I’m always amazed at the number of Americans that haven’t explored their own backyard.
There are such a diverse range of landscapes to explore in this country – one minute you’ll be winding along a scenic coastline, and the next you’ll be driving through a desert surrounded by more cacti than you can count.
As a foreigner who has come back to the US again and again to explore more of both the big cities and the varied countryside, I’ve had the pleasure of getting acquainted with some of it’s best national parks. Taking some time to explore these wild areas in depth is something I would recommend to anybody.
Every April is US national park week. During this time, entrance fees are waived making it 100% free to visit any national park! So, if you’re in the states and have a day to spare, dust off your hiking boots and grab your camera, then pick one of these unbelievably photogenic US national parks to explore.
It’s really no surprise that Yellowstone was declared the world’s first national park back in 1872. Before I visited, I knew that it would be an amazing place to explore, but really nothing could prepare me for just how large and wild and scenic Yellowstone is. This place has the ability to blow your mind.
At Yellowstone you’ll find everything from multi-day hikes through the wilderness, to geysers (watching Old Faithful blow every 35-120 minutes is a must), thermal lakes, massive waterfalls, and grizzly bears. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with Yellowstone – it has something for everyone.
Take a look at my guide to visiting Yellowstone National Park for more info getting there and things to do!
I’m not really a car person (you can read my reasonings here) but I put aside my prejudices for a day of driving through Redwood National Park.
The redwood trees, some of the tallest in the world, have trunks the size of a small house and sit directly beside the road – so close that you have to be careful not to knock off your side mirror as you pass by. As we navigated each curve of the narrow road through this impressive rainforest, I got the feeling that I was in a foreign and unfamiliar world.
This national park, which is situated along the northern Californian coast, has multiple day hikes and picnic grounds for you to enjoy a day frolicking in the forest. You can find more info on the park through the NPS website.
3. Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon is the kind of place that looks fairly interesting in photos, and then when you actually get there it’s way more amazing than you imagined. As you stand on the rim of the canyon, you literally can’t comprehend how crazy this unique landscape is.
Bryce Canyon’s rocky spires (otherwise known as hoodoos) change colour depending on the time of the day, and there are countless angles for you to take photos from. Spend a day hiking or just sit and watch the canyon reflect the sunset.
This national park is not one of the most famous in the US, but it should be. Most people visit Zion just because they’re passing through, but are surprised by how unbelievably scenic it is. The park’s yellow and orange rock-like mountains surround some scattered forest, rivers, waterfalls, and wildlife.
I visited Zion as part of a tour and managed to take the above photo with just a shitty point-and-shoot digital camera. Zion’s scenic vistas are spectacular enough to make a photographer out of anyone.
Any MacBook users might recognise Yosemite from the OS X desktop images. El Capitan (the giant rock-mountain that towers over Yosemite valley) is the most photographed scene.
This national park wins the competition for the most spectacular waterfalls (including Horsetail Falls which glows orange with the sunset at certain times of the year). It also features a lush deep green forest of pine trees, and hikes ranging from super easy to stupidly hard.
Yosemite is one of those places where I spent half a day exploring, and wished I could extend it to a few days instead. If you’re planning a trip, make a weekend of it if you can!
6. Grand Canyon
There’s no way I could put together a list of the best US national parks without including the Grand Canyon. I’ve visited twice (once to the south rim and once to the north rim), and I could honestly go back another 10 times and not get sick of it. It’s just so damn big that you could easily spend a week there and manage to do a different thing every day.
There are day hikes, multi-day hikes, rivers, cliffs, forest, and wild landscapes. If you have a bit of cash lying about, you can even do a helicopter ride over and into the canyon (I splashed out on this when I visited in 2011 and can vouch for it being a truly awesome experience).
Take a look at my guide to visiting the Grand Canyon for more info getting there and things to do!
Badlands is sort of an otherworldly place. The landscape is all grey and rocky with grass covered plains that you can wander through and pretend like you’ve landed on an unfamiliar planet.
The road winds right beside many of the rock formations, so taking a car through here is a must. Badlands is also not so far away from Mt Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, so if you have a weekend to spare, you can tick off them all in one go!
8. Grand Tetons
I’ll admit, I didn’t actually go into Grand Tetons National Park, but I vividly remember staring intently out the window of the bus for at least an hour as we made our way south past it’s spectacular mountains. If you’re looking for a place to take scenic photos, you will be guaranteed to get some here.
I really love cactuses, so I guess it makes sense that I really loved Saguaro National Park. I had no idea how absolutely massive these cactuses grew until I stood beside one and looked up at it towering metres above my head.
The best things to do in Saguaro are to drive through the cactus forest, do some walking trails, or take a picnic to enjoy while you admire the landscape. Check out the Saguaro National Park website or NPS website for more details.
10. Rocky Mountain
My visit to Rocky Mountain National Park started in Estes, a gorgeous little town in the valley of the mountains. If you head here in summer, you can grab free shuttle buses running to all of the park’s major attractions and trailheads approximately every half hour. You don’t even need a car!
Rocky Mountain National Park has so many activities that you’ll be spoilt for choice. Take your pick of hiking, fishing, horseback riding, rafting, bicycling, climbing, or wildlife watching.
By the way, National Park Week isn’t the only time that the national parks fees are waived – check out this list by the National Park Service for more free entry days!