The United States is blessed with incredible natural landscapes. America’s National Park Service operates and maintains some of the best national parks in the world. Here we’re highlighting five special parks where you can enjoy spectacular vistas, soaring waterfalls, stunning geysers, or powerful volcanoes. There is truly something for everyone in the American wilderness. Come discover the best times to visit the top-5 US national parks.
Table of Contents
Yellowstone National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park
Yosemite National Park is a massive preserve measuring some 3,000 square kilometers in area. America’s third oldest national park contains thousands of ponds and lakes in addition to abundant wildlife. Some say by merely standing in Yosemite Valley you can see more natural wonders in a single minute than you could in an entire day pretty much anywhere else. The park’s rock faces, waterfalls, grassy meadows, and emerald green forests will take your breath away.
Yosemite is gorgeous any time of year. When you go will largely depend on your preferences. Summer is when all roads are open and a variety of outdoor activities are possible. Spring is a high-traffic season as visitors come to enjoy waterfalls and rivers swollen with melt water. Valley campgrounds and lower-elevation hiking trails will be open; however, backcountry areas may remain inaccessible. In autumn, crowds thin as rivers run dry and waterfalls are reduced to a trickle. Cooler evening temperatures mean camping is more challenging; but fall is when you’re apt to have some hiking trails all to yourself. In winter, only Yosemite Valley and Wawona remain accessible by car as park roads close for the season. Ski enthusiasts can visit the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area for downhill and cross-country adventure.
With all its majestic scenery, Yosemite is unquestionably one of the world’s best destinations for rock climbing and mountaineering. Crowned the “undisputed king” of granite monoliths, Yosemite’s majestic El Capitan towers 2,300 meters above the Yosemite Valley floor. It is the largest exposed granite monolith in the world. Nearby, Half Dome is an equally stunning rock formation. One side is a sheer face while the other three are smooth and round, giving the entire formation the appearance of a dome cut in half. These two treasures attract thousands of rock-climbing enthusiasts every year. Yosemite’s geology has resulted in strong rock, well-suited to climbing. If this is your passion, you will want to avoid the high summer months when heat and humidity make climbing uncomfortable.
If crowds aren’t your thing, head up to Glacier Point for an overlook and commanding view of Yosemite Valley. The panoramic view from Glacier Point takes in the valley, Half Dome, and three waterfalls. On clear nights you’ll be treated to a sky ablaze with stars. Regardless of when you visit, if you are just planning simple sight-seeing, one to three days should suffice. If you intend to do some longer hikes, rock climbing, or other outdoor activities, you will want to budget more time. In any case, book your tickets and accommodation a year in advance or you might find there are no vacancies. Finally if you are entering the park via California State Highway 41, don’t forget to stop outside the Wawona Tunnel to capture one of most-iconic views of Yosemite National Park!
The first thing to recognize is that Yellowstone is big. Like really big! It is the centerpiece of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest continuous stretch of undeveloped land in the continental United States. Traveling between major regions in the park is only practical via motorized transport. A network of roads arranged roughly in a figure-8 pattern is the park’s main arteries. The north entrance (open all year) provides the most convenient access point. After entering Yellowstone from the north, take a look around Mammoth Hot Springs. These otherworldly features owe their formation to abundant geothermal vents. The entire Yellowstone basin is an active volcanic area. The park’s numerous cliffs and valleys are a patchwork of volcanic rock, exposed and weather-worn over centuries into unimaginably beautiful forms.
From Mammoth, head east towards Tower-Roosevelt. In late summer and early autumn, Yellowstone’s herds of wild bison rut in the pastures around Lamar Valley. Years of continual protection from development has allowed wildlife to flourish. The park is arguably the best place in the continental US for seeing larger mammals. Timber wolfs, coyotes, grizzly bears, black bears, elk, moose, and white-tailed deer all call the park home. The areas east of Tower-Roosevelt are a great location for those hoping to glimpse Yellowstone’s megafauna. Pack yourself a decent pair of binoculars, which will help you enjoy the many beautiful creatures from safe distances.
Turning south from Tower-Roosevelt leads you towards the park’s best-known waterfalls. The upper and lower Yellowstone Falls in the Canyon Village area should not be missed. Set against steep canyon walls along the mighty Yellowstone River, their majesty and power will take your breath away. Yellowstone is also home to the greatest collections of geysers anywhere on Earth. Most are located in the Upper Geyser Basin. Old Faithful, perhaps the world’s most famous geyser, erupts every 90 minutes like clockwork. Watch steam cleave towards the sky as superheated water is forced up by giant pools of magma churning underground.
Open year-round, Yellowstone changes with the seasons. Avid travelers might choose to explore in winter when fewer visitors add to a sense of isolation amid snow-covered valleys. Geothermal eruptions take on an altogether different character in the frosty air. After spending time among the geysers you can continue north, eventually reaching the north entrance. Alternately, turn south and exit towards Grand Teton National Park. One of the best things about Yellowstone is that there is arguably no bad time to visit. As a result, the “best” time to go is whenever you feel like it. There is always an incredible amount to see and explore. You will instantly recognize why Yellowstone National Park ranks among the greatest national parks in the world.
Hawaii is America’s tropical paradise. Lush green landscapes, black volcanic beaches, world class surf breaks, it’s an all-around ideal destination. Most US domestic air carriers as well as many foreign carriers have flights to Hawaii. The state’s largest airport is located in the capital Honolulu. This will offer the best options if you’re traveling from the continental US or cities abroad. Once in Hawaii, you can easily secure onward air transportation to the other islands. Interisland flights are easy to book, though fees can get out of hand if you’re continually checking bags.
The Big Island is where you can sample the best Hawaii has to offer. Grab a ticket to either Kona International Airport on the west side of the island or Hilo International Airport on the east side. Hilo is a good choice if you’re heading to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. This is where you will find Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world’s most active volcanoes. Kīlauea has been erupting nearly continuously for decades. Mauna Loa is the world’s largest shield volcano and the dramatic feature on the landscape. With lava flowing down towards the sea, these volcanos are continually helping to expand the Big Island’s landmass.
Volcanoes National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and is truly one of the most beautiful places in all Hawaii. If you want to be close to the action, try booking a room at Volcano House, a hotel featuring spectacular views from the rim of Kīlauea Caldera. Additional lodging is available just outside the park boundaries. Volcanoes National Park has two drive-in camp grounds with restrooms, barbecue areas, and access to drinking water. Given the park’s size, it helps to have some form of transportation. If you don’t have your own car, try booking a tour in Hilo city. There are numerous hiking trails crisscrossing the park, so you will have ample opportunity to get out and explore.
Not far outside Hilo city is the famous Rainbow Falls, so-named for the persistent rainbows visible there practically year-round. On the northern reaches of the Big Island is Mauna Kea, a now dormant volcano rising over 4,200 m above sea level. Its summit sits above most weather systems resulting in fantastic astronomical viewing conditions. The Mauna Kea Observatories take full advantage to conduct some of the world’s most cutting-edge research. Amateur astronomers or anyone who enjoys a good stargazing party will be beside themselves on a visit to Mauna Kea. In wintertime it’s about the only place in Hawaii that receives measurable snowfall. You can climb from tropical jungle to snow-capped mountains in just a few hours!
Hawaii’s rich landscapes and proud indigenous culture have long attracted visitors. There is a beauty here found nowhere else in the United States. With a well-developed tourist infrastructure and easy connections both to the mainland and cities abroad, Hawaii is the ideal getaway. The tropical climate means Hawaii is beautiful year-round. When you visit will depend on your preferences. Summer is the peak travel season whereas fall and spring tend to offer better deals on transportation and accommodations. Whenever you go, stand in awe of the immense volcanic eruptions at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Once you do, you’ll understand why the Aloha State is nothing short of miraculous.
Our next recommendation is a two-for-one. Las Vegas is America’s playground and has long captivated the imagination. Better still, a trip to Sin City provides a convenient launching pad into the great outdoors. From Las Vegas, you can explore some of the best recreation areas in North America. Set along the Colorado River, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park anchor a large network of pristine wilderness areas. Enjoy stunning vistas and incredible natural beauty, all in a day’s drive from the Las Vegas Strip.
Lake Mead is an enormous reservoir directly upstream from Hoover Dam. It is in fact the largest reservoir in the United States by overall capacity. The lake itself and surrounding shores constitute the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Sport fishing is a highly popular activity with the waters here considered some of the best fishing grounds in the entire US. Largemouth bass, striped bass, crappie, rainbow trout, and more are prevalent. Boating and charter fishing tours are possible to arrange from Las Vegas. Hiking trails snake through the hills and canyons around Lake Mead, attracting rock climbing enthusiasts. The contrast between the blue lake waters and surrounding desert scenery make for truly phenomenal pictures.
After you’ve been bombarded by the sensory overload in Las Vegas, Lake Mead is the perfect place to recuperate in the dry air and magnificent desolation so characteristic of the American Southwest. Consider doing some kayaking or canoeing or spending a night on one of the so-called “floatels” or floating hotels. Hikers will enjoy the Railroad Tunnels Trail, which takes you through abandoned railroad tunnels built when steam locomotives hauled freight to Los Angeles.
Further up the Colorado River from Lake Mead is Grand Canyon National Park. The Grand Canyon needs no introduction. Hands down one of the most spectacular erosion gullies on Earth, it is simply awe-inspiring. Imagine standing on the canyon rim and watching sunlight casts shadows along sheer rock walls. Before such enormity, it can seem as if time slows to a crawl. One of the best ways to explore the Grand Canyon is as part of an organized tour. Tour operators are easy to find in Las Vegas. Keep in mind that the canyon areas are split into several sections. The national park itself is roughly a 4.5 hour drive from Las Vegas. You can also consider coming north out for Flagstaff, Arizona, which is far closer.
Be sure to see the park’s well-known scenic areas such as Mather Point and other spots around the Visitor Center. Collectively this section is known as the South Rim and you should verify tour operators travel here when booking. The West Rim Skywalk is not located in Grand Canyon National Park itself. Rather it is part of Grand Canyon West and operated by Hualapai Indian Tribe. Tour companies also arrange visits to this section of the canyon, so you can easily decide where you want to go and what you want to see. The best times to visit are March through May and September through November. This is when the days are cool and the crowds from the summer season have thinned.
If you head northeast along I-15, crossing from Nevada through Arizona and into Utah, you will find yourself near one of the most-visited national parks in the country. Zion National Park is tucked into Southwest Utah, not far from St. George. Zion has a unique geography that supports many different habitats, giving the park an unusual diversity of plant and animal species. The best options for travel are to arrive from Las Vegas or St. George, Utah. The small town of Springdale is located just outside the park boundaries and has a number hotels and guest houses. As with the other parks on our list, Zion National Park is open all year. Though steep cliffs, narrow canyons, and unpredictable weather can make it a challenging place to visit.
Getting around Zion is best accomplished with a car; however, there are some public transportation options available, including a shuttle service into Springdale. If you’re entering the park via Springdale, stop at the Zion Nature Center and Zion History Museum located near the entrance. Here you can get some tips on helping conservation efforts, meet fellow travelers, and get updates on local trail conditions. If you plan to stay mostly within Zion Canyon, the park’s shuttle service makes stops at several trail heads from where you can branch out to explore the scenery. A fun hike is found along the East Rim Trail from Weeping Rock up to Observation Point. Standing 1,983 meters above the valley floor, Observation Point is a fantastic place to snap some incredible photos.
Another great way to explore Zion National Park is participating in the many ranger-led programs. Take a guided walk with an experienced park ranger along the Pa’rus Trail, or reserve a seat on the special shuttle bus tour where a ranger accompanies you and highlights the park’s many unique aspects along the way. An iconic photo opportunity is found along the West Rim Trail where you can hike up to Angels Landing. The trail was carved into the solid rock in 1926 and ascends to one of the most spectacular overlooks in the entire park. Be sure to check ahead with park authorities as to trail conditions. Periodic closures can result from inclement weather.
Conditions change with the seasons and Zion can be a fickle environment. At a basic level you can expect the following. Springtime is one of the best times to visit, but also one of the more challenging. Sudden rainstorms can crop up and cause flash floods. Always heed trail conditions and the advice of park rangers. Temperature variation might be extreme so dress in layers. Summers in Zion National Park are hot! Daytime temperatures in the valley can exceed 35 degrees Celsius. Fall is arguably the best time to visit. Temperatures cool and rains are less frequent. Finally, winter tends to be cold and wet. Pay special attention to trail conditions. Zion National Park is a treasure, and with a bit of care and planning you can have the adventure of a lifetime.
Whether you’re scaling Yosemite’s El Capitan, on the lookout for bison in Yellowstone, getting up close to powerful volcanoes in Hawaii, exploring the Grand Canyon, or hiking Zion Valley, we’ve covered the top-5 US national parks with an eye on when to visit. With these treasures open year-round, you have ample opportunity to find a time that’s right for you. Consider what you want to see and plan your visit in order to maximize those experiences. It’s hard to go wrong at any of these national parks, so don’t be dissuaded if you can’t visit during your favorite season. There is always something fantastic to discover in the top-5 US national parks!