The western US and west coast national parks have some of the most spectacular scenery and varied landscapes in the world. There are coastlines with sandy beaches, dramatic rocky cliffs and storm weathered islands. Then there are the desert environments, lush rainforests, picturesque valleys, alpine lakes and snowcapped mountains. Plus unique geological features like glacial landscapes, steaming geysers and colorful canyons. The National Parks in the western US are a nature lovers’ dream come true.
Generally, we just cover the Pacific Northwest on this site. However, we know that many of our readers travel from far and wide to see as many of the western US national parks and natural wonders as possible. So, for this article, we are going to cover the top United States national parks in the west of the country. This actually makes up close to 70% of the overall national parks in the USA. Sorry, east coast.
This guide will include national parks in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Utah, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho. We will cover the highlights and activities of each national park as well as provide some top tips and accommodation suggestions in or near the park.
Best West Coast National Parks
California National Parks
Death Valley National Park
This US national park has a desert environment not for the faint-hearted. It provides the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level and is the hottest and driest region in North America. People come from all over to enjoy the expansive remote landscape, the bright starry skies and mysteries like self-moving rocks. Despite the harsh environment, Death Valley is home to an array of animals including bighorn sheep, mountain lions and roadrunners.
Top Tips for Death Valley
- Cell service is not good so plan ahead and have an offline map
- Bring plenty of water
- Best time to visit is November-March. Summer is too hot for many activitiestop tips for death valley
- Stay near popular areas. Getting lost or breaking down in remote areas can be deadly due to the heat
Highlights of Death Valley National Park
- The Devil’s Golf Course – A rugged landscape right out of hell
- Sand Dunes – Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Eureka Sand Dunes are well worth a visit
- Racetrack Playa – Mysteries abound in the dry lake bed where rocks and boulders seem to move on their own and make artistic trails
- Spectacular Wildflower Displays – In Spring, parts of Death Valley rise up in colorful fields of flowers sure to wow
- Badwater Basin – An amazing salt covered landscape that you have to see to believe
- Artists Drive – Any Star Wars fans? Venture to see these multicolored hills in Death Valley used as a backdrop for Tatooine
- Wildhorse Charcoal Kilns – Built in 1877, each well-preserved kiln rises 25 feet above the ground
- Ubehebe Crater – Half a mile wide and over 600 feet deep, this crater was formed over 2000 years ago
- The Sky at Night – Death Valley, especially the Northwest region, provides one of the darkest skies in the country. Be mesmerized by the milky way and see distant galaxies with the naked eye
Where to Stay Near Death Valley
- Luxury Hotel – The Inn at Death Valley
- Family or Group – Nestled in Nature Home
- Glamping or Camping – Desert Airstream Delight
Sequoia National Park
Contributed by Allison Green of California Crossroads
Sequoia National Park is one of the jewels of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a pristine area that is home to no fewer than three national parks (Yosemite and Kings Canyon are also part of the Sierra range). It’s home to 631 square miles of beautiful alpine landscape and some of the largest sequoias in the world, including General Sherman, the largest single-root tree by mass in the world!
Top Tips for Sequoia National Park
- Sequoia recently suffered badly from wildfires in the 2021 season, so more parts of the park will be closed for rehabilitation than normal. See what is currently open here.
- Sequoia is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park, and many people visit both parks on the same trip as they are so close together.
- Sequoia is at a high elevation and special considerations must be taken when visiting Sequoia in winter, such as using snow chains and checking for road closures, etc.
Highlights of Sequoia National Park
- General Sherman Tree – The largest living tree in the world by volume
- Hike the 2.7-mile Congress Trail Lollipop Loop Trail – One of the best hikes in Sequoia NP. This path is paved and has an easy incline and includes several sequoia groves, such as the House and Senate Groves and the President Tree (hence the name)
- Pictographs – View images left by Native American peoples and read about their history at Hospital Rock, which is also a great picnic area
- Tunnel Rock – Formed when a granite boulder fell over the road and created a natural ‘tunnel’
- Drive the General’s Highway – A stunning road trip like no other
- Amphitheater Point – Marvel at the sweeping Sierra views which includes views of Moro Rock and the Sierra foothills.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree can be visited all year long and is located just outside of Palm Springs. It is one of the most popular west coast national parks on our list in regards to visitors each year. There are two desert systems that comprise Joshua Tree’s landscape. The first is Mojave and the second is Sonoran. The Sonoran is a low desert where you will find a multitude of desert bushes and flowering ocotillo and cholla cactus. The Mojave is a high desert with giant yucca trees, enormous rock formations and rock piles, making it a rock-climbing haven.
There are three entrances to Joshua Tree National Park. The towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms serve the two main entrances and the 3rd entrance is in the south along Cottonwood Springs Road. If you start in Joshua Tree, where the main visitor center is located, Park Boulevard will take you straight to the heart of the park.
Top Tips for Joshua Tree National Park
- Lost Horse Valley via the main visitor center has the shorter trails if you are short on time
- Some of the more remote areas are accessible only by hiking, mountain bikes or offproad vehicles
- Spring and fall are the best times to visit with average tempetures of 85 F during the day
Highlights of Joshua Tree
- Skull Rock – A massive rock formation that resembles a human skull
- Motor Geology Road – The road is 18 miles long with stops that explain how the region was formed and historical facts
- Keys View – At 5,185 feet high, this panoramic spot is a wonderful overview of Joshua Tree
- Oasis of Mara – This is one of the 5 spring-fed oasis within the park
- Wonderland of Rocks – Accessed by a 8 mile trail called Boy Scout Trail
- Lost Horse Valley – The valley provides short interpretive trails named Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, and Cap Rock
Where to Stay Near Joshua Tree
- Luxury Hotel – JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa
- Family or Group – Modern Playground
- Glamping or Camping – Jackalope Lodge
Yosemite National Park
Located in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains this western US national park draws millions of visitors a year. Natural sights include giant sequoias, magnificent cliffs and inspiring waterfalls. Various outdoor activities like hiking, rock climbing, skiing, biking and fishing are favorites. The landscape here is so impressive, it caught the eye of the great Ansel Adams. Yosemite was a key to the development of the National Park System and John Muir pushed to have the park boundaries expanded.
Top Tips for Yosemite National Park
- There is a one way circular road that will bring you to many of the sites within the Yosemite Valley, including Bridalveil Fall
- Bring binoculars, especially to watch the rock climbers on the cliffs of El Capitan
- If you are headed to Yosemite in Febuary, plan to see Horsetail Fall at sunset as this is the prime time for viewing it in all its glory
- Spring is best for waterfalls and wildflowers
Highlights of Yosemite
- Bridalveil Fall – A 620 foot waterfall that is a must-see. If you hike to the base be prepared to get wet due to winds blowing the water
- Sequoias – These giant trees are amazing and the park is home to 3 groves of them. Mariposa and Merced groves in the north and Tuolumne grove in the south of the park
- El Capitan – A sheer monumental cliff that is over 3500 feet high. It is best seen via Tunnel View
- Half Dome – Towering at over 8800 feet, this monster is best viewed from Mirror Lake
- Sentinal Rock – This massive rock formation is a favorite of photographers and painters
- Three Brothers – Don’t leave Yosemite without taking in these three peaks. They are best viewed from Cathedral Beach Picnic Area
- Glacier Point – Probably one of the best landscape views in the entire country and easily accessible to almost anyone
- Horsetail Fall – This spectacular sight is best viewed in late Febuary but has good flow from December to April
Where to Stay Near Yosemite
Redwood National Park
Redwood NP is home to the tallest trees in the world with some over 370 feet tall and more than 2000 years old. It also has over 200 miles of trails to explore with numerous activities such as hiking, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, fishing and more. Besides the famous giant trees, there are prairies, raging rivers and some beautiful rugged coastlines.
Top Tips for Redwood National Park
- Check for Wildfires and air quality before you go. Fires happen often at certain times of the year in Northern California
- Don’t get confused with the State Parks, there are 3 Redwood State Parks as well. The National Park is free, the state parks are not
- Pack layers for clothing as you never know with the weather here and bring binoculars for the wildlife
- Northern California’s mild climate makes it good to visit year-round but May-September sees the least amount of rain
Highlights of Redwood National Park
- Tall Trees Grove – This is a 3 mile hike that features some of the tallest trees in the world with some taller than the Statue of Liberty
- Howland Hill Road – A 10 mile scenic drive through old growth tree with a short hike to Stout Grove along the way
- Crescent Beach Overlook – Gaze at the power of the Pacific Ocean and hopefully see whales playing in the waves. You can also walk down to Enderts Beach which is only one mile away
- Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway – Another 10 mile scenic drive with a 1/8 mile walk to Big Tree wayside for a treat of an experience
- Fern Canyon – This canyon has walls of wet rock reaching over 300 fett and covered with ferns
Where to Stay Near Redwood NP
- Luxury Hotel – Benbow Historic Inn
- Family or Group – Freshwater Lagoon Retreat
- Glamping or Camping – Yurt Getaway
Channel Islands National Park
Contributed by Tom of Travel Past 50
Channel Islands National Park is truly one of the joys of the US National Park system. The park is located off the densely populated coast of Southern California, but it’s a bit difficult to get to. This results in fewer visitors and abundant wildlife earning the nickname “Galapagos of North America”.
The five Channel Islands are Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Anacapa, San Miguel and Santa Rosa. Due to the remoteness of most of them it would take days and extensive preparation to adequately visit them all.
Top Tips for Channel Islands National Park
- There is no lodging on any of the islands. Camping is the only option.
- If you only have a day, it’s best to visit the largest island of Santa Cruz.
- The islands are only accessible by boat or plane. If you don’t have have your own boat you can take one from Ventura or Oxnard.
- There are no shops or restaurants on the islands so go prepared with food, water and appropriate clothing etc.
Highlights of the Channel Islands National Park
- Wildlife – There’s plent of opportunity for wildlife and birdlife spotting. Of special note is the cute little Island Fox which is found only in the Channel Islands. Also, 10 of the 40-ish bird species here are not found anywhere else on the planet.
- Kayaking – Paddling the pristine waters is a great way to explore the islands. If you don’t have your own kayak there are guided tours available.
- Hiking – There are no vehicles on the islands so walking and hiking is the only way to get around. Santa Cruz has the most trails including Pelican Bay Trail, Smuggler’s Cove and Scorpian Canyon Loop.
- Whale Watching – Boat tours run around the Channel Islands and depending on the time of year you may see Gray, Blue, Humpback, Minke, Pilot and even Orcas as well as dolphins and sea lions.
- Water Activities – Aside from kayaking around the Channel Islands the clear waters are good for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. You’ll have to arrange them in advance with one of the National Park Service approved vendors.
Pinnacles National Park
Contributed by Francesca of Homeroom Travel
Pinnacles National Park is one of the lesser-known and smaller National Parks in California. It is the least visited in the state and is only about 42 square miles. Rock formations divide the park in two and each section has its own distinct features.
Pinnacles National Park is divided into eastern and western sections. You can hike between the two, but there is no road that goes through the park to connect the two sections. It will take over two hours to drive around the park to the other section, so you will want to choose which section of the park to visit. I recommend visiting the eastern side of the park as there are more trails that are less strenuous than on the western side.
Top Tips for Pinnacles National Park
- It can get pretty hot in Pinnacles National Park, so make sure to bring a lot of water.
- Some of the trails are pretty rocky and steep, so make sure to have appropriate hiking shoes.
- Bring snacks and food as there are no options within the park.
- Bring a headlamp if you plan on going inside the caves.
- If you want to avoid the heat visit Pinnacles between October and May
Highlights of Pinnacles National Park
- Hiking – Many of the trails connect in a loop, so you can pick and choose how long of a hike to take. I recommend the following loop. Take the Moses Spring Trail to Bear Gulch Trail to the Rim Trail. This 2.2-mile hike is pretty easy and scenic. This leads hikers past gorgeous pinnacles, the Bear Gulch Reservoir, and through the Bear Gulch caves. Note the cave is closed in the summertime, so you will have to hike around them if visiting during this time. Other fun trails include the Condor Gulch Trail, Blue Oak Trail, High Peaks Trail, and the Sycamore Trail.
- Talus Caves – These unique caves are formed by fallen boulders and are found mainly in the areas called Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave. Make a stop at the visitors center for updates on cave openings.
- California Condors – Pinnacles is a site of the California Condor Restoration Program. You may see them soaring above, especially in the High Peaks area.
- Rock Climbing – Rock climbers can enjoy hundreds of climbing routes within Pinnacles National Park. The east side of the park offers beginner and intermediate options and the west side has more challenging, advanced routes.
Oregon National Parks
Crater Lake National Park
Contributed by Nina and Garrett | Oregon is for Adventure
Crater Lake National Park is one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon and the state’s only national park. It’s the deepest lake in the US and one of the deepest on earth. Its water is a deep blue and the surroundings are 2,000-foot cliffs. The lake was made 7,700 years ago when the Mazama volcano blew its top. It’s absolutely gorgeous and a must-see when traveling through Oregon.
Top Tips for Crater Lake
- Crater Lake is open year-round and worth it anytime but fall will offer some of the best weather with fewer people.
- There are two lodges and a few campgrounds with tons more accommodation surrounding the area. BUT make sure to book in advance, particularly if you’re coming in the summer, it gets booked out quickly.
- There isn’t much around here. Bring a lunch so you don’t have to drive 30 minutes back to the main road and make sure your tank is full before leaving the highway.
Highlights of Crater National Park
- Rim Road – the best thing to do at Crater Lake is to drive Rim Road. It goes entirely around the lake so you can take in the views from every angle! There are plenty of pull-offs along the way. Only a small portion is open in winter. If you’re short on time, just come through and drive a portion of the loop!
- Cleetwood Cove Trail – If you’re brave enough, you can take a dip in the FREEZING blue water at Crater Lake. You’ll have to hike down a steep trail for one mile to the water (don’t forget, you’ll have to hike that same steep trail for a mile back up!)
- Wizard Island – You’ll see Wizard Island floating majestically on Crater Lake, you can only visit by boat! You’ll have to hike the trail mentioned above to get to the boat dock for a ride over.
- Mount Scott Trail – a 4-mile popular trail with stunning views over the lake.
- Winter activities – If you’re here while there’s fresh powder, you can sled, ski, snowboard, and even fat tire bike around the lake! There are no lifts here, so you’ll have to walk up.
Where to Stay Near Crater Lake
- Luxury Hotel – Sunriver Resort
- Family or Group – Mountain Home Lake of the Woods
- Glamping or Camping – Upquoa’s Last Resort
- Glamping in Oregon
Washington National Parks
Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier National Park encompasses over 230,000 acres of land and a 14,410-foot remarkable snow-covered volcanic peak. The park has an array of beautiful landscapes including temperate inland rainforests, gushing waterfalls, meadows of wildflowers and more than 25 glaciers. It is one of the premier hiking and backpacking locations in the country. In addition, other activities include mountain biking, fishing, skiing, snowshoeing and horseback riding. Mt. Rainier National park is considered one of the snowiest places on the planet and drives visitors throughout the winter.
Top Tips for Mt. Rainier National Park
- Stay alert of wildlife as the park has cougars, bears, skunks and many other animals you may not want a close encounter with.
- The end of September is best time for fall color with late-July to early-August for wildflowers.
- Bring varied layers of clothing and a good pair of hiking boots as you never know what the weather may bring in the Pacific Northwest.
Highlights of Mount Rainier National Park
- Wonderland Trail – One of the most beautiful and popular trails in the country fro experienced hikers. This 93-mile trail goes around the base of the mountain and usually takes 10-14 days to complete. Many folks just do it in sections.
- Paradise – This is the most popular area in the park for visitors and a wildflower mecca. Try the gentle Nisqually Vista Trail or for a more challenging trail the Skyline Trail with even more impressive views.
- Sunrise – This Northeast region of the park is the highest point you can get to with a car at 5,400 feet. It can be quite a sight in the morning light.
- Myrtle Falls – This is where you get one of the iconic Mount Rainier Instagram shots. Myrtle Falls winding down the hill with flowers and trees and the enormous Rainier as a backdrop.
- Tipsoo Lake – Another wonderful vista with a landscape you can’t help but takes dozens of pictures of. It is easily accessible just below Chinook Pass.
- High Rock Lookout – This is for early risers and is one of the best sunrise hikes available. At just 3 miles round-trip, it is not too bad for an early morning hike.
- Go Snowshoeing – It can be a glorious way to immerse yourself in the Winter Wonderland that is Mount Rainier and there are not only guided tours, but multiple places to rent equipment in the area.
Bonus: In January and February, head to Oak Creek Wildlife Area to watch the feeding of hundreds of elk.
Where to Stay Near Mount Rainier National Park
- Luxury Hotel – Nisqually Lodge
- Family or Group – Mt. Rainier Villa
- Glamping or Camping – Hiker’s Hideaway
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is the most popular park on our list of west coast national parks based on visitor numbers and it makes sense. It is one of the most unique regions in the country located on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. The park includes the vast snow-capped Olympic mountain range, over 70 miles of rugged coastline and the remarkable Olympic Rainforest. It has almost a million acres with endless adventures like hiking, cycling, waterfalls, hot springs, kayaking and fishing. It’s also a favorite spot for a romantic getaway in Washington.
Top Tips for Olympic National Park
- The park is quite large and driving times between areas can take up more time than you think, so plan accordinly.
- The weather in this part of Washington is unpredictible, so make sure you check weather and have a back up plan.
- If you plan on camping, try to book ahead as things get filled up fast in peak season.
- Much of the park is dense wilderness, when you are exploring deeper into the park, be prepared with the right equipment and supplies.
Highlights of Olympic National Park
- Hoh Rainforest – This is one of the iconic regions of the park with the famous Hall of Mosses trail
- Hurricane Ridge – This panoramic vista is accessible by car with a few wonderful hikes leading from the parking area.
- Lake Crescent – A beautiful lake for water activities along the highway with multiple trails and nearby sights like Marymere Falls and Spruce Railroad Trail.
- Second Beach – One of the prettiest beaches on the Washington coast and less than a mile hike, some people camp overnight on the beach which is a spectacular experience.
- Ruby Beach – A very popular beach due to its easy access with rugged rock formations and tide pools.
- Hot Springs – You can go to the well established and popular Sol Suc Hot Springs or hike your way to the more remote Olympic Hot Springs and immerse yourself in the wild.
- Rialto and Mora Beach – A picturesque scene which can be a perfect spot to view sea lions, whales, eagles and more.
- Staircase – Walk throughold growth forests and see giant douglas firs near the North Fork of the Skykomish River.
- Enchanted Valley – If adventure is your middle name, than you may want to journey to this magical spot. This is a 27 mile hiking excursion to a historic chalet that you will be telling your grandkids about.
Where to Stay Near Olympic NP
- Luxury Hotel – Sea Cliff Gardens
- Family or Group – La Push Peaceful Retreat
- Glamping or Camping – Mossquatch Resort
There is a ton to see and do in Olympic National Park in Washington and it is best to plan your Olympic National Park Itinerary well in advance.
North Cascades National Park
Contributed by Corinne of Roving Vails
North Cascades National Park is a stunning park filled with glaciers, mountain passes, deep turquoise lakes, and all you could want in the rugged outdoors. There are over 300 glaciers, and the name “cascades” is not an accident. There are many waterfalls in the park to search out. Along with the forest flora, ferns and firs, you can also spot a plethora of wildlife including foxes and bears.
Top Tips for North Cascades
- Only about a 3 hour drive from Seattle, it’s so high up in the mountains that the road often closes between November and April, and even those shoulder months can be a challenge.
- North Cascades is a remote park, so it’s prudent to make lodging reservations as early as you can.
- There are plenty of campgrounds, including those with RV options within the park, but hotels are a bit more difficult.
- Most people stay in Bellingham and make a day trip to the park.
- The weather can change rapidly in the mountains, make sure to go prepared with fleece and rainjacket.
Highlights of North Cascades National Park
- The road to the park is State Route 20, and all along it are cute little western towns. One way to get to the park and see some surrounding places as well is take a road trip on the Cascade Loop, which highlights the best of the state of Washington.
- Stop off at the Visitor’s Center for up to date conditions and where the best place to spot wildlife is.
- Hiking is one of the main reasons to visit North Cascades. With over 400 miles of hiking trails, there’s something for every age limit and capability. The back-country trails are stunning, but you must come prepared for the quickly changing weather conditions. Most people come to drive and do some shorter day hikes. Some of our favorites are Happy Creek Forest Trail and Thunder Knob Trail.
- Many people take advantage of the summer days and take full day or longer hikes are Thornton Lake Trail and Sourdough Mountain.
- Fish or kayak in the Skagit River. (Make sure to have your fishing license before you enter the park.)
- You will also want to spend some time at Diablo Lake. You can kayak or take a boat on the lake, or you can hike the half day Diablo Lake trail.
If you love nature you should try immersing yourself without sacrificing comfort by glamping in Washington
Arizona National Parks
Grand Canyon National Park
Contributed by Ashley Jansen of Jetset Jansen
The Grand Canyon needs no introduction as it’s one of the most sought-after attractions in the US. Located in the northern part of Arizona, the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and a mile deep, showing layers and layers of geological history.
There are a lot of options when it comes to seeing the Grand Canyon and depends on how long you have and how adventurous you are. For a bird’s eye view, you can opt for a helicopter tour which can even take you into the ground floor.
If you just want to see the Grand Canyon, you can easily do so on a day-tip, but you’ll definitely want to do a bit of planning if you want to explore this National Park further because there is a lot to see!
Top Tips for Grand Canyon
- Plan ahead if you want to do something more than the viewpoints. You’ll need reservations well in advance.
- Bring layers! The weather at the Grand Canyon can be a little unpredictable. Depending on the season you visit in, you’ll want to make sure you have a few options for layers.
- The campgrounds within the park fill up quickly. If you want to camp within the National Park–reserve your spot as early as possible.
- Make sure you take note of the shuttle schedule! The Hermit Road shuttle will drop you off at each point but they don’t all pick you up at each point.
Highlights of the Grand Canyon
- Havasu Falls – Hike deep into the canyon to visit Havasu Falls, a bright blue waterfall amidst the orange rock. While the destination is well worth it, the 20-mile return trip is not for the novice hiker.
- South Rim Viewpoints – Accessible by walking or shuttle bus. There are quite a few easy viewpoints to go to. You can have the shuttle drop you off at each one, or do a little hike between some of them along the rim.
- Grand Canyon Village – Lots of trails and viewpoints as well as the Yavapai Geology Museum.
- Grand Canyon Skywalk – Test your courage on this horseshoe-shpaed glass walkway thousands of feet above the canyon floor.
- Desert View Drive – a 25-mile scenic route around the South Rim with viewpoints like the Desert View Watchtower.
Petrified Forest National Park
Contributed by Nicole from SW National Parks
Petrified Forest National Park is located in Arizona and one of the best National Parks in the Southwest. It is named for the petrified wood found here which is wood that has turned to stone.
Top Tips for the Petrified Forest
- Bring lots of water and a refillable water bottle to Petrified Forest. This is a desert and there are few shaded areas.
- Get the trail guide to Giant Logs Trail. It is informative and tells you more about the history of the area.
- Petrified Forest is one of the few National Parks to close its gates at night. You can only enter until 5 pm and then you must leave by 6.30 pm.
Highlights of the Petrified Forest
- Tiponi Point – it overlooks the Painted Desert and offers panoramic views
- Painted Desert Inn – painted by a Hopi artist named Fred Kabotie. It is now a museum where you can learn about the history of the area.
- Hike Painted Desert Rim Trail – It’s a quick 1.2 miles trail that offers scenic views and it is quite flat.
- Old Route 66 – The road used to run through Petrified Forest National Park. You can still see the overpass in the northern part of the park.
- Ancient ruins of Puerco Pueblo – This site has over 100 rooms and used to have a population of over 200 people.
- The Teepes – These unique formations are small colordul mountains that were formed from erosion and they date back millions of years.
- Giant Logs Trail – This is an easy, paved loop from the South Visitors Center that allows you to see the iconic petrified wood that gives the park its name.
Nevada National Parks
Great Basin National Park
Contributed by Allison – She Dreams of Alpine ®
Great Basin National Park is a hidden gem in eastern Nevada near the Utah border. The 77,180-acre park features rugged terrain and a diverse landscape including limestone caves, bristlecone pines, and the 13,063 foot Wheeler Peak.
Top Tips for Great Basin National Park
- Great Basin is an awesome National Park to visit if you want to avoid the crowds of the more famous National Parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Zion.
- Winter is a wonderful time to explore Great Basin, but all but one of the campgrounds are closed (although you can backcountry camp year-round).
- The only way to check out the Lehman Caves is through a ranger-guided tour, and reservations are recommended.
Highlights of Great Basin National Park
- Lehman Caves – These incredibly cool limestone caves feature stalagmite and stalactite formations and you can explore the different rooms on ranger-guided tours.
- Hiking Trails – Great Basin National Park has hiking trails for all ages and levels, from short nature walks to long loops and strenuous summits. The Bristlecone/Glacier Trail is one of the very best hiking trails in Great Basin because it showcases an awesome variety of the incredible landscape in the park.
- Wheeler Peak – You can summit the second highest peak in Nevada if you’re ready for an 8.6 mile out & back hike with 2,900 feet of elevation gain. It’s not a technical hike, but it is difficult, especially if you’re not acclimated to the altitude.
- Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive – If you don’t feel like hiking up Wheeler Peak, you can bask in its glory on the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive which winds 12 miles through the South Snake Range. Beyond Wheeler Peak, you’ll find many more sights to see at several pullouts along the way.
- Bristlecone Pines – Great Basin is home to groves of bristlecone pines, ancient, slow-growth trees which naturally twist into unique shapes. The Wheeler Peak Grove is the easiest to access in the park, with just a 3-mile round trip hike from Wheeler Peak Campground.
Montana National Parks
Yellowstone National Park
Contributed by Taryn Eyton of Happiest Outdoors
Yellowstone National Park is huge. It covers the northwestern corner of Wyoming and overlaps a bit into Idaho and Montana too. The whole area is a geothermal hot spot with geysers and hot springs, but it also has great wildlife watching, camping, and hiking.
Top Tips for Yellowstone
- Stay at one of the hotels or campgrounds in the park so you don’t have to drive hours to the attractions.
- Go for a hike. Most visitors don’t venture far from the paved roads so hiking is a great way to see things others miss.
- Visit the park early in the morning for the best chance of seeing wildlife, especially wolves, bears, elk, and bison.
- Use the park’s geyser eruption predictions to plan your visit to the Old Faithful area
Highlights of Yellowstone National Park
- Geysers – You can’t visit Yellowstone without watching a geyser erupt. Old Faithful is the classic, but there are a dozen other geysers nearby and over 500 in the park.
- Hotsprings – The geothermal activity in the park also produces dozens of unique hot springs. Two you shouldn’t miss are the rainbow-colored waters of Grand Prismatic Spring and the stair-stepped travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.
- Wildlife – Yellowstone is sometimes called America’s Serengeti thanks to the high concentration of wildlife. It’s easy to spot bison, elk, deer, and pronghorns from the park’s roads. You might even get caught in a “bison jam” where the huge beasts surround your car! If you’re lucky you can also see both black and grizzly bears, as well as wolves. The best place in the park for animal sightings is the Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of the park.
- Nature – You should also make time to explore nature in Yellowstone. Did you know Yellowstone has its own Grand Canyon? The Yellowstone River has carved a deep gorge with lots of waterfalls.
- Hiking – The park also has over 900 miles of hiking trails that range from easy to expert. Use this list of the best hiking trails in Yellowstone to choose the right hike for you.
Glacier National Park
Contributed by Katy of A Rambling Unicorn
Glacier National Park is a stunning wilderness area in Montana known for its rugged mountains, sparkling lakes and miles of hiking trails. Covering just over 1 million square acres, the park gets its name from the pristine glaciers that used to cover many of its peaks.
Few glaciers remain in the park today, however. Scientists estimate that these will disappear by the year 2030 due to warming temperatures.
Top Tips for Glacier National Park
- The best time to visit Glacier National Park is from late June to early October.
- Check with the park for road closure information before arriving as some roads don’t open until as late as July.
- Glacier is located in grizzly bear country. Familiarize yourself with bear safety etiquette and bring bear spray.
- Timed-entry tickets are required for Going-to-the-Sun Road in 2022. Be sure to reserve yours in advance.
Highlights of Glacier National Park
- Going-to-the-Sun Road – This popular drive crosses the Continental Divide at an elevation of 6,646 feet and is the only road to traverse the entire park. Driving this 50-mile scenic wonder is one of Glacier’s most popular activities. The Red Bus Tour is a fun option that allows you to really enjoy the scenery without having to keep your eyes on the road.
- Hiking – A great way to explore Glacier National Park is on foot. Avalanche Lake Trail is one of the best hikes in the park and leads to a spectacular alpine lake. Grinnell Glacier Trail is another famous hike that features close-up views of one of the park’s remaining glaciers.
- Polebridge – This tiny community is located near Glacier’s less-popular northwest entrance. The town is only accessible by a 27-mile (primarily dirt) road. Be sure to stop by the Polebridge Mercantile for a huckleberry bear claw before exploring this area of the park.
- Lake McDonald – This is the National Park’s largest lake and the focal point of activity on the park’s west side. Many scenic viewpoints and hiking trails provide spectacular vistas of the lake.
- Lake McDonald Lodge – If you get hungry while exploring the Glacier National Park, head to this rustic lodge. Constructed in 1914, the lodge features 3 restaurants along with a massive fireplace where you can warm up after a long day of hiking.
- Logan Pass – This is the highest point accessible by car with incredible sweeping views
Colorado National Parks
Mesa Verde National Park
Contributed by Theresa L. Goodrich of The Local Tourist
Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park preserves hundreds of cliff dwellings and nearly 5,000 archaeological sites. For seven hundred years, the area was the home of the Ancestral Pueblo Peoples and the park celebrates their heritage. Its unique history made it the first of the 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the USA. It covers more than eighty square miles. Its most famous sites are Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House.
Top Tips for Mesa Verde National Park
- Once you enter the park, it’s a 45-minute drive on a narrow, winding road before you can see your first cliff dwelling.
- Self-guided tours are available for some of the cliff dwellings, but many require tour tickets.
- Tours begin in May, making summer and fall the best times to visit to see the most you can of the park.
- There is no backcountry hiking in Mesa Verde National Park; you must stay on designated trails.
Highlights of Mesa Verde
- Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center – It’s located at the park entrance and you can learn some basic information before driving that winding road.
- Mesa Top Loop Road – Once you’re in the park, download the audio tour first then drive the six-mile loop.
- Views – There are pull-offs with short paved trails providing views of twelve sites.
- Hikes – For longer hikes, the Petroglyph Point Trail is a strenuous 2.4 miles roundtrip. Spruce Canyon Trail is also 2.4 miles, and both are accessed from the Spruce Tree House Overlook. If you’re looking for a less adventurous walk, the Knife Edge Trail picks up at Morefield Campground is an easy two miles.
- Cliff dwellings – The highlight of Mesa Verde is the architectural sites of cliff dwellings
- Canyons – The park is naturally stunning, look for several small canyons cutting through the sandstone and shale.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Contributed by Daria of The Discovery Nut
Located about 2 hours away from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts many hiking trails, cascading waterfalls and stunning alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers.
Rocky Mountain National Park is pure magic during any time of the year. Summer is the best time to visit this national park thanks to mild temperatures that make hiking and exploring possible, but it’s also the busiest time, with many tourists coming here to enjoy the spectacular landscapes of the RMNP.
Top Tips for Rocky Mountain National Park
- Local officials have implemented a reservation system in recent years to keep the crowds at bay. While the reservation system was in effect during summer, it’s likely here to stay as RMNP is getting more and more popular with millions of tourists visiting it from all over the country.
- Fall is one of the best times to visit Rocky Mountain National Park if you want to see spectacular golden colors, as thousands of aspen trees begin to turn gold.
- As this is one of the most visited parks in the USA it’s best to avoid summer and weekends if you prefer less people around.
- Hiking is the best way to see the park but if you prefer to stay in the car there are a couple of scenic drives.
- Bring layers and good shoes if you plan to hike in the higher altitudes.
Highlights of Rocky Mountain National Park
- Trail Ridge Road – The 48 mile scenic alpine highway debuted in 1932 and is still a great way to see the park without having to go on foot. To see the fall colors in their full glory, take a drive along the Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the United States that is open from Memorial Day until late October.
- Hiking – Over 355 miles of hiking trails in the park provide options suitable for all levels. If you’re up for a challenge you can take on Longs Peak which is one of Colorado’s most famous “fourteeners,” or mountains with an altitude of 14,000 feet. This is an advanced hike that requires superb orientation skills and physical stamina.
- Camping – There are several campgrounds within the park itself and several more just outside.
- Waterfalls – With more than 30 waterfalls within RMNP chasing them is definitely a highlight. Most are concentrated in Wild Basin and Glacier Gorge.
- Wildlife – Elk are plentiful in this national park and you’re likely to also see mule deer, bighorn sheep and maybe even black bear.
- Stanley Hotel – Although not right in the national park, Stephen King fans may want to travel the 6 miles to this supposedly haunted hotel that inspired “The Shining”.
Utah National Parks
Canyonlands National Park
Contributed by Keri of Bon Voyage With Kids
One of the best Western USA National Parks not to be missed is Canyonlands. Located near Moab, Utah, this breathtaking National Park is likely too big to visit in one trip given that it is over 300,000 acres big.
But you can certainly take advantage of several hikes in a day (or two if you want to explore as much as possible.) It is also not far from Arches National Park, so you can easily include Canyonlands in your itinerary. And the views are worth every minute.
Top Tips for Canyonlands
- Canyonlands is sectioned into four areas, separated by rivers: The Maze, Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Horshoe Canyon District. But most of the more popular sites are in the Island in the Sky District.
- Hiking is the main thing to do in Canyonlands to see a range of views, arches, and more. So be sure to wear good hiking gear.
- Be sure to bring extra water, food and snacks as there are no places to buy food in the park.
- Canyonlands is hot and dusty especially in the summer.
Highlights for Canyonlands
- Visitors Overlook – This overlook at the visitors center has one of the best views in the park.
- Mesa Arch – The most iconic spot in Canyonlands and the best place to be for sunrise.
- Whales Rock – An easy but fun hike for the whole family takes you to the top of this whale shaped rock with a great view at the end.
- The Needles – Unique sandstone rock formations (2 hour drive from Island in the Sky section so best done on a separate day)
- Grand View Point Trail – One of the best short hikes in the park with stunning panoramic views.
- White Rim Road – An adventurous dirt road drive that takes you along the rim some of the best canyons in the park. A 4×4 vehicles and permit is required.
- Cave Springs – A short trail leads to prehistoric rock paintings and the historic cowboy camp.
Zion National Park
Contributed by David & Intan at The World Travel Guy
This was Utah’s very first national park, and it’s commonly rated as one of the best national parks in the country, thanks to its amazing scenery on trails like the Angels Landing hike and Observation Point!
Zion is located in southern Utah, about 160 miles from Las Vegas or 300 miles from Salt Lake City. The closest regional airport is St. George (45 miles from the park), although there are more flight options going to Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.
Top Tips for Zion National Park
- The heat at Zion can be extreme in the summer. Wear a hat or sunscreen, and carry lots of water, especially when you’re hiking.
- Spring and fall are great seasons to visit Zion National Park because there are less crowds and the cool temperatures are ideal for hiking.
- Get an early start. Morning is the best time to beat the heat and crowds at Zion.
- Most of the hiking trails in Zion Canyon are only accessible by shuttle. This is free and easy to use.
- There are three NPS campgrounds in Zion National Park (Watchman, Lava Point, and South Campground) and it’s practically required to make a reservation in advance since they’re extremely popular.
- The Zion Lodge is the only hotel inside the park, but there are lots of hotels and restaurant options in the town of Springdale, which sits right on the edge of the Zion park entrance.
Highlights of Zion National Park
- Zion-Mount Carmel Highway – A scenic drive that climbs the mountains offering dramatic views of the valley far below.
- Hiking – Experience the many hiking trails in the park. Two of the most famous are Angels Landing and The Narrows but they are both quite strenuous. Some easier popular hikes inlcude Riverside Walk, Weeping Rock Trail and Lower Emerald Pools.
- Canyoneering and Rock Climbing – The slot canyons in Zion are great for climbing. Nearby Springdale has equipment rentals and offers lessons.
- Kolob Canyons – Visitors looking for a quieter more peaceful Zion experience can head to Kolob Canyons in the less-visited northwestern section of the park.
- Grafton Ghost Town – Although not right in the park it’s close enough that many visitors to Zion will add it to their itinerary.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Contributed by Chris of Explore Now or Never
Bryce Canyon National Park in southwestern Utah is an iconic place to visit and makes a great stop on any Utah national parks road trip itinerary. It’s one of the smaller parks at 25,835 acres with fewer visitors than Zion National Park to the south but is unmissable.
Top Tips for Bryce Canyon
- Stay in the park (reserve early) for a short visit as lodging options are limited nearby.
- Start hikes early, use sunscreen and bring more water than you think you need.
- Visit in late spring or early fall for best weather.
Highlights of Bryce Canyon National Park
- The Hoodoos – The vivid red and orange “hoodoos” are distinct geological spires formed through erosion and freeze-thaw cycles over millions of years.
- Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive – To fully appreciate the hoodoos, begin with a bird’s eye view by driving the Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive. It’s 18 miles to Rainbow Point and you’ll want to allow plenty of time for stopping at some of the 13 viewpoints along the way.
- Rim Trail – A 15 minute walk along the Rim Trail provides stunning views of the amphitheater below.
- Amphitheatre – You’ll want to get down into the amphitheater itself for an up close and personal look at the hoodoos. The area is somewhat compact which can mean crowds later in the day. Be sure to set out early for a more intimate hiking experience.
- Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop – Combining these two popular highlights is a memorable experience. It’s just about 3 miles for the full loop and ends with a steep climb up the canyon at Sunset Point (if you begin at Sunrise Point).
- Star Gazing – Bryce Canyon National Park is dark sky country so be sure to plan part of your visit for stargazing after dark. The Milky Way seems to stretch across the whole sky here…with more than 7,000 stars visible on a moonless night.
Wyoming National Parks
Grand Teton National Park
Contributed by Kim Swanson of Traveling Swansons
Grand Teton National Park is located right outside Jackson Hole Wyoming and next door to the very popular Yellowstone National Park. It is best known for its stunning Teton mountain range and wildlife.
Top Tips for Grand Teton
- Many people breeze through Grand Teton National Park, as a side trip to Yellowstone. This park deserves more time than that. Stay for at least three days to see everything this park has to offer.
- When hiking, start your day very early to avoid crowds on the top trails.
- Bear spray is a must. You are in bear country. Do not go hiking on the trails without bear spray. The most economical way is to rent it. You can rent bear spray at the Jackson Hole Airport or a couple of stores in Jackson Hole offer it for rental.
- The best time to travel to Grand Teton National Park is in late May through early September. This is because the weather is at its best. During the rest of the year, many of the facilities and roads are closed because of winter weather.
Highlights for Grand Teton National Park
- Drive the Scenic Loop – The 42-mile scenic loop. Driving the whole 42-mile scenic loop will ensure you don’t miss any of the top sights.
- Mormon Row – Get your own iconic shot of the historic barns built by the Mormons with the peaks in the background.
- Schwabacher Landing – One of the best spots to view the Teton mountains. On a clear day you may even get a photo of them reflected in the river.
- Oxbow Bend – One of the most beautiful views of Snake River and Mount Moran.
- Hiking – Hiking in Grand Teton National Park is just magical. You will come across the most stunning scenery you have ever seen. A favorite is the Taggart Lake Loop Hike.
- Jenny Lake Shuttle Boat – Take this boat across Jenny Lake to hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point.
- The Teton Peaks – These iconic peaks tower more than 7,000 feet above the valley making a spectacular backdrop.
Conclusion to Our West Coast National Parks
The western US and west coast national parks are on the bucket list for many nature lovers and those who seek to immerse themselves in the wilderness mother earth has produced. We hope this list helps you on your journeys and adventures as you explore some of the world’s most beautiful creations. There are so many magnificent national parks in the United States and we look forward to enjoying them for many years to come. Feel free to reach out and tell us about your experience and what park you enjoyed the most.
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Writer, traveler, wine & food lover and co owner of Discover the Pacific Northwest and Live Dream Discover.