What are the best national parks?
There are dozens of U.S. national parks to choose from, starting with the first national park (and still one of the best national parks)—Yellowstone.
From there, the list of national parks includes everything from the most popular national parks to the least crowded national parks, to epic national parks in California, classic national parks in Arizona, and uncrowded national parks elsewhere.
But the best national park? That depends on your criteria, which is why our national parks list names the top national parks in several different categories.
Along the way, you’ll learn a little about the history of American national parks, pick up some stats about the most popular national parks (and least crowded national parks), and get lots of helpful info about enjoying U.S. national parks with a national parks pass (or national park senior pass or national parks lifetime pass) or even keeping tabs on your favorite American national parks from a distance via national park webcams.
How Many National Parks Are There?
As of this writing, there are 63 U.S. national parks. However, the list of national parks doesn’t include everything the National Park Service (NPS) manages—that total comes out to 424 units (including monuments, battlefields, lakeshores, and so on) across 85 million acres. (A national parks pass, national park senior pass, or national parks lifetime pass will get you into all of them.)
To see the full list of national parks and other NPS–managed sites, go to NPS.gov.
That national parks list is also where you can find U.S. national parks near you or whatever state you’re interested in visiting. For instance, you can search for national parks in Texas using the website’s map feature.
Incidentally, the state with the most U.S. national parks is California. How many national parks are there? You can visit a whopping nine national parks in California.
(One of the best national parks in California: Yosemite National Park | Credit: Roel Slootweg / Shutterstock)
What Are the Best National Parks?
Because American national parks are so varied, we figured the fairest way to pick the best national parks would be to break things down into one national parks list after another by category, based on Frommer’s decades of covering U.S. national parks.
Let’s start with seasons.
Best National Parks in Spring
• Best national park for rushing waterfalls: Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina (another plus in spring: You’ll experience less traffic in one of the country’s most visited national parks)
• Best national park for prime whitewater rafting: West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park, the newest of American national parks
• Best national park for spring desert blooms: Joshua Tree National Park in California, where bright blossoms sprout from the titular plants for just a few weeks each season
• Best national park for spotting baby bison and other cute critters: That would have to be America’s oldest national park, Yellowstone (but don’t get too close—bison are decidedly uncuddly)
See our full list of national parks to visit in March, April, and May: The Best National Parks to Visit in Spring
Best National Parks in Summer
• Best national park for summer whale watching: Channel Islands National Park, one of the nine national parks in California and a temporary home for a third of the world’s whale species
• Best national park for a quintessential U.S. national parks experience: Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Though one of the most visited national parks in summer, this season is a good time to explore national parks in Arizona, in part because the Grand Canyon’s awe-inspiring North Rim is open and Colorado River rafting is at its peak.
• Best national park for a summer road trip: Glacier National Park in Montana, home of the epic Going-to-the-Sun Road (be sure to make an advance reservation—like many of the most visited national parks, Glacier requires timed tickets for drives)
See our full list of national parks to visit in June, July, and August: The Best National Parks to Visit in Summer
(One of the best national park drives: Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier National Park in Montana | Credit: Zack Frank/Shutterstock)
Best National Parks in Autumn
• Best national park for seeing incredible rock formations without risking heat stroke: Arches National Park in Utah, where roasting summer temps cool down in fall for pleasant viewing of hundreds of fantastical sandstone arches
• Best national park for wildlife drama: Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, where the mating rituals of elk, moose, and mule deer are in full swing in autumn, leading to scenes of bugling, battling, and showing off
See our full list of national parks to visit in September, October, and November: The Best National Parks to Visit in Autumn
Best National Parks in Winter
• Best national park for otherworldly winter scenery: Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, where a dusting of white snow adorns rocky red spires known as hoodoos
• Best national park for a winter Caribbean getaway: Virgin Islands National Park on St. John, home of the Virgin Islands’ most white sand per capita
• Best national park for winter sports: California’s Yosemite National Park, a hub for skiing, snowshoeing, and other rugged adventures amid frozen waterfalls and snow-capped granite monoliths
See our full list of national parks to visit in December, January, and February: The Best National Parks to Visit in Winter
Best National Parks for Families
Of course, a family vacation is a top reason for visiting U.S. national parks. But which of the greatest American national parks should be your kids’ first national park? Here are some options to add to your family’s national parks list.
(One of the best national parks for families: Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming | Credit: David Maki Photography / Shutterstock)
• Top national parks for wow-worthy sights: The nation’s first national park, Yellowstone, is still the most astonishing when it comes to dramatic geysers and impressive wildlife—bears, bison, and beyond. Runner-up: California’s Yosemite, for dramatic waterfalls and majestic granite cliffs
• Top national parks for old-fashioned fun: The woodsy Great Smoky Mountains are an ideal setting for horseback riding, easy waterfall hikes, and other outdoor adventures—and the down-home fun of Gatlinburg and Dollywood are just outside the park. Runner-up: Indiana Dunes National Park, for a classic beach escape next to Lake Michigan
• Best national park lodge for families: Arizona’s Grand Canyon Lodge, where families can stay in a log cabin surrounded by hiking trails on the canyon’s North Rim
See our full list of national parks for families: Best National Parks for Kids
A note about the national parks pass for 4th graders: To encourage kids and their families to explore U.S. national parks, a free national parks pass is available for 4th graders. This national parks pass remains valid at American national parks for the duration of the 4th grader’s school year and through the following summer.
For more information, go to the national parks pass page at NPS.gov.
To see a national parks list of NPS sites that charge entrance fees, click here.
Best National Parks for Driving
• Top national parks for scenic drives in the east: Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, where the 105-mile Skyline Drive runs through the leafy, gently rolling Blue Ridge Mountains. Runner-up: Acadia’s Cadillac Summit Road in Maine, culminating in far-reaching views on one of the highest peaks on the Atlantic Coast
• Top national parks for scenic drives in the west: Montana’s Glacier National Park, where the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road passes lakes, peaks, and glaciers before crossing the Continental Divide (reservations required in summer because this is one of the most popular national parks drives). Runner-up: Washington State’s Highway 101, which encircles the entirety of Olympic National Park‘s rainforests, beaches, and mountains
To see our full list of national parks with eye-popping drives: The 10 Best National Parks Drives
Best National Parks for Hiking
Since hiking is one of the most popular national parks activities, the entries on any national parks list are bound to have excellent hiking opportunities, from iconic U.S. national parks adventures such as hiking the Zion Narrows at Utah’s Zion National Park to catching the sunrise at Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park.
(Catching the sunrise at Hawaiia’s Haleakala National Park is one of the top national parks experiences | Credit: LUC KOHNEN / Shutterstock)
One of the top national parks for hiking has to be California’s Yosemite. Other U.S. national parks just can’t compete when it comes to overall range, from relatively easy waterfall hikes to strenuous treks up Half Dome—one of the most rewarding experiences at American national parks.
Best National Parks for Biking
• Top national parks for biking amid mountain scenery: Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, where peaks shoot up straight from the valley floor (unlike at many other sites on this national parks list), allowing up-close views from some of the most extensive paved bike pathways among U.S. national parks. Runner-up: California’s Redwood National Park, where bikers can hit trails on repurposed logging roads to see some of the most immense trees on earth
• Top national parks for easy pedaling: Florida’s Everglades National Park ranks among the flattest of American national parks—but while this “River of Grass” goes easy on your thighs, it’s also one of the U.S. national parks with some of the most unique sights, from vast wetlands to sunbathing alligators. Runner-up: Utah’s Zion, where the paved, nearly flat Pa’rus Trail winds along the Virgin River and past imposing red rock formations
See our full list of national parks ideal for cyclists: The Best National Parks for Biking
Best National Parks for Pets
U.S. national parks maintain strict rules for dogs, banning them from many hiking trails and campsites. In fact, before taking pets to any places on this list of national parks, you should familiarize yourself with the official guidelines for enjoying American national parks with dogs (trust us: Your cat doesn’t want to take a tour of U.S. national parks).
Still, there are sites on the national parks list that are more dog-friendly than others. The best national parks for dogs include one of the most visited national parks—Maine’s Acadia, where leashed dogs are welcome on roughly three-quarters of hikeable terrain, through forests, along the rocky coast, and over granite mountains.
Two of the newest additions to the U.S. national parks list—Indiana Dunes (designated Indiana’s first national park in 2019) and New River Gorge (named West Virginia’s first national park in 2020) also belong on any dog-friendly national parks list. Leashed pets are allowed on many of the Lake Michigan beaches at Indiana Dunes and on all hiking trails at New River Gorge.
(One of the best national parks for dogs: Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana | Credit: Laura Sanchez-Ubanell / Shutterstock)
See our full dog-friendly national parks list: The Best National Parks for Pets
U.S. National Parks by Age and Size
Oldest National Park
Established in 1872, the oldest national park is Yellowstone. Some historians also consider it the first national park in the world, though nature reserves had previously existed in parts of Asia and Europe—albeit usually as hunting and leisure grounds for nobility. For the record, many historians count Mongolia’s Bogd Khan Uul Biosphere Reserve, which dates to the 18th century, as the world’s first national park.
The democratic idea behind U.S. national parks is that they belong to all Americans. That’s the ideal anyway. Many sites on this national parks list have histories of racial segregation, and some critics argue that fees and other restrictions at U.S. national parks exclude members of low-income communities from accessing certain American national parks.
After Yellowstone, the second oldest national park in the U.S. is Sequoia National Park, established in 1890 as California’s first national park (first of many).
Newest U.S. National Parks
The most recent additions to the official national parks list are West Virginia’s New River Gorge (designated in 2020), New Mexico’s White Sands National Park (2019), and Indiana Dunes (also 2019).
Expanding the list of national parks requires an act of Congress, as the National Park Service explains. That’s why the official national parks list is far shorter than the total number of sites managed by the National Park Service. Many of those units are national monuments because sitting U.S. presidents have the authority to designate those—no congressional approval needed.
Largest National Park by Area
The biggest site on the national parks list is easily Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, a vast stretch of towering mountains, glaciers, and one mining ghost town situated on 13.2 million acres. You could fit both Yellowstone and Yosemite inside, with room left over for all of Switzerland.
(Largest national park by area: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska | Credit: National Park Service/Neil Herbert)
Smallest National Park by Area
The smallest site on the official national parks list, meanwhile, is Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis. The 630-foot-tall stainless steel parabola occupies just 91 riverside acres.
Most Popular National Parks and Least Crowded National Parks
According to the most recent government data, the most visited national parks are as follows:
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12.9 million visitors in 2022)
2. Grand Canyon National Park (4.73 million)
3. Zion National Park (4.69 million)
4. Rocky Mountain National Park (4.3 million)
However, the most visited national parks aren’t the most visited places managed by the National Park Service. Those would be the Blue Ridge Parkway (15.7 million visitors in 2022) and the San Francisco area’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area (15.6 million).
As for the least crowded national parks, here are those rankings:
1. National Park of American Samoa (about 2,000 visitors in 2022)
3. Kobuk Valley National Park (17,000)
4. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve (18,000)
Given that three of those (numbers 2 through 4) are in remote parts of Alaska, you should head to the 49th state if you’re looking for the most uncrowded national parks.
To see the complete list of national parks ranked according to which are the most visited national parks and which are the most uncrowded national parks, click here.
Best National Parks That Deserve More Attention
Many uncrowded national parks definitely qualify as underrated, making them enticing options if you’re hoping to avoid tons of traffic.
Some well-kept secrets worth adding to your must-see national parks list include Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, whose star attraction is five times steeper than the Grand Canyon; Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park, a rugged, watery expanse off the coast of the state’s Upper Peninsula; and Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, home to a fascinating cave system and, aboveground, one of the oldest trees on Earth.
For more underrated wonders, see our complete overlooked national parks list.
(One of the most underrated national parks: Great Basin National Park in Nevada | Credit: Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock)
Best National Parks by State
For 20 states, the list of national parks is a short one. Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin don’t have any (though all 50 states do have sites managed by the National Park Service).
Even some huge states famous for their wide-open spaces have fewer national parks than you might expect. There are only two national parks in Texas, for instance: Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. That’s all you’ll get in the way of national parks in Texas’s famously huge 268,000 or so square miles. Of course, it’s likely the state’s low park count has more to do with attitudes toward federally owned lands like national parks in Texas than with what the landscape deserves.
But other states have a bounty of great national parks. Here’s a roundup of national parks to add to your itinerary if you’re planning a trip through three must-see states in the American West.
National Parks in California
California’s uncommonly strong national parks list suggests the extraordinary range of the state’s biodiversity, encompassing the giant trees of Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Redwood national parks, the forbidding desert landscapes of Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, the coastal and underwater wonders of the Channel Islands, the hydrothermal showcase known as Lassen Volcanic National Park, the rock-climbing and bird-watching haven of Pinnacles National Park, and the crown jewel, Yosemite, which brings together several of the above elements, including massive sequoias, majestic waterfalls, and imposing granite cliffs.
Click here to see California’s complete national parks list, along with recommendations for what to do at each site from the state’s tourism office.
(One of the best national parks in California: Death Valley National Park | Credit: Pixabay)
National Parks in Arizona
There are three national parks in Arizona, and in some ways they comprise the platonic ideal of national-parkhood. In addition to being the home of the Grand Canyon, Arizona is where you can lay eyes on the Sonoran Desert’s famed giant saguaro cacti (the ones with prickly arms raised to the sky) at the aptly named Saguaro National Park as well as the forest of petrified wood at the also aptly named Petrified Forest National Park, set amid the striated, rose-colored hues of the Painted Desert.
National Parks in Utah
Utah’s national parks list has five entries, each of them uniquely rewarding, particularly if you’re interested in nature’s multifaceted skills as a sculptor.
Eons of erosion have created a thicket of tall, skinny hoodoos in the geological amphitheater of Bryce Canyon, hundreds of impressive sandstone arches at Arches, a dome that resembles the U.S. Capitol at Capitol Reef National Park, and a meandering landscape of red-rock spires, mesas, and cliffs at Canyonlands National Park. At showstopping Zion, tall, red-tinted cliffs and lush forests are threaded through by the Virgin River, which leads to bright green pools and the unforgettable Narrows hike through a skinny chasm you have to wade through water to reach.
It’s common to plan a road trip to tick off all of Utah’s Mighty 5 from your gotta-see national parks list in one vacation. A national parks pass (more on those below) will likely help make that a more affordable option.
Click here to see Utah’s complete national parks list, along with recommendations for how to see the sights from the state’s tourism office.
Should You Get a National Parks Pass?
With a national parks pass, you won’t have to pay entrance fees at any sites managed by the National Park Service as well as on other federal lands (those managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, for example) for a full year in most cases—though a national parks lifetime pass does exist in a few categories.
(An annual national parks pass covers entry fees at all U.S. national parks for a year | Credit: Neal Herbert / National Park Service)
To determine whether buying an annual national parks pass makes sense for you, you’ll want to make sure that the combined entrance fees of the parks you plan to visit in the year surpass the cost of the national parks pass—keeping in mind that not every national park charges an entrance fee.
Here are the different kinds of national parks pass to consider:
Annual National Parks Pass
Note that a national parks pass doesn’t cover most costs beyond entrance fees. You’ll still need to pay separately for camping, parking, special tours, permits, and for facilities and services operated by third-party concessionaires. See the official FAQ page for more info.
National Park Senior Pass
Given that entrance fees at many of the most popular national parks are now around $35 per vehicle, a senior who buys the national parks lifetime pass will have made back the $80 pass fee by visiting at least three national parks at any point after turning 62.
For more information or to purchase a national park senior pass, go to the online USGS Store.
Free National Parks Lifetime Pass for Vets
U.S. military veterans with valid identification are also eligible for a national parks lifetime pass—and this one is free.
Meanwhile, current U.S. military members and their dependents may order a free annual pass.
Go to the online USGS Store for more details.
(One of Utah’s best national parks: Bryce Canyon National Park | Credit: Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock)
Free National Parks Lifetime Pass for People with Disabilities
Another free lifetime pass is the Access Pass, available for U.S. citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities.
For information on eligibility requirements (including the required documentation) or to order a free Access Pass, go to the online USGS Store.
National Park Webcams
While nothing can compare to experiencing U.S. national parks in person, national park webcams give you access to astounding natural phenomena, soothing visual zen, and scene-stealing wildlife from afar.
Best National Park Webcams for Spotting Bears
The undisputed stars of national park webcams are the brown bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. Each summer, millions tune in to watch the bears gather at Brooks Falls for an all-you-can-eat salmon buffet, culminating in the internet’s favorite beauty pageant: Fat Bear Week, when voters decide which bear has done the best job of padding up for winter hibernation.
Best National Park Webcam for Geyser-Gazing
Another of the most popular national park webcams is Yellowstone’s live stream of its most famous geyser, Old Faithful. Thanks to the cam permanently installed in the park’s Upper Geyser Basin, you don’t have to travel to Wyoming to watch thousands of gallons of boiling water shoot more than 100 feet up into the air every 90 minutes (give or take).
Best National Park Webcam for Underwater Views
Some of the most spectacular scenery at California’s Channel Islands is located below the surface of the ocean. Fortunately, there’s an underwater webcam stationed off Anacapa Island to broadcast the multitude of colorful marine species that frequent a huge kelp forest in the emerald waters.
It’s yet another reminder of the seemingly boundless wonders awaiting at American national parks.
To browse the scenes provided by many more national park webcams located throughout the U.S. national parks, go to the webcams listings page on the National Park Service website.