in the United States where visitors can occasionally see flamingos.


6. Favorite Park for Stargazing

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

The Colorado Plateau is home to some of the darkest night skies in the country, and the fairy-like silhouettes of Bryce Canyon’s famed hoodoos help make it one of the most popular stargazing destinations in the National Park System. This park also has some of the best astronomy programs the Park Service offers, with several night-sky programs a week during most of the year, including regular presentations by guest astronomers on a range of topics and more than 50 telescopes for visitors to use. In the summer, star programs are offered every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night beginning at 8:30 p.m. in August and 8 p.m. in September.


7. Favorite Park for a Beach Vacation

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

This windswept New England cape is a classic choice for a beach vacation and a perfect place to indulge in the sand and surf. The park borders a historic fishing village with a thriving artist community and features barrier islands, pine and oak forests, tidal flats, kettle ponds, boardwalks, lighthouses, and 15 beautiful beaches for swimming and fishing. You can even swim at the same beach where Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first successful transatlantic wireless radio message!


8. Favorite Park for Civil War History

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

This military park represents the most overwhelming reader pick in any category of our Readers’ Choice Poll, with a whopping 53 percent of the vote (by comparison, Maryland’s Antietam National Battlefield took second place with 8 percent of the vote). These hallowed battlefields represent some of the most significant military events in the history of America. The clashes that took place here in July 1863 were pivotal battles and the deadliest engagement in the course of the American Civil War. The conflict was the last meaningful offensive the South would conduct against Union forces, known now as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.“ The site also features a visitor center with extensive interpretive resources, including one of the largest collections of Civil War artifacts in the country.


9. Favorite Park for Paddling

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Most visitors take in the enormity of this geologic wonder from overlooks along the rims, but down below, paddling enthusiasts will find even more to celebrate. A trip on the Colorado River is an excellent way to enjoy the park’s spectacular scenery, including views that simply can’t be experienced from above. To explore the Colorado’s 277 miles of exhilarating whitewater (ranging from Class I to Class V) — the force that carved the canyon into being — visitors can hire one of more than a dozen private tour companies for single-day or multi-day tours or apply to get a permit for a self-guided tour using the park’s lottery system. It’s a bucket list trip for experienced paddlers — period.


10. Favorite Park for Mountain Views

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Teton Range is unusual because it has no foothills, meaning that there are no smaller mountains blocking the view. This is partly due to the mountains’ location on a fault line and partly because they are so young — just 6 to 9 million years old — that they have not eroded significantly. Add in the spectacular location of these distinctive peaks along the Snake River, and it’s no surprise so many readers chose these mountains as their favorites out of all of the mountains in the National Park System. Even the famous photographer Ansel Adams found lasting inspiration in these views.


11. Favorite Park for Canyons

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

This may be the least surprising winner in the survey. America’s Southwest is full of amazing canyons, but none as widely visited as the Grand Canyon. Spanning 277 river miles and measuring a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide in some places, this canyon offers wondrous views, great whitewater rafting and countless adventures. This world-famous landmark is part of the larger geologic formation known as the Grand Staircase, which also includes Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in Utah, and is actually the youngest of the canyons in the region, despite its immense size. The Colorado River has been carving its way through the Southwest for nearly 70 million years, but the Grand Canyon is a relatively youthful 6 million years old. One look across the enormous chasm confirms just why this inspirational place is a must-see destination for so many travelers.


12. Favorite Park for Lighthouses

Acadia National Park, Maine

The National Park Service preserves nearly 50 lighthouses throughout the country. Acadia National Park may not boast the most (Apostle Island National Lakeshore does), nor does it have the oldest (Sandy Hook Light at Gateway National Park in New Jersey earns that honor), but this picturesque New England park does offer two remarkable historic structures that win over visitors year after year. The Bass Harbor Head Light is a popular tourist destination, set against the park’s craggy coastline; Baker Island Light is nestled on one of the Cranberry Islands for more remote tourist experience. Both allow visitors to take a look back into America’s maritime history in a spectacular setting.


13. Favorite Overall Park Experience

Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming

What national park is an enduring favorite with broad popular appeal? It’s hard to pick a more classic choice than Yellowstone, the world’s first national park and a place that helped define why it is so important to protect these magnificent sites as public lands. With the diverse terrain, the wide array of wildlife, the natural beauty, the profusion of waterfalls and, of course, the impressive, heavily concentrated geothermal features, this park delivers miles of splendor and is, in so many ways, the essence of American beauty and inspiration.


14. The Top Park on Your Bucket List

Denali National Park, Alaska

Which park is the ultimate dream destination? Readers responded with 238 different answers from every corner of the country, from Tuzigoot to Buck Island Reef to Hawaii Volcanoes. Of the hundreds of options, however, the one on the most wish lists is way up north in one of the most celebrated parts of Alaska. Denali offers a big space for big dreams, with more than 6 million acres of varied landscapes, including the tallest peak in North America. It’s no wonder so many park lovers want to make the Last Frontier their next destination.

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About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.