You’ve seen photos of the best national parks but nothing beats seeing them in person. You know the ones – the photos you’ve seen are gorgeous and then you get there and go “Wow, the pictures don’t do it justice!” With sixty-three national parks and many, many additional national park sites scattered throughout the United States, you may be wondering where to start. Here are your must-see US National Parks for 2021.
From desert landscapes and sandstone arches to lush forests and mountain peaks, America’s National Parks are diverse and stunning. These national parks feature not just natural beauty and stunning landscapes but also a variety of recreational activities that get visitors to enjoy the great outdoors. Many require a scenic drive to get there. But all are sure to feature stunning Instagram-worthy views.
Last summer was the summer of road trips. That will continue into 2021 with national parks and other National Park Service managed sites being popular for their socially distanced activities. Read on to discover our favorite national parks in the USA. Plus, if you’re traveling with kids, they can earn junior ranger badges at the parks.
1. Denali National Park
Home to North America’s tallest peak, Denali National Park is massive. The park and preserve cover more than 6 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. In addition to mountains, visitors will also find glaciers and glacial valleys. Here you might be able to spot grizzly bears, caribou or moose.
During the summer take a bus tour of the park, bike, hike, raft, go ATVing or flightseeing. As Alaska is home to the famed Iditarod dog sled race, it is no surprise that dog sledding is a popular winter activity here along with cross country skiing and snowmobiling.
2. Grand Canyon
The largest canyon in the USA is 277 miles long with cliffs over the Colorado River more than a mile high.
Here layered bands of red rock cut into an immense canyon by the Colorado river, impress more than 6 million people per year. With four different rims, and two visitor’s centers there are plenty of spots to find a bird’s eye view of the canyon below. To explore below the rims, you can hike or take a mule or adventurous river trip.
3. The Wave
Located on the Arizona-Utah border, The Wave has graced many Instagram feeds in recent years with its stunning red sandstone formation. The Bureau of Land Management limits foot traffic into the Canyon to 64 lucky people per day doled out through a lottery system. This is technically not a national park, rather a part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
But due to its out-of-this-world stunning natural beauty, it makes the bucket list for both American and international travelers.
4. Death Valley
This national park is the hottest and driest of all the U.S. national parks. It is unique in that it lies below sea level. At 140-miles long, the park is surrounded by the Amargosa and the Panamint mountain ranges. Sand dunes, salt-flats, badlands, canyons, valleys and mountains all make this park home.
Our favorite fact about the park is that Death Valley was one of the filming locations as the planet Tatooine in Star Wars.
5. Yosemite National Park
Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Yosemite National Park may be best known for its giant sequoia trees and waterfalls. But it also brings to mind Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan.
Rock climbers, hikers and campers are all sure to enjoy this majestic national park with incredible panoramic views. Half Dome is likely the most popular hike in the park and does require a permit.
Apparently America’s National Parks are popular filming spots for Star Wars movies. Stare Wars V: The Final Frontier also has scenes shot in Yosemite. It is just that out of this world.
6. Joshua Tree National Park
Named for the park’s most famous flora, Joshua Tree is located in southern California and includes parts of two deserts, the Mojave and Colorado (western part of the Sonoran Desert) Deserts. Explore biking and hiking trails here to take in the stunning vistas.
Visit in the spring to see the wildflowers bloom. But anytime of year is a good time to stargaze in the clear night sky.
7. Rocky Mountain National Park
This national park is one of four of Colorado’s diverse national parks. Located in northern Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts an incredible amount of mountain peaks comprising the Continental Divide.
There are many ways to take in the spectacular mountain views and alpine forests and lakes. Camp, hike, horseback ride or take a scenic drive. There are endless outdoor activities to enjoy here in Colorado’s backcountry. Spot elk, moose, big horn sheep fox or other wildlife. Crossing the park, Trail Ridge Road is the highest, longest paved highway in the United States.
The park’s best known entrance is on the eastern side at Estes Park. We are partial to the western side in Grand County where the historic Grand Lake Lodge surrounded by mountains overlooks the lakes below.
8. Great Sand Dunes National Park
Located in southern Colorado, surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, these tall sand dunes with snow capped mountain views in the background are remote. Because the park isn’t easily accessed by major airports this is not one of the more visited national parks. Yet its landscape is one of the most unique.
Starting in early summer, the Medano Creek flows through the base of the sand dunes. After a big snowfall season you may have the opportunity to see an unusual natural occurrence when a stream flows in cadenced waves over the sand called surge flow.
Hiking the dunes, splashing in the river, playing in the waves and sand sledding are all popular activities at Great Sand Dunes. Designated as an International Dark Sky destination, you’ll also want to take advantage of stargazing while here.
9. Glacier National Park
Located in Montana, Glacier National Park’s glacier-carved peaks and valleys of Montana’s Rocky Mountains run to the Canadian border. Drive Going-to-the-Sun Road for pure beauty.
The landscape and wildlife of Glacier National Park is inspirational. An interesting way to learn the history of the park and get familiar with the area, is to take an interpretive tour on the famous historic Red Buses.
Explore hiking trails, bike, backpack and camp in this beautiful wilderness under the Big Sky. Visit the Apgar Nature Center, take a boat tour or hike the many beautiful trails.
10. Great Smoky Mountains
Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountain National Park has brightly colored wildflowers year round, as well as beautiful green forests. And, it is one of North America’s only free national parks. There is no entry fee which may be a part of why it is one the best US national parks.
Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg border the Tennessee side of the park and Cherokee on the North Carolina side of the park. Dollywood isn’t too far away either.
Here there are five visitor’s centers to begin your adventure. Fish in the streams, wander the hiking trails, climb Mt LeConte, camp and take in the natural beauty. Visit in late April or early May to see fireflies light up the night sky. Take in views of the Great Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Mountains.
The first named National Park in the United States is located in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. With 500 geysers spraying water high into the air, there is one iconic geyser the park is best known for. That is Old Faithful.
Approximately 4 million visitors make their way to Yellowstone each year making it one of the most visited national parks in the U.S. Yet, if you can make your way more than a couple of miles from the roads and parking lots, you may find some space for yourself in this 2.2 million acre park full of natural wonders.
Here you can hike, bike, horseback ride and even take a paddle trip through the Shoshone Lake Geyser Basin. There are just a couple of hot springs where swimming is permitted.
12. Grand Teton National Park
Home to where the bison and bear roam, Grand Teton National Park includes the majestic peaks of the Teton Mountains, the valley of Jackson Hole and Snake River. The park is also home to moose, elk, beavers, otters and even wolves. Visitors come to hike, camp, fish and mountaineer. Boating in the fjord-like lakes is also popular.
13. Acadia National Park
Located in Maine, Acadia National Park offers dramatic views of the highest rocky headlands on the Atlantic coast. It is the main attraction from nearby Bar Harbor. Here you will want to make time for hiking areas such as San Beach, Otter Cliff and Schoodic Peninsula. Kayak or fish at Jordan Pond. Take in sunrise at Cadillac Mountain. But also plan time to visit Bar Harbor for its renowned lobster.
14. Big Bend
Located in southwestern Texas bordering Mexico, Big Bend is immense. Named after the sweeping curve of the Rio Grande River, it encompasses over 800,000 acres of wild and stunning landscape. Hot desert is framed by 8,000 foot peaks of the Chisos Mountains as the Rio Grand carves a green path along the park’s border.
Here you’ll want to hike, wildlife spot and stargaze. The one thing you are almost guaranteed to find here is solitude.
15. Zion National Park
Home to the dramatic cream, red and tan sandstone Zion Canyon, this national park was the first one in Utah. Hiking to stunning overlooks and through narrow gorges is the most popular activity in Zion.
The Narrows slot canyon may be the most photographed hike in Zion. With walls a thousand feet tall and the narrow river just twenty to thirty feet wide in some spots, this gorge can be a challenging hike.
The park is also home to climbing, canyoneering, horseback riding, biking and camping.
16. Arches NP
Home to 2,000+ natural red sandstone arches, Arches NP is located just outside of the town of Moab, Utah. Delicate Arch may be the most photographed spot in the park.
Taking hiking trails to to the iconic arches may be the most popular activity here. Adjacent to the Colorado River, rafting is also a popular activity. But Moab is also known as a mountain bikers’ paradise. The slick rock available in the area is unmatched.
17. Bryce Canyon
Ever wondered what Hoodoos are? Bryce Canyon in southern Utah may be the best place to take in these red spire-shared rock formations.
Here you will want to be sure to explore hiking trails to one of the many overlooks of Bryce Point – Inspiration Point, Rainbow Point, Yovimpa Point, Sunset Point or Sunrise Point – at either dawn or dusk. Discover how Fairyland Canyon or Thor’s Canyon got their names.
18. Olympic National Park
Located in the Pacific Northwest, Olympic NP is named after the peninsula in which it resides. At almost a million acres it includes a variety of ecosystems including mountains, rainforests and coastline.
Climbers flock to Mt Olympus. But the park is also popular with backpackers and hikers though the terrain can be difficult. Black bears, deer and cougars call the park home. Whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions also can be found in the waters off the coastline.
Read More: Want a Less Crowded National Park? Check out Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota