Our favourite USA National Parks - where to hike and what to see.
The USA is famous for its wide open spaces, epic scenery and outstanding natural beauty. With 61 officially designated National Parks spread across 29 States and 2 US Territories ranging from the massive (Wrangell- St Elias National Park in Alaska is the largest at over 8 million acres), to the tiny (Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri, less than 1 square km).
National Parks protect landscapes as varied as the volcanoes of Hawaii's Big Island, the desert like Death Valley and apocalyptic otherworldly landscapes of Joshua Tree in California, the rainforests of American Samoa and the vast ice fields of Kenai Fjords, Alaska.
1. Yosemite National Park, California
We'd go so far as to say that Yosemite National Park, California, is our favourite place on the planet, closely followed by Zion National Park in Utah. The beauty of the scenery in Yosemite is staggering - thundering waterfalls, some of the largest trees in the world, incredible hiking, alpine meadows and a crystal clear river you can float down beneath the towering valley walls.
Camping in Yosemite Valley at Lower Pines Campground was, for us, the absolute epitome of American Great Outdoors. Cooking beneath the towering pine trees and stars, with a moonlit Half Dome looming overhead, and then locking all our supplies in the metal "bear box" locker provided was just so atmospheric.
We also had some heart burstingly beautiful experiences there too - walking beneath the awe inspiring mega trees in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, hiking the Mist Trail through clouds of rainbow strewn spray up to Vernal Falls, and drinking ice cold sweet lemonade at the top of Glacier Point, looking down into Yosemite Valley and over to Half Dome, having conquered the Four Mile Trail. A word of warning, this hike is classed as strenuous, and they're not kidding! Actually closer to 5 miles each way, this steep trail climbs from the valley floor up to Glacier Point, some 1400m higher. You'll want to allow 5-8 hours to do the round trip, and be aware that the switch backs are largely exposed to the sun, so start early before temperatures climb. While this was one of the toughest hikes we've ever done, the views all the way up are stunning and well worth the exertion! And that lemonade on sale at the top will be the sweetest thing you've ever tasted...
2. Zion National Park, Utah
The colours of Zion NP are like nothing we've seen anywhere else: brick red rock interspersed with greenery alongside blue river and skies - you can see why people call it the Garden of Eden.
Zion NP was the first place we drove to in our campervan after starting our honey moon in Las Vegas and so the Watchman Campground was the first place where we slept in our van! It was a beautiful leafy campsite surrounded by steep cliffs, and at night we were treated to the most unbelievable stars. The campground was also a really short easy walk to the amphitheatre where there were nightly Park Ranger presentations (one of our favourite activities in the national parks), and also to the bus stop for the park shuttle. Taking the free scenic shuttle buses around the park was another highlight of the visit - it was like a guided tour, and such a beautiful drive.
Zion National Park is the location of 2 of our favourite hikes that we've ever done: the Narrows and Angels Landing. The Narrows has always been on our bucket list. It's a stunning journey through an ancient slot canyon, wading through water ranging from ankle to thigh deep. Sometimes the rocky walls are only a few feet apart, other times the chasm yawns wide and is light and airy. We would recommend wearing closed toe shoes with good grip (you'll kick a lot of rocks under the water) and using a stick or walking pole to help with balance and testing the depth of the water. Keep an eye on forecasts in the park as flash floods can occur, and don't attempt this hike if there is any chance of one happening. You'll also need to take plenty of water in your day pack and some food/snacks, as this is an out and back hike that can easily take hours if you take your time and enjoy the scenery. You can go as far in as you like before turning back, and even the approach to the canyon along the river is beautiful, we saw mule deer and even a beaver!
Angel's Landing is up there with Yosemite's Four Mile Trail for strenuous epic hikes. Start early in the day (we were walking by 7 am) to get the steep switchback climb under your belt while the valley is still in shade - once the sun comes up you're very exposed and Utah is hot! You'll also get ahead of the crowds which will make the hairier parts of the hike more comfortable and safer. The grand finale of the trail is a thin sheer spine of rock with a chain link fence to pull yourself along, before climbing (scrambling) up to the Landing. It's vertigo inducing but totally fine if you have time to not feel rushed or crowded. By the time we headed back at around half 10 am, this part of the hike felt like the queues to go up Everest, and you had to wait for people going the other way to come past. Not one for those with a fear of heights (and definitely not one for kids), but the views from the top down into Zion Valley are unimaginable. Be sure to buy your "I hiked Angel's Landing' patch from the park gift shop, you'll be so proud of yourself!Again, pack plenty of water in your day pack, and don't attempt this one in winter. The trail is often closed in the coldest months because you don't want to be attempting those sheer drop offs when it's icy!
3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
We were so excited to visit this classic, iconic American landmark. You will never repeat that mindblowing, jawdropping lurch in your stomach the first time you see the canyon. It's huge. More than huge - it stretches on so far and so deep that it almost looks flat, like a painting, as if your eyes and brain just cannot compute the scale and perspective. When you think that this was all created by water, the mind boggles.
Take your time walking along the rim enjoying the various viewpoints, there are also trails going down into the canyon if you want to get a better sense of the depth. Keep an eye out for Californian condors swooping below - with a wingspan close to 10 ft (the largest of any bird in the USA) they are massive and have even been mistaken for small planes! Before you get excited, make sure you're not looking at a turkey vulture - much more common, but a lot smaller, and they fly with their wings in a V shape rather than flat like a plane. You can also see in this picture from the National Park Service that Californian condors also have bold white triangles in their armpits with black finger-like flight feathers, where as turkey vultures are black underneath with a white fringe of flight feathers along the edges of their wings.
Watching the sunset in the Grand Canyon was another bucket list experience for us. We'd recommend not going to any of the official view points like Mather Point as these get unbelievably crowded. Instead, set off an hour or so before sunset and walk left along the rim from the visitor centre, until you find a spot next to the path with a clear view looking back down the canyon. Bring sandwiches, and sit and watch the colours change from dusty brown to fiery orange as the sun goes down. Please be sensible, we saw some people scrambling out onto perilous outcrops and overhangs - please don't be one of them! No selfie is worth dying for.
If you're visiting in June, check the Grand Canyon National Park's website to see when their annual Star Party is happening. Every June for 8 days, the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association provide amazing telescopes for visitors to marvel at the night skies. No additional fee or reservation is required, just turn up after dark! We saw Saturn's rings, Jupiter, distant galaxies... unbelievable. Stick around for a few hours as different planets rise and fall as the evening progresses, and the Grand Canyon has some of the best protected dark skies in the US. If you're a real space nut, you could make the most of your time in Arizona with a visit to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff (about 3.5 hours drive away, where Pluto was first discovered, the observatory often offers night time constellation tours, telescope viewings and educational talks - check their schedule here! The Route 66 town of Flagstaff is also lovely to explore) and Winslow Meteor Crater, about half an hour further from Flagstaff. This blew our minds - at nearly a mile across and 50,000 years old, it's the best preserved meteorite impact crater on Earth. You can go on a guided rim tour, head to the amazing look out points, and it also has a fantastic visitor centre, cinema and museum.
4. Everglades National Park, Florida
Over 1.5 million acres of tropical Floridian wilderness, the Everglades are home to such a wide range of habitats and species that it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. You can see crocodiles and alligators, the elusive, gentle manatee, and you'll definitely want to bring your binoculars- this is birder's paradise. We saw osprey, roseate spoonbill, egrets, herons, wood stork, kingfishers, pelicans, anhinga...
We stayed in Flamingo Campground, and spent a few days driving around the park exploring the different landscapes. Walk on boardwalks through the 'river of grass' and tropical hardwood hammocks, hike the Snake Bight trail through eerie mangrove swamps full of spoonbill and egrets down to the mudflats, and head to Royal Palm visitor centre to see dozens of alligators (and anhinga) along the easy paved Anhinga Trail.
One of our most special Everglades experiences was cooking up breakfast beside the Flamingo Marina (we were in an Escape Campervan which has a stove you can take out and put on a picnic table) as the skies changed from pink to blue. Brown pelicans hobbled about the boating ramps, an osprey was nesting nearby and the quiet was punctuated by the occasional splash of an alligator catching fish and the puff of five or six manatees periodically coming up for air. Truly magical.
Be sure to also head up north to Shark Valley, another section of the national park, where you can take a road train out into the wilderness. The tram tour lasts about 2 hours and is led by a naturalist who points out all the wildlife en route. At the halfway point you disembark to climb an observation tower for panoramic views of the Everglades. You can also rent bicycles to explore the route yourself, the road is paved and very flat.
5. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree NP feels like a different planet, post apocalyptic and bleak, like a Star Trek set. This is where the Mojave and Colorado deserts collide, just 2.5 hours drive from the bright lights of Los Angeles. Rocky rugged landscapes dotted with the spiny, twisted, Dr Seuss like Joshua Trees are ablaze with colourful spring flowers, and walking trails lead through the boulder piles of Skull Rock and the bizarre yellow fluffy spikes of the Cholla Cactus Garden.
Joshua Tree NP is best visited either side of scorching summer (this is the desert after all!), in spring or autumn, but any time of year we would recommend taking lots and lots of water, a hat and sunscreen on any walk you choose to do, and avoid any strenuous activity in the heat of the day. Phone signal is patchy in the park and you don't want to get into a tricky situation and have no reception!
Like the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree has some amazing dark sky viewing, so if you are camping, or able to visit in the evening, you should get incredible views of the Milky Way.
10 Quick Facts
- the first established US National Park was Yellowstone NP, Wyoming, designated in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. It was the first national park not only in the States but anywhere in the world!
- the most visited National Parks are Smokey Mountains NP, North Carolina and Tennessee (over 11,000,000 visitors per year) and the Grand Canyon NP, Arizona (over 6.2 million visitors per year).
- California has the most National Parks, 9, followed by Alaska with 8, and Utah, 5.
- The National Park Service was founded in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, and along with the 61 designated National Parks, it protects 357 other Historic sites, Monuments, Memorials and Recreation Areas including the Woodstock Music Festival site, Mt Rushmore, the Apollo Mission Control Centre in Houston, Texas , Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty, Hoover Dam, the sunken remains of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbour, Hawai'i and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes Alcatraz Island.
- Death Valley NP is the hottest, driest and lowest place below sea level in the United States, with temperatures nearing 50 degrees Celsius. Many campervan rental companies won't let you take their vehicles in there in summer!
- Sequoia National Park is home to the largest living tree in the world, the General Sherman tree. The tree is around 275 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter. It weighs approximately 1,900 metric tonnes!
- The tallest mountain in the National Parks is Mt McKinley in Denali NP, Alaska, 20,302 feet at its peak.
- The longest cave system in the world is in Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. With over 3454 miles mapped so far, the largest chamber is 2 acres in size.
- Crater Lake NP in Oregon is home to the deepest lake in the U.S. At 1,932 feet deep, that's nearly twice the height of the Eiffel Tower!
- There are 25 active glaciers in Glacier NP.
Which National Parks would we like to visit next?
1. Acadia NP, Maine - we are so keen to do a New England roadtrip from New York up to Maine. Acadia looks like paradise to us. Craggy coastlines and incredible hiking trails amongst the autumnal colours.
2. Channel Islands NP, California - one that we didn't have time to do on our honeymoon roadtrip, the 'Galapagos of North America' has always intrigued us. Wild coastal clifftop walks, ocean views, looking for sea lions and sea birds and kayaking to caves... we have friends moving to California soon so will have a great excuse to head back and tick this national park off!
3. Glacier NP, Montana - way up on the USA/Canadian border is this stunner of a national park. Mountains reflected in sparkling lakes, meadows of wild flowers and of course, glaciers. we're dying to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road
4. Grand Teton NP, Wyoming - we first came across a picture of this national park on Instagram and our jaws dropped. Those mountains. Gorgeous hiking. Kayaking on Jackson Lake. Moose and bison. And only 30 miles drive south of...
5.Yellowstone NP, Wyoming - in our opinion, Yellowstone is up there with Yosemite as the most iconic national park in the United States.. Set within the caldera of a super volcano, parts of the park bubble and smoke, and occasionally explode as mighty geysers like Old Faithful. We want to see the colourful Grand Prismatic Hot Spring, and watch herds of bison on the plains, search for grizzly and black bears, hike past thundering waterfalls and raft the rivers. Yes please!
Do you have a favourite national park? Which one should we visit next?