Arguably the best idea America ever had was our national parks system. More than 300 million people visit every year, pouring over $35 billion into the national economy. You should be one of them! Many parks offer free entrance days -- for some, every single day is a free entrance day -- and if you want to go all out, an $80 annual pass gets you and a friend unlimited access to all the national parks for the entire year.
But which park to visit? There are currently a whopping 60 national parks in America. To help narrow the playing field, we have thusly ranked what are, per to National Parks Service’s 2017 data, the 25 most-visited.
Now, it should be noted that America’s least-visited national parks are often the least-visited not because they are uncool, but because they are geographically inconvenient for most Americans to reach (like Virgin Islands National Park, or Alaska’s Denali). By the same token, Great Smoky Mountains National Park wins “most-visited” year after year on a technicality (basically, people drive through it a lot just to get from Point A to Point B). But while it is widely known that there is nothing journalists love more than to put things in numerical order according to how good they are, we do not love it enough to do 60 things. We will be doing 25 things.
Did we rank the parks according their uniqueness, or photogenicness, or diversity of flora and fauna, or for the level of adventure contained therein? Yes. We ranked them according to which ones are the best. Let’s begin.
Are You Brave Enough to Walk Around on the Wings of a Biplane While It's Flying at 3,500 Feet?
Missouri Edging out Saguaro National Park from 2016’s most-visited list is America’s newest national park. Formerly known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Gateway Arch National Park represents an incredible modernization of St. Louis that blends the urban world with the natural. The Gateway Arch museum records the region’s history of slavery and Westward expansion; the arch itself has defined the St. Louis skyline for more than 50 years (and yes, you can take a tram to the top.)
To be clear, all of these things are great -- the reason Gateway Arch ranks last is not because it is not an exceptional site, it’s because it’s not really an exceptional site by national park standards. It’s small, and ultimately it’s urban no matter how many trees they plant or green highways they unveil. The NPS still hasn’t really explained why, exactly, Gateway Arch was redesignated as a national park, which usually protect unique or vulnerable ecosystems. You should definitely visit Gateway Arch; it’s just not your place for backcountry camping or hiking or any of the things you visit national parks to do.
24. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Ohio At 33,000 acres there is some very nice-looking nature here, despite part of the park being a former Superfund site -- waterfalls, caves, forests, interesting rock formations, plus hiking and biking and horseback riding trails. Brandywine Falls is an especially gorgeous spot. You’ll definitely want to enjoy a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, and you can also canoe and kayak on the Cuyahoga River. Plus, entrance is free. All that being said, Cuyahoga Valley doesn’t really bring anything to the table that you can’t already get at any other national park; thus, we’re pretty lukewarm about it.
23. Everglades National Park
Florida I can already feel my computer humming faster and faster as it overheats from incoming hate mail, but I am fully prepared. Everglades National Park was created in order to protect something delicate, rather than just something old, and that is an encouraging approach. It is a great day trip from Miami, and there are some cool hidden campsites only accessible by boat, and if you want to zoom around on an airboat and maybe catch some gator wrestling, then Everglades is not the worst. That said, wetlands is a fancy word for swamp (yes I know there is a scientific difference, don’t @ me). It’s a swamp. You’re in a swamp. There are mosquitos, like, everywhere, plus the kind of flies that bite you. It’s humid. It’s wet. And it’s got school bus-sized pythons, which is either a plus or a minus depending on who’s asking.
22. Hot Springs National Park
Arkansas So, Hot Springs is ranked low on this list for reasons similar to Gateway Arch -- it’s smallish, urbanish, and it doesn't really have any unique or otherwise noteworthy natural features. Still, Hot Springs is actually pretty cool -- it predates Yellowstone, which is widely credited as our oldest national park, and while you can’t bathe in the purportedly healing (but much too hot) waters of the eponymous hot springs, you can and should bathe at various establishments on the nearby Bathhouse Row. Hot Springs is one of the do-not-miss items when you visit Arkansas. Also, it’s free!
Virginia A former park ranger here holds the world record for being struck by lightning -- seven times. (This wasn’t factored into Shenandoah’s ranking one way or the other, but it seems worth mentioning regardless.) There are some fantastic waterfall hikes in this park, and the Skyline Drive -- a 105-mile stretch of road wending its way over the Blue Ridge Mountains -- is as good a scenic drive as it gets. You can hike parts of the Appalachian Trail here, and of course there are a number of shorter, less exhausting routes too; try the trails around Rose River or South River Falls.
20. Capitol Reef National Park
Utah Most of the meager attention that gets paid to Capitol Reef -- it’s competing with four other national parks in the state of Utah alone -- revolves around the Waterpocket Fold, a unique 100-mile-long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust. But you don’t have to be a geology nerd to enjoy what this park has to offer. A fun and overlooked feature of Capitol Reef is that it contains orchards where, during the appropriate season, you can go and harvest fruit. Not only can you hike up to Cassidy Arch, one of the park’s more recognizable features, but also rappel down. You should hike to both the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. There’s also some great stargazing to be done here -- the International Dark Sky Association designated it a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park, which means good views and little light pollution.
19. Mount Rainier National Park
Washington Mount Rainier, capped off by glaciers, is an iconic backdrop in the Seattle skyline. The hiking options on this 14,410-foot peak are so challenging and diverse that aspiring Everest-climbers use them for training. But you don’t have to gear up for something quite so involved as all that to enjoy trekking across lava fields overgrown with a million shades of green, cut through with waterfall and glaciers and, in the summertime, some really spectacular wildflowers. You can also enjoy the sites without even leaving your car with a drive up to the 6,400-foot elevation Sunrise point.
18. Haleakala National Park
Hawaii There are probably very few places on earth better for taking a bike ride at sunrise than Haleakala. And if you’re the sort of person who enjoys the prospect of climbing into an active volcano, then Haleakala certainly checks a box that other national parks do not; the 10,023-foot Haleakala Mountain is your spot. There are also bamboo forests and gorgeous freshwater pools, though swimming is unfortunately not recommended. Haleakala also enjoys the distinction of having more endangered species there than any other national park in America.
Utah Zion is a perennial favorite, and its die-hards will no doubt protest its placement so early in this list, but it can be fairly inaccessible and limited in terms of activities on offer. Backcountry hikers and climbers come here for The Subway, a nine-plus-mile hike that can involve rappelling, depending on which direction you try to tackle it from. The slot canyons here, set off by rust-red rocks and waterfalls (don’t miss Weeping Rock) are undeniably iconic, and Angel’s Landing is a great underrated hike.
16. Acadia National Park
Maine Primarily known for being very pretty, Acadia has the additional bonus of being in close proximity to very adorable and very quaint New England towns. It’s the oldest national park east of the Mississippi, and has long been the biggest tourist attraction in the state of Maine. When not obscured by the thick fog that can roll in at a moment’s notice, the park’s top-shelf views include Somes Sound, Frenchman Bay, the Porcupine Islands, and Bar Harbor. It has 125 miles of hiking trails, not to mention serene campgrounds and some surprisingly underrated beaches.
15. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii This one contains two active volcanoes, including the world’s largest active volcano, which as you might recall has been going off as of late. Kind of a lot. But Hawaii Volcanoes recently reopened and is already pulling people back in by the thousands. You can take a scenic drive around the Crater Rim, or pack up your gear and hike through the exquisite Mauna Loa Backcountry. A ton of scientific research is conducted around this park, too -- parts of it a basically our closest analog the surface of Mars.
14. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee, North Carolina This park’s visitor numbers are inflated by the confluence of a couple of factors, namely that the Smoky Mountains happen to be located close to a number of sizable cities and other attractions (Dollywood) and also happens to be free. Basically, a lot of people just drive through here on their way to somewhere else. However that’s not Great Smoky Mountains’ fault and should be no reflection of its character. The Clingman’s Dome observation tower offers truly incredible panoramic views of the whole mountain range, there are a ton of swimming holes (that you can actually swim in!) scattered throughout, and to really cap things off you can pick your fill of wild strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and loads of other lesser-known berries while you’re hiking around.
Montana Glacier National Park is impossibly scenic, but as you’ve probably heard we have some climate change going on right now, and its namesake is rapidly melting. There are still 25 active glaciers in this park, which has the distinction of stretching into British Columbia and Alberta. Make sure you take a leisurely drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road, and that you also have a designated driver for later when you hit up the variety of good breweries sitting just a few minutes outside the park borders.
12. Olympic National Park
Washington The hallmark of this national park is its biodiversity -- you’ve got rainforest, beach, glacier, and some of the country’s best hiking trails winding through all of the above. The temperate rainforest here is the only one in the contiguous United States. Don’t miss the absolutely shocking greenness of the Hoh Rain Forest. Throw on some water shoes and go tidepooling at Kalaloch’s Beach 4 or Mora’s Hole in the Wall, or both. Plus in the winter you can ski at Hurricane Ridge.
11. Grand Teton National Park
Wyoming Grand Teton is an hour from Yellowstone, and for this reason it is often overshadowed. It doesn’t have the distinctive hydrothermal features of its more famous neighbor, but its scenic elements -- mountains, waterfalls, lakes, fall foliage, all that stuff, plus glaciers -- are every bit as scenic, not to mention usually less crowded. You can catch a boat up to Hidden Falls, or take a raft tour of the gorgeous Snake River. Cutthroat trout fishing is extremely popular here, and it has the added bonus of being close to Jackson Hole. Yes, the park’s name does refer to titties.
10. Bryce Canyon National Park
Utah Routinely cited as one of the most beautiful places in America, this park contains a massive collection of naturally formed amphitheatres and spire-shaped features called hoodoos that are some of the most distinct-looking geological features you’ll ever see in your life. There’s an annual four-day-long astronomy festival because, yes, the stargazing is incredible here too. Top views include Sunrise Point and Sunset point, which, as you may have guessed, are best viewed at sunrise and sunset.
California Long known as an LA getaway where college kids form after-after parties post-Coachella, Joshua Tree seems to become more and more beloved every year. Climbers in particular enjoy the wide variety of rock faces available to them here. The dry, arid desert is notably home to 501 archaeological sites, and camping among the rugged geological features and famously twisted Joshua Trees -- to say nothing of the stargazing -- is something everyone should do at least once.
8. Arches National Park
Utah Arches National Park contains the world’s largest concentration of, yes, sandstone arches. There are more than 2,000, all of which took millions of years to form via erosion. The one you see in all the pictures is Delicate Arch, but it’s really just one of an infinite number of absolutely jaw-dropping formations within the 120-square-mile park -- Devil’s Garden, Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace, Landscape Rock, Turret Arch, The Windows, it goes on. Arches is one of the most distinctive, alien-looking landscapes in America, and you should take advantage of the hiking trails like Devil’s Garden to really get the full experience.
7. Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado Visiting this park is without question one of the essential Colorado things you gotta do. You must drive the “highway to the sky” -- the highest continuous paved road in the country, where you can climb above the treeline without leaving your car. You must visit all the little Rocky Mountain towns. You must go camping and look for porcupines and pikas and maybe a distant mountain lion if you’re lucky. Split by the Continental Divide (which dictates the direction in which rainwater will flow) the western side of the park is more lush and green, while the eastern side is arid, scrubby, and more mountainous. There are 150 lakes -- really -- and 359 hiking trails within this park, plus more than 60 mountain peaks above 12,000 feet.
6. Badlands National Park
South Dakota If we were factoring Twitter accounts into this ranking, Badlands would be a strong contender for Number 1. One of the coolest, if bittersweet, things to know about Badlands -- nothing in this South Dakota park is off limits. The park’s features are already eroding, and since you’re not going to make the erosion worse than it already is, you’re free to get your finger oils all over it. Climb up all over that shit and scoot back down on your butt. Maybe you’ll find some dinosaur bones scattered between the bison and bighorn sheep.
California, Nevada This park marks the lowest point in the western hemisphere -- 282 feet below sea level. The eerie sailing stones of Death Valley move on their own, dragging themselves across the desert floor according to forces (ice panels and wind) invisible to our eye. And while you might not necessarily expect it from a place with a name like Death Valley, this park can, in certain spring seasons, foster massive striking explosions of wildflowers. A must-see is Zabriskie Point, from which you can view some of the most stunning and colorful rock formations in California. And we are once again in prime star-gazing territory -- expect to see all arms of the Milky Way when you reach Harmony Borax or the peerless Ubehebe Crater.
4. Sequoia National Park
California The iconic Pioneer Cabin Tree is no more, but we’ve still got General Sherman -- the biggest tree in the world, weighing in at 275 feet tall and 60 (60!) feet wide. We’ve also got the underground stalactites and stalagmites of the Crystal Cave system. This is a park where you go to be fully immersed in nature; most of it isn’t accessible by car, only by horseback or on foot. Speaking hypothetically, if you were looking for a place to take mushrooms for the first time, hypothetically, and wanted to watch extremely large trees twist and breathe, then this would not be a bad place. Hypothetically. You might also spot a black bear or two. Those are real.
3. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho Oh, y’all wanted a twist? Number 1 in your hearts it may remain, but according to our algorithms, Yellowstone is Number 3. To be clear, we have the utmost respect for Yellowstone -- we made a massive travel guide about it and I nearly died testing its best hiking trails. Imminently beautiful in all weather and all seasons, Yellowstone boasts peerless geological features you’ll find nowhere else. It’s also perfectly accessible to all manner of folks -- many of the park’s most iconic attractions can be seen on a scenic drive.
2. Grand Canyon National Park
Arizona There’s a whole mess of things you should not do when visiting the Grand Canyon, but there are many, many more things you should do -- that rising number of activities is why this park just barely edged out Yellowstone. You should take one of those Grand-Canyon-via-Las-Vegas tours. You should try out that rad new zip line they have there now. You can even (if you’re experienced!) hike the canyon itself from one end to the other, which will take you a couple of days. You can raft some of the world’s most challenging rapids on the Colorado River. Or just take in the view from the Skywalk observation deck.
California If the top spot wasn’t going to Yellowstone then surely it was going to Yosemite. It simply has everything. There’s cultural stuff like the Yosemite Music Festival and the Sierra Art Trails. There’s El Capitan, the largest slab of granite in the world, which doesn’t necessarily grab you as superlatives go, until you see it for yourself. There’s Half Dome, and Glacier Point, and the tallest waterfall in North America. There’s Tunnel View, from which vantage point you can see almost all the park’s highlights simultaneously. You can climb, you can hike, you can stargaze, you can swim in the Merced River -- or, better, rent a raft and float your way down.
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