US National Parks
The PArks Ranked – Best to Worst
1. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park holds the unique distinction of being one of the most popular and most underrated national parks at the same time. Many treat GTNP as a convenient stopover on the way to, or from, Yellowstone, while others pop in for a quick visit when skiing or summering in Jackson Hole. To do either, in my opinion is a mistake. The Tetons offer one of the most dramatic and scenic wilderness areas in North America, and exploring the park is best done over a few days or even weeks. Upon entering GTNP, driving along HWY 191, the greatness of the park is immediately apparent. The stark contrast of the perfectly flat valley to the east and jagged mountain walls to the west is intense. As mentioned though, the Grand Tetons are not meant to be observed from the window of a passing car. Pull over and embark on one of the many hikes that brings visitors up close and personal to the more secluded canyons tucked within the range. For those with more time, the Teton Crest Trail is a backpacker’s dream, and from my experience the premier way to get a sense of Wyoming. An endless set of route modifications can made to craft the experience to your liking. Make the trip and see for your self why Grand Teton National Park is the best in the United States.
2. Zion National Park
Perhaps the grandest of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, Zion is one that all enthusiasts should have near the top of their bucket lists. A stunning valley tucked into a harsh desert region, Zion has built up a reputation for more extreme hiking that requires visitors to earn an unforgettable experience. Whether it is wading through rivers in the smooth slot canyons of “The Narrows” or traversing narrow ridges and chain supports on “Angels Landing”, thrills are available for the brave and bold. Even without these heart-pounding adventures, Zion is still a marvelous park to visit. Horseback rides and a plethora of shorter, safer hikes offer visitors the chance to see Zion’s famous red rock formations without risking life and limb. Utah is a beautiful state with beautiful parks, and Zion may be the best representation of this it. It incorporates the famous rock formations, canyons, arches, and desert landscapes that the other ‘mighty’ parks are known for, all within one incredible place.
3. Yosemite National Park
El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Tunnel View. Yosemite National Park is home to some of the most picturesque and iconic sights in the entire national park system. It is for good reason that, along with Yellowstone, it is one of the first preserves that people tend to think of upon mention of the US park service. Unfortunately, this supremacy has also converted Yosemite into one of the most crowded parks in the system, with around 3.8M visitors per year. Increasingly, this crowding has become an issue as busy roads or long lines to climb Half Dome Peak taint the natural experience. Despite all of this, YNP still stands near the top of any sober national park lists on account of its obvious beauty. John Muir called it the “the grandest of all temples of nature” and thanks to careful conservation efforts, that remains true to this day. To experience the true essence of Yosemite, visit during off peak times (late fall, winter, early spring) or explore less traveled areas of the park. A vast majority of Yosemite’s visitors never leave the valley corridor between HWY 140 and Curry Village.
4. Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is where I fell in love with the national park system. It was the first part I ever visited, and still today I am filled with awe when I am within its borders. Holding the title of the most prominent peak in the lower forty-eight, Mt. Rainier is an iconic symbol of western Washington, on a clear day visible from seemingly anywhere west of the Cascades. This unrivaled prominence also translates to an incredible experience on the mountain. One doesn’t have to summit Rainier to enjoy a panoramic view from the aptly named “Paradise” region of the park. There, just steps from the historic lodge, visitors can catch a web of trails that traverse glaciers and offer prime wildlife viewing opportunities. Less trafficked sections such as Sunrise or Longmire hold their gems too. Old growth forests, wildflower meadows, alpine lakes, and impressive waterfalls dot the land all around the mountain. There really is no boring acre. Despite my absolute best efforts to temper my biases, I will always come to the conclusion that Mount Rainier is amongst the national park system’s greatest treasures. If you do not believe me, take a trip and see for yourself.
5. Rocky Mountain National Park
From New Mexico to Montana, the famed Rocky Mountain range provides the United States with a number of spectacular national parks. Thus, it is only fitting that the range’s eponymous park lands amongst the upper echelon of this list. A true mountain wonder, RMNP is home to beautiful lakes, waterfalls, mountain peaks, and glaciers that make it a favorite among alpinists. To add, distinct seasons present vastly different, but equally special, versions of the park, making return trips a must. Top it off with in an abundance of wildlife, and you can see why a rapid increase in the park’s popularity has landed it in the number four spot among most visited national parks (2020). Still, measures to address overcrowding, as well as the relative scale of the park make it a well worthwhile trip. Day hikers should strongly consider the Emerald Lake Loop to get a taste of the mountainous Colorado terrain, whilst more enterprising backpackers should look at the Tonahutu Creek Loop trail for a more immersive experience.
6. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
The park that inspired Ulysses S. Grant and Congress to create the National Park System in in 1872 should indisputably be near the top of any park enthusiast’s list of places to visit. Yellowstone truly is an ecological and geological wonder that is unlike any place else on earth. The only shortcoming of the preserve is that its greatness attracts throngs of visitors that at times make some of the most popular and photogenic sights like Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and Mammoth Hot Springs subject to overcrowding. Still, with over 2.2M acres of protected wilderness, Yellowstone has a plethora of offerings for those who want to get away and enjoy the solitude. With half of the world’s hydrothermal features, 290 waterfalls, 1,800 known archeological sites, approximately 1,000 miles of hiking trails, and the largest concentration of a mammals (bison, wolves, elk, moose, pronghorn, black bears, grizzly bears, etc.) in the lower 48 states, it is assured that one will never run out of things to do in Yellowstone National Park.
7. Canyonlands National Park
A comprehensive visit to Canyonlands is practically a visit to three separate national parks. This is codified by the vast preserve’s official layout, split into four districts, each with its own unique character. As the “Rivers” district is expectedly limited to the waters of the mighty Colorado and Green, Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze make up the most relevant sections of the park. No matter what kind of wild western experience you are looking for, you can almost certainly find it within the boundaries of Canyonlands. If in search of a memorable view and stellar day hiking? Check out Island in the Sky, nearest Moab. Here you will find Mesa Arch, the most famous rock formation outside of Arches, as well as a series of challenging, but worthwhile day hikes. Looking for something a little more remote and off the beaten path? Explore The Needles, there you will find a sprawling network of backpacking trails that weave through secluded canyons and offer captivating scenery from start to finish. Finally, are you an adventurer, wishing to push yourself and the limits your self-sufficiency? In that case, the facility-free Maze District is perfect for you. Embark on a multi-day trek or bring along a four-wheel drive and partake in serious off-roading rivaled only by Death Valley NP. Regardless, Canyonlands is a worthwhile visit for all, and one that will certainly leave you pondering your return. Oh yeah, did I mention you can raft “The Rivers”?
8. Isle Royale National Park
9. Crater Lake National Park
The lone national park in a state renowned for its natural beauty, Crater Lake does more than enough to uphold Oregon’s status as a destination for all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts. To the surprise of many, a visit to Crater Lake is unlikely to involve much time on alongside the park’s central attraction. Harrowingly steep cliffs along the rim of the crater make for dramatic viewpoints and memorable photos, but they also restrict safe access to the ever changing shoreline. As a result, there is only one water access point in the entire park. At Cleetwood Cove, visitors can make a steep one mile hike down to catch a popular 3hr. boat tour of Wizard Island, the small cinder cone protruding from the west end of lake’s deep blue waters. Beyond the lake, a series of long trails offer day hikers and backpackers alike the chance to enjoy the solitude and remoteness of Oregon’s sub-alpine wilderness. During the park’s long winters, heavy snowfall turns the old growth forests into a spectacular snowshoeing and cross country skiing destination. Take time for the 3.5hr. trip south from Portland and you will quickly see why the state’s quarter and license plates are adorned with a commemoration of the nation’s deepest lake.
10. Haleakala National Park
Wandering the floor of the Haleakala Crater feels like getting an early glimpse at human settlement on Mars. The landscape is almost completely barren, yet still remarkably colorful and picturesque. Look closely and you may see one of the many endangered plant or animal species that is endemic to the crater, the Hawaiian Silversword chief among them. The vast majority of tourists who come to Haleakala will stay within 100 yards of their car. And while the famous sunrises and sunsets are well worth the journey, the true magic of the park is really found within the parks vast crater. The path to explore the crater is straightforward yet strenuous. Though a number of small trails dot the carter’s rim, the 11 mile long Keonehe’ehe’e or “Sliding Sands” trail is the preeminent draw. A true bucket list hike, Sliding Sands offers unparalleled adventure, just be sure to come prepared. The clouds may form at a moment’s notice and temperatures swing wildly. Also, to play on the popular aphorism, ‘what goes down, must come back up… or go much farther down’. Once hikers have reached the bottom of the crater there are only three ways back out: a steep, gravely hike from whence you came, an alternate path out that emerges far from the original trailhead, or a multi-day trek down the entire mountain to the Maui’s beloved Hana Coast. While also recommended, Haleakala’s coastal region is most commonly seen by by car, along the famous “Road to Hana”. Here, the most popular attractions are the Pools of ‘Ohe’o or the “Seven Sacred Pools”.
11. Olympic National Park
As a native Washingtonian, Olympic National Park will always have a special place in my heart. Home to beautiful beaches, alpine lakes, mountain vistas, and the only rainforest (temperate) in the lower forty-eight, the Olympics have something for everyone. Of the many sights in the part worth seeing, the sea stacks are probably the most unique. I have many fond memories sitting on a rugged beach, watching the sunset, and admiring the remote islands rising from the Pacific. Beyond the rugged coastline, the interior of the park also offers some great opportunities to chose your own adventure. Hurricane Ridge is perfect for the aspiring mountaineer, Quinault provides a look at some of the northwest’s largest trees, and Sol Duc is primed for the relaxed hiker wanting a quiet trail and the chance to jump in a hot spring when complete. The real issue with Olympic National Park is that its large footprint and mountainous terrain means accessibility can be an issue, so ensure you budget ample time to explore this great national park.
12. Bryce Canyon National Park
Were these rankings assigned on per square foot basis, Bryce Canyon might just take the top spot. At just under 36,000 acres, what Bryce lacks in size it makes up for in attraction density. The defining feature of Bryce Canyon is the myriad of hoodoos, or tall rock spires sculpted by a millennia of natural erosion. Visitors can marvel at these hoodoos from one of the many postcard-worthy overlooks, or get up close and personal by taking a short hike into the canyon. A combination of the Queen’s Garden and Navajo loop trails, makes for an iconic and comprehensive 2.9 mi. hike that covers three of the park’s most well known sites: Sunrise Point, Sunset Point and Thor’s Hammer. While more intrepid adventurers may eschew Bryce due to its crowds and shorter trails (the longest is ~8mi), it is certainly one of the most family friendly parks. All who are very old or who have the very young should keep Bryce high on their list of outdoor trips. So much can be seen so close to an accessible road or trailhead.
13. Arches National Park
Much like with Bryce Canyon, what makes Arches NP special is just how many postcard worthy sights mother nature managed to squeeze into such a concentrated tract of land. Upon entering the park and completing a quick drive up the escarpment, visitors are met immediately with sweeping views of desert scenery, columnar spires of red rock, and arches galore. It doesn’t take long to see why the preserve sits at the top of many park lovers’ bucket lists. The accessibility of Arches is a huge draw for the park. ~90% of the trailheads sit along the main road, and the three most famous sights, Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, and Balanced Rock, can all be reached with under three miles of walking. However, while top-notch accessibility may be great for some, it also makes Arches one of the most susceptible parks in the NPS system to overcrowding. To avoid waits, busy trails, and potentially scorching temperatures, I would highly recommend avoiding Arches in the late spring or summer seasons. Late fall and winter offer a much more unique and personal experience. If the off peak travel still doesn’t provide enough solitude, I would recommend arriving early and undertaking the Tower Arch Trail or Devils Garden Loop. At 7.9 miles including all spurs, the Devil’s Garden Loop is Arches longest and most adventurous trail, offering private access to great arches that are tucked well off the beaten path
14. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns holds the distinction of being the premier cave in the United States. Though the system as a whole is not as large as Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, it wins the battle of the NPS caves on one primary dimension: it is a wet cave. This means that spectacular formations like stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, soda straws, and flowstone have all been able to form over the course of a few million years. Every corner of the cave has something to offer, and you would be hard pressed to find another underground environment that is as spectacular and accessible as the one in Carlsbad. Ranger guided tours can add extra excitement to those wanting to get down and dirty to explore the cave’s nether regions, but the 2.5mi. of trail on the main route is quite comprehensive. Above ground there are some pleasant trails for exploring the desert landscape, but hiking is obviously not the park’s main attraction. If you have flexibility in your travel plans, consider visiting in July or August when the bat flight is at its peak. We were not able to enjoy this phenomena during our visit, but by all accounts it is quite a memorable sight.
15. Joshua Tree National Park
16. Saguaro National Park
The first thing one notices when stepping foot in Saguaro (actually pronounced “suh-wah-row“) National Park is that, like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two saguaros are alike. The second thing one notices is just how massive and abundant these ancient cacti are. They infuse a level of excitement into the park’s handful of hikes and scenic drives, as I guarantee you will spend a majority of your visit like we did, going “ooh, check that one out… No! Look at that one over there…”. Beyond the famous cacti, the park also boasts incredible desert scenery, stark mountain vistas, cultural sites, and unique wildlife. Adding to Saguaro’s uniqueness, the park is divided into two sections, both a stone’s throw from downtown Tucson. The western Tucson Mtn. District is more popular, has a higher density of saguaros, and only offers day hiking. The eastern Rincon Mtn. District on the other hand is larger, more remote, and offers some longer backpacking routes. I would recommend spending a day at each, but they are largely similar, which brings me to the park’s shortcomings. For all of Saguaro’s beauty, it is admittedly a tad one dimensional. Also, while being so close to Tucson adds to the park’s accessibility, it takes away from your ability to fully disconnect and step into the wild. Without backpacking far into the depths of the Rincon District, there are almost always signs of nearby development.
17. Everglades National Park
Part of what makes America and its National Parks system so special is the wide variety of climates and ecosystems that exist within its borders. And for every unique ecosystem, it seems there is a representative park that epitomizes its purest form. For the American swampland, that park is the Everglades. One of the largest, wildest, and most unique parks in the NPS system, the Everglades is ideal for the most hardy and adventurous explorers. If your willing to brave bugs, alligators and invasive pythons you may even get a lucky look at of the parks many endangered species like the manatee or exceedingly rare Florida Panther. Even if you don’t, the vast sawgrass prairies and dense mangrove forest will surely leave their own mark. Since much of the park is waterlogged, the Everglades is not a premier hiking destination, it may however, be the only park in which you can ride an airboat.
18. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Tucked away in northeast California, Lassen Volcanic National Park does not nearly get the share of the limelight that the state’s eight other parks do. Nonetheless, Lassen still has a lot to offer, much of which revolves around Lassen Peak, the largest volcanic dome on Earth. Visitors to Lassen will find a unique landscape, inextricably linked to the 1915 eruption that permanently altered the environment. Evidence of volcanic activity still exists in the park today, the myriad of fumaroles, hot springs, and mud pots make for some great day hiking, with the trip to Bumpass Hell being a personal favorite. The park may not have the ‘wow’ factor that vaults nearby preserves to the top of this list, but if you are looking for a quieter experience or take particular interest in geology, Lassen should definitely be near the top of your bucket list.
19. New River Gorge National Park
New River Gorge is undoubtedly one of the the National Parks System’s best kept secrets. As America’s newest national park, I expect it to climb a few spots in my rankings as infrastructure, the trail system, and conservation practices continue to improve. Still, the new park has so much going for it. The gorge itself is beautiful, and lined with dense green forests that seclude massive rock faces, mining ruins, and some really solid hiking trails below. The central feature of the park is the river, which produces landmark waterfalls, world-class rapids, and innumerable photo ops. Elevating the New River Gorge from a national river to a national park represents an exciting new chapter for this century-old coal mining region left behind by technological progress. If planning a trip, make sure you do not leave before exploring Sandstone Falls, the Long Point Trail and the scenic New River Gorge bridge.
20. Mammoth Cave National Park
The world’s longest cave system is certainly one of the most unique and impressive attractions of the US park system, and the sheer size of the caverns makes for an unforgettable experience. I still recall walking into the first true room of the cave (pictured below) and being blown away by its size. Miles of underground walking trails and a plethora of more extreme cave tours provide plenty of opportunities for entertainment and exploration. Above ground, the scenery is pleasant, but relatively unremarkable. The park system preserves a great swath of Kentucky hardwoods that offer solid options and a few miles of hiking and horseback riding, but the true beauty of the park lies underground.
21. Indiana Dunes National Park
Living in the Midwest, Indiana Dunes is often the butt of jokes regarding its status as one of America’s national parks, and there are some strange features that support this critique. First of all, the best part of the dune area is actually partitioned off as a state park, likely so that locals can still swim, drink, and sandboard on the dunes. Secondly, the dunes are surrounded on all sides by industrial steel mills and refineries that represent quite an ironic juxtaposition. Despite all this, there are some beautiful elements to the park as well. The dunes are unique, the surrounding forests are particularly lush for the region, and the position at the base of Lake Michigan makes for a pleasant day trip from a number of major cities. It is by no means a crown jewel in the NPS system, but I promise most visitors will be surprised to find such a park just an hour’s drive from Chicago.
22. Gateway Arch National Park
With all due respect to the city of St. Louis, Gateway Arch shouldn’t be designated as a national park. I don’t know what political favor triggered the upgrade in 2018, but until the Liberty Bell gets its own upgrade, the Gateway Arch will remain at the bottom of this list. That being said, it is a beautiful monument and well worth a visit if you find yourself in the state of Missouri. The elevator ride to the top is a uniquely thrilling (albeit claustrophobic) experience, and the underground museum beneath the arch is impressive.