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 shown the most popular below to give you some inspiration about where to go. We’ve also 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.
Our US National Parks Road Trip combines a great number of these parks. However, most of our clients like to visit one of two parks along with a couple of cities. That’s the great thing about the USA, it’s easy to combine a few bits that you want to do in to one great itinerary. So under each National Park we’ve given you where it combines best with, however anything is possible.
The 10 Most Popular National Parks in the USA
- Yellowstone, WY
- Grand Canyon, AZ
- Yosemite, CA
- Zion, UT
- Rocky Mountain, CO
- Arches, UT
- Bryce Canyon, UT
- Glacier National Park, MO
- Grand Teton, WY
- Great Smoky, NC / TN
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
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 which sprays boiling water 150 feet up into the air, but it’s 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.
Great to combine with: Salt Lake City, Arches NP & Denver, Colorado & The Rockies.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
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.
Great to combine with: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Zion NP, Bryce NP.
Yosemite National Park, California
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.
Great to combine with: San Francisco, Napa Valley, Las Vegas.
Zion National Park, Utah
Utah is blessed with an abundance of amazing national parks and so it’s only right that one makes it onto our list. Zion is the state’s most popular park and it was also the first one to achieve national park status which they received in 1919.
The park’s centrepiece, the Zion Canyon, is an absolute must see – although it’s really impossible to miss. At 15 miles long and 800 metres in depth, the canyon slashes through the valley walls of Navajo sandstone to beautiful effect.
Indeed, the most remarkable thing to note is the rich, reddish colours of the rocks that make up the sheer cliff sides of the canyon.
Here, it’s all about standing at the bottom and gazing up – a contrast to other parks in the area, as you’ll find out later.
There are plenty of walking trails to keep tourists occupied, as well as a few landmarks not to be missed. The trio of Emerald Pools, and the Weeping Rock are popular favourites, but it’s the Canyon Overlook at sunset that really captures the imagination.
Top Tips in Zion National Park: Zion National Park in known for its spectacular hiking trails and among the most famous of these is the Zion Narrows, which follows the course of the Virgin River. The walls tower on either side and in many places, you have to wade and even swim through the river itself to continue on your hike – it’s a truly unique experience.
Great to combine with: Las Vegas, Bryce NP, Grand Canyon NP, Zion NP, Phoenix/Scottsdale.
Rocky Mountains National Park, Colorado
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 breath-taking 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.
Great to combine with: Denver, Nebraska, Rapid City /Mount Rushmore.
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park maybe quite far from other places you’re visiting in the USA, but the scenery here is spectacular and well worth the effort. The characteristic red rock prevails, but what you’ll find here is quite different and remarkable to what you’ll have seen in Arizona.
As its name suggests, the star attraction here is the arches – but did you know that this protected area is home to the greatest number of natural stone arches in the world? There are more than 2,000 for you to discover.
The bright red sandstone rocks, streaked with pale yellow bands, have been worn away by the elements over the years to create these apparently gravity-defying structures. Some are so perfectly formed that it’s hard not to believe that humans have had a hand in creating them.
There are archways over canyons, as well as impressive free-standing arches, some atop cliffs that give you the chance to enjoy staggering views across this slice of American wilderness.
Top Tips in Arches National Park: Delicate Arch is the most famous of the national park’s landmarks, but there are also several pinnacles and towers that look as though someone has painstakingly balanced rock after rock on top of one another – the aptly-named Balanced Rock is a classic example.
Great to combine with: Salt Lake City, Denver, The Rockies, Las Vegas,
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
A three-hour drive to the north of the Grand Canyon is Bryce Canyon National Park, a place with landscapes that, quite frankly, have to be seen to be believed. As in Arizona, the rock is vibrant hues of red and orange, with dramatic shadows cutting between the chasms and pillars that the area is made up of.
Where the Grand Canyon is breath taking, Bryce Canyon is completely mind-blowing. It is, in fact, a series of natural amphitheatres that are filled with bizarre rock towers (known as Hoodoos), jagged ridges and vast canyon walls that work together to create a labyrinth of paths that lead through this strange maze.
It’s named after early settler Ebenezer Bryce, who allegedly said “it’s a hell of a place to lose a cow”. As soon as you disappear along one of its many passages, flanked on either side by towering walls of red rock, you’ll see why. The paths snake their way around the weird and wonderful rock formations, punctuated occasionally by odd trees that look somewhat out of place – it’s easy to see why outlaws like Butch Cassidy favoured the area as a hiding place.
Top Tips in Bryce Canyon: Hiking and horseback riding are the best ways to get around here. For a truly magical experience, camp among the towering pinnacles overnight and enjoy the dazzling stars in the sky above as you drift off to sleep.
Great to combine with: Las Vegas, Grand Canyon NP, Zion NP, Phoenix/Scottsdale.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park is located on the border of Canada and Montana and is named after its spectacular glaciers, left over from the ice age. It is also known as the “Crown of the Continent” because of its dramatic natural beauty, which is spread over 1 million acres.
It’s a favourite with hikers, with endless trails to explore. What’s more, the park boasts waterfalls, more than 700 lakes and two mountain ranges.
Top Tips in Glacier National Park: Drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is a stunning 50-mile drive through the park. As well as being an engineering marvel, it is a National Historic Landmark that offers spectacular views.
Great to combine with: Seattle & Portland and also explore Washington, Montana and Oregon.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park is located in northwestern Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone National Park. Its mountain range of jagged peaks tower 7000 feet above Jackson Hole Valley and is what led to the creation of the park. The park is very popular among climbers, hikers and photographers due to its vast array of trails, wildlife and stunning scenery.
When it comes to wildlife, bison, moose, elk, and black-tailed deer are commonly spotted in the park. You may also see mountain lions, wolves, and both black and grizzly bears, although these are rarer.
Top Tips in Grand Teton National Park: Hike near Jenny Lake and visit the Hidden Falls, which is one of the parks most popular attractions. Also Snake River Rafting trips are also really popular.
Great to combine with: Yellowstone NP, Salt Lake City.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC / TN
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.
Great to combine with: Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte.
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