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The 20 national parks every traveler needs to see at least once

April 16, 2022
14 min read
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Editor's note: In celebration of National Park Week, which runs from April 16-24, The Points Guy is publishing a series of articles focusing on the beauty and diversity of America's national parks. We will share personal stories from the TPG team, as well as news and tips that will help you get the most out of your next national park visit. The following story is part of this series and has been updated with new information.


As travel reopened during the pandemic, many people sought solace in the wide-open spaces of our national parklands, which range from parched deserts with Seussian trees to marshy coastal waterways. These stunning landscapes offered a reprieve after so many months spent sheltering in place — and reminded many of us of how much there is to see without leaving the country.

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Of course, we know now that the popularity of the national parks isn't expected to wane any time soon. Many travelers continue to seek outdoor getaways that are closer to home. And many of the most popular national parks have been burdened by record-high visitation numbers that, in some cases, have exceeded pre-pandemic levels. As a result, many parks have introduced timed-entry reservation systems and ticket requirements for very popular areas. So, before booking your national park getaway this year, be sure to check for any new requirements and confirm availability.

If you're eager to steer clear of crowds, remember that there are hundreds of sites in the National Park System, including historic battlefields, monuments, rivers and parkways. But 63 national parks are among the country’s most exceptional and beautiful centerpieces — and these are 20 of our favorites.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by Lane Erickson/Adobe Stock)
Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by Lane Erickson/Adobe Stock)

The legacy of the National Park Service began when the country’s first national park was designated in 1872 — meaning Yellowstone celebrated its 150th birthday this spring.

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 Airport (BZN) are three of the closest airports.

Acadia National Park

Rocky coastlines and windswept beaches converge with rugged, trail-laced woodlands at Acadia National Park in Maine. 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.

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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 Airport (BOS) and connect on Cape Air or Silver Airways.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park. (Photo by Michael/Adobe Stock)
Shenandoah National Park. (Photo by Michael/Adobe Stock)

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 Skyline Drive, which 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 Dulles International (IAD) and Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA).

White Sands National Park

This 275-square-mile stretch of desert is 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.

Grand Teton National Park

John Moulton Barn at Grand Tetons National Park. (Photo by frank1crayon/Adobe Stock)
John Moulton Barn at Grand Teton National Park. (Photo by frank1crayon/Adobe Stock)

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 Western mountain town Jackson Hole and use points for a stay at The Cloudveil, a Marriott Autograph Collection property that just opened last summer.

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 Airport (MIA).

Yosemite National Park

Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. (Photo by Noradoa/Adobe Stock)
Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. (Photo by Noradoa/Adobe Stock)

Famous for its imposing granite monoliths, incredible waterfalls 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 experience a world that is still remote enough to feel undiscovered.

How to get there: Fairbanks International Airport (FAI) is the gateway to Denali National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo by frank1crayon/Adobe Stock)
Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo by frank1crayon/Adobe Stock)

At the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado deserts in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is best known for its massive boulders and fanciful 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 County 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

Rocky Mountain National Park. (Photo by frank1crayon/Adobe Stock)
Rocky Mountain National Park. (Photo by frank1crayon/Adobe Stock)

The jagged ridges and alpine terrain of the Rocky Mountains are the focal points 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 Airport (SEA) when you visit Olympic National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo by Teri/Adobe Stock)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo by Teri/Adobe Stock)

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 Airport (TYS), though Charlotte Douglas International Airport (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 appropriate for the whole family.

How to get there: You’ll most likely fly into Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG) or Las Vegas' Harry Reid International Airport (LAS), then rent a car for the scenic drive to Zion.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park. (Photo by Teri/Adobe Stock)
Glacier National Park. (Photo by Teri/Adobe Stock)

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 stars at the world’s first Dark Sky Park to span 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: Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell, Montana, is the main gateway to Glacier. Travelers can also fly into Bozeman (BZN) or Missoula Montana Airport (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 Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) and Hilo International Airport (ITO).

Arches National Park

Arches National Park. (Photo by Hugh/Adobe Stock)
Arches National Park. (Photo by Hugh/Adobe Stock)

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 National Park, which has many of the same features but fewer visitors.

How to get there: Fly into Salt Lake City International Airport (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

Composed of seven islands roughly 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, 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 Airport (EYW), then hop aboard the high-speed Yankee Freedom III ferry.

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park. (Photo by Zack Frank/Adobe Stock)
Big Bend National Park. (Photo by Zack Frank/Adobe Stock)

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.

New River Gorge National Park

Add the nation's newest national park to your to-do list. Commonly called "The New," this West Virginia parkland is best known for its exceptional whitewater rafting opportunities, advanced rock climbing routes along the sandstone cliffs and the more than 3,000-foot-long steel bridge that arches over the gorge.

How to get there: If you're flying to West Virginia, you'll most likely come through West Virginia International Yeager Airport (CRW), near the capital of Charleston. From there, it's about a two-hour drive to the New River Gorge.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Cons

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  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
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  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
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Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

    80,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $550
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more