The United States' national parks represent some of the most beautiful and important landscapes in the country. According to the National Park Service, there are more than 400 of these park sites sprinkled from sea to shining sea, that number encompassing recreation areas, historic sites, and more.
With the help of federal funding and community support, the National Park Service helps preserve designated land and accompanying ecosystems through education and environmental conservation. And while some of the smaller sites center on culture or historical events, a number of others are all about the awe-inspiring views.
There are some who aim to visit every single park, the better to experience some of the most impactful natural scenery that the U.S. has to offer. But if these getaways are a new goal, we recommend starting with a more manageable number.
Here, six must-visit national parks to add to your bucket list.
6 Stunning National Parks to Visit
1. Denali National Park and Preserve
Located in Alaska, Denali National Park is sure to impress—particularly at certain times of the year. Between August and April, clear night skies alight with glimpses of the aurora borealis, aka the northern lights, decorating skies with ethereal green, pink, and purple light.
Aside from being a photographer’s dream destination, Denali offers up snowy, mountainous terrain primed for hiking, identifying local wildlife, fishing, and snowmobiling. Plus, sled dogs!
2. Great Smoky Mountains
Renowned for being the most biodiverse park in the National Park system, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, with parts of the park in both states. There are many beautiful sights to behold, including the three-mile hike to the majestic Grotto Falls.
Swing by the Sugarlands Visitor Center, go to Clingmans Dome (the highest point in all of Tennessee), visit the Newfound Gap, and stop by Cade’s Cove to see the wildlife.
3. Carlsbad Caverns
Located in New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns is the biggest cave in the United States by volume. The walls are covered in naturally occurring (and incredibly fascinating) mineral deposit structures shaped by the movement of sulfuric acid-rich waters—and the Big Room trail lets you see it all.
If you need more than a super-cool cavern, the national park hosts ranger-guided tours, has surface hiking trails, and even has a program where you can watch as thousands of bats return to the caves at dawn.
Get ready to see one of the most spectacular sights in the country. Yosemite Falls is 2,425 feet long, making it one of the tallest waterfalls in North America.
Yosemite is overflowing with adventurous options. Head over to the huge El Capitan and Half Dome granite rocks to see them practically glow at sunset. (Horsetail Fall is a seasonal waterfall on El Capitan that’s also illuminated in certain light, specifically in February.)
Rock climbers and hikers alike are invited to traverse the steep granite—though it is a strenuous (and yes, dangerous) feat. For a chiller experience, take in quiet trails and the views, including the giant Sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove.
5. Redwood National and State Parks
Coast redwoods are the tallest trees on the planet, and this park’s existence serves as a tool for their conservation. It’s easy to feel like an ant on the forest floor beneath these towering trees—redwoods grow up to 300 feet tall, and some have been around for as long as 2,000 years, making them some of the oldest trees in the world.
This park is a great place to plan a memorable camping trip. There are plenty of hiking trails, but one must is Fern Canyon, a loop trail that finds you among endless walls of lush green. Wear waterproof shoes, and don’t forget to secure a permit! You may even spot some elk along the way.
Yellowstone is unique and visually iconic. The park contains protected hydrothermal areas that include nearly half of the world’s active geysers: there are more than 500 geysers scattered throughout, the land serving to preserve a variety of lifeforms.
With over 1,850 archeological sites, Yellowstone offers a wealth of history (and despite all of that digging, only 3% of the park has been inventoried by archeologists, which speaks to the park’s size). Yellowstone is one of the largest temperate ecosystems on Earth—set aside enough time, and prepare to be blown away. (Hopefully not literally.)