Last summer, we asked supporters which national park sites were at the top of your bucket lists. Thousands of you responded. Here are the 11 parks you most want to explore — and why these places are great choices for any traveler’s wish list.
11. Big Bend National Park, Texas
This landmark Texas park protects a large swath of the Chihuahuan Desert, with rugged canyons along the Rio Grande, dramatic views of the Chisos Mountains, seven historic districts with archaeological remnants from various tribes and nations, and habitat supporting more than a thousand kinds of plants as well as a diversity of animals, such as kit foxes, bobcats, mule deer, coyotes and a whole lot of bats. Whether you pack a bathing suit to enjoy the park’s year-round hot springs, a pair of sturdy boots and a walking stick for its 150-plus miles of trails, or binoculars to spot a few of the park’s hundreds of bird species, Big Bend is a dream destination for those looking for a desert getaway.
10. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
What says adventure like a trip to Hawaii? And Hawai’i Volcanoes boasts two remarkable volcanoes — Mauna Loa, one of the largest volcanoes in the world, and Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in existence. This park also boasts the largest tract of tropical rainforest in the National Park System, as well as a historic site that is sacred to Native Hawaiians featuring more than 23,000 petroglyphs carved into the lava. Wildlife-watchers will find plenty to enjoy here as well; almost all of Hawaii’s native plants and animals are found nowhere else on Earth.
9. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
You’ll feel like you’re in another world without leaving the United States in this geologic fairyland of a park. Bryce Canyon is best known for its rock spires known as hoodoos — and this region has the greatest concentration of these colorful sandstone formations anywhere in the world. Visitors can enjoy views of these magnificent rocks from above at viewpoints along the rim of the park’s main amphitheater, and they can hike trails to the bottom of the valley floor and gaze up while walking among these same rocks. Some of the park’s other notable features include natural arches, ancient bristlecone pines, meadows with prairie dog colonies and 14 scenic overlooks.
8. Olympic National Park, Washington
Taking a trip to Olympic National Park is like visiting three parks in one: A coast with enormous rock formations known as sea stacks just off the water’s edge, a lush rainforest carpeted with mosses and flowing with waterfalls, and a range of rugged, glacier-capped mountains. Scattered among the remaining acreage are lakes, streams and flower-laden meadows — a remarkable diversity of offerings for visitors to enjoy. Although driving is permitted around the outer edge of the Olympic Peninsula, 95 percent of the park is designated wilderness. The sheer size of this protected space, coupled with dramatic changes in elevation and precipitation, creates diverse habitats and ideal retreats for travelers looking for a little bit of everything — and a lot of tranquility.
7. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The picturesque beauty of this park makes it a popular destination for many travelers. Seven thousand feet above the valley of Jackson Hole, the Teton Range dominates the landscape with its distinctive jagged granite pinnacles, which stand tall above the Snake River as it winds through the landscape. This park also offers scenic lakes, 200 miles of trails, historic barns and homesteads from Mormon pioneers who settled in the area in the late 1800s, and in the summer, after most of the snow has melted, a variety of wildflowers bursting with color. It’s also an excellent spot to see iconic wildlife species such as bison, moose and pronghorn.
6. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
No matter which trail or activity you choose, the views are simply spectacular at the Grand Canyon. Spanning 277 river miles and measuring a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide in some places, this famous canyon offers wondrous rocks, challenging hikes, world-class whitewater rafting and countless adventures. The park also protects a wealth of biological diversity, including numerous threatened species such as the bald eagle and desert tortoise. One look across the enormous chasm confirms just why this inspirational place is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a must-see destination for so many nature lovers.
5. Acadia National Park, Maine
For those who long for an island getaway, Acadia’s Mount Desert Island offers a distinctly rugged version of paradise. The park’s sun-kissed mountains, coastal forests, deep blue waters, scenic trails and carriage roads, and historic lighthouses make it a popular and picturesque Northeastern destination. Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the Atlantic coast, is one of the first places you can see the sun rise in the United States; and because much of the park is surrounded by the ocean, Acadia is also one of the few good places on the East Coast to see the night sky after the sun goes down, protected as it is from light pollution.
4. Yosemite National Park, California
Sculpted granite rock, towering sequoia trees, lush meadows of flowers, dramatic cascading waterfalls — Yosemite is so striking in its beauty, exploring the park is like walking through a vivid dream. From Inspiration Point, showcasing an iconic view of Yosemite Valley’s astounding rock formations, to Mariposa Grove, where visitors can walk among some of the largest trees in the country, to Tuolumne Meadows, where wildflowers grow in miles of fields surrounded by peaks and domes, there are so many breathtaking vistas and natural wonders, you could create an entire bucket list from the sights within the park itself.
3. Glacier National Park, Montana
The Blackfeet Indians call this rugged region near the Canadian border the “backbone of the world.” With over one million acres of breathtaking alpine landscapes, glaciated mountains and deep blue lakes, Glacier is a place of natural wonders and remote tranquility. Going-to-Sun Road cuts through a cross-section of the park and is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the country, and outdoor lovers will find an abundance of adventures beyond this famous road, from wildlife watching, hiking the many trails, kayaking the peaceful lakes and rivers, and attending ranger-led programs, including boat tours and snowshoe walks in winter.
2. Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming
Yellowstone was the first national park on Earth and it helped to define the concept of public land. Today, it is still one of the most celebrated and widely visited parks in the country. Famous for its geothermal wonders, including steaming geysers and burbling mudpots, this landmark park also features the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states and is an ideal spot to see bison, bears, wolves, pronghorn and other charismatic animals. The dynamic landscape of craggy mountain peaks, alpine lakes and deep forests is a classic choice for every bucket list.
1. Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
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Can you picture 6 million acres of forests, glaciers, mountains, rivers and valleys, with just one winding road leading into all of that rugged wilderness? It’s no wonder Denali National Park captures the imagination of so many people and was overwhelmingly the park our readers picked most as their dream destination of choice. Denali may be best known for its namesake mountain, North America’s tallest — but its vast landscapes encompass a wonderland of peaks and valleys and offer a sanctuary for bears, foxes, lynx, moose, wolves and numerous bird species. Most of the park’s 400,000 annual visitors arrive in the summer, but the long, dark winters offer their own charm, with snowy solitude, stark vistas, and plenty of activities for those experienced and comfortable with extreme weather.
Where are you planning your next national park adventure? What travel tips are you most interested in as you think about the year ahead?
Note: You can travel with NPCA to these parks by signing up for small-group tours through our travel program. Check out NPCA’s full 2017 tour lineup to 25 national parks.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.