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A Dozen National Parks You Need on Your Travel Bucket List

by Gina Pantina

National Park View

National Park Service Basics

If you’re a regular around here, you know that “A National Park Expedition” made our list of Top Ten Journeys of a Lifetime (and if you didn’t catch that list, check it out here). That’s because the National Park Service is truly one of the most incredible treasures of The United States. 

Grand Canyon National Park

Although the National Parks Service was created by President Wilson in 1916 (at which point there were already 35 National Parks in existence throughout the country), most people would agree that it was President Theodore Roosevelt who had the greatest impact on the National Parks throughout the country, and what they have become today. There is even a Park named for him: the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota; furthermore, his Summer Home, Sagamore Hill in Long Island, New York is designated as a National Historic Site, and part of the National Park Service, as well.  

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

In addition, it was the National Park Service of the United States that inspired many other countries throughout the world to adopt similar services and create National Parks of their own, which is definitely something Americans can be proud of. It would be such a shame to live your life in the United States, and never take advantage of the incredible amount of protected and preserved land we have.  

Denali National Park

And with 424 National Park Sites throughout the country, there is sure to be at least one, if not dozens more that spark your interest! Of that 424, there are 63 sites that have “National Park” in their official title, and it’s generally these 63 that come to mind when most people think of National Parks, such as Grand Canyon National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Acadia National Park, just to name a few. 

National Parks Map

It’s also from these 63 Parks that we pulled our Dozen National Parks You Need on Your Travel Bucket List, but it’s not just the most popular ones (though there are a few of those, don’t worry). Our list is separated into three categories: The Classics, The Underrated Gems, and The Far Ones (worth going the distance for), and contains The Wheres, Whens and Whys about each Park. If making it to all 63 “National Parks” feels daunting, start with the following twelve!

National Park Trees

The Classics

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Where

Most of Yellowstone National Park is located in the Northwest corner of Wyoming (96% to be exact), with the remaining parts of the Park located in Montana and Idaho. At 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is the second largest Park outside of Alaska. Because of its size, there are entrances to the Park on the North, South, East and West sides, with two entrances on the North side.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

When

Yellowstone is technically open year-round, but there are numerous seasonal road closures to be aware of, especially in the winter months due to snow, and depending on the amount of rain, during the summer because of flooding as well. The best months to visit Yellowstone are April, September and October, since the weather is mostly milder than other months, the crowds are generally lower, and these are great months for seeing lots of wildlife. Of course, winter could be your pick if you love outdoor winter activities such as cross country skiing and snowshoeing, or summer could be your best option if you want to experience rafting or guided hikes through the Park. 

Yellowstone National Park

Why

Yellowstone is considered the quintessential National Park for many reasons, the first of which is that Yellowstone was the very first National Park ever created in 1872. Essentially, the landscape and wildlife of Yellowstone was seen as so unique and special that explorers, artists and politicians decided to protect it long before modern land developers could even touch it. The most distinctive feature in Yellowstone is the amount of hydrothermal and geothermal areas; surely, you’ve heard of the famous Old Faithful Geyser, but did you know that Yellowstone is actually home to about half of the world’s active geysers? In addition to all the geysers, there are also basins, hot springs, rivers, waterfalls, tons of wildlife, and Yellowstone even has its own Grand Canyon. An expedition to Yellowstone will allow you to see exactly what started the whole “National Parks” movement to begin with, and will leave you grateful that such beautiful parts of our country are protected and preserved. 

Grand Canyon National Park 

Grand Canyon National Park

Where

Grand Canyon National Park is located in the Northwest corner of Arizona, and has 278 miles of the Colorado River running through it. The Park itself is just over 1.2 million acres in size, and measures about a mile deep throughout most of the canyon, with an average rim-to-rim width of 10 miles. 

Grand Canyon

When

While the popular South Rim of the Grand Canyon is open year-round, the quieter North Rim is closed from December 1st through May 14th each year for winter. However, the winter months of December, January, and February are definitely the least crowded time of year to visit the South Rim. For the best experience all-around, whether you’re going to the North, South or West Rim, the “shoulder” season months in the Spring and Fall offer the best conditions in terms of crowds and weather. 

Grand Canyon

Why

A visit to the Grand Canyon is one of the most unique experiences on Earth, yet it feels like you’re actually on another planet because of how different and distinct the landscape is there. The Grand Canyon is aptly named as one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, making it a destination people travel far and wide to visit. The rock formations that layer the canyon walls tell a story that is almost 2 billion years old, and that fact alone can be overwhelming, but especially when combined with the literal “Grand” scope of the depth and width and colors of the formation as a whole, staring out at the Grand Canyon is absolutely breathtaking. It is definitely a site to take in at least once in your life, though do use common sense when taking pictures, especially selfies, and of course be extremely cautious and attentive to children if you bring them to visit with you. 

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Where

Yosemite National Park is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains region in the eastern central part of California. At 748,000 acres, Yosemite is much smaller than many other National Parks, but it’s definitely packs a lot of incredible natural beauty into a *relatively* smaller area.

Yosemite National Park

When

Although Yosemite is open year round, there are road closures during the winter months due to snow. Notably, Tioga Road, which traverses the whole Park, and is popular with visitors who want to see as much of Yosemite as possible in a short amount of time, closes in the winter because of snow. Typically, July and August are the most crowded and busiest, while January and February are the quietest with the least amount of visitors. As with many destinations, the best time to visit in terms of weather and crowd level is during the “shoulder” season months of May and October. 

Yosemite National Park

Why

Yosemite is best known for its gorgeous waterfalls, its famous panoramic vistas, its giant Sequoia trees, and as recently featured in multiple documentaries, the huge rock faces of El Capitan and Half Dome. Of course, there is a myriad of wildlife to spot around the Park, though keeping safe distances is always required at all times and at all Parks. Camping and hiking are two of the most common activities, and there are many Park Ranger-led activities, as well. You can even channel your inner Alex Honnold (the famous rock climber featured in the documentary, Free Solo), by taking a beginner Rock Climbing lesson, or you can always watch the professional climbers scale “El Cap” and Half Dome from afar in Yosemite Valley. 

Arches National Park

Arches National Park

Where

Arches National Park is located in Southeast Utah, five miles North of Moab. Arches is only around 76,000 acres in size, but it’s home to over 2,000 natural arch formations within that space.

Arches National Park

When

Because Arches has such unique geologic formations all packed into a relatively small area, the crowds can get pretty big at this Park. Summer is the busiest season at Arches, even with temperatures soaring over 100 during the day, so if you want to avoid hot and crowded conditions, visit during the non-summer months. Winter has the fewest crowds, but it does get cold, and trails can close due to weather conditions with snow and ice. Again, that “shoulder” season in the months of March/April and September/October are the best times to visit for more temperate weather, trail accessibility, and lower crowds. In addition to times of year to visit, there are also times of day that work better than others at Arches, too, especially during the warmer months. Early morning or late afternoon/evening are generally less crowded and less hot, too, making the start or end of the day a more enjoyable time to visit. 

Arches National Park

Why

While the Grand Canyon can make you feel like you’re on another planet because of its depth, Arches National Park is also an otherworldly experience due to the towering heights and gravity-defying red rock formations. Of course, if you choose to visit Arches National Park, you’ll want to see the…arches! There are many hikes throughout the park leading to different famous arches, such as Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Sand Dune Arch, and Broken Arch, to name a few. And, for the most part, the hikes to the arches are relatively moderate, which makes them a good option for families. Imagine going for a vigorous hike amid the red rocks and under the blue sky, and ending at a gorgeous and impressive arch! No wonder Arches has become one of the most popular National Parks! If you want to visit, be sure to book far in advance and reserve your Park time (sounds familiar to our Disney Enthusiasts, right?)! 

The Underrated Gems

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park

Where

Mesa Verde National Park is located in Southwestern Colorado; the closest city is Cortez, Colorado. Mesa Verde is just over 52,000 acres in size, but with much of its structures built into the side of a cliff, the terrain is highly unique.

Mesa Verde National Park

When

While the Park itself is open year round, like most other National Parks, there are areas and sites within the park that close, or are without tours, during the winter months. As expected, summer is the most crowded time of year, so Spring and Fall are the best times to visit Mesa Verde, with less crowds and temperate weather.

Mesa Verde National Park

Why

Mesa Verde National Park is unique because it was the first area designated as a National Park in order to “preserve the works of man,” as stated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Like so many other National Parks, Mesa Verde is not “untouched nature,” but instead it is an archeological site deemed worthy of protection and preservation because of the history it holds. Mesa Verde was built by Ancestral Puebloens, who inhabited the area from 550 AD to 1300 AD, before migrating south to what is now New Mexico and Arizona. Mesa Verde is home to over 4,700 archeological sites, 600 of which are the famous cliff dwellings.

Mesa Verde National Park

The cliff dwellings are so well preserved that they almost look like a movie set instead of the rich, historical, UNESCO Heritage Site that they are. The window into history that Mesa Verde offers is as fascinating as it is incomparable. It’s worth noting, however, that because of the ways the structures were built thousands of years ago, and in order to preserve their integrity, not everywhere in this Park has accessibility for those with disabilities and/or limited abilities. While tours to the Mesa Top sites have more accessibility, tours to some of the most popular sites, such as Cliff Palace, include climbing stairs and ladders. 

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park

Where

Saguaro National Park is located to the East and West of the city of Tucson in Arizona. The East is known as the Rincon Mountain District, and the West is the Tucson Mountain District; together they cover just over 91,000 acres. 

Saguaro National Park

When

With Saguaro’s location in the desert, the best time to visit this park is actually the opposite of those mentioned so far: winter! The summer months at Saguaro are very hot, reaching 110 degrees or higher at midday, so if you happen to be there while it’s very hot, be sure to go early in the morning or later in the evening. Generally, late Fall, Winter and early Spring are the most comfortable times to visit Saguaro.

Saguaro National Park

Why

Saguaro National Park is named for the Saguaro Cactus, a giant species of cacti that lives up to 250 years, that can grow to the size of a tree, and that is native and unique to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. There is hiking, camping and other wildlife throughout the Park, but the superstar of this Park is definitely the Saguaro Cactus. The tall and proud Saguaro has come to represent the adaptability and wisdom necessary for life in the desert, and the iconic picture of a Saguaro Cactus with a golden setting sun has become symbolic of the American West. And speaking of pictures, Saguaro National Park is a natural dream backdrop for photographers, making this Park ideal for photo sessions, or just practicing your own photography skills.

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park

Where

Congaree National Park is located in central South Carolina, about 18 miles Southeast of Columbia, the state capital. Congaree is a relatively small National Park, at just under 27,000 acres in size.

Congaree National Park

When

As usual, the shoulder seasons of Spring and Fall are the best times to visit because the temperature is pleasant and the humidity is down, though late Spring is the best time to visit for the annual Firefly Courting. As with the majority of National Parks, a Summer visit is not recommended. Although Congaree doesn’t get the crowds that other National Parks get, it does get swarms of mosquitoes and other unfriendly pests due to the humidity. Even if you avoid visiting in summer, you should still bring bug spray at any time of year, just in case. 

Congaree National Park

Why

Congaree National Park is home to the largest old growth bottomland forest in the country, with some of the tallest trees and the highest tree canopies on the East Coast. Congaree has an elevated boardwalk, making it easy to walk through as a family, even with a stroller, and it’s a small enough Park to visit in just one day if you happen to be in the area. And as a bonus if you are there in the Spring: every May, visitors can follow the Fireflies Trail, where courting fireflies light up the forest with fairy-like magic, making for an unforgettable site.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Where

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Southeastern part of New Mexico, not far from the border of Texas. The Park is comprised of almost 47,000 acres, some of which are above ground in the Chihuahuan Desert, and some of which are underground in the Carlsbad Caverns. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

When

If your primary focus is to visit the Caverns as opposed to the Desert, then you don’t have to worry about the Summer heat during your trip, since the Caverns remain cool throughout the year. However, if you are looking to see a nightly wildlife show (described below), the best months to visit are April through October.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Why

Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers a typical desert experience, paired with the unique experience of underground caves, which are formed by sulfuric acid dissolving limestone, and leaving caves behind. Currently there are 119 caves in the Park, though more will likely be discovered over time. One of the caves, aptly named The Big Room, is about the size of six or seven football fields and is filled with incredible cave formations. Many visitors are drawn to visit Carlsbad Caverns for this cave, and also for the nightly migration of bats that fly out of the caverns between 4 and 6pm for their nighttime outing (they fly back just before sunrise, too, but the Park is closed at that time). If bats aren’t your thing, maybe plan your visit for the winter months!

The Far Ones (worth going the distance for)

Denali National Park and Preserve

Denali National Park

Where

Denali National Park and Preserve sits North of Anchorage and encompasses 6 million acres of Alaska’s interior wilderness. Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) is the centerpiece of the Park, and at 20,310 feet high, it’s also North America’s tallest peak. 

Denali National Park

When

The “best” time to visit Denali is subjective depending on what you want to experience on your trip. For the most access and availability, the summer months from May through September will ensure you are able to do activities such as hiking, camping, and bus and helicopter tours. These months are also ideal if you plan to pair your trip to Denali with an Alaskan cruise, as many people do. However, if you are more interested in winter and snow-centered activities like snow-shoeing, dog-sledding and seeing the Northern Lights, the months from November to March may be perfect for you!

Denali National Park

Why

As mentioned, Denali National Park is home to North America’s tallest mountain, which is reason to visit in itself, but Denali has so much more to offer than just a picturesque, snow-covered mountain. Denali is a near perfect example of what the National Park Service set out to do from the beginning: it preserves the human connection to the land and wildlife that has always existed, while also learning from the changes that naturally occur to the landscape of the Park over time, perfectly melding past, present and future together. 

Denali National Park

Unlike many other National Parks, Denali only has one road and one entrance, and private cars are not permitted to drive farther than about 15 miles beyond the entrance (the only want to continue on by vehicle is on a bus tour). Also unlike many other National Parks, Denali allows hiking off-trail, since part of the Park’s mission is to provide access to the untouched wilderness. A visit to Denali is a true adventure, for sure. 

Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park

Where

Not to be confused with Glacier National Park in Montana, Glacier BAY National Park and Preserve is another Park in Alaska that is well worth the trek it takes to get there. Unlike Denali, which is situated in Alaska’s interior, Glacier Bay National Park is located West of Juneau in Southeastern Alaska. Its 3.3 million acres is part of a larger 25 million acre World Heritage Site, which is comprised of protected lands from multiple countries. 

Glacier Bay National Park

When

With a name like Glacier Bay, it’s obvious that part of this Park is water, which, in Alaska, also means ice during the winter months. While the Park is technically open year-round, accessibility is mostly limited to the warmer months of May through October. This is especially true because most people who visit Glacier Bay National Park do so while on an Alaskan cruise, and cruises in Alaska cannot run during the winter months. 

Glacier Bay National Park

Why

Glacier Bay National Park is full of, you guessed it, glaciers! But that’s not all! There are also towering mountains, rugged coastline, dense forests, rare wildlife, and fairytale fjords. Although most people visit Glacier Bay as part of a cruise, because of regulations in place for National Parks, there are a limited amount of cruise ships that can sail through the Park within the season, making a visit via cruise ship even more special. Furthermore, while the cruise ship sails through the Park, it’s required that a National Park Ranger be onboard; most cruise lines have the Park Ranger narrate the sites along the way, giving you a unique National Park experience without even leaving the luxuries of your cruise ship! Not every cruise line has access to Glacier Bay National Park, but as always, your Love of the Magic Vacations Travel Advisor will know which cruise lines sail through Glacier Bay, and will help you choose the one that’s best for you!

Haleakala National Park

Haleakala National Park

Where

Haleakala National Park is located in the state of Hawaii on the island of Maui in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Park is just over 30,000 acres and features the currently dormant Haleakala Volcano. 

Haleakala National Park

When

Because of its tropical location in the Pacific Ocean, a visit to Haleakala National Park will be beautiful at any time of year. Unlike many other National Parks, the busiest time at Haleakala is during the winter months of December, January and February, because many people from colder climates are looking to capitalize on Hawaii’s warmer weather. Summer months are actually less crowded and sometimes less expensive, so when you visit Haleakala just depends on your own preferences and vacation priorities.

Haleakala National Park

Why

Each of Hawaii’s islands have unique features, and a trip to Maui would hardly be complete without a visit to Haleakala National Park. Haleakala Volcano, the summit of which rises over 10,000 feet above sea level, is estimated to be over a million years old, and last erupted at some point between 1480 and 1600, though currently, it is considered dormant. Haleakala National Park protects the volcanic landscape by incorporating Native Hawaiian traditions and generational wisdom with modern methods of resource preservation. One of the most popular activities on the island of Maui is to take a sunrise or sunset tour of Haleakala, though tours to the summit require reservations far in advance (which, as always, your LOTMV Travel Advisor can help with). Climbing above the clouds to the summit of a volcano and watching the sunrise is definitely a worthwhile once in a lifetime experience!

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park

Where

Although Dry Tortugas National Park may not seem far away since it’s located in Florida, don’t let that fool you! Dry Tortugas is located 70 miles west of Key West, and is only accessible by boat or seaplane, so even if you are from Florida, getting there will probably be a bit of a hike. At just over 47,000 acres, Dry Tortugas is made up of seven islands, but the Park, contrary to its name, is actually 99% water, with most of the protected “land” being reefs and underwater ecosystems. 

Dry Tortugas National Park

When

With its location in the Gulf and near the Caribbean, Dry Tortugas can definitely be affected by Hurricane season, so it’s best to avoid visiting from mid-Summer to mid-Fall. The best time to visit is between the months of November to April, when the waters are more calm, and the risk of hurricanes is low. With so many National Parks being busiest during the Summers and not entirely accessible during Winter months, Dry Tortugas is a great Winter option for anyone looking to escape the cold weather but still explore a National Park!

Dry Tortugas National Park

Why

At 99% water, Dry Tortugas National Park is obviously most famous for its marine life and ecosystems, including the largest coral reef in the continental United States. While visiting Dry Tortugas is definitely a better experience with a swimsuit, there are also areas to explore on dry land as well. Fort Jefferson is the most popular above water attraction to visit in the Park. Built in the mid 1800’s, Fort Jefferson is the largest all-masonry fort in the country, and although building was never completed, the Fort did serve its purpose of intimidating enemy ships.

Dry Tortugas National Park

A visit to Dry Tortugas definitely requires advance planning, as there are no resources available in the Park (not even public restrooms, though some can be found on the ferry boats from Key West), and getting there is far from simply pulling into a parking lot. The brilliant blue waters and colorful coral reefs definitely make it worth the trek, though, and as always, your favorite Love of the Magic Vacations Travel Advisor can help you plan!

Ready to Plan?

Arches National Park

Now that you have a selection of Classics, Underrated Gems, and Far Parks (worth going the distance for), are you ready to plan your own National Parks Expedition? Have a Park in mind that isn’t on this list? Whatever adventure you’d like to take next, whether it’s to a National Park or anywhere else, I would love to help you choose and plan the perfect vacation! Email me today at gina@lotmv.com to get started planning, or click here for a free quote from me or your favorite Love of the Magic Vacations Travel Advisor!

Glacier Bay National Park

In the meantime, if you and your family love National Parks and are looking for a way to bring the adventure of the National Parks home, I highly recommend the board game Trekking. It’s super fun, and educational at the same time (like travel!), and every time we play it in my family, we add a new National Park to our Travel Bucket List! 

A Dozen National Parks You Need on Your Travel Bucket List

 

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