One of my favourite things about the USA is travelling to visit all of their amazing National Parks! They offer some of the most beautiful natural landscapes on earth and have something for those needing easy hikes, great activities for families as well as things for more accomplished hikers and outdoorsman. Visiting every National Park is on my bucket list but with each park offering so many amazing opportunities what os the best thing to do in each National Park? In this National Park bucket list we tell you the best thing to do in each national park, so if you can only do one thing you know what to pick!
Note: As there are so many national parks, – 61 at the last count and ever growing, we have decided to split this up roughly by region so this national park bucket list is easier to navigate!
Northeast National Park Bucket List
Acadia National Park – Drive the Loop
Acadia National Park located in Maine is an absolute gem and must see in the New England area. The national park is located on Mount Desert Island and covers over 45,000 acres of land. Within its borders, you’ll be able to explore woodlands, rocky cliffsides, sandy beaches, and granite peaks.
The highlight of the park is the park loop road that gives you a 27 mile mostly one-way path to exploring the park and all of its top sights such a sand beach, thunder hole, otter cliff, Jordan pond house, and Cadillac mountain.
Acadia National Park is best enjoyed from May until October when the roads are open and snow free. At the beginning of the season you’ll be able to enjoy a bounty of spring flowers, then the warmth of the sun will greet you in the height of the summer with ocean breezes and as Fall rolls around, you’ll be able to enjoy the fall foliage.
Nominated by Pack More Into Life
Southeast National Park Bucket List
Dry Tortugas National Park – Take a Seaplane
The Dry Tortugas National Park is found around 70 miles to the west of Key West in the Florida Keys. The islands are home to some of the best preserved coral reefs in the Florida Keys, as well as being the location of Fort Jefferson.
This incredible structure, composed of 16 million bricks, is the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere. The fortress, which was never actually completed, was built in the early 19th century as a means to defend the Gulf coast, although the guns were never fired, and it was largely abandoned by the late 19th century.
Today, the Fortress and National Park are a tourist attraction, and one that we can very much recommend visiting. There are two ways to get here – you can take the boat, which is around 2.5 hours ride each way, or you can fly in a seaplane, which takes around 30 – 45 minutes.
Our preferred option for arriving in style, and getting epic views on the way, is to take the seaplane. This is somewhat more expensive than the boat, but you get incredible views on the way, especially of the fortress and islands from above. Plus you have the chance to spot turtles from above, which is pretty neat!
Nominated by Finding the Universe
Everglades National Park – Take an Airboat Ride
One of our favourite National Park bucket list items we recommend is taking an airboat ride through the sawgrass in the Everglades, south Florida, spotting alligators.
We took our airboat ride from the Sawgrass Recreation Park, which included a guide. The ride took us deep into the marshy sawgrass wildlife of the national park, passing a mix of wildlife along the way. We eventually saw one alligator who was happily basking away in the muddy water. At one point we got close up, with the alligator just a few inches away from our boat. It was quite a surreal moment! It’s very safe of course, the guides are well trained to deal with alligators should any get too close, but still quite scary when you think that the only thing separating you from the alligator is the boat.
The best time to visit the Everglades is during the dry season, which runs from December to April. Rainfall is minimal during this period, humidity is low, and therefore there are fewer biting insects around.
Nominated by Nomadic Boys
Mammoth Cave National Park – Take a Cave Tour
A cave tour at Mammoth Cave National Park should be on every National Park bucket list. It is the longest known cave system in the world, with over 400 miles of explored passages, and it is a Unesco World Heritage site, in the middle of Kentucky.
While all cave tours are pretty cool, we recommend taking the Frozen Niagara tour, or the Domes and Dripstones tour. Most parts of the Mammoth are classified as dry, with different types of formations, but no stalactites and stalagmites. These two tours go through a short section of the cave that is wet, and has dripstone formations.
The namesake Frozen Niagara is an incredible dripstone “waterfall” that is over 5 stories tall. Visitors first see it from the top, looking down its length. Then there is an option to descend the 98 steps, and stand beneath the falls. The view is surreal. We took multiple tours, and this impressed adults and children alike.
Mammoth Cave maintains a constant temperature, so a tour is a similar experience year round. Spring and late fall are the best times to visit though. The weather allows the enjoyment of other park features, and there are no summer crowds.
Nominated by Gypsy with a Day Job
Smoky Mountain National Park – Be in Two States at Once!
Most people visit Smoky Mountain National Park for the gorgeous scenery and hiking, however there is one fun little stop you can make while in the park to fulfill a unique bucket list item- standing in two states at once!
Head to the New Found Gap parking area, which is located just about in the middle of the park and look for the large wooden sign on the North Carolina and Tennessee border. You can take a fun picture here and even send your kids to another state ‘by themselves’. My kids loved it!
While you are in the parking area be sure to take a look at the stunning views around you from this beautiful vantage point. Take note that the parking lot fills up quickly in the summer, but if you continue to drive around your persistence will pay off, as most people stop here for just a short time to take in the views.
We recommend visiting in the Fall if you can to see the Fall foliage. Visit October Acres to learn about more unique adventures in Smoky Mountain National Park.
Nominated by October Acres
Midwest National Parks
Badlands National Park – Hunt for Dinosaurs
The Badlands National Park is one of my favourites in the country however if there is one activity you must do in the park that is look for dinosaur fossils! Badlands has some of the most highly concentrated dinosaur find areas. In fact the largest intact dinosaur skeleton was found here! She was a T Rex called Sue and is now housed in the Chicago Field Museum.
If you are or are travelling with a dinosaur fanatic then Badlands is the place to go!
On top of that another favourite activity of ours was seeing the Prairie Dogs at Roberts Town.
Located just a 40 minute drive from Rapid City, Badlands National Park is really accessible and is situated perfectly for a weekend away!
Indiana Dunes National Park – The Three Dunes Hike
The Three Dunes hike, designated as Trail 8 in the park, is a one and a half mile loop trail that tackles the (you guessed it!) three biggest dunes in the Indiana Dunes National Park. While the elevations of these sand dunes can’t compare to some of the more extreme landscapes of other national parks (the tallest dune, Mt. Tom, stands at a mere 192 feet), the climb up the dunes is surprisingly strenuous, given that the sand makes climbing the steep incline way more challenging than if the climb was on solid ground.
While I loved how the trail gets the heart pumping, its highlight is the gorgeous views over the stunning blue of Lake Michigan, against the green canopy of the hardwood forest. With its small footprint, you can reasonably finish this hike in about an hour, cramming in an awesome workout, some breathtaking views, and an incredible experience climbing one of the tallest sand dunes along Lake Michigan.
Nominated by Uprooted Traveller
Theodore Roosevelt National Park – Spot Wildlife
The best thing to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is wildlife viewing. There are many miles of roads in this park so it’s possible to do your own car safari amongst the geological features of the park including a large canyon, overlooks, rock formations, and so called “badlands”.
The roads are paved and in good shape, and no need for a 4×4. Or you can get out of your car and explore the wildlife and features by foot. This park is split geographically in two – the two areas are named the North and South Units. Both units have unique features, but I prefer the North Unit as it has fewer visitors.
There are many types of animals that live in the badlands – Bison (American Buffalo), wild Horses, Prairie Dogs, Coyotes, Deer, Antelope, and Bighorn Sheep. The bird varieties you might see include Wild Turkeys, Western Meadowlarks, Burrowing Owls, and Sharp-Tailed Grouse. If you visit in the spring, you can witness the unusual mating dance of the Grouse in an area called a Lek.
The best time to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park is between May and September, although it can be very hot in the middle of the summer.
Nominated by TheHotFlashPacker
Wind Cave National Park – Take a Ranger Tour of the Cave
South Dakota may not be the first place you think of when considering national parks to visit. But we discovered a small gem of a national park in the southwestern corner of this state: Wind Cave National Park.
Wind Cave was the seventh U.S. national park, established in 1903, and the first cave in the world to be designated as a national park. Surrounded by herds of roaming bison, this cave is extremely unique and beautiful and you must spend the time and small amount of money to take a full ranger-guided tour of the cave when you visit.
The history of this extremely extensive cave system is fascinating, and the chance to view the delicate boxwork formations, found almost exclusively in this location, cannot be missed. They do offer several different tour options which vary in distance and duration, and I say the more you can see the better! I guarantee you will not be disappointed with your experience.
If you are visiting in summer, you’ll get full enjoyment out of the coolness of the cave if you visit in the heat of the afternoon. The best air conditioning you’ll ever experience!
Southwest National Parks Bucket List
Hike to Delicate Arch at Arches National Park
Arches National Park is one of the most popular National Parks in the country and it is easy to see why! It has a wide variety of hikes for all abilities including some really easy loop hikes, the avenue hike and some relatively easy primitive trails. I would recommend doing as many of these as you are able on your trip but if you could only pick one then you should consider doing the hike to Delicate Arch! This is perhaps the most famous arch in the park but be warned it does get crowded so do go early! The hike is about 3 miles and is one of the more difficult we did in the park but it was well worth the trek!
Be sure to spend you early mornings and evenings in the park to beat the heat and retreat to the hotel pool in Moab during the worst of the heat!
Big Bend National Park – Go Stargazing
With over 800,000-acres and diverse terrains of river, desert, and mountains, Big Bend National Park encompasses the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the United States. It is located in a curve of the Rio Grande River between the U.S. and Mexico and it is after the bend in the river that the park was named after. Big Bend is one of the most remote and least visited parks in the lower 48 states with a low level of light pollution, resulting in remarkably brilliant stargazing.
Big Bend is a huge park and yet it is easy to see a lot of it in a short amount of time. After tackling a couple of easy hikes during the day make sure to look up and see the stars at night. Spring is a great time to visit since the temperatures are mild and you might see carpets of the Texas state flower on your road trip there.
Don’t miss a visit to the Panther Junction Visitor Center which features several interpretive exhibits, many of them interactive and exciting for kids of all ages. The existing large 3-d relief map as well as the full size model of the 18′ wing of Quetzalcoatlus northroppi, the famous Big Bend Pterosaur, remain as all-time favorites. The life-size replica of the wing bones of an enormous pterosaur, a 18-foot long specimen was discovered in Big Bend National Park and represents the second largest known flying creature ever to have existed.
Nominated by Outside Suburbia
Bryce Canyon National Park – Hike the Peek A Boo Loop Trail
With iconic “hoodoo” rock formations and sweeping panoramic views, it’s no wonder Bryce Canyon National Park is one of Utah’s top attractions. Even though millions of people visit this park each year, you can escape the crowds and selfie sticks if you know where to go.
If you’re relatively fit, enjoy hiking, and want to get up close and personal with some of the most beautiful rock formations in the National Park, don’t miss the Peek-A-Boo Loop Trail. This 5.1-mile hike brings you down below the canyon rim and past stunning copper-hued rock walls and formations.
This strenuous hike is far less trafficked than the shorter (and easier!) walks around the rest of the park, so there’s a good chance that you’ll have the trail mostly to yourself. Be sure to pack a camera, because the views are absolutely jaw-dropping!
Tips for Peek-A-Book Hike:
Start the hike early if possible. The cooler temperatures will be more comfortable, and the soft, early morning light is much better for photography than later in the day. Plus, you’ll have a better chance of avoiding other hikers along the way.
Be sure to pack lots of water, as it gets very hot and dry during midday. A Camelback hydration pack works really nice for hiking!
Nominated by Two Wandering Soles
Canyonlands National Park – See the Mesa Arch
Canyonlands biggest attraction is undoubtedly the Mesa Arch and is by far the most photographed spot! Mesa Arch offers great views of the park but be warned behind the arch is a sheer drop so please exercise common sense here! It is one of the easiest trails we have done in national park as the trail to get there is only 0.5 miles. Be warned though being such an iconic place and such an easy trail, the Mesa Arch gets very busy so be sure to go very early or late to get it to yourself or at least get a good position. The Mesa Arch is particularly great to photograph at sunrise but this is quite well known and can get busy.
Capitol Reef National Park Find Petroglyphs
The life giving Freemont River in Capitol Reef National Park attracted hunters and farmers more than a thousand years before the Mormons settled into the valley. These early inhabitants left many clues about their habits and culture. The most interesting is the array of well preserved petroglyphs.
You can easily access amazing examples of the ancient petroglyphs along Highway 24, the main drive into the park. A wheel chair accessible boardwalk takes you to the perfect viewing spot. To enhance the experience, telescopes have been placed along the boardwalk so you can get a close up view of the animal and human figures captured in the rock. We particularly enjoyed the great story-boards sharing the origins of this special art.
Want more? Hike on up Capitol Gorge where you can find additional petroglyphs along the trail. This is a fairly easy and very popular 1 mile hike found at the end of the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive.
There are other petroglyphs to be found by the more adventurous. A long hike through Horseshoe Canyon will uncover several examples. Or try a trail ride on horseback where the guides have their own secret spots to share.
Nominated by Walking the Parks
Death Valley National Park – Watch The Sunrise at Zabriskie Point
One of the most amazing things to do in Death Valley National Park in southern California is to watch the sun rise at Zabriskie Point. While Zabriskie Point is spectacular any time of day, it is an especially enchanting experience to be here at sunrise. Death Valley National Park is known for its grand desert vistas, and from the viewing platform at Zabriskie Point, you get panoramic views of the otherworldly ridges and valleys in every direction.
At sunrise, you want to be positioned on the platform facing the direction opposite where the sun is scheduled to rise. If you are a serious photographer, there is a broad ledge below the official viewing platform where you can set up your tripod.
When the golden orb makes its appearance, it paints the very tops of the Panamint Mountains in the distance in gold. As it rises higher, the golden light moves further and further down the valley, until the entire landscape is bathed in gold. It is absolute magic, well worth the sacrifice of a couple of hours of sleep.
Tip #1: Arrive about 10-15 minutes before the scheduled sunrise time, to be assured of a good viewing spot. if you want to set up a tripod, arrive even earlier, because the spots tend to fill up fast.
Tip #2: There are restrooms at the parking lot, and you have to park and walk up the paved road to the viewing platform. It is about a 10-minute walk. A flashlight will come in handy. Follow park safety guidelines.
Tip #3: Visit Death Valley NP from late fall to early spring for the best weather, and dress in layers for comfort.
Nominated by It’s Not About the Miles
Grand Canyon National Park – Visit the South Rim
If you only have limited time to see the Grand Canyon then the South Rim is ideal. With lots to see, great hikes and amazing look-outs all within close proximity.Although you can go adventuring with white rafting along the Colorado River or do the 19km Bright Angel Trail.
We had three kids in tow so did the more sedate Trail of Time. A short 5km walk along the South rim that finishes at the Yavapai Geology Museum.
Every meter of the walk shows a million years of geological history in the area.You can find out how the Canyon was formed, learn from information points along the way and even get to touch 270-million-year-old fossils.It’s a great way to try and get your head around the sheer age of the canyon.Although the hike is fairly short be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to stop and soak in all the amazing views.
Staying in the National park is easy with camping or lodges at Yavapai Lodge. And ideal if you want to get up to watch the amazing sunrise over the rim.and a bit of wind. Either way, get ready to be blown away by the result!
Nominated by Travel With Meraki
Great Basin National Park – See Bristlecone Trees
Great Basin is one of the least visited national parks in the US and often gets overlooked on southwest and Nevada road trips. It’s in the middle of nowhere, but well worth the drive. The main highlight of Great Basin National Park is the bristlecone trees that are one of the oldest living things on Earth, some over 4,000 years old.
There are two separate hiking trails to the bristlecone trees and the alpine lakes, but they can easily be combined into one. It ends up only being slightly longer since the bristlecones are a detour off the alpine loop. Start at the Wheeler Peak area trailhead and do the moderately easy hike to Stella and Teresa Lakes, then on your way out, take the more difficult detour up to the bristlecone grove and the only glacier in Nevada just beyond that.
The best time for the hike is late June to September. If there was a lot of snowfall that year, there may still be snow on the trail in May and June due to the elevation. The Wheeler Peak campground doesn’t open until Memorial Day weekend. I love this trail so much I’ve done it three times and I’ve only been to the park twice.
Nominated by Red Around the World
Guadalupe Mountains National Park – Reach the Top of Guadalupe Peak
Texas may be known as a relatively flat state with minimal elevation gains, but take a trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and you will quickly realize that this corner of Texas has a surprise in store! In this National Park towers a rugged mountain range, perfect for hiking and exploring! By far the most challenging and rewarding hike of all has to be the state high point, Guadalupe Peak.
Guadalupe Peak looms over its surroundings at an impressive 8,749 feet high. For those interested in standing on the top of Texas, the hike itself consists of just under 8 miles roundtrip and 3,000 feet in elevation gain. What is fascinating about this trek is the multitude of ecosystems and varied terrain that hikers will pass through. At the trailhead, hikers are surrounded by exposed, high desert vistas, which gradually morph into shady, ponderosa forests after the first mile. Continuing on, visitors will emerge from the foliage for the final part of the hike, traversing rocky, barren hills, cliffs, and switchbacks, until making it to the summit! The views from Guadalupe Peak are breathtaking, as they overlook neighboring El Capitan peak and much of the expansive views of west Texas!
Nominated by Yonderlust Ramblings
Joshua Tree National Park – Hike the Hidden Valley Nature Trail
Joshua Tree National Park is located just east of the Palm Springs area in California, right in the middle of the desert. This National Park has some of the most unique and beautiful landscape compared to many other national parks.
We chose a very short hike called The Hidden Valley Nature Trail as we were were visiting Joshua Tree National Park with kids. It was a 1 mile flat trail that went in a loop. Although it was short and sweet, this trail offered a great taste of Joshua Tree National Park. Along the trail you will get to experience tons of Joshua trees in the desert. But not only will you get to see these famed trees, but also will have the chance to climb around on some of the giant piles of boulders in the park. The trail is suited for all abilities, and with little kids it was perfect!
We would suggest the best time of year to visit this park would be anytime but the summer. It can be extremely hot and the sun is very unforgiving as there is little shade in the park. We went in January and it was absolutely perfect!
Nominated by Patsey Family Travels
Petrified Forest National Park – See Fossilised Trees
Petrified Forest National Park in northeastern Arizona is an enormous national park with one of the largest concentration of petrified wood anywhere in the world. However, there is a lot more to see besides petrified trees!
There are several, scenic short hikes which are ideal for kids, guided ranger walks for birdwatching or learning about wildflowers, petroglyphs to view and frequent cultural demonstrations at the 1930s Painted Desert Inn. You can also explore a range of animal and plant fossils at the Rainbow Forest Museum. Our kids enjoyed completing the Junior Ranger trail and receiving their badge.
The fossilized trees found here date from over 215 million years ago. The fossils are a myriad of shapes, sizes and colours but retain their tree and wood appearance. The ‘fallen’ petrified trees are particularly impressive. The fossils lie on and across the trails so you get very close to them. Our kids loved using their magnifying glasses and binoculars to closely examine the colourful fossils. Try to visit on a sunny day when the colours of the petrified wood, and those of the banded badlands, are at their most vibrant.
Nominated by Map Made Memories
Saguoro National Park – Watch Sunset
Watching the sun set over the ocean can be pretty spectacular but for me having something creating an interesting silhouette against a magically coloured sky raises the experience to a higher level.
Ever since I fist saw a photo of a Saguaro Cactus I have been determined to see them in real life, and the photos of them at sunset only increased that desire. So when we started planning a Southwest USA road trip Saguaro National Park was first thing on the itinerary.
We were there in early February so the temperatures were pleasant. I would avoid trying to hike in the heights of Summer as temperatures can skyrocket to unbearable levels.
Saguaro National Park has an east and a west region separated by the town of Tucson, Arizona. The east section is flatter with easy walking trails while the west section is far more rugged with hiking trails that are a little more challenging. Hiking up the hills in the west section is rewarded with some amazing views of the giant cacti for as far as the eye can see.
We happened to be in the east section for an amazing sunset. There is an eight mile loop road through the park and about half way around a dirt road to a picnic area.
The walking trails off this picnic area are a perfect spot to wander and marvel at these mighty Saguaros, and to do it at sunset was everything I hoped for. For me it is the perfect time of day to visit.
Nominated by La Vida Global
Sequoia National Park – See General Sherman
Sequoia National Park is named after the huge evergreen Sequoia trees that pretty much only grow in and around the park. So, if you are coming to a park named like this, you better well see the big Sequoia trees, right? The biggest in the world is named General Sherman and he is the must-see of the park. Just off the main highway through the park are signs to the upper parking lot for the Sherman tree. From here you walk down about 200 yards, which is “only” 3/4 of the height of the overall tree. That is 200 yards vertical, the path is about half a mile long. There are other sequoias in the grove, but the Sherman tree is truly a sight. He towers above all the others and is massively wide. Enjoy your time at the bottom because hiking back up to the car can be a chore. In September, when we visited, there were still lots of people, but cooler air for that hike back up. Make sure to read the info boards about the life of Sequoia trees spread along the paths. The trees are not just big, but also really interesting.
Nominated by Sleep in the Woods
Yosemite National Park See Sunrise at Tunnel View Look Out
Yosemite National Park in central California is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Every direction you turn you’ll see a new breathtaking site that will blow your mind!
There are also countless things to do in Yosemite like hiking, earning a Junior Ranger badge, waterfall viewing, camping, and more. But if you had to pick one thing to do at Yosemite, it would have to be witnessing a sunrise at Tunnel View! This has to be the most iconic Yosemite landscape and for good reason. From Tunnel View lookout you can see Bridal Veil Falls, Half Dome, Three Sisters, and El Capitan in one shot, and the effect is glorious!
Don’t miss this incredible spot when you visit Yosemite!
Nominated by Wanderlust Crew
Zion National Park – Visit Canyon Lookout
Zion National Park truly is a wonderland of red rock, steep cliffs, and gorgeous vistas. There are too many viewpoints to even name, but one of the best in terms of bang-for-your-buck is Canyon Overlook.
At only a mile round-trip, the trail is doable for hikers of all ages and leg lengths. Still, it’s more interesting than a simple paved path, and has a few spots to walk under rock outcroppings and around rock turns. The out-and-back trail dead ends at a jaw-dropping view of Zion Valley.
While it is short, the trail is not accessible, as it has some modest elevation gain, rocky paths, and steps. Any effort will be rewarded, however, with passing by hanging ferns and slickrock along the path, and with stunning views of many of Zion’s most famous formations below and above from the viewpoint.
Do be careful with little ones once you reach the overlook – part of it is fenced, but there are several spots that are not. Keep a close hold, especially while on the slickrock near the edge, and wear sturdy shoes with good traction while there. But don’t be afraid of weather – even in the cold, the trail is doable due to its short distance. Just beware of ice
Nominated by Local Passport Family
West & Pacific Northwest National Park Bucket List
Cascades National Parks – Drive the North Cascades Highway
North Cascades National Park in northern Washington State is abeautiful wilderness of mountains, glaciers and emerald green lakes.It’s so good that it has even been nicknamed the “American Alps”.
Because the snow tends to stick around for months here, it’s best togo in late spring to early fall. Some of the park is closed off tovehicles due to the snow at other times of the year.
While the park tends to attract hikers, mountaineers and backpackersdue to its ruggedness, anyone can still see some of the beauty onoffer here. The easiest way to visit is to drive The North CascadesHighway which passes viewpoints within the park and leads you to trailheads for some hiking.
If you only do one thing then make sure to hike the easy Thunder KnobTrail which is a 5.3km trail out to an amazing view of the turquoise Diablo Lake!
Nominated by That Adventurer
Channel Islands National Park – take a ferry to
What to do: Take the ferry from Ventura to one of the five islands for an adventurous day. We chose Santa Cruz Island. Snorkel, kayak, dive, swim, sail, or hike to Cavern Point. If you like primitive camping and planning ahead, sleep under the stars on any of the five islands year-round. Humpback and Blue Whale watching on the ferry ride is a bonus in the summer, as well as spying mega-pods of dolphins. Meet the Island Fox and California sea lions. Anacapa Island and Sant a Rosa are also popular islands to visit. Once back on the mainland, the Visitor Center on Spinnaker Drive in Ventura is definitely worth a stop.
Best time to go: Summer or Fall seem to be most ideal. According to the National Park Service, backcountry beach camping season on Santa Rosa Island begins mid-August. The fall is the best time of year for snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and swimming. Ocean temperatures may reach 70° (F) in early fall and visibility may reach 100 feet. Also, Northern elephant seals begin to gather at their rookery sites in late fall.
NOTE: A visit to this national park requires planning ahead as it’s ideal to reserve your spot on the ferry ahead of time.
Nominated by Rad Family Travel
Crater Lake National Park – Hike The Cleetwood Cove trail
Crater Lake is one the most magical places you can visit in America. It was created by the explosion of Mount Mazama around 7,700 years ago. Over time, water collected in the resulting crater and represents some of the purest and clearest water in the world.
For the best hikes be sure to check out The Cleetwood Cove trail – the only trail that leads down to the lake’s shoreline. The hike down isn’t too bad, but going back up is tough.
Pinnacles Overlook, located in the south east corner of the park and a six mile detour off of the Rim Drive is worth checking out.
The best time to visit is June through late September when the weather is best.
Note: There isn’t much lodging inside the park. Options are Crater Lake Lodge, The Cabins at Mazama Village, Mazama Campground and Lost Creek Campground. You can also stay in nearby town Fort Klamath.Make sure you arrive with a full gas tank since there aren’t many gas stations within 35 miles. During late May to mid-October, there is one gas station operating inside the park. Remember to swing by the Visitor Center to to watch the 22 minute film on the history of Crater Lake.
Glacier National Park – Hiking the Avalanche Trail
One of the most popular trails in Glacier National Park is the Avalanche trail located near Lake McDonald. The hike is about 2 miles one-way with an elevation gain of 500 ft.
To experience Avalanche Lake, you have to first walk through an easy boardwalk trail called “The Trail of the Cedars”. Eventually, you will run into a lovely waterfall called “Lower Avalanche Gorge”. Right after the waterfall, there is a junction that will take you to the beautiful area of Avalanche Lake. The trail then becomes a moderate-rated, dirt trail.
Once you get to the lake, take in the beautiful view of Avalanche Lake. The lake sits at the base of Bearhat Mountain and Little Matterhorn. If you look closely at Little Matterhorn, you will notice waterfalls making its way down to the lake. The waterfalls originate from a glacier called “Sperry Glacier”.
The trail gets busy, so I recommend arriving at 8 am to avoid the hustle and bustle. Because of its magnificent beauty, Avalanche Trail is one of the most popular trails at the national park.
Nominated by The Wandering Queen
Grand Teton National Park – Hiking the Cascade Canyon Trail
The Cascade Canyon trail in Grand Teton National Park is spectacular. The Grand Tetons are dramatic because they are a series of craggy peaks that rise straight up out of the plains. They are dissected by several canyons, and Cascade Canyon is arguably the most beautiful.
The trailhead starts on the other side of Jenny Lake. You can hike 2 miles from the Jenny Lake parking lot or take a shuttle boat across the lake (I recommend taking the shuttle). The first mile and a half is steep uphill from the plains up into the canyon. You are rewarded with stunning views of snow-capped mountains rising steeply on both sides.
The next three miles to the fork that is the usual end of the day hike run more less beside a river. The views of the waterfalls that give the canyon its name are near the turnaround point. The sight of them cascading down from a glacier at the top of the peaks to the river far below is breathtaking.
Chances are also good that you will see wildlife. This is bear country (take precautions) and moose country, and seeing moose feeding in the river is common. Cute otters also call the river home.
The return 4.5 miles are equally stunning – this really is one of the most beautiful hikes you will ever do. This hike is great any time spring through fall, but can get crowded in summer.
Nominated by Travel Collecting
Mount Rainier National Park – Hiking the Skyline Trail Loop
If you are in the state of Washington during the summer you must go to Mt Rainier National Park and hike in Paradise. It’s named Paradise for a reason and you’ll see why if you go. I highly recommend the Skyline Trail Loop. It’s the best trail to see the most amazing views if you are only doing one hike in the park. It’s a 5.5 mile loop if you do it all.
I recommend August if you want to see some wildflower blooms in the park. It makes the hike even more beautiful. It’s not just the fields of flowers or the views of Mt Rainier itself but looking the other way you’ll see the Tatoosh Mountain Range which might be an even better view with the flowers. Honestly, you can’t go wrong. There’s 360 degrees of views and even a waterfall on the trail.
If you like wildlife keep your eye out for deer and marmots on the trail. If you plan it right seeing a sunset on the trail would be the icing on the cake. To see the mountain light up with alpenglow and the last light on the flowers is one of the best times to see the beauty of the park. Before or after your hike you can also enjoy a meal in the old lodge.
Nominated by RouxRoamer.com
Rocky Mountain National Park – Take the Trail Ridge Road
When you venture to Rocky Mountain National Park, give yourself a full day to hit one of the park’s true highlights: Trail Ridge Road. As one of America’s highest roads, it takes you through meadows of grass and wildflowers with grazing deer and up to alpine tundra over 12,000 feet. The road itself is only about 50 miles, but you’ll want to stop often for photos of the stunning scenery, animal spotting, short hikes and even a photo at the Continental Divide – in our opinion, one of the prettiest spots in the whole park.
If you opt for the Community Rocks trail in the Alpine Zone, take it slow and drink water as the high altitude can take its toll on travelers of all ages (but especially young ones) and be prepared for the cold weather and potential for wind.
Trail Ridge Road is only open from late May until late October, with the exact dates dependent on snow accumulation.
Nominated by The Family Voyage
Great Sand Dunes National Park – Go Sand Surfing
Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park is an utterly surreal experience. A vast landscape of sand dunes several hundred feet high is the last thingyou’d expect to see in Colorado, but there they are, nestled between thesoaring peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes are quite asight to simply behold, but one of the most exciting (and unique)activities to do at the park is renting a sandboard to slide down them. It’s a messy experience – expect to get sand in your clothes, hair, and inside your ears – but the mess is worth it for the experience, and it’s definitely not something you’ll find at any other national park.
Sandboards are available from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Recreation in Hooper, and the Oasis Store near thepark entrance. These boards are specially designed for use on sand, sodon’t attempt to surf with a saucer sled or anything else made for snow –they won’t slide on the rough sand. The best time to sandboard in the park is in the spring and early fall, when the temperatures hover around a pleasant 60-70 degrees. It’s also best to go in the morning or evening to avoid the mid-day sun, which can heat the sand up to over 150 degrees.
Nominated by Passions and Place
Olympic National Park – Visit Ruby Beach
The Olympic National Park is a breathtaking park located on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. One of the most famous beaches there is Ruby Beach and is well worth a visit! It’s known for its beautiful haystack rocks, tide pools, and driftwood.
One of the best times to go to Ruby Beach is in the summer. It’s more crowded but the weather is far better. Even still, make sure to pack plenty of layers as it can still get a bit chilly right on the coast.
The tide pools are fantastic! Go at low tide (stop at a ranger station to check out the tide charts), and you’ll find several starfish (both purple and orange ones), sea anemones, and tons of mussels! Just a friendly reminder, please try and leave the sea creatures as undisturbed as possible so everyone can enjoy them.
Even with how popular Ruby Beach is (make sure to come early to find a parking spot); it won’t feel crowded once you’re down on the beach. It’s very spacious and there’s plenty of coast for everyone to enjoy. It’s the perfect spot for families of all ages to explore and spend a morning together.
Nominated by Daley Family Travel
Yellowstone National Park – See Old Faithful Erupt
Yellowstone National Park really deserves a bucket list all of its own. As the oldest, and arguably one of the best National Parks, there is something to see at Yellowstone around every turn. But if you ask most people what Yellowstone is famous for they will say Old Faithful! Contrary to popular believe Old Faithful does not erupt hourly, it actually erupts every hour and twenty minutes (with a plus, minus ten minute window).
Top Tip for Yellowstone: you can check online times for eruptions on your day of visiting. I would recommend starting your day here as it gets very crowded later in the day!
For those organised people who are staying at an inn in the lodge, rather than lodgings near Yellowstone, you have more options of seeing the eruption in the evening and very early!
Alaska & Hawaii National Park Bucket List
Haleakala National Park – Reach the Top of the Crater
One road trip to add to your U.S. national park bucket list should be the road trip to the top of the Haleakala Crater on Maui in Hawaii. When you drive to the top, there are lookout points where you can see the crater. As you look out towards the rest of the island, you definitely feel like you are above the clouds. Many people recommend doing this road trip so that you are at the top of the crater for sunrise, which makes for a phenomenal view.
If you are doing the road trip, I would recommend downloading the Shaka Guide app. It costs money, but is definitely worth it. The 2 hour audio tour will walk through history of the island, tell you exactly where to turn, and will point out places to stop along the way. The Shaka Guide is a must to getting the most out of your road trip!
Nominated by Travel After Five
Katmai National Park – Spot Bears
Alaska is known for its incredible wildlife, and the Katmai National Park is the best place to see wild brown bears, or grizzly bears, from up close in a relatively safe environment. Relatively as this park, like most national parks, is neither a zoo or nor an amusement park. Park guidelines should be observed at all times, and danger, while limited, is not inexistent.
But Katmai is probably the one park where visitors can get to see the massive beasts walk a short distance away. Different platforms allow the visitors to observe various groups of bears, and walking to the separate parts of the park might lead to a bear encounter.
Such an experience is possible thanks to the Brooks Falls teeming with red sockeye salmons. The Grizzly bears spent their time soaking in the cold water and catching salmons making their way up the river. Bears get to gorge themselves so much that humans are of fewer interests to them. Nothing beats the smell of fresh fish!
The only way to reach Katmai National Park is via an air float plane one and half hour from Homer or three hours from Anchorage, which also provides a fantastic sightseeing opportunity over the stunning snow-covered peaks and turquoise lakes of the Aleutian Range. Most visitors only come for a day, but it’s also possible to stay overnight in the park campground or one of the lodges. The best time to visit Katmai National Park is in the warmer summer months, but late June to late July is best to see the bears catching the salmons.
Nominated by Ze Wandering Frogs
Wrangell St. Elias National Park – Go Ice Climbing
If there was ever a bucket list for national parks, Wrangell St. Elias National Park in Alaska should be on top of the list. Located in south central Alaska, Wrangell St. Elias is America’s largest national park. The Park spans over 3.2 million acres – the size of Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Switzerland combined, and visitors not only get to experience the vast remoteness of Alaska, but also its incredibly wild and untouched beauty.
Visitors also have the opportunity to experience a once in a lifetime adventure – ice climbing! With the able assistance of one of a number of guide services, visitors can receive a quick orientation before being strapped into a harness and climbing up the side of a glacier, Spiderman style. Although it is definitely not an activity for the faint of heart, it is definitely something to experience once in your lifetime.
A trip to Wrangell St. Elias definitely tops our list of Must Do experiences, although given what a wonderful time we have, we hope it is not a Once in a Lifetime experience! For those able and willing, definitely incorporate Wrangell St. Elias into your next Alaskan adventure – you will not be disappointed.
Nominated by We Go with Kids
What National Park is top of your Bucket List? How many of these items have you done?
Further National Park Reading
- Yellowstone Itineraries -1-4 Days
- Yellowstone Packing List
- Where to Stay Near Yellowstone National Park
- Best Things to Do in Yellowstone with Kids
- National Park Bucket List
- South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
- Badlands With Kids
- Moab 3 Day Itinerary
- Things to Do in Arches National Park
- Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park