3 Things to Do in the Most Popular National Parks
America’s national-park system got its start in 1872, when Congress created Yellowstone National Park, the first in the world. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service to manage a system of what was then just 35 national parks and monuments.
Today, there are more than 400 national parks, monuments, historic trails and other preservation areas in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the Virgin Islands. All told, the park system covers a monumental 84 million acres, which means there are plenty of opportunities to run, hike, bike, swim, fish, camp and explore in a variety of landscapes and settings.
Looking for some inspiration for your next trip? These are the nation’s most popular National Parks, based on data collected by the National Park Service in 2018 — and three can’t-miss activities in each one.
15. Indiana Dunes National Park
Annual visitors: 1.8 million
The shores of Lake Michigan set the scene at this tranquil park that also happens to be the newest in the U.S. and the first in the state of Indiana. Prior to being designated a national park in February 2019, Indiana Dunes was a national lakeshore.
Pay a visit, and you’ll see why it earned its promotion.
3 Things to Do at Indiana Dunes
1. Lake View Beach is the most picturesque of many lovely beaches located within the bounds of the park. It also includes a unique touch: five beautifully preserved homes from the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. Pack a picnic, and explore.
2. Have some binoculars handy? Every May, the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival invites birders to check out a wonderful assortment of migratory avians, and to listen to insights and stories from some of the world’s top ornithologists.
3. The Glenwood Dunes Trail is the park's only equestrian trail. Saddle up on a horse to enjoy the scenic ride.
14. Gateway Arch National Park
Annual visitors: 2 million
Like Indiana Dunes, this Missouri park is both popular and new; it was established in February 2018.
The park’s showstopper is, of course, St. Louis’ iconic gateway arch. But that is hardly the end all be all of this Midwestern gem.
3 Things to Do at Gateway Arch
1. The best way to take in the arch is via a tram to the top. At 630 feet, the panoramic views of the surrounding area can’t be beat.
2. Learn more about the monument at the center of the park by paying a visit to the Tucker Theater to watch an engrossing 28-minute film about the building of the arch.
3. A painful part of the nation’s past is illustrated at a special exhibit on Dred Scott, who sued the U.S. for his freedom in 1857. The exhibit is located inside the very place where he first brought his case: the St. Louis Courthouse.
13. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Annual visitors: 2.1 million
Ohio may not be one of the first states that comes to mind when you think of spectacular scenery, but it should be. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, with its woodlands, wetlands and rushing waterfalls, is reason enough to add the state to your bucket list.
3 Things to Do at Cuyahoga Valley
1. When you hike the 1.5-mile Brandywine Gorge Trail, you’ll get the chance to explore Brandywine Falls. Eastern hemlocks and red maple trees thrive near this 65-foot cascade, creating a lush and colorful backdrop.
2. Looking to take in some majestic views? Check out the Ledges Overlook, which you can easily access from a nearby parking area (there’s also a 2.2-mile loop trail if you want to stretch your legs).
3. For wildlife lovers, Beaver Marsh offers a chance to see beavers, cardinals, frogs and other creatures in a serene setting. More than 50 species of birds make their nests here (like the Virginia rail, tree swallow and Baltimore oriole), which means it’s also a great place to visit if you’re a birder.
12. Bryce Canyon National Park
Annual visitors: 2.7 million
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has much to recommend it, but one feature in particular draws the masses: its staggering collection of “hoodoos,” tall spires of rock that jut out of the earth, like something from a faraway planet. The park touts the largest accumulation of these striking formations in the world.
3 Things to Do at Bryce Canyon
1. Inspiration Point is aptly named. This viewpoint offers some seriously incredible views — including of the hoodoos the park is so famous for, as well as Bryce Canyon’s signature pink, orange and tan color palette.
2. For a trip down into the canyon, take a hike along Navajo Trail, a peaceful 1.3-mile route that takes you through a “slot” canyon called Wall Street. This moderately strenuous hike offers the best way to see the park’s geologic formations up close.
3. You’d be remiss to leave Bryce Canyon without seeing the iconic Thor’s Hammer, an impressive hoodoo with a large rock that appears precariously balanced on top. Some of the best views of Thor’s Hammer are from Sunset Point.
11. Joshua Tree National Park
Annual visitors: 2.9 million
Where Bryce Canyon is best known for its hoodoos, Joshua Tree park is renowned for its namesake Joshua trees. These trees, which curve in wildly different directions, are like snowflakes: No two are the same.
And there’s so much more to this California park, too.
3 Things to Do at Joshua Tree
1. Visitors to the park often describe the Cholla Cactus Garden as one of the best spots to visit — and it’s easy to see why. This 10-acre area is full of teddybear cholla, a unique cactus with a dark trunk, stem clusters and yellow spines. There are dozens of other desert plant species that dot the landscape here as well.
2. Another spot that should be high on your list: the Hidden Valley hiking trail. This one-mile loop affords stellar views of the park’s unique rock formations and boulders, not to mention its fantastic Joshua trees.
3. Visit one of nature’s spookiest designs: Skull Rock. As the name suggests, this large granite rock looks just like a skull, complete with two eye sockets and a nose. You can drive right next to the rock, or park and take a 1.7-mile nature trail nearby.
10. Glacier National Park
Annual visitors: 3 million
Hikers flock to Glacier National Park to wander along its 700 miles of trails that meander past lakes, ponds, streams, marshes, forests, mountains, swamps and, of course, glaciers.
You’ll be left asking one question: Is there any natural feature this Montana park doesn’t include?
3 Things to Do at Glacier
1. As you drive along the 50-mile, paved Going-to-the-Sun Road, you’ll traverse through nearly every type of terrain to be found. This route, completed in 1932 and later deemed a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, reaches its highest point at Logan Pass, which is 6,646 feet in elevation. Keep your camera ready, because you may see mountain goats and bighorn sheep on your epic drive.
2. Lake McDonald is another must-visit spot in the park, with more than a dozen hiking and biking trails in its vicinity. This massive lake, which is 10 miles long and 500 feet deep, formed when glaciers carved up the earth thousands of years ago.
3. The Grinnell Glacier Trail in the Many Glacier region of the park is a popular 5.3-mile hike. When you reach the end of the hike, you’ll enjoy unobstructed views of a crystal-blue lake. Better yet, you may spot some wildlife along the way (visitors have reported seeing mountain goats and bears with their cubs!).
9. Olympic National Park
Annual visitors: 3.1 million
Wild and rugged, Washington’s Olympic National Park is ideally suited to those who don’t mind adventuring as part of their national-park experience. Scale summits dusted with snow at their peak, snap photos of rocky islands from the shore, or wander through old-growth forest; whatever you choose to do, you won’t be disappointed.
3 Things to Do at Olympic
1. For a chance to spot bald eagles, seastars and other wildlife, you’ll want to pay a visit to Kalaloch and Ruby Beach. This is also a great place to camp or rent a cabin, and to do some easy day hikes. If you’re lucky, you might also see an otter, a harbor seal or a porpoise while you’re there.
2. Another top-notch spot is Hurricane Ridge, a peak you can reach via a winding, 17-mile paved road. When you reach the top, snowshoe or hike (depending on the season) along nine trails — or simply stare in wonder at the panoramic views.
3. For a moment of peace and tranquility, a visit to Hoh Rain Forest is a must. This lush destination gets between 140 and 170 inches of rain a year, which means vivid green trees, mosses and ferns abound. Pack a tent and camp at the forest’s campground, or take a stroll along two short nature trails. Another way to immerse yourself in the forest? The 17.3-mile Hoh River Trail.
8. Grand Teton National Park
Annual visitors: 3.5 million
America is full of staggering mountains, and the peaks of the Grand Teton range are among the most impressive of all. Formed over the course of 10 million years, the range includes the namesake Grand Teton mountain, which keeps watch over this magnificent Wyoming park at 13,770 feet.
But don’t limit your exploration to the mountains alone; there’s so much more to explore here.
3 Things to Do at Grand Teton
1. Whether you’re hiking, climbing, snowshoeing or just passing through in your car, Jenny Lake should be at the top of your list. There’s a good chance you’ll spot some wildlife here, including marmots, mule deer, eagles, moose and osprey.
2. Even if you’re not religious, the Chapel of the Transfiguration is worth a stop. This serene chapel was built in 1925 and offers jaw-dropping views of the Tetons through a large window behind the altar.
3. After climbing 800 feet in elevation along Signal Mountain Summit Road, you’ll have some unimaginable views of the Jackson Hole valley, the Tetons and Jackson Lake. Keep your eyes peeled along the drive, as some visitors have reported seeing bears and their cubs, as well as elk and bison.
7. Acadia National Park
Annual visitors: 3.5 million
New England’s most iconic natural and manmade features — rocky shores, postcard-ready lighthouses, vibrant colors in the fall — are all on full display at this idyllic park in Maine. You can even eat a bowl of fresh clam chowder in the nearby town of Bar Harbor.
What’s not to love?
3 Things to Do at Acadia
1. Cadillac Mountain is the tallest mountain along the entire East Coast, which makes it a must-visit destination. It’s easy to take in the sweeping views from the top of the mountain by driving the 3.5-mile road leading to the summit.
2. Stay in the car for the scenic 27-mile drive along Park Loop Road, which is especially gorgeous when fall colors are on display. This route is no slouch the rest of the year, either, as it winds past coastal forests, the ocean shoreline and cliffs. You can pull over at several spots along the way to get out and hike.
3. Though the water is sure to be ice cold whenever you visit (the water temperature is usually around 55 degrees, even in the summer months!), Sand Beach is a peaceful place for a stroll or for incredible stargazing.
6. Yosemite National Park
Annual visitors: 4 million
California is among the most naturally blessed states in the country. And if you don’t believe us, then you should visit Yosemite.
The state’s most popular park boasts ancient sequoia trees, sweeping meadows, reflective lakes, mountain-carving waterfalls and enough wildlife to fill a camera roll, including black bears, bighorn sheep and mountain lions.
You name it, it’s here. And it’s all completely awesome.
3 Things to Do at Yosemite
1. If you’re up for a challenge, the Half Dome hike is tough but totally worth it. Roundtrip, expect to spend between 14 and 16 miles hoofing it, gaining a total elevation of 4,800 feet. One of the most exhilarating parts of this hike is at the top — you’ll climb up two metal cables during the final 400 feet to the summit.
2. For an adventure that’s more historic, consider hiking the Yosemite Falls Trail, which was built in the 1870s. After 7.2 miles of hiking, you’ll be rewarded with an up-close-and-personal encounter with a cascading waterfall. Along the way, you’ll be motivated by panoramic views.
3. At sunrise or sunset (or, really, anytime), the views from Glacier Point can’t be beat. This overlook is super popular among photographers. It’s also accessible to visitors of all abilities, since you can reach it by car or bus.
5. Yellowstone National Park
Annual visitors: 4.1 million
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a protection act to establish Yellowstone as the first national park in the country. All these years later, it still remains one of the best and most-visited.
Mostly situated in Wyoming, but spreading into parts of Idaho and Montana too, the park is known the world over for its geysers and abundance of animals — it touts the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states.
3 Things to Do at Yellowstone
1. What would a trip to Yellowstone be without a visit to Old Faithful? This iconic geyser is one of nearly 500 in Yellowstone, and it helped inspire the creation of our nation’s first national park. There are boardwalks throughout the Old Faithful area, also known as the Upper Geyser Basin, which makes getting the perfect view of an eruption easy.
2. The Grand Prismatic Spring also inspires awe. At 370 feet in diameter, it’s the largest hot spring in the park — and it’s undeniably beautiful. To get the best view of the hot spring’s rainbow of colors, trek the 1.2-mile Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook Trail for a bird’s eye view.
3. Wildlife lovers will want to add Lamar Valley to their lists, as it’s one of the best spots in the park for catching a glimpse of bison, pronghorn, deer and even bears.
4. Zion National Park
Annual visitors: 4.3 million
When Zion National Park was established in 1919, it became the first national park in Utah. But it wouldn’t be the last: The state today touts five national parks within its bounds. Yet it’s Zion that remains the most popular.
Explore the park’s red sandstone cliffs, slot canyons and deep chasms, and you’ll understand why the original is still the best.
3 Things to Do at Zion
1. The short-and-sweet Canyon Overlook Trail is the perfect introduction to Zion. This one-mile trek, which is located near the east entrance of the park, offers some incredible views and photo-ops, and there’s a chance you’ll spot some bighorn sheep.
2. Another must-see spot within the park: The Narrows. Chances are, you’ve seen a photograph of this famous spot, the narrowest place in Zion Canyon. You’ll have to wade through a bit of water (you’re actually hiking through the Virgin River), so closed-toed shoes and a walking stick are a must.
3. Though it’s a bit dicey for anyone who has a fear of heights, the hike to Angels Landing is definitely worth it if you appreciate spectacular vistas. This 5.4-mile hiking trail is steep, narrow and challenging, gaining 1,488 feet in elevation.
3. Rocky Mountain National Park
Annual visitors: 4.6 million
Like Grand Teton National Park, this Colorado park is best known for its namesake mountain range. The epochal Rockies actually stretch for 3,000 miles from British Columbia in the north to New Mexico in the south, but some of the range’s most impressive peaks and alpine environs can be found here.
3 Things to Do at Rocky Mountain
1. No visit to this park would be complete without greeting its four-legged residents. If you visit during the fall months, you’ll arrive during the elk rut, when hundreds of male elk bugle loudly to win the affections of their female counterparts.
2. Want to visit during the summer months instead? Take a scenic drive along Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile route that travels as high as 12,183 feet in elevation. In addition to extensive views of the Rockies, you’re likely to spot marmots, bighorn sheep and ptarmigans.
3. If you’re in tip-top physical shape, you’ll definitely want to plan a hike up Long’s Peak, the towering mountain that stands guard over Colorado’s Front Range. This 14,259-foot peak is only open during the warmest months of the year, and it’s not for the faint of heart — the Keyhole Route is really more of a climb than a hike and can take more than 10 hours from start to finish.
2. Grand Canyon National Park
Annual visitors: 6.4 million
Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park is one of those iconic places that never fails to live up to the hype. Grander in person than you could ever possibly imagine it to be, the park is staggeringly long (277 river miles), wide (up to 18 miles) and deep (a mile) — a feat of natural artistry painted in a palette of rust-red, bright orange, rosy pink and purple-brown.
3 Things to Do at Grand Canyon
1. The best way to take in this national treasure is from the air, via a helicopter tour. There are plenty of pilots willing to show you around, and most will give you lots of detailed information about the park’s history, geological features and more.
2. Though the flat Rim Trail is a popular choice if you’re exploring the park on foot, consider heading down into the canyon on the South Kaibab Trail. You can hike as far as six miles roundtrip along this steep route, and you always have the option of turning around whenever you’d like.
3. For a more intense experience at the park, you can apply for a backcountry permit and spend the night camping below the rim of the canyon via a large number of trails, though you’ll want to be sure to read the park’s detailed guidelines first.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Annual visitors: 11.4 million
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited national park by a long shot.
Why? Perhaps it has something to with the park’s rolling mountains, golden skies, peaceful mountain meadows and rushing falls. Add in the distinctive trappings of Appalachian culture, and a better question is: Why not?
3 Things to Do at Great Smoky
1. Be sure to take a leisurely drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This 5.5-mile, one-way loop trail offers incredible views of foliage in autumn, greenery during the summer months and spectacular waterfalls nearly all year round.
2. And while we’re on the subject of waterfalls, you’ll also want to pay a visit to Laurel Falls, a stunning 80-foot high cascade that you can access by hiking 2.6 miles roundtrip (it should take about two hours total). Since the falls are divided into two sections, you can walk along a trail at the base of the upper section, which makes for great views.
3. Clingman’s Dome is the highest peak in the park at more than 6,600 feet, which means that on a clear day, you can see for more than 100 miles from the top. After a steep 0.5-mile hike, you have the option of heading up into an observation tower.