Best National Parks by State
As one of the largest countries in the world, the United States is home to diverse landscapes that range from volcanoes to deserts to glaciers.
Sure, some states may have more national parks than others, but each is blessed with something beautiful. We've compiled a list of each state's best national park, which includes natural and historic sites protected by the National Park Service (NPS).
But be warned, you're sure to catch a bad case of wanderlust.
Alabama: Little River Canyon National Preserve
Best gateway: Fort Payne
Though Alabama doesn't have any national parks, Little River Canyon National Preserve is a great place for outdoor enthusiasts. The trail allows for hiking and mountain biking, though you can also swim in natural pools and waterfalls. Visit to see the Southern Appalachians at their best.
Alaska: Denali National Park
Best gateway: Talkeetna
Denali is truly a jewel of American national parks. Remote and difficult to get to, only the committed few make it to this breathtaking reserve, built around Denali Peak, North America's tallest mountain. This is Alaska, so expect the wilderness to be, well, wild and harsh, but more incredible than you could even imagine.
RELATED: All 8 Alaska National Parks, Ranked From Pretty to Stunning
Arizona: Grand Canyon National Park
Best gateway: Grand Canyon Village
While Arizona seems to have astonishing landscapes anywhere you turn, nothing compares to the majestic Grand Canyon. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is marked by sharp drops and red-hued cliffs.
As Joe Yogerst says in the National Geographic book, "100 Trails, 5,000 Ideas," "Hiking the Grand Canyon is an epic adventure that tests people's physical limits and opens their mind to what nature is capable of given enough time and rushing water."
If hiking is too extreme for you, there are donkey rides, helicopter tours and even a scenic drive in the Southern Rim.
Arkansas: Hot Springs National Park
Best gateway: Hot Springs
Protecting 47 thermal springs, this national park will take you around the Ouachita Mountains. Hikes tend to be relatively easy, and campsites are family-friendly, so this makes for a perfect relaxing vacation out in nature.
You can't actually bathe in the springs within the park, but you can visit one of the historic bathhouses in the town of Hot Springs to enjoy the health benefits of the water.
California: Yosemite National Park
Best gateway: El Portal
California has nine national parks — the most of any state. It's extremely difficult to choose the best one but, since we have to do it, Yosemite is the clear winner. Hiding giant sequoias, gigantic boulders, imposing mountains and waterfalls that look like they catch on fire when the sun hits them just right, the magic of this park is indescribable.
Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park
Best gateway: Boulder
Like California, Colorado's national parks showcase diverse environments like canyons and giant sand dunes. But the state's most popular park is still the one that is dearest to our hearts. You'll find clear lakes at the foot of towering mountains as well as scenic drives and evergreen Aspen trees. Oh, and seeing wildlife like elk, moose and bears is pretty common.
RELATED: 10 Best Colorado Ski Resorts
Connecticut: Weir Farm National Historic Park
Best gateway: Ridgefield
Though Connecticut has scenic forests that light up in the fall, the most nature-centric site under the National Park Service is this historic farm. Once the home of J. Alden Weir — arguably the most famous American impressionist painter — the farm has 60 acres of woods and fields that inspired many of his famous paintings.
Delaware: First State National Historic Park
Best gateway: Wilmington
The first state to ratify the Constitution, Delaware protects six sites within this historic park. Many preserve the stories of settlers, but for nature, you can hike around Brandywine Valley. Centered around an eponymous creek, you'll find 18 trails to enjoy.
Florida: Everglades National Park
Best gateway: Miami
The sorely underrated Everglades is more beautiful than people imagine. Consisting of an intricate waterway system, this slow-moving river is a unique ecosystem unlike any other in the world. Within it roam alligators, American crocodiles, golden panthers and numerous endemic birds and insects.
If you're in Miami and need a break from the beach, hop on an airboat or ride a bike around Shark Valley to enjoy this park — and catch a glimpse of a gator or two.
RELATED: Everglades National Park Through the Eyes of Photographer Clyde Butcher
Georgia: Cumberland Island
Best gateway: Saint Marys
Few people know that you can find wild horses roaming around golden dunes in Georgia. Head to Cumberland Island for marshes, maritime forests and beaches safe from highrises. Boating, biking and camping are the island's most popular activities.
Hawaii: Kalaupapa National Historical Park
Best gateway: Kualapuu
Though Hawaii has two national parks, we had to go for the state's national historic park as our top pick. Yes, Hawaii Volcanoes is absolutely amazing, but there is something infinitely fascinating about Kalaupapa, a remote site on the island of Molokai, where a leper colony once thrived. Because people still live in the town, you won't be able to see it, but you can hike or ride a mule through the surrounding wilderness, which includes the world's tallest sea cliffs.
Best gateway: Ashton
Also expanding into Wyoming and Montana, Yellowstone is without a doubt one of the most impressive national parks in the country. As the oldest national park, this protected land has been saved from development and exploitation since 1872. While some of its most famous features, including the Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful Geyser, are located in Wyoming, people can expect to see the same rugged landscapes and wild animals in Idaho. Come to see herds of wild bison roaming the land as they've done for thousands of years.
Illinois: Lincoln Home
Best gateway: Springfield
While important trails like the Louis and Clark Trail and the Trail of Tears pass through Illinois, the state has no nature-centric national parks. If you had to choose any of the sites protected by the NPS, go to the home of President Abraham Lincoln. Located in Springfield, the state capital, you'll learn about America's 16th president and his life before, during and after the Civil War.
RELATED: All 50 State Capitals, Ranked From Worst to First
Indiana: Indiana Dunes National Park
Best gateway: Porter
The dunes are what most people come for when they visit this national park. But besides 15 miles of coast, you'll find woodlands, wetlands and prairies. Birding and hiking are very popular, but in the summer months, you can also swim at West Beach to enjoy the refreshing water of Lake Michigan.
Iowa: Effigy Mounds National Monument
Best gateway: Harpers Ferry
To someone not paying attention, Effigy Mounds National Monument could look like a regular woodland. But if you know what to look for, you'll be able to see over 200 burial mounds sacred to 20 Native American tribes. Many of the mounds go back to the first millennium and some were built to be shaped like animals.
Kansas: Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve
Best gateway: Strong City
People often make the mistake of not appreciating the beauty of prairies. But to see how wrong they are, you just need to visit this national preserve in Kansas, the only site in the NPS that protects a tallgrass ecosystem. Enjoy more than 40 miles of trails as you look out for grassland birds, deer and bison.
Kentucky: Mammoth Cave National Park
Best gateway: Park City
We don't understand how Mammoth Cave isn't better known, given that it's the largest cave system in the entire world. Of course, only a small part of it is open to visitors, but it's still a gateway into the fascinating world of the underground. Back at the surface, you'll also find rivers, springs and numerous hiking trails.
Louisiana: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
Best gateway: New Orleans
Both a national historic park and a nature preserve, this unique site is spread out into six separate spots. Though most focus on the rich history of southern Louisiana and Cajun culture, you can also appreciate the state's nature at the Baratia Preserve in Marrero. Here, trails and canoe tours take you through swamps, marshes and forests teeming with animals, including alligators.
Maine: Acadia National Park
Best gateway: Bar Harbor
It's easy to get to Acadia's numerous lakes, forests and coastal hikes. A short drive from Bar Harbor, this national park holds the quintessential charm of New England's coast. You can do everything from swimming to boarding and even whale watching while seeing waves crashing into seaside cliffs.
Maryland: Catoctin Mountain Park
Best gateway: Thurmont
Part of the Appalachian Mountains, the Catoctin Mountain range provides Maryland with scenic trails that can be enjoyed throughout the year. Within the park, you'll be able to hike, go camping or enjoy the water at the nearby Hunting Creek Lake.
Massachussets: Cape Cod National Seashore
Best gateway: Wellfleet
Cape Cod is a beloved New England destination, but some people don't realize that the National Park Service protects 40 miles of its shore. Passing through idyllic seaside towns like Truro, Wellfleet and Chatham, this national seashore encompasses beaches, cranberry bogs, lighthouses and coastal dunes.
Michigan: Pictured Rocks National Seashore
Best gateway: Grand Marais
Pictured Rocks is another visit-worthy national seashore. It's so impressive, in fact, that we've chosen it over Michigan's national park, Isle Royale. Sandstone cliffs and sea caves were carved by Lake Superior's cold clear waters. During spring and fall, you can kayak next to these impressive formations, but if you prefer to stay out of the water, you can also enjoy the woodlands surrounding it.
Minnesota: Voyageurs National Park
Best gateway: International Falls
A highly underrated national park, Voyageurs is one of the northernmost parks in the lower 48 states. When solar flairs are strong enough and the sky is clear, you could even catch a glimpse of the elusive magic of the northern lights. But even if you don't see the dancing phenomenon, this certified Dark Sky Park is perfect for star gazing.
Mississippi: Gulf Islands National Seashore
Best gateway: Ocean Springs
A group of islands on the Gulf of Mexico, this national seashore is popular with locals looking to enjoy pristine beaches. The best islands — like Horn and Cat — are only accessible by boat, making for a remote seaside escape with tranquil trails along marshes and the coast. You'll also run into historic sites that preserve the maritime legacy of the region.
Missouri: Ozark National Scenic Riverways
Best gateway: Van Buren
You know the Ozark Mountains, but have you heard of Ozark National Scenic Riverway? The first NPS site meant to protect a river encompasses the Current River and Jack Fork River and the springs they feed. While there are trails nearby, the thing to do is to get in the water by swimming, kayaking or tubing.
Montana: Glacier National Park
Best gateway: Kalispell
A total of 25 glaciers grace this wonderful national park, which also has over 700 lakes and two mountain ranges. The scenery changes drastically with the seasons, but it never falters in beauty. Biking, hiking and kayaking are perfect activities from spring to fall. And if you don't have too much time to enjoy the park, you can drive the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Nebraska: Scotts Bluff
Best gateway: Gering
Scotts Bluff National Monument was established in 1919, but the area was important to Native American tribes well before European colonization. The protruding landmark served travelers for centuries and was a significant part of the Oregon Trail. Walking is always the best way to see the area, but if you're short on time, you can drive up Summit Road to enjoy the view from the Bluff.
RELATED: Quirkiest Nebraska Attractions, Mapped
Nevada: Great Basin National Park
Best gateway: Baker
Everyone heads to Nevada for casinos or red rocks. But the incredible landscapes of Great Basin National Park continues to be largely ignored. That's good news for anyone who wants to see this landscape without crowds. The park protects various ecosystems, like the Lehman Caves, the South Snake mountains and bristlecone pine groves.
New Hampshire: Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park
Best gateway: Cornish
New Hampshire sits on the Appalachian Trail, which expands from Maine to Georgia. This means that the state has no shortage of gorgeous natural attractions. But besides the famed trail, most NPS sites here are historical.
Commemorating American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, this park has extensive grounds that display the artist's work. Walk along one of several trails through the property's woods as well as the house where Saint-Gaudens lived and died.
New Jersey: Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
Best gateway: Bushkill
This New Jersey park is a wonderful contradiction. Not only is its name misleading, but it also sits within a densely populated part of the state. Its 40-mile river and the mountains that surround it act as an oasis to the urban sprawl.
Here, you'll be able to do everything from fishing to hiking to waterfall chasing. You can even go to a riverside beach when the weather is nice.
New Mexico: White Sands National Park
Best gateway: Alamogordo
With gigantic dunes of sand so white it's blinding, this New Mexico national park will make you feel like you're in another world. The blue sky and the dark San Andres Mountains in the backdrop contrast the dunes to make a surrealist painting even Dali would approve of.
Fittingly, this landscape has been the setting of several movies, including "Transformers" and "Book of Eli."
RELATED: White Sands National Park Is Unlike Anywhere Else
New York: Fire Island National Seashore
Best gateway: Patchogue
Fire Island is best known as a popular vacation and party destination for the LGBTQ+ community. But this national seashore proves you can be wild in more than one way, with miles of protected beaches home to numerous species of plants and animals.
The island's most charming feature is that there are no cars allowed, which makes it secluded and idyllic, and saves it from air and noise pollution.
North Carolina: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Best gateway: Asheville
As the most visited national park in the United States, Great Smoky Mountain is a wonderland for anyone who loves forests, waterfalls, rivers and, of course, mountains. Spanning two states, the park also has 90 pioneer buildings that hikers can visit as they traverse a green world of rolling hills and surreal sunsets.
North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Best gateway: Medora
While President Theodore Roosevelt remains a controversial figure, there's no denying that he passed important measures to safeguard America's wilderness. It's said that these North Dakota lands converted Roosevelt into a conservationist, hence why the national park that protects them is named after him.
An astonishing combination of badlands and prairie, the park is home to unique landscapes you won't find anywhere else in the country.
Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Best gateway: Cleveland
It's unusual for a national park to be so close to a major city, which is why Cleveland locals love Cuyahoga. You can be out of the city and into this park within 30 minutes. If you're pressed for time, it's possible to just drive through its Road Scenic Drive, making stops at scenic viewpoints. But you'll enjoy it much more if you get out of the car and hike around its forests and waterfalls.
Oklahoma: Chickasaw National Recreation Area
Best gateway: Sulphur
Once part of Chickasaw Nation, this park is all about enjoying the water. Most people focus on Lake of the Arbuckles, where you can swim, fish and boat. There are also several springs and streams to enjoy. And if you don't want to be in the water, you have a choice of hikes in the 20 miles of trails available.
Oregon: Crater Lake National Park
Best gateway: Prospect
The deepest lake in the United States is unique enough to be a national park. Dropping down to a depth of 1,949 feet, Crater Lake is in a caldera from an inactive volcano. Within it, there are small islands that can be admired from the rim or a tour boat. Because there is no water outflow or inflow, the lake is incredibly pristine, with a visibility of 100 feet.
RELATED: Fascinating Facts About Crater Lake National Park
Pennsylvania: Gettysburg National Military Park
Best gateway: Gettysburg
While not necessarily known for its nature, Gettysburg is one of the most significant national military parks in the country. It is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, which was considered a turning point for northern victory and the emancipation of enslaved people. President Lincoln delivered his famous "Gettysburg Address" in this battlefield.
Rhode Island: Black Stone River Valley National Historic Park
Best gateway: Pawtucket
Commemorating the site of the country's first cotton spinning mill, this national historic park also protects the Blackstone River Valley. You can get both culture and nature here. Visit the Old Slater Mill to learn about how this invention propelled the U.S. into the Industrial Revolution. Or go to the park grounds of the Kelly House Museum of Transportation, where you can walk or bike. In the winter, there's even the option of snowshoeing around the property.
South Carolina: Congaree National Park
Best gateway: Hopkins
The almost mystical Congaree National Park safeguards old-growth hardwood forests and floodplains. Visitors can hike through boardwalks that allow for immersion in this unique forest, or paddle around parts with deeper water. Intrepid travelers will love the challenge of the Congaree River Blue Trail, which will have them set off from Columbia to this park.
South Dakota: Badlands National Park
Best gateway: Wall
Dry, rugged and breathtaking, the landscape of the Badlands captures the hearts of anyone who visits. It's difficult to explain the appeal of walking around a place where there is little besides giant hills. But the colorful stripes on the cliff walls and the folds in the slopes create a sensation that takes you out of the world.
Tennessee: Cumberland Gap National Historic Park
Best gateway: Cumberland Gap
Pioneers looking to make a life out west went through Cumberland Gap, a mountain pass that made the journey shorter. This history has earned the area national historic park status, but there is also plenty of nature to enjoy here. Hikers can take advantage of 85 miles of trails, some of which lead to the mysterious Gap Cave. Be on the lookout for the elusive black bears roaming the area.
Texas: Big Bend National Park
Best gateway: Terlingua
About five hours and 40 minutes from San Antonio, Big Bend National Park is the Texas few outsiders get to see. Right on the Mexican border and marked by Rio Grande, the park is a mixture of desert, canyons and volcanic rocks. But you'll also find the relatively humid Chisos Mountains, which provide a respite from the southern Texas heat. If you want an adventure, Yogerst suggests the 33-mile Outer Mountain Loop as the "area's most challenging trail."
Utah: Zion National Park
Best gateway: Springdale
Utah has five national parks beautiful enough to make a grown person cry. But none can beat Zion in terms of sheer power to leave you speechless. Hike around verdant valleys hugging a snaking river and red canyon walls with narrow trails and steep falls.
The most exciting and daring trail is the Narrows. As Yogerst reminds us, "more than two-thirds of the route runs through the rock-strewn river," so if you're adventurous enough to do it, prepare to be uncomfortable ... but also so stunned by the landscape that you'll barely notice.
Virginia: Shenandoah National Park
Best gateway: Front Royal
Within the mystic Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah hides within several routes on the Appalachian Trail. The park is a mere 75 miles from the nation's capital and offers bouldered peaks, dense forests and many hidden waterfalls. After your hike, leave some time to visit one of the Virginian wineries surrounding the park.
Vermont: Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park
Best gateway: Woodstock
This thrice-named national historic park centers around a home that once belonged to conservationist George Perkins Marsh. Politician Frederick Billings then owned it before transferring it to Laurance and Mary Rockefeller, who donated it to the government.
But besides the historic buildings, the true interest of this park is an area of 600 acres that has been beautifully conserved, thanks to the convictions of its owners. Carriage roads and winding trails go through the forest, taking visitors to various viewpoints where they can enjoy Vermont's legendary beauty.
Washington: Olympic National Park
Best gateway: Port Angeles
If you want to see the beauty of the Pacific North West in a single park, head to Olympic. Spanning 1,442 square miles, the park covers coastal trails, thermal springs and temperate rainforests where moss makes trees look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss story.
Yogerst calls the park, "the most scenic stretch of the entire [Olympic Discovery Trail]," which is enough to convince us to plan a trip there.
West Virginia: New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
Best gateway: Fayetteville
America's newest national park was welcomed to the fold in January 2021. Made up of deep canyons and one of the oldest rivers in the Americas, New River Gorge is an excellent spot for outdoor activities like whitewater rafting and rock climbing. A visit here will have you agreeing that West Virginia is almost heaven.
Wisconsin: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Best gateway: Bayfield
Set on massive Lake Superior, this national lakeshore is made up of 22 islands, several of which are embellished by picturesque historic lighthouses. Take a cruise tour of the islands or kayak along cliffs, sea caves, bays and lagoons. Leave time to learn about the Ojibwe people who have lived in the area for centuries.
Wyoming: Grand Teton National Park
Best gateway: Jackson
Tall mountains so sharp that they look like they'll cut into the sky are the main feature of Grand Teton National Park. Here, bison roam around plains, and wooden pioneer houses sit in the shadow of the mountain range. For a relatively easy yet scenic hike, Yogerst recommends Jenny Lake Loop, which "wraps around picture-perfect Jenny Lake, with the park's celebrated sawtooth peaks rising above the western shore."