The National Park Service has preserved and protected 85 million acres of unique American landscape, historic sites and wildlife habitats for public use. There are 423 individual units in 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. Here are some of the most popular parks.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
In 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. It’s also one of the largest, encompassing more than 2.2 million acres—greater than the combined size of Rhode Island and Delaware.
The park is home to more than 500 active geysers—more than half the world’s total—and more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, not to mention a variety of wildlife.
“Yellowstone is the only place in the U.S. where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times,” says Ashton Hooker, the park’s digital communications specialist.
“Human history in the region goes back more than 11,000-plus years,” Ashton says, noting that followed the retreat of glaciers 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. “There are also 27 associated tribes who have historic and modern connections to the lands and resources now found within Yellowstone.”
There is so much to enjoy in Yellowstone that which attractions to view depends on how much time a visitor has and the time of year. The biggest crowds are in the summer. Some sections of the park are closed from December to March.
“One could dedicate their entire life to experiencing the park and still never see it all,” Ashton says. “Driving between the north and south entrances (just two of Yellowstone’s five entrances) can take about 21/2 hours without any traffic or stops.”
He recommends visiting early or later in the day to avoid crowds; park entrance gates are open 24 hours. It is also the ideal time to view wildlife, such as bison and elk.
“Most people tour the park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” Ashton says. “Wildlife are most active at sunrise and sunset. Arriving before 8 a.m. improves your chances of observing animals during their active periods.”
Cost: $20 to $35.
Camping: The park offers campgrounds, lodges, cabins and backcountry camping. The 1904 Old Faithful Inn is a National Historic Landmark. It is one of the largest log-style structures in the world.
Don’t miss: Old Faithful is a must-see, but the park is home to hundreds of geysers.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Called the “Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast,” Acadia encompasses nearly 50,000 acres of Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine. The small but remote national park is within a day’s drive of several East Coast cities, making it one of the most popular parks.
Efforts to preserve the beauty of the island at the turn of the 20th century led to the park’s creation. Visitors may enjoy historic carriage trails gifted by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., 125 miles of hiking trails, and shoreline with swimming and paddling opportunities.
Cadillac Mountain offers the highest peak on the Eastern Seaboard, making it the first place to catch the sunrise in the United States for parts of the year.
Birders flock to Acadia to witness spring and fall migrations, spotting spring warblers, sea ducks and migrating raptors.
To enjoy this small but special place, John T. Kelly, management assistant at Acadia National Park, recommends acquiring passes ahead of time. That includes vehicle registration for the Cadillac Mountain summit from May through October. About 70% of summit vehicle reservations are filled two days in advance.
“Cadillac Summit is like the Old Faithful of Acadia,” John says. “There are only 150 parking spaces.”
The free Island Explorer bus system connects major hubs throughout the island, allowing visitors to leave their cars behind and catch a ride.
Cost: $15 to $30.
Camping: Reservations are required online for the three campgrounds within the park. Bed-and-breakfasts, lodges and hotels are on the island.
Don’t miss: The west side of the island is known as the quiet side. It is an ideal spot for those who want to avoid crowds.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California
Nothing quite compares to gazing up at giant sequoia trees in the twin national parks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The world’s largest living trees by volume, some sequoias may be more than 3,000 years old.
Approximately 40 groves of giant sequoias are within the boundaries of the two parks northeast of Fresno in the southern Sierra Nevada. It is the only natural place the giant sequoias grow.
“The vast majority of the land inside of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks is designated wilderness, which protects it from most forms of development,” says Rebecca Paterson, the park’s public affairs specialist. “More than 800 miles of hiking trails throughout the parks connect tough backpackers to remote and spectacular nature. The lowest elevation in the parks is 1,370 feet and the highest is 14,505 feet—the greatest vertical relief in any national park in the Lower 48 states.”
Rebecca recommends heading north into Kings Canyon after enjoying Sequoia for an awe-inspiring drive from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove—a glaciated valley with towering cliffs, tumbling waterfalls and the Kings River.
“The drive alone is worthwhile,” she says, “and taking a few hours or a day to explore Cedar Grove is even better.”
Cost: Weekly passes for one to seven days are $20 per person on foot or bike, and $35 for a single vehicle.
Camping: There are several campgrounds, lodges and cabins. Bearpaw High Sierra Camp is 11 miles up the High Sierra Trail and offers cabins for wilderness hikers. Pear Lake Winter Hut is a rustic cabin for wilderness skiers.
Don’t miss: General Sherman is the largest tree in the world by volume and is easily accessible, but this part of the park has been closed due to fires. (The tree was not harmed.)
Denali National Park, Alaska
At 20,000-plus feet, the largest mountain in the United States has its own weather system, so clouds routinely cover the peak visitors flock to photograph. Rangers warn that Denali—once known as Mount McKinley—is visible only 30% of the time.
There is only one road into the park, with most of that 92-mile stretch available only for narrated park tour buses—which is a good thing, because the road consists of gravel and dirt and many times skirts steep mountainsides.
The guided tours give visitors a chance to learn about the wildlife they see outside their windows: grizzly bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and a host of resident and migratory birds. Hiking opportunities are extensive, both on and off trails.
“What makes Denali special is that it is remote yet accessible—a 6-million-acre park with a road traveled mostly by buses,” says Paul Ollig, the park’s director of interpretation and education. “This is a place where someone who has never hiked off-trail can dip their toe into the unique experience. This is also a place where someone who loves to hike off-trail can backpack for days. The opportunity to hike off-trail is something Denali protects.”
For the less adventurous, rangers lead guided hikes, talks on the park’s history, nature and campground programs, and sled dog demonstrations in the summer. Denali is the only national park with a kennel.
Camping: There are six campgrounds, but no NPS-run lodging. The area around the park offers numerous accommodations.
Don’t miss: The Tundra Wilderness Tour is a day-long guided trip with a certified naturalist.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Gypsum is a widely mined sulfate mineral used in plaster, chalk and other products. White Sands contains the world’s largest gypsum dune field at 275 square miles. Combined with the perfect geology, hydrology and climate, it is one of the most amazing destinations on Earth.
“Finding gypsum in sand formations is exceedingly rare,” says Kelly Carroll, chief of interpretation at White Sands.
The mountains surrounding the park produce the mineral as crystals—from small pieces to some as large as 2 feet wide. Rainfall brings gypsum to the valley floor, Kelly explains, then wind and other elements erode the mineral into sand, forming massive dunes.
Winter is a time of fewer visitors and low desert temperatures.
“The sunsets here are some of the most spectacular,” Kelly says, noting the ideal time to visit revolves around the sun. “The dune turns pastel colors, and the sky is vivid bright colors.”
Rangers lead guided tours daily, except for Christmas, and conclude on top of a dune looking west as the sun sets.
Thomas Barrett, who worked remotely last year and traveled the country visiting national parks, ranks White Sands among his top five favorites.
“It’s otherworldly,” he says. “It’s like being at a beach without leaving the mountains. You’re completely surrounded by sand with the mountain range on both sides. It makes for an excellent sunset.”
The park also contains one of the largest collections of ice age fossilized footprints in the world. The human footprints continue for long distances and showcase how people interacted with each other and animals. The footprints are in a part of the park closed to the public, due to its proximity to White Sands Missile Range. In fact, the park occasionally closes in the morning for a few hours when missile testing occurs.
Cost: $25 per vehicle, good for one week.
Camping: There are 10 sites in the backcountry. Permits must be obtained the morning of camping. The backcountry campsites are being renovated, so check before traveling.
Don’t miss: Bring a sled or buy one at the gift shop and slide down the dunes.
Zion National Park, Utah
Hikers flock to Zion for its steep colorful sandstone cliffs, unique canyons, and wild diversity of plants and wildlife. The winding Virgin River and other streams flowing through Utah’s first national park create dramatic canyons and draw visitors to unique water attractions, such as the Emerald Pools, Cascade Falls and the Zion Narrows wading hike.
Zion has seen a record number of visitors, which means some trails—including tricky Angel’s Landing—report long delays along its narrow and steep segments. To reduce crowding and address safety concerns, visitors need to enter a lottery to get a permit to hike Angel’s Landing. It costs $6 to enter. Successful permit holders pay $3 a person. These funds cover costs to manage the lotteries and for additional rangers, who assist visitors and check permits on the trail.
When Thomas Barrett took up the challenge to scale Angel’s Landing, there were long waits at places where hikers had to traverse a narrow path with only a chain to hold. The view at the top was crowded.
He recommends Observation Point—a fairly light hike that is 3 miles each way and about 1,000 feet higher than Angel’s Landing. From its pinnacle, hikers can view the entire park, with “one-fourth of the people at Angel’s,” he says.
Cost: Weekly passes range from $20 a person without a car to $35 for a vehicle with a capacity of 15 passengers or fewer.
Camping: There are three campgrounds. Make reservations well in advance. They are full during warmer months, and two are closed in winter.
Don’t miss: Stock up on sunscreen before heading out and bring a water bottle. Refilling stations of spring water are located along trails.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
This jewel of the NPS attracts visitors from around the world to its enormous, majestic canyon created by the winding Colorado River. Its stratum of colorful rock stretches 277 miles long, dipping down thousands of feet and spanning up to 18 miles wide.
The South Rim—with its lodges, campgrounds, restaurants and historic attractions—remains open every day of the year. The less visited North Rim—attracting only 10% of all visitors—closes for the winter.
“Every season has its own uniqueness,” says Joelle Baird, the park’s public affairs officer. All seasons have breathtaking beauty.
Most visitors head to the South Rim, easily accessible from Williams, Arizona, by car or the Grand Canyon Railroad—a heritage train that operates daily for tourists. The North Rim requires a longer driving time, even though it is only 10 miles across the canyon as the crow flies.
“It definitely has a different feel to it,” Joelle says of the North Rim, which is 1,000 feet higher. “It offers a more quiet, more serene experience.”
Cost: $20 without a vehicle; $35 with a vehicle.
Camping: The South Rim has several lodges and campgrounds, with one lodge and campground on the North Rim during the summer. Note that reservations fill up quickly.
Don’t miss: Visitors may hike into the canyon, but the South Rim Trail allows great views for 14 miles along the edge. Shuttles stop in many places along the trail to give hikers a ride back to their home base or vehicles.
Civil War Battlefields
The Mississippi River proved a daunting obstacle to conquering the rebellious South during the Civil War. U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant saw capture of the Mississippi River as a chance to cut the Confederacy in two.
In the summer of 1863, only Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana, remained to be captured on the river, but both proved to be long conquests with many fatalities. From March 29-July 4, 1863, Grant bombarded Vicksburg until the Confederates surrendered. When Vicksburg fell, Port Hudson followed. The Mississippi then came entirely under Union control.
“Vicksburg was one of the most crucial battles of the Civil War,” says Andrew R. Miller, Vicksburg National Military Park ranger.
Meanwhile, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee invaded Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1-3, 1863—his second and more ambitious attempt to invade the North. The battle of Gettysburg—called the turning point in the war—left heavy casualties on both sides, with Lee escaping back to Virginia.
It was here President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address.
By the turn of the 20th century, veterans on both sides looked to preserve the nation’s Civil War battlefields, and Congress agreed. Parks were established at Chickamauga, Antietam, Chattanooga, Shiloh, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, with monuments installed at each to honor those who fought there.
In 1933, all six sites were transferred to the National Park System. In addition, Congress appropriated $100,000 for the Great Peace Jubilee of 1917—a gathering of veterans at Vicksburg in the hope of reconciliation. A memorial arch was created to mark the event.
“This is what people see upon entering the park,” Andrew says of the arch. “This battlefield is hallowed ground. Visiting here gives people a chance to reflect on life, liberty and all the things that are important to us as a country as they relax and enjoy recreation here.”
Cost: Gettysburg has various fees. Vicksburg is $10 to $20. Shiloh is free.
Camping: Visitors to Gettysburg can stay at the historic Bushman House within the park. No camping is allowed at Vicksburg or Shiloh.
Don’t miss: The USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum at Vicksburg offers a glimpse into a rare river ironclad. Shiloh includes Native American mounds. Next to the Gettysburg Battlefield is the Eisenhower National Historic Site—the home and farm of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm; www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm; www.nps.gov/shil/index.htm
Everglades National Park, Florida
This 1.5-million-acre wetlands is comprised of rare and endangered species and the largest contiguous stand of protected mangrove forest in the Western Hemisphere. Here, visitors spot alligators among the sawgrass, the Florida panther in pine flatwoods and the West Indian manatee floating in slow-moving streams.
Because of its biodiversity and unique attributes, the Everglades has been named a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. It is protected under the Cartagena Treaty.
The park stretches from west of Miami to the Gulf of Mexico, with three entrances hours apart from each other. Ideal entrances to explore the main park are through Shark Valley in Miami or the main entrance in Homestead. To enjoy the Gulf or get on the water, enter the park in Everglades City.
“Shark Valley and the Anhinga Trail (at Royal Palm) are the best locations for wildlife viewing and to see the freshwater Everglades,” says Allyson Gantt, the park’s chief of communications and public affairs. “For a view of the coast and the mangrove estuary, including boat tours and boat rentals, visit Flamingo or Everglades City.”
Cost: Weekly passes range from $15 a person on foot or bike to $30 a vehicle.
Camping: There are two campgrounds plus backcountry camping.
Don’t miss: The park houses the historic Nike Hercules missile site—a Cold War relic. Tours are given during winter months.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee-North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the nation’s oldest and most visited national parks, with 12.5 million annual visitors—more than double the next-most-visited parks. It is celebrated for its diversity of stories, life and experiences, says Dana Soehn, the park’s management assistant for public affairs.
“You’ll discover the finest example of the ruggedness and scenic grandeur of the southern Appalachian Mountains, including 16 peaks over 6,000 feet and 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail,” Dana says. “You’ll also be immersed in one of the most biologically diverse areas in the temperate climate with over 20,000 different species of life—including 30 species of salamanders.
“The park protects a rich human history, including the stories of people who lived in the mountains over the last 9,000 years, including the Cherokee people and the mountain settlers.”
Named for the mist that hovers over the mountains, the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with five historic districts and nine buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For hiking, Dana recommends the all-skills Little River Trail out of Elkmont, the high-elevation Hemphill Bald Trail on Balsam Mountain, Kephart Prong Trail to a backcountry camping shelter and Little Bottoms Trail from Abrams Creek to Abrams Falls. A favorite autumn self-driving tour is Cades Cove. The 11-mile loop takes visitors by several historic sites, with majestic views of the surrounding mountains.
Camping: The park offers nine front-country campgrounds that can be reserved up to six months in advance.
Don’t miss: Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokies and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi, lies within the park. The trail to the mountain’s peak is one of the most visited and offers a full view of the mountains from the peak tower.