Whether you’re a daredevil for heights or prefer to admire wildlife from your car, the U.S. National Park Service has got a spot for you. With over 50 parks to pick from, it’s completely possible to feel exhilarated with choice and also be completely overwhelmed with options. Depending on your travel style, and what you’re looking to achieve with your epic American adventure, certain parks may fit the bill more than others.
So pack your bags and get ready to see what “America the Beautiful” really is all about.
If You’re a Casual Sightseer…
Many of the national parks are known for their ease of accessibility, appealing to all types of sightseers. Exploring nature doesn’t have to mean roughing it, so if you prefer snapping your #grammable shots from roadside vistas, hikes that last 10 minutes max, or checking out the local beers over bears, I’ve got your back.
When picking the best park for you, look for ones with long, scenic drives. Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun road offers two hours of non-stop driving with jaw-dropping mountain views. If hot and dry is your thing, spend double the time touring through Arches National Park in Utah, taking in awe-inspiring desert scenes from paved roads.
Look for parks close to bigger towns, which will mean a range of accommodation, restaurants, and bars. Jackson Hole is a 20-minute drive from Grand Teton National Park and a mecca for cowboy motifs, saloons, and classy art galleries. Rocky Mountain National Park provides a stunning backdrop and day activities for the charming town of Estes Park, a cute little spot full of shops, cafes, and festivals.
If You’re a Rugged Adventurer…
If you’d rather lug a tent miles into the wilderness to avoid the aforementioned crowded vistas, you’re likely more of a rugged adventurer. Your idea of a national park trip includes backcountry trails, camp cooking, and perhaps a can of bear spray. Stay away from some of the popular parks if you’re looking to avoid crowds, and take in the beauty of solitude at places like Isle Royale in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The island is accessible only by boat or seaplane and offers a true “off the grid” experience. Not to mention, there’s a chance to see wolves, moose, and bald eagles.
Utah’s protected land has been popular in recent years for political reasons, and if all those stunning photos of red sandstone, barren landscapes, and desert sunsets haven’t made you pack your bags already, maybe the serenity of Capitol Reef will. One of Utah’s lesser-visited parks, it offers expansive views, plenty of campsites, and some serious off-roading. Bring a 4WD vehicle, because those roads are rough.
When looking for the perfect spot to plan your outdoor adventure away from the comforts of home, remember that parks close to major towns and cities will likely be busier. It’s a good idea to consider what kind of activities are available at the park. Most people are up for a hike, even a little one, but what about a paddle? Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park is largely only accessible by boat, offering a more intimate experience. Additionally, keep in mind the climate in which you’ll be venturing into. Places like Death Valley, Saguaro National Park, and Great Sand Dunes can all offer remote experiences if you’re willing — and well equipped! — to brave the scorching daytime elements.
If You’re a Wildlife Enthusiast…
Sure, David Attenborough’s Planet Earth does a pretty great job at making us feel up close and personal with wildlife, but what if you want… more? Forget the zoo, and head to a national park! It would be remiss to discuss national parks and wildlife without mentioning Yellowstone, famous for its population of grizzly bears, bison, elk, moose, and so much more.
For a real range of the animal kingdom, check out Olympic National Park in Washington. Nestled in the Pacific coastline, it’s not uncommon to see whales, sea lions, and dolphins along with the cougars, mink, and bears. The Everglades National Park in Florida offers wetland landscapes with alligators, crocodiles, manatees, and plenty of birdlife to turn just about anyone into an avid bird watcher. Just be sure to always keep a distance from wildlife. They are wild, after all, and you probably wouldn’t like it if strangers came up close to you in your home either.
If You’re a History Buff…
I’m a self-proclaimed history and science nerd. I take great pleasure in running up to plaques describing the origins of a viewpoint, or reciting my knowledge of sedimentary rocks while gawking at hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. Some call it annoying, I call it staying informed. Either way, appreciating history, science, and whatever other elementary school classroom setting you want to take out to the real world is alive and well at national parks — and not just in museums and visitors centers.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers an intimate insight into Southern Appalachian history, with roadside pull-offs and hikes featuring old settlements dating back to the 1800s. A rich Native American culture can be found in the Smokies as well, with the East Band of Cherokee Indians residing just a quick drive from the park.
If you’re looking for archeology history, Mesa Verde National Park cannot be missed. The park preserves 5,000 archaeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo people and plenty of petroglyphs to keep your jaw dropping. South Dakota offers two history havens, both at Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park. The Badlands offers a short Fossil Exhibit Trail among its otherworldly setting, and Wind Cave walks through, well, an actual cave.