Our list of narrowing the top national parks in the U.S. down to 5 was no easy task, with 62 national parks coast to coast, the United States has some of the absolute best mother nature has to offer.
What Exactly is a National Park?
Comprised of 10’s of millions of pristine acreage, national parks in the U. S. have protected lands with scenic or historical importance with an emphasis on land and wildlife conservation, and public enjoyment.
Not all the national parks in the U.S. are places you have to travel far to get to or spend hours hiking along a trail. For example, we have the urban Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Missouri.
This is an iconic steel catenary arch that took 4 years to build. But for this article, we’ll stick to places that took millions of years to craft by water, wind, and the four seasons.
We’ve often said your vacation begins the moment you step out your door, which means the journey should be just as exciting and fun. That also gives you time to brush up on some new terms you’ll experience at some of the national parks.
Looking for hoodoos anyone? How about a certified Dark Sky Park? Or some Cherokee “Shaconage” to feast your eyes on. We’ve brought you some of the most spectacular “slot canyons” in the country, now we’ll show you more at Zion National Park.
Great Smokey Mountains National Park: 522,427 acres
– North Carolina and Tennessee
The mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina are blanketed with a blue, smoky haze that gives this national park its magical quality.
The Cherokee Indians considered the mountains to be a sacred place and referred to the area as “Shaconage” meaning land of the blue smoke. Early settlers liked the meaning, thus naming this the Great Smokey Mountains.
There are endless ways to enjoy this visual treat, one of those ways being a road trip. You can drive the Blue Ridge Parkway known as “America’s favorite drive.”
This parkway drive is 469 miles that connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
You can take in the views of the mountains, and forests and enjoy numerous campgrounds along the way. You can also get in hiking and pick wild strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.
A fun, off-the-beaten-path getaway in this top national park in the U. S. is a stay at Blackberry Farms. No matter how you choose to experience the Great Smokey Mountains, you’ll find yourself immersed in lush forests, streams, rivers, and waterfalls that’ll keep you mesmerized, especially if you’re taking the hiking routes.
Zion National Park: 146,597 acres
Known for its enormous sandstone cliffs in hues of cream, pink and red, you’ll find all levels of challenges conquering this national park.
For example, you can backpack through The Subway, a strenuous 9-mile round-trip hike through the Left Fork of North Creek that requires route finding, creek crossing, and scrambling over boulders.
This top national park in the U.S. also has a plethora of stunning slot canyons. These are long and very deep gorges with sandstone cliffs that catch the light just right to enhance the cliff’s colors.
In fact, Zion National Park seems to have slot canyons for every taste in outdoor exploration. We find the Keyhole Canyon one of the more dramatic slot canyons you can explore, and also one of the easiest to reach. Hey, we’ve gotten so used to our butlers by now, easy is A-OK with us.
The Navajo sandstone rock in this location is naturally dull red in color and most surfaces have been weathered to shades of grey and black. It’s easy to experience the isolated serenity here, kinda like what the Mars Perseverance rover is going through. Hopefully, your selfies will be just as dramatic.
Yosemite National Park: 748,542 acres
Located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, this top national park in the U.S. is known for its giant, ancient sequoia trees, and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome – a climber’s paradise.
Yosemite National Park is also well-known for its numerous dramatic waterfalls, so many of the National Parks Service even has a page dedicated to them.
Sentinel Falls which flows from March through June, cascades about 2,000 feet – that’s about the height of a 185-story building! Yosemite Falls is around 2,400 feet and cascades over 3 different drops.
The real prize to witness is Horsetail Fall when it becomes the famous “Yosemite Firefall.” This happens once a year at the end of February when the sunset backlighting hits it just right and makes the massive waterfall look like it’s on fire.
Be forewarned this is one of the best tickets on the planet so reserving a spot takes tenacity and skill. in fact, those that do get one of these coveted reservations usually have several browser windows open when the reservation site becomes available at the end of February, hoping to get in.
Because the reservation is not for a certain number of people but instead for a carload, you may have lots of friends suck up to you hoping to tag along. Expect them to come bearing gifts.
Bryce Canyon National Park: 35,835 acres
In case you’re still wondering what those hoodoos are, wonder no more. They are spire-shaped rock formations that protrude from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland, and they fill this canyon.
Bryce Canyon is an alpine forest with as many hoodoos as there are trees. And it only took water and wind about a million years to create this for your viewing pleasure.
Remember those Roadrunner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote tries to make a giant rock balancing atop a thin spire fall on the poor Roadrunner? Well, you can see these for real at Bryce Canyon National Park.
Here you can camp, hike, bike, fish, and stargaze – yep, Bryce Canyon is one of the best places to see the Milky Way and a forever sky full of stars. This is actually a certified Dark Sky Park, which is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights.
Far from light pollution and protected by a special force of park rangers and astronomy enthusiasts, this top national park in the U.S. is known as the last grand sanctuary of natural darkness. Be careful with that flashlight, you may get fined.
Grand Canyon National Park: 1,218,375.54 acres
Seriously, how could a list of the top national parks in the U.S. not include the Grand Canyon?
This geologic landscape and its resources range in age from 1,840 to 270 million years old, and the Colorado River found its way through the canyon some 6 million years ago.
This is one old planet and it just gets better and more dramatic with age. Although when Earth was one giant fireball, that was probably a sight to see as well.
Mother nature was busy in this neck of the woods, with the Grand Canyon being a mile deep, 277 miles long, and 18 miles wide.
Needless to say with all this land, there’s plenty to do, especially on the tour circuit. helicopter tours, airplane tours, hiking, rafting, and camping to name a few.
If you’ve got the stomach for it, a popular spot is The Skywalk, managed by the Hualapai Tribe and located on tribal lands. This is a lookout point to the extreme.
It consists of a horseshoe-shaped steel frame with a glass floor and sides that projects out about 70 feet from the canyon rim. This gives you a spectacular aerial view, you’ll witness how massive this canyon truly is.
If you’re looking for a way to enjoy the great outdoors, in a place that has a historical provenance and continuous beauty, then you’ll most likely be able to find a national park within a few hour’s drive from where you are right now.
The U.S. is covered with amazing nature from coast to coast and our national park system ensures they remain unspoiled, in their original condition, and are accessible for us to enjoy. So break out the bucket list, and get down to business living a life, inspired.