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16 Amazing National Parks in the US That You Have to Visit

Smaller Earth
01.02.2022
16 Amazing National Parks in the US That You Have to Visit
Author: Smaller Earth
1.02.2022 15:20PM

Fascinating thermoactive geysers, to the world's tallest tree and one of the biggest canyons on Earth - uniqueness is certainly a characteristic which puts national parks in the US high up on bucket lists.

There are currently 61 national parks in the United States of America. With its 20,000 employees (with quite a few volunteers amongst them) and it's the National Park Services (NPS) responsibility to preserve these rare natural values for future generations.

Adding up the area of American national parks comes to an astonishing 52.2 million acres, which is nearly 211,000 km². What's even more impressive is that this number doesn't include areas that are solely protected, historic sites, national memorial sites and reservations.

So if you have some spare time whilst in America (maybe once your summer of a lifetime with Camp Leaders has come to an end?) then exploring the natural beauty of national parks in the US is the perfect next stop.

They're part of world heritage

Thanks to Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, Yellowstone became the first national park in the US in 1872.

To be recognized as a national park, a site must meet some criteria. Unique natural beauty, special geological forms, unusual ecosystems, recreational opportunities, historical and archaeological significance are all required features of a national park.

From the 61 national parks in the US, 14 are on the UNESCO World Heritage list, 21 are on the UNESCO Biosphere Reserves list and 8 of them are on both lists.

Interesting facts about national parks in the US

  • These natural beauties can be found in 29 states, attracting 330 million visitors a year. The one with the most parks (exactly nine) is California.

  • Alaska is the proud owner of the three largest parks, including Wrangell-St. Elias Park which was also ranked as the best of the 61.

  • Surprisingly not the largest park attracts most of the visitors. The winner of this highly honoured title, is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

  • The most popular hiking route, attracted 11,421,200 people in 2018.

Good to know before visiting a national park in the US

If the numbers convinced you, then all you have to do is redeem your ticket.

  • Visiting national parks entry normally requires a ticket. For example, pedestrians and cyclists can enter Yellowstone Park for $20, whilst people with cars can enter for a fee of $35. The price and duration of admissions vary greatly, so check the NPS official site for the most up to date information.

  • Are you planning on visiting more than one park or go on regular tours? Then you might want to buy a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands pass. You can get a 'America the Beautiful Pass' for an annual fee of $80, for which you can visit any park at any time. Also, for 5 days; on January 20th, April 18th, August 25th, September 26th, and November 11th admission is free to the parks.

So now that we know the most important information, let's see some of our favourite national parks in the US.

Located in the state of Maine, Acadia is one of the top 10 most visited parks in the US. One of the well-known specialties of the area is the Cadillac Mountain, which is a true Instagram attraction.

It is said that those who are standing on the top of the mountain at sunrise will be the first ones to see the sun in the US that morning.

The variety of the area is what makes it so tempting to visit - rocky and sandy beaches, rich forests and flowered meadows. The centre of the park is Bar Harbor, which is a bustling little town. It offers attractions and entertainment for all ages throughout the year. You can find the famous lighthouse here, which is the protagonist of many postcards, since it embodies everything that Maine is.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Boston Logan International Airport, Bangor International Airport

  • Getting there: take a bus from Bar Harbor or an airport rental car

  • Admission: $15/pedestrian, $30/car

  • Instagram hotspots: Otter Cliff, Cadillac Mountain, Thunder Hole, Jordan Pond, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, Bubble Rock Overlook

The Montana National Park is also known as the "Backbone of the World" or the "Crown of the Continent".

The park's most famous attraction is Going-To-The-Sun Road. It is an 85km long panoramic route which also features the opening scene of Lake Saint Mary.

Grizzly bears can still be found in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so you have the chance to see one live (but as all the information states, it's hugely important to follow the correct safety procedures if you accidentally come into the vicinity of one).

If you are looking for a special experience, take the train to the park. The crystal clear mountain air will assure you that many wonders of untouched nature await you during your stay. The park's 25 active glaciers and over 700 lakes will guarantee unforgettable views.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Glacier Park International Airport, Great Falls International Airport

  • Getting there: take a bus from Kalispell, rent a car or train from the airports to West Glacier (Belton)

  • Admission price: $20/pedestrian, $35/car

  • Instagram hotspot: Going-to-the-Sun Road, Lake McDonald, Logan Pass, Elizabeth Lake

This park in Arizona was qualified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

It's named after its eponymous canyon, with the Colorado River winding through its gorges. Some parts of the gorge are that deep, that the sun never shines, so it really does feel like an otherworldly adventure.

As a tourist, the northern and southern edges are the easiest to approach. The northern part is smaller with fewer visitors. The southern part is more popular and crowded because it offers more sights and attractions. For example, you can walk 40 km along the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Thanks to the glass-bottomed bridge, the so called Skywalk, you can admire the beautiful view from 1200 meters above the canyon.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Phoenix Sky Harbor, Flagstaff Airport, McCarran International Airport

  • Getting there: From Flagstaff by Greyhound Bus, Amtrak Train, Arizona Shuttle Bus or Grand Canyon Shuttle Service Bus, Las Vegas One Day Tours Bus, Phoenix Arizona Shuttle Bus

  • Admission price: $20/pedestrian, $35/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: Hermit Road and Desert View Drive, Skywalk, Horse Shoe Bend

Mount Rushmore is the most famous landmark of the South Dakota National Memorial.

It commemorates four American presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt).

Besides the faces carved in the mountain, the wildlife is also fascinating, whilst you'll also discover hiking trails that certainly won't disappoint. Like most national parks in the US, the summer months and national holidays events make this an extremely busy attraction.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Billings Logan International Airport or Denver International Airport

  • Getting there: airport rental car

  • Admission: free for pedestrians, $10/car

  • Instagram hotspot: Mount Rushmore

This vast national park is spread over an incredible 1,000 km² in Colorado.

It has been UNESCO protected since 1976, thanks to its wildly diverse landscape, many mountains and array of wildlife.

You can take postcard-like photos around Bear Lake or Grand Lake, and you can choose from several sport activities - with rock climbing is one of the most popular ones.

Trail Ridge Road, running between Grand Lake and Estes Park, is the tallest paved road in the US. Drive the amazing 77km road and enjoy the panorama views that accompany it. Make sure you drive slow so you won't miss out on the wild animals popping up throughout!

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  • Nearest International Airport: Denver International Airport

  • Getting there: Airport rental car or Greyhound bus

  • Admission fee: $15/pedestrian, $25/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: Adams Falls, Trail Ridge Road, Bear Lake, Emerald Lake, Longs Peak

Founded in 1872, Yellowstone is the world's oldest national park.

As part of the Rocky Mountains it spreads through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. It is most famous for it's geysers, heat springs, other geothermal phenomena, and of course the ever so loved Yogi Bear (Yes, Yogi and Boo-boo tried to steal picnic baskets from campers in Yellowstone in the cartoon!)

The park is home to grizzly bears and black bears, but you can also see moose, American bison and antelopes, so it's a wildlife lovers dream.

The Old Faithful geyser is undoubtedly the most popular of the park's many geyser, whereas Yellowstone also houses the world's largest active geyser, Steamboat.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport

  • Getting there: rent a car from the airport or take buses from nearby cities, airports

  • Admission price: $20/pedestrian, $35/car

  • Instagram hotspot: Thumb Geyser, Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Biscuit Basin Geyser

Yellowstone's lesser-known neighbour, the Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, is well worth a visit.

The dream-like, high mountains and the incredibly colourful wildlife are what attract visitors from around the world, and for good reason.

If you want explore the park and be adventurous, take part in rafting trips on the Snake River. You can get a wealth of information about the park and its wildlife on this interesting experience, which is usually 3-5 hours long.

The highest peak of the park, the so-called Grand Teton, rises to the sky with its 4197 meters.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Salt Lake City International Airport

  • Getting there: By bus from the surrounding big cities, but by airport rental car is the easiest.

  • Admission price: $20/pedestrian, $35/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: Schwabacher's Landing, Snake River Overlook, Oxbow Bend

The name itself provides an interesting insight into the place, with Zion translating to "a place of peace and refuge".

The gorges of the 24 km long area known as Zion Canyon were carved by the Virgin River in red Navajo sandstone.

The canyon reaches up to 800 meters in places, yet it's not a barren landscape. It has rich vegetation, waterfalls and watercourses for you to explore. Zion National Park is an enchanting area, so expect amazing views!

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  • Nearest International Airport: McCarran International Airport

  • Getting there: airport rental car

  • Admission price: $20/pedestrian, $35/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: The Narrows, Angels Landing, Yant Flat

The Bryce Canyon National Park is located in southern Utah.

The 145 km² park is not an actual canyon but a plateau edge, so it provides spectacularly unique views.

The Bryce Canyon is famous for its special formations, with red-and-white rock pins, pillars and arches.

Many people visit the park at night, because due to its low light pollution, more than 7,500 stars can be seen on the night sky. It's often found on lists of the best areas to stargaze, so plan your travel accordingly.

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  • Nearest International Airport: McCarran International Airport

  • Getting there: airport rental car

  • Admission price: $20/pedestrian, $35/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: Navajo Loop Trail, Fairyland Trail, Agua Canyon, Natural Bridge, Paria View, Inspiration Point, Thor’s Hammer

You'll find America's deepest lake in Oregon National Park.

At 594 meters, the caldera (a volcanic crater-like dyke) of Crater Lake offers deep blue, crystal clear water. There are two islands on the pond, but most of the time Crater Lake is referred to as spectacular floating log. The "Old Man of the Lake", a 9m tall tree stump has been standing in Lake Oregon for over 100 years, which provides ample opportunity for photographs.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Portland International Airport

  • Getting there: Airport rental car or Amtrak train

  • Admission price: $12/pedestrian, $25/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: Rim Village Visitor Center, Llao Rock, Cloudcap Overlook, Discovery Point Trail, Garfield Peak

The 3,081 km² Yosemite National Park in California has hundreds of geological sites and is one of the most famoust national parks in the US.

Located on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, the name of the park literally means 'grizzly'.

Three of the world's 10 highest waterfalls are located here. Ribbon Falls, for example, is nine times higher than Niagara!

Many people also visit the Wawona Tree, which fell in 1969 at the age of 2100. A tunnel was drilled into the giant tree, which was still alive at that time, so as not to obstruct traffic.

And yes, you can find the 914m tall rock formation, El Capitan here, the famous rock face which has been the challenge of numerous elite rock climbers.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Fresno Yosemite International Airport

  • Getting there: Airport rental car, Amtrak train, Greyhound bus, dozens of shuttle buses to almost all of the surrounding towns or YARTS buses.

  • Admission price: $20/pedestrian, $35/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: Tunnel View, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, Yosemite Falls, North Dome, Bridalveil Falls, Mirror Lake, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls

The 1635 km² Sequoia and the 1,869.2 km² Kings Canyon used to be separate national parks. Due to their common entrance and proximity they are now treated as a single unit by the NPS.

The land of giants is a hikers and campers favourite because of its huge California pine forests. In the park, more specifically in the Giant Forest, there is the General Sherman Tree, the tallest tree in the world.

Fallen giants are not removed from the park, so you can take some extraordinary photos of tree-lined tunnels, such as the Tunnel Log.

You should also check out the Kings River, which created the Kings Canyon Valley. The stalactite cave of Boyden Cave is another must-see spot, so you certainly won't be short of things to do here.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Fresno Yosemite International Airport

  • Getting there: Airport rental car, Amtrak train, Greyhound bus.

  • Admission price: $20/pedestrian, $35/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: General Sherman Tree, Moro Rock, Tokopah Falls, Tharp's Log, Tunnel Rock, Boyden Cave

Wolves, grizzly bears, moose, marmots, beavers, squirrels, black bears, taiga, tundra, glaciers - all that a hiker's heart desires.

Denali in Alaska is perhaps one of the few parks that is extremely popular during winter thanks to dog sledding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

The Drunken Forest, which grows in a tangled way due to the varied weather, and the glaciers are must-sees any time of the year. One thing is for sure, this parks unbridled beauty is guaranteed to sweep you off of your feet no matter what time of year you visit.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Fairbanks International Airport

  • Getting there: Airport rental car or train

  • Admission price: $15/person

  • Instagram hotspot: Byers Lake, Mount McKinley, Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake, Husky Homestead, Mt. Healy Overlook Trail Trailhead

Glacier-lined mountains, dreamy beaches, rain forests with moss-covered trees, meadows with wildflowers; variety is what features in this UNESCO multi-protected park in Washington.

You can do whale-watching along the coastline, or you can admire the wonderland of forests and waterfalls of the moss-covered interior.

There are several reserves in the park, so you can also discover the amazing legends of local Indian tribes. They may already be familiar from the the famous vampire movie, Twilight, for the movie fans amongst us.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Sea-Tac International Airport, Victoria International Airport

  • Getting there: by airport rental car, Olympic Bus Lines bus service or even by ferry.

  • Admission: $15/pedestrian,cyclist, $30/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: Madison Creek Falls, La Push Beach, Ruby Beach, Rialto Beach, Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, Hole-in-the-Wall (Forks)

If you love warmth, the 13,650 km2 Death Valley National Park in California and Nevada will surely be the one for you.

The deadly name is no coincidence - it's the lowest lying, driest and hottest park in the state. Daytime temperatures can reach up to 54 °C, but the park is home to many species of flora and fauna, thanks to storms and the relief of oases.

It's also worth exploring the sand dunes and salt areas, but make sure you follow the strict safety rules! Never deviate from the designated routes, always carry a map with you, do not forget about GPS, sun protection, plenty of water and beware of dangerous animals (such as snakes and scorpions).

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  • Nearest International Airport: Sea-Tac International Airport, Victoria International Airport

  • Getting there: airport rental car (GPS and map are recommended!)

  • Admission: $15/pedestrian,cyclists, $30/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Dantes View, Ubehebe Crater

This UNESCO World Heritage Site was established in 1906 and it covers an area of "only" 212.4 km².

Apart from its size it still houses nearly 5,000 excavated archaeological sites. This park in Colorado, known as the Green Table, is famous for its rock-hewn cities, which pop up almost all over the area.

Its most famous site is the Rocky Palace, which is a great introduction to how the indigenous people lived; the Mogollo (mountain peoples), the Hohokam (disappeared) and the Anasazi (ancient) Indians.

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  • Nearest International Airport: Albuquerque International Sunport

  • Getting there: airport rental car

  • Admission: $12/pedestrian,cyclist, $25/vehicle

  • Instagram hotspot: Cliff Palace, Oak Tree House, Balcony House, Park Point North Overlook, Cedar Tree Tower

Whichever park you are heading to, you'll be in for a treat. Vast and diverse landscapes are matched by the beauty and variety in wildlife that can be found. For those that love the outdoors, national parks in the US are the perfect weekend retreat.

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