America invented the national park when it made Yellowstone the world’s first in 1873, introducing the idea that “extraordinary” land should be protected from public development and preserved for future generations. After visiting half of the country’s 63 National Parks, it’s obvious some are better than others. A handful of recent ones (Cuyahoga Valley, Indiana Dunes) seem downright ordinary, if not political, when compared to less prestigious but clearly superior state parks like Na Pali or Custer.
With nine total, California has the most National Parks, followed by Alaska with eight, and Utah with five. In fact, the western United States is home to over 80% of National Parks, even though just a quarter of the population lives there. This explains why The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee welcomes the most visitors, over 14 million annually, compared to Zion’s 5 million, the second most.
Wherever you go, if you only see 20 in your lifetime, make it these icons.
20. Rocky Mountain
A “mini” Torres del Paine. That’s how I originally described Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado after first visiting it. Whatever it is, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more majestic mountain range with more teal alpine lakes than here. Situated near the picture-perfect town of Estes Park, Rocky Mountain is the total package, even if it’s difficult to name a single feature like other parks on this list.
Best hike: Emerald Lake Trail (3 miles)
Many people argue this is the most beautiful National Park (if not coastline) on the eastern half of America. That is a sound argument, especially when the leaves turn in autumn, which is one of the most stunning displays of nature in all of North America. Located on an island in southern Maine, Acadia is landscaped by woodland, rocky beaches and glacier-forged granite peaks such as Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the East Coast.
Best hike: Beehive Trail (1.5 miles)
18. Death Valley
Welcome to the lowest and hottest place on Earth. But don’t go to California’s Death Valley for the notoriety. Go because it’s hauntingly apocalyptic and arguably better than two of America’s other sand dune national parks (Great Sand Dunes and White Sands). Here there’s a ghost town, salt flats, and soaring Sierra Nevadas in the background. Oh, and Star Wars was filmed here, which is why you’ve already seen it.
Best hike: Mosaic Canyon (3 miles)
17. Grand Teton
“Grand Tetons” means “big nipples” in French, who gave the mountain range its modern name after first seeing its now famous twin peaks. Bordering Yellowstone in Western Wyoming, Grand Teton is also known for Jackson Hole valley, mountaineering, and the picturesque Jenny Lake. Like Rocky Mountain National Park, this too reminds me of Patagonia, especially while driving the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway.
Best hike: Cascade Canyon (9 miles)
When Native Americans used to escort settlers and the U.S. military through South Dakota, they wouldn’t dare venture into this place. “Bad lands” they called it, for its sick-looking layered rocks, steep canyons, and towering spires. When coupled with the sprawling grasslands that surround both the rocks and entire park, the views are bewitching and best viewed along The Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240).
Best hike: Notch Trail (pictured, 1.5 miles)
15. Glacier Bay
When someone says they saw glaciers on an Alaskan cruise, this is almost always the place they’re referring to. Cruise ships pull right up, and there it is: Margerie Glacier, one of the largest terminal glaciers in North America. It’s also mesmerizing. If you’re one of the lucky few to explore the park while not on a cruise ship, halibut fishing, Bartlet River Trail, the intertidal zone, and kayaking rank high on the list.
Best hike: Forest Trail (1 mile)
On a foggy day—which it usually is—this place is eerie. Located on the most northwestern corner of America and taking up the entirety of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, this namesake park features dramatic peaks, old-growth rainforests, and timeless coastline with heavy Oregon vibes. Glacier-clad Mt. Olympus is popular with climbers, as are hiking and backpacking trails. Although alluring, Olympic demands a lot of driving to get around.
Best hike: Mount Storm King (4 miles)
That’s a big mountain. Formerly known as Mount McKinley, Denali is the tallest peak in North America. It’s not just tall, though—it’s massive. Covering 6 million acres in south central Alaska, the park is too—nearly three times the size of Yellowstone. Chock full of glaciers, tundra, and spruce forest, Denali (meaning “the great one”) is home to grizzlies, wolves, moose, and caribou. In the summer, most people go for the biking, backpacking, climbing, and hiking.
Best hike: Mount Healy (hard 7 miles) or Horseshoe Lake (easy 2 miles)
Like another park on this list, you have to climb several switchbacks by car to reach the park. This makes for a dramatic experience while seeing the widest trees on Earth, first starting with mostly mountain pines and then… BAM—you are suddenly surrounded by the Giant Forest of sequoia trees. General Sherman, the largest of these trees, is the centerpiece, but Crystal Cave, Moro Rock and nearby Tunnel Tree are also popular attractions in this eastern California park.
Best hike: General Sherman and Congress Trails (4 miles combined)
11. Crater Lake
You will never see a bluer lake in your life. Formed by a now-collapsed volcano, Oregon’s Crater Lake is the cleanest and clearest lake on the planet and reflects an insane amount of royal blue atmosphere. At 2000 feet deep, it’s also the deepest lake in America. Wizard Island adds to the circular majesty that’s best seen from The Rim Drive, The Crater Lake Lodge, or the fantastic Garfield Peak Trail (3.5 miles). Cold but swimmable, Crater Lake is easily one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen.
Best hike: Cleetwood Cove (2 miles)
Like Sequoia National Park, you can’t see Arches from the approaching highway. You have to drive up to it with a series of switchbacks. But once you get to the top, oh my! Arguably the most vehicle-friendly National Park (if not inspiration for Disneyland’s Radiator Springs), this Utah icon is filled with 2,000 sandstone arches carved by 65 million years of wind. Highlights include Park Avenue, Fiery Furnace, Devil’s Garden, and Balanced Rock, all of which are easily accessed by basically a single road. In truth, Arches could fit anywhere in the top 10—it’s that good.
Best hike: Delicate Arch (3 miles)
This place is alive. Standing between 40 and 60 feet tall, the namesake Saguaro (pronounced “suh-whar-oh”) cacti appear as if they could move at any moment. With outstretched arms reaching towards the sky, they watch over both sides of Arizona’s Tucson Valley like inanimate green humanoids. There are over 2 million of them, just standing there, living up to 200 years, and each weighing as much as three cars. They look unreal at sunrise and better at sunset against a purple backdrop of three-sided mountains. There’s a reason National Geographic once named this the best national park in America. The Saguaro are the reason.
Best hike: Valley View Overlook (1 mile)
8. Grand Canyon
Arguably the most well-known National Park, Arizona’s Grand Canyon is the largest canyon in the world. Seeing it with your own eyes is the only way to comprehend the ungodly 4500-6500 foot chasms that were cut by the little old Colorado River waaaaaay down below. Highlights include Mather Point, Havasu Falls, rafting the river, donkey rides into the canyon, and the serene North Rim. My only quibble compared to other canyons higher on this list: the view from the top is busy. There is just so much going on that your eyes probably won’t process it all (mostly a good thing).
Best hike: South Kaibab to Cedar Ridge (3 miles)
There are trees in this world that grow 25 stories tall. That’s 300 feet! And they can only be found here along the dreamy northern California coast. Walking far beneath them and craning necks to size them up is a wonderful and humbling experience. This is also the best smelling park in America. My nose will never forget the scent of giant Redwood trees just as my eyes can’t erase the impression they left upon me. It is a utopia of free-standing nature.
Best hike: Lady Bird Johnson Grove (1.5 miles)
If you want wide open canyons, go to the Grand Canyon. But if you’re seeking something that’s a lot more intimate, narrow, and green, head to Zion. With exception to just one, it’s probably the most beautiful single canyon in the world. It’s also home to two of the greatest day hikes on Earth, which is totally unfair. In other words, God was in a good mood the day he made disproportionately beautiful Utah.
Best hike: The Narrows (as long as you like) or Angel’s Landing (5 miles)
The first National Park is undoubtedly one of the finest. It’s also the most diverse. Although there are no mountains here, Yellowstone is home to 500 high-spitting geysers, rainbow colored hot springs, bubbling mud pots, and the highest concentration of free-roaming wildlife in mainland America. Highlights include Old Faithful (it’s awesome!), Grand Canyon Falls (double awesome!), frolicking in the Madison River, and Yellowstone Lake. Although peaceful now, this Wyoming wonder is just waiting to explode, as is the traffic.
Best hike: Grand Prismatic Hot Spring (1.5 miles)
Getting to Alaska is hard. But without leaving the lower 48, you can’t get any closer to it than this: Montana’s Glacier National Park. Still considered one of the most pristine and well-preserved places on the mainland, the park is home to mammoth mountains, gruesome grizzlies, giant moose, dark skies, and 25 shrinking glaciers. Must-dos include Going-to-the-Sun Road, Hidden Lake, Grinnell Glacier, and Logan Pass. It’s definitely deserving of its nickname, “the crown of the continent.”
Best hike: Avalanche Lake (6 miles)
If you want to see the most dramatic canyon views in America, look no further than Utah’s Canyonlands. Cut by two rivers (instead of just one), Canyonlands is a snaking maze of islands in the sky, pinnacle rocks, countertop mesas, arches, and whitewater rapids. It’s also home to epic off-roading, and one of the most amazing drives you can even manage on a clear day in a modern crossover: the white-nuckle, half-day trip from Potash Road in Moab to the Shafer Switchbacks near the visitor’s center. On top of that, the Green River Overlook is the most panoramic thing you will ever see.
Best hike: Mesa Arch (1 mile)
You’ve seen canyons. But you probably haven’t seen thousands of up-close hoodoos (i.e. funky-looking spires or rock pinnacles that poke out of the ground some 150 feet). Like so many places on this list, pictures do not do Bryce justice. After hiking down into them through tunnels and switchbacks, you’ll openly wonder if you’re standing on another planet instead of Utah. It’s otherworldly, extraterrestrial—Martian even, especially on a full-moon night. As the park’s namesake Ebenezer Bryce once deadpanned, it’s also a “helluva place to lose a cow.”
Best hike: Queen’s Garden / Navajo Loop (3 miles)
Welcome to Middle Earth, everybody. Millions of years ago, a big ole California glacier cut some white granite rock walls that tower between 3000 and 5000 feet above the valley floor. That’s more than twice as tall as Utah’s famous rock walls. Although the Grand Canyon is 1000 feet deeper, the few 90 degree walls it does have don’t even come close. Nothing I’ve ever seen has ever made me feel so small, so vulnerable, so on edge. Not the Alps. Not Patagonia. Not the Grand Canyon. For the best view in all of America, head to Glacier Point.
Best hike: Half Dome (15 miles)
Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his adolescent family and two dogs.