10 Most Famous National Parks in the United States

The United States is home to an impressive array of national parks, each offering unique natural wonders and experiences. These parks serve as sanctuaries for diverse ecosystems and historical sites, drawing millions of visitors from around the globe.

Compiling a definitive list of the top parks is inherently subjective, influenced by varying criteria including natural beauty, ecological value, historical significance, and personal experience.

Nevertheless, after thorough research, which involved examining various sources such as books, magazine articles, art, and television programs, World History Edu have identified ten parks that consistently capture the imagination.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone, established in 1872, holds the title of the first national park in the world. Spanning across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, this park is famed for its geothermal features, including more than 500 geysers—more than half the world’s total.

The most iconic of these is Old Faithful, which erupts like clockwork several times a day. The park is also home to a vast array of wildlife, with the Yellowstone ecosystem supporting large populations of bison, wolves, and grizzly bears. The Yellowstone River carves through expansive canyons and lush forests, providing stunning scenic vistas and numerous hiking opportunities.

Among the vast array of U.S. National Parks, Yellowstone stands out for its remarkable beauty and unique features. It offers a spectacular viewing experience, drawing visitors with their stunning landscapes, rich biodiversity, and opportunities for exploration and recreation.

Yosemite National Park

Located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite is renowned for its sheer granite cliffs, waterfalls, and ancient giant sequoias. The grandeur of Yosemite is epitomized by landmarks like El Capitan and Half Dome, which attract rock climbers from all over the world.

The park’s extensive trail network includes the popular Mist Trail and the challenging ascent to Half Dome. Yosemite Valley, a glacial valley, offers panoramic views and the majestic Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America. Each season in Yosemite brings a different facet of beauty, making it a year-round destination.

Did you know…?

Yosemite Valley, the park’s core, draws over 3.8 million visitors each year, making it the most popular area. Here, tourists can explore accessible hiking trails and soak in the majestic landscapes.

Yosemite National Park in California covers nearly 1,200 square miles of awe-inspiring wilderness, famed for its striking natural beauty. The park boasts towering waterfalls, rugged mountains, grand granite monoliths, and dramatic cliffs. Image: The Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park

Arizona’s Grand Canyon is a geological marvel, showcasing millions of years of natural history with its layered bands of colorful rock. The canyon itself is a vast chasm formed by the Colorado River, measuring over a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide.

Visitors typically flock to the South Rim, which provides many viewing stations to take in the vast landscape. For the adventurous, hiking down into the Canyon offers a closer look at the rock formations and a challenging physical activity. The North Rim, less accessible but equally stunning, provides a quieter experience with equally spectacular views.


The Grand Canyon, a vast chasm in northern Arizona, stretches 277 miles long and 18 miles wide within a National Park.

Did you know…?

Known for its striking red earth and stunning valley views, it draws over 5.6 million visitors annually, making it a bustling destination despite its desert setting.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park in Utah is distinguished by its steep red cliffs. Zion Canyon’s striking vistas are accessible via the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is closed to private vehicles much of the year but can be enjoyed through the park’s shuttle system.

Popular hikes like Angel’s Landing and the Narrows offer adventurous trails, with the latter involving wading and sometimes swimming along the Virgin River. Zion also supports a diverse range of flora and fauna, adapted to its desert environment, adding to the park’s ecological diversity.

Image: Zion Canyon, located within the Zion National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. Known for its diversity of plant and animal life, it’s also rich in American history, with numerous preserved log cabins, churches, and grist mills.

The park’s mountains are part of the Appalachian Range and are covered in an ancient, fog-laden forest that gives the Smokies their name. Hiking is a popular activity, with over 800 miles of trails, including part of the Appalachian Trail. The park’s elevation gradient allows visitors to experience a variety of habitats from lush forests to subalpine coniferous forests.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park features numerous trails that lead to historical sites and natural wonders, including the popular Abrams Falls, a 20-foot high waterfall that cascades into a deep pool below.

With over 1,500 plant species and a diverse array of wildlife, the park is a haven for nature enthusiasts looking to explore its lush landscapes and vibrant ecosystems.

Image: Mount LeConte, located with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Did you know…?

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans over half a million acres across North Carolina and Tennessee, offering a rich tapestry of early settler history and natural beauty.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Located in Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park features majestic mountain views, a variety of wildlife, wildflower-filled meadows, and star-studded night skies.

One of the highest national parks in the nation, it includes 60 mountain peaks over 12,000 feet, providing thrilling vistas and challenging hiking opportunities. At those levels of elevation, some visitors may experience light-headedness.

The park’s Trail Ridge Road is one of the highest paved roads in North America, offering spectacular access to the alpine world above the tree line.

Nearby, the village of Estes Park offers a range of tourist amenities, providing a comforting base for exploration.

Rocky Mountain National Park, often referred to as “the Rockies,” is conveniently located about 70 miles northwest of Denver, making it a prime destination for day-trippers. Image: Bear Lake, located within the park.

Did you know…?

Despite being one of the smaller national parks in the U.S. at approximately 265,000 acres, it draws over 3.8 million visitors each year. The park features 350 miles of trails that meander through scenic forests, vibrant wildflower fields, and past pristine alpine lakes.

Acadia National Park

Situated on the coast of Maine, Acadia National Park encompasses islands and peninsulas that offer rugged, rocky shorelines, rich woodland habitats, and high granite peaks like Cadillac Mountain—the first place to see sunrise in the U.S. for part of the year.

Acadia is known for its spectacular hiking trails and carriage roads, where motor vehicles are banned. The park also offers a glimpse of the northeastern U.S. maritime culture, with local lobstering and fishing industries still thriving.

The Acadia National Park is not only prominent in popular media but also continues to draw tourists throughout the year. The park offers a distinct experience that resonates with many, ensuring their place at the top of must-visit lists. Image: Bass Harbor Lighthouse, is a popular landmark located in the Acadia National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park

Located in southeastern California, Joshua Tree National Park is known for its stark desert landscapes, characterized by rugged rock formations and stark desert landscapes.

The park is named for the Joshua trees, twisted and spiky trees that dot the park’s expansive landscape. This park offers a unique combination of two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave and the Colorado deserts.

Olympic National Park

In Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park is renowned for its ecological diversity.

This vast park encompasses nearly a million acres, protecting thousands of years of human history and a range of ecosystems from glacier-capped mountains to temperate rainforests to over 70 miles of wild coastline.

The park’s isolation and diverse environments support unique wildlife populations and plant species not found anywhere else in the world.

Olympic National Park, like other national parks in our nation, symbolizes the ongoing American commitment to preserving the best of its natural landscape for future generations, making them worthy of visitation and protection. Image: Cedar Creek and Abbey Island at the Olympic National Park.

Glacier National Park

Located in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park is often referred to as the “Crown of the Continent Ecosystem.” The park features over 700 lakes, two mountain ranges, and more than 1,000 different species of plants.

Its diverse habitats host a variety of wildlife, including grizzly bears and mountain goats. The park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road offers one of the most scenic drives in America, with access to fields of wildflowers, forested valleys, and spectacular lake views.

Each of these national parks preserves a unique aspect of America’s natural beauty and heritage, offering not just recreation and respite but also a connection to the natural world that is increasingly precious. Image: Mountain Goat at Hidden Lake in Glacier National Park.

Frequently asked questions about the United States National Parks

Here are some frequently asked questions about the United States National Parks, along with concise answers:

When was National Park established?

The inception of the national parks began with Yellowstone, established in 1872 by legislation signed by President Ulysses S. Grant. This was followed by Mackinac National Park in 1875 (later decommissioned) and Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890.

The Organic Act of 1916 formally created the National Park Service, charging it with conserving park scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife, and ensuring they remain “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

How large is the Yosemite National Park in California?

Yosemite National Park in California, spanning nearly 1,200 square miles, is a breathtaking expanse of wilderness renowned for its natural beauty. This park features towering waterfalls, rugged mountains, imposing granite monoliths, and dramatic cliff faces.

The heart of the park, Yosemite Valley, is the most frequented area, attracting over 4 million visitors annually. Tourists flock here to immerse themselves in the stunning scenery and take advantage of the accessible hiking trails.

Additionally, the park offers various lodging options, including well-equipped campsites and comfortable lodges, making it an ideal destination for both day trips and extended stays in the midst of nature.

What is the best time of year to visit U.S. National Parks?

The best time to visit depends on the park and your interests. Summer is generally the most popular due to warm weather and accessibility, but spring and fall offer beautiful scenery with fewer crowds. Winter can be magical in parks that remain open, with opportunities for snow sports and unique photography.

Is a pass needed to enter National Parks?

Yes, most national parks require an entrance fee. You can purchase a daily pass or an annual America the Beautiful Pass that covers all national parks and federal recreational lands.

Are pets allowed in National Parks?

Pets are allowed in most parks but must be kept on a leash. They are usually restricted to developed areas and certain trails. Always check the park’s specific pet policies before visiting.

Is camping allowed in National Parks?

Yes, many national parks offer a range of camping options, from developed campgrounds with amenities to backcountry camping. Reservations are recommended, especially in peak seasons, and can be made through the National Park Service website.

What are some safety tips for visiting National Parks?

Always stay on marked trails, be aware of wildlife, and follow park rules. Prepare for changing weather conditions by dressing in layers and bringing essential supplies. Inform someone of your travel plans, especially if venturing into remote or backcountry areas.

How can one volunteer at a National Park?

The National Park Service offers volunteer opportunities through the Volunteers-In-Parks (VIP) program. You can apply for various positions that match your skills and interests, contributing to conservation efforts and visitor services.

What activities can be done in National Parks?

Activities vary by park and include hiking, biking, wildlife watching, kayaking, rock climbing, and more. Winter parks offer snowshoeing, skiing, and snowboarding. Cultural programs, guided tours, and junior ranger activities are also available for educational experiences.

Are there accommodations inside the parks?

Yes, several parks have lodges, cabins, and hotels operated by the National Park Service or authorized concessioners. Options range from rustic to luxury. Early reservations are highly recommended.

How are the National Parks funded?

The National Parks are funded through a combination of federal budgets, entrance fees, concession revenues, and donations through various foundations and partners.

Can one hold a special event or wedding in a National Park?

Yes, most national parks allow special events and weddings with a permit. You will need to apply in advance and comply with specific regulations and guidelines stipulated by the park.

The United States boasts 63 national parks, each congressionally designated and managed by the National Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior. These parks are celebrated for their stunning natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and abundant recreational opportunities. Image: Zion National Park in Utah.

Difference between the National Park System and National Monuments

Unlike other units within the National Park System, national parks are usually larger, serve as significant destinations, and restrict activities like hunting and extraction. In contrast, national monuments are often protected for their historical or archaeological importance. Some national parks are paired with a national preserve—areas that have different levels of protection but are administered together, although considered separate units and not counted in national park area totals.

Over the years, many areas initially protected under other designations such as national monuments were redesignated as national parks by Congress. The newest national park is New River Gorge, formerly a national river, and the most recent addition to the park system is the National Park of American Samoa. Interestingly, some areas previously designated as national parks have been reclassified or disbanded.

Did you know…?

  • The United States National Park Service was established over a century ago. The institution has been instrumental in conserving vast tracts of land, safeguarding diverse ecosystems and wildlife from the impacts of industrialization.
  • As of 2024, there are 63 national historical parks across the United States, each unique and significant in its own right.
  • With the noble mission to provide “enjoyment, education, and inspiration for this and future generations,” the National Park Service has been a guardian of the natural and cultural heritage found within the nation’s borders.
  • The United States boasts 63 national parks, each congressionally designated and managed by the National Park Service. These parks are celebrated for their stunning natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and abundant recreational opportunities.
  • The criteria for national park designation typically hinge on “outstanding scenic features or natural phenomena.”
  • A significant number of national parks also hold designations as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, with some parks listed under both programs. This underscores their global environmental and cultural significance.
  • National parks are spread across thirty states as well as the territories of American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. California leads with nine parks, followed by Alaska with eight, and Utah and Colorado. The largest, Wrangell–St. Elias National Park in Alaska, encompasses over 8 million acres, making it larger than the nine smallest U.S. states combined. In contrast, the smallest is Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri, covering just 192.83 acres.
  • In terms of visitation, national parks continue to be a major draw. In 2021, the parks set a visitation record with over 92 million visitors. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been the most visited since 1944, attracting more than 12 million visitors in 2022 alone. On the other end of the spectrum, the remote Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska saw more than 9,000 visitors in the same year.

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