NATURE AT ITS FINEST
America’s national parks offer visitors inspiring and affordable ways to unplug and reconnect with nature. Although not every state has a national park, the National Park Service also oversees national monuments, national historic sites, and national rivers, among other areas. Some parks are iconic, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, and others are underrated and lightly visited. This list highlights 50 must-see destinations — the best the country has to offer.
National parks often charge an entrance fee that grants seven days of access and costs up to $35 a vehicle. An interagency annual pass provides access to all the national parks and other federal fee areas for $80. Seniors 62 or older can buy a lifetime passes for $80 and annual passes for $20. Members of the military are eligible for free annual passes. Fee-free days also are offered occasionally during the year, including Sept. 22 for National Public Lands Day and Veterans Day on Nov. 11.
ALABAMA: TUSKEGEE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITES
Alabama has no national park, but it does have several national historic trails and sites. The Tuskegee Institute includes Tuskegee University, the George Washington Carver Museum, and Booker T. Washington’s home. Nearby, the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site was established to honor the African-American airmen who served in World War II.
ALASKA: DENALI NATIONAL PARK
One of the nation’s largest reserves, Denali National Park spans 6 million acres but has only one road for access by the public. Visitors can drive as far as the Savage River Trailhead (15 miles), but to go farther, they need to hop aboard a free shuttle bus or hoof it. Many hikes are offered, and tourists can also opt for a free 30-minute sled dog demonstration.
ARIZONA: GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Arizona is home to three national parks, each worth a visit, but the Grand Canyon is the one that tops most bucket lists. Summer is a popular time, even though temperatures may exceed 100 degrees on the West Rim and canyon floor. Quick but intense thunderstorms are also possible, offering a brief respite from the heat while adding beauty to an already stunning landscape.
ARKANSAS: HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK
At 5,500 acres, Arkansas’ only national park is one of the nation’s smallest. But visitors can cover lots of ground in a short time, touring the Fordyce Bathhouse, hiking up to the Mountain Tower, and touching or tasting the thermal waters. Hot springs enthusiasts can take a dip at the traditional Buckstaff Bathhouse or reserve a spot at the Quapaw Baths and Spa.
CALIFORNIA: PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK
California has some of the country’s best-known national parks, including Yosemite and Death Valley. But take a look at the latest addition: Pinnacles National Park, established five years ago. Visitors can enjoy a hike through caves up to a reservoir or try to spot the rare California condor, which has a nearly 10-foot wingspan.
COLORADO: ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Rocky Mountain National Park has been known to leave visitors breathless — not only with its sheer beauty but because of its altitude, which starts at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. More than 350 miles of hiking trails offer varying levels of difficulty. Experienced climbers can attempt the 8-mile Keyhole Route to 14,259-foot Longs Peak. Visitors can also take a scenic drive through aspen groves and subalpine forests and drive Trail Ridge Road, which rises to more than 12,000 feet.
CONNECTICUT: WIER FARM NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
The only national park dedicated to an American painter, the Wier Farm studios tell the story of impressionist landscape artist Julian Alden Wier. From May to October, visitors can take a guided tour through the house and paint or sketch with park-provided supplies. Get inspired with a hike around Weir Pond or by wandering through the gardens.
DELAWARE: FIRST STATE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution, a fact celebrated by the First State National Historical Park, which is free to visit. Guests can tour the New Castle Court House, once home to four signers of the Declaration of Independence, and check out Old Swedes Church, the oldest church in America still used for worship.
FLORIDA: EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
The third-largest national park in the continental United States, the Everglades are home to Florida panthers, manatees, hundreds of different types of birds and fish, and, of course, alligators. Many areas of the park are accessible only by boat. Visitors can bring their own, rent one, or take a boat tour.
GEORGIA: CUMBERLAND ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE
One of 10 national seashores along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Cumberland Island is Georgia’s southernmost barrier island. Travelers to this 9,800-acre wilderness arrive by passenger ferry or private boat. Worthy of an all-day trip or even a night or two, the island is home to feral horses and features 18 miles of seashore, where visitors may find sea turtles nesting.
HAWAII: HALEAKALĀ NATIONAL PARK
Maui’s dormant Haleakalā volcano, the surrounding area, and the Kīpahulu coast are all part of this national park. Many visitors enjoy driving up to the volcano’s summit to watch the sun rise or set. If you stay later into the evening to watch the stars, bring warm layers, as temperatures in the summit area can drop below freezing. Hāna Highway is a popular route to the park known for its twists, one-lane bridges, waterfalls, and ocean views.
IDAHO: NEZ PERCE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
The Nez Perce National Historical Park includes 38 sites across Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington that tell the story of the Nimiipuu people, who have called the area home for more than 8,000 years. The museum and visitor center near the Spalding site in Idaho is a convenient place to start a tour. The nearby Weis Rockshelter features some of the first rock homes in the area. The Lolo Pass and Trail, once used by Lewis and Clark, also runs through the park.
ILLINOIS: LINCOLN HOME NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
President Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield is free to visit, but a ticket for a ranger-led tour is required to enter the home. The tour takes about 20 to 25 minutes, and visitors learn about the Lincoln family’s 17 years in the home and the 1860 presidential campaign. During the busy summer months, be sure to arrive early before tickets sell out.
INDIANA: GEORGE ROGERS CLARK NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
George Rogers Clark was a Revolutionary War colonel called the “Conqueror of the Old Northwest.” The park, which is free to visit, commemorates his capture of Fort Sackville from the British in 1779. As an aside, Colonel Clark’s brother was William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark duo.
IOWA: HERBERT HOOVER NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Built in 1874, a small white-picket-fence cottage in West Branch, Iowa, was President Herbert Hoover’s birthplace and childhood home until he turned 11. The historic site includes his father’s blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, and the president’s gravesite. There’s no fee to visit, but entrance to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum costs $3 to $10.
KANSAS: BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
The Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas, played an important role in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Visitors learn about the legacy of racism and segregation in the country and the impact of the case. Entrance is free and ranger-led tours are given twice daily.
KENTUCKY: MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK
Home of the world’s longest known cave system — at least 400 miles — Mammoth Cave National Park also offers hiking trails and canoeing for those more comfortable with above-ground exploration. To visit the caves, sign up for one of the many ranger-led tours. Tickets range from $3 to $60 each depending on the type of tour and visitors’ ages. It’s one of America’s best underground spaces to explore.
LOUISIANA: CANE RIVER CREOLE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Step back in time with a stop at Oakland Plantation, a well-preserved example of an antebellum plantation, inside the Cane River Creole National Historical Park. The park is free to visit and offers free guided tours of the main house and slave/tenant quarters. Visitors can also view the grounds of Magnolia Plantation, but not the main house, about half a mile away.
MAINE: ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
Acadia National Park, situated primarily on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine, offers hiking, bird watching, tide pooling, and fishing, as well as winter sports. Watching the sun rise and set from Cadillac Mountain is a popular activity. Weather permitting, visitors can drive a narrow 3.5-mile road up the mountain, take bus or trolley tours of the island, or choose from three ranger-narrated cruises. A fee-free Island Explorer bus helps guests get around, and bikers have 45 miles of car-free roads to explore.
MARYLAND: CHESAPEAKE & OHIO CANAL NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
The C&O Canal was vital to the towns and cities along the Potomac River for nearly 100 years. The canal is 184.5 miles long and runs through Maryland, West Virginia, and Washington. Visitors can enjoy hiking and biking paths or learn about the canal at the visitor center in Cumberland. Next year, at another visitor center 130 miles away in Potomac, guests will be able to ride in the mule-drawn Charles F. Mercer boat ($5 to $8).
MASSACHUSETTS: MINUTE MAN NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
The origins of the Revolutionary War are remembered at the Minute Man National Historical Park. Here, visitors can explore battlefields, tour authentic homes and taverns, and watch a musket demonstration by costumed park rangers (Wednesday through Saturday or Sunday during summer). Admission is free.
MICHIGAN: ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK
Situated on an island in Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is about 45 miles long and relatively isolated. Activities including backpacking, boating, and even scuba diving are offered for those seeking to get away from it all. Ferries to the island run from ports at Houghton and Copper Harbor, Michigan, and Grand Portage, Minnesota.
MINNESOTA: VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
Getting to Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota is itself an adventure. Although the park’s three visitor centers are accessible by car, reaching the park requires a boat. Guests can enjoy numerous hiking trails, guided boat tours or canoe trips, and fishing on the lakes. Camping is available with a reservation and access to a boat, or at several public and private campgrounds just outside the park. Houseboats are also available for rent.
MISSISSIPPI: GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE
The northern Gulf of Mexico attracts millions of tourists every year, and parts of it are protected and cared for by the National Park Service. Gulf Islands National Seashore features a dozen unique places to explore, including seven in Mississippi. Six are barrier islands accessible only by boat; those on foot can check out the Davis Bayou Area. In addition to fishing, hiking, biking, bird watching, and picnicking, swimming is permitted in many areas.
MISSOURI: HARRY S. TRUMAN NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Learn about the nation’s 33rd president by taking a ranger-led tour of the Truman home in Independence, Missouri. Admission is $7 for adults and free to children 15 and under. The site is open late May through Oct. 31, but the grounds of the Truman farm, located 15 miles southwest in Grandview, Missouri, are open year-round and free self-guided tours are available.
MONTANA: GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Glacier National Park covers more than 1 million acres and is renowned for its breathtaking beauty and rugged terrain. Iconic Red Bus tours and a free shuttle system (July 1 through late September) travel along Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile route with unparalleled scenic vistas. Guests can stay at one of 13 drive-in campgrounds, backcountry chalets, cabins, and historic hotels. Spaces fill quickly, so it pays to book early.
NEBRASKA: NIOBRARA NATIONAL SCENIC RIVER
More than a dozen area outfitters are available for canoeing, kayaking, or inner tubing on the Niobrara. The river features more than 230 waterfalls, including Smith Falls, the state’s highest. Those who prefer to keep their feet dry can explore nearby Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, Smith Falls State Park, and Brewer Bridge Landing.
NEVADA: GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK
Near the border with Utah in eastern Nevada, Great Basin’s nearly 7,000-foot elevation keeps temperatures at a relatively comfortable 85 degrees during the summer. The park has been designated an International Dark Sky Park, which means the stars are especially brilliant. During the day, take a guided tour of Lehman Caves or a spin on Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive to enjoy sweeping views of the canyons and mountains.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: SAINT-GAUDENS NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
The home and studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens feature several walking paths and more than 100 pieces of the American sculptor’s artwork. Summer brings concerts on Sunday afternoons (free with paid admission). Entrance is $10 a person and free for children 15 or younger.
NEW JERSEY: THOMAS EDISON NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
This National Historical Park preserves Thomas Edison’s home, laboratory, and estate in West Orange. Entrance costs $15, and an audio tour is available for an additional $5. Tours of Edison’s home, known as Glenmont, are offered on varying seasonal schedules and require tickets, which are limited and first come, first served.
NEW MEXICO: CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK
Renowned for their beauty and number, the caves at Carlsbad Caverns offer insight into the lives of bats. Admission is $12 for adults and free for kids 15 and under, free) and ranger-led tours are available for an additional fee ($3.50 to $20). From April to mid-October, visitors can watch thousands of bats leave the cave at dusk to find food. August and September are often the best time to visit, as newborn bats and migrating bats join the crowd.
NEW YORK: STONEWALL NATIONAL MONUMENT
New York Harbor and downtown Manhattan are home to 11 sites administered by the National Park Service, including the Statue of Liberty. The Stonewall Inn was declared a national monument in 2016. The Greenwich Village bar is viewed by many as the place where the modern struggle for gay rights began. A police raid in June 1969 led to six days of demonstrations by several thousand protesters.
NORTH CAROLINA: GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the North Carolina and Tennessee border, is the nation’s most visited national park, welcoming more than 11 million people through its gates in 2017. Known for its diversity of plant and animal life, the park also features 12 notable waterfalls. Hiking is a popular activity, with options for all ages and fitness levels.
NORTH DAKOTA: THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to Maltese Cross Cabin, which Theodore Roosevelt had built shortly after his first excursion to the Badlands in the 1880s. Ranger-led tours are available during summer. In addition to the cabin, visitors can explore hiking trails, go horseback riding, and observe wildlife, including bison, badgers, elk, feral horses, golden eagles, and wild turkeys.
OHIO: CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
Following the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland, Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s millions of visitors enjoy hiking, camping, canoeing, horseback riding, and bird watching. The park is also home to several EarthCaches, GPS markers that visitors can track down to find unique areas or natural features.
OKLAHOMA: CHICKASAW NATIONAL RECREATION AREA
Visitors can relax among the many water features of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, including the Little Niagara Falls, swimming areas, springs, streams, and lakes. Start at the Travertine Nature Center, where an information desk and exhibits teach about the local area and its inhabitants.
OREGON: CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK
One of the nation’s oldest national parks, Crater Lake is home to the deepest lake in the United States. The lake fills the caldera of a dormant volcano, and visitors can drive, hike, take a trolley, or ride a bike along the rim to peer into the lake from different vantage points. Steep cliffs limit access to the water, but visitors can hike several trails and take a boat tour around the lake’s perimeter or to Wizard Island, a volcanic cinder cone that rises about 760 feet out of the water.
PENNSYLVANIA: VALLEY FORGE HISTORICAL PARK
From the winter of 1777 to the summer of 1778, Valley Forge was the Continental Army’s encampment site in the Revolutionary War. Attractions include a visitor center, a museum, memorials, and a restored headquarters building used by George Washington.
RHODE ISLAND: BLACKSTONE RIVER VALLEY NATIONAL HERITAGE CORRIDOR
The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor commemorates the birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution. It’s free to visit, and visitors can take self-guided tours along the river, which extends up into Massachusetts. Sights include Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the country’s first textile mill.
SOUTH CAROLINA: CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK
Designated a national monument in 1974 before becoming a national park in 2003, this 26,546-acre preserve is home to the Congaree River and the largest intact area of old-growth bottomland hardwood. Activities include hiking (notably a self-guided boardwalk tour), kayaking, canoeing, fishing, and camping. Admission is free.
SOUTH DAKOTA: BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Visitors to this desolate area in southwestern South Dakota won’t soon forget the unique landscapes of Badlands National Park. The park hosts two established campgrounds and several short boardwalks to scenic viewpoints. Visitors can take the kid-friendly Fossil Exhibit Trail or hike longer, more strenuous trails.
TENNESSEE: GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
One of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most popular attractions, Cades Cove in Tennessee offers visitors some of the best opportunities to catch glimpses of wildlife, including black bears, coyotes, and wild turkeys. An 11-mile loop road affords scenic views and a leisurely tour of the valley. Along the way, check out restored 18th- and 19th-century houses, barns, mills, and churches.
TEXAS: BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Big Bend offers plenty to do, especially for visitors who enjoy day hikes. Explore mountains, river, or desert and take advantage of free, daily ranger-led programs. Bird watching, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, and stargazing are other popular activities at this 2.2 million-acre park, which borders Mexico.
UTAH: ZION NATIONAL PARK
Visitors to Zion National Park should prepare for a wide variety of weather conditions, including extreme heat, thunderstorms, flash floods, and bitterly cold winter temperatures. But properly outfitted guests can enjoy hiking, canyoneering, and mountain biking. One of the more popular hikes is through the Narrows, a riverbed that winds through thousand-foot rock faces. The park offers ranger-led programs in botany, geology, anthropology, and more.
VERMONT: MARSH-BILLINGS-ROCKEFELLER NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Tour a mansion that housed three families over two centuries at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. Ranger-led “working woodlands” workshops offer insight into sustainable tree harvesting, tree identification, invasive plant control, and more. A variety of hiking trails traverse woodlands and pastures and offer scenic mountain and valley views.
VIRGINIA: SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
Part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park has nearly 200,000 acres open for backcountry camping, but there’s no need to rough it. The park has several lodges and cabins available to rent and four established campgrounds. One of the park’s main attractions (and the only public road through the park) is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile stretch with 75 scenic overlooks.
WASHINGTON: OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
Olympic National Park spreads across nearly a million acres, encompassing four distinct regions — the Pacific coast, a temperate rainforest, mountains, and a drier area to the east — and three distinct ecosystems. Plan to take a full day to enjoy the view from Hurricane Ridge, eat a picnic lunch in the Hoh Rain Forest, and watch the sunset at Rialto Beach.
WEST VIRGINIA: HARPERS FERRY NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
History buffs may know Harpers Ferry Historical Park as the site of the largest surrender of federal troops during the Civil War and abolitionist John Brown’s raid. Park at the Cavalier Heights Visitor Center and take a shuttle to explore the Lower Town district. Daily ranger-led tours and programs are available late May to late August.
WISCONSIN: APOSTLE ISLANDS NATIONAL LAKESHORE
Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore encompasses 12 miles of mainland along Lake Superior, but many visitors enjoy heading to the reserve’s 21 islands to hike and camp on windswept beaches and view historic lighthouses. To get there, take a boat or kayak or hop aboard the 140-passenger National Park Service cruiser. A $10 reservation fee is charged for camping, and individual campsite rental is $15 a night.
WYOMING: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
The first national park in the United States, Yellowstone (which bleeds into Idaho and Montana) is known for its waterfalls, colorful hot springs, geysers (including Old Faithful), and Yellowstone Lake (one of the largest high-elevation lakes in North America) — as well as large crowds during the summer. June through August is usually the busiest time, and campsites and lodging fill up early.
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