America's Best National Parks, Ranked
The United States is currently home to 61 national parks, and you genuinely won't find a dud among them. But that doesn't mean some parks aren't better than others.
Recently, U.S. News & World Report released its 2019 ranking of the 10 best national parks in the United States, identifying the top-tier parks that stand out from the pack.
The rankings — which are based on editor feedback, expert opinions and reader votes — encompass parks both expected and surprising, with some notable places missing from the final cut. (The most popular park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains, is nowhere to be found.)
Read on to see if your favorite spots made the list. Then take notes so you can start planning your next trip to a national park ASAP.
10. Acadia National Park
There’s a reason Acadia is called the “crown jewel of the North Atlantic coast.” It's home to some gorgeous (and diverse) terrain, ranging from granite mountains to rocky beaches to historic carriage roads and stone bridges. There are nearly 160 miles of hiking trails throughout the 47,000-acre park, not to mention opportunities for horseback riding, climbing, swimming, boating and fishing.
Be sure to visit during the fall to “leaf peep” as the park explodes with color.
Acadia National Park Fast Facts
Location: Mount Desert Island, Maine
Year Established: 1919
Annual Visitor Count: 3.5 million (7th most visited)*
Must-Do Activity: Hop aboard a ranger-led boat cruise for a chance to see some seals.
Fun Fact: From October to March, the park's Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the U.S. where you can watch the sun rise.
*All visitor counts reflect the most current official NPS figures
9. Rocky Mountain National Park
If you love the smell of evergreens and fresh mountain air, then you won’t ever want to leave Rocky Mountain National Park after you arrive. (As U.S. News puts it, “even the most jaded report feelings of awe and wonder after a day or two of breathing in that refreshing mountain air.”)
This 265,000-acre park is quintessential Colorado — snow-covered mountains, alpine lakes, hiking trails, spruce forests and majestic elk. Though it’s a popular park, you can find some peace and solitude on the 350 miles of hiking trails here, especially if you lace up your shoes early in the day.
Be sure to snap a photo of Long’s Peak, the park’s towering “fourteener” (Coloradan-speak for a mountain that rises above 14,000 feet in elevation).
Rocky Mountain National Park Fast Facts
Location: Northern Colorado
Year Established: 1915
Annual Visitor Count: 4.6 million (3rd most visited)
Must-Do Activity: Visit in the fall during the elk rut, aka elk mating season, when these imposing animals make a loud bugling noise.
Fun Fact: The Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park, the park’s main gateway town, was the inspiration for Stephen King’s “The Shining.”
8. Arches National Park
Some 2,000 natural sandstone arches and rock formations dot the landscape at Arches National Park, which spans nearly 120 square miles. It’s a dreamy place for photographers, who can capture the sun hitting the reddish-orange arches at various times of day, but it’s also a fun spot for hiking, rock climbing and horseback riding. Stargazing, too, is a must; U.S. News highlights the fact that the park touts some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S.
Since temperatures can reach 100 degrees during the summer months, it’s a good idea to plan your trip during the spring and fall, when temperatures are more conducive to outdoor adventures.
Arches National Park Fast Facts
Location: Just north of Moab, Utah
Year Established: 1929 as Arches National Monument. Became a national park in 1971.
Annual Visitor Count: 1.6 million (17th most visited)
Must-Do Activity: Drive the 18-mile scenic road through the park, stopping to see the Delicate Arch, one of the most famous arches in the world.
Fun Fact: During its procession from Greece to Salt Lake City ahead of the 2002 Winter Games, the Olympic torch passed through Arches.
7. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
If you were a big fan of that baking-soda-volcano science project in middle school, you’ll want to plan a trip to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park right away. The park is home to two of the most active volcanoes in the world, Mauna Loa and Kilauea.
Because the volcanoes erupt regularly, the park is always changing — it’s truly a living and breathing ecosystem. (Last year, when Kilauea erupted, some 700 homes were destroyed and the park was closed down, but today, most of the park is reopened to the public.)
While at the park, watch out for wildlife; since the animals that reside here have evolved in almost complete isolation, they’re among the most unique in the world. The nene, aka Hawaiian goose, and Hawksbill turtle are particular favorites.
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park Fast Facts
Location: Hawai’i, aka the Big Island
Year Established: 1916
Annual Visitor Count: 1.1 million (23rd most visited)
Must-Do Activity: Drive the Chain of Craters Road, a 19-mile stretch that climbs 3,700 feet in elevation and passes by craters, petroglyphs, arches and other interesting sites.
Fun Fact: Mauna Loa, located inside the park’s boundaries, is the largest active volcano in the world.
6. Grand Teton National Park
Head to Wyoming for your next vacation — no seriously. This sparsely populated state offers some of the most gorgeous scenery in the country, much of it located within the bounds of Grand Teton National Park. The Tetons are impressive in their own right, whether you’re looking at these snow-capped peaks from the car or through the picture window behind the altar of the Chapel of the Transfiguration.
There are also more than 200 miles of trails for hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and biking. And this 500-square-mile park is home to tons of wildlife, ranging from black bears to bison.
Bonus: The park is just a few miles south of Yellowstone (also on this list) and as U.S. News notes, you can save $10 by buying admission to both parks at the same time.
Grand Teton National Park Fast Facts
Location: Western Wyoming
Year Established: 1929
Annual Visitor Count: 3.5 million (8th most visited)
Must-Do Activity: Take a scenic boat tour of Jenny Lake, then explore some of the nearby hiking trails before heading into Jackson for a beer at Roadhouse Brewing Co.
Fun Fact: It’s not clear who first climbed the Grand Teton, but we do know that Native Americans built an enclosure at 13,280 feet on the 13,770-foot-tall mountain. The first documented summit by Western settlers was recorded in 1898.
5. Zion National Park
Zion highlights some of southern Utah’s most beautiful terrain. This national park lets you get up close and personal with the region’s pinkish-orange sandstone cliffs and narrow slot canyons.
On the 57-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, you can see it all from the comfort of your vehicle, or you can lace up your hiking shoes to explore the park’s two hiking areas: Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyons.
For a more immersive experience, consider an overnight camping trip to The Narrows or complete the Zion Traverse, which connects several trails together to take you from one corner of the park to the other. Just be sure to apply for a backcountry permit before you hit the trail.
Zion National Park Fast Facts
Location: Southwestern Utah
Year Established: 1919
Annual Visitor Count: 4.3 million (4th most visited)
Must-Do Activity: Hike Angels Landing — but be sure to go mid-week and early in the morning. Otherwise you’ll encounter massive crowds.
Fun Fact: Nearly 12,000 years ago, Zion’s first peoples tracked camels, giant sloths and mammoths across the area.
4. Grand Canyon National Park
You really have to see the Grand Canyon to understand its vastness. But just hearing of its scale is enough to impress: Carved out millions of years ago by the Colorado River, the canyon is 277 river miles long and up to 18 miles wide.
To get away from the crowds a bit, apply for a backcountry permit so you can go hiking and camping off the beaten path. If you don’t mind rubbing shoulders with other tourists, check out the unique Skywalk, a glass bridge that extends 70 feet over the canyon. The photo-ops here are legendary.
Oh, and if you can swing it, visit this UNESCO World Heritage before the year is up. The park is celebrating its 100th birthday this year with a special year-long slate of centennial screenings, lectures, storytelling events, music performance and more.
Grand Canyon National Park Fast Facts
Location: Northern Arizona
Year Established: 1919
Annual Visitor Count: 6.4 million (2nd most visited)
Must-Do Activity: Take the guided Cedar Ridge hike with a ranger to learn about the canyon and its history while exploring about 3 miles of the park.
Fun Fact: One of the rarest birds in the world lives at the Grand Canyon: the condor. These massive birds are the largest flying avians in North America, with wingspans up to 10 feet long.
3. Glacier National Park
If you love to hike, you seriously have to visit Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails, you’ll be in heaven at this 1-million-acre oasis in Montana. If you get tired, there are also 700 lakes, tons of waterfalls and two mountain ranges to explore. How’s that for an adventurous vacation?
For something a little more relaxing, cruise along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a scenic 52-mile drive that offers great views (and photo-ops!) throughout the park.
Epic views are matched by some truly extraordinary beasts of the wild who you might see along the way, including bighorn sheep, mountain lions and elk, one of the largest mammals in North America.
Glacier National Park Fast Facts
Location: Northern Montana
Year Established: 1910
Annual Visitor Count: 3 million (10th most visited)
Must-Do Activity: Stand in awe before the 250-acre Jackson Glacier, one of the 26 named glaciers that remain in the park (others have melted due to rising temperatures). Get there by taking Going-to-the-Sun Road to the Jackson Glacier Overlook.
Fun Fact: The glaciers in the park are believed to be about 7,000 years old.
2. Yosemite National Park
No visit to California would be complete without a trip to Yosemite, a natural wonderland encompassing 1,200 square miles of waterfalls, granite rock formations and picturesque views of the Yosemite Valley.
Yes, you’ll want to check out must-see spots like Vernal Fall and Bridalveil Fall, measuring 317 and 617 feet, respectively. And you should absolutely gaze at the soaring peaks of Half Dome and El Capitan from afar, or if you’re feeling ambitious, scale them via epic climbs.
But also make time to travel to less-populated destinations within the park, like the bucolic Tuolumne Meadows and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, an impressive and important site that provides drinking water to 2.4 million Bay Area residents.
Want to really get acquainted with nature here? Carve out a few days to enjoy the park’s renowned camping.
Yosemite National Park Fast Facts
Location: Central California
Year Established: 1890
Annual Visitor Count: 4 million (6th most visited)
Must-Do Activity: Take the free shuttle to the Mariposa Grove, home to more than 500 mature sequoias.
Fun Fact: Can’t make the trip out to California just now? You can still see several of the park’s most iconic landmarks via webcams, including Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and Half Dome.
1. Yellowstone National Park
After all these years, the world’s first national park is still the best.
Designated in 1872, Yellowstone offers visitors 2.2 million acres to explore — and there’s so much more to see here than the impressive geysers the park is known for, from colorful hot springs and towering mountains to waterfalls, canyons and lush forests. Not to mention, you may encounter some of the nearly 300 species of birds, 16 species of fish, 67 species of mammals and handful of reptiles and amphibians that call the park home.
Christine Smith, travel editor at U.S. News, notes that Yellowstone “appeals to wildlife enthusiasts and visitors who want to gaze at incredible natural wonders like Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring.” The former is, of course, Yellowstone’s most well-known feature, a geyser that can spew water 180 feet into the air when it erupts. The latter is a rainbow-hued hot spring more than 10 stories deep.
Yellowstone National Park Fast Facts
Location: Northwestern Wyoming, southern Montana, eastern Idaho
Year Established: 1872
Annual Visitor Count: 4.1 million (5th most visited)
Must-Do Activity: Visit in the winter so that you can cross-country ski the Canyon Rim Trail, which offers sublime views of the park’s canyon.
Fun Fact: Yellowstone is already a great place to go stargazing, but the park is working to make the night skies even darker. Officials are replacing light fixtures with energy-efficient, low-wattage alternatives that direct light downward, rather than upward. They’re also working to reduce the number of lights on at night.