6 Must-Visit National Parks in the USA: A Nature Lover’s Guide

There are some truly breathtaking and diverse natural landscapes in the US. From soaring mountain peaks to endless desert vistas, America’s national parks protect the country’s most iconic wilderness areas. If you’re planning a North American trip and love the great outdoors, you won’t want to miss these six must-visit national parks.

Yellowstone National Park

Established in 1872, Yellowstone was the very first national park in the U.S. and remains one of the most popular. Located primarily in Wyoming, with sections that extend into Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone is best known for its geothermal features including the iconic Old Faithful geyser. 

In addition to geysers, the park also features stunning canyons, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and an incredible diversity of wildlife including bison, bears, wolves, elk, and bighorn sheep, making it one of the most popular safari destinations outside of Africa.

Beyond the park, the surrounding areas of Yellowstone offer a wealth of activities. Visit the charming town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, known for its skiing, snowboarding, and vibrant arts scene. Explore the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, which boasts one of the world’s largest dinosaur collections.

When is the best time of year to visit Yellowstone National Park?

The best time to visit Yellowstone National Park is from April to May and September to November. These periods offer mild weather and fewer crowds. Springtime brings newborn wildlife and blooming flowers, while autumn offers a stunning display of fall foliage. However, be prepared for unpredictable weather changes during these seasons.

Yosemite National Park

One of the country’s oldest and most beloved national parks, Yosemite is located in California’s scenic Sierra Nevada mountains. Yosemite is revered for its soaring granite cliffs like Half Dome and El Capitan, its plunging waterfalls which include the tallest in North America, and its giant sequoia trees which are among the largest living things on Earth. The park also features alpine wilderness perfect for hiking, backpacking, and wildlife viewing.

In the vicinity of Yosemite, you can explore the historic Gold Rush town of Mariposa with its quaint shops and museums. For wine lovers, the vineyards of California’s Central Valley are just a short drive away. Mono Lake, with its otherworldly tufa towers, is also worth a visit.

When is the best time of year to visit Yosemite National Park?

The optimal time to visit Yosemite National Park is during the late spring and early summer, from May to June. During this period, the park’s famous waterfalls are at their peak flow, and the weather is pleasantly warm. However, this is also the busiest time, so booking accommodations well in advance is recommended.

Read: 5 IDEAL travel tips for San Francisco first timers

Grand Canyon National Park

Carved over millions of years by the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. No amount of photos can truly capture the immensity and depth of this mile-deep, 277-mile-long chasm. Layers of brightly-hued rock reveal millions of years of geological history. Viewing platforms along the South and North Rims provide jaw-dropping canyon vistas. Hiking trails descend into the canyon for an up-close look.

Near the Grand Canyon, the city of Flagstaff offers a variety of cultural attractions, including the Lowell Observatory and the Museum of Northern Arizona. The historic Route 66 town of Williams is also nearby, offering a nostalgic trip back in time.

When is the best time of year to visit the Grand Canyon National Park?

The Grand Canyon is a year-round destination, but the most favourable times to visit are from March to May and September to November when daytime temperatures are comfortable, and the park is less crowded. Winter can also be a magical time to visit, with the canyon walls dusted in snow, but some areas may be closed due to weather conditions.

Glacier National Park

Located along the Canadian border in Montana, Glacier National Park is a hiker’s paradise with over 700 miles of trails that wind through rugged peaks, serene valleys, crystal lakes, and lush old-growth forests. Highlights include the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile scenic drive over the Continental Divide, as well as wildlife viewing and camping opportunities. Glaciers may eventually disappear from the park due to climate change, so it’s best to visit Glacier sooner rather than later.

Outside Glacier National Park, the Flathead Valley offers opportunities for fishing, boating, and birdwatching. The charming town of Whitefish, known for its ski resort and vibrant arts scene, is also worth a visit. Don’t miss the chance to explore the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to learn about the rich history and culture of the Blackfeet Nation.

When is the best time of year to visit the Glacier National Park?

The best time to visit Glacier National Park is during the summer months, from July to August. This is when the park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road is fully open, and the weather is warm enough for camping and hiking. However, this is also the busiest time, so expect more crowds.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Stretching across the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is world-renowned for its incredible biodiversity. The moist, temperate climate here creates a lush green landscape that’s home to thousands of plant species, making it one of the most diverse ecosystems outside of the tropics. The park also contains centuries-old growth forests, cascading waterfalls, and historic log cabins. Diverse wildlife includes black bears, wild turkeys, fireflies, and more.

In the vicinity of the Great Smoky Mountains, visit the vibrant city of Asheville, North Carolina, known for its thriving arts scene and historic architecture. The Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, offers fun for the whole family. Gatlinburg, a gateway to the Smokies, is home to the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and the Ober Gatlinburg ski resort.

When is the best time of year to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is beautiful year-round, but the most popular times to visit are during the spring wildflower season (April to May) and the fall foliage season (October to November). The park is less crowded during the winter months, offering a peaceful and serene experience.

Zion National Park

Known for its incredible canyoneering, hiking, and awe-inspiring red and orange sandstone cliffs, Zion National Park is located in southern Utah. Zion Canyon is the heart of the park and features sheer rock walls that soar up to 2,000 feet into the sky. Experience Zion by taking a canyon shuttle, going on scenic drives, hiking one of the many maintained trails, or embracing your adventurous side through canyoneering, climbing, mountain biking, and more. You can even take a hot air balloon ride or book a guided horse-riding tour.  There are simply too many options to enjoy on a single trip here.

Beyond Zion, the city of St. George offers a wealth of attractions, including the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site and the Tuacahn Center for the Arts. The ghost town of Grafton, used as a set for several classic western films, is also worth a visit. For more outdoor adventures, consider a trip to the nearby Bryce Canyon National Park.

When is the best time of year to visit Zion National Park?

The best time to visit Zion National Park is during the spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) when temperatures are moderate, making it ideal for hiking and other outdoor activities. The park can be extremely hot in the summer, and some trails may be closed due to snow in the winter.

The Bottom Line

With their breathtaking scenery, diverse ecosystems, hiking trails, and wildlife viewing opportunities, these six national parks are absolute must-visits for any nature lover visiting the United States. No North American trip is complete without experiencing some of the most spectacular wilderness areas protected by the National Park Service, and to luxuriate in the jaw-dropping vastness. 

A little closer to home, check out these great scenic drives you can take from London into the UK’s beautiful countryside. Go on, you know you want to…

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