The Best U.S. National Park Views
Tourists paid some 307 million visits to our 58 civic playgrounds in 2015, but most stayed on or near the main roads. Yet some of the most startling views on the planet—the jagged 2,000-foot walls of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, say, or the red rock bridges of Arches—are best (and sometimes only) seen when you leave the paved world behind to go off on your own two feet.
It’s a lesson Ansel Adams learned early on. In 1916, at age 14, he was scrambling around the glacier-carved granite boulders of Yosemite Valley with a Box Brownie camera. If he’d stuck to the streets in the ensuing years, he may never have taken the photos that jump-started the Sierra Club or prompted Franklin Roosevelt to establish Kings Canyon National Park, southeast of Yosemite. Instead, Adams immortalized the “primal song of the wilderness,” as he put it, and inspired millions to seek it themselves. Follow Adams’s logic and you’ll find breath-stealing views everywhere in national parks.
So which views rank at the top? We asked those who have spied them all: park employees. Patrick Myers, who’s worked as a ranger at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park for more than 20 years, nominated the top of Mount Herard. Hike up the mountain through all sorts of ecosystems, he says, and from the 13,297-foot summit you can see 30 square miles of the Great Sand Dunes, with the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range in the distance.
In Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, you can trek through lodgepole pine forests to Leigh Lake’s east shore, plop yourself down on a soft, white sand beach, and stare up at flat-topped Mount Moran—the fourth highest peak in the Teton range. It’s the favorite view of Jackie Skaggs, a former public affairs officer at the park. Get an early start and you might spot black bears (carry pepper spray), moose, and birds like flycatchers and white pelicans. “This is simply a magical place,” Skaggs says. “I’ve lived and worked in Grand Teton National Park for 33 years, and I still get goose bumps here.”
So check out our picks for the most spectacular spots in the country’s national park system, and discover your own. Just be sure to park that car and start hiking.
Hidden Lake at Glacier National Park in Montana
The View: Daniel Fagre, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist, predicts that the remaining glaciers in Glacier National Park will have melted to a trickle by 2020—10 years sooner than earlier believed. Enjoy what remains by hiking to Hidden Lake, on the Continental Divide. You’ll pass pink and yellow monkey flowers, bear grass, and more than a few mountain goats before arriving in the midst of a 360-degree view of glacier-curved peaks, including Bearhat and Heavy Runner mountains.
Getting There: It’s a quick 1.5-mile hike from the Logan Pass Visitor Center on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Sentinel Dome at Yosemite National Park in California
The View: Abe Lincoln established Yosemite Valley as public land in 1864, with good reason: the area is chockablock with misty rapids, granite monoliths, and towering sequoia trees. Crowds flock by foot and car to Glacier Point, but you can catch the same view—without the hordes of gawkers—at Sentinel Dome. It’s only a one-mile hike from the valley floor, yet earns you a 360-degree view of the park (including El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls, the highest measured waterfall in North America).
Getting There: Start your hike at the Sentinel Dome trailhead, six miles east of the Bridalveil Creek Campground turnoff on Glacier Point Road. You’ll wend through forest and wildflower-topped meadows before reaching the granite dome (it’s a quick scuttle from there to the overlook).
Park Avenue at Arches National Park in Utah
The View: It’s a flat, one-mile hike to get up-close-and-personal with sandstone Park Avenue. “You’ll see geologic layers, small ephemeral rock pools (sometimes with fairy shrimp), the occasional animal tracks, and a variety of plants like old man sagebrush and shinnery oak,” says park ranger Lee Ferguson. “I’ve been told it really does resemble Park Avenue in New York City. It reminds me of a miniature version of Monument Valley.”
Getting There: It’s a quick walk from the Courthouse Towers viewpoint, near the park’s south entrance in Moab Canyon. To avoid crowds, go in late November through early March (and aim to hike in the early morning or late afternoon).
Mount Herard at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado
The View: In south central Colorado you’ll find North America’s tallest dunes and one of the area’s most varied hikes—walkers might spot everything from Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep to disk-eared pikas on the ascent up the 13,297-foot mountain. From the top, it seems all of Colorado is unfolding beneath you, including the sand dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Range. “There are no crowds any time of year,” says park ranger Patrick Myers.
Getting There: Drive a high-clearance (i.e., off-road) vehicle 11 miles up Medano Pass to come to the Medano Lake Trailhead. In-the-know visitors take advantage of the 21 designated free campsites along the road (first come, first sleeping). From the trailhead, it’s a 5.5-mile hike to the summit of Mount Herard.
Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park in Maine
The View: At many times of the year, Acadia National Park—the first national park east of the Mississippi—is the first place the rising sun hits the United States from October 7 through March 6. Make the two-mile trek to the summit of Cadillac Mountain (at 1,532 feet, the highest point on the Atlantic Coast), and you’ll score great views overlooking Bar Harbor and the ice-carved coastline. Come before daybreak and you might witness a sunrise ceremony, undertaken occasionally by the Wabanaki confederacy of tribes as part of its cultural revitalization.
Getting There: Take Park Loop Road just over three miles from the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and you’ll spot the trailhead.
Sable Pass at Denali National Park in Alaska
The View: In the land of the midnight sun, one of the best things to do is hike, baby, hike. At Denali’s Sable Pass, you can meander through willow brush and cross Igloo Creek in plain view of glacier-sheathed Cathedral Mountain. Bring your binocs to scope the “big five,” Alaska-style: moose, caribou, sheep, wolf, and that solitary, berry-munching crowd-pleaser, the grizzly bear.
Getting There: Denali Park shuttle buses depart from the visitor center near the park entrance and will drop you at mile 38 of Sable Pass, where you can take a moderate hike above the Upper Teklanika River.
Sheep Mountain Table at Badlands National Park in South Dakota
The View: From the southern end of Sheep Mountain Table, you’ll get a sweeping view from the highest sod table around—those are 35 million-year-old Brule (layered sedimentary rock) and Sharps (volcanic ash) formations, along with the Cheyenne River, spread out below you. “On a clear day you can see all the way to the Black Hills, some 50 miles away,” says ranger Aaron Kaye. “Walk along the south end of the table, which is marked by a nice forested area of cedars and affords views to the valley floor about 300 feet below.”
Getting There: Take a high-clearance vehicle toward Scenic, on Highway 27, turning west about four miles south of there into the park’s South Unit, where you’ll churn dust along a gravel road for seven miles.
Leigh Lake at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming
The View: Rumor has it that early French explorers named these mountains for the ample bosoms they were longing for back home. An easy and rewarding way to hone in on the range, according to the park's former public affairs officer Jackie Skaggs, is to hike the eastern shore of Leigh Lake. “You’ll get stunning views of Mount Moran—the fourth highest peak in the Tetons—and the U-shaped Paintbrush Canyon.”
Getting There: Leave your car in the north end of String Lake’s parking area, where you’ll find the Leigh Lake trailhead; from there it’s just 1/4 laid-back miles to bliss.
Watchman Peak at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon
The View: Some 7,700 years ago, 12,000-foot Mount Mazama erupted in such a tizzy that it collapsed, forming a caldera on the crest of southern Oregon’s Cascade Mountain range. A steep, three-quarter-mile hike will carry you up to Watchman Peak, where a fire lookout tower has stood since 1932. From up there, the cinder cone of Wizard Island looks remarkable, but strange—like a fifth grader’s science project gone awry.
Getting There: Start at the trailhead four miles north of Rim Village (just follow the signs on Rim Drive).
Clingmans Dome at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee
The View: Not far from the manufactured kitsch of Dollywood is a much different sort of attraction. On clear days, the summit of Clingmans Dome provides vistas of rolling, forest-carpeted hills and no fewer than seven states. Climb the tower at the top of the mountain (at 6,643 feet it’s the tallest point in Tennessee and the third tallest east of the Mississippi) to maximize the impact.
Getting There: Drive the Clingmans Dome Road from Newfound Gap and then hike the steep, half-mile trail to the peak (the Appalachian Trail crosses Clingmans Dome, so longer hikes are available).
Inspiration Point at Channel Islands National Park in California
The View: Touted by biologists as North America’s Galapagos, the five unscathed isles that make up the Channel Islands contain 145 endemic species, including the elusive rust-red harbor fox. On the volcanic, five-mile-long Anacapa Island, make the easy 1.5-mile trek to Inspiration Point and you’ll catch sight of a brown pelican fledgling area and neighboring Summit Peak (keep an eye out for breaching blue whales—in the summer, park waters host one of the largest aggregations of them in the world).
Getting There: The islands are accessible only by boat or plane. Take a 60-minute cruise with Island Packers ($59 per person, $79 to camp) from the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center in Ventura, 30 miles south of Santa Barbara. It’ll take you to Anacapa Island and ferry you back when you’re through.