The 10 Best National Parks That Need to Be on Your Bucket List (2024)

Craving some American beauty? Reconnect with nature by visiting the best national parks in America.

Sometimes—and let’s not beat around the bush, quite a lot recently—it feels like society itself is unravelling. And when that happens, we all need to take a deep breath, pause…and go somewhere nearby to just appreciate nature.

And once you’ve realized how well that works, you might want to ponder taking this enlightening experience one step further and plan either a road trip that incorporates one or two of the best national parks in the U.S. or even a dedicated visit to one a little bit further away.

See the forces of nature at work at stunners like Arches and Bryce (two of Utah’s Big Five), witness the power of water that carved out the Grand Canyon over thousands of years, or unique wildlife viewing like the bighorn sheep and pronghorns at Badlands National Park.

Visiting a national park can be as easy or challenging as you want. For diehard backcountry types, there are trails and rustic campsites that can keep you out in the wilderness for days. For the average visitor, paved roads through the parks offer the opportunity to easily see the best views and features of the park in a short amount of time.

There are 63 major national parks (in addition to hundreds of smaller sites) spanning the entire country including Alaska and Hawaii. Next time you hit the road, pick up an America the Beautiful pass and check out the best national parks in the country (but trust us, all of the parks are amazing and all should be on your list).

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park

This natural wonder cradles two billion years of geologic history with 40 layers of rock shaped into buttes, spires, and cliffs. Carved by the Colorado River, the 277-mile gorge is magisterial from any perspective but it’s thrilling to venture below the rim. The safest place to start is the well-maintained Bright Angel Trail which follows an ancient route past sculpted sandstone to a cottonwood oasis.

Look for elk, mountain lions, and condors along the way plus the 1,000 species of plants that survive in this semi-arid desert.

Here are some helpful resources:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Zion National Park

You’ve seen Utah’s wild landscape in almost every John Wayne western but now its time to see it for yourself. The incredible thing about Zion National Park is that it hasn’t changed an iota over the years—you’ll see the same massive sandstone formations, twisty caves, and dark skies bursting with stars that Wayne himself walked through and people have been admiring for thousands of years.

Mosey to spectacular overlooks, hike to Emerald Pools, walk to Weeping Rock, or stroll on Riverside Walk and you’ll get a sense of the grandeur of this spectacular national park.

That’s why I wrote these four articles:

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Arches National Park

Located north of Moab, Utah, Arches National Park is so named for the 2,000 wind-sculpted sandstone arches gracing the area—the largest such concentration in the world. The most famous of these is the iconic 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch whose image has been depicted on Utah license plates but Arches will amaze you with its sheer range of soaring pinnacles, massive rock fins, and giant balanced rocks. 

Arches is also one of the few national parks where many of the top formations can be seen from the comfort of your car—perfect for those who want the sights without the sweat.

If you need ideas, check out:

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Red rocks, pink cliffs, and endless vistas await at this Insta-famous national park in Utah. People travel to Bryce Canyon from around the world to see the largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) in the world but the park’s high elevation also makes it a great place for star gazing.

One of the country’s more compact national parks, you don’t need a ton of time to hit the highlights like Thor’s Hammer, Inspiration Point, and the Queens Garden Trail.

For more tips on exploring Bryce Canyon, check out these blog posts:

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Between them, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks contain some of the oldest trees on the planet—and just standing in their presence is a humbling experience. Many of these ancient wooden giants have been on Earth for 3,000 years and there are even a couple of trees where you can actually drive your car through. There are some gorgeous hiking trails here in addition to a small number of campsites.

If you’re on a road trip, try to allocate a reasonable amount of time to explore these wonderful parks.

Read more:

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Badlands National Park

This bizarre moonscape was created millions of years ago when ash deposits and erosion sculpted sedimentary rock into rippled peaks. Fossils show that rhinos and camels once roamed here but today these 244,000 acres are home to bison, bobcats, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep.

As long as they stay hydrated, the park’s 800,000 annual visitors find the Badlands fascinating to explore. Hikers scale the rocks to take in otherworldly views of the White River Valley and cyclists coast by colorful buttes and grass prairie. At night, the pitch-black sky reveals 7,500 stars and a clear view of the Milky Way; telescopes provide close-ups of moons and planets.

Here are some helpful resources:

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. White Sands National Park

White Sands takes up 275 square miles of breathtaking landscape in New Mexico. Its most noticeable feature: miles of undulating dunes made of blindingly white gypsum crystals which were formed 10,000 years when shallows sea that had existed for millions of years dried up leaving the gypsum behind. Though long a National Monument, White Sands was elevated to park status in December 2019.

Four marked trails allow hiking and since gypsum, unlike sand, reflects the sun’s heat, the dunes are easy on your feet. And if you’re so inclined, you can rent plastic sleds to slide down them.

If you need ideas, check out:

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Capitol Reef National Park

You’ll probably notice that Utah features quite prominently in this list and there’s good reason—its natural geology and geography make it arguably the most exciting state to visit if you’re the outdoors type. This particular park is not one of the Beehive State’s most well known but that’s precisely why it’s on my list.

As you’d expect there’s plenty offer here including 15 hiking trails to explore along with four-wheel-drive road tours, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Or you could just marvel at the colors, canyons and rock formations, and even harvest fruit from orchards in the Fruita Historic District in the summertime.

Read more:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most visited national park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains is also home to the highest number of animal species—1,778 species of animals, including a notable populations of black bears and elk and more than 2,600 different plant species call this national park home.

But you might be most familiar with the parks’ famous fireflies. Every year, the synchronous fireflies, Photinus carolinus or Elkmont fireflies put on a synchronous light display in order to find a mate. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light.

For more tips on exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, check out these blog posts:

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Despite the millions that flock here every year, many don’t realize that Joshua Tree National Park is actually made up of two different deserts; the southern tip of the Mojave Desert makes up its western edge and the Colorado Desert covers its eastern and southern areas.

And as such, The Joshua trees for which the park is named are more prevalent in the higher elevations on the Mojave side but here’s the funny thing, they’re not actually trees. The plants are a member of the Yucca genus and they can grow up to 70 feet tall, though they can take up to 50 years to reach their full size.

If you need ideas, check out:

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome