America’s National Park Bucket List: Top Parks by Region

Do you love National Parks?

Chances are that a National Park Bucket List would be perfect for you!

With 63 national parks in the United States, there are endless opportunities to discover stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife, and unique geological formations. If you finish the U.S. National Parks Bucket List, expand to other National Park Service Units! 

I'm working on collecting park stamps for every park unit! I've gotten over 300 and got 44 of the 63 National Park Sites.

My favorite National Park (to date) is Yosemite, with Zion as a close runner-up. With so many choices, the choice is challenging since the parks vary so much!

From the towering peaks of Denali in Alaska to the colorful canyons of Zion in Utah, each national park offers its distinct beauty and adventure. 

Whether you're an avid hiker, wildlife enthusiast, or simply seeking a peaceful retreat, there's a national park that's perfect for you.

So pack your bags, grab your camera, and get ready to cross off some of the country's most breathtaking destinations from your bucket list.

A map of the United States showing a variety of colorful pushpins marking the locations of national parks, monuments, and services that have been visited.

Exploring the United States National Parks

When it comes to adventure, the United States National Parks have it all. With over 84 million acres of protected land, there is no shortage of natural wonders to explore.

The diversity of landscapes and ecosystems in the national parks is genuinely remarkable.

The national parks offer a unique opportunity to connect with nature and experience the beauty of the great outdoors.

Whether hiking through the rugged terrain of Yosemite National Park or rafting down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, there is no shortage of adventure.

With over 400 national park sites, there is something for everyone.

One of the most remarkable aspects of national parks is their diversity of landscapes and ecosystems.

From the lush rainforests of Olympic National Park to the arid deserts of Joshua Tree National Park, each park offers a unique glimpse into the natural world.

With over 60 different types of ecosystems represented, the national parks provide an unparalleled opportunity to explore the natural world.

Among the treasures of our national parks, Glacier National Park dazzles with its pristine alpine meadows and glaciers, while Sequoia National Park awes visitors with its monumental ancient trees. 

The serene waters of Hot Springs National Park offer a tranquil retreat, contrasting with the dramatic, otherworldly landscapes of Bryce Canyon and Arches National Parks. 

Far from the mainland, Dry Tortugas National Park is a stunning marine sanctuary accessible only by boat or seaplane. It showcases the rich biodiversity of Florida's reefs and the historic mystique of Fort Jefferson. 

Whether you're a seasoned adventurer or just looking for a peaceful escape, the United States national parks offer something for everyone. With so much to explore, there is no better time to start planning your national park bucket list.

Mapping Your National Park Bucket List Adventure

When planning your ultimate national park bucket list, mapping out your adventure is crucial.

By choosing your destinations and planning your routes, you can ensure that you make the most of your vacation and see all the sights you've been dreaming of.

Choosing Your Destinations

The first step in mapping out your national park adventure is choosing your destinations.

With so many incredible parks to choose from, it can be overwhelming to decide where to go. To help you narrow down your options, consider factors such as:

  • Your interests: Are you interested in hiking, wildlife watching, or scenic drives?
  • Your travel style: Do you prefer to camp or stay in lodges? Are you looking for a road trip or a more relaxed vacation?
  • Your location: Which parks are closest to you or most accessible?

Once you've narrowed your options, list your top choices and start researching each park to learn more about what it offers.

Serene woodland scene featuring a small waterfall cascading into a rocky creek, surrounded by lush greenery at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A stone path with steps leads through the vibrant forest, inviting nature lovers to explore the tranquility of this natural oasis.

Planning your National Park Bucket List Routes

Once you've chosen your destinations, it's time to plan your routes. Whether embarking on a road trip or flying between parks, planning your routes can help you save time and avoid unnecessary stress.

Consider using online mapping tools to plan your routes and estimate driving times. You may also want to create a detailed itinerary that includes information such as:

  • Driving distances and times
  • Park entrance fees and hours of operation (also, if you need to get a timed entry ticket)
  • Recommended hikes or scenic drives
  • Lodging or camping reservations (if you plan to stay on park property, this needs to be one of the first things you do)

By planning your routes and creating an itinerary, you can ensure that you make the most of your national park vacation and see all the sights you've been dreaming of.

Remember, if you are doing a lot of driving to take little breaks along the way to stay fresh and alert.

Graphic showing pages to a Free 'Boredom Buster' Ebook - Tips for Turning Long Drives into Fun, Engaging Journeys.

Top National Parks by Region

The diversity is staggering, from the geysers of Yellowstone to the rugged coasts of Acadia.

But where to begin on your National Park Bucket List? 

From seasoned travelers to adventure dreamers, this guide is your treasure map to exploring awe-inspiring national parks by region.

Remember, every journey starts with a single step—or, in our case, a single park. So, grab your map, and let's embark on a quest to discover the crown jewels of America's great outdoors, region by region. 

Who knows? You might find your next adventure hidden in the lines of this very guide.

A serene stream flows over smooth rocks surrounded by a dense, leafy forest with sunlight filtering through the canopy at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

National Parks in the Pacific West

If you're looking for breathtaking natural beauty, the Pacific West region of the United States is home to some of the most stunning national parks in the country. Here are a few must-visit parks in this region that should be on your bucket list:

Olympic National Park

In Washington, Olympic National Park is a diverse wonderland of temperate rainforests, rugged coastlines, and mountain peaks.

The park has several ecosystems, including old-growth forests, alpine meadows, and glacier-capped mountains.

Some of the most popular activities in the park include hiking, camping, fishing, and wildlife watching.

Key Things to Do at Olympic National Park:

  • Hike in the Hoh Rainforest: Discover the enchanting greenery and ancient trees on trails like the Hall of Mosses.
  • Visit Hurricane Ridge: Access breathtaking views of the park's mountains and valleys, a perfect spot for photography and wildlife spotting.
  • Explore Rialto Beach: Marvel at the sea stacks and tide pools, and take the scenic walk to Hole-in-the-Wall.

Each of these experiences offers a glimpse into Olympic National Park's diverse ecosystems and natural beauty, promising unforgettable adventures on every visit.

Plan to spend at least 4 days to explore Olympic National Park.

Overcast skies over a lush evergreen forest with rolling hills and distant mountain peaks, capturing the tranquil wilderness of Olympic National Park.

Crater Lake National Park

Situated in southern Oregon, Crater Lake National Park is home to the deepest lake in the United States.

The lake was formed over 7,000 years ago when a volcano collapsed, creating a massive caldera.

Today, you can enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, and boating in and around the crystal-clear waters of Crater Lake.

Key Things to Do at Crater Lake National Park:

  • Drive Rim Drive: This scenic route offers spectacular lake views and access to several overlooks and trailheads.
  • Boat Tour to Wizard Island: Take a boat tour to explore the lake up close, including a stop at Wizard Island, where you can hike and enjoy unique views.
  • Hike Garfield Peak: The hike up Garfield Peak is a must-do for panoramic views of Crater Lake and the surrounding landscape.

These activities highlight the unique geological and natural features that make Crater Lake National Park a must-visit destination on your National Park Bucket List.

Plan to spend at least a day exploring Crater Lake National Park.

A breathtaking view of Crater Lake with its deep blue water, surrounded by steep cliffs and green coniferous trees under a clear blue sky, showcasing the serene beauty of this natural wonder in Oregon

Redwood National and State Parks

In northern California, Redwood National and State Parks is home to some of the tallest trees on the planet.

The park is home to several species of giant redwood trees, some of which can grow over 350 feet tall.

In addition to hiking and camping, you can enjoy scenic drives, ranger-led programs, and wildlife watching in the park.

Key Things to Do at Redwood National and State Parks:

  • Walk Among Giants in the Tall Trees Grove: Experience the awe-inspiring presence of the world's tallest trees. A permit is required for this hike, emphasizing its exclusivity and serene experience.
  • Explore Fern Canyon: Walk through this lush, narrow canyon, its walls covered in ferns, which was made famous as a filming location for Jurassic Park. It's accessible via a hike or a drive followed by a short walk.
  • Drive the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway: This 10-mile drive through the heart of the parks offers stunning views of the ancient redwoods from the comfort of your car, with several spots to stop and enjoy shorter trails or picnic areas.

These highlighted activities offer a glimpse into the majesty and ancient beauty of Redwood National and State Parks, ensuring visitors an unforgettable experience among the earth's giants.

Maybe you'll get lucky like we did and see some river otters playing in the river—watching them frolic is so fun!

Plan to spend at least 2 days exploring Redwood National and State Parks.

A close-up of a calm riverbank with a river otter sitting on a rock among an assortment of rocks and boulders interspersed with patches of grass and vegetation, reflecting a quiet, undisturbed natural habitat.

Death Valley National Park 

Situated in the Mojave Desert, Death Valley is known for its extremes: it's the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the United States.

Despite its name, it offers a variety of stunning landscapes, from salt flats and sand dunes to badlands and valleys.

Key Things to Do at Death Valley National Park:

  • Visit Badwater Basin: Stand at the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level, where vast salt flats extend into the distance.
  • Explore Zabriskie Point: Enjoy breathtaking sunrise or sunset views over the golden badlands' surreal, eroded landscape.
  • Walk the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Experience the shifting sands underfoot and capture the iconic desert landscape, especially striking at sunrise or sunset.

These activities encapsulate the diverse beauty and extreme conditions of Death Valley National Park, offering visitors a glimpse into one of the most unique environments on the planet.

Plan to spend at least 2 days exploring Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley's unique landscape featuring undulating hills and rugged mountains. The barren, golden-brown earth forms a striking pattern of ridges and valleys under the clear sky, exemplifying the stark beauty of this extreme desert environment.

Yosemite National Park

Nestled in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite is famed for its towering granite cliffs, ancient sequoia trees, and stunning waterfalls.

It's a paradise for nature lovers, hikers, and climbers, offering breathtaking vistas and many outdoor activities.

Key Things to Do at Yosemite National Park:

  • View Yosemite Falls: Witness the tallest waterfall in North America, especially spectacular in late spring when the snowmelt is at its peak.
  • Explore Yosemite Valley: Home to some of the park's most famous landmarks, including El Capitan and Half Dome, the valley offers scenic drives and numerous hiking trails.
  • Visit Mariposa Grove: Walk among giant sequoias, the largest trees on earth. The Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree are must-sees.

These experiences offer just a taste of the natural wonders that make Yosemite National Park a must-visit destination, embodying the awe-inspiring beauty of the American wilderness.

Plan to spend at least 2 days to explore Yosemite National Park.

A tranquil river meandering through a high-altitude meadow in the Sierra Nevada (Yosemite), with a backdrop of pine trees and distant mountain peaks under a clear blue sky.

National Parks in the Intermountain Region

If you're looking for an adventure in the Intermountain region, you won't be disappointed by the national parks here.

From the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the stunning canyons of Utah, this region has something for everyone.

Yellowstone National Park

As the first national park in the U.S. and arguably the world, Yellowstone is a vast natural wonderland atop a volcanic hot spot, sprawling across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

It's renowned for its geothermal features (over 10,000 geysers, hot springs, and mud pots), diverse ecosystems, and abundant wildlife.

Key Things to Do at Yellowstone National Park:

  • Watch Old Faithful Erupt: No visit to Yellowstone is complete without witnessing the predictable eruptions of its most famous geyser, Old Faithful, a spectacular display of nature's force.
  • Explore the Grand Prismatic Spring: Marvel at the largest hot spring in the U.S., known for its striking coloration and immense size, a genuinely otherworldly sight.
  • View Wildlife in Lamar Valley: Often called America's Serengeti, Lamar Valley is one of the best places in the park to spot wildlife, including bison, elk, and occasionally wolves, especially in the early morning or late evening.

These highlights capture the essence of Yellowstone's vast and varied landscape, offering you unforgettable encounters with the natural world.

Plan to spend at least 3 days to explore Yellowstone National Park.

The majestic Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts, shooting a towering plume of steam into the clear blue sky, with evergreen forests providing a lush backdrop to this natural wonder.

Grand Teton National Park

In northwestern Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park is renowned for its breathtaking mountain landscapes, pristine lakes, and abundant wildlife.

The park's iconic Teton Range, with its jagged peaks rising dramatically above the Jackson Hole Valley, offers a stunning backdrop for many outdoor activities.

This park is next to Yellowstone, so consider visiting them on the same trip.

Key Things to Do at Grand Teton National Park:

  • Take a Boat Ride on Jenny Lake: Enjoy the serene beauty of Jenny Lake on a boat tour, or use the shuttle service to access the starting points for popular hikes, such as the one to Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls.
  • Hike to Inspiration Point: This moderate hike offers panoramic views of Jenny Lake and the Teton Range. It is a must-do for its breathtaking vistas.
  • Wildlife Watching in the Antelope Flats: Home to a large bison herd, pronghorns, and often-seen moose, this area provides excellent opportunities for wildlife photography and viewing against the backdrop of the majestic Tetons.

These activities showcase Grand Teton National Park's natural beauty and diversity of wildlife, making it a cherished destination for nature enthusiasts and photographers.

Plan to spend at least 2 days to explore Grand Teton National Park.

A serene autumnal scene at Grand Teton National Park with the Teton Range rising dramatically above a tranquil river lined with trees sporting fall colors, under the expansive blue sky.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado showcases the majestic Rocky Mountains, offering towering peaks, alpine lakes, and diverse wildlife.

Its landscapes range from lush meadows to rugged mountaintops, providing a playground for hikers, climbers, and nature lovers.

Key Things to Do at Rocky Mountain National Park:

  • Drive Trail Ridge Road: Experience America's highest continuous paved road, offering breathtaking views above the tree line and access to numerous hiking trails and scenic overlooks.
  • Hike to Emerald Lake: A relatively easy hike that offers stunning views of alpine lakes, including Nymph Lake and Dream Lake, culminating at the beautiful Emerald Lake, all set against the backdrop of Hallett Peak.
  • Spot Wildlife in Moraine Park: This is an excellent place for wildlife viewing, especially at dawn and dusk, when elk, deer, and other wildlife are often seen in their natural habitat.

These activities highlight the diverse beauty and adventure opportunities within Rocky Mountain National Park, making it a must-visit for those seeking the beauty of the Colorado Rockies.

Plan to spend at least 3 days to explore Rocky Mountain National Park.

A partially frozen alpine lake in the foreground with majestic, snow-covered peaks rising sharply in the background. The rugged landscape is dotted with pine trees, and the icy surface of the lake reflects the wintery scene above, encapsulating the wild beauty at the Rocky Mountains National Park.

Zion National Park

Located in southwestern Utah, Zion is a sanctuary of majestic cliffs, narrow canyons, and beautiful vistas.

Known for its striking red and tan sandstone cliffs, Zion offers a range of hiking trails and scenic drives, making it a paradise for adventurers and nature lovers.

Key Things to Do at Zion National Park:

  • Hike Angels Landing: Known for its breathtaking views and thrilling trail, Angels Landing offers a challenging and rewarding hike for experienced adventurers.
  • Explore the Narrows: Hike through the Virgin River's towering canyon walls in one of the park's most iconic and unique adventures. Be prepared to wade and even swim in some sections.
  • Enjoy a Scenic Drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive: Experience the beauty of Zion from the comfort of your vehicle or shuttle bus, with stops at major landmarks and trailheads along the way.

These experiences showcase the diverse landscapes and exhilarating adventures that Zion National Park has to offer, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in its natural wonders.

Plan to spend at least 3 days to explore Zion National Park.

Panoramic view of Zion National Park, showcasing the rugged red cliffs, green valley floor, and clear blue sky.

Grand Canyon National Park

Iconic and awe-inspiring, the Grand Canyon is a testament to the power of nature. Carved by the Colorado River over millions of years, this vast chasm in northern Arizona is one of the world's natural wonders.

With its layered bands of red rock revealing millions of years of geological history, the park offers unparalleled vistas, hiking trails, and opportunities for adventure.

  • Key Things to Do at Grand Canyon National Park:
    • Visit the South Rim: This is the most accessible and popular section of the park, offering numerous overlooks, trails, and visitor facilities. Take a walk along the Rim Trail for breathtaking views.
    • Hike Down to the Colorado River: For the adventurous, a hike down to the river offers a challenging and rewarding experience. The Bright Angel or South Kaibab trails are popular routes but be prepared for a strenuous journey.
    • Watch the Sunrise or Sunset: The Grand Canyon is renowned for its stunning sunrises and sunsets, illuminating the canyon walls in spectacular shades of color. Mather Point and Yavapai Observation Station are popular spots for these views.

Exploring Grand Canyon National Park is an unforgettable experience. It offers a profound sense of scale and the beauty of the natural world.

Plan to spend at least 2 days exploring Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim).

A breathtaking view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, with its vast and intricate network of red rock formations and deep gorges under a clear sky.

National Parks in the Midwest

The Midwest has plenty to offer if you're looking for national parks to add to your bucket list. Here are a few parks you won't want to miss:

Isle Royale National Park

Located in Michigan, Isle Royale National Park is a remote island wilderness set in the northwest corner of Lake Superior that offers you a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Accessible only by boat or seaplane, this national park is a haven for backpackers, kayakers, and nature enthusiasts.

Its isolation contributes to a serene, untouched natural environment where wildlife, including moose and wolves, roam freely.

Key Things to Do at Isle Royale National Park:

  • Backpack the Greenstone Ridge Trail: This trail offers hikers breathtaking views and the chance to experience the island's rugged beauty and solitude along its length.
  • Kayak Along the Shoreline: Explore the island's secluded coves and shoreline by kayak, offering a unique perspective of the park's wilderness and the opportunity to see aquatic wildlife and shipwrecks.
  • Spot Wildlife in Their Natural Habitat: Isle Royale offers exceptional opportunities to observe moose and wolves in their natural setting. This provides invaluable insights into the dynamics of these species without the interference of human presence.

Isle Royale National Park's remote and rugged landscape offers a unique wilderness experience, making it a must-visit for those seeking solitude and adventure in the great outdoors.

On our visit to this park, we took the boat from Minnesota; it is a shorter ride from here than Michigan.

Day trip options are available (this is what we did) and give you a glimpse of the park—we visited the visitor center, did a guided hike with a ranger, and explored on our own.

If you are up for adventure, plan to spend at least four days exploring Isle Royale National Park. If you want to collect the park stamp, take a day trip to the island.

Welcome sign for Isle Royale National Park at the Windigo Visitor Center, adorned with a collection of white moose antlers at the base.

Badlands National Park

South Dakota's Badlands National Park is known for its striking landscape of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blended with the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States.

This unique terrain offers a glimpse into millions of years of geological history and is home to many wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.

You can explore the rugged terrain on foot or by car and may even spot bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs along the way.

Key Things to Do at Badlands National Park:

  • Drive the Badlands Loop Road: This scenic drive offers stunning views of the park's distinctive landscapes and numerous spots to pull over and take in the scenery or start a short hike.
  • Hike the Notch Trail: This moderate 1.5-mile round-trip hike leads to an incredible viewpoint of the White River Valley. The trail includes a log ladder climb and traversing a narrow ledge for an added adventure.
  • Visit the Ben Reifel Visitor Center: Learn about the park's geology, paleontology, and history. The visitor center also provides information about ranger-led programs, which can enhance your visit.

Exploring Badlands National Park reveals a world of extreme beauty and geological wonders, offering an unforgettable adventure into a stark and otherworldly landscape.

Plan to spend at least a day exploring Badlands National Park.

Layered rock formations and rugged terrain of Badlands National Park under a partly cloudy sky, with patches of green shrubbery highlighting the valleys.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Between Akron and Cleveland in Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers a peaceful retreat into nature with its rolling hills, forests, and the winding Cuyahoga River.

This national park is unique for its blend of natural beauty and historical sites, offering you a variety of experiences, from scenic train rides to exploring waterfalls and hiking trails.

Key Things to Do at Cuyahoga Valley National Park:

  • Brandywine Falls: Visit this stunning 65-foot waterfall, accessible via a boardwalk, to witness one of the park's most beautiful natural features.
  • Ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad: Experience the park from a different perspective with a ride on this historic railroad, offering special events and themed rides throughout the year.
  • Hike the Ledges Trail: Explore the remarkable rock formations from the overlook and enjoy panoramic views of the Cuyahoga Valley.

These activities highlight Cuyahoga Valley National Park's diverse attractions, making it a unique destination for those who enjoy nature's tranquility and the charm of historical landmarks.

Plan to spend at least 2 days to explore Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Brandywine Falls at Cuyahoga Valley National Park surrounded by fall colors.

Indiana Dunes National Park

Situated on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park boasts over 15,000 acres of dunes, forests, wetlands, and prairies.

It's a place where natural beauty meets rich biodiversity, offering more than 50 miles of trails through diverse habitats and stunning lakefront views.

This Indiana Dunes is a haven for hikers, bird watchers, and beach lovers.

Key Things to Do at Indiana Dunes National Park:

  • Hike the Dunes: Challenge yourself with the Three Dune Challenge, tackling the park's highest dunes for breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding landscapes.
  • Enjoy the Beaches: Relax or swim at one of the park's beautiful beaches. West Beach and Porter Beach are popular spots for sunbathing, swimming, and enjoying sunsets over the lake.
  • Explore the Trails: With over 50 miles of trails, there's something for everyone. The Cowles Bog Trail offers a mix of dunes, wetlands, and forests, allowing one to observe the park's diverse ecosystems and wildlife.

Indiana Dunes National Park offers diverse ecology and fun activities, a must-visit for adventure and relaxation by Lake Michigan.

I enjoy visiting Century of Progress Homes at the park!

Plan to spend at least 1 day exploring Indiana Dunes National Park.

The Great Marsh Trail is one of the best hikes at Indiana Dunes National Park. There are great marsh views along the way.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

In the rugged badlands of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a tribute to the 26th president's conservation efforts and profound love for the American West.

The park is divided into three units—the North, South, and Elkhorn Ranch, each offering unique landscapes and wildlife.

You can explore vast, colorful landscapes that once inspired Roosevelt himself, along with a rich array of flora and fauna.

Key Things to Do at Theodore Roosevelt National Park:

  • Scenic Drive through the South Unit: This 36-mile loop drive offers spectacular views of the badlands and prairie dog towns and chances to spot bison, wild horses, and elk.
  • Hike the Petrified Forest Loop: This trail in the North Unit takes you through ancient petrified forests and offers a unique glimpse into the park's geological history.
  • Visit the Maltese Cross Cabin: Roosevelt's first ranch cabin provides insight into his life and conservation legacy. The cabin is located near the South Unit Visitor Center.

These activities offer a taste of Theodore Roosevelt National Park's adventures and historical insights, embodying the spirit of exploration and conservation that Roosevelt championed.

Plan to spend at least 2 days to explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park (1 day at each unit).

Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit overlook

National Parks in the Southeast

If you're looking to explore the natural beauty of the Southeastern United States, there are several national parks you will want to take advantage of. Here are a few to add to your bucket list:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country.

With over 800 miles of hiking trails, stunning waterfalls, and diverse wildlife, it's easy to see why.

The park also has several historic structures, including grist mills and churches.

Key Things to Do at Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

  • Explore Cades Cove: A broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains, Cades Cove offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. The area also features a scenic loop road providing historic homes and church access.
  • Hike to Clingmans Dome: The highest point in the park, Clingmans Dome offers panoramic views of the smokies and beyond. A paved path leads to an observation tower at the summit.
  • Visit the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: This one-way loop road offers a glimpse into the area's history, with access to trails, historic buildings, and beautiful waterfalls.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park encapsulates the heart and soul of the Appalachian wilderness, offering visitors a profound connection with nature's timeless beauty.

Plan to spend at least 4 days exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The hazy, rolling hills of the Great Smoky Mountains stretch into the distance, with the lush greenery of the forests creating a tranquil landscape.

Everglades National Park

In southern Florida, Everglades National Park is a vast subtropical wilderness known for its rich biodiversity and unique ecosystem.

The park protects an unparalleled landscape that provides important habitat for numerous rare and endangered species, such as the manatee, American crocodile, and the elusive Florida panther.

It's a haven for nature lovers, bird watchers, and those seeking adventure in the wilderness.

Key Things to Do at Everglades National Park:

  • Take an Airboat Tour: Experience the heart of the Everglades on an airboat tour, offering a thrilling way to explore the vast wetlands and get close to the park's wildlife.
  • Go Bird Watching at Anhinga Trail: This easy, accessible trail is one of the best spots in the park for birdwatching. You can see a variety of species, including Anhingas, herons, and egrets.
  • Kayak Through the Mangrove Tunnels: Paddle your way through the park's mangrove forests, a serene and intimate way to explore the quiet beauty of the Everglades waterways.

Everglades National Park offers a glimpse into a unique part of the natural world, where water and land intertwine to create a habitat teeming with life and beauty.

Plan to spend at least 2 days to explore Everglades National Park.

A well-camouflaged alligator rests among the marshy grasses and reeds, partially submerged in the swampy waters.

Congaree National Park

Just outside Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree National Park is home to one of the country's largest intact expanses of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest.

This ecological wonder is known for its towering trees, diverse plant and animal life, and the majestic Congaree River that flows through it.

Explore the park's hiking trails, kayak or canoe on the Congaree River, or take a guided ranger tour.

Key Things to Do at Congaree National Park:

  • Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail: An easy 2.4-mile walk that offers an accessible route to explore the park's lush forests and diverse ecosystem without getting your feet wet.
  • Canoe or Kayak Cedar Creek: Paddle through the peaceful waters of Cedar Creek to witness the park's rich biodiversity from a different perspective. Look for wildlife along the banks.
  • Participate in a Ranger-led Program: Enhance your visit by joining one of the park's ranger-led programs. These can include guided walks, canoe tours, and educational talks, providing deeper insights into the park's natural and cultural history.

Congaree National Park is a testament to nature's resilience and beauty, offering visitors a chance to experience the tranquility and majesty of an ancient floodplain forest.

Tip: Mosquitos are ferocious – be prepared! 

Plan to spend at least 1 day to explore Congaree National Park.

A dense bald cypress swamp with reflective water surfaces, bare tree trunks rising from the water, and a scattering of green moss on the trees.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Located in central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park is renowned for housing the world's longest-known cave system, with more than 400 miles of explored passageways.

This UNESCO World Heritage site offers a fascinating underground adventure alongside beautiful river valleys, dense forests, and a rich array of wildlife above ground.

The park also has several historic structures, including the Green River Ferry and the Mammoth Cave Hotel.

Key Things to Do at Mammoth Cave National Park:

  • Take a Cave Tour: On a guided tour, explore Mammoth Cave's vast chambers and complex labyrinths. Options range from easy, family-friendly tours to more strenuous adventures, including crawling through tight spaces.
  • Hike the Surface Trails: Discover the park's scenic beauty on its surface trails. The Green River Bluffs Trail offers stunning river views, while the Cedar Sink Trail showcases interesting geological features.
  • Canoe or Kayak on the Green River: Paddle through the park's serene waterways, enjoying the peaceful landscapes and spotting wildlife along the banks.

Mammoth Cave National Park provides a unique blend of underground exploration and surface-level natural beauty, making it a must-visit destination for adventurers and nature enthusiasts.

Plan to spend at least 1 day to explore Mammoth Cave National Park.

Dimly lit cave interior featuring a large rock formation with layered strata and etchings, showcasing natural and human-made markings.

Biscayne National Park

Situated in southern Florida, just a stone's throw from Miami, Biscayne National Park is a watery wonderland covering over 170,000 acres, with 95% of the park being water.

The park is renowned for its vibrant coral reefs, mangrove forests, and clear blue waters, offering a unique escape into nature.

It's a haven for snorkelers, divers, boaters, and those who appreciate the beauty of marine environments.

Key Things to Do at Biscayne National Park:

  • Snorkel or Dive the Coral Reefs: Explore the park's underwater world, home to some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the U.S., teeming with colorful marine life.
  • Take a Guided Boat Tour: Discover the park's islands, including Boca Chita Key, known for its iconic lighthouse, and Elliott Key, the park's largest island and a popular spot for picnicking, swimming, and camping.
  • Kayak or Canoe Through Mangrove Forests: Paddle through the park's calm waters to explore its mangrove-lined shores, a peaceful way to observe birds and other wildlife in their natural habitat.

Biscayne National Park offers a glimpse into Florida's tropical marine ecosystems, providing a unique blend of recreational and educational experiences amidst its beautiful islands and underwater treasures.

Plan to spend at least 1 day to explore Biscayne National Park.

The Boca Chita Key stone lighthouse with a domed cap stands on a jetty, surrounded by lush palm trees with a clear blue sky overhead and a leisure boat passing by in the calm sea waters.

National Parks in the National Capital

Several national monuments in the National Capital region offer a chance to enjoy nature without leaving the city limits. However, there are no official “National Parks” in this region.

One of the most popular parks in the area is Rock Creek Park, which spans over 1,700 acres and offers a variety of outdoor activities.

You can hike one of the many trails, bike along the paved paths, or even ride horseback. The park also has picnic areas and playgrounds, making it an excellent spot for a family outing.

Another nearby park is Great Falls Park, located just 15 miles outside of Washington, D.C.

This park is known for its stunning waterfalls and offers a range of activities for visitors. You can hike along the trails, rock climb, or even take a guided park tour.

If you're interested in history, check out the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

This park includes iconic landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. You can also visit the National World War II and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

No matter your interests, there's a national park in the National Capital Region that's sure to offer something for everyone. So why not add these parks to your bucket list and explore all they offer?

Rapid white waters flow through a rocky riverbed surrounded by greenery, under a cloudy sky at Great Falls Park.

National Parks in the Northeast

The Northeast region of the United States is home to several national parks that offer unique experiences for visitors. Here are some of the must-visit national parks in the Northeast:

Acadia National Park

Located on the rugged coast of Maine, Acadia National Park is a jewel of the Atlantic, known for its stunning ocean vistas, forested trails, and granite peaks.

It's the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River, offering a perfect blend of sea and mountain landscapes.

The park's diverse habitats support many wildlife, from sea birds to forest dwellers. The park is also known for its stunning sunrises and sunsets.

Key Things to Do at Acadia National Park:

  • Drive or Bike the Park Loop Road: This scenic route offers easy access to many of the park's highlights, including Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Jordan Pond.
  • Hike to the Summit of Cadillac Mountain: The highest point on the U.S. East Coast, Cadillac Mountain offers breathtaking views, especially at sunrise.
  • Explore Jordan Pond: Famous for its clear, deep waters and the surrounding mountains. Enjoy a walk around the pond or dine at the Jordan Pond House. (Be sure to try a Popover!)

Acadia National Park is a captivating blend of oceanic and mountainous beauty, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in its serene landscapes and enjoy a variety of outdoor activities.

Plan to spend at least 4 days to explore Acadia National Park.

Jordan Pond Acadia NP, Acadia National Park, Maine

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is located in Virginia and is known for its scenic drives and hiking trails. The park is home to the famous Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that offers breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

There are 500 miles of hiking trails. The park is also home to several waterfalls and an excellent birdwatching place.

Key Things to Do at Shenandoah National Park:

  • Drive Skyline Drive: This 105-mile road runs the entire park length and offers 75 overlooks with breathtaking views of the Virginia landscape.
  • Hike to Old Rag Mountain: One of the park's most popular hikes, this challenging route offers rewarding views from the summit.
  • Visit Dark Hollow Falls: A relatively short hike leads to one of the park's most beautiful waterfalls, cascading through a lush, forested gorge.

Shenandoah National Park provides a peaceful escape into nature, with its diverse landscapes offering countless opportunities for adventure and relaxation.

Plan to spend at least 3 days to explore Shenandoah National Park.

A sign on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park marks the highest point of the trail in the park, with an elevation of 3837 feet, surrounded by a forest setting.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

Located in West Virginia, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is one of the newest national parks in the United States.

The park is celebrated for the New River Gorge Bridge, one of the longest steel arch bridges in the world, and the ancient New River, among the oldest rivers on the continent.

The park offers unique natural beauty and recreational opportunities, including world-class whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and hiking trails with stunning gorge views.

Key Things to Do at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve:

  • Walk Across the New River Gorge Bridge: For a breathtaking view of the gorge below, walk across the bridge during the Bridge Day festivities in October, when the bridge is open to pedestrians and base jumping.
  • Go Whitewater Rafting on the New River: Experience the thrill of rafting on one of the best whitewater rivers in the country, with rapids ranging from Class III to V.
  • Hike the Endless Wall Trail: This moderate trail offers some of the most spectacular views of the New River Gorge, especially from the Diamond Point overlook.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is a testament to the rugged beauty of the Appalachian landscape, providing a playground for adventurers and nature enthusiasts alike.

Plan to spend at least 2 days to explore New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

The New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia, a steel arch structure enveloped in mist, stands majestically above a forested gorge.

National Parks in Alaska

Alaska has eight national parks, each offering a unique and breathtaking experience. Here are some of the must-visit national parks in Alaska:

Denali National Park and Preserve

Located in the interior of Alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve is a vast wilderness home to North America's highest peak, Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), standing at 20,310 feet.

This park encompasses over 6 million acres of wild land, from low-lying taiga forests to high alpine tundra and snowy mountains.

Denali offers visitors unparalleled opportunities for wildlife viewing, hiking, and witnessing the extremes of Alaska's natural beauty. You can explore the park on foot, by bus, or on a guided tour.

Key Things to Do at Denali National Park and Preserve:

  • Take a Bus Tour on the Denali Park Road: The only road through the park offers spectacular views and opportunities to see wildlife, including grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and wolves. Due to restrictions on private vehicle access, bus tours provide an excellent way to explore deep into the park.
  • Hike in the Park: With trails ranging from easy walks around the Visitor Center to challenging backcountry treks, hiking in Denali caters to all levels of adventure seekers. For a unique experience, try off-trail hiking in the designated wilderness areas.
  • View Denali: Weather permitting, viewing the majestic peak of Denali itself is a must. The Eielson Visitor Center offers one of the best vantage points, or for a closer look, consider a flightseeing tour that circles the mountain.

Denali National Park and Preserve is a place of wild beauty and grandeur, offering visitors a glimpse into Alaska's untamed wilderness and the chance to experience the solitude and majesty of one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth.

Plan to spend at least 3 days to explore Denali National Park and Preserve.

Mount Denali looms majestically over a tranquil Wonder Lake, its snow-covered peaks contrasting with the green Alaskan tundra in the foreground.
Mt. McKinley – Denali National Park” by Gregory ‘Slobirdr' Smith is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Situated in Southeast Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve highlights the Inside Passage.

This remote park is renowned for its breathtaking glaciers, vibrant marine life, and towering mountain ranges.

Accessible primarily by boat or plane, Glacier Bay offers you the chance to witness the dynamic nature of a landscape shaped by ice, sea, and time.

Key Things to Do at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve:

  • Take a Glacier Cruise: Experience the park's majestic tidewater glaciers up close on a day cruise, an unforgettable way to see the glaciers calve into the sea.
  • Kayak Among Icebergs: Paddle through the park's pristine waters for a closer look at its glaciers and a chance to spot wildlife, including seals, whales, and sea otters.
  • Go Bird Watching at Bartlett Cove: Explore the trails around Bartlett Cove to spot a variety of bird species, or visit the Glacier Bay Lodge for exhibits and ranger-led programs.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve offers a unique opportunity to explore a world where glaciers still shape the land and sea, providing a profound reminder of the natural world's power and beauty.

Tip: For the most straightforward option, take an Alaskan Cruise that stops at Glacier Bay and collect a National Park stamp for your passport book!

Plan to spend at least 3 days to explore Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

The striking blue ice of a glacier fronts a mirror-like lake, with snow-dusted mountains in the backdrop, creating a serene Alaskan landscape

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park is located on the Kenai Peninsula and is home to some of Alaska's most stunning coastal scenery.

The park covers approximately 670,000 acres and is home to the Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the United States.

Kenai Fjords is a place of incredible natural diversity, allowing visitors to see glaciers up close, witness a rich array of wildlife, and explore pristine marine environments.

Key Things to Do at Kenai Fjords National Park:

  • Take a Boat Tour: A cruise through the park's fjords offers spectacular views of tidewater glaciers and opportunities to see marine wildlife such as whales, seals, sea otters, and seabirds.
  • Hike to Exit Glacier: One of the most accessible glaciers, Exit Glacier allows for up-close views of a dynamic glacial landscape. The hike to the glacier and the Harding Icefield Trail provides stunning views and insights into glacial movements.
  • Kayak Around the Fjords: For the more adventurous, kayaking offers an intimate experience with the park's marine environment. Paddle among icebergs, explore remote coves and enjoy the serenity of this wild place.

Kenai Fjords National Park embodies the dramatic beauty of Alaska's glaciers and coastal fjords, offering visitors a unique opportunity to explore a landscape where ice and ocean meet.

Plan to spend at least 2 days exploring Kenai Fjords National Park.

A vast glacier spills between mountain peaks into the dark waters of an Alaskan fjord under a moody sky.
Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park” by Ted LaBar is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest national park in the United States, spanning over 13 million acres.

It's a region of immense natural beauty, featuring some of the highest peaks in North America, vast glaciers, and an incredible diversity of ecosystems.

This park offers unparalleled opportunities for wilderness adventure, exploration, and experiencing the solitude of the Alaskan wilds.

Key Things to Do at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve:

  • Flightseeing Tours: To grasp the sheer scale and beauty of Wrangell-St. Elias, a flightseeing tour is a must. These tours offer breathtaking views of the park's high mountain peaks, glaciers, and vast wilderness areas.
  • Explore Historic Mining Sites: The park's history is deeply intertwined with the copper mining industry. Sites like the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark offer a glimpse into the area's past and are accessible via McCarthy Road.
  • Backcountry Hiking and Camping: For those seeking solitude and adventure, the park's backcountry offers endless opportunities for hiking and camping. With few established trails, visitors can experience true wilderness exploration.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a testament to Alaska's wild, untamed beauty. It offers a unique blend of natural wonder, history, and adventure unmatched in the United States.

Plan to spend at least 2 days to explore Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

A red and white seaplane is parked on the shore of a serene Alaskan lake, with lush green hills and a clear blue sky in the background.
Float Plane in Wrangell-St. Elias” by Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Katmai National Park and Preserve

Katmai National Park and Preserve is located on the Alaskan Peninsula and is home to some of the best brown bear viewing in the world.

You can watch the bears fishing for salmon in the park's rivers or explore the park's hiking trails.

The park is a stunning wilderness area known for its dramatic landscapes, including vast lakes, active volcanoes, and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes—a region covered with ash flow from the 1912 eruption of Novarupta. 

Key Things to Do at Katmai National Park and Preserve:

  • Bear Watching at Brooks Falls: This is one of the best places in the world to observe brown bears in their natural habitat, especially during the salmon run in July.
  • Explore the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: Guided tours take visitors into this unique volcanic landscape, offering a glimpse into the earth's raw power.
  • Fishing: Katmai offers world-class fishing opportunities in its many rivers and lakes, with the chance to catch salmon, trout, and other species in pristine wilderness settings.

Katmai National Park and Preserve provides a rare opportunity to explore some of the most untouched wilderness in the United States, offering unforgettable experiences for nature lovers, anglers, and anyone seeking adventure in the wilds of Alaska.

Plan to spend at least 2 days to explore Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Brown bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska, fishing for salmon. Several bears are perched on the falls while others wait in the rushing water
Katmai National Park and Preserve Brooks Falls” by National Park Service is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

While Alaska's national parks offer visitors a unique and unforgettable experience, they are the most challenging to visit – both cost-wise and transportation-wise. 

FAQs: National Park Bucket List

What are the top national parks to include in a bucket list?

There are many national parks to choose from, but some of the most popular ones to include in a bucket list are Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, and Acadia. Each park offers unique experiences and breathtaking scenery, making it a must-visit for any nature lover.

Which national park is considered the most visited?

The most visited national park in the United States is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which receives over 11 million visitors annually. This park is known for its stunning mountain views, diverse wildlife, and rich cultural history.

What are essential items to bring when exploring national parks?

Bringing plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, and appropriate clothing and footwear is essential when exploring national parks. Other useful items include a map, compass, first aid kit, and insect repellent.

It is also important to follow Leave No Trace principles and pack out all trash.

How can one track which national parks they have visited?

There are several ways to track which national parks you have visited. One popular method is to collect park stamps in a National Park Passport book. You can purchase these books at any national park visitor center.

Another option is to create a personalized map or National Park checklist to keep track of your visits.

What unique activities can be done in national parks?

National parks offer a wide range of activities, from hiking and camping to wildlife watching and stargazing.

Some unique activities include rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, kayaking in Glacier Bay National Park, and hot air ballooning over the Grand Canyon.

Many parks also offer ranger-led programs and educational opportunities for visitors of all ages.

Drizzly kayaking day, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska” by Matt-Zimmerman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Final Thoughts: National Park Bucket List

Crafting a national park bucket list is more than planning trips; it's about embarking on a journey of discovery and conservation, where each park presents its own unique narrative and breathtaking experiences.

From the serene waters of Dry Tortugas to the towering trees of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, the thermal marvels of Hot Springs, the sculpted landscapes of Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon, to the alpine splendor of Glacier, every visit promises awe and inspiration.

Let these parks inspire you to explore, conserve, and find your place in the natural world.

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