Trying to plan a fun-filled summer adventure? Whether you’re traveling solo, with a friend, or taking the family, national parks are the ultimate vacation destination. With magnificent natural attractions, rich histories, an abundance of wildlife, and a wide variety of outdoor activities, every one of the 58 national parks in the US is worth a visit. To save you time planning a summer getaway – the season is short, after all – we’ve narrowed down the 10 best national parks in the country.
One of the oldest national parks, Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, is best known for its more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, including over 300 active geysers (a whopping 66 percent of the world’s geysers). Yellowstone is also home to an abundance of wildlife, including large mammals, such as bears, bison, elk, moose, and wolves, over 300 recorded species of birds, notably the bald eagle, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Yellowstone also features historic scenic areas, such as Obsidian Cliff, Old Faithful, and Fort Yellowstone. Whether you’re an avid hiker, camper, birdwatcher, or photographer, you’ll easily find an educational outdoor adventure in Yellowstone that is right for you. If camping isn’t your thing, you can enjoy your Yellowstone stay in hotel or cabin lodging.
Park fee: $25 per vehicle for 7-day pass; 2010 fee-free days include June 5-6, August 14-15, September 25, and November 11.
A hiker’s paradise, Glacier National Park is traversed with over 700 miles of trails that cover rugged mountains, pristine forests, serene meadows, and breathtaking lakes. Celebrating its centennial anniversary, Glacier invites you to take a drive on the famous Going to the Sun road, a 50-mile engineering marvel that winds you through the most beautiful sights in the park. You can also take a ranger-guided tour to learn about the rich history Glacier has to offer. In addition to hiking on foot, consider biking or taking a horseback ride at Many Glacier, Lake MacDonald, or Apgar. Campgrounds and lodging are available throughout the park.
Park fee: $25 per vehicle for 7-day pass; 2010 fee-free days include September 25 and November 11.
A testament to the magnificence of the Sierra Mountains, Yosemite National Park gives rise to stunning rock formations, giant sequoias, and breathtaking views. The park, which is renowned for Glacier Point, Half Dome, and Tioga Road (a 39-mile drive at nearly 10,000 feet altitude), also has lush meadows, lakes, waterfalls, valleys, and historical monuments. Yosemite offers outdoor adventures for every fitness level, including photography, birdwatching, fishing, backpacking, hiking, biking, and rock climbing, among other activities. Lodging is available in the park, ranging from campgrounds to hotel accomodations, and reservations are recommended.
Park fee: $20 per vehicle for 7-day pass; permits are required for hiking Half Dome and overnight hiking trips.
If seeing the highest North American mountain is on your bucket list, plan a trip to Denali National Park & Preserve. Mount McKinley is a staggering 20,320 feet tall. This six million acre park also boasts countless glaciers and sub-arctic mammals, including bears, moose, mountain sheep, and wolves. In September, Denali hosts a four-day event called the Road Lottery, that allows winners of the drawing to purchase a single, day-long permit to drive as much of the Denali Park Road as weather allows. In years with early snow, the Park Road might open no farther than Savage River (mile 15), while in milder years, lottery winners are able to enjoy a trip out to Wonder Lake (mile 85). You can also hike, bike, fish and photograph your way through the park.
Park fee: $10 per person or $20 per vehicle for 7-day pass; $200 to climb Mt. McKinley or Mt Foraker in addition to entrance fee.
Utah’s first national park, Zion National Park was established in 1909, encompassing some of the most scenic canyon country in the country. The park is characterized by high plateaus, a maze of sandstone canyons, stunning rock towers, mesas, and large expanses of bare rock that showcase the area’s magnificent geologic history. The most prominent feature is the 15-mile long Zion Canyon cut by the Virgin River. Though the view is this parks main attraction, Zion is also home to birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and almost 800 species of plant-life. Plan a camping adventure to make sure you take in all the sights; there are three campgrounds located in the park and many private campgrounds located a short drive from the park.
Park fee: $25 for 7-day pass
Grand Canyon National Park, established in 1908, lies within the Grand Canyon, a gorge of the Colorado River. The South Rim is the most popular tourist area in the park, with 30 miles of rim accessible by road, and recreational activities including hiking, rafting adventures, and rail tours. The North Rim, another must-go for hikers, also has free interpretive ranger programs and a visitor center. The rest of the Grand Canyon is extremely rugged with many scenic areas accessible only by pack trail and backcountry roads. Religious services are also offered in the park, with schedules posted at The Shrine of the Ages, which sits at the edge of the Canyon. Lodging is available in the Grand Canyon, including campgrounds, cabins, and hotels.
Park fee: $25 per vehicle for 7-day pass for both South Rim and North Rim
If safely hiking with your kids is on your summer agenda, consider participating in the Shenandoah National Park’s Hiking with Children seminars on June 19 and July 17 or the The Basics of Family Camping two-day seminar on July 10. You’ll get to learn more about the wonders of Shenandoah as well as how to safely enjoy the park’s recreational activities with your family. Plan a tour along the vista-famous Skyline Drive, stopping along the way to hike, take ranger-guided walks, birdwatch, camp, learn about EarthCaching, and visit the cultural exhibits. Over 300 of Shenandoah National Park’s structures are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, ranging from architect-designed buildings such as Big Meadows and Massanutten Lodges, to bridges, stone-lined ditches, log comfort stations, and small-scale retaining walls and culverts.
Park fee: $10 (December – February) to $15 (March – November) per vehicle for 7-day pass
Home of 78 historic structures, including grist mills, churches, schools, barns, and the homes of early settlers, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a great place to learn about the heritage of the Southern Appalachians. Encompassing over one-half million acres, it is one of the largest natural areas in the East. There are over 270 miles of road in the Smokies, making an auto tour the most convenient way to take it all in. However, plan to stay a few days to enjoy the outdoor activities, such as camping, horseback riding, hiking, ranger-guided walks, bicycling, fishing, and observing the vegetation and wildlife that inhabits the park. Sights to see include the 100-foot Ramsey Cascades, Cades Cove, and Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.
Park Fee: Free – this is one of the few parks that doesn’t charge an entrance fee!
Comprised of a cluster of islands on the Maine coast, Acadia National Park, the first national park established east of the Mississippi River, is rich with human history that includes Native Americans, European settlers, artists, and conservationists as well as a wide variety of freshwater, estuarine, forest, and intertidal sights, many of which contain plant and animal species of international, national, and state significance. The park also gives rise to Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the US Atlantic coast. Things to do at Acadia include camping, hiking, biking, walking, ranger-narrated walks and boat cruises, horsedrawn carriage tours, and sitting down to tea and popovers at the Jordan Pond House, a tradition for over a century.
Park fee: $20 per vehicle for 7-day pass
Despite the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Everglades National Park has thus far suffered no impacts, and remains open. Boasting a vast expanse of roughly 1.5 million acres, there seems no end to the adventures that can be found in this lush national park. In a single day, you can hike, fish, kayak, tour with a ranger, birdwatch, and then curl up near a campfire when evening falls. Be sure to take the time to learn about the park’s historical significance, including the Nike Missile Site, Old Ingraham Highway, Lake Okeechobee, and the Calusa tribe. The boundaries of Everglades National Park protect only the southern one-fifth of the Everglades large and varied ecosystem. In its entirety, this massive watershed is home to a multitude of habitats that provide a subtropical refuge to a unique assemblage of wildlife.
Park fee: $10 per vehicle for 7-day pass