Looking to do something a little different on your next holiday? Well, as outdoors go, North America is home to the greatest. The National Parks have jaw dropping views and endless opportunities for activity and adventure. Explore the widest canyons, the highest peaks, unspoiled lush green forest and stark deserts as our travel experts take you through some of America’s Best National Parks!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
America’s most visited National Park, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. Sprawling landscapes of stunning wildflowers, deep green forests and rushing rivers stretch out ahead of you as you enter the park which gets its name from the smoky haze that seems to rise from the mountain ranges in the park that reach up to 7,000ft!
The Smoky Mountains are part of the Appalachian Mountain Range and part of the famous Appalachian Trail runs through the park. There are 150 trails in total that run through the park so be sure to bring your hiking boots and get out to explore this fantastic area. The trails are famous for the abundant colourful wildflowers that surround them. The Cades Cove area of the park boasts the best hiking trails. You can also enjoy biking or horse riding the trails or to explore more of the park.
Take a night or two to stay in a log cabin at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where you can wake up to the spectacular view of the mountains in front of you or wind down your day with a barbeque on the deck before relaxing in a hot tub under the starry sky.
Yellowstone National Park
Spread across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone National Park is one of the biggest parks in the USA at over 3,500 square miles. Yellowstone sits atop a volcanic hot spot resulting in the park being home to over 10,000 thermal features. Over half of all the geysers on earth can be found here including one of Yellowstone’s most famous features, the Old Faithful Geyser which erupts up to 17 times a day reaching heights of 180ft. Be sure to also check out the surrounding Upper Geyser Basin and Lower Geyser Basin where you can enjoy hiking trails overlooking the famous geyser.
Apart from the numerous geysers you’ll find in Yellowstone, the park is also home to a huge amount of hot springs, the most famous of which is Mammoth Hot Springs, sometimes described as looking like ‘an inside out cave’. This unusual feature is the result of melting snow seeping into the earth and mixing with the hot gasses in the magma chamber causing the travertine formations that make Mammoth Hot Springs so unique.
Visitors to Yellowstone are spoilt for choice when it comes to the stunning geothermal features but this park has plenty more to offer. Yellowstone has its very own Grand Canyon with plenty of lookouts and hiking trails which offer spectacular views out over one of the most impressive parts of the park. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is also where you will find the Lower Falls, which at 308ft are almost twice as high as Niagara Falls.
Looking to spot some wildlife? Yellowstone is home to grizzly bears, wolves, elk, bison otters, badgers and lots more. Wyoming, is also where you will find some of the best dinosaur fossil fields and many of them can be found right within Yellowstone.
There are 12 campgrounds throughout Yellowstone as well as cabins and lodges so why not spend a couple of nights here so you can explore as much of the park as possible.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park gets its name from the over 25 active glaciers found there that are constantly moving due to thawing and melting. The park offers stunning views of these glaciers, snow-capped mountains, lush alpine scenery and shimmering blue lakes as far as the eye can see.
Located in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park is a hikers paradise. Running along the border between Canada and the USA, the park boasts hundreds of hiking trails to enjoy as well as scenic driving routes, fishing and boating trips to take on the stunning lakes that are found all around.
One of the best things to do in Glacier National Park is to drive the famous of Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50 mile drive that loops through the mountains and provides some of the most amazing views in scenic Montana. Driving this route you’ll come across Logan Pass, the highest point in the park where you can take in some spectacular views as you gaze out over the park. It’s also a good spot to stretch the legs on a hiking trail as from there you can join the Hidden Lake Trail and the Highline Trail.
Other hiking trails that are worth checking out in the park include Trail of the Cedars, a looped walk through a thick forest of cedars that brings you to Avalanche Lake Trail, another great trail with glorious lake views. The Many Glacier area of the park is where you will find more strenuous hikes including Grinell Glacier and Iceberg Lake both of which boast stunning alpine scenery and incredible views over glittering lakes.
Acadia National Park
Set against the backdrop of the dramatic Atlantic coastline in Maine, Acadia National Park is home to dense woodland, rugged coasts with crashing waves and diverse habitats.
As there is no onsite accommodation in Acadia National Park, most people begin their visit to the park in the gateway seaside region of Bar Harbor. It’s well worth spending some time in Bar Harbor, indeed some of Acadia extends out into the area. Take in the sunrise from the picturesque Shore Path or take advantage of low tide to head on over to Bar Island and take a look back over beautiful Bar Harbour with the stunning mountains of the park in the background.
In the park itself, take a scenic drive along the Park Loop Road, a route that takes you through some of the parks most dense woodland and along the dramatic coastline to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain on the North Atlantic Seaboard from where you can enjoy stunning views out over the ocean.
Summer days in Maine are simply stunning but of course the whole state of New England is famous for its glorious fall foliage. This can be one of the best times to visit the park when the scenic vistas can be enjoyed alongside the splendid colours that fill the woodlands of the park.
Acadia’s proximity to the Atlantic coast makes it rich with marine wildlife. A whale watching tour is highly recommended where you can catch glimpses of Finback, Humpback and Minke whales. This area is also home to the Atlantic Puffin and you’ll see groups of them swimming through the sea all around you as you take your tour. Seals, bald eagles, porpoises, dolphins and falcons also all call this area home so keep your eyes peeled!
Zion National Park
Zion National Park in Southwest Utah is known for two things, the expansive red rock canyon that forms much of the park, and the majestic rock arches that are found here.
Driving is restricted in most parts of the park and shuttles are provided to bring you to various points throughout the park instead. However there is one drive you can do that is highly recommended and that’s the Zion to Mt Carmel Scenic Highway (open to cars in winter only, during summer you can take a bus trip along this route). The road runs along the valley floor so you will experience the imposing rock formations rising up all around you as you travel, drive right through a mountain through a tunnel and pass some of the parks most famous features including Angels Landing and the Great White Throne.
Angels Landing is one of the most iconic rock formations in America. It’s a tough hike to the top – the area gets its name from an early explorer declaring only angels could land here – but it’s definitely worth it for the breath-taking views out over Zion Canyon as you gaze out from 1,000ft over the valley floor. The Canyon Overlook Trail is a less strenuous option to also get some spectacular views out over the park.
If heights aren’t your thing, there is plenty to enjoy down at the water level instead! Lace up your boots and hit the Narrows Trail that follows the Virgin River that flows through Zion National Park. You’ll be knee deep in water as you follow the river around with something new to see around every bend of the river. For those looking for even more adventure and have the technical experience required, include the ‘Subway’ on your hike, this area is spectacular, home to waterfalls, pools and the tunnel of red rock that give this area the ‘Subway’ name, but requires ropes, and bouldering and canyoneering knowledge. If you don’t fancy getting your feet wet the Emerald Pools Trail or the Riverside Walk Trail are both well worth a visit.
Yosemite National Park
Located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite National Park is perhaps one of the most well known national parks in America. Every year visitors are drawn to the park and its dramatic waterfalls, giant sequoias, jaw-dropping cliffs and abundant wildlife.
Most start their visit to the park at Yosemite Valley, as here is where you will find many of the parks best features. Here you will find Yosemite Falls, one of the most striking features in Yosemite Valley as well as Half Dome, Glacier Point and El Captain, the giant, imposing, sheer rock formations that Yosemite is famous for. There are plenty of hiking routes around these amazing formations for you to make your way to some spectacular viewpoints out over the park and for any rock climbers, these spots are iconic!
Tioga Road is the Highway that runs through Yosemite National Park. Only open in the summer, a stunning scenic drive along the highway is well worth it as you pass by open meadows of wildflowers in full bloom and pristine lakes that mirror the reflection of the majestic rock formations that surround you in their glistening waters.
Yosemite is also well known for the giant sequoia trees found here. The Mariposa Grove is one of the best places to go to walk among these trees that tower above you reaching heights of up to 300ft! Take a stroll along the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail that will take you to all the best parts of the grove.
Grand Canyon National Park
The desert state of Arizona is home to the Grand Canyon National Park, one of the most famous sites in all of the USA. Visitors to the park can choose to visit the North or South Rim or indeed the West Rim (this is the closest area of the park to Las Vegas, from which many visitors take a day trip to the park).
On arrival to the Grand Canyon you’ll find your breath taken away as you first glimpse this majestic canyon. Visitors to the West Rim can step out on the Skywalk, a circular glass floored walkway that stretches out 70ft into the canyon and offers superb views over the canyon floor 4,000ft below you.
Those who choose to travel to the North or South Rim have some spectacular hiking trails to explore. The Bright Angel Trail takes hikers from the South Rim right down to the Colorado River. Nearby South Kaibab Trail is said to offer the best views in the Grand Canyon. Closer to the North Rim, you’ll find the Rainbow Rim Trail, a popular option with mountain bikers also. For an amazing experience you can also follow the Rim to Rim Trail which joins the North and South Rim. It will take a couple of days to complete but with campsites along the way you can break up the days with nights under the stars.
Helicopter tours are hugely popular at the Grand Canyon, offering visitors a birds eye view and a real bucket list experience. To see the remarkable canyon from a different angle, take a trip down the Colorado River. For the adventurers, it’s a great spot for white water rafting through the rapids or if you prefer a calmer experience you could opt for a float tour on the quieter waters.
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park in Washington State in the Pacific Northwest has something for everyone! From temperate rainforests, to snow peaked mountains to dramatic coastlines and peaceful lakes, this park has it all!
Most visitors to Olympic National Park will pay a visit to Hoh Rainforest during their time at the park, a lush, green temperate rainforest where every surface is covered with moss and fern. A real hit with kids due to its enchanted fairy-tale feel, there are some short trails you can take around the forest to explore this wonderland! Further south Quinault Rainforest on the shores of Lake Quinault is home to the world’s largest Sitka spruce tree that is 191ft high and over 1,000 years old!
Sol Duc Falls is another popular spot to visit in the Olympic National Park. A short looped walking trails runs alongside the Soleduck River and into another green forest in which you’ll come across the stunning falls whose name roughly translates to ‘sparkling waters’. Olympic National Park is full of sparkling waters of course thanks to 650 peaceful blue lakes that can be found throughout the park. Some 300 of these lakes are mountain lakes, reserved for those adventurers who trek the ambitious trails they are found along. Back at ground level, Lake Crescent is one of the largest lakes in the park, where visitors can take part in water sports on the lake, sit back in one of the lodges that dot the area and sip a drink enjoying the marvellous view, or join one of the hiking trails that goes around the lake.
Olympic National Park also boasts some of the best beaches in the Pacific Northwest. Not all are suitable for swimming, and the climate doesn’t always lend itself to a dip in the sea, but beaches such as Ruby Beach, Kalaloch Beach and Rialto Beach all offer stunning coastal views and heavenly walks along the shoreline!
Top tips for visiting America’s National Parks.
Be prepared! Whether you a planning a short hike or an overnight stay be sure that you have all that you need. Sturdy walking shoes are needed for most trails. Dress appropriately using layers as the weather can be very changeable over the course of a hike and make sure you have a backpack packed with sunscreen, water and snacks.
When you first arrive in a National Park, pay a visit to the visitor centre to some more information on what you should visit in the park, best routes, services available etc. Also in some parks driving is only allowed in certain areas or the roads and routes might get a bit complicated so make sure you gather all the information you need before heading out on your adventure.
Don’t count on relying on cell service, it’s unpredictable at best in some areas so make sure your phone is not your sole navigational tool.
Stick to the marked trails. Not only will it keep you from getting lost in these vast parks, it will protect the more fragile areas of the park and the more vulnerable wildlife habitats.
Don’t feed the animals! You are likely to come across plenty of wild animals on a National Park adventure and it is important they stay wild rather than getting used to the human interaction thousands of visitors to the parks each year would bring.
If you are planning on camping in a National Park, either in a tent or RV, bear in mind that many campsites get booked up so make sure you book your spot in advance. The same applies to the lodges and cabins in some of the more popular parks, especially for the summer months, they book up fast so book well in advance.