USA National Parks
From coast to coast, as well as in Alaska and Hawaii, the country has twelve major ecosystems with distinct natural beauty and climates. To make the most of them, Americans enjoy an extensive national park system covering millions of square miles, all under the National Park Service, an official agency dedicated to the protection of natural heritage.
From scenic drives through wildflower fields and sand dunes to campgrounds for stargazing near crater lakes and fjords, there’s no shortage of incredible vistas and photogenic spots to fall in love with — the US is a wonderland! 😍
Not sure where to start? We’ll make it easier for you with a roundup of the most beautiful national parks in the US that should be on your bucket list.
1. Haleakala National Park
Outside continental America, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, the Haleakala National Park is home to the sleeping Haleakalā Volcano. Visitors can go up to the volcano’s crater and marvel at the otherworldly landscape with its rigged and rocky texture. This landscape is totally Mars-like! 🌋
Moreover, the coast section of the park offers stunning waterfalls, lush vegetation, and river streams, all accessible through many hiking trails with spectacular vistas. You can see other Hawaiian islands and all of the other best photos spots on Maui on clear days from the park’s many lookouts. 🏝
More fun activities include horseback riding and camping on one of the many campgrounds available.
For an unforgettable experience, try catching the sunrise from the observation deck at the visitor center. Night summer skies are also an attraction since Haleakala provides programs for stargazing.
2. Joshua Tree National Park
The Joshua Tree National Park is an outdoor paradise outside Palm Springs, California. Sprawling over a vast arid area, it offers horseback riding, rock climbing, hiking trails, and mountain biking through backcountry dirt roads. When temperatures allow, the clear skies make it the perfect spot for spending a night out, stargazing. ⭐️
When you visit, catch a picture of the Joshua trees that give the park its name. Their unique appearance, twisted and spiky, is a testament to their resilience in surviving in the desert. They also serve as shelter and food for countless birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. Isn’t nature wonderful?
Another exciting aspect of Joshua Tree Park is that you can actually witness an ecosystem transition: the park crosses two deserts, the Mojave and Sonoran, each with distinctive natural characteristics. 🏜
3. Yosemite National Park
Each US national park has its distinct natural beauty, and Yosemite National Park, a scenic four-hour drive from San Francisco, is no different.
Sitting in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite is home to Half Dome and El Capitan, two monumental granite cliffs that tower over a lot more beauty surrounding them. The area is also famous for dramatic waterfalls, like the Yosemite Falls, and for the giant sequoias, one of the world’s tallest and oldest trees.
Exploring parts of the park by bike is an excellent idea since the grounds at Yosemite Valley are mostly flat. Other outdoor activities include spectacular hiking trails leading to mountain peaks, cross-country skiing, ice skating, and horseback riding. The park is also ideal for backpacking since it has 13 campgrounds. ⛺️
4. Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, is the right place to go if you want to experience a desert landscape from an old Western movie. The name comes from the giant saguaro cactus, typical of the Sonoran Desert. These gorgeous plants can grow up to 12 meters and are the park’s most famous attraction. 🌵
The mountainous areas of the park offer both green and desert landscapes. They are home to various animals, such as javelinas, coyotes, black bears, deers, and owls. Such variety makes this park one of the most bio-diverse in the US, and visitors can explore all that through hiking or scenic drives. 🚗
Here’s a tip: take the Signal Hill Trail to see the petroglyphs of the Hohokam people. These are great examples of rock art created over a thousand years ago. The park’s visitor center has excellent exhibitions and a bookstore with more information about this art form and the whole area.
5. Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is an iconic American landscape, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and, since 1979, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 😮
Entering the park is like stepping into another planet made of canyonlands and mesmerizing red rocks. The area is divided into the north and south rims, with the south rim being the most accessible. This one has many hotels, shops, and an excellent tourist infrastructure nearby. The vistas from there are also unforgettable — an actual explosion of colours.
It might come as a surprise, but the park is also great for wildlife watching since it’s home to hundreds of animal species, such as the endangered California condor and the bighorn sheep. Also, there are many organized tours, from mule rides to the bottom of the canyon to helicopter flights and balloon rides. If you are the thrill-seeking type, rafting through the Colorado River is a must.
No matter what activity you choose, you’ll understand why this is one of the best national parks in the US. Arizona is home to many other bucket-list outdoor destinations, such as the best places to take photos around Sedona.
6. Grand Teton National Park
The topography of the Jackson Hole valley in the Grand Teton National Park amazes visitors all year round. It’s a diverse ecosystem of beautiful lakes and forests surrounded by mountains of prehistoric rocks. ⛰
With thrilling activities such as hiking trails, biking, climbing, and boating, this piece of heaven in Wyoming offers opportunities to see wildflower fields and impressive wildlife, including grizzly bears, black bears, and bald eagles. There are so many places to take photos in Jackson Hole, the outdoor enthusiast will be in their element. 🦅
If you’re in for some park hopping, just a short drive from the Grand Teton, you’ll find Yellowstone National Park, America’s very first national park. Yellowstone has many more breathtaking vistas and one of the best hikes in the country. Even with all that, the park stars are really the geysers shooting water hundreds of meters high; “Old Faithful” is the most famous among them.
7. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Only a 30-minute drive from Rapid City, in South Dakota, sits Mt. Rushmore, the world-famous large-scale mountain sculpture carved with the faces of four great American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. 🇺🇸
You can enjoy many activities in the surroundings of the landmark. There are natural and artificial hiking trails with different viewpoints facing the carved faces. One of them leads to the Sculptor’s Studio, where you can see models and tools and learn about the complex process of building this remarkable monument.
If you’re looking for more adventurous activities, there’s no shortage of climbing, horseback riding, and mountain biking in the nearby Black Hills. 🚵♀️
8. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Affectionately referred to as “The Smokies,” the Great Smoky Mountains are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains and one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects all their natural richness. This is undoubtedly one of the best day trips you can take from Asheville. 👍
Right on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, this national park is one of the most visited in the country. Beyond the lush fauna and flora, breathtaking hikes, and dazzling waterfalls, there are also excellent displays of Appalachian culture and history. Visitors can experience it through houses, barns, churches, schools, and mills scattered around the area.
The Clingmans Dome is the park’s highest point, and it has an observation deck from where you can see the other mist-covered mountains. Can you guess why they call it The Smokies? ☁️
USA State Parks & Historic Sites
Not all is about natural parks. From California to Maine, the US also has many other protected areas that commemorate historical events and help preserve cultural heritage. Even though they’re not all technically US national parks, they’re still beautiful and well worth visiting.
Here are some additional recommendations with our favourite state parks and historic sites. 😉
9. Cape Cod National Seashore
Created by President John F. Kennedy himself, Cape Cod National Seashore in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is one of the great American outdoors.
There are many outdoor activities and things to do in New England to keep you on your toes. You can hike through stunning dunes or take a road trip to Race Point Beach and try to spot some whales in the distance. Observing wildlife both in the sea and land is a very popular activity, besides hiking, kayaking, biking, and surfing. 🏄♀️
Here’s a curiosity: famous artists and writers such as Jackson Pollock and Eugene O’Neill spent time in this area searching for inspiration while living in “dune shacks.” You can still spot a few of these historic houses, and some even function as art residences today.
Shark alert! If you go swimming, remember that great white sharks also swim in these waters, so make sure to check the protocols for safety. 🦈
10. Cannon Beach in Ecola State Park
Scenic, wild, and dramatic, Ecola State Park on the Oregon Coast, about an hour’s drive from Portland, is a must-go for trekking and hiking enthusiasts. The park is replete with hiking trails for all levels. Some cut through the lush rainforest with its towering trees and lead you to deserted beaches surrounded by ferns and beautiful rocks.
A particularly scenic spot is Cannon Beach, a stretch of sand with incredible rock formations. You might recognize one of them, Haystack Rock, from the 1985 classic movie The Goonies.
Another impressive sight is the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, also known as “Terrible Tilly,” an old lighthouse built offshore on the tip of a rock rising from the ocean. The sight gets even more photogenic with dramatic waves. 🌊 Occasionally, surfers flock to the region to complete the picture.
11. Henderson Beach State Park
The first thing you’ll notice in this spot by the Emerald Coast is the stunning boardwalk cutting through the dune vegetation and leading to a long stretch of powdery white sand and crystalline blue waters. The scenery is perfect for taking great family photos and is also a big hit for weddings. 💍
Henderson Beach State Park in Destin is also ideal for basking under the Florida sun by the sea or exploring a few easy hiking trails. Local fauna is full of singularities, so keep your eyes open for a wide variety of animals: from pelicans to plovers, turtles making their way through the beach, and, wait for it, dolphins jumping out of the water on the horizon. 🐬
Capturing memories in the parks
Think that’s all? Not quite!
We don’t want to overwhelm you with options, but here are a few more honourable mentions:
- The Glacier National Park in Montana, right on the Canadian border, has scenic views of the Rocky Mountains;
- The Zion National Park in Utah is great with its distinguished red rocks and famous Angels Landing trail;
- The Acadia National Park in Maine offers stunning rocky beaches;
- The Olympic National Park in Washington State has beautiful lush rainforests and waterfalls;
- The Rocky Mountain National Park has a scenic mountain road known as Going-to-the-Sun Road;
- The Arches National Park in Utah is home to natural sandstone arches, including the iconic Delicate Arch;
- The Bryce Canyon National Park, also in Utah, has curious geological structures called hoodoos;
- The Denali National Park in Alaska includes Alpine lakes and the highest mountain peak in the US;
- The Death Valley National Park on the California-Nevada border counts with legendary landscapes varying from sand dunes to canyons;
- Finally, the Shenandoah National Park, is a getaway nearby Washington DC filled with peaceful waterfalls.
Phew! The US is indeed a dreamland for national parks and natural wonders. When visiting some of these parks, check out our destinations page to see if there’s a local Flytographer to make your experience even more memorable! 📸