One of the greatest things about our country is its diversity, both in terms of its people and the land itself. That’s why we’re such big fans of the country’s national parks, which offer a dynamic and budget-friendly way to see the country up close.
Comprised of 417 areas covering more than 84 million acres, the National Park System includes the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. That’s a lot of land to explore, and all of those options can be overwhelming. So before you hit the road or catch a flight to your park destination, make sure you have a plan for your travels. (And if you have kids, you’ll want to read our handy road-trip survival guide.)
Drafting a budget is a good place to start, as is packing a travel rewards card, which can help you earn perks just for spending as you normally would. (For those on the road, a gas rewards card may be a better option.) Be sure to check your credit before you apply, as many of these cards require good credit to qualify. You can view two of your credit scores for free right here on Credit.com.
To help you decide where to venture this summer, we selected 37 of our favorites from across the country. Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments!
1. Denali National Park, Alaska
Who wouldn’t want to see a rainbow stretching across a pink sky as late as midnight? Or the sun rising around 3:30 in the morning to light up the snow-capped mountains? The views in Denali are breathtaking, and part of the thrill is seeing how its scenery changes in sunlight.
2. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
You’ll feel super-accomplished after spending a day hiking the Harding Icefield Trail, but that’s not the only way to explore this remote park. See the fjords on a boat tour in summer, go kayaking or drive along Exit Glacier, which offers pit stops for hiking and Instagram-ready viewpoints.
3. Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Alaska
With glaciers, lakes, volcanoes, dense forests and roving bears, Lake Clark is what you think of when you think of Alaska. And though getting there requires a plane or travel by boat, you won’t regret going in summer, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the hiking is top-notch.
4. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Accessible year-round, the Grand Canyon is a true American treasure, with spectacular views, life-changing hikes and a colorful, if sometimes fraught, history. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the Canyon reliably draws millions of visitors each year.
5. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
No Southwest trip would not be complete without a stop in majestic Saguaro, named for the cowboy-shaped cactuses that are abundant throughout the desert. Forbidding rattlesnakes, javelinas and gila monsters call Saguaro their home, but those shouldn’t deter you from seeing the Costa’s hummingbirds and floral blooms.
6. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
For more than two centuries, people have used the hot spring water in Downtown Hot Springs to treat various ailments; today “Bathhouse Row” is a National Historic Landmark District with the largest collection of bathhouses of its kind in North America.
7. Channel Islands National Park, California
Calling all snorkelers, divers and kayakers: Channel Island and its isolated coves and sea caves are beckoning you. Explore heaps of kept forests alongside sea lions or surf the waters off the north or south shores of Santa Rosa. At the end of the day, you can camp on any of the five park islands and indulge in some of the best stargazing in SoCal.
8. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Situated just east of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree is a mecca for rock climbers, campers and driving sightseers alike. The park’s namesake Joshua trees are abundant throughout the park, as are other desert flora and fauna. Keys View looks out over the Coachella Valley, where the San Andreas Fault is clearly visible.
9. Redwood National Park, California
There’s nothing more humbling than standing next to a 300-foot-tall redwood. In this coastal national park, you can explore numerous beautiful trails or take a meandering drive through old-growth redwoods. We recommend the Coastal Drive Loop for stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
10. Sequoia National Park, California
One of the world’s tallest trees — and largest living organisms, in fact — can be found here in this national park. The General Sherman is massive, and more than 2,300 years old, so make sure to take a picture with this beautiful, old giant.
11. Yosemite National Park, California
If you want ancient sequoia trees, stunning waterfalls and beautiful mountains, Yosemite has it all. From El Capital and Half Dome to Bridalveil Falls, the natural beauty comes in epic proportions. The high season gets very crowded, so prepare to spend some time looking for parking.
12. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
You don’t have to dig John Denver to get into the laid-back mindset of this park. Just bask in the wildlife viewing, scenic drives (Trail Ridge Road climbs to a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet) and family-friendly activities. Coyote Valley, where thousands of wildflowers bloom in the summer, should be tops on your list.
13. Everglades National Park, Florida
Here you can literally slow time … and sink into the swamp. Just a one-hour drive south from Miami, the park includes a striking 1.5 million acres of tropical and subtropical habitat that’s been designated as an International Biosphere, a Wetland of Importance and a World Heritage Site. Just watch out for the alligators.
14. Dry Tortugas, Florida
Comprised of seven small islands, Dry Tortugas is one of the country’s great natural wonders, with something for everyone. For history buffs, Fort Jefferson, a prison during the Civil War, can’t be missed, while those in desperate need of some R&R will enjoy the calm beaches. The shallow waters are perfect for snorkeling.
15. Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii
The feeling you get watching the sunrise at Haleakalā on Maui is hard to describe, but suffice it so say there’s nothing else like it. Standing on the windy summit around 6 a.m. would be unpleasant if it weren’t for the spectacular view. Just be forewarned, the drive to the summit is not for those who fear winding roads.
16. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
You can explore the beautiful volcanoes on the big island of Hawai’i, some of which are still active, in this park. Drive around the the summit of Kīlauea or hike one of the park’s lovely trails. The Nāhuku Lava Tube is especially great for kids, as they’ll be able to imagine the lava rushing through the tube hundreds of years ago.
17. Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia is Maine’s only national park and also one of the country’s most beautiful, with forests, ponds, marshlands, mammals and even whales on display. Be sure to explore the park’s historic carriage paths, commissioned by John D. Rockefeller in 1915.
18. Adams National Park, Massachusetts
Take a trip back in time to the early days of our country’s history, where you’ll find the “summer White House,” Stone Library, Adams Carriage House and the birthplace of not one, but two of our presidents. See the lovely yellowwood tree John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa Catherine must have planted in memory of their son, George, and tour the home where John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution.
19. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Deep turquoise water and tall forest trees make Isle Royale ideal for outdoorsy types. Just $7 gets you in for a day of backpacking, hiking, boating, kayaking or scuba diving. If none of those are your thing, go anyway for the island’s isolation — it’s a great place for reflection.
20. Glacier National Park, Montana
Glaciers, mountains, mountain goats, verdant mountain fields and hiking trails galore are what you’ll find in this 1,500-plus-square-mile wilderness area. There are also some rustic inns to check out if backpacking isn’t your idea of relaxing.
21. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Fittingly named for the outdoorsy president who created five national parks, signed the landmark Antiquities Act and used its provisions to create 18 national monuments, this scenic park demands your attention.
22. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Crater Lake was created by the explosion of Mt. Mazama 7,700 years ago and wasn’t discovered by white explorers until 1853. The Klamath Tribes who lived there considered it a sacred place, and given its unearthly quiet (and the emerald waters of Fumarole Bay), we have to agree.
23. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
One of the newer national parks — Congaree received its official designation in 2003 following a grassroots campaign — is a tree-lover’s paradise, with one of the highest canopies in the world. The park’s website calls it the “largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern U.S.”
24. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands doesn’t just have an awesome name, it has some of the most awe-inspiring sights you’ll ever see. If hiking and climbing don’t appeal, hit the hour-long Badlands Loop Scenic Byway — the closest airport, Rapid City, is 80 miles northwest — and keep your eyes peeled for black-footed ferrets, mule deer and buffalo. The trip itself feels like circling the moon.
25. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Supposedly the first cave to be designated a national park, Wind Cave is so tranquil you’ll wonder why you never visited before. Look out for part-time residents like burrowing owls and grazing bull bisons.
26. Big Bend National Park, Texas
It’s a trek just to get to this park situated on the Texas-Mexico border — the nearest airport is 160 miles away — but the mountainous desert terrain is spectacular once you arrive. If you’re into backpacking, it’s a fantastic destination, just keep in mind you’ll have to pack-in your own water. There’s also gorgeous, seasonal river rafting.
27. Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas
When most people think of Texas, they don’t think of dense pine forests, swamps and one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, but that’s exactly what Big Thicket National Preserve is. Situated in Southeast Texas just a short drive north from Houston, the Big Thicket is also home to the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation.
28. Arches National Park, Utah
Just five miles north of Moab lies the entrance to Arches, which is thankfully open year-round. Yes, the entrance fee will cost you ($25), but after viewing what’s said to be the world’s largest natural sandstone arches, you’ll be convinced the price of admission was worth it. Be sure to get out of your car to see the arches up close.
29. Gateway National Recreational Area, New Jersey
Gateway covers 27,000 acres, including Sandy Hook, New Jersey and parts of Staten Island and Jamaica Bay, New York City. The sprawling national park allows for activities like kayaking in Jamaica Bay, swimming off Sandy Hook and camping at historic Fort Wadsworth.
30. Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park, New Jersey
The Great Falls of the Passaic River is the second-largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River, behind only Niagara. Alexander Hamilton, the founder of Paterson, harnessed the 77-foot falls to power the city, one of the earliest industrial hubs in the U.S. The park, established in 2011, allows visitors to see the falls up close and learn about Hamilton and early American industry.
31. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
The only national park in Ohio is also one of the country’s most popular, with thousands of plants, abundant wildflowers and a landscape of hills, sandstone ledges and waterfalls (Brandywine Falls is a favorite). Just a 30-minute drive south from Cleveland, it’s easy to get to as well.
32. North Cascades National Park, Washington
The name “Stehekin” comes from a Salishan word meaning “the way through,” which may explain The Stehekin Valley’s allure as a passageway for travelers. Less than three hours outside Seattle, Stehkin is only accessible by foot, boat or plane, making it an ideal place to unplug.
33. Olympic National Park, Washington
This is where people come to see the rugged beauty of Washington state up close. Boating and fishing are popular activities, though keep in mind there are risks, so be sure to map your route and plan for emergencies. A day hike on the Peabody Creek Trail is a fantastic introduction to the park.
34. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Named for the tallest mountain in the Teton range, the park includes multiple lakes and enough species of flora and fauna to send a biologist into a tizzy. Snapping a shot of the lakes that mirror the mountains on a calm day is a must.
35. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
The world’s first national park is a feast for the eyes, with no shortage of things to see and do. The Upper Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is about 20 miles long, offering dramatic views of Yellowstone River, while Hayden Valley features all sorts of wildlife, from bison to grizzly bears.
36. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
There are plenty of trails through the Blue Ridge Mountain forests to keep the backpacking enthusiast happy in this park, but Shenandoah isn’t just for the outdoorsy. The park’s Skyline Drive is a popular weekend driving getaway for folks around the Washington, D.C.-Richmond area, especially in fall when the leaves turn. There are also plenty of historic inns nearby to check out for a good night’s sleep and a lovely meal.
37. Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands
St. John may be the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin islands, located in the Caribbean Sea, but it is surely the prettiest. You won’t find strip malls or all-inclusive resorts here; instead St. John is the kind of place that encourages slowing down.