The Top 25 National Parks in America
This year's World's Best Awards survey was open for voting January 11 through May 10, 2021, as destinations around the world were lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Survey rules have always allowed readers to reflect on their travel experiences over a three-year period. We hope that this year's honorees will inspire your own travels as you get back out into the world.
America's 63 national parks are beloved destinations for both citizens and visitors from around the world, even during the Covid-19 pandemic. This past year, the entire National Park System (which, in addition to the parks, includes places such as national forests, battlefields, and scenic byways) saw 237 million recreational visits. Some of the country's most famous landmarks, such as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, are contained within these federally protected places, so it's easy to see why so many people flock to experience what has been called "America's best idea." It's for these reasons that Travel + Leisure editors decided to add a category for the best U.S. national parks to the World's Best Awards for the first time in its 26-year history.
Every year for our World's Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. U.S. national parks were rated on their natural attractions, activities, lodging, wildlife, accessibility, and cleanliness.
Many of the expanses that T+L readers chose as their favorites are located in the West, with Wyoming, Alaska, Washington, and California notching multiple favorites. Some parks are quite remote and receive few annual visitors. For instance, Katmai, in Alaska, only sees a scant 37,000 annual visitors each year, but lucky readers who did visit rated it highly for its plentiful moose and bear sightings, resulting in a third-place finish. Other parks — including No. 8 Great Smoky Mountains, which received 12.5 million visitors in 2019 and 12.1 million in 2020 — are incredibly popular year after year. In the Smokies, it was the leaf-peeping that readers couldn't get enough of.
Like Katmai, some parks are prized for incredible animal encounters, including No. 2 Grand Teton, which one reader described as "transcendent at dawn when wildlife is abundant." Other parks, such as Redwood, which ranked No. 19, are beloved for their natural wonders. As one reader said: "Every American should see these trees once in their life. Just awe-inspiring." Other places earned high marks for impressive non-terrestrial features, like stargazing. In fact, Mesa Verde, which nabbed the No. 25 spot, was recently certified as an International Dark Sky Park.
However, the national park that takes first place in readers' hearts is, appropriately, America's original: Yellowstone. Read on to see why it earned the category's top spot — and which other parks made the list.
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
The nation's first national park, established in 1872, has so many iconic features it's almost impossible to list them all. Among its draws: Old Faithful and other stunning geothermal features like the Grand Prismatic Spring; herds of bison roaming all over; packs of wolves in the Lamar Valley; and, of course, sweeping mountain views. It's this array of outdoor adventures that makes it such a marquee destination and keeps travelers coming back. "I was overwhelmed, in a good way, by the magnitude of this park," wrote one reader. "I visited once in high school with my family, but going to Yellowstone as an adult was a totally different experience. We heard wolves at night while camping, swam in a gently flowing river, and loved soaking in the vast spaces of the park."
Many visitors described Yellowstone as one of the country's greatest treasures — or as one put it, "the granddaddy of them all." Said another, "By far the most amazing park we have visited out of about 12 national parks. Stunning beauty." And while many flock to the park in the summer months, some readers noted that winter is just as special a time to visit. "The experience was wonderful," one voter attested. "It was absolutely beautiful with a small group of snowmobilers and an informative guide."
Yellowstone also gets top marks for its attention to accessibility, which can be difficult to come by in some national parks, including some wheelchair- and stroller-friendly trails that everyone can enjoy. As one reader explained, "It was safer than I thought it would be with my grandkids. They've done an amazing job with informative placards, accessible parking, and walkways."
More information: nps.gov/yell/
2. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
More information: nps.gov/grte
3. Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska
More information: nps.gov/katm
4. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
More information: nps.gov/romo
5. Yosemite National Park, California
More information: nps.gov/yose
6. Glacier National Park, Montana
More information: nps.gov/glac
7. Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska
More information: nps.gov/dena
8. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
More information: nps.gov/grsm
9. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
More information: nps.gov/kefj
10. Zion National Park, Utah
More information: nps.gov/zion
11. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
More information: nps.gov/grca
12. Olympic National Park, Washington
More information: nps.gov/olym
13. Wrangell—St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska
More information: nps.gov/wrst
14. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
More information: nps.gov/mora
15. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
More information: nps.gov/glba
16. Sequoia National Park, California
More information: nps.gov/seki
17. Acadia National Park, Maine
More information: nps.gov/acad
18. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
More information: nps.gov/shen
19. Redwood National Park, California
More information: nps.gov/redw
20. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
More information: nps.gov/voya
21. North Cascades National Park, Washington
More information: nps.gov/noca
22. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
More information: nps.gov/brca
23. Arches National Park, Utah
More information: nps.gov/arch
24. Kings Canyon National Park, California
More information: nps.gov/seki
25. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
More information: nps.gov/meve
See all of our readers' favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World's Best Awards for 2021.