The 6 Best U.S. National Parks

April 16, 2012 by

List Mania: Viator's Top Picks, North America, Things to Do

When Katharine Lee Bates wrote the words to the song “America the Beautiful,” she mentioned amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. Though she likely didn’t intend it, Bates could have very well been writing about just a few of the many patches of protected land throughout the country. Today there are 58 national parks in the United States, and even though many are concentrated generally in mountainous regions and on the west coast, most people living in the U.S. can reach one with a long weekend road trip.

All the national parks have earned a right to federal protection, but each has something distinct that makes it worthy of exploration and discovery–and some are better for certain types of travel than others. If you’re unsure where to start with planning your U.S. national parks trip, here are six that stand out.

Read more: 8 of America’s Lesser Known National Parks

Best for Families: Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Photographers and climbers will love Zion National Park in southern Utah for its rich beauty and steep wall faces, but rarely has a national park been so welcoming to families. In addition to several long, meandering and challenging trails, Zion offers many short, wide and paved paths that pass by hanging gardens, seeps and swimming holes. The design of many trails allows families to wander further than originally planned or cut a hike short if necessary. Interpretive signs along some of them provide an explanation into the geology and biology of the park, but it’s okay to skip them and let the kids explore on their own, too.

The Virgin River, which runs throughout Zion, is open and available to people who want to wade and splash in the water, so it’s easy to spend the day relaxing at the campground if that’s what you want to do. From May through October, guided horseback riding trips are available, and Zion has an in-depth Junior Ranger Program that is ideal for kids who want to explore in more depth.

To top off the ease of experiencing Zion National Park, an environmentally friendly shuttle system transports visitors throughout most of the park, which removes the stress of sitting in traffic and finding parking spots.

Best for Hiking: Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah

Colorful Shenandoah National Park in the fall – photo courtesy of LKimper via Flickr

All national parks have hiking trails, but some are much better destinations than others if pounding the dirt is on the top of your to-do list. Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is no exception. It has more than 500 miles of hiking trails; one-fifth of those are part of the famed Appalachian Trail, which runs for 2,181 miles along the east coast. Visitors are more than welcome to hike a few miles along this famous trail, but there also many others that lead to waterfalls or noteworthy viewpoints … or even deep into the wilderness where few people venture.

The great thing about having so many hiking trail options is that there really is something for everybody. Old Rag, Shenadoah’s most popular hike with its rock scrambling, is also the park’s most dangerous one. Limberlost Trail, which is currently being upgraded and improved, is enjoyed by those who have mobility challenges.

To get the most out of a hiking experience in Shenandoah, visitors should pick up a trail guide when they get to the park. These guides have maps and describe how long and challenging each trail is, and whether hikers need to consider anything else before heading out.

Best for Extremes: Death Valley National Park

Badwater Death Valley

At Badwater, the lowest point in the US

Death Valley National Park in California is the hottest, driest and lowest national park in the United States. In a single day, you can be sweating in 90-degree heat on the desert floor and then hike up to 11,049-foot Telescope Peak where a few snowflakes may be falling. Death Valley is a massive park, encompassing 3.4 million acres and running 140 miles from north to south, which means that in a single day, it is possible to have very diverse experiences.

Badwater Salt Flats sits at 282 feet below sea level and is the lowest point in North America while Dante’s View offers an awesome view 5,000 feet over the floor of Death Valley. The park was a former site of a successful borax mining operation, and abandoned mines are rampant across the park. And then there are Ubehebe Crater, the site of a huge volcanic explosion, and Scotty’s Castle, a 1920s vacation home built by a prospector who had everyone believing he’d discovered a gold mine.

Read more: Las Vegas Day Trip: Death Valley

Best for Water Exploration: Biscayne Bay National Park

Biscayne Bay National Park

Biscayne Bay National Park – photo courtesy of fraktus via Flickr

The whole point of Biscayne Bay National Park in Florida is to protect several coral reefs and islands, and the waters that surround them. Four distinct ecosystems come together in Biscayne (where 95% of the park is covered by water), and this blend of water-related communities has resulted in a diverse array of wildlife including hundreds of species of fish, shore birds, manatees and turtles.

There are lots of ways that visitors can immerse themselves in Biscayne. If you don’t mind getting wet, snorkeling and diving up close to the colorful coral reefs are a great way to explore and appreciate the details of the park. Alternatively, canoeing and kayaking are particularly popular, and guided tours provide a more in-depth look at specific aspects of Biscayne. Regulated fishing is also permitted.

Best for Bucket List: Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon

Cross it off your bucket list: the Grand Canyon!

If you’re only going to visit a few national parks in your lifetime, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is one that should be on your bucket list. This massive canyon is one mile deep, and though most people will only ever see this stunning site from overlooks above the canyon floor, it is possible to hike into the canyon and even to the other side.

Nearly 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, and the vast majority of those people go to the South Rim, which has a well-developed infrastructure to manage the traffic flow. Those who do venture to the North Rim, which is 220 miles by car or 21 miles by foot from the South Rim, are treated to more hiking trails, more vegetation and a lot more peace and quiet. Regardless of the side of the Grand Canyon you choose to visit, however, the site is truly awe-inspiring with its stark rock formations and beautiful sunrises and sunsets, both in the winter and summer months.

Best for Star Gazing: Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park – photo courtesy of Frank Kovalchek via Flickr

Great Basin National Park is located far from anywhere in Nevada, and because of its isolation, it has the darkest skies in the lower 48 states. Though there are lots of things in the park for visitors to appreciate—great hiking trails, the second highest peak in Nevada, bristlecone pines that are 5,000 years old, clear alpine lakes—it is the impressively dark night sky that sets this park apart from others.

Because of its geographical location, Great Basin has low humidity and minimal light pollution at a high elevation, and this is the perfect equation for people who want to see what lies above us. On a clear, moonless night, visitors can see thousands of stars, five planets, star clusters, meteors, satellites, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way. There are star parties and viewing opportunities throughout the year, and every summer there is an astronomy festival held in the park.

- JoAnna Haugen

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