Tips for visiting 5 of the best national parks in the USA

19/08/2014

The USA is home to some of the world’s most spectacular and iconic natural attractions, so it’s little surprise that so many people choose to visit its amazing national parks during a holiday stateside. 

We’ve picked out five of our favourites to give you some inspiration about where to go and have put together a few tips for visiting the various national parks to ensure you make the most out of your time in the great outdoors.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, image by Thinkstock/iStock Great Smoky National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934 and spans over 521,000 acres. It straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee and is actually the busiest of America’s national parks, with nine million people enjoying its landscapes every year.

If you want to get out and about in the wilderness, you’ll be well-catered for here, with over 800 miles of hiking trails just waiting to be explored. Camping is the best way to get back to nature if you want to spend a night or two within the park and you can choose to stay at one of the established campsites, or find your own spot in the middle of nowhere.

Among the standout features within the park are Clingmans Dome - an observation tower on top of the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains - Deep Creek, where you can see a number of waterfalls, and Cades Cove, which was the first place to be settled by non-native Americans all the way back in 1818.

Top tips in Great Smoky: Drive along Newfound Gap - the main road through the park - and enjoy the stunning scenery; hike the Three Waterfalls trail, taking in Indian Creek, Juney Whank falls and Tom Branch falls; Cataloochee offers some of the best wildlife-watching opportunities in the park - head out at dusk or dawn to have the best chance of spotting black bears, raccoons, white-tailed deer and woodchucks.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park, image by Thinkstock/iStock Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is a place of superlatives: home to the largest exposed granite monolith in the world, where you can find some of the oldest trees on the planet, and boasting some of the most challenging rock climbs on the globe. 

It was first designated as a protected area in 1864, officially becoming a national park in 1890, and it covers an area of almost 750,000 acres. 

The scenery is spectacular, with amazing landmarks almost everywhere you look. Yosemite Valley is where you will find El Capitan - the vast granite monolith - Sentinel Bridge, which is famous for its view of Half Dome, the Tunnel View vantage point, and incredible waterfalls, among many other attractions. This is where most first-time visitors to Yosemite head.

Top tips in Yosemite: Visit Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, where you can see trees over 3,000 years old; hike to Glacier Point for outstanding views of Yosemite Valley; get off the beaten track by visiting Hetch Hetchy, a valley that is home to a vast reservoir.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park, image by Thinkstock/iStock Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone was America’s first official national park, with its protected status enshrined all the way back in 1872. Aside from being the first of what has become an incredible network of wilderness areas, it boasts the largest number of geysers anywhere in the world. 

It is also mind-blowingly huge, spanning 2,221,766 acres, and is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, elk and bison.

However, for many people the big attractions are its geothermal features. Old Faithful is perhaps the best-known of its geysers, but far from the only impressive one - Great Fountain Geyser and Steamboat Geyser are among the others to look out for.

Other geothermal features in Yellowstone include fumaroles, hot springs and mud holes, all of which are heated by the raw power of the Earth. Hiking in the unspoilt mountain scenery is spectacular and having the chance to see iconic American animals like bison and wolves in their natural habitats is a big draw.

Top tips in Yellowstone: See Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-altitude lake in North America; visit the petrified forest on the slopes of Amethyst Mountain; admire the incredible travertine formation at Mammoth Hot Springs.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park, image by Thinkstock/iStock Grand Canyon

Possibly the most famous of all of America’s national parks, the Grand Canyon in Arizona is one of those must-see sights that’s on many travellers’ bucket lists. The national park itself covers 1,217,403 acres, although the principal attraction is, of course, the vast scar in the landscape that has been carved out by the Colorado River over the centuries.

The canyon itself runs for 277 miles, is so large it can be seen from space, is up to 18 miles across at its widest point and over a mile deep in places. It’s incredible.

Most visitors head to the South Rim, so expect this to be much busier than the North Rim. It’s well worth spending more than a day here to allow you to do some hiking - while the canyon is spectacular, there is more to this protected area than just this landmark.

Top tips at the Grand Canyon: Visit the beautiful Havasu Falls, on a tributary of the Grand Canyon; head to the Toroweap viewpoint in the Grand Canyon’s backcountry area; discover the eerie Desert View Watchtower and enjoy its amazing views of the canyon and the Painted Desert.

Rocky Mountains National Park

Rocky Mountains National Park, image by Thinkstock/iStock Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountains National Park has been established since 1915 and, compared to some of our other choices, is rather small at 265,873 acres. However, it is home to some truly breathtaking scenery with the eponymous mountain range, naturally, the main feature.

This is a wonderful place for hiking, with over 350 miles of trails to explore, not to mention excellent wildlife-watching opportunities, with the likes of moose, elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes and black bears among the park’s inhabitants.

As well as the imposing mountains, the protected area is also home to over 150 lakes, as well as vast areas of alpine tundra - a prime wildlife-watching spot.

Top tips in the Rocky Mountains: Follow the circular hike around Bear Lake; drive along Trail Ridge Road - the highest paved road in the USA; go rafting on the iconic Colorado River.

Recommended Page

We can create any USA Multi Centre Itinerary, so can combine a visit to any of the national parks, with any other destinations you want to see. For inspirational ideas view our USA Multi Centre Holidays page.

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