Since the establishment of the first National Park at Yellowstone National Park in 1872 more than 1200 National Parks have been established around the world in more than 100 different countries. “America’s best idea” is certainly a great idea for your travel destinations and Michelle and I have made one of our travel goals to visit each of the U.S. National Parks.
The National Park Service (NPS) manages 418 individual “units” but not all of them are National Parks. They include battlefields, memorials, historic sites, lakeshores, and more. Currently, there are 60 National parks and we have visited 24 of them plus numerous other sites managed by the NPS. So here are, in no particular order, our top five National Parks.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
No, the name of the park is not spelled wrong! Though there is great debate in some circles on the spelling of the name, no one can deny that Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a magical place. For us, it is only a five and a half hour drive to the gateway city of Gatlinburg, so the Smokies are an idea long weekend getaway.
The area has something for everyone! There is phenomenal hiking anywhere you go in the park, from “scenic overlooks” that usually include a short trail to technical and advanced trails that take all day, anyone can find a trail that will challenge and delight. For backpackers, there are dozens of backcountry campsites accessible on one night or longers trips. And don’t forget the AT! The 2200 mile Appalachian Trail runs for 71 miles along the Tennesse North Carolina border through the middle of the park. Other highlights in the park include Clingmans Dome, an observation tower at the highest point in the park, biking or horseback riding in Cades Cove, nature drives along numerous routes, and wonderful campgrounds spread throughout the park.
Another draw for many families are the gateway cities into the Smokies. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend in Tennesee and Ashville and Cherokee in North Carolina are tourist destinations by themselves and some people never leave town (though that’s quite a shame)! From moonshine and wine tastings to shopping, casinos, and zip lining, the region has something for everyone year round.
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park is simply put one of the most beautiful places that we have ever visited. Every view looks like it should be on the cover of a calendar. The trails are abundant with more than 150 miles stretching along the coast, up mountains, and through pristine forests. There are bike and boat tours available and you can be the first person in the US to see the sun each morning from the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point along the North Atlantic Coast.
From the quaint town of Bar Harbor, Maine, you can book sea kayak tours, stroll the quiet streets, and eat and sleep in places that look as if they haven’t changed much in the last fifty years (that’s a good thing, really). We only spent a few days in Acadia back in 2010, but it is at the top of our list for a return visit the next time we tour the East Coast.
Zion National Park
It’s time to head west where the parks sprawl across deserts, prairies, and mountains. While many people are quick to sing the praises of the Grand Canyon (and it is spectacular), we would direct you to another giant hole in the ground – Zion National Park. Utah’s first National Park is one of it’s most magnificent!
Zion’s fifteen-mile long canyon sinks into the plateau to a depth of almost 2600 feet (only a third of the depth of the Grand Canyon) but because of its relatively small size you are always up close and personal with the canyon walls and the views are breath-taking!
The top attraction at Zion is the hiking and these trails are not for the faint of heart. With summertime temperatures often topping 100º, hikers start early. The biggest advantage here is that most trails climb from the canyon floor, meaning you can go as far as you like and then turn back for the “easier” descent back to the road (as opposed to having to climb out of the Grand once you’ve already reached exhaustion). Trails range from moderate to insane with the most extreme hike being to the top of Angel’s Landing, a file mile out and back that climbs nearly 1500 feet straight up a rock that juts from the canyon wall. The trail is only a few feet wide in some spots with sheer drops on both sides and only a chain to hold on to for two-way traffic.
Another popular hike is the Narrows. The Virgin River becomes the trail as hikers squeeze through slots in the canyon, climbing waterfalls, and sometimes swimming through deeper segments. The effort is worth it in spots such as Wall Street where the canyon narrows to 20 feet wide and 2000 feet deep.
The gateway city of Springdale has a Bohemian artist vibe with wonderful shops, restaurants, and much-needed air conditioning.
Glacier National Park
Heading north, we have to send you to Glacier National Park in Northern Montana. Camping, hiking, boating, cross-country skiing, and biking are just some of the popular activities in this inspiring park that shares a border with Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park.
Driving along Going to the Sun Road is a popular activity and the views are wonderful. Get out along many viewpoints and take a short walk along one of the many trails and you are sure to see wildlife. The lodges throughout the park are historic and an attraction alone.
Don’t forget to make a trek out to see the dwindling glaciers. Some scientists’ estimate that all of the glaciers in the park may be completely melted within the next ten years, so don’t wait!
Yosemite National Park
Rounding out our list is Yosemite National Park in Central California. Best known for its many waterfalls, Yosemite is a sight to behold. With more than 1200 square miles, this park is remote and anyplace in the park that you choose to visit is going to be a drive, but what a drive it will be!
Hiking is the main attraction here but rock climbing is also a very popular sport. On any search of a granite wall, you will likely find a tiny speck of a rock climber working his or her way up the rock face. This place is huge in its scale and awe-inspiring at every turn.
Plan ahead because some popular hikes, such as Half Dome, require a lottery entry to win a permit. If you can’t get one of those coveted permits, check out Clouds Rest, a 14 mile out an back hike that will take you through a wide range of Yosemite’s terrain and finish (at the turnaround point) with a stunning view looking down at Half Dome. This is a serious hike and not for those afraid of heights!
In the coming weeks, we’ll be talking more about our favorite National Parks with some guides to our favorite hikes and other activities while visiting. Let us know in the comments where you want to hear about from our National Parks Map below.