Dubbed “America’s Best Idea,” one of my favorite summer activities is camping and hiking at the national parks. Officially, there are 59 national parks (not counting the state parks and other protected nature areas) spread across every biosphere and corner of the country. About half the states are blessed with at least one of these incredible habitats so no matter what region you find yourself in, there’s likely incredible nature nearby.
If you’re looking to check some things off your US national park list this summer, here are my favorite tips for visiting these amazing outdoor sights. But as always, it’s encouraged to get lost in the right direction. You simply never know when a wrong turn may end up in an epic discovery.
Arches National Park (Utah)
The crown jewel of Moab, you could spend days exploring Arches and still not see it all. And at just a 30-minute drive from Canyonlands, it’s easy to knock out two parks in one day. Delicate Arch is the most photographed spot in Arches (which you can basically do right from the parking lot) and you may recognize it from the Utah license plate. The most popular hike in the park is Devil’s Garden, an 8.1-mile loop that will take you past seven more arches.
Pro Tip: There’s an incredible naturally formed sandstone labyrinth called Fiery Furnace. To visit, you have to obtain a hiking permit after watching an orientation video to learn how to navigate your way out or be accompanied by a designated ranger guide. These tours book up well in advance so plan accordingly if you want to attempt Mother Nature’s maze.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Arches NP
Badlands National Park (South Dakota)
I think the Badlands are the most underrated national park in the country (and South Dakota as a state in general). The entire park offers stunning views of layered rocks that look like living sand art, but the Yellow Mounds have the most intense color contrast with brilliant reds and yellows that look like they’re straight out of a Dr. Seuss novel. You can drive through the entire park stopping at various overlooks for photos.
Pro Tip: There’s free camping at Sage Creek next to a herd of wild buffalo. It’s one of the craziest experiences ever to wake up to dozens of giant, majestic creatures ambling around in the morning light. Don’t get too close (trust me, the buffalo selfie isn’t worth the risk), but observe from a distance. If you don’t bother them, they’re not bothered by humans.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Badlands NP
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado)
While on first appearance, the Black Canyon may look like a less colorful Grand Canyon, it is no less dramatic. Not actually black, it just appears that way because the walls are often shrouded in shadows. Home to some of the world’s oldest exposed rock and the steepest cliffs in North America, the sheer cliff face is primed for climbing adventures and photo ops.
Pro Tip: The Painted Wall is one of the most iconic overlooks, but Dragon Point was my favorite for the twisty Dr.Seuss-like trees.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
Canyonlands National Park (Utah)
Canyonlands is another national park you can drive through (and conveniently also in Moab). I didn’t spend a whole lot of time here, it was just a quick stop on the way to Arches, but Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed attractions. Grand View Point is another massive, must-see panoramic overlook.
Pro Tip: You should always plan your visit around sunset or sunrise. Not only will it help avoid the harsh midday light and see the sky break out into a rainbow of color, but there will be less people milling about in the early morning hours.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Canyonlands NP
Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio)
One of the last free national parks (yes FREE!), Cuyahoga is right outside of Cleveland and encompasses a whopping 33,000-acres of deep forests and rolling hills. It’s so huge there is no real entrance gate, but there is a visitor’s center. Brandywine Falls is one of the most popular photo spots and an easy walk from the parking lot. There are both upper and lower boardwalks for different views of the waterfall, but the best photos come from the lower falls. Also be sure to pay a visit to Everett Bridge, one of Ohio’s famed covered bridges.
Pro Tip: The scenic railroad is one of the most unique ways to experience the park. There are three depots, which you can ride between in a loop.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Cuyahoga NP
Death Valley National Park (California)
As the biggest national park in the lower 48 (there’s only one bigger is in Alaska), Death Valley is massive (about the size of Connecticut) and encompasses a variety of landscapes and points of interest. The high desert is a land of extremes racking up superlatives like the hottest, driest, and lowest, and is generally a land of intensely unpredictable climate swings with cold spells, flash floods, and record-breaking temperatures which all adds to the adventure. The most popular photo spots are Zabriskie Point (colorful ravines and hills which you may recognize from U2’s album The Joshua Tree), Artist’s Palette (the rainbow badlands), and Badwater Basin (the brilliant white polygon shaped salt flats that look like another planet entirely). Badwater Basin is a bit of a mirage and actually much further from the parking lot then it appears so be prepared to walk at least a mile in the hot, hot heat to see them in their full glory. It also feels especially weird as you’re stepping on salt but can feel the mushy groundwater swell underneath so it actually squishes as you step.
Pro Tip: It is not recommended to do any hiking after 10 am in the warmer months so get your activities in early. We went at 10:30 and were dripping in sweat – pack tons of water because the heat is no joke.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Death Valley NP
Gateway Arch National Park (Missouri)
Truth be told, I was a bit confused as to why they elevated the St. Louis arch from national monument to national park last year since it’s the only man made structure on this list, but here we are. A feat of engineering and a symbol of America’s westward migration, it’s a Midwest point of pride.
Pro Tip: Did you know you can actually go inside the arch? To my complete surprise it isn’t just a statue, it’s a building with a uniquely designed tram system that takes you to an observation deck at the top (but fair warning, you may want to skip this one if you get claustrophobic as it’s very narrow).
Plan You Trip: Where to Stay Near Gateway Arch
Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
The Grand Canyon is massive with many sides and overlooks. Experienced outdoorsmen can hike it from rim to rim, but this is reserved only for the extreme athletes. If you just want to visit for the day, the South Rim is the most popular with tourists. It’s more accessible and has twelve different viewpoints and a number of trails. Make sure you take into account the sweltering Arizona sun (it gets well over 100 degrees in the summer months) so dress accordingly and bring plenty of water.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss nearby Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon, two other nearby Arizona Instagram spots. If you can snag a permit, Havasu Falls and the Wave are two other must-see natural attractions, but you must apply for the lottery months in advance.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Grand Canyon NP
Great Sand Dunes National Park (Colorado)
If you’re surprised to see the highest sand dunes in North America rise like an oasis in the middle of Southern Colorado, you wouldn’t be alone. Nestled against a backdrop of the snow capped mountains, the dunes are a marvel of nature, created by the San Luis Valley’s unique wind patterns that trap sand in the valley. You can hike up or camp on the dunes, but the more fun way to explore is to sand board or sled down. You can rent from gear shops 25-miles or so outside the park (not at the gift shop). And if you’re looking for some other gorgeous nature spots in the nearby area, well we have a few ideas (you can actually hit three of Colorado’s national parks in one long weekend).
Pro Tip: The higher up you climb, the more aggressive the wind and weather get. While it may look more dramatic in photos, I was literally crying as my legs were getting whipped with sand so hot it’ll burn your skin. It’s also worth noting you have to cross the to get to the dunes (essentially ford a small river) so plan accordingly with outfits and footwear. I recommend wearing flip flops and bringing gym shoes and having a friend with you to take photos as your tripod, while normally sufficient, will blow right over.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Great Sand Dunes NP
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii)
Open 24/7, Volcanoes National Park is best experienced after dark when you can really see the contrast of the glowing lava bubbling against the night sky. Saunter through the lava tubes, which feel like an elevated version of a cave tour.
Pro Tip: Check their website before you go. The area is still an active volcano and sections of the park are often closed due to eruptions. Here are some more suggestions for things to do and see at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Volcanoes NP
Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado)
Drive up a winding mountain pass that looks like nothing more than a verdant outcrop (the name translates to “green table”) and you’ll be greeted by quite the surprise on the other side. Beyond one of the most dramatic overlooks and landscapes in Southern Colorado, there are some of the most well-preserved ancient pueblo dwellings built right into the backside of the cliff. You can look down into them (the pit houses… which doesn’t mean pit stop lol) or directly into them from across the canyon following the loop drive. There’s an archaeological museum, petroglyphs, and tons of Native American artifacts for history buffs to geek out over.
Pro Tip: The only way to go inside the dwellings is on a guided tour, which is recommended to book in advance as they sell out fairly quickly.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Mesa Verde NP
Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
The most popular and photographed spot in Rocky Mountain National Park is Dream Lake, an easy 2.2-mile wooded walk to a glowing reflective pool with beautiful snowcapped peaks in the background. The area gets pretty slushy in the winter (and even into late spring) so snowshoes are advised. Make sure you stalk their Instagram geotag before you go to know what conditions to expect. The upper part of the park is at a higher altitude and can be 10-20 degrees cooler than the lower sections so plan accordingly and dress in layers.
Pro Tip: There will likely be signs saying the parking lot is full and you have to take a shuttle to Bear Lake Trailhead (the start of the Dream Lake hike), but you can also just wait for someone to leave. Avoid the shuttle if at all possible.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Rocky Mountain NP
White Sands National Park (New Mexico)
America’s newest national park, White Sands outside Ruidoso is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, a blindingly white mirage as far as the eye can see. Home to one of the most extreme climates on Earth, it’s 800 species of flora, fauna and wildlife are some of the most adaptable on the planet.
Pro Tip: They rent sleds in the gift shop, but you can also camp or horseback ride to get a unique perspective on the landscape.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near White Sands National Park
Wind Cave (South Dakota)
One of the longest and most complex cave systems in the world, Wind Cave is an underground maze hidden below the South Dakota prairie. The only way to visit is by guided tour, but some tours are more touristy than others. If you’re adventurous, try the Candlelight or Wild Cave Tour, which are meant for more physically fit individuals as they involve crawling in the dark via headlamp.
Pro Tip: Advanced reservations are required for all tours – they do book up.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Wind Cave NP
Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho)
Spanning three states, Yellowstone National Park is massive. Armed with eight visitor centers and multiple points of entry, make sure you do your homework and know where the attractions you want to see are (because they legitimately can be hours apart). Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in the world, but I personally found the hot springs more interesting with the Grand Prismatic Spring an incredible rainbow of color (and as impressive as it looks online). Don’t miss the Lower Geyser Basin, which has suspended boardwalks over 100 bubbling geothermal features.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Yellowstone NP
Zion National Park (Utah)
In my opinion, Zion is the Disney World of national parks since you have to take a shuttle with audio commentary to the various points of interest. Yup, it gets so crowded you can only drive through the park in the winter months. On the upside, if you stay on the bus, the 45-minute guided tour takes you through all sections of the park so it’s a good way to initially get your bearings and plan your attack. The Narrows famous slot canyons should be on your bucket list, but it is often closed for flood warnings (sadly the water levels have always been too high when I’ve been there). Angel’s Landing is another popular endeavor if you’re not afraid of heights. Google it before you go, as it is a super steep, harrowing, single-file climb hugging a cliff that’ll have you scrambling on a chain nailed right into the rock wall. If that’s not your cup of tea, Emerald Pools may be more your speed, an easy and relaxed waterfall hike.
Pro Tip: Avoid the $20 parking fee by connecting to the local shuttle in the neighboring town of Springdale (there are plenty of great cafes to grab a bite too).
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Zion NP
What’s your favorite national park? Where should I hit up next?
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