Looking for something different to do in your area? Or hoping to finally plan that cross-country road trip? With summer coming to a close for some, it’s not too early to plan next year’s trek outdoors. From coast to coast, national parks offer the space to interact with nature, make wonderful memories and take some envy-worthy photos. But with many of these parks requiring reservations and passes, planning ahead can save you a headache later.
Check out these top 10 national parks around the country to add to your bucket list.
1. New River Gorge National Park and Reserve (West Virginia)
One of the oldest rivers in the world, the New River Gorge became a National Park and Preserve in 2021. Visitors observe the diverse and beautiful flora of the area. The park, with its whitewater river, offers a variety of activities. Whether a seasoned nature explorer, or new to the outdoors, you’ll find something to enjoy. From whitewater rafting, to hiking, to bird watching, to rock climbing, the New River Gorge provides plenty of exciting experiences.
2. Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)
If you find yourself in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area this summer, add a trip to Shenandoah National Park to your must-see list. 75 miles outside of D.C., you’ll find it easy to forget the city when admiring the natural beauty Shenandoah yields. Breathtaking waterfalls, wildflower fields and wooded hollows paint the landscape. Offering a range of hiking experiences, Shenandoah visitors find plenty to explore. Check out the park’s website before visiting, as hiking Old Rag Mountain now requires a ticket.
3. Congaree National Park (South Carolina)
Known for its impressive trees and biodiversity, this floodplain offers some classic outdoor-adventure activities. Hike, fish or consider camping to experience the park for more than one day. Rich in history, visiting provides insight into the Congaree people who lived in the region prior to colonization. Visitors also learn about the struggle of environmentalists to protect the area from logging and the important role the region played for enslaved people escaping the Southern plantation system. Nearby attractions include the Harriet Barber House adding to the history of the area.
4. Hot Springs National Park (Arkansas)
With thermal springs and bathhouses, Hot Springs truly offers some of the most unique national park experiences. While still featuring the classic national park natural beauty with trails that take you along creeks and mountain views, the park maintains the historic Bathhouse Row. Initially appearing in the late 1800s to capitalize off the health benefits of the springs, Bathhouse Row continues to provide visitors with one-of-a-kind experiences. Nothing demonstrates that better than Superior Bathhouse, the only brewery in a U.S. national park. Utilizing the springs’ thermal water in their brewing process, you won’t want to miss out on a taste of Superior Bathhouse’s beer (or non-alcoholic root beer).
“It’s the perfect spot to relax after a day of hiking the many scenic trails in the park,” travel blogger Lindsay Mukaddam, writer of One Girl Wandering said.
If the brewery isn’t for you, don’t worry. Hot Springs offers plenty of other options. Interested in the traditional bathing experience? You can visit the Buckstaff Bathhouse. Or check out Quapaw Bathhouse for modern day spa experiences like a steam cave. Alternatively, you can take a hike and learn more about the naturally occurring thermal springs. You can even take home a bit of fresh spring water by visiting one of the park’s multiple jug fountains.
5. Badlands National Park (South Dakota)
Named after the Lakota peoples’ designation for the area, mako sica, the Badlands emerged as a result of the two geological processes—erosion and deposition. Besides cool rocks, though, the park offers a range of fun activities. Night sky viewings, visits to the fossil preparation lab and wildlife spotting give visitors a unique adventure. So, whether you like gazing at the stars, or want to learn more about the background of the park and its relationship with indigenous nations, the Badlands provide a variety of experiences.
6. Indiana Dunes National Park
Located alongside the southern shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park features a range of natural environments. A popular activity includes a laid-back visit to one of the park’s eight beaches. Surrounding Lake Michigan, you can enjoy these beaches any time of year. In the summer, nothing could match catching the sunset with your toes in the sand. In the winter, though, Lake Michigan’s shelf ice also offers a marvel. With all these beaches, you might find yourself tempted to overlook the other natural sights Indiana Dunes offers.
“While it’s a great destination for those who love lounging on the beach, I preferred exploring the park on foot,” travel blogger Katy Shaw aka Rambling Unicorn said. “Trail 9…traverses both mature forests and sandy dunes while also affording incredible views of Lake Michigan.”
Forests, prairies and wetlands await your exploration at Indiana Dunes. But the park affords even more ways to take in nature than just hiking and the beach. You can ride on horseback, birdwatch or sign up for a guided tour. Whether you take in the nature by horseback riding, birdwatching or a guided tour. Plus, the exploration doesn’t stop with nature at this park. With four historic buildings, including a 19th century homestead that belonged to a fur-trader and a farmhouse that houses three generations of a Swedish immigrant family, a trip to Indiana Dunes offers plenty to learn.
7. Redwood National and State Parks (California)
The Redwood parks supply a beautiful and relaxing experience. Take a scenic drive or a hike to enjoy the beauty of the great trees, prairies and rivers the parks house. You can also visit the tidepools to try and spot the diverse critters that live there—hermit crabs, sea cucumbers and more. Or, get a day-use permit to enjoy a picnic on Gold Bluffs Beach. Depending on whether you visit for just a few hours or several days, the park’s website provides a number of suggestionsfor making the most of your time.
8. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho)
The first ever U.S. national park, Yellowstone features plenty of sights besides just Old Faithful. From Tower Fall to the Mammoth Hot Springs to Yellowstone’s own Grand Canyon, this park doesn’t fail to deliver on natural wonders. Not to mention the incredible array of wildlife you might spot if you keep your eyes peeled. Bears, wolves, bison and elk call this park home. While hiking, boating, horseback riding or fishing, you could find yourself lucky enough to see a few.
“When you get there, you’ll immediately feel like you stepped into a painting,” Dani Rodriguez, writer of the travel blog Dani the Explorer said. “The one thing I will never get over is the sunrises…Everything is blanketed in the most incredible pastel palette that looks like a Hollywood backdrop. The bison, wolves, and other animals I was lucky to spot were an added bonus!”
If the sheer natural beauty of Yellowstone isn’t enough for you, plenty of other activities will catch your interest. Boating, horseback riding, fishing and of course hiking name just a few. With all the wonderous sights, you’ll definitely have the chance to get those gorgeous scenic shots here too. As the park advises, though, zoom with your camera lens, not your feet. While commemorating the moment you spot a wolf or bison with a photo sounds great, approaching wildlife can turn your picture-worthy moment into a dangerous situation (for yourself and the animals). So be safe, be smart and have fun. Other activities include boating, horseback riding, fishing and of course hiking.
9. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
You’ll have a hard time finding a better place than the Grand Canyon to enjoy an incredible view and take some beautiful photos. In fact, photography holds a spot in the canyon’s history, with photographers pioneering the art form here in the early 1900s. Created by erosion, the canyon imparts a landscape like no other. You can take in the sights of the canyon by hiking, biking, rafting or even riding a mule. Whether you choose to go for the day, camp or lodge, visitors of the Grand Canyon experience breathtaking scenery and learn about the geology behind the beauty.
10. Joshua Tree National Park (California)
Although named for the whimsical Joshua trees, an impressive range of plants and animals call this park home. A place where the distinct Mojave and Colorado desert ecosystems meet, Joshua Tree is a region unlike any other. The park boasts more than 250 species of birds and several popular natural monuments, including Skull Rock. A great opportunity for exploration and creating memories, Joshua Tree yields plenty of discovery. Photography, stargazing and backpacking include just a few of the activities in store for visitors.