The Best National Park in Every State
This year, the National Park Service celebrates its centennial year—that’s 100 years of caring for the most sacred stretches of land from California to the Eastern Seaboard. And you don’t even have to step outside of your home state to experience something the Service has worked to recognize and protect. You can spend a night under an expansive sky of stars in Wyoming, or between mountains as old as the earth itself rising from Montana like the country’s great, curved spine.
Related: Lose Yourself On the Chattahoochee River
Not everything under the National Park Service’s purview is a park—not in the way we think of Yosemite or Crater Lake. But every expanse of wilderness, every heritage site, and every meandering trail has helped define the country’s character.
But the best part about the diversity of the 411 areas in the National Park Service network is that you don’t have to be an experienced backpacker or canyoneer to appreciate them. Absolutely anyone in the world can visit one a national park or site, whether you’re on a multi-generational family trip or you’re seeking a romantic getaway with your significant other.
Our favorite National Park (or National Park Service site) in every state is just a curated sample of the hundreds of other worthwhile destinations in the United States. And the guardians of these lands and memorials know that no matter how small or little known, every last inch of the 84 million acres they surveil is as important as the Grand Canyon.
Selma to Montgomery, Alabama
Alabama may not be known for its outdoor recreation, but that doesn’t mean the National Park Service has nothing to offer here. On March 7, 1965, 600 Civil Rights activists marched along Route 80 from Selma toward Montgomery. Only six blocks later local officials attacked the activists. Martin Luther King Jr. led another march back to the bridge two days after. By the time the walk ended in Montgomery on Thursday, March 25, there were more than 25,000 in attendance. Visitors can retrace their steps on this National Historic Trail, and pay respects to the fallen.
Home to North America’s tallest mountain—which gives this park its namesake—Denali’s six million acres of wilderness is disturbed by only one road. Visitors can frequently see wildlife such as caribou, brown bears, moose, dall sheep, bison, and wolves roaming the forests. Many peaks remain snow-covered year-round, and access to the park becomes limited once the snow begins to fall in September or October. The park is most accessible during the summer months, but the more experienced outdoorsman may want to visit in the spring or fall to beat the crowds.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Cut to a depth of over a mile by the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon stretches 277 miles long and 18 miles wide, making it the largest canyon in the country. Well over four million visitors visit each year, so those looking to avoid the masses may want to consider heading to the less-popular North Rim of the canyon. There’s also a cooler climate here due to its higher elevation, and it’s a great starting point for hikers seeking more remote sections. The North Kaibab Trail is an excellent, albeit strenuous hike that delivers visitors into the heart of the canyon. Experts recommend completing it in no less than two days.
All 135 miles of the Buffalo National River remains one of the few undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. As you canoe, kayak, or raft down the river, you’ll quickly find yourself meandering through the incredible cliffs and mountainous terrain of the Ozarks. Fishermen may be pleased with the smallmouth bass population in the upper reaches of the river, or the largemouth bass and catfish in the lower reaches. As you explore the area, be sure to keep your eyes open for the chance to see one of the Rocky Mountain Elk west of the Mississippi.
Yosemite (one of the most well known rock climbing destinations in the country thanks to its iconic wall, El Capitan) has enough outdoor recreation opportunities and breathtaking scenery for everyone to enjoy. Both Yosemite Falls and Half-Dome are extremely picturesque—landscape photographers around the world travel for an opportunity to shoot in this park. Consider exploring the Tuolumne meadows area on the west side of the park for a more private experience.
Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
Snowcapped mountains, incredible backcountry skiing, and lush vegetation are some of the biggest attractions that draw tourists to the state of Colorado. Because of this, many unknowingly miss out on the golden-orange dunes that are ignited in the afternoon sun. Camp under the stars in this Sahara-like setting, or explore the surrounding meadows and view the dunes from afar. It can get windy in the dunes, so plan accordingly when setting up a campsite.
New England Trail, Connecticut
The 215-mile New England National Scenic Trail runs from Guilford, CT, up to the Massachusetts and New Hampshire border. This cross-country trail traverses mountain ridges and winds past scenic vistas, but also gives hikers a taste of New England culture as it passes through farms and historic Colonial villages. The audacious may choose to through-hike the entire trail, while the more novice hiker may plan to hike a smaller section in just a day.
First State, Delaware
Even though those searching for backcountry adventure often overlook this small state, the National Park Service does have some spectacular things to offer here. As the first state to ratify the constitution in 1787, visitors are able to see an important piece of U.S. history in the First State National Historical Park. Walk through the forested trails of Woodlawn, or visit the 1732 Court House (where abolitionists stood trial for standing up for their beliefs). If visiting in the spring, be sure to go to New Castle to experience an annual celebration of Delaware’s independence from Pennsylvania and Great Britain.
We know you’ll never tire of the powdery beaches that Florida is known for, but it’s worth it to pull yourself away from the ocean to spend time exploring the mangrove waterways and wilderness of the Everglades National Park. Keep your eyes open for manatees, crocodiles, or even a Florida panther. Fishermen will feel at home here, with opportunities to everything from acrobatic tarpon, to snapper or snook.
Cumberland Island, Georgia
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia’s largest barrier island, is full of untouched maritime forests, beaches, and marshes. Visitors can find solitude while camping under the stars in the 9,800 acres of designated wilderness area, or can see one of the many historic sites and structures such as Dungeness (an abandoned mansion that was originally built as a hunting lodge in 1736). Access to the island is by ferry out of St. Mary’s Georgia. Reservations are recommended, as the ferries do fill up.
While it’s tempting to spend your Hawaiian getaway in a cabana on a beach, sipping fruity, frothy cocktails, those who do only that during their visit to Maui will be cheating themselves of a beautiful, otherworldly escape. Located in the heart of the island, visitors to this National Park will remain busy for days on end. A drive to the 10,000-foot summit of the Haleakala Volcano to watch the sunrise or sunset is a Maui tradition—as is a loop around the coastal reaches of the park for spectacular views of deep blue waves and black sand beaches below. Many of the park’s most prominent attractions can also be reached by foot or by bike.
Craters of the Moon, Idaho
You may think you’ve been launched into space, but you’re only in central Idaho. Between 2,000 and 15,000 years ago, eight major volcanic eruptive periods occurred, forming the deep cracks, craters, and lava fields currently found in the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. The area’s sub-surface still has high levels of volcanic and tectonic activity, so the landscape is ever changing. Start at the visitor center, where experts share knowledge about the area’s geology and lithology. From there, explore Indian Tunnel and take a hike around Broken Top Loop trail.
Lincoln Home, Illinois
Claimed as their own by both democrats and republicans, Abraham Lincoln saved the Union and reshaped our Republic. Under Lincoln, slavery was abolished, and the United States of America took a huge step toward equality for all. The National Park Service maintains and preserves the home of Lincoln so that visitors can see where the 16th (and arguably one of the most important) presidents lived. Located in downtown Springfield, the home has been open to the public since 1887 and continues to allow visitors to take tours through the 12-bedroom house.
Indiana Dunes, Indiana
This National Lakeshore encompasses 15 miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline in northern Indiana. With over 50 miles of hiking trails located on 15,000 acres of federally funded land, visitors will find no shortage of prime kite-flying real estate, wildlife, wetlands, and dunes. Visitors will also discover quaint towns and a vibrant nightlife surrounding the lakeshore area. When you’re finished with the lakeshore, explore the lakeside city of Portage or artsy Chesterton.
Effigy Mounds, Iowa
Over 1,000 years ago, thousands of mounds of earth were constructed across parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois by more than 20 different Native American tribes. At least 200 of these have been preserved and can be found at the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. Wander through one of the most beautiful places in the Upper Mississippi River Valley while trying to find recognize the animals that inspired the non-uniform mounds (think: lynx, bison, birds, and bears). Out of respect for the culture and history of this sacred site, the mounds are accessible only by foot.
Brown v. Board of Education, Kansas
In 1954, the case of Brown v. Board of Education resulted in the Supreme Court’s declaration that state laws separating black and white students were unconstitutional. The consequence of one little girl’s parents suing so that she could attend an all-white school, this court case was a huge step toward desegregation. Take a tour of the historic Monroe School building, see a temporary exhibit, or wander through the galleries of this National Historic Site.
Tallgrass Prairie, Kansas
When we sing about America’s “amber waves of grain” and “beautiful for spacious skies,” we’re probably conjuring images of this swath of Kansas. A relatively new acquisition for the National Park Service, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is still under development and becoming more and more accessible to visitors. Currently, five hiking trails exist, allowing people to explore the remaining 4 percent of the original 170 million acres of prairie that once covered North America: and the few remaining bison. From the center of this impossibly quite, wide-open space, you’ll have a sense of the original America.
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park is located in the hilly countryside of south-central Kentucky and is a part of the Green River Valley. With over 400 miles of explored cave system, Mammoth is the longest known cave in the U.S. Visitors to the park can enjoy surface and subsurface exploration, canoeing the Green River, hiking, camping, and horseback riding.
Upon entering the state of Louisiana, it can almost feel like you’re entering a different country. The smells, sights, and culture are distinctly Louisianan. Containing 14 different parishes in south-central Louisiana, Atchafalaya National Heritage Area encompasses the state’s very unique Cajun heritage. Of course, there’s an aesthetic component to the National Park Service’s selection of land, too, as the landscapes range from wetlands and wildlife refuges to marshes. While here, be sure to take a boat tour through the swamps of the Bayou.
Granite cliffs piercing the sea and the sky are Acadia National Park’s most recognizable feature. Located right next to the bustling New England town of Bar Harbor, Acadia has a rugged seashore, great rock climbing opportunities, and more than enough hiking, camping, and paddling to go around. The adventurous and daring hiker may want to take on the metal rungs and wood bridges on the exposed Precipice Trail hike, while others may prefer to drive through the park and up to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. From here, you can be the first in the country to watch the sun rise.
Too many people driving across Maryland go right past the National Seashore, which is inhabited by wild horses, without even knowing to stop. Walking along the remote, wind-swept barrier island and spending the night on the waterfront alongside the horses is a very unique and memorable experience. Come in the fall, or in spring before the temperature rises and the bugs are out in full force.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Impossibly white beaches, marshes, and the lighthouses that decorate New England’s coast appear in abundance at the Cape Cod National Seashore. Tourists on the Cape can catch striped bass in the surf or from a charter boat, swim in the ocean on balmy summer days, or hike and bike along the region’s many miles of trails. Provincetown, commonly known by locals as P-town, is a colorful community where one can find nightlife, art, and great food. If you’re visiting during the summer, plan accordingly for traffic congestion.
Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan
Dunes rising 450 feet above the edges of Lake Michigan, countless miles of beaches, clear lakes, and spectacular views can be found at this National Lakeshore in Michigan. This park also includes many inland lakes, meadows, wetlands, and northern hardwood and conifer forests. Visitors can access most areas by car, but there is also no shortage of hiking trails.
Named after the first people to travel this part of the country—the French-Canadian fur traders known as Voyageurs—this park is famous for its water sports. Canoers, kayakers, and fishermen will find themselves in paradise in this National Park, as a third of its 218,054 acres is made up of water. Primary access to the park is by water, so be sure to arrange a boat rental upon. In the wintertime, the park offers exceptional cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling opportunities.
Gulf Islands, Mississippi
Spanning the southeastern coast of Mississippi and into the panhandle of Florida, the Gulf Island National Seashore encompasses both parts of the mainland as well as the islands. The blue-green waters of the gulf, and 4,080 acres of designated wilderness area draw millions of visitors each year. Exploring the area by kayak is a fairly inexpensive, yet effective way to spend your time on the coast. Less experienced kayakers may want to consider hiring a guide to take them out to Horn Island or one of the other surrounding islands, as tidal waters can be a risky place to paddle for a first-timer.
Pony Express, Missouri
With our current method of mail transportation slowly shifting toward electronic transfer, it is difficult to imagine a country in which the main source of delivering mail was by horseback. Between April 1860 and October 1861, mail was carried by horseback on an 1800-mile trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in only 10 days. Today, visitors can follow the footsteps of these postal pioneers on an auto road route. Traces of the original track, such as landmarks, graves, preserved structures, and markets, still exist and can be seen on the Pony Express National Historic Trail.
As its name suggests, Glacier National Park’s rugged mountains and sheer cliffs are crowned by glaciers that are rapidly waning due to global warming. Going-to-the-Sun Road, which connects the eastern and western halves of the park, makes the area accessible for those unwilling or unable to explore the backcountry by foot. Although the entire park deserves its fair share of exploration time, the east side is a bit more scenic and contains more of the aforementioned glaciers. Also save time for Two Medicine Campground, a car-camping site with RV hookups that makes a basecamp. Go now, before our changing climate thaws these glaciers forever.
Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska
Nebraska is generally thought of as flat and barren. While this is true for much of the state, some magnificent and noteworthy places such as Scott’s Bluff National Monument do exist. Reaching over 800 feet above the North Platte River at its highest point, the Bluff is an important and magnificent monument along the 19th-century Oregon and Mormon trails. Today, visitors hike both paved and unpaved trails, such as the North and South Overlook, for beautiful vistas. You can also see abandoned wagons while walking the historic Oregon Trail Pathway.
Great Basin, Nevada
If you think Las Vegas is the only worthwhile stop in Nevada, a visit to the Great Basin National Park should change your mind. Mountains towering over 13,000 feet above sea level, 5,000-year old pine trees, the smell of sagebrush in the desert, and some of the darkest night skies in the country are the rewards for travelers. Stargazing, hiking, and fishing are common activities in the spring, summer, and fall, while skiers and snowshoers will have plenty of terrain and solitude for themselves in the winter.
Appalachian Trail, New Hampshire
While this National Scenic Trail traverses over 2,180 miles of terrain between Georgia and Maine, some of the most beautiful stretches can be found in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The 161 miles of trail that pass through here feature more exposed, above tree-line terrain than any other state, affording hikers uninterrupted views of the surrounding mountain ranges. You can’t miss Mt. Washington, the tallest mountain in the northeast. Hikers should be aware that weather changes quickly on the high peaks, and while it can be sunny and 65 degrees in the valleys, it is not uncommon for it to be snowing simultaneously at higher elevations.
Delaware Gap, New Jersey
Many people associate New Jersey with the northeastern-most cities—and the Jersey Shore. But The Garden State is also home to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which contains 70,000 acres of streams, waterfalls, forests, and a stretch of the Delaware Rive. A day hike up Mt. Minsi is moderate and yields panoramic views into the 1,000-foot deep water gap and across the river toward Mt. Tammany. If you’re visiting during the summer months, you’ll be rewarded with the sweet wild berries that grow throughout the park. Don’t forget to keep your eyes open for the black bears that may be looking to enjoy the same fruits as you.
Gila Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument contains caves that have been used as shelters by nomadic peoples for thousands of years. Rooms have been built, pottery has been made, and families have been raised in these cliffs as peoples of different cultures came and went. The park service offers educational tours of the dwellings as well as bird watching, nature walks, and wildlife viewing tours. Backpackers (and horseback riders) will not be disappointed either, as the monument lies within the Gila Wilderness, an 870-square-mile designated wilderness area that was the first in the country.
Hudson River Valley, New York
This National Heritage Area spans from New York City to Albany and is full of scenic parks, outdoor recreation, and plenty of history. Historians may want to visit one of the many historic sites or museums such as the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, while outdoor enthusiasts may prefer rock climbing in the Shawnagunks or hiking in the Catskills. The Hudson River Valley also boasts farmers markets, upscale restaurants, and impressive art and sculpture exhibitions.