Unplug and unwind in the wild expanse of the United States’ protected national parks. Stare up in wonder at towering sandstone arches in Utah, blaze a new trail through the picturesque mountains in Colorado, or breathe deep in the green and temperate rainforests of Washington. There’s nothing like the thrill of discovering something new and a breathtaking view to help you feel refreshed.
Find adventure in an open trail, a family outing to watch wildlife, or a romantic picnic overlooking a lake. With the diverse range of environments to explore, it’s not hard to find a national park vacation everyone can enjoy. Plan a getaway, book a vacation rental nearby, and take your time finding what nature has in store.
One of the country’s favorite national parks lies between two states: Tennessee and North Carolina. For this outdoor adventure, you’d better have your camera ready for the sweeping landscape of trees, ancient mountains, and abundant wildflowers that bloom year-round. Take in views of mountain peaks from the observation area at Clingman’s Dome, or walk the Appalachian Trail where you’ll find streams and waterfalls eager to serve as a backdrop to memorable photos. Settle in for a quick picnic before resuming your adventure by car or horseback—just be sure to keep an eye out for black bears that roam the park.
If a lush, green (and potentially a little wet!) landscape speaks to your soul, look no further than Olympic National Park. According to the park’s official website, Olympic National Park is home to a myriad of diverse ecosystems and the longest undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States. And, the varied landscape really has it all:
Visitors to the park can enjoy the typical activities that make a national park vacation so special—including hiking, bird watching, fishing, and animal spotting.
Venture out to California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and be rewarded with adventure and awe-inspiring views of ancient sequoia trees, rolling green valleys, and iconic granite cliffs like Half Dome and El Capitan. Families and outdoor enthusiasts flock to the park every year to savor the natural splendor and plentiful activities. Hike out to the transcendent Bridalveil Falls, grab a permit and enjoy a day of fishing, or have the family try their hand at panning for gold in nearby Mariposa County.
Yosemite is a dream destination for getting back to nature and enjoying a slower pace. In the surrounding area, you’ll find swimming holes, rafting tours, and Yosemite Village’s museums and shopping.
For an entirely different perspective, head to the lesser known but equally breathtaking Canyonlands National Park in Utah. While you’re bound to be relaxed, Canyonlands really brings the drama with its desert landscape and skyscraping rock formations. Similar to the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands was carved out by the Colorado River, exposing millions of years of history in the form of stunning red layers in the earth that complement the desert’s striking sunrises and sunsets.
Nearby Moab makes for a convenient home base during your stay, just over 30 miles away from the Island in the Sky—a 1,500-foot mesa that provides spectacular views, a place to take a deep breath, and photo opportunities that will be cherished for years to come. From the Island, bring the family together for a 30-minute family-friendly hike or embark on a challenging overnight hike to the bank of the river. One of the most desired aspects of Canyonlands is that you can spend a few hours or several days there, and see as much or as little as you’d like given its proximity to Moab.
Fondly known as the “crown jewel of the North Atlantic Coast,” Acadia National Park is one of the most-visited national parks in the U.S. With more than 3.5 million visitors per year, there are plenty of activities for nearly every type of adventurer.
In the summer months, temperatures sit in the mid- to upper-70s and the cool ocean breeze provides the perfect relief for visitors embarking on pristine hiking trails. Come fall, the crowds start to slim, but not before a rush of leaf-peepers arrive to take in the famous East Coast fall colors.
Winter is the least popular time to visit, but we really can’t see why. Snowy coastal scenes add to the landscape’s tranquility and with activities like dog sledding and ice fishing still available, winter offers a chance to take advantage of the park with the same level of adventure, sans crowds.
When it comes down to it, the entire state of Montana is known for its ability to revive and refresh the soul with nature surrounding you at every bend. The state’s centerpiece can be found in Glacier National Park, with vast, wide-open spaces capped by surrounding mountain peaks. Seek out breathtaking scenes of jagged, snowy mountain ranges, wildflowers, turquoise glacial lakes, and abundant North American wildlife.
With a whopping 700 miles of trails, Glacier is a hiker’s dream, but that’s not all visitors journey to the park to experience. Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice fishing are some of the winter’s top experiences, while backcountry campers enjoy milder temperatures in the summer months. Guided national park tours are available by nearly any means necessary, including by foot, boat, bus, horseback, and even raft.
Just north of Moab, Arches National Park boasts over 2,000 natural sandstone arches and soaring rock formations. Hike through the park itself, or take in panoramic views from the comfort of a scenic drive. The park’s major landmarks include Balanced Rock, the famous Delicate Arch, Double Arch, and the longest arch, Landscape Arch.
While in the area, it’s worth a trip to Moab Springs Ranch for a dip in warm mineral hot springs and hot tubs. Utah’s boundless skies also make it a major destination for stargazing and Arches National Park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park in 2019 to preserve its exceptional starry nights.
Spanning 415 square miles, Rocky Mountain National Park sweeps across the Continental Divide and an array of protected mountain range, tundra, and forested environments. The park’s tallest mountain, Longs Peak, towers at 14,259 feet and overlooks crystal-clear Bear Lake, making it a must-see for your trip. Take your pick of hiking trails (355 miles of them) up a mountainside or road trip through Trail Ridge Road and the Old Fall River Road, which wind through aspen trees and rivers.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the country’s top wildlife viewing destinations, and its majestic landscape changes with every season, offering unparalleled views year-round.
As if Utah couldn’t offer any more adventure, we recommend a national park vacation to the state’s most popular stop. Featuring expansive views of emerald pools, meandering rivers, red rock arches, and slot canyons, the park is a gateway to the unique beauty of the Southwest. Zion National Park sees 300 days of sunshine and promises a new experience for any traveler, from the nail-biting trip up Angels Landing hike, to an easygoing riverside walk.
Visit the Narrows for a hike around Temple of Sinawava’s springs and a chance to stare up in awe at mammoth ruby canyon walls. Check out Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park nearby and a family trip to Grafton’s Ghost Town.
While you can generally cover a national park’s must-see spots in two days, it’s better to take your time to get the most out of your trip. For larger national parks or parks with more attractions, like Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park, or Yosemite National Park, it’s best to spend 3–5 days if possible to get the full experience. Watch for wildlife, explore neighboring towns, and savor the stillness in between adventures.
Many national parks require day passes or entrance fees, whether based per car or individual guest, with no entrance fee for children age 15 or under. Some national parks may also have free entrance days where passes are waived. Check out the National Park Service's website for more information and park updates before your trip.
Some national parks require an entrance fee or day pass for each car or individual guest, with no entrance fee for children age 15 or under. Check out the National Park Service's website for information about free entrance days and park updates before your trip.