The Most Popular National Parks and When to Visit Them

published Aug 25, 2016
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(Image credit: Jim David)

It’s entirely possible I coordinate my summers around when and which national parks I can visit. I’m pretty sure I owe this moderate obsession with America’s coolest outdoor spaces to the brainwashing I received as a child (thanks, Dad), but because today is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, a little extra national park love is definitely in order. Whether you’re a seasoned explorer or fairly new to the park scene, here is a list of National Parks to add to your bucket list, plus ideas for when, why and even how to visit them.

(Image credit: Steve Bower)

Glacier National Park, Montana

This stretch of wilderness takes the concept of mountains to an entirely new level. Need proof? The park’s most famous drive takes visitors up “Going to the Sun Road.” Just imagine the views. Summer and early fall are the best time to visit, but the park’s concessions services are all pretty well shut down by the end of September.

(Image credit: Rob Marmion)

Zion National Park, Utah

Utah’s national park scene may be the best-kept secret in the history of cross-country road trips. Zion is one of its highlights and although hikes to the likes of Angels Landing and The Narrows require a little fortitude, they’re well worth the effort. Plan a fall trip to avoid the heat and have the best chance at accomplishing some of the more adventurous canyon hikes.

(Image credit: Kurdistan)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Named for the blue mist that perpetually clings to its slopes, this sprawling park is overrun with dense forests and nearly year-round wildflowers. You can visit in any season, but a fall foliage trip would be just about perfect.

(Image credit: Sharon Day)

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Jagged spires and narrow canyons make this rugged park a treat for the naked eye and camera lenses alike. Its sweeping grasslands are also home to animals ranging from the indispensable prairie dog to bighorn sheep and bison, all of which are best seen in the area’s warm summer months.

(Image credit: EastVillage Images)

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

No list of national parks would be complete without a nod to Yellowstone. Not only was it the first national park to be established, it crosses into three states (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho) and is practically large enough to be its own. From geysers to bison, the scope and sweep of this park is nothing short of breathtaking. The sights are most accessible in summer, but be prepared to see them alongside crowds.

(Image credit: Josemaria Toscano)

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

This park is nothing short of iconic — and for good reason. Both the North Rim and South Rim are scenic, although most opportunities for lodging and concessions are located on the south side of the canyon. Visit at sunrise and sunset for the best spin on those wide-open canyon views and schedule your trip for spring to enjoy mild weather and sparser crowds.

(Image credit: Volnukhin Anatoly)

Haleakala National Park, Hawaii

It’s true the vast majority of visitors to this national park will be required to spend quality time on an airplane, but the views are well worth it. Stark volcanic landscapes and lush rain forests are both on the agenda here and both are stunning. Bonus: you can visit this park nearly any time of year as winter, although considered the rainy season, is still comfortably warm.

(Image credit: Zack Frank)

Acadia National Park, Maine

The coolest thing about Acadia National Park may be the fact that visitors have a chance to be the first people in the country to see the sun rise each day, but the park’s gorgeous shoreline, rocky islands and beautiful views don’t hurt either. Plan a trip for early fall to catch cooler weather and quieter vistas.

(Image credit: Luca Moi)

Yosemite National Park, California

Known for granite monoliths like Half Dome and awe-inspiring waterfalls, Yosemite is another giant among the national parks. Visitors to Horsetail Falls (which appears to be lit by flames in the mid-February sunset’s glow) will want to aim for a midwinter visit. Otherwise, spring is a good time to see the sites while avoiding some of the crowds.

(Image credit: Dan Kosmayer)

Denali National Park, Alaska

It’s rare to visit a park with the same diversity and visibility of wildlife as Denali. While the trip is a little different from most parks – you’ll hop on a guided bus tour instead of driving yourself – it’s well worth it. Keep an eye out for everything from picturesque braided rivers to grizzly bears and Dall sheep and soak up that midnight sun all summer long.

Which national parks are your favorite? Let us know below.

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