National Parks You Need to Visit ASAP, According to the Hosts of Parklandia
The term “find your park” is a popular tagline for the National Park Service, coined to highlight the fact that national parks are all different and unique, and that there’s a park out there for everyone. This is a sentiment my husband Brad and I (hosts of the Parklandia podcast) have come to connect with as we’ve been traveling the country in our RV. Something we’ve discovered along the way is that while all national parks are special and inspiring in their own ways, we definitely vibe better with certain ones. We still have a lot more national parks to visit, but after traveling in our RV for a year, here are some of our favorites.
Mammoth Cave — Kentucky
What’s the first thing we did when we bought our RV? Took it out on a weekend camping trip to a national park, of course! For our test run, we visited the Kentucky park that’s home to the longest cave system on Earth. We were able to do an intimidatingly immersive cave tour and even take our dog Finn on a surface trail in the bright-green woods. Not only is the park gorgeous and other-worldly, but it’ll forever hold a special place as our first RV stop.
Everglades — Florida
Naturally, the more time we spend in a national park, the more we like it. Which is why we love Everglades so much, considering we camped here for nearly a week in the winter. Having plenty of time to explore allowed us to really dig into what makes this Florida park so special, from its great kayak options to hiking trails through sky-scraping pine forests and eerie wetlands. The wildlife here is also some of the most intense — it’s the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist. And we saw plenty of both.
Congaree — South Carolina
An underrated gem, this South Carolina park has the look and feel of a swamp, but it’s actually an expansive floodplain of the Congaree River, which periodically floods to carry nutrients down into the roots of some of the largest trees on the East Coast. We kayaked on Cedar Creek into the heart of this deep, dark, spooky-looking forest, and we strolled a couple (occasionally muddy) trails. There’s no elevation gain, so it’s hard to call it “hiking,” but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Added bonus: Congaree is quite dog-friendly, so we were able to walk with Finn on the boardwalk loop trail, and he loved it as much as we did.
Badlands — South Dakota
Ever since I first visited Badlands in 2016, I’ve described the landscape of this South Dakota park as “Mars-meets-Grand Canyon.” It’s surreal and unexpected, lined with rocky buttes, spires, and pinnacles that look like they belong in a Star Wars sequel. Brad and I returned here together over the summer, and we love how hands-on the park is. It’s one of the few national parks where visitors are free to go off-trail and hike literally anywhere. Just be careful with your footing, and keep your eyes peeled for bison and bighorn sheep.
Carlsbad Caverns — New Mexico
This is my most-visited national park in the country for good reason. The cactus-lined landscape on the surface is majestic in and of itself, but there’s nothing quite like hiking down into the depths of the caves via the natural entrance trail. At night, this is where the caverns’ bats swarm out by the thousands, but by day the passageway is open for visitors looking to journey into the dark, craggy depths the all-natural way. It truly feels like another planet, lined with surreal formations, bottomless pits, and motionless cave pools. Don’t miss the Big Room, one of the largest cave chambers in the world, which you can walk around on a self-guided path.
Guadalupe Mountains — Texas
This is a national park that many people haven’t even heard of. It’s in west Texas, not far from the New Mexico border, and home to the tallest peaks in the state. In other words, it’s a hiker’s paradise. In terms of trails and mileage, I’ve hiked more here than in any other national park, from painfully intense summits and tree-lined canyons to gypsum sand dunes and bucolic springs. Since this area was once a tropical sea, Guadalupe Mountains is also home to one of the largest fossilized reefs in the world, so there’s tons to geek out over from a geological perspective, too.
Yellowstone — Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
It’d be easy to categorize America’s original national park as overrated, but Yellowstone is one place that lives up to — and exceeds — the hype. Yeah, the Old Faithful area is a little theme park-like, but this enormous park has endless things to see and do, including gawking at wildlife like bison, grizzly bears, elk, and foxes, all of which we’ve seen here. Our favorite things are the thick forest trails around Mammoth Hot Springs, the serenity of eating ice cream by shimmering Yellowstone Lake, and the unbelievable water colors at thermal areas like Grand Prismatic Spring and the Norris Geyser Basin.
Grand Teton — Wyoming
Coupled with Yellowstone, these two Wyoming parks are the ultimate one-two punch. Even though the parks share a border, Grand Teton distinguishes itself with its iconic mountain tops. Snow-capped and jagged, these soaring peaks are quintessentially American, like what the Alps are to Switzerland. The park has some of the best mountain trails, especially to tranquil glacial lakes like Delta Lake, but there’s plenty to marvel at elsewhere, like the historic barns along Mormon Row and the paddling activities on Jenny Lake.
Mesa Verde — Colorado
We love a good mystery, and this Colorado park is filled with intrigue. Designated a national park to preserve cliff dwellings created by ancient Puebloans, no one knows why these people completely abandoned their homes and left the area entirely. Today, these city-sized dwellings remain for ranger-led tours, and they’re enthralling to explore. The sheer ingenuity and time that went into creating these structures is dizzying. In addition to these iconic dwellings, Mesa Verde offers great mesa-top hiking trails, with sweeping views of the valleys below. Keep your eyes open for snakes, because we saw a surprising amount of them here.
Redwood — California
“Larger than life” is a sentiment that really fits at Redwood, where the tallest trees on Earth are literally too large to comprehend, and where the whole terrain makes you feel like you’re in a sci-fi movie. Brad and I visited Redwood with family for a vacation, and it was incredible to hike through mossy, lush forests with trees so tall they block out the sun. Our kayaking trip along the crystal-clear Smith River was also one of the best paddling experiences we’ve done, complete with a couple nerve-racking jumps off boulders into the chilly water.
Shenandoah — Virginia
For hiking and scenic driving, this Virginia park is a dream. The entire park is bisected by Skyline Drive, which winds along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and up into the clouds, with sprawling vistas of the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont Region on either side. The park is super RV-friendly, and ideal as a driving destination in general thanks to how easy it is to navigate. It’s also prime for hiking and waterfall-chasing, what with the Appalachian Trail running right through it, along with hundreds of miles of other river-lined trails branching off Skyline Drive.