The 19 national parks every traveler needs to see at least once
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Every spring, we celebrate our country’s most incredible natural places during National Park Week, which stretches from April 18 to 26 in 2020.
Sadly, many of us can’t commemorate the occasion by getting out and exploring these incredible landscapes, as many parks and campgrounds are closed and people are sheltering in place in an effort to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic.
But there will be a time when we can all travel again. And when the restrictions lift and we are again free to roam about the cabin, you might say, many of us will be craving fresh air, open spaces and gorgeous scenery.
To inspire your future travels, whether they happen next month or next year, we’re honoring national parks around the U.S. There are hundreds of sites in the National Park System, including historic battlefields, monuments, rivers and parkways. But 62 national parks are among the country’s most exceptional and beautiful centerpieces — and these are 19 of our favorites.
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Yellowstone National Park
The legacy of the National Park Service began when the country’s first national park, Yellowstone, was designated in 1872. This geologically unique landscape is largely in Wyoming, but also stretches into Montana and Idaho. The park’s 2.2 million acres are home to an array of wildlife including bison, mountain goats and elk, and feature gurgling geysers, steaming hot springs and mountains. Approximately 4 million visitors visit this incredibly popular national park every year to witness its natural wonders.
How to get there: Yellowstone Airport (WYS), Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) and Bozeman Yellowstone International (BZN) are three of the closest airports. With the addition of new seasonal AA flights to Bozeman, travelers coming from Los Angeles (LAX), Philadelphia (PHL) and New York-LaGuardia (LGA) will have easier access to Yellowstone.
Acadia National Park
Rocky coastline and windswept beaches converge with rugged, trail-laced woodlands at Acadia National Park in Maine — the only national park in the Northeast. Depending on the time of year, the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard, Cadillac Mountain, is often one of the first places in the country to see sunlight at daybreak.
How to get there: Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport (BHB) is just around the corner from the park. You’ll need to first fly to Boston Logan International (BOS) and connect on Cape Air or Silver Airways.
Shenandoah National Park
Easily accessible from Washington, D.C., this 200,000-acre park in Virginia is ideal for scenic drives (including the Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects Shenandoah with the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Skyline Drive that bisects the park). Travelers also flock here for picturesque hikes, including the Appalachian Trail.
How to get there: Travelers can fly into any major D.C.-area airport, including Washington-Dulles International (IAD) or Reagan National (DCA). Even closer is Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport (SHD), which offers regional United service from Washington-Dulles and Chicago International (ORD) with SkyWest Airlines.
White Sands National Park
The newest national park in the country is a 275-square-mile stretch of desert punctuated by glistening white gypsum dunes that can be seen from space. Located in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the towering drifts of sand attract travelers who come to hike and sled on the lunar-like terrain.
How to get there: The closest airport is El Paso International Airport (ELP), about 85 miles south of the park. Southwest and Alaska Airlines both introduced new nonstop flights to El Paso last year, adding service from San Jose (SJC) San Diego (SAN) and Seattle (SEA).
Grand Teton National Park
Wyoming’s Teton Range is one of the most striking landscapes in the country, with alpine scenery you might say is the country’s answer to the Italian Dolomites. The hiking here is exceptional, as is fishing and boating on the Snake River. Best of all, you can bed down in the comfort of the western mountain town, Jackson Hole.
How to get there: Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) is located inside Grand Teton National Park, making it the obvious gateway for travelers from out of state.
Everglades National Park
A rare ecosystem that supports elusive and endangered species like the Florida panther, American crocodile, West Indian manatee and leatherback turtles, the Florida Everglades cover a staggering 1.5 million acres. This wetland is essentially a slow-moving river blanketed in sawgrass, and you’ll want to explore on a flat-bottomed airboat that can coast on top of the water.
How to get there: Everglades National Park is an easy drive southwest of Miami, so you’ll probably fly into Miami International (MIA).
Yosemite National Park
Famous for its imposing granite monoliths, incredible waterfalls that can transform into natural phenomena and glacier-carved valleys, Yosemite National Park in California is one of the most famous and instantly recognizable national parks in the country. Avoid the crowds by heading into the high country, or visiting the more popular recreation areas during the week.
How to get there: Expect to spend an hour or more in the car to get to Yosemite. The closest major airports are Fresno Yosemite International (FAT), Oakland International (OAK) and Sacramento International (SMF).
Denali National Park
Escape to one of the most untamed stretches of wilderness left in the country which is crowned by Denali, the tallest peak in North America. This ancient land in Alaska is where travelers go to see moose, grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep and wolves; watch for shimmers of the aurora borealis; and to discover a world that is still remote enough to feel undiscovered.
How to get there: Fairbanks (FAI) is the gateway to Denali National Park.
Joshua Tree National Park
At the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado deserts in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is best known for its massive boulders and Seussian yucca plants: The namesake Joshua trees. Travelers should remember that temperatures in this arid park can soar during the summertime, so pack plenty of water for your visit.
How to get there: Palm Springs International (PSP) is the closest airport to Joshua Tree, though most people visit from Los Angeles or San Diego.
Redwood National Park
Another spectacular cross-section of California, the redwood forests are home to some of the tallest trees on Earth. Travelers gather here to see record-setting conifers like the 380-foot-tall Hyperion. The forests are filled with hiking trails, so you can lose yourself among the enormous trees.
How to get there: The closest airport to Redwood National Park is Humboldt Airport (ACV), which has direct flights to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver. You can look forward to a beautiful drive from larger airports, such as San Francisco, too.
Rocky Mountain National Park
The jagged ridges and alpine terrain of the Rocky Mountains are the focal point of this Colorado national park. The pristine lands are crisscrossed by 300 miles of hiking trails, but still accessible via scenic roads. It’s easy to see why this is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful and humbling places in the country.
How to get there: Denver International (DEN) is the closest major airport to Rocky Mountain National Park, providing travelers with plenty of flight options.
Olympic National Park
Washington state’s Olympic National Park spans nearly 1 million acres and encompasses everything from old-growth rainforests to craggy, windswept coastline with ample beaches and scenic overlooks. There are mountains and powerful rivers with rapids that lure confident paddlers, but this sacred land is just as renowned for its cultural heritage, too.
How to get there: You’ll most likely fly into Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA) when you visit Olympic National Park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Sprawling across the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, this is the most-visited national park in the country — and for good reason. A favorite with families, the fog-shrouded mountains are some of the oldest on Earth, and the rambling landscape is especially picturesque in the fall when the foliage erupts in a riot of color.
How to get there: On the Tennessee side, travelers can fly into Knoxville McGee Tyson (TYS), though Charlotte Douglas International (CLT) will offer the most connectivity.
Zion National Park
Slender slot canyons and sandstone cliffs are a hallmark of Utah’s first national park. Though Zion is a mecca for canyoneering, climbing and hiking, accessible trails and footpaths make it accessible for the whole family.
How to get there: You’ll most likely fly into Flagstaff (FLG) or Las Vegas (LAS), then rent a car for the scenic drive to Zion.
Glacier National Park
In Montana, travelers will discover one of the only places in the continental U.S. to see the planet’s disappearing glaciers (there are 35 named glaciers in the park) and admire millions of unpolluted stars at the world’s first Dark Sky Park that spans an international border. Glacier National Park is also famous for its incredible array of wildlife and scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road.
How to get there: Kalispell (FCA), is the main gateway to Glacier. Delta and its SkyWest Airlines affiliate, United, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Allegiant all fly to Kalispell. Travelers can also fly into Bozeman (BZN) or Missoula (MSO).
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park occupies a corner of the Big Island and is very much still under the dominion of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire. In 2018, she reshaped the park with the eruption of Kilauea. When it reopened after months of seismic activity, the molten cauldron of lava had disappeared. But the landscape is just as stunning as ever, with a new black sand beach and an even more imposing crater.
How to get there: It’s easy to drive to the park from the major airports at Kona (KOA) and Hilo (ITO).
Arches National Park
Another example of Utah’s geographic splendor, this national park is a Dalí-like dreamscape filled with red rock arches, fins and pinnacles that look like a whimsical playground. To avoid the crowds, visit neighboring Canyonlands, which has many of the same features but fewer visitors.
How to get there: Fly into Salt Lake City International (SLC) and drive — about four hours — or fly into Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT), which is approximately two hours from the park.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Comprising seven islands roughly 70 miles off the coast of Key West, this national park is accessible only by seaplane or ferry — and despite its name, the park itself is more than 99% open water. Shipwrecks and reefs make this park a dream for divers and snorkelers, though landlubbers can camp on the beach and explore Fort Jefferson: a massive, unfinished 19th-century fort guarding the harbor.
How to get there: Fly into Key West International (EYW), then hop aboard the high-speed Yankee Freedom III ferry.
Big Bend National Park
Dark, star-filled skies, seemingly infinite spaces and sun-beaten desert are signature features of this West Texas park. Big Bend National Park is often considered one of the best national parks in the Lower 48 for stargazing, though the Rio Grande river is also a boon for adventurous kayakers and canoers.
How to get there: Big Bend isn’t close to any major airport, so you’ll be committing to at least a bit of a road trip. It’s about a five-hour drive from El Paso and six hours from San Antonio (SAT).
Featured photo of Sequoia National Park by Jenifoto/Adobe Stock.
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