Your National Park Bucket List: The Best Photo Opps & Tips for Maximizing Your Time

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.

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.

Canyonlands (Utah)

Canyonlands is another national park you can drive through. 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.

Grand Canyon (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 Instagram spots. If you can get a permit, Havasu Falls and the Wave are two other must-see natural attractions, but you must apply for lottery permits months in advance.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Pro Tip: You can combine a visit to Yellowstone with the Grand Tetons, which is only about a 10-minute drive from the Wyoming border.

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).

What’s your favorite national park? Where should I hit up next?

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