14 Incredible National Parks Outside the U.S.
This year marked the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service, an important (and staggeringly beautiful) slice of our nation’s cultural heritage. But the fun doesn’t stop there. From Lebanon to Costa Rica, Botswana to southern France, a rich network of national parks offers direct access to the world’s most stunning landscapes, many with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to view rare wildlife. Here, a list of our favorite national parks outside the U.S.
Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica
Costa Rica—25% of which is protected by conservation areas—is one of the most biologically diverse spots on the planet, with rainforests, hidden beaches, and an extraordinary array of wildlife. On the country’s southern tip, the Corcovado National Park contains fewer crowds than any other park in the country, giving its scarlet macaws, giant anteaters, howler monkeys, and jaguars plenty of room. Though luxury cruiselines (like Windstar) can’t dock, passengers can ride ashore in inflatable boats and experience the park from 98 feet above the forest floor, on special zip-line-like “canopy tours.”
Gunung Mulu National Park, Malaysia
In Southeast Asia, travelers tend to fixate on Bali, northern Thailand, and Vietnam. But Malaysia, with its long peninsula and scattered islands, offers just as much in the way of mystical forests, idyllic beaches, and cloud-piercing mountains. A good starting point? Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans 358 square miles, and which contains the world’s largest underground cave chamber, known as Serawak Chamber. There’s plenty to look at here, like the striking rock towers—which shoot up from the forested hills like teeth—and at night, giant swarms of bats, which circle up into the sky and number in the millions.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana
Stark, sun-scorched and stretching flat for over 6,000 miles, the saltpans of Botswana are one of the country’s most extreme landscapes—at least, for most of the year. During rainy season, the grasslands on the park’s western side attract migrating herds of zebra, wildebeest, and millions of flamingos, offering a unique oasis of life in this usually bleak landscape. Luxury lodges, like Leroo La Tau, offer glass-windowed views of the bush, with the added bonus of game drives and a pool.
Flinders Chase National Park, Australia
This 74,000-hectare park, located on an island south and west of Adelaide, combines two of Australia’s best features: wildlife and coastal scenery. Appropriately named Kangaroo Island, it literally teems with the hopping marsupials, though they also share this untouched bush land with koalas, Tammar wallabies and, down along the coast, New Zealand fur seals. At the park’s southern end, be sure to pose for a photo under Remarkable Rocks, an elegant wind-sculpted granite rock formation that dates back 500 million years.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
There’s a reason why this UNESCO-listed site, located two hours from Zagreb, has become one of the most recognizable nature areas in all of Europe. A meandering, wooden footbridge allows travelers to pass easily over the emerald waterways without negatively impacting the unique, rocky ‘karst’ landscape. Slender waterfalls, intricate limestone cave systems, and untouched pine forests are what this Croatian treasure is known for. But as you amble, other surprises—flocks of butterflies, rare orchids in a dozen different shades, and red deer—will reveal themselves, too.
Zakouma National Park, Chad
Travelers are starting to pick up on the magic of northern Chad’s Zakouma National Park. The 1,158-square-mile expanse contains giraffes, lions, antelope, and buffalo (black rhino will be reintroduced this year, qualifying the park for “Big 5” status). Lodges like Tinga and Camp Nomade make the experience easy-breezy for safari first-timers; just be sure to plan ahead—with the dry season only falling between late December and early April, accommodations fill up fast.
Kluane National Park, Canada
Reaching for new heights on your next nature trip? Kluane National Park, located in southwestern Yukon near the Alaska border, is not for the faint of heart. In addition to boasting Canada’s tallest peak (Mount Logan), mountains and glaciers cover 80% of its surface area—the rest is thick forest and tundra. The stark precipices, gushing creeks and frequent grizzly bear sightings make this an energizing—if slightly intimidating—trek. Luckily, the sheer number and variety of trails make it welcoming to beginners and master mountaineers alike.
Torres del Paine, Chile
Anyone who’s traveled to Patagonia knows its landscapes—richly colored, boundless, slightly prehistoric—have a way of putting a spell over you. That's certainly the case with Torres del Paine, one of the world’s most unusual national parks. The soaring granite towers, ice caves and crystal-clear lakes will quickly dwarf you to the size of an ant. Sailing along popular Lago Grey, with icebergs calving around you, and millennia-old boulders fading pink in the setting sun, you'll get the feeling that the world is seeing you, not the other way around.
Calanques National Park, France
Headed to the casinos of Monaco this summer? Consider a day trip through Calanques National Park, a sun-drenched Mediterranean paradise known for its white limestone cliffs and tiny, tucked-away beaches. For maximum serenity, book a kayak and explore the sea-whittled coastline at your own pace—it’s more intimate than a day cruise, and with any luck, you’ll end up at Calanque d’En Vau, a swoon-worthy turquoise inlet that will have your Instagram followers drooling with envy.
Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Mountains, mangrove swamps, pre-Columbian village ruins, coral reefs…one thing Colombia’s Tayrona National Park isn’t short on is scenery. Home to the country’s most exquisite beaches, this 37,000-acre park offers South American jungle realness with the bonus of a glittering Caribbean coastline. Backpackers like its low-key vibe; and most wind up at El Cabo San Juan, the park’s most famous (and picturesque) beach, where the three main activities consist of hammock lounging, snorkeling, and at night, mingling at the open-air bar.
Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, Spain
This epic national park, located in the Pyrenees mountain range along the Spanish-French border, looks straight out of Lord of the Rings. Its snow-capped peaks, green gaping valleys and rushing rivers make it equally suitable for rock climbing, fly-fishing and paragliding, though a leisurely forest hike works just as well. Thanks to its national park status, exploring this ancient, vast landscape is totally free—though any attempts to climb the 11,000-foot Monte Perdido peak (the park’s towering centerpiece) certainly come with a physical toll.
Retezat National Park, Romania
The southern Carpathians in Romania often get overlooked for glitzier European heights, like the Swiss Alps or Italy’s Dolomites. But that only adds to the untouched feel of this wild, mystical land. Swathed in wildflowers from June to September, the 146 square mile protected area was Romania’s first-ever national park in 1935; it contains over 80 glacial lakes, and one of Europe’s last remaining old-growth forests. Abundant lodges, designated campsites and easily marked trails make this the ultimate nature immersion experience, and an essential stop on any eastern European road trip.
Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s most famous protected nature area boasts 30 resident leopards, the highest concentration in the world. You’ll spot elephants too, as well as bears, peacocks, and crocodiles. Located in southeast Sri Lanka, along the Indian Ocean, the park opened in 1938 (it was formerly used as a hunting ground for British imperialists). Today, visitors can roam designated sections of the 130,000-hectare area, which includes a mix of jungle, forest, grasslands and flamingo-friendly lagoons. For an extra memorable trip, book a tree house with floor-to-ceiling windows, found at Kumbuk River eco-lodge, which sits adjacent to the park.
Chitwan National Park, Nepal
The UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in south central Nepal, on the banks of the Rapti River, is a rich ecosystem with dense groves and grasslands. An elephant ride through this lush Nepalese wilderness is the stuff of travelers’ dreams: the Asian One-Horned rhinoceros resides here, alongside Royal Bengal tigers, leopards, and a rainbow array of exotic birds. You can almost picture Noah showing up here to gather passengers for his infamous creature cruise. To really do it up, book a night in the recently opened Meghauli Seria, offering secluded villas with private plunge pools and guided nature tours through the jungle.