#59 Congaree National Park from The Absolute Best National Parks

The Absolute Best National Parks

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National Park Service

#59 Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina
Last Year’s Rank: 59

Hike or paddle through this 22,200-acre park for stunning views of some of the tallest trees in the East. Wading through an old growth forest is an epic adventure, but experts suggest avoiding this journey in the summer, when the bugs and snakes are most active.
—Diana Gerstacker

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Flickr/Miguel Vieria

#58 Pinnacles National Park

Location: California
Last Year’s Rank: 58

At Pinnacles National Park you’ll find the rugged remains of an ancient volcano. Although its status as an official national park is only a little bit more than one year old (it was designated a national park by President Obama in January of 2013), mountain and rock climbers have long loved Pinnacles for its craggy landscape.
—Katie Rosenbrock

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National Park Service

#57 Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska
Last Year’s Rank: 57

Without any roads or trails, visitors have to carefully plan their visit to this park. Located above the Arctic Circle, the local Athapaskan and Inupiat descendants and various Non-Native Alaskan peoples live in this park with a strong connection to the land. The National Park Service associates eleven resident zone communities with the park. Visiting this park during winter may be a freezing pursuit, but it’s well worth loading on the extra layers for the view of some of the most beautiful, open aurora-lit skies.
–Catarina Cowden

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National Park Service

#56 Kobuk Valley National Park

Location: Alaska
Last Year’s Rank: 56

Grizzly bears, caribou and sand dunes, oh my! This 1.75 million-acre park holds endless treasures and might just be the wildest on our list. There are no roads in or out and there are no hiking trails either, you’ll need to access this massive park by bush plane. And did we mention it’s located above the Arctic Circle?
—Diana Gerstacker

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Flickr/Amanda Scheliga

#55 Wind Cave National Park

Location: South Dakota
Last Year’s Rank: 53

Wind Cave National Park visitors will most appreciate this park for providing easy access to one of world’s longest caves, which is named for the barometric winds that linger at its entrance. Here you’ll also find yourself surrounded by flowing grasslands, tree-lined hillsides and a variety of wildlife like bison, elk and prairie dogs.
—Katie Rosenbrock

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Flickr/Ken Lund

#54 Hot Springs National Park

Location: Arkansas
Last Year’s Rank: 52

Nicknamed “The American Spa”, The National Park Service states that the springs were first what attracted visitors and keeps them coming back for more. The healing and soothing thermal waters have not been preserved in their originally natural state, but now are conserved for the production of water for public use. Most of the park is adjacent to the streets of the city, Hot Springs, and serves as a green oasis in an otherwise developed downtown area.
–Catarina Cowden

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Flickr/Kirk Kittell

#53 Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Location: Texas
Last Year’s Rank: 51

It might be difficult to imagine that the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak, was not only once underwater, but that it was part of an elaborate coral reef. That reef is now well-preserved and on display in the limestone rocks of the park. Hike some of the 80 miles of trails for a close look at the underwater fossils that help make this park one-of-a-kind.
—Diana Gerstacker

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Wiki/Rchristianson

#52 Lake Clark National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska
Last Year’s Rank: 50

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve (called “little Alaska by some) is home to an array of quintessential Alaskan wildlife like brown bears, salmon, moose and wolves, all of which share the area with the native Athabascan people who have created a unique and sustainable culture living off the land there for thousands of years. One of the best places for bear-viewing in the entire world, a recent survey of the land counted a population of 267 bears and a visit to the park almost guarantees you’ll catch a glimpse of one fishing for salmon in the Silver Salmon Creek or Chinitna Bay. Countless miles of hiking trails and open access to the entire area offer endless opportunities for adventure.
—Katie Rosenbrock

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Flickr/John Fowler

#51 Petrified Forest National Park

Location: Arizona
Last Year’s Rank: 48

The intriguing geological features found in the Petrified Forest are quite the site. Geologists, paleontologists, historians, and the like visit from all over the world to study this National Park. While the Lake Triassic fossils are the major destination of this park, the vast and scenic landscapes offer absolutely breathtaking views. See how intricate nature can be with the twisted sandstone formations sculpted into the Petroglyph Canyon.
–Catarina Cowden

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Flickr/Michael Turk

#50 Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Location: Colorado
Last Year’s Rank: 47

The mighty canyon cliffs, featuring some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, reach up to 2,722 feet from the canyon floor, which doesn’t see much light as the nearly-vertical walls cast dark shadows for most of the day. The shadows are where Black Canyon draws its name. The steep climbs are best left to experts, but many visit just to marvel at the depth.
—Diana Gerstacker

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Flickr/Amanda Scheliga

#49 Badlands National Park

Location: South Dakota
Last Year’s Rank: 45

This South Dakota park is known for its desert like landscape comprised mainly of craggy buttes. Dan Austin (founder and owner of ace travel company Austin-Lehman Adventures) notes that the area played an important role in the United States' history of settling the west.
—Katie Rosenbrock

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Flickr/Eric Fredericks

#48 Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North Dakota
Last Year’s Score: 44

Named for the president who first came to the area to hunt bison, this park is home to a diverse crowd of wildlife. From feral horses to prairie dogs to several types of snakes and lizards, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the perfect place for the animal enthusiast. Come explore and camp right in the park at Cottonwood Campground, Juniper Campground, or Roundup Group Horse Campground to get the most out of your visit.
–Catarina Cowden

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Flickr/jankgo

#47 Lassen Volcanic National Park

Location: California
Last Year’s Rank: 41

Home to volcanic peaks, painted dunes and some great stargazing spots, this national park is open year-round. Hike more than 150 miles of trails or drive through the park to get a look at the remnants of volcanic activity and camp overnight for a view of the stars.
—Diana Gerstacker

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Flickr/Ron Wiecki

#46 Biscayne National Park

Location: Florida
Last Year’s Rank: 40

With easy access to water, Biscayne offers opportunities to engage in almost any water sport you can think of. Parks guidebook author Randy Johnson says it’s a beautiful place for subtropical snorkeling. You can also boat, fish, camp and picnic in the park and the area offers plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching, too.
—Katie Rosenbrock

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Flickr/Terry Feuerborn

#45 Mesa Verde National Park

Location: Colorado
Last Year’s Rank: 46

“It's hard to not get shivers running down your spine exploring the legacy of the ancestral Puebloan civilization - which reminds us that we are not the first peoples to call this land our home.”
–John D. Giorgis

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Flickr/J

#44 Voyageurs National Park

Location: Minnesota
Last Year’s Rank: 39

Described as rugged and varied, Voyageurs was named for the French-Canadian canoe-men who traveled these waters in their birch-bark canoes. According to Oh, Ranger! the men paddled from the Great Lakes to the interior of the western United States and Canada. True to their legacy, this park still offers great opportunities for paddling.
—Diana Gerstacker

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Flickr/Linda Tanner

#43 Great Basin National Park

Location: Nevada
Last Year’s Rank: 38

Great Basin is known and celebrated for its easy access to excellent stargazing opportunities. Areas of high elevation and low light pollution make it one of the best spots to stare at the stars in the entire U.S. Among other activities and attractions, daytime exploration of the park includes opportunities for hiking the 13,063-foot-tall Wheeler Peak and underground treks through Lehman Caves.
—Katie Rosenbrock

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Flickr/Ron Cogswell

#42 Great Sand Dunes National Park

Location: Colorado
Last Year’s Rank: 49

“For a truly memorable experience, considering visiting here on a summer night under a full moon. Take off your shoes and feel the cool sand on your toes as you hike to the top, and let the glow of the moon turn this place into an otherworldly landscape.”
–John D. Giorgis

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Flickr/Yu Sui Kao

#41 Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona
Last Year’s Rank: 37

Just on the edge of Tucson, this park is most famous for its preservation and abundance of cactus. For an upclose look, you can either drive one of the scenic loops or trek some of the 150 miles of hiking trails, which will take you along the Sonoran Desert and up into the Rincon Mountains.
—Diana Gerstacker

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Flickr/Evangelio Gonzalez

#40 Dry Tortugas National Park

Location: Florida
Last Year’s Rank: 54

"The main area, of Dry Tortugas, Garden Key, has a tiny size of 400 meters by 500 meters, yet the maximum stay of 3 nights is not enough to explore the historic fort, sea-kayak to the outer islets and dive the reefs. The reefs of Dry Tortugas lie in the Gulf of Mexico, at its juncture with the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The intermixing of those three ecosystems results in a one-of-a-kind collection of marine life. Just camping on Dry Tortugas is a wonderful experience. A cluster of trees provide shade for most of the spots, which are only a minute walk from the beach. Because there is no freshwater on the island there are no mosquitoes unlike on Florida’s mainland."
—QT Luong

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Flickr/Amy Meredith

#39 Kenai Fjords National Park

Location: Alaska
Last Year’s Rank: 36

Different elements meet at the edge of Kenai Peninsula. While glaciers flow from Harding Icefield, watch the wildlife that lives in these freezing waters and empty ice. Head over to Exit Glacier, which is the only part of the Kenai Fjords that you can access by road, and see what it really means to be in a winter wonderland.
–Catarina Cowden

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Flickr/Wally Miller

#38 Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: New Mexico
Last Year’s Rank: 34

Home to more than 117 known caves, this national park has something for every kind of adventurer. Whether you’d like to see the main section of a cave lit up or 250,000 bats migrating at dawn and dusk, or maybe stargazing is more your speed, there’s definitely something for everyone.
—Diana Gerstacker

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Flickr/Byron Chin

#37 Haleakala National Park

Location: Hawaii
Last Year’s Rank: 42

“Haleakala is one park, two worlds. When driving up to the 10,023-foot summit, you may as well be in a spaceship as you’ll feel like you’ve landed on Mars when you reach the top (dress warm, because it’s cool and windy up there). On the east side of Maui you’ll find [the] Kaipahulu District—located at the end of famed Hana Highway—a jungle paradise with glistening pools, bamboo forests and towering waterfalls.”
—Mike Oswald

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Flickr/ Tim Jones

#36 Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California
Last Year’s Rank: 27

Deceiving at first glance, this desert park is actually home to an abundance of different plants and animals. Some of the geology is so surreal that you simply have to see it for yourself. With 12 self-guiding nature trails, mountain biking and the most popular activity, rock-climbing, there is something for everyone at Joshua Tree.
–Catarina Cowden

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Flickr/ Yi-Liang Liu

#35 Cuyahoga National Park

Location: Ohio
Last Year’s Rank: 35

"A bit of a sentimental choice.  As a college student in Cleveland, this is where we'd go when we needed to 'just get away' and get out of the city. Last year, I returned with my wife and my two-year-old, and we took a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for Father's Day. He just loved riding the train, and we looked out the window for Great Blue Herons in the heron rookery and learned about the role of beaver ponds in the local ecology of the area from the Ranger on board."
—John D. Giorgis

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Flickr/ Macie J Ciupa

#34 Shenandoah National Park

Location: Virginia
Last Year's Rank: 30

“The name Shenandoah almost rolls off the tongue - which is probably why there's an eponymous folk song of the same name.  It seems almost unfair that a Park this beautiful has so many great names - Skyline Drive practically beckons the road-tripper to adventure, and the hike up Old Rag Mountain is one of the best day-hikes in the Mid-Atlantic.”
—John D. Giorgis

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Flickr/Matthew Paulson

#33 Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Location: North Carolina & Tennessee
Last Year’s Rank: 17

As America’s most visited park, this diverse landscape is home to a rich history. Visit in spring or summer to admire the incredible displays of wildflowers, or explore deeper and attempt to find new species. Today, scientists are convinced that we only know about 17 percent of the wildlife in the park. Continue your wildlife viewing in Cades Cove and take in the beauty of a valley with an interesting history that dates back to settlements in the 1800s.
–Catarina Cowden

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Flickr/Corey Seeman

#32 Mammoth Cave National Park

Location: Kentucky
Last Year’s Rank: 28

"I’d add any of the cave parks (Wind Cave, Carlsbad Caverns) to this list strictly for the 'Wild Cave' tours, which are guided spelunking adventures. Mammoth’s is one of the best, plus there are plenty of other above and below ground activities. (Note: You must meet certain size requirements for Wild Cave Tours, because you’ll be crawling on hands and knees, squeezing through tight spaces, and finding yourself in all sorts of compromising positions that test your strength and flexibility. I lost a belt loop passing through Fat Man’s Misery.)"
—Mike Oswald
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Flickr/Mark Stevens

#31 Katmai National Park

Location: Alaska
Last Year’s Rank: 23

“During Novarupta’s eruption in 1912, the largest recorded in modern times, a verdant valley became a desert buried in 700 feet of pumice, ash and vapor-emitting fumaroles, known thereafter as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. This otherworldly environment contrasts with the verdant lakes and rivers that form the largest spawning grounds of sockeye salmon, attracting the largest brown bear population in the world. As I was busy framing bear footprints on the shore of Naknek Lake, I did not realize that a brown bear was approaching me from behind until he was a few yards away.”
—QT Luong 

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Flickr/sotheavy

#30 Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah
Last Year’s Rank: 22

“I wouldn’t call Bryce Canyon a one-trick pony, but the big draw is Bryce Amphitheater and it’s amazing. Stephen Mather was brought here and told to close his eyes before reaching the viewpoint. His tour guides were determined to leave a lasting impression on the first director and sentimental father of the National Park Service. It worked. Bryce Canyon was added to the parks portfolio and it’s now preserved for your enjoyment. Feel free to blindfold yourself before walking out to Inspiration, Sunrise or Sunset Point, but make sure you have someone to guide you. And please hike into the canyon! Take Queen’s Garden Trail, or, better yet, combine it with Navajo Loop."
–Mike Oswald

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Flickr/Howard Ignatius

#29 Crater Lake National Park

Location: Oregon
Last Year’s Rank: 24

“Crater Lake isn’t as well-known as its park neighbors to the north (Mount Rainier and Olympic) or to the south (Redwood and Yosemite), but its main attraction is jaw-dropping,” said Oswald of the crystal clear lake. “Go in winter when snowshoers and cross-country skiers are allowed to camp along the rim!”

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Flickr/Steven Bratman

#28 Rocky Mountain National Park

Location: Colorado
Last Year’s Rank: 13

This exquisite park may have got knocked down a few spots on our list this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not one of the most stunning and diverse mountain landscapes in the country. Just consider what Mel White (author of National Geographic's Complete National Parks of the United States) mentioned last year, it’s her favorite place on the planet. The park is home to wildlife ranging from elk, deer and moose to bears, coyotes and even cougars and its huge expanse of hiking trails offers exciting exploration opportunities for hikers or all levels.
—Katie Rosenbrock

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Flickr/Mark Byzewski

#27 Glacier Bay National Park

Location: Alaska
Last Year’s Rank: 31

“Each of the three coastal Alaskan mountain parks (Kenai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias, Glacier Bay) deserves a spot near the top, and shares common characteristics High mountains and vast glaciers that calve into the water. Kenai Fjords has steeper fjords, the largest ice field, easy road and trail access. Wrangell-St. Elias has incredibly vast mountain terrain. Glacier Bay has the Bay. I picked it simply because of my extended experience there.

During our ten-day kayaking trip into the marine wilderness of the bay, we saw every possible shade of blue, as we encountered icebergs, ice-choked waters, and tidewater glaciers calving into the waters with a thunderous sound. However, there was so much on land left to explore, including the tallest coastal mountains on earth from which we saw the glaciers descend.”
–QT Luong

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Flickr/Howard Ignatius

#26 Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Location: Hawaii
Last Year’s Rank: 55

"The place may look austere at a first glance, but in encompasses a lot of contrasts: tropical coast with palm trees versus below freezing temperatures at the summit, absolutely barren rock deserts versus lush rainforests. And when the lava flows, there is not a single other place in the world where you can get that close to the volcano safely.

On my first outing on the live lava fields of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I walked for miles on old, hardened lava towards the active flow. During the return hike, I was startled and frightened to see red lava simmering in the dark, shining through cracks right underneath my feet where I thought the ground was solid. I subsequently spent an entire night watching the creation of new earth as hot lava flowed onto the coastal plain and cascaded into the ocean. I then camped right on the otherworldly summit of Mauna Loa, the biggest mountain on earth, almost 14,000 feet high, without seeing a single plant nor another soul on the way, completing my sea-to-summit experience"
—QT Long

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Flickr/Brian Hawkins

#25 Channel Islands National Park

Location: California
Last Year’s Rank: 21

“The Islands are close to the Southern California cities, but they are a world apart in their surprising wildness. Each of the five islands has its own character, abundant wildlife (the islands have been compared to the Galapagos), flora (some endemic) and rewards exploration by hiking, paddling and scuba-diving. Diving in the kelp (fastest growing plants in the world) was a unique experience which felt like flying within a tall forest, moving freely in three dimensions.”
—QT Luong

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Flickr/Mark Byzewski

#24 Virgin Islands National Park

Location: US Virgin Islands
Last Year’s Rank: 33

“Nothing sounds more inviting than reading a book in the midst of the turquoise water and white sand beaches of St. John. Looking for something more active? No problem, try snorkeling around Waterlemon Cay.”
–Mike Oswald

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Flickr/LDELD

#23 Mount Rainier National Park

Location: Washington
Last Year’s Rank: 18

“Original visitors used names like ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Paradise’ to describe this magical place and opinions certainly haven’t changed over the years,” said Oswald. Beyond pure aesthetics, this national park offers visitors the chance to climb an active volcano, trek through old growth forests and take photos of spectacular wild flower meadows.

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Flickr/Joe Ross

#22 Isle Royale National Park

Location: Michigan
Last Year’s Rank: 29

“No roads. No cars. One lodge. Two Visitors Centers. Miles of hiking trails and dozens of backcountry campsites. This park is best suited for backpackers and kayakers, but day-trippers (departing Grand Portage or Copper Harbor by ferry or from Houghton by seaplane) come here too. The best way to visit is aboard the Ranger III from Houghton; it’s six hours (one-way), but you’ll be treated to stories from a park ranger and you can pick up your backcountry permit during the trip. It’s also the least expensive option.”
—Mike Oswald 

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Wiki/ Mangus Manske

#21 Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska
Last Year’s Rank: 25

“Big is beautiful, and this National Park is the size of Switzerland. Think about that for a moment. After watching the Park Orientation film, I was so overawed by the scenery that for the first and only time in my life, I went back into the visitor center and bought a copy. While making my purchase, an air tour concessionaire called up asking if there was anyone willing to split the cost of a flight with someone else who was on end. At that point it was meant to be - as much of a Park this big and beautiful ​can only truly be appreciated from the air.”
–John D. Giorgis

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Flickr/Robbie

#20 Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas
Last Year’s Rank: 20

"Big Bend combines three distinct environments: the desert, the mountains and the Rio Grande with its canyons. After hiking up to the top of the Chisos, I slept under a large pinion pine. The next morning, I wandered along the South Rim, admiring the panoramic view of the desert below. I discovered with delight several beautiful, giant agaves, a typical plant of the Chihuahuan desert."
—QT Long

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Flickr/Steve Dunleavy

#19 Redwood National Park

Location: California
Last Year’s Rank: 15

"Walking among the ancient redwood trees, I felt the stillness of the coastal fog that provides nourishment to the tranquil groves of those giants, the earth’s tallest plants. During this May outing, in the deep darkness of the forest, rhododendron blossoms provided brilliant accents of color.”
—QT Luong

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Flickr/Rene

#18 National Park of American Samoa

Location: American Samoa Territory
Last Year’s Rank: 43

“Getting to the only National Park in the southern hemisphere is hard enough, and brings its own sense of accomplishment.  It took me three more days to make it out to the island of 'Ofu - after my flight was cancelled twice, I finally ended up hitch-hiking on the weekly cargo ship to make it out there. The effort was totally worth it for the wonderful sense of splendid isolation, white sand beaches nestled under towering jungle-clad cliffs, and a fairy kingdom coral reef just waiting to be explored just a few feet off shore.”
–John D. Giorgis

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Flickr/Miguel Vieria

#17 Everglades National Park

Location: Florida
Last Year’s Rank: 12

"There are only a few places in the U.S. you can visit where reptiles still rule the world. In the Everglades, you can see alligators taking in the sun as if they know that for here at least, they still rule the place."
—John D. Giorgis

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Flickr/John Fowler

#16 Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah
Last Year’s Rank: 19

“Canyonlands is a wilderness of rock with some of the most remote terrain the in lower 48 [states]: three districts with distinct character, separated by wild rivers. All the rock formations and outdoor experiences typical of the Southwest can be found there. After a jetboat ride, I hiked up a steep trail from the river and spent a night at the Doll House, a fantasy-land of sandstone pinnacles and spires considered to be one of the most remote places in the Southwest, which would have taken 9 hours of driving from Moab, although it is only 35 miles as the crow flies.”
—QT Luong

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Flickr/heiterefahne

#15 Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah
Last Year’s Rank: 32

“My favorite among the Utah National Parks is the least-famous of the four–all the better for not having to worry about the crowds. Seeing the majestic Waterpocket Fold stretch in a straight line across the landscape (the "reef" in Capitol Reef) as if it was ​dug by the plow of some mysterious race of giants will take your breath away.  And then, they may be the only National Park that bakes their own pies for sale from the historic Mormon Pioneer fruit orchard… Mmmmm.”
–John D. Giorgis

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Flickr/Matt Roe

#14 North Cascades National Park

Location: Washington
Last Year’s Rank: 14

"This is actually a National Parks Complex, consisting of three distinct units: North Cascades National Park (North and South Units), Ross Lake National Recreation Area (NRA) and Lake Chelan NRA. Most visitors drive along the North Cascades Scenic Highway (WA-20) and don’t realize they’ve never actually entered either of the national park units, as it is bounded by Ross Lake NRA. Regardless of what unit you’re in, the setting is tremendous, warranting far more than the 25,000 or so annual visitors the park receives."
—Mike Oswald

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National Park Service

#13 Arches National Park

Location: Utah
Last Year’s Rank: 26

“No matter how many arches you see, our brains always try to tell us that it somehow just shouldn't be there,” says Giorgis. “Nature never ceases in her capacity to surprise.” Oswald adds, “The 3-mile round-trip trek to Delicate Arch is one of the best designed hikes in the country. And the Fiery Furnace Walks are a gem among all ranger programs.”  

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Flickr/Kim Seng

#12 Grand Teton National Park

Location: Wyoming
Last Year’s Rank: 6

“Hike to Solitude Lake or Inspiration Point (opposite Jenny Lake) and you’ll know why this is a favorite destination of park enthusiasts, many of whom prefer it to Yellowstone, its better known neighbor to the north. Whether you’re floating the Snake River or driving through the park your eyes will constantly be drawn to the Tetons looming to the west.”
–Mike Oswald

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Flickr/Tom Hilton

#11 Kings Canyon National Park

Location: California
Last Year’s Rank: 16

"Groves of giant sequoias grow on the gently sloping west side of the Sierra Nevada range, while the abrupt east side is home to the most dramatic peaks of this long and luminous mountain range. I've camped so many times there next to a clear lake, above timberline and far from the trailhead, that it would be difficult to point to a favorite location."
—QT Long

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Wiki/ Magnus Manske

#10 Denali National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska
Last Year’s Rank: 10

“Yes, this Park protects North America's highest peak - but many people don't realize that it was also set aside as a game reserve,” says Giorgis. “Today, that means outstanding opportunities for observing wildlife, like herds of caribou on the plains and dall sheep high on the cliffs. Autumn comes early this far up north, visit around Labor Day weekend to see the tundra in reds and golds.”

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Flickr/Randy Lemoine

#9 Yosemite National Park

Location: California
Last Year’s Rank: 2

“Again, the view of Yosemite Valley from any of the sensational viewpoints is not one you’ll soon forget, but it’s extremely busy during peak season. For something different, try visiting in winter, when the trail to Vernal Falls won’t feel like a Lambeau Field stairwell at the conclusion of a Green Bay Packers game,” advises Mike Oswald. Giorgis adds, “Come to scratch the iconic sites of Yosemite Valley off your bucket list. Stay to explore the back-country along the Tioga Pass Road away from all the crowds.”

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Flickr/Mark Stevens

#8 Glacier National Park

Location: Montana
Last Year’s Rank: 4

"I find it difficult to choose between the three rocky mountain parks: Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Glacier. Maybe Glacier is the most wild of the three.

The glaciers that carved limestone peaks into steep faces are still present in large numbers, although in diminutive sizes, feeding cascading waterfalls, glistening lakes, and wildflower alpine meadows that together form what is maybe the most beautiful alpine scenery in the country, and certainly the most intact ecosystem. Just a few hundred yards away from a popular trail, mountain goats approached me so closely that I had switch to a wide-angle lens to photograph them."
—QT Long

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Flickr/Kim Seng

#7 Acadia National Park

Location: Maine
Last Year’s Rank: 3

“Despite modest size and scale, compared to the western parks, I am always delighted by the harmony and diversity of coast, mountains,  ponds, and forest, with some of the most beautiful fall foliage on the East Coast, at the intersection of temperate and northern vegetation zones,” Luong told us. Giorgis points out, “The old carriage trails are perfect for bicycle riding. Be sure to enjoy a sunset from the top of Cadillac Mountain.”

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Flickr/Dave Lichterman

#6 Olympic National Park

Location: Washington
Last Year’s Rank: 8

“Olympic combines three distinct environments: the mountains (heavily glaciated despite modest elevation), a coast laced with sea stacks, and temperate rainforest where every available inch is covered with growth. Hiking in the rainforest I felt immersed in a fantasy-like world straight out of Tolkien.”
–QT Luong

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Flickr/Andrew Mace

#5 Death Valley National Park

Location: California & Nevada
Last Year’s Rank: 11

"In 1917, Death Valley experienced 52 days—43 consecutive—with temperatures over 120°F. In 1929, not a single drop of measureable rain was recorded. During a 40-month period from 1931 through 1934, only 0.64 inches of rain fell. It’s the hottest and driest national park in the United States, and for that many visitors despise it. I, on the other hand, love it for its quirkiness. Visit The Racetrack (4x4 or mountain bike required), where rocks, called sailing stones, glide across the playa. There are canyons, sand dunes and craters. On a clear day, from Dante’s View you can see Badwater, the lowest point in North America, and Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48. It’s hot, but also very cool, and an excellent place for road biking (if you’re interested)."
—Mike Oswald

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Flickr/Carl Berger

#4 Zion National Park

Location: Utah
Last Year’s Rank: 7

“Among Utah’s national parks, Zion holds the most diversified and easily accessible hiking trails. There’s one problem, some of its best hikes—Angel’s Landing, Zion Narrows and The Subway—aren’t for everyone. Still, Zion Canyon is easily explored thanks to Zion Canyon Drive only being open to park shuttles during peak tourism season,” says Oswald. Giorgis adds, “The main valley boasts some of the most iconic hikes in the National Park System in Angel's Landing and The Narrows. If you are looking to escape the crowds though, the hike to Kolob Arch is the perfect day hike.”

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Flickr/Phil

#3 Sequoia National Park

Location: California
Last Year’s Rank: 9

“There’s a lot here, including exceptional hiking, a pristine backcountry, even a small cave, but I would like to tell you about a tree. If there’s one tree you should make a special trip to see, it’s General Sherman. (Prometheus, a 4,862 year old bristlecone pine, cut down by a grad student seeking the world’s oldest tree, is a close second. Prometheus was found at Great Basin National Park in Nevada and now a cross-section is on display at the park’s visitor center.) General Sherman, the 2,200 year old giant sequoia with an estimated volume of more than 52,000 cubic feet (roughly the same volume of 16 blue whales, the world’s largest mammal), is the largest tree (by volume) in the world. Each year, General Sherman grows enough new wood to make a 60-foot tall tree of typical proportions.”
–Mike Oswald

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Wiki/Matanya

#2 Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona
Last Year’s Rank: 5

"The Grand Canyon is humbling for so many reasons. Its immense size, 18 miles from rim-to-rim at its widest point and one mile deep, leaves many visitors weak in the knees. Another way to weaken your knees is to hike to the canyon’s floor. When I day-hiked in-and-out from the North Rim, I was having a conversation with a man I met along the way and I forced him to leave me behind for a bit as I was completely exhausted and needed to rest. Fortunately, I started at dawn and had plenty of time to recuperate. The Colorado River, a ribbon of water only visible from a handful of rim-side viewpoints that carved this masterpiece, is just as breathtaking. (Note: More than 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year, most due to heat exhaustion. Be prepared and understand your limitations.)"
—Mike Oswald

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Flickr/karen

#1 Yellowstone National Park

Location: Wyoming
Last Year’s Rank: 1

“Yellowstone, the first national park in the world, was designated to protect the majority of the earth's geysers, as well as other thermal wonders that make up an otherworldly landscape. Its vast size includes mountain ranges, lakes, waterfalls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It is also the only place in the continental United States where every species of native large mammal, including the last free-ranging bison herd, survives today,” says nature photographer QT Luong. John D. Giorgis, President Emeritus of the National Park Travelers Club adds, “This is the one place that every able-bodied American should plan to go once before they die. The geothermal activity, whether its watching Old Faithful, gazing at the Grand Prismatic Spring, or taking a swim in the Firehole River, is like no place else in the world. The scenery is world-class, and the wildlife viewing has no comparison anywhere else in North America.”

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The Absolute Best National Parks