In recent years, I’ve stepped up my efforts to visit all the national parks in America. All 63 of ’em!
That’s especially true after my summer trip to Alaska, where I went to five more parks, including the very remote Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley. I’m now at 46 out of 63 U.S. national parks visited.
Unlike some folks who’ve been traveling their entire life, I didn’t visit any parks until well into adulthood. My first park visit, in fact, was a complete accident (details on that later!)
A lot of people are on the same quest to experience every national park in the country. Everyone on this journey seems to do it a little bit differently, but it feels like we’re all part of a special club.
Here’s the story of my national parks journey, along with dozens of practical tips to help you plan for each of these parks.
What Counts As a National Park Visit?
It’s totally up to you. You are the author of your own quest. Some people set arbitrary rules, like, “I need to spend at least 2 hours in the park, see the visitor center, and do at least one hike.”
For me, I just need to touch soil inside the park. If I’ve set foot on land within the park boundary, then it counts.
In most cases, I’ve spent several hours inside each park. There’s only one park so far (Wrangell-St. Elias) where my visit was less than an hour.
Another rule I have: I don’t consider flying over the park sufficient. Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley both have flightseeing trips that fly over the park without landing. To me, that’s not a real park visit. But you’re free to feel differently.
What If You Visited a National Park Before it Was a National Park?
Ooh, this is an interesting question. For instance, I visited the Gateway Arch in 2011, but it didn’t become a national park until 2018. Does that count as a park visit?
Some people would say no. I say yes. Because I was indeed there, standing on the ground that is a national park. I was there. It counts. I know some travelers who don’t count it, though. It’s your call!
I’ve since gone back to the Arch after its designation as a national park, so that question is moot. But there are two other parks that I include on my list which I visited before they joined the NP club and have yet to return to.
Tips for Visiting Every U.S. National Park
Group them together
This one seems obvious, but it’s worth noting. Knocking out more than 60 parks requires efficiency. If you’re heading to Utah, go to all 5 parks there, not just one.
Visiting Carlsbad Caverns? Then stop at Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend as well.
Learn to love road trips
A lot of parks aren’t near major metropolitan areas. Road trips are the best way to see them.
I once took a road trip from Chicago all the way to Banff in Canada. The drive allowed me to visit Isle Royale in Michigan and Voyageurs in Minnesota, two northern parks that are pretty far out of the way.
Embrace campgrounds to save money
Traveling to 63 parks in 30 states and territories is quite costly. If money is no object for you, then congrats on your lot in life, my friend, and you may disregard this tip.
Some national parks have limited lodging options, meaning that you may be stuck paying for a night in an expensive park lodge. A good way to keep your costs down is by camping instead.
Big Bend, Yellowstone, Katmai, and Glacier Bay are a few such parks where you can save a ton of money by camping.
Accept that the journey will take a while
Be patient! This is a quest that is truly about the journey rather than the finish line. It’s going to take years. That’s the fun part!
I’m actually slightly bummed that I’m getting closer to hitting all 63 parks, because what do I do after that? I think there will be a sense of accomplishment, followed by a void.
The quest to get to 63 is so much fun that I almost don’t want it to end.
Expect that new parks will be added
New parks keep joining the national park system all the time. By the time 10+ years have gone by and you’re getting close to finishing, there may be 70 national parks by then!
So you’ll have to add new parks to your list frequently. Just another part of the challenge.
My Quest to Visit All the National Parks: A Chronology
In this last section, I’m going to go through every national park I’ve ever visited, in order, and share a memory from each.
I know that’s a little self-indulgent, so I’m also going to share one useful tip for visiting each park, based on my experience there.
I don’t expect anyone to read through every single entry, but hopefully you can at least skim through and take away some useful info for the parks you haven’t yet visited. And you can witness me aging over time (haha.)
Here’s the story of my visits to each park!
1 Cuyahoga Valley, 2001
It’s funny that the first step in my quest to visit all the national parks came without my knowledge. I was inside Cuyahoga Valley NP in northeast Ohio, and didn’t even realize it until years later!
In 2001 I headed to Blossom Music Center to see my favorite band, Radiohead. This was during the Kid A and Amnesiac era, and the show was spectacular.
To this day, it remains one of the top five concerts I’ve ever seen. Fortunately, someone recorded the audio.
Years later, I learned that the concert venue actually sits inside Cuyahoga Valley National Park. How strange! A rock concert in a national park! I was in the park and didn’t even know it.
Eventually, I did return to Cuyahoga Valley for a proper visit and some hiking, where I encountered a strange snake pile on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.
Tip for Cuyahoga Valley NP: The best way to see as much of the park as possible is biking the Towpath Trail. You can take the bike-friendly Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad back. This page has a list of places near the park that rent bikes.
2 Great Smoky Mountains, 2009
I didn’t make it to another national park until my four-month, 16,000-mile campervan road trip through 46 states in 2009.
One of my first stops was the Great Smoky Mountains, America’s most-visited national park. There are no huge peaks in the Smokies, but a friend and I set out for a hike to one of the park’s highest spots.
As we approached the summit, a sign appeared noting that the upper portion of the Two Chimneys Trail was closed for “maintenance.” Bummer!
Fortunately, there was another way to the top, but it required shimmying up some treacherous rocks. The rocks were steep and flat, providing very little opportunity to gain traction.
The effort did not feel entirely safe, but since several other hikers were making the climb, I went for it and managed to scramble to the top.
Tip for Great Smoky Mountains NP: To avoid crowds, try to avoid weekends or peak tourist season (July / August.) This tip applies to most U.S. national parks, but it’s especially true for the Smoky Mountains, since they see more visitors than any other park.
3 Carlsbad Caverns, 2009
Carlsbad Caverns might be the quirkiest national park. It was creepy but fun to stand in a limestone cavern 750 feet beneath the earth, surrounded by the bizarre ancient mineral formations known as stalagmites and stalactites.
And the constant underground temperature of 56 degrees was a nice break from the desert heat.
This was my first time being any significant depth underground, and I was blown away by the realization that these formations were thousands of years old.
Tip for Carlsbad Caverns NP: If you visit from April to September, hang around at the Natural Cave Entrance just before sunset to see a massive group of bats streaming out of the cave.
4 White Sands, 2009
When I stopped by New Mexico’s White Sands, it was only a National Monument at the time. Its 2019 promotion to national park meant that I could retroactively add it to my list of NPs.
Hanging out here was fun because the gypsum sand environment is so rare. This is one of seven national parks with sand dunes, but most don’t have bright white sand.
We ran and jumped around on the sand. We tried sledding down the dunes, but didn’t have a suitable vessel to make that work effectively.
Tip for White Sands NP: You won’t need more than one day here, as there’s not much to do other than playing in the sand and taking short hikes.
5 Grand Canyon, 2009
A mid-morning hike on the North Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon was challenging, especially since I wasn’t yet a hardcore hiker.
The trek was mostly straight up, so it required frequent rest breaks, and I failed to bring enough water, a common rookie mistake. But that scenery!
After surviving that experience, I feel like a seasoned pro. Someday I want to go back and hike the entire length of the trail from rim to rim.
Tip for Grand Canyon NP: If you hike into the Canyon for any distance at all, take double the amount of water you think you’ll need. The heat and elevation gain are no joke. My friend and I ran out of water, and it wasn’t fun.
6 Death Valley, 2009
Even at dusk, the temperature was 101 degrees, though a nice breeze actually made the weather tolerable.
At the time, I didn’t have a tent. I just slept in my conversion van. But on this night, it was so warm, I wanted to sleep outside.
So I lied down on a hard metal picnic table. Somehow, I started to get comfortable. But then I started to worry about snakes and scorpions.
The final straw was the howling of several coyotes that sounded like they were right around the corner, which forced me back into the van for the night. So much for sleeping outside!
Tip for Death Valley NP: As with many desert parks, try to avoid coming during summer, because it just gets way too hot. A spring or fall visit will allow you to take some longer hikes and fully appreciate the park. Also, make a detour to see the nearby ghost town of Rhyolite.
7 Redwood, 2009
Two memories standout from Redwood National Park. One was seeing a large herd of elk along Highway 101. These days, seeing elk would be no big deal, but that was my first time ever seeing elk, so it was a thrill.
The second memory was getting up close to those massive trees and realizing just how big they were.
I was traveling by myself and didn’t know how to properly capture the enormity of these trees on film. So I had to settle for this shot next to a Redwood trunk. I set up the camera’s timer and ran across the street.
This visit was too brief; I definitely want to return to the Redwoods someday.
Tip for Redwood NP: Make sure to visit the secret World War II radar station in the park. Designed to look like a farmhouse, it was built to look out for a possible Japanese attack along the California cost. Fascinating!
8 Yellowstone, 2009
Ok, “ran into” is a bit of a stretch. The bear was about 100 yards away, but it was walking in my direction. I was hiking alone and without bear spray, so the danger factor was high.
But I was far enough way that I could watch without being too scared. I enjoyed the bear for a bit and then began backing down the trail.
Grizzie the Bear was just the first of four bear sightings I made in the park! I also saw wolves and, of course, thousands of bison.
I was completely blown away by Yellowstone, and it made me realize just how incredible national parks could be.
Tip for Yellowstone NP: Give yourself a minimum of three days to fully experience the world’s first national park. You don’t want to be rushed when you’re trying to see Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, and all the great hikes.
9 Grand Teton, 2009
Oh, poor Grand Teton. After my three epic days in Yellowstone, Grand Teton was a total afterthought. I drove through, did a quick hike, and then left the park.
Yellowstone had been one of the coolest travel experiences I’d ever had. Nothing I was going to see in Grand Teton was going to match that. So I didn’t give it much of a chance.
That was a shame. We all make travel mistakes, right? I’d like to return to Grand Teton and do it right.
I was so caught up trying to see wildlife (and being bummed when I didn’t see any) that I didn’t stop long enough to appreciate the phenomenal scenery during my hike at Jenny Lake.
Looking back, my photos from Grand Teton are pretty epic. Because how could they not be? This place is stunningly beautiful.
Tip for Grand Teton NP: Obviously, based on my experience, I suggest doing Grand Teton before Yellowstone. Or at least, make sure to come with the right mindset to appreciate the majesty of these mountains. Take the time to truly soak it all in.
10 Gateway Arch, 2010
The first time I visited the famous Arch in St. Louis, I didn’t even know there was a way to go inside it. Live and learn!
Yes, there’s a tram inside, and I’ve been to the top twice now. The views are good, but they don’t let you stay up there very long. I enjoyed riding inside the little elevator orb to the top.
The Gateway Arch Museum and Visitor Center is a gold mine of information about the construction of the Arch itself and the history of the region. I learned a lot about the native animals, early explorers, and colonial St. Louis.
Tip for Gateway Arch NP: There isn’t a lot to do here aside from going inside the Arch itself, but I recommend walking a few blocks to St. Louis Citygarden, a park with lots of public art and cool views of the Arch.
11 Badlands, 2010
During a South Dakota adventure with my friend Kat, we spent a night in the Badlands. This park allowed me to encounter two more animals that I’d never seen before: bighorn sheep and prairie dogs.
First came a dozen bighorn sheep from close range, in a ravine next to the main park road.
Then came the adorable prairie dogs. They lived in villages, and one member would serve as the lookout, making shrieking noises whenever danger (a bison or human) approached the village.
Badlands NP also had some crazy geography, with the rolling dirt hills extending as far as the eye can see.
Tip for Badlands NP: Stay at the Sage Creek Campground if you want to hike in a somewhat quiet section of the park with bison and prairie dog villages visible on nearby hiking trails.
12 Everglades, 2011
Forget those tram rides and airboat trips. The way to see alligators in the Everglades is to visit the Anhinga Trail.
While walking on the trail, I saw a few gators in the water and several more sitting on the shore, literally five feet from where I was standing on the boardwalk.
I never imagined seeing gators in the wild, and definitely not from such a close distance! The gators remained perfectly still, but were intimidating nonetheless.
My other lingering memory of the Everglades is how vicious the mosquitos were. Bring a lot of repellent!
Tip for Everglades NP: When visiting the Anhinga Trail, park as close to the trailhead as possible, to minimize the chances of vultures attacking your vehicle.
13 Indiana Dunes, 2012
Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park) are sandwiched next to each other in Porter, Indiana.
They sit along the shore of Lake Michigan, just a 45-minute drive from Chicago.
I mostly spent time in the state park, staying at the campground and hiking to Mount Tom, the tallest dune in the park. But I did pass through what is now the national park as well.
Tip for Indiana Dunes NP: Since many of the attractions here are in the state park rather than the national park, be sure to stop at the visitor center to pick up a park map. That way, you can check the map to guarantee that you’re actually setting foot inside national park territory.
14 Rocky Mountain, 2012
Most 12,000-foot peaks don’t have roads going to the top, but the highest points in Rocky Mountain National Park are exceptions to this rule.
For a few months during summer, when the snow has melted, drivers can zoom past the “Be prepared for rapidly changing conditions ahead” warning signs and head to a tundra landscape full of marmots.
Driving above 12,000 feet was a new life experience, and I was fascinated by it. The wind up there is fierce, but the views are tremendous.
Tip for Rocky Mountain NP: This park has a good-sized population of bighorn sheep. Keep your eyes open for them around Sheep Lakes, especially between 9 am and 3 pm, when they’re more likely to come down from the mountains for a drink.
15 Denali, 2012
My friend and I headed to Denali National Park in Alaska, and though our efforts at backcountry camping were one fail after another, they ultimately led to some great memories.
The first fail came when United Airlines lost our baggage. Including all our camping gear, forcing us to buy cheapo replacement supplies.
We selected a poor backcountry camping unit, ending up on a high-elevation hilly section rather than the perfectly flat unit right next door that would have been ideal.
And it got so cold that the zipper on our tent was frozen shut in the morning. Despite the difficulties, the experience was a great lesson in perseverance!
Denali also provided my first-ever moose and caribou sightings.
Tip for Denali NP: You can only drive about 20 miles into Denali, then you must switch to a shuttle bus. I advise taking the shuttle bus all the way to the end of the road, to see as much as possible. We only took the shuttle halfway, and I still wonder what we might have missed by not going all the way.
16 Wrangell-St. Elias, 2012
During my first Alaska road trip, I wanted to swing by Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest national park in the world. But I had limited time, and I couldn’t take my rental car onto the park’s gravel roads.
So I chose to pop in to the visitor center, stop at a mountain lookout, and then turn around and leave. I was in the park for a mere 15 minutes.
I would never do a drive-by park visit these days, because I want to spend quality time in each destination. But that’s the decision I made at the time.
I had strong doubts that I would ever make it back to Alaska, so I figured 15 minutes in the park was better than zero.
Tip for Wrangell-St. Elias NP: I can’t provide any tips, since I was there for such a short time. I’d actually like your tips for this park. If I go back, where should I go, and what should I see? Please leave a comment!
17 Kenai Fjords, 2012
Watching glaciers break away into the sea was quite a sight.
Though the sad effects of climate change on melting glaciers remained in the back of my mind, it was still incredibly impressive to witness nature at work when tons of ice broke off from a glacier and crashed into the sea on a whale-watching cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska.
The wildlife on the cruise was awesome – I saw so many creatures I had never seen before, including orcas, porpoises, and humpback whales.
Tip for Kenai Fjords NP: A lot of people see Kenai Fjords by boat, but it’s also worth driving to Exit Glacier. You can drive and hike up close to the side of the ice.
18 Mammoth Cave, 2014
Extending for more than 400 miles, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world. Who knew?
My mind was blown that the cave tour started with a single-file queue to enter a small door blasted into the ground. The inside of the earth has a front door!
Being in this underground universe was a very different park experience. I consider Mammoth Cave one of the more underrated NPs, and one of the best national parks for solo travelers.
Tip for Mammoth Cave NP: Be aware that Mammoth Cave is just barely across the Central Time Zone line. So if you have a scheduled cave tour and you’re arriving from Louisville or Lexington, which are in the Eastern Time Zone, plan the drive accordingly, or you’ll have an extra hour to kill before the tour.
19 Great Sand Dunes, 2015
A trip to Denver in 2015 provided me with a convenient excuse to see a couple more national parks, starting with Great Sand Dunes.
The tallest sand dunes in North America were impressive to see up close, even though it was incredibly windy the day I visited. You can’t imagine how much sand I got down my pants that day.
Leave some time for a forest hike too. The Mosca Pass Trail is a cool environment of aspen and conifer forests.
Tip for Great Sand Dunes NP: Be prepared to wade across a small creek when you walk from the visitor center to the dunes themselves. Best practice is to walk across barefoot, and bring a small towel to dry your feet after. Also, skip the flip flops and wear closed-toe shoes if visiting in summer, because the sand temperature can reach 140 F!
20 Black Canyon of the Gunnison, 2015
It took all of 30 seconds for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to win me over.
That happened as soon as I stepped out of the vehicle at the first overlook, felt the crisp morning mountain air, heard birds chirping and a woodpecker pecking, and saw a chipmunk scurrying between rock crevices.
Then I looked down inside the canyon and became overwhelmed with the Black Canyon views.
I arrived early, even before the visitor center opened. At this hour, I heard no human sounds at all. No cars, no voices. Just the distant rush of the canyon river a half-mile below and the noises of various animals. The solitude was wonderful.
I compare Black Canyon favorably to the Grand Canyon, for two reasons. First, Black Canyon has a road that travels along the rim of the canyon for several miles. The Grand Canyon doesn’t have that!
Second, even though this canyon isn’t as high as the Grand Canyon, it’s steeper. There’s more of a drop off. So you can look straight down to the bottom and see the river.
Tip for Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP: Make sure to do a couple hikes inside the park. Some trails go inside the canyon itself, partially (or fully) down to the water.
21 Glacier, 2015
I’d always heard great things about Montana’s Glacier National Park, and from my first moments at gorgeous Bowman Lake, it lived up to the hype.
Seeing the mountains and glaciers of the park on hiking trails and from Going-to-the-Sun Road was thrilling. Glacier immediately became one of my favorite parks.
Tip for Glacier NP: If you have the freedom in your schedule to visit in late September, do it! Glacier has become so crowded that they’ve instituted a vehicle reservation system to limit visitation, but reservations are not required after September 10. The weather is still pretty good, and the crowds are gone.
22 Hawaii Volcanoes, 2016
Hawaii was my 50th and final state. While visiting the Big Island with a friend, I was excited to check out Hawaii Volcanoes NP.
Hiking the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail was my favorite memory. Walking over hardened lava to a collection of 800-year-old petroglyphs was a lot of fun.
I was fascinated seeing the plants growing out of the dried lava. The fact that new life can spring from lava rock just amazes me. And Volcanoes NP has a lot of cool natural formations, such as Holei Sea Arch and Thurston Lava Tube.
Tip for Hawaii Volcanoes NP: If it’s in your budget, consider a helicopter ride over the volcano. Seeing the swirling lava from above is a fun life experience.
23 Joshua Tree, 2016
I wasn’t expecting much from Joshua Tree other than the namesake trees, but I was so impressed with the Barker Dam hike, Arch Rock, Keys View, and the Cholla Cactus Garden.
I’ve returned to Joshua Tree NP multiple times and have grown to love the desert hikes.
Tip for Joshua Tree NP: Hike the narrow Hall of Horrors slot canyon (above!) You won’t find it on any of the park brochures, but I have a guide for exactly how to find it. It’s fairly short and easy, and you won’t get stuck, despite how it looks.
24 Dry Tortugas, 2017
By 2017, after my trip to the Philippines, I was realizing that it was possible to go faraway places that I never thought I could visit. This required a significant mindset change, since I never traveled growing up because my family couldn’t afford it.
First, I decided to spend four months living in Mexico City, just because. After that, I scheduled a visit to what had always looked like one of the coolest national parks: Dry Tortugas.
I’d been intrigued by this tiny set of islands 70 miles off the coast of Key West, one of which featured a former World War II-era fort. So I set about booking a trip there.
Tip for Dry Tortugas NP: Book your ferry and/or campground at least 3 months in advance, or you may find there are no spots available.
25 Isle Royale, 2017
Isle Royale holds the record for longest average time per visit of any national park (more than 2 days.) That’s because it’s so difficult to get here.
You have to drive all the way to the northern panhandle of Michigan, then take a ferry across Lake Superior. Here, it’s all about the nature: hiking, camping, kayaking, canoeing.
I camped here for a few nights and got one of my coolest wildlife sightings when a mama moose and baby moose raced through the forest, just 10 feet from where I was sitting inside my tent!
Tip for Isle Royale NP: Campgrounds are not reservable, so if you plan to camp, try to get in line first after getting off the ferry and listening to the ranger welcome. Have a backup plan in case your desired campground is not available.
26 Voyageurs, 2017
Voyageurs is another far northern park, this one in Minnesota right along the Canadian border.
You have to get out on the water to best explore Voyageurs NP. I took one of the day cruises and saw a whopping 10 bald eagles on the ride.
This is one of the best places in the country to see bald eagles! If you have a burning, patriotic desire to see America’s bird up close, start planning your Voyageurs excursion.
Tip for Voyageurs NP: Book your day cruise early, since they can sell out. They only operate during the peak season of June to September.
27 Olympic, 2017
Shortly after moving to Seattle, I took a weekend getaway to Kalaloch Campground on the Pacific Ocean.
That’s where I saw humpback whales swimming just offshore. They usually don’t pass by here in August, so it was an unexpected treat.
Olympic NP has several other cool points of interest, like Ruby Beach, the Hoh Rain Forest, and the Hurricane Ridge area.
Some of my favorite hikes here include the Ozette Triangle, a forested hike that goes to the ocean; and the Mount Storm King hike, which leads to some of the best views in the park.
Tip for Olympic NP: There are very few towns and places to eat on the western side of Olympic NP near Hoh Rain Forest. The town of Forks has a Subway sandwich shop and a couple restaurants. Plan to eat there, or bring your own food when exploring this area.
28 Mount Rainier, 2018
I’ve done a bunch of hikes at Mount Rainier now. Hiking beneath the snow-covered, 14,000-foot peak of an active volcano never gets old.
This is a park that requires a bare minimum of 2-3 days to fully appreciate everything it has to offer. And even then, you’re still getting just a small taste of all the scenery and beauty of the park.
The Skyline Trail is a great place to see marmots and mountain goats, and to eat lunch in the presence of several visible glaciers.
The hike to Panhandle Gap is my favorite, because it takes you deep into the park, in an area where wolverines live.
Tip for Mount Rainier NP: If you’re visiting on a summer weekend, plan to arrive at the Paradise or Sunrise visitor centers by 8:30 am at the latest to secure a parking space. Yes, that means you may need to leave Seattle by 5:30 am. But you don’t want to wait in an hour-long queue to get in the park or find all the parking lots full.
29 Crater Lake, 2020
Travel was limited in 2020, but I thought a weekend trip with a friend down to Crater Lake in Oregon seemed safe enough. What a gorgeous lake!
Crater Lake is yet another national park with captivating mountains and hiking trails. The Rim Drive loop road takes drivers around the entire lake and has several pullouts for photo opportunities.
We started the day with a hike to Mount Scott, the highest point in the park, followed by a hike down to the lake. You can swim inside the volcano crater! Definitely take advantage of that opportunity.
Tip for Crater Lake NP: Drive the full 7-mile Pinnacles Road, a spur road off Rim Drive. It leads to the easy Plaikni Falls waterfall hike and Pinnacles Overlook, which has “fossil fumeroles,” 100-foot tall rock needles formed from volcanic ash.
30 Theodore Roosevelt, 2020
I decided to drive cross-country from Seattle to Chicago, and that afforded me a chance to spend some quality time in North Dakota.
The highlight was Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I loved this park for a few reasons. First, it’s a rare park where visitors are allowed and even encouraged to get off the trails and hike through the backcountry.
This park has a lot of wildlife that you won’t find in other national parks – most notably, wild horses. I encountered horses in three separate places in the park.
I also saw bison, prairie dogs, wild turkeys and deer. Driving Scenic Loop Drive in the morning is a great way to see a lot of wildlife!
Tip for Theodore Roosevelt NP: Watch out for rattlesnakes while hiking in the park. I saw three in various locations around the park, including two right on the Buckhorn Trail!
31 Petrified Forest, 2021
If I was going to visit all the national parks, I had to make a return trip to Arizona. And so I began my Arizona road trip with a visit to Petrified Forest NP.
Petrified wood fascinates me. I still don’t quite understand the process by which old trees partially fossilize and turn into stone or quartz. But seeing petrified logs that are millions of years old is kind of mind-blowing.
Besides the ancient stone logs, Petrified Forest also has an area of badlands known as the Blue Mesa, where the ground has a blue-gray tint.
I was excited to discover that Historic Route 66 passes through the northern end of the park. That spot is marked with a rusting 1932 Studebaker. Now that’s a quirky find in a national park!
The best time to visit is on a weekday in autumn, as nice temperatures and small crowds will make for an ideal visit.
Tip for Petrified Forest NP: This park has a surprising number of different attractions. Be sure to leave enough time to see them all! Don’t miss Blue Mesa, the Painted Desert, the Giant Logs Trail, the Puerco Pueblo ancestral village, and the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock.
32 Saguaro, 2021
My second national park dedicated to a single tree (after Joshua Tree!) Saguaro National Park is cool because it’s right next to a major city (Tucson), so lodging and driving are easy.
I decided to spend most of my time in the less-visited Eastern Unit of the park. I saw thousands of saguaro cactus, some of which had flowers in bloom.
I enjoyed the Javelina Rocks area, the Riparian Overlook, and the Cactus Forest Trail. Cactus Forest Loop Drive has a number of great overlooks.
Tip for Saguaro NP: During summer, bring lots of water and try to finish hiking before noon. I did a short hike and started to get lightheaded from the hot and dry conditions, so I had to turn back. Be very cautious in the desert heat!
33 Great Basin, 2021
I was really excited to visit Great Basin because of the chance to see Wheeler Peak Glacier, the only glacier in Nevada. Sure, it’s a “rock glacier,” meaning that it’s hidden underneath rocks and rubble. But it’s there!
This park is way off the beaten path, so it gets far fewer visitors than places like Yellowstone and Yosemite. But the hiking here is just as good.
You can hike to the base of the glacier. Or you can hike above the glacier, to the Wheeler Peak summit at 13,000 feet. I encountered fewer than 10 people on the trail. The solitude was glorious.
Keep an eye out for the remarkable bristlecone pine trees, with their twisting, spindly branches. Some of the trees here have been alive for more than 3000 years!
Be sure to also make a reservation to visit Lehman Caves, an underground tunnel system featuring caves that are millions of years old.
Tip for Great Basin NP: Try to give yourself at least one day in the park to acclimatize before trying to hike to the summit of Wheeler Peak. Elevation sickness is a genuine concern here, so it’s best not to try to summit on your first day in Great Basin.
34 Channel Islands, 2022
Wow, there was so much I loved about the Channel Islands. A lot of people don’t even know this national park exists just off the coast of Los Angeles. You just take a ferry ride from Ventura over to the island of your choice.
I spent a few days camping and hiking on Santa Cruz Island, enjoying the relative solitude. I saw about 20 island foxes, a unique species of fox that is barely larger than a housecat. So adorable!
Santa Cruz Island has sea caves. You can take a kayak tour and paddle through the caves. This was my first chance to kayak in the ocean. It was challenging, but so much fun!
Tip for Channel Islands NP: Plan ahead, because everything needs to be booked in advance for the Channel Islands: Your ferry ticket, your campsite, your kayak tour. There is absolutely no food on the island, and limited drinking water, so bring everything you’ll need.
35 North Cascades, 2022
The North Cascades have some of the most breathtaking hikes in the Pacific Northwest.
I’ve been hiking in the Cascades region for a few years, but I finally made it inside the official park border in 2022 to hike Cascade Pass up to Doubtful Lake.
The mountain views were incredible, even from the trailhead parking lot. And they only got better the higher I went.
On this hike, I encountered pikas, marmots, mountain goats, and a black bear. This is one of those national parks that will make you want to move to the PNW, if you don’t live here already.
Tip for North Cascades NP: If you’re counting national parks, closely examine the park brochure to ensure that you get inside the official park boundary. Many attractions that are considered highlights of North Cascades NP, such as Diablo Lake, are actually not inside the national park – they’re in adjacent Ross Lake National Recreation Area.
36 Acadia, 2022
I finally got to check off the northeastern-most national park when a road trip from Boston to Maine brought me to Acadia NP in 2022.
The most pleasant surprise in Acadia for me was the surprising number of high-elevation spots that make for great viewpoints.
I drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain, hiked to the top of Gorham Mountain, and enjoyed the ocean views in each spot.
Tip for Acadia NP: Make sure to stop at Thunder Hole to see one of the most interesting natural formations in the park. It’s a ravine where ocean water regularly slams against the rocks and makes a thunderous, crashing sound.
37 Zion, 2022
I always assumed that I’d visit all 5 Utah national parks together, but when I found myself in Las Vegas with 1.5 extra days on my hands, I decided to do a quick trip up to Zion.
I’ve always heard people rave about Zion, and they weren’t wrong!
The highlight for me was hiking through the Narrows, the shallow river that weaves between 1000-foot-high walls. I rented boots and dry pants from an outfitter and spent a couple hours hiking through the gorge.
It was an amazing hike unlike any I’ve ever done, and I can’t wait to go back someday to hike the entire thing.
Tip for Zion NP: If you have the time, don’t overlook Kolob Canyons, the far northwest section of the park. It’s much less crowded than the rest of Zion, and it has some incredible views like the one in my photo above.
38 Congaree, 2022
Congaree National Park in South Carolina has a very different vibe from many of the others, and that’s what I liked about it.
This is a swampy landscape with boardwalks in the forest to allow for hiking and walking to the river.
When the swamp levels are high enough, people can even kayak or canoe through the park, but I didn’t come during the right time of year.
I did get to participate in an “Owl Prowl,” an evening ranger-led hike. We were given red film to cover our flashlights as we walked the boardwalks and trails looking for owls in the trees.
Lo and behold, we found two! That was one of the only times I’ve seen owls in the wild, so it was a cool sight.
Tip for Congaree NP: Try to time your visit with the annual firefly viewing, which takes place in May or early June. Or visit when the park is conducting one of its Owl Prowl hikes, usually from fall through spring.
39 Haleakala, 2022
After visiting Oahu and the Big Island, I finally made it to Maui in late 2022. So after a disappointing drive on the Road to Hana, a trip to Haleakala National Park was in order.
A friend had just visited Haleakala, and gushed about the incredible views he had up there. He had great weather and was able to see the peaks all the way over on the Big Island from a distance.
Unfortunately, that was not the case for my visit. As I drove up to the 10,000-foot summit, I could barely see the road in front of me. The fog was unbelievable.
I hiked down inside Haleakala Crater, which is supposed to be incredibly scenic. But in these rainy conditions, I saw nothing but fog. Look at my view from one of the overlooks:
Oh well. That’s how it goes sometimes.
This is a good reminder that, when you’re visiting all the national parks, not every trip is going to result in a perfect experience. There will be challenges and struggles. It’s all part of the quest!
And a sub-optimal experience just provides a reason to go back for a return visit!
Tip for Haleakala NP: If you drive the Road to Hana, continue south from Hana to explore the less-visited Kipahulu section of the park. It provides completely different scenery, with bamboo forests, waterfalls, and ocean views. The weather here was actually sunny and warm when I visited!
40 Guadalupe Mountains, 2023
I wasn’t initially a fan of desert hiking, but over the years, I grew to love this environment. I found Guadalupe Mountains National Park in western Texas to be a hidden gem.
The natural features, like Guadalupe Peak and the Devil’s Hall slot canyon (above), were impressive. The Devil’s Hall hike also has a natural staircase formed millions of years ago when Texas was underwater.
There are some century-old ranch buildings you can visit. The western end of the park has a small section of sand dunes. And the vivid orange sunsets can be spectacular. See my collection of Guadalupe Mountains photos.
How about if we all agree not to spread the word about this underrated national park, so that it never gets overcrowded?
Tip for Guadalupe Mountains NP: Wear a watch! Guadalupe Mountains NP sits in the Mountain Time Zone, but the nearest cell phone towers are in the Central Time Zone. So your phone may display the wrong time, or worse, it may flip back and forth between time zones. It gets confusing, but an old-school watch is the best way to keep correct time.
41 Big Bend, 2023
This was a great visit, because I gave myself a few days to see the park. That meant I had enough time to see just about everything.
I hiked to The Window, a cool viewpoint through a gap in the mountain. I relaxed in the natural hot spring along the Rio Grande and swam in the Rio Grande itself.
I hiked to Santa Elena Canyon, an awesome spot where the Rio Grande cuts through the mountains. It’s wild knowing that one side of the river is the U.S., and one side is Mexico.
Tip for Big Bend NP: Very motivated visitors can actually take a rowboat across the Rio Grande to the small town of Boquillas, Mexico. This is a sanctioned border crossing with an official immigration station. You can spend the day exploring the town. Here are the details on this unique adventure.
42 Kobuk Valley, 2023
When I started planning a trip to Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic, I knew my obsession with national parks had reached a new level.
These are the two most remote parks in the U.S. They’re both located in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle, and there are no roads leading in. You can only get here by taking a small bush plane.
So I joined a group excursion and booked two nights camping in the sand dunes of Kobuk Valley. Sand dunes aren’t common in Alaska. This was a surreal experience.
We didn’t encounter much wildlife, but while hiking around the dunes, we saw grizzly tracks, wolf tracks, and caribou tracks in the sand.
It was truly magical camping in such a remote and beautiful place.
Tip for Kobuk Valley NP: Getting here is difficult and expensive. I have an entire article detailing the options for visiting Kobuk Valley NP and how much you can expect to pay for a private flight.
43 Gates of the Arctic, 2023
After two nights in Kobuk Valley, our group was picked up by bush plane dropped off in Gates of the Arctic National Park.
This place was even more scenic than Kobuk Valley, as we were surrounded on all sides by mountains, with rivers and streams running through the middle.
Day one in Gates of the Arctic was absolutely gorgeous. It was sunny and clear, and we could actually swim and bathe in the cold, flowing river.
Day two brought non-stop rain, so we didn’t do much aside from eat our meals and stay in our tents.
We got the word via satellite phone that it was too cloudy for our pilot to come pick us up, so we had to stay an extra night. This was something we had prepared for, so it wasn’t a total shock.
Finally on day three, the pilot was able to make it in and take us back to civilization. I loved the feeling of camping way out there with no other humans around.
Tip for Gates of the Arctic NP: Be prepared for any kind of weather, any time of year. As my experience shows, the weather can change in an instant. Our guide told us they once got 4 inches of snow during a late July storm, so it really can get cold any month of the year.
44 Katmai, 2023
I had no idea the sheer volume of bears in Katmai NP. They are everywhere. They walk on all the park trails. They casually stroll past the visitor center.
They even approach the campground, which has an electric fence around it. I witnessed a bear walk right past the perimeter of the fence, not 20 feet from my tent.
I encountered three separate bear mothers with cubs while walking on the park trails. At first, this was scary, but you soon realize that this is common in Katmai, and the bears are used to people, and they will leave you alone if you keep your distance.
I also took a cool day trip out to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, an area of the park where a 1912 volcano eruption destroyed the landscape and created massive canyons and rivers.
Tip for Katmai NP: Getting to Brooks Falls requires a one-mile hike through the forest where these bears live. It is very likely you may see bears right on the trail. I recommend walking with other people and making a lot of noise to avoid startling them.
45 Lake Clark, 2023
I booked a day trip from Anchorage to Lake Clark NP via bush plane, but cloudy weather in the morning canceled my trip.
We couldn’t rebook, because all the other flights were fully booked, except for that afternoon’s flight, which had one seat available.
Three of us were interested in it. So they gave it to the person who booked the earliest… which happened to be me, as I’d booked months ahead of time. Woohoo!
Feeling very fortunate to have secured the seat, I boarded the flight and saw the incredible scenery of Lake Clark from above – the mountain peaks, the glaciers, and the lakes that our pilot flew directly over.
We landed in Chinitna Bay and saw a bunch of bears near the shore. This is the beach where bears sometimes walk alongside people, but on this day, they stayed at least 100 feet away. So I had to settle for distant views. It was still a thrill!
And on the plane ride, we spotted three beluga whales in the mouth of a river. My first time ever seeing belugas!
Tip for Lake Clark NP: Build some flexibility into your schedule when booking a trip to Lake Clark, to hedge against weather cancellations like the one I experienced. Give yourself an extra day or two in Anchorage so that you might be able to be re-booked if your initial Lake Clark flight is canceled.
46 Glacier Bay, 2023
After staying in campgrounds and even hostels during most of my Alaska trip, I treated myself to a night at Glacier Bay Lodge as I visited my eighth and final Alaska national park.
After a comically short 20-minute flight on Alaska Airlines from Juneau to Gustavus (yes, that’s a real commercial flight), I reached Glacier Bay National Park and enjoyed hiking its short trails and walking along the water.
The highlight was a day cruise to the tidewater glaciers that are melting as they reach the water of the bay.
The boat ride was a wildlife extravaganza. I saw several humpback whales, a porpoise, a brown bear, a bunch of otters and sea lions, numerous puffins, and nine mountain goats.
Tip for Glacier Bay NP: Try to attend the nightly program in the Huna Tribal House, which educates visitors about the Huna Tlingit clans who lived in this area for centuries. This building holds a lot of significance for these folks, and the NPS does a great job of explaining the history with a movie featuring the personal stories of tribal members.
Are you trying to visit all the national parks as well? Have a favorite park memory or two? Share your stories by leaving a comment!