2016 marks the 100th birthday of the National Parks Service in the United States! This has not gone unnoticed by travel experts who have made sure to include the U.S. National Parks on the top travel destinations for 2016. Lonely Planet, Frommers, and Fodors have all encouraged visitors to head to the National Parks this year. Combine the 100th birthday with record low gas prices and you have the perfect recipe for the classic American vacation, a road trip to take in the natural beauty of the National Parks.
While it may seem many months away before warmer weather returns, it’s not too early to start thinking about which National Park(s) will be in your travel plans. The number of visitors, especially during the peak summer months, is predicted to be high, with campgrounds and nearby accommodations booked a few months in advance.
Over the next couple of months, I’ll be doing a series of posts to help you research and plan your National Park travels. It seemed the most useful to begin with the top 10 most visited National Parks in the U.S. Upcoming posts will include lesser known National Parks and ways to use miles and points for your trip.
#1 Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Where: Along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the U.S. The park is known for its fall foliage, where the trees put on a dazzling display of autumn colors. Wild trout habitats can be found throughout the park’s streams making fishing a popular activity. Be sure to explore the 11-mile loop of Cades Cove, where historic buildings from settlers still remain intact and wildlife like deer, bears, and turkeys can be spotted.
Park Highlight: Drive to the park’s highest point, Climgman’s Dome to take in the thousands of acres of wilderness.
#2 Grand Canyon National Park
Where: Northern Arizona
The Grand Canyon is without a doubt an iconic American symbol. Hike to scenic overlooks and take in the orangey-red cliffs, canyons, and gorges. Visitors can take mule rides down into the canyon or opt to be overhead in a hot air balloon. Thrill-seekers can choose rafting and overnight camping deep within the Grand Canyon. A skywalk along the West Rim is especially popular, as are the viewpoints along the South Rim.
Park Highlight: The highlights in the Grand Canyon are limitless. The better tip is to book early, as many permits, activities, tours, and accommodations have been known to be reserved many months in advance.
#3 Yosemite National Park
Where: Central California, close to the Nevada border
Yosemite National Park is located in the Sierra Mountains. Hike trails that lead you through giant Sequoia trees or look for wildlife around Mirror Lake. For those looking for a challenge, hike the Half Dome Cables Route. The park has numerous cascading waterfalls, some of which can be seen up close by venturing out along Mist Trail.
Park Highlight: Take the Glacier Point Road to see the Sierra Mountain valley and how it was carved out by glaciers. If you can, go for sunrise or sunset.
#4 Yellowstone National Park
Where: Northwestern corner of Wyoming, with parts stretching over the borders of Montana and Idaho
Yellowstone National Park is arguably the most iconic park in all the United States. The park is known for its hot springs and Boiling River, its bison roaming the plains and the recently re-introduced wolves who travel in packs. You just might spot some of the park’s famed wildlife with a stop in Hayden Valley. Traveling by boat along Yellowstone Lake might also afford you more wildlife sightings. Lower falls and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone are also not to be missed.
Park Highlight: Certainly a spot every visitor is headed to, but a must nonetheless, is Old Faithful. It’s the tallest geyser in the park and erupts about every 90 minutes. You just can’t leave Yellowstone with seeing Old Faithful!
#5 Rocky Mountain National Park
Where: Northern Colorado
Rocky Mountain holds over 350 miles of hiking trails through alpine meadows, evergreen forests, and crystal clear mountain lakes. The park is situated along the Continental Divide, where rivers on either side head in opposite directions to drain in either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. Mountain peaks offer even the most seasoned climbers a challenge. Elk and Bighorn Sheep are commonly seen throughout the park.
Park Highlight: Drive Trail Ridge Road, the world’s highest paved highway climbing over 12,000 feet, passing through different ecosystems and making leisurely stops to take in the stunning vistas that surround you.
#6 Olympic National Park
Where: Along the Pacific Coast in Northern Washington State
Olympic National park is known for its evergreen Pine forests that are nestled in and along the Olympic Mountains. Add to this the waters of the Pacific that circle the peninsula on which the park sits for an incredibly dramatic landscape. Hike through grassy meadows, do some tide pooling, soak in hot springs, and drive Hurricane Ridge for sweeping views of the encircling mountains.
Park Highlight: Be sure to explore the Hoh River Rainforest, a temperate rainforest where trees are covered in thick moss and look like long-haired beings standing watch over the forest ready to awaken with a moments notice.
#7 Zion National Park
Where: Southwestern Utah
Pink and orange sandstone canyons steal the show in Zion National Park. Hike through the park and discover lookouts where you gaze upon an array of artistically designed rock formations. Splurge on an excursion and travel by horse or mule to head deep into the rocky canyon trails. With hundreds of plants and animal species throughout the park and no cars allowed in Zion Canyon from spring to fall, it’s only a matter of time before you encounter some of the parks inhabitants.
Park Highlight: Zion abounds with must-sees and dos making it hard to choose just 1 thing. If you’re after an adventure activity, try canyoneering with a trained guide. Hike the river gorge known as the Narrows and be surrounded by immense rock walls.
#8 Grand Teton National Park
Where: Northwestern Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park is home to herds of roaming Elk and the mountains the give the park its name. Take part in a floating excursion along the Snake River or settle down on Jackson Lake to do some fishing. Horseback riding tours and kayaking lessons will allow you to take full advantage of Grand Teton’s natural wonders. Be sure to snap plenty of photos around Oxbow Bend, where you’ll have pristine views of the Teton themselves.
Park Highlight: Drive the scenic Teton Park Road in the early morning hours or just as dusk settles in. The light is perfect and wildlife is more easily spotted.
#9 Acadia National Park
Where: Northeastern Atlantic Coast of Maine
The only park in the 10 most visited National Parks that is situated on the East Coast of the United States, Acadia National Park is a jewel in the National Park’s crown. From the rocky coastline seen in the iconic Acadia photos to its forests and mountains, there’s something for everyone. Hike along the park’s trails or rent a bike and explore using one of the designated carriage roads for which Acadia is known. Scenic drives up to Cadillac Mountains or along the 20-mile loop will take you through the park’s spectacular landscapes and vistas.
Park Highlight: Make sure to see Jordan Pond, as well as visit Schoodic Point. After a day of outdoor exploration, enjoy the quaint pedestrian-friendly town of Bar Harbor.
#10 Glacier National Park
Where: Northwestern Montana
Home to animals like grizzly bears and mountain goats, Glacier national Park is also home to (You guessed it!) glaciers! Although gradually melting from changes in climate, the glaciers, mountains, and crystalline glacier-fed lakes and streams dazzle millions of visitors each year. Hike the park’s many trails, look for wildlife and take in the park from Logan’s Pass over 6,500 feet up. From there, be sure to take the trail leading to Hidden Lake.
Park Highlight: Driving the Going to Sun Road is a must! The 50-mile road takes you through the park from east to west, allowing you to take in the park’s stunning beauty and look out over Jackson Glacier. If you remember the movie The Shining, the road seen in the movie’s opening is the iconic Going to Sun Road!
Which National Park would you like to visit this year? Did any of these parks in the top 10 most visited surprise you?
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