If you’ve perused the National Parks category of the blog, you might know that I’m a huge NPS enthusiast. In this post, I wanted to share my favorite parks from Maine to Hawaii, and everywhere in between.
For a number of years growing up, we took two vacations every year: Florida in the late winter and camping in the summer. It would seem that these experiences left an indelible impression, and shaped my interests even as an adult. While I don’t remember all of the state and U.S. National Parks I visited as a kid, I’ve made a point of visiting several parks per year since getting into photography.
For the last several years, I’ve had the “America the Beautiful” National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass, and we’ve made a point to use it. For $80, this is the absolute best value of any annual pass, anywhere. One of my long term goals is to photograph every single one of the 59 U.S. National Parks. (I’m a NPS snob: the “other” locations like National Historical Parks or Monuments don’t count.)
I’ve already made good progress towards this goal, having crossed around half the parks off of my list thus far. With that said, there are still a ton of parks (half!) I have yet to visit, so this post in no way should be viewed as an attempt at a comprehensive ranking. As an adult, I haven’t visited Yellowstone, any of the Alaska parks, and most of the Utah parks.
Suffice to say, there are likely some gems that are not included simply by virtue of me having yet to visit them. This list is just for fun, and in no way even remotely definitive…or literally anything besides a fun exercise. I’ve yet to have a bad time at any of the U.S. National Parks, so if you’re looking for my recommendations as to which ones you should visit: any of them; all of them.
Anyway, here are my top 10 U.S. National Parks as of right now (each name links to my posts/photos about each park)…
10. Arches National Park
The only one of Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks I’ve visited, which is embarrassing to admit. While I’ve seen other somewhat-similar landscapes in Arizona and Nevada, nothing prepared me for the miles and miles of natural arches (over 2,000!) in Arches National Park.
The landscape of Arches is truly amazing, and if I hadn’t already seen the alien landscape of Death Valley, I might’ve been more stunned by this similar-but-totally-different otherworldly environment. Nonetheless, watching the sunrise light kiss the arches, illuminating the red rock formations, is one of my favorite National Park experiences. Returning in winter to photograph a snow-covered Delicate Arch is on my bucket list.
The idea for this blog was actually born in Rocky Mountains National Park while watching a little rodent called a pika. It was the first U.S. National Park we visited together, and remains one of the prettiest places. I’m actually a bit surprised we haven’t returned (so many places, so little time).
At its heart, Rocky Mountain National Park perfectly exemplifies Colorado. Fresh air, rushing waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, an abundance of wildlife, and people with an affinity for the great outdoors. It’s a mesmerizing place, and an excellent way to get your feet wet with National Parks if you can find a cheap flight to Denver.
Sequoia National Park is one of California’s many parks dedicated to cool trees. Early settlers in California must have had an affinity for trees, using dark arts to plant the seeds of some unique and impressive trees. In the case of Sequoia, Mother Nature has fed these giants their Wheaties over the millennia, as they are some of the most awe-inspiring trees in the world.
While you might expect Sequoia National Park to be a one-note location–and to be honest, it would notch a spot on this list even if it were as those trees are so impressive and humbling–there’s actually more to the park. Kings Canyon offers majestic mountains, the visitors centers offer insight into biodiversity, and few National Parks have scenic drives that are as enchanting.
Acadia National Park is unique in that it was originally privately owned chunks of land on Mount Desert Island, and these parcels were donated to the government to establish the park. The result is a park with many pockets of land that remained privately-owned, meaning you never quite get the sense that you’re removed from civilization like the National Parks of the American West.
While I do consider this a downside of Acadia National Park, it’s by no means disqualifying. One of the few quality East Coast parks, Acadia ranks highly thanks to its unique coastal character (the iconic Bass Harbor Head Light certainly helps). The fall colors in Acadia, Cadillac Mountain, and worthwhile hikes (and drives) score it big points. There are also places where Acadia’s private-then-public character is an asset, such as with Rockefeller’s carriage roads. Oh, and the abundance of fresh seafood–namely, Maine lobster–available within a short drive of Acadia doesn’t hurt, either.
If you’re in the Midwest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of your few “nearby” options. This coupled with Highway 441 being the only major highway that connects North Carolina and Tennessee makes Great Smoky Mountains National Park the United States’ most visited National Park, with over double the number of annual visitors of Grand Canyon National Park.
The good news is that Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not disappoint. Of course there are the mountains, and breathtaking views along the Newfound Gap. Clingmans Dome is the park’s most popular spot and offers sweeping 360º views into 7 states on clear days. However, it’s the man-made elements–Cade’s Cove and Mingus Mill–that really put Great Smoky Mountains National Park over the top, adding a layer of cultural intrigue to a park that also has immense natural beauty.
I’m sort of torn on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Seeing the lava flow and the evening glow of Halemaumau Crater in Kīlauea are two of the most breathtaking sights in any National Park on this list. Unfortunately, the lava flow is inconsistent, so you may not see it. I’m nonetheless inclined to rank Hawaii Volcanoes National Park highly because either of those sights justify the trip.
Beyond seeing the glow of the lava or volcano, there’s actually a lot to see and do at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The lava tubes, the sea arch, the steam vents, the fascinating hikes–even dinner at Volcano House. All of this makes HVNP one-of-a-kind, and definite bucket list material for any National Parks enthusiast.
Some people are going to be shocked to see Death Valley National Park ranked so highly, and assume it’s either a shock value, contrarian type thing, or that I’m low-key goth, with a weird fascination with all things related to morbidity. While I have plenty of bizarre interests, that’s not one of them.
To the contrary, Death Valley National Park actually offers a ton once you get past the large swaths of sand dunes and surreal salt flats. There are gorgeous hikes, beautiful views, other-worldly landscapes, iconic historical landmarks, and breathtaking life. The best example of this we’ve witnessed is the wildflower superblooms in Death Valley, but winter snow and the occasional thunderstorm also bring life to the park. As Californians, we’ve visited and revisited Death Valley numerous times, almost rivaling the #1 spot on this list.
C’mon…it’s the Grand Canyon. One of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World.” How could it not make this list?! Before taking my dad to see this bucket list National Park, I worried a bit that we were budgeting too much time here, with several days at what could be a “look at a big crater and leave” experience.
To the contrary, Grand Canyon National Park is not just that breathtaking natural wonder. It also has some of the country’s most compelling parkitecture, something frequently overlooked when discussing the merits of Grand Canyon National Park. I could easily spend another week here, and I’m guessing even that wouldn’t do this immense park justice.
I traveled to Glacier National Park with a group of fellow photographers, and that one trip made all of us so hungry for more, that we promptly booked another trip to the same side of those mountains to visit Banff National Park.
While the stunning peaks and vanishing glaciers are going to be the draw for most visitors to Glacier–and they are certainly a compelling justification for a visit, it scores big points here for its variety. There are breathtaking waterfalls, excellent hikes, iconic lodges, and so much scenery along Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s also a winner for wildlife. During the course of our visit we saw multiple bear, bighorn, moose, deer, mountain goats, and other critters. I’m not going to give Glacier too much credit for its abundance of delicious huckleberry everything (including ice cream!), but I’m sure not going to penalize it for that, either.
Yosemite is my “home” National Park. It wasn’t the park I visited first, but it’s the one I’ve visited most, and one of the places that made me fall in love with California before moving to the state. It’s also where I’ve done my most ambitious hike, which resulted in my most satisfying sunset photo of all-time. In these regards, I’m undoubtedly biased towards Yosemite National Park.
Beyond it being my favorite park, I think there are compelling arguments to be made for Yosemite being the best park. It has some of the National Park Service’s most iconic peaks in Half Dome and El Capitan, an enduring legacy with John Muir, one of the most beauty-dense places in the world with Yosemite Valley, and a ton to see and explore if you want to venture beyond the main circuit of the Valley. For me, its history, beauty, and relative approachability make Yosemite National Park the crown jewel of the NPS. Perhaps that sentiment will change once I finally make it to Alaska or Yellowstone.
If you’re trying to figure out which National Park is right for you, or just want to gawk at my photos from America’s Best Idea, check out my National Parks category of posts. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.
Which U.S. National Parks have you visited? How would you rank them? Do you disagree with any of my rankings? Any questions about any of these parks? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!