11 Awesome West Coast National Park Trips

Catherine Parker Avatar
mountain lake with snowy mountain backgrounds
Explore a national park with your family. Photo credit: Pixaby

Want to hit the top US National Parks in 2023? Head to the west coast. That’s where you’ll find towering redwoods, mighty waterfalls and dramatic vistas. Here’s what you need to know before you go, including info about how to avoid crowds and where to stay. Also included are the latest updates about Yosemite’s reservation system for entry.

For what seems my kids’ entire childhood, I’ve traveled to the west coast national parks for summer road trips. We’ve enjoyed the hiking trails, explored the ecosystems and seen some epic vistas. The west coast national parks are some of the best in North America. Here’s a list of the top US National Parks for your bucket list.

Best vacations for teens. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park offers epic landscapes in California. Photo credit: Pixabay

Top National Parks in California

1. Yosemite National Park

If you haven’t been to Yosemite National Park in California, it’s an icon worthy of a park pilgrimage.

Reservations were required to enter Yosemite during recent summers due to infrastructure repairs and crowding concerns. However, reservations will NOT be required for 2023. The exception? If you’re planning to try to catch the unique orange glow of Horsetail Falls that happens in February, you’ll need a reservation. Find the info here.

Start at Yosemite Valley and see El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and several other waterfalls. Check into or tour the former Ahwahnee Hotel, now the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.

Then explore the Mariposa Grove for Sequoia trees at the southern end of the park. See the former Wawona Hotel, now the Big Trees Lodge, for a refined historic inn.

Head up to Tuolumne Meadows for a subalpine meadow among mountain peaks. And the Tuolumne River snakes through it for a picturesque picnic spot. This is one of the top National Parks in the USA and one of the busiest.

2. Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is a land of extremes. As the largest national park outside of Alaska, it encompasses over three million acres. And it’s the lowest point in North America at 282-feet below sea level. Another record is the highest air temperature ever recorded at the Furnace Creek Resort in 1913 (134 F/56.7 C).

You might not expect this but Death Valley has a luxurious side. The Oasis at Death Valley offers an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, a horse corral, a couple of spring-fed swimming pools, a playground and several restaurants.

During your visit, see bad water basin and the Mesquite Flats sand dunes. It’s an easy day trip out of Las Vegas.

3. Joshua Tree National Park

Just outside Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park offers families a glimpse into two different desert ecosystems. Best explored during the school year, families can hike in a national park larger than the state of Rhode Island looking for the Joshua tree. Also see unique rock formations and it’s a popular park for backcountry 4×4 driving.

Redwoods in California. Photo credit: Pixabay

4. Redwoods National and State Parks

Some visitors might call it Redwoods National Park but it’s actually a national park and state park combined. See the coastal redwoods along with elk in a national park north of San Francisco.

5. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are connected. Both offer hikes among giant sequoia trees so tall staring at the top will cause vertigo. Actually, they are some of the largest trees on earth. During your visit, see the General Sherman Tree.

Or if the kids are up for it, take a horseback ride from the stables and explore the Sierra Nevada mountains on horseback. Find rustic cabins for a camping trip not easily forgotten too.

6. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Learn about volcanoes while exploring a northern California national park that looks similar to Yosemite but lacks the crowds. Take the scenic drive through Lassen Volcanic National Park and see Lassen Peak, one of the largest plug volcanoes in the world. Then see mudpots, fumeroles, steam vents and sulphur springs.

Stay in a rustic cabin with bunk beds or escape to the Drakesbad Guest Ranch for western hospitality, both within the park.

US National Parks in Oregon and Washington

7. Crater Lake National Park

See the deepest lake in the U.S. while driving along Crater Lake National Park‘s Rim Drive, located in southern Oregon. Take a boat to hike to the top of Wizard Island in Crater Lake.

Or leap into the ice cold lake water. Learn how volcanic activity created Crater Lake.

End the perfect day watching the sunset from one of Crater Lake Lodge’s rocking chairs. Then spend the night at the cabins at Mazama Village.

8. Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

Mount St. Helens was once a recreational playground for Washington, similar to Mt. Rainier National Park. Then one quiet Sunday morning in 1980 the snowcapped mountain vaporized and a mudslide decimated a forest for a generation. It’s included in this list, although it’s not a national park but is maintained by the US Forest Service.

The Johnston Ridge Observatory is a must for school-age kids with live seismographs and geologic exhibits. The visitor center offers two films that had my school-age kids glued to their seats as they watched.

Mt Rainier
Mt Rainier. Photo credit: Pixabay

9. Mount Rainier National Park

On a clear day, Mount Rainier offers Seattle’s best view. This popular getaway offers crisp, pine-scented air along with the National Park Inn or Paradise Inn, an historic lodge half-way to its peak in Mount Rainier National Park.

Hike through blazing wildflower meadows offering months of blooms. Of course, a trip to Mount Rainier is not complete without sampling its namesake cherries. Please sure to arrive early in the day during the summer.

10. North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park, east of Seattle, offers 300 glaciers in a rugged park that’s quiet even in the summer. The west side of the park offers a temperate rain forest. And the east side of the park offers a dry ponderosa pine forest.

Find floating cabins at the Ross Lake Resort along the Skagit River. And they’re only accessible by float plane, ferry or horseback. Or visit Stehekin at the headwaters of Lake Chelan for another hamlet without a road.

Olympic National Park, Olympic with kids, what to do with kids in Olympic National Park,
Discover the three distinct ecosystems in Olympic National Park, like the rugged coastline near Kalaloch Beach. Photo credit: National Park Service

11. Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park is a triple threat park. Find mountains to hike, rainforests to explore and beaches to walk. In fact, Olympic National Park is so rich in diversity its also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Drive up to Hurricane Ridge to see its glaciers. Explore an alpine ridge and hike through a meadow of flowers.

Hike along a temperate rainforest trail then have lunch at a woodland lodge along a glassy lake. Afterwards teach the kids to skip the perfect rock along the shores of Lake Quinault.

Spend the afternoon exploring the rugged coastline where tide pools outnumber people. Kids can earn a nifty patch for their marine adventures and Mom can let the soothing sounds of the ocean work its magic.

Also find a mineral pool that offers families a warm place to swim since the lakes are chilly. Or grab a stand-up paddle board and explore from the water.

Other Top Parks in the West

Grand Canyon National Park

As one of the best national parks, the Grand Canyon in Arizona offers lots of activities for visitors in Arizona.

Head to the Visitor Center, then walk to the Rim Trail and Mather Point and look down the layers of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River below. If time allows, attend a ranger program or tour the Historic Village, all located on the South Rim.

Grand Canyon National Park offers amazing sunsets and sunrises. For the best spot to witness this symphony of nature, stop at Yaki or Mather Point. I’ve seen visitors moved to tears at the beauty of this experience. For the adventurous, a rafting trip can be arranged.

Zion National Park

To appreciate this popular park in southern Utah explore the Zion Canyon, accessible via a shuttle bus. Some of its best hikes include The Narrows and Angels Landing, both best suited for other teens and adults.

Bryce Canyon National Park

See the hoodoos as hikers take the trail down to Bryce Canyon‘s Amphitheather. This park is an easy park to see in a few hours while in Utah and offers a shuttle service.

Arches National Park

​Located near outdoors destination Moab, Arches National Park attracts a crowd in the summer. Top sites include Delicate Arch, on the Utah license plate, and Landscape Arch.

Rocky Mountain National Park

See the fourteeners, or mountains over 14,000 feet, in this popular national park in Colorado. Known for its scenic byway, the Trail Ridge Road, see animals and wildflowers in equal doses.

Glacier National Park

Known as the jewel of the continent, Glacier National Park sits along the border of Canada and Montana. It is known for some of the last glaciers in the lower 48. Driving the Going-to-the-Sun road is a top thing to do.

Yellowstone National Park

The home to geysers, like Old Faithful, and lots of wildlife in Wyoming. Yellowstone was the first park in the park system and a bucket list destination.

Catherine Parker has a passion for travel with only one state left in her quest of seeing all 50. As a former flight attendant, she’s landed in nearly every major North American airport at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting national parks, historic sites and cultural icons. She’s a freelance writer and journalist based out of Central Texas, dividing her time between writing and restoring a 95-year-old house. She shares her life with her three kids, her husband, yardful of cats, a dog and three backyard chickens.
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