The Best National Park for Every Type of Traveler
Think national parks are just for burly, flannel-clad men, or Reese Witherspoon a la "Wild?" Think again. You don't have to be a pro hiker to take advantage of this country's bounty of national parks.
With 58 very diverse national parks in the United States, travelers can find everything from staggering canyons to glaciers and virtually untouched coral reefs—making it possible to plan a family vacation, a romantic getaway with your special-someone, a multi-generational family reunion, or an adventurous weekend with your best buds. Regardless of your activity level, or preference for sandy beaches or pine-covered forests, there's definitely a park out there fit for your trip.
These protected oases are the perfect escape from the daily urban or suburban grind. And while some, like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains see millions of visitors a year (the latter gets more than 9 million tourists), little-known national parks can provide us with a place to enjoy the land as it was intended to be enjoyed: unspoiled, and teeming with wildlife, like final slivers of the frontier.
Varying terrain and hikes ranging from easy to strenuous can be found at every park—though some are more suited, in general, for specific types of travelers. Arches National Park, located in Northeastern Utah, is a great destination for a family with younger children that may not be capable of hiking for long distances. Many of the park's features, for example, are just a stone's throw away from the road.
For the more active traveler eager to get away from the crowds and into some of our country's most vast and remote wilderness, Washington State's Olympic National Park may be a better option. Summiting Mt. Olympus, the range's 7,980-foot peak, requires technical climbing skills, as you'll face vertical cliff faces and icy glaciers.
Thanks to the varied terrain and distinct geographic offerings, our expansive national park system ensures that there is a wilderness adventure that will meet anyone's expectations: no passport required.
Best for Winter Sports: Grand Teton, Wyoming
Grand Teton has some of the most rugged peaks and terrain in the country. Located only a few miles south of overly crowded Yellowstone, this park is often overlooked and is not nearly as accessible by car as others. Many of the peaks and alpine lakes can be reached within a day's hike, but others require technical climbing gear to summit.
This area is also a great winter destination, as it is home to the Jackson Hole ski resort and some of the best backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the lower 48. Stay in the nearby town of Jackson for a nice dinner (try Wild Sage at The Rusty Parrot Lodge) after a long day of hiking or skiing.
Best for Adventurous Couples: Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
Colorado may be best known for the Rocky Mountains, with peaks towering above 14,000 feet and covered in some of the best skiable terrain in the country—but can you imagine that there is also a place in Colorado that will transport you deep into the heart of North Africa?
Drive in, and admire the juxtaposition of vibrant orange sand dunes with snow-capped mountains soaring in the distance. Take a short hike with your significant other to the creek that flows around the outskirts of the dunes, or venture in a bit further and spend a night under the stars in this unique and lesser-known part of the country.
Best for Friend Trips: Arches, Utah
If natural stone bridges glowing red under the setting sun sounds appealing, then Arches is the destination for you. Most of the arches, including the iconic, 65-foot tall Delicate Arch, can be reached by car or a brief hike. This national park is ideal for snapping memorable photos with your friends (it's only a short walk to snap a photograph of the sun rising through the Window Arches) and its diverse terrain will make it easy for everyone, regardless of fitness level, to keep up.
Consider staying in the town of Moab, only five miles away, which is full of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. We recommend the Moab Brewery for a local beer and a basket of beer-battered onion rings with spicy stout mustard.
Best for the Skilled Backpacker: Canyonlands, Utah
Canyonlands is best suited for those looking to experience the arid, beautiful landscape of Utah's desert while getting far away from the crowds. Skilled backpackers will be able to take the best advantage of the challenging landscape.
While there are destinations within this park that can be reached by car, the ideal way to experience as much of the 527-square miles as possible is by strapping on your pack and heading out into the wilderness. This park is divided into multiple unique districts, so be sure to leave at least a day or two for exploring each one. The masses over at Arches won't find you out here.
Best for Multi-Generation Familiy Reunions: Zion, Utah
Zion, located in southern Utah, has some of the best scenery in the state, and don't be surprised if you spot mountain goats and bighorn sheep as you meander through the sandstone cliffs. During the summer months, an in-park shuttle service can take you to different destinations throughout the park, though every member of your group should be sure to pack a pair of sneakers that can get wet when you hike the park's iconic slot canyon, The Narrows. This is just one of Zion's many day hikes.
Not bringing along grandma and grandpa? Bring your climbing gear and enjoy exceptional canyoneering.
Best for Novice Hikers: Yosemite, California
Yosemite is a world-class rock-climbing destination, located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, though entry-level hikers and backpackers should not be deterred. Anyone (in decent health) with a sturdy pair of hiking boots can climb the park's famous Half Dome—or at least photograph it from one of the many surrounding vistas.
For a slightly less-crowded option, consider exploring the Tuolumne meadows area, which has impressive hikes of all lengths and difficulties.
Best for Photographers: Crater Lake, Oregon
Imagine standing on the rim of an active volcano, staring into the shimmering dark blue water that has collected over thousands of years of rainfall and snow melt. It's definitely an experience to write home about. At 1,943 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest and purest lake in the country, as there are no inlets or outlets to allow for contamination.
Although there are some opportunities for backpackers within the park, views of the lake are best garnered from atop the sheer cliffs that the East and West Rim Drives traverse. For an even better view, take a short hike up Garfield Peak or one of the other multiple surrounding peaks.
Best For Camping: Olympic, Washington
If you are able and willing to leave your car behind and rely entirely on your feet for a few days, this park may be one of your best options. With its glacier-capped peaks deep in the wilderness, acres of old growth forests, miles of rocky coastline, and lush rainforests, this park is one of the most unique in the country. The diversity that the area has to offer is incredible, but much of its almost 1 million acres are only accessible by foot.
Best for Solo Backpackers: Badlands, South Dakota
If you think there's not a whole lot to see between the Rockies and the Appalachians, you haven't been to the Badlands. In an otherwise relatively flat area, the rock formations that have resulted from millions of years of deposition and erosion are an incredible sight. Highway 240, also known as the Badlands Loop Road, provides many opportunities for photographing scenic vistas, going on a day hike, and sighting wildlife.
For those looking for true backcountry solitude, consider a two-day hike through the prairies and rock formations of the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.
Best for Families: Haleakala, Hawaii
Thick bamboo forests, deep blue waves crashing into volcanic rock formations, and waterfalls cascading down lush, green mountainsides are a few things that should come to mind when thinking of Haleakala. Located on the island of Maui, visitors to this park will find no shortage of things to do.
Drive to the summit of the Haleakala Volcano to watch the sun set from the top of a 10,000-foot volcano after spending the day driving along the island's picturesque coast. Families with older children may want to spend the day hiking or biking from the summit into the volcano's crater, or spend a few nights camped out in the park's wilderness.
Best for Novice Campers: Glacier, Montana
Living up to its name, Glacier is home to enormous mountains and glacier-covered cliffs. Cutting through the middle of the park and over the continental divide, Going-to-the-Sun Road makes it accessible enough to please those who would prefer the comfort of a car without excluding the day hiker or backpacker.
If you count yourself among the latter, spend a few hours hiking out to Avalanche Lake, or spend two days completing the Pitamakan and Dawson Pass loop. Don't forget to reserve your backcountry permits and campsites ahead of time during the summer, as they fill quickly.