National parks are a gift from the country to its citizens and visitors. Although many are scattered throughout this vast land, taking a regional view may help you plan your journey to experience the most you can in the time you have.
The first year we spent in San Diego, I thought it would be a good idea to try to spend the long weekend of Memorial Day at Yosemite National Park. This brilliant idea came to me in late March and came to discover I wasn’t alone in my camping desires. Hundreds, if not thousands of other travelers had the same idea. With one quick swipe of the keyboard I learned that only minutes after the campsites’ booking availability opened in the wee hours of the 1st of January – everything was booked. Lesson learned!
As a former high school social studies teacher, I can tell you that when teaching American History to sixteen year olds, there’s often a strong focus on the early 1900s, the time of Theodore Roosevelt, his Square Deal domestic policy and the four categories it entailed. One of those, was conservation – specifically, the formation of National Parks. Perhaps we should each thank Mr. Roosevelt every time we are lucky enough to set foot in these spectacular settings. Whether you’ve heard about them, visited once or are proud owners of your annual park pass, the national parks of the United States are significant, inspiring, educational and offer experiences far wider than their borders.
Whether you’re planning the epic American road trip, like my husband and I have done twice -in different seasons and on different routes- or using an urban center for your home base and then doing day, or weekend, trips to explore the national parks, you’ll find options here.
The planners amongst your crowd can find the most visited sites in the past year, by checking out National Geographic’s listing.
Fourth graders, can visit for free. Follow the Going to the Sun road in Glacier, the Scenic Loop in the Badlands, and the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway in Yellowstone. See your first moose, be a spectator on a bear’s home turf, and be transported to far away lands with the wind of a trail. Channel your inner explorer and go in search of mindfulness and meditation, triumphs and trails, wildlife and wonder, geocaches and golden light, exploration and experience.
Whether you base yourself in a nearby urban center or take a few days to venture out of the city and into the country – a visit to any of our national parks is nothing short of spectacular.
Although travel, adventure, and accommodation style vary – the rules in the parks are the same for everyone.
- All are equal and welcome on the trails
- Take only pictures, leave only footprints
- Pick up your own trash
- Follow sign and trail guidelines – they’re there for a reason
- You are a visitor – this is the animal’s home turf
- DO NOT disturb/touch/harm/pet/snuggle/rescue/grope/feed wildlife-This is not a zoo
- Find out rules and restrictions for bear spray
- Follow regulations for permitting
- Always tell someone where you’re going
- In winter, keep your extremities covered
- Respect nature, wildlife and rangers
Listed below are some of the hundreds of spots the US has to offer. Keep in mind there are always new sites being added to the listings. Also, remember that there are many state parks, monuments, and local historical spaces to see nearby the national parks – be sure to research the entire surrounding area of visitor sites, state landmarks and more before you book your journey.
For more detailed information about all of the national parks, monuments, memorials, historic parks and newly added spaces, head over to the national parks website.
Daypack Packing List
Even if you’re just taking a day trip to the national park nearest your city, you’ll want to pack a daypack with the essentials. Include the following for a fun, safe day in the great outdoors:
Northeast National Parks
Known for some of the country’s best blueberries, bagels and batsh*t crazy politicians, the northeast shares it’s love of constitution with love of conservation. Although there are fewer full scale national parks set in this region, those that are present ignite the senses and stir the same sense of wonder as their western counterparts.
Check out the waterfront views of Acadia and grab some lobster roll and clam chowder in nearby Bar Harbor. Listen to the deafening noise as the falls crash and spray flies at Niagara Falls. Hike the trails at Shenandoah and immerse your fears and anxieties in the solace of nature. Spend a few days experiencing the quick pace of Manhattan, or the history in every street in Washington DC.
If you’re headed north, pack layers and rain gear and keep in mind that Acadia is still cold and snowy in April and comes to life a bit later in the spring. If you’re so inclined, don’t forget to stop a bit further south in Maine for a special sweet treat of Wicked Whoopie Pies.
- Ellis Island
- Sagamore Hill National Historic Site (approximately 1 hour from Manhattan)
- Vanderbilt Mansion (less than 2 hours from Manhattan)
- Fire Island National Seashore (less than 2 hours from Manhattan)
- Women’s Rights National Historic Park (275 miles from Manhattan)
- Niagara Falls (over 400 miles from Manhattan)
- Harpers Ferry National Historic Park (70 miles from Baltimore)
- Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park (less than 2 hours from Baltimore)
- Shenandoah National Park (70 miles from Washington DC)
All of these are right in town and accessible via public transportation.
Southeast National Parks
Warmth, waterways and good weather make up parts of the ecosystem that is the southeast of the United States. Although snowbirds escape regularly from the winters up north to live amidst the beauty housed within this region, visitors and travelers also know its natural wealth and cultural worth.
Take a drive down the east coast of the US and make stopping at each of these special spots part of your itinerary. Base yourself in Miami and grab some city life in between expeditions into the Everglades. A few hours drive from Chattanooga, or Charlotte, puts you smack in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains where you can soak up the trails in the morning and then take in the sights of the cities in the evening. Work national parks into all of your travels and expand your informal education with both the modernity of the cities and the solace of nature.
Midwest National Parks
National Parks abound here! Home to some of the country’s most epic scenery and historic natural spaces, the midwest showcases, delights, and astounds with some of the very best parks in the country. Drive on winding roads filled with colorful landscapes, roaming wildlife and underground caves. Stand in the footsteps of millions who have come before while making imprints for those who will come after.
Whether you’re glimpsing your first wildlife, hiking amidst the glaciers, meandering the magical trails, spelunking below ground or relishing in the crisp, clear air of the mountains, the parks of the midwest do not disappoint.
If you are lucky enough to spend some time in Glacier, be sure to give your taste buds a treat of Huckleberry anything. Check out base cities like Montana’s West Yellowstone, Big Sky, Kalispell and Whitefish, South Dakota’s Rapid City, and Wyoming’s Cody and Jackson Hole. Sleep under a blanket of stars, make it a field trip from your out-of-the-park accommodations or grab a few hours on a day trip if that’s all your schedule can provide. No matter what, take the opportunity to drive some of the country’s most famous roadways amidst classic and mind-blowing scenery of the national parks.
- Badlands National Park (1 hour from Rapid City)
- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (approximately 1 hour from Rapid City)
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial (approximately 30 minutes from Rapid City)
- Jewel Cave National Monument (approximately 1 hour from Rapid City)
- Wind Cave National Park (approximately 1 hour from Rapid City)
- Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (130 miles from Idaho Falls)
- Yellowstone National Park
Pacific Northwest National Parks
The Pacific Northwest is not for the faint of heart. Here, even stronger than in other regions of the country, nature’s elements are fierce. There are (at times) hours of darkness with which to cope, epic icy glaciers, steep inviting mountains and wildlife that only roams amidst the Pacific Northwest landscape.
Choose the transportation method that best suits your fancy for each specific journey. Test the waters at different times of the year and you’re bound to have completely different experiences each time. Seek the dancing streaks of the Northern Lights, stand at a crater’s edge, and hike some of the nation’s tallest peaks.
Whether you’re day-tripping from Seattle after hanging in Pike Place Market, taking a drive from Portland after experiencing good food and drink or setting your sights on city hopping around Alaska – you’re bound to experience natural elements and wonder aplenty. Pack for all sorts of weather, bring a headlamp and go in search of adventure.
- Crater Lake National Park (approximately 165 miles from Eugene)
Southern National Parks
Closest to the nation’s southern border with Mexico, the areas of the south share their own focus.
Set your sights on the swirling waters of the Rio Grande or experience the magic of underground caverns. Spend an afternoon in the footsteps of Civil Rights activists with a wander on the campus of Little Rock Central High School.
Warmer winters and turbulent weather phenomena mixed with southern drawls, famous hospitality, and comfort foods are at the heart of southern living. Grab your spirit of adventure and head south for your own personal journey.
- Mammoth Cave National Park (approximately 90 miles from Louisville)
Southwest National Parks
Home to the highest concentration of parks, America’s southwest fills your soul faster than it does your camera’s memory card. Rock formations, untouched landscapes, and natural wonders that defy conventional wisdom abound here.
Feel the draw of Bryce’s hoodoos, the whimsical trees of Joshua Tree rumored to have inspired the great Dr. Seuss, Yosemite’s half dome and Arizona’s immense canyon – to name a few. The natural changing colors of the lands amidst Arizona, New Mexico and Utah dance in the ever changing light. California’s sequoias and redwoods channel the feature song in Broadway’s Wicked and defy gravity daily. And Hawaii’s volcanoes erupt with new adventures amidst every sulfur laden crevasse.
You can move every few days or try basing yourself in cities like California’s San Francisco or San Diego, Arizona’s Flagstaff, Utah’s St. George or Cedar City. Bring your snow tires, chains and gloves in the winter and sunscreen, bug spray and hats in the summer. No matter the season, carry water, leave only footsteps and soak in every ounce of awesome the parks have to offer.
- Grand Canyon National Park (approximately 225 miles from Phoenix)
- Alcatraz Island
- Cabrillo National Monument
- Death Valley National Park (over 2 hours from Las Vegas, Nevada)
- Channel Islands National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park (approximately 165 miles from San Diego)
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Muir Woods National Monument
- Redwood National and State Parks
- Pinnacles National Park (approximately 125 miles from San Francisco)
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (approximately 200 miles from Los Angeles)
- Yosemite National Park (approximately 165 miles from San Francisco)
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Hawaii is a world away and a particularly magical part of the United States. The national parks in this island chain state offer some of the most spectacular and unique natural landscapes and wildlife in the nation. Where else an you take a night trip to see glowing lava dripping into the ocean, or hike through a lava tube? Don’t miss Hawaii’s national parks.