It’s about that time! The dreaded task that all who manage to visit every national park in America must face. Ranking the best.
This is an impossible task. How in the world do you judge and rank the most beautiful, diverse, and awe-inspiring places in the United States? Even as I write this, I know my opinion might change later and the order will get changed. I love them all!!
This is the number one question I get asked when someone finds out I’ve been on a mission to see all the parks. It’s hard, but I’m going to do it. Let’s dig in!
This is a ranking of only the main 62 National Parks. There are 419 total units, comprised of monuments, scenic areas, historic sites and more, but there are only 62 “National Parks”.
You might ask what is the difference between a national park and a national monument or other designation under the NPS. It’s not a totally clear-cut answer. A lot has to do with the purpose for which they were designated, the precedence set by Congress in terms of activities and management of other parks, and their size and possession of diverse, outstanding natural features. It also has to be taken into account what repercussions making a national park designation would have on an area’s economic and ecological status! Ie: people will show up in droves to see one of the “national parks”.
Unofficially though.. they have got to be EPIC.
This ranking is influenced by how well I explored the park. I (usually) don’t do hikes longer than 5 miles, I can’t ski or rock climb, and I am not the best wilderness camper. All these types of things influence a personal rating of national parks. So I can only go by my own experiences.
I created grading system to help me rank them. Since the parks are SO darn beautiful in their own ways and often share similar features, I had to consider what else makes a park experience great.
Rated from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best:
Variety of Activities & Features – Hiking, biking, lighthouses, beaches, restaurants, famous things to do or see, tours, etc. I’m a buffet kind of gal!
Coolest Hikes – Not just a typical hike through the woods.
National Park Lodges & Restaurants – Lodges are my favorite! How many did the park have? Were they beautiful? How great was the “Dining with a View”? Food = memories!
Animal Encounters – The variety of animals, close encounters, or other memorable moments with wildlife.
Epic Beauty – The intensity of that jaw-dropping, goosebump-inducing, mind-blowing moment I laid eyes on the park.
Proximity to Other Parks and/or Attractions – It’s not always just THE park that makes the park epic. It’s the closeness to other parks, cool and unique towns, roadside attractions and other factors that encompass the perfect and memorable national park trip.
Scenic Drives – One of my favorite things! But not all parks are the same in this category. Some don’t even have one.
Fondest Memories – So many things affect your experience at a park, but this is an important component in what makes a park your favorite.
So without further adieu…
#10 – Badlands National Park – Points: 26 out of 40
What a surprise this park is! It doesn’t look like much in most photos you see online, but wait until you get there. One of the coolest hikes I’ve done was at this park. And it doesn’t hurt that it is located in one of the best, if not THE best, road trip destinations we have in America. South Dakota – aka Mount Rushmore region. Many national park units and kitschy American fun are concentrated within this destination. Highlights: boardwalk and ladder hikes, rock formations, scenic drive, and up-close-and-personal wildlife encounters.
#9 – Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Points: 27 out of 40
The most visited national park in the system. I really loved the variety of activities and features including curated scenic drives, waterfalls, viewpoints, fall foliage and historic structures. It’s also adjacent to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge which is always a good time if you don’t mind a heavy dose of commercialism. Don’t worry, it’s done very well. Dollywood!!!
#8 – Olympic National Park – Points: 29 out of 40
Ahhh, the Pacific Northwest. There is nothing like it. It’s my answer when someone asks me if I could move anywhere, where would I go. What’s great about Olympic is the diversity of the park. It’s got wooded forests, mountains, beaches, and even a rainforest! It is mystical, magical, and marvelous.
#7 – Acadia National Park – Points: 30 out of 40
Stunning coastal beauty. I’m surprised it ranked at #7. If I was going by gut reaction to favorite parks, it would be further up there. It’s usually one of the first that comes to mind when I think about my favorite parks. I guess the competition is just that steep! This one also ranks super high with a variety of attractions and features. You’ve got coastal hikes, wooded trails, ocean views, absolutely stunning scenic drives, fall foliage, lighthouses, carriage rides, and historic restaurants. And did I mention Maine lobster?
#6 – Cuyahoga National Park – Points: 31 out of 40
Does this one surprise you? It surprises me! It’s so tempting to gravitate towards the grandiose parks filled with sweeping views, snow-capped mountains or a red-rocked garden of eden. But, I have say… country is cool! Now, I visited during the best time of year – fall – and that certainly influences my opinion on this park. Fall is prime time! I absolutely fell in love with the historical, autumn-hued features at this park: scenic train rides, country mart, corn maze, living history farm, covered bridge, waterfalls, and the most amazingly curated bike trail in the park system. Nay… AMERICA. What it may lack in grandeur, it makes up for in ambiance.
#5 – Yosemite National Park – Points: 32 out of 40
Hmmm tough one. I mean, it’s Yosemite! Should it be higher up?? It’s one of our country’s crowning jewels! And the source of so many fond family memories. Did you know that Yosemite is responsible for the launch of the National Park System? Photographs of the park, taken by Carleton Watkins, inspired Abraham Lincoln to create the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864, which led to Yellowstone becoming a park, which in turn led to the creation of the National Park System which became needed to manage all the new federally conserved areas. It is that inspiring. Top marks for views, hiking, biking, lodges, waterfalls and some of the best memories of my childhood.
#4 – Zion National Park – Points: 32 out of 40 (tied with Yosemite!)
You knew it was coming. The infamous Zion. Probably the #1 park on many peoples’ list. It really is spectacular and I had a hard time ranking it at #4. I guess I’m more of a woodsy woman as you’ll see in my next few choices. As it tied with Yosemite, I had to make a gut choice on which of the two is my favorite and I had to give it to Zion. Zion has top marks for variety of attractions and features, including completely EPIC hikes (Angel’s Flight?!?!), a highly-enjoyable bike ride, astonishing beauty, GLAMPING!!! (just outside the park) and some of the most memorable moments in my national park journey.
#3 – Rainier National Park – Points: 33 out of 40
Oh man this park is so phenomenal. It really reminds me of Switzerland. As far as snow-capped parks go, it’s really hard to beat this one! A+ all the way. Some of my favorite features: One of the best scenic drives, a quite famous wildflower season, and a diverse hiking scene which includes groves of giant trees, waterfalls, and panoramas so gorgeous your eyes get swollen from gawking at the scenery.
#2 – Glacier National Park – Points: 35 out of 40
There are no words to describe this park. I’ll never forget when we drove up to the entrance station, expecting to hear that we could only explore a portion of this park due to the closure of Going to the Sun road (the road that connects each end of the park). But then, via God’s perfect timing, the ranger says “Oh you arrived just in time. We opened the road about an hour ago”. What?! The road is only opened for 3 or so months of the year due to snow and weather conditions and they never know exactly when. In my opinion, this is the best scenic drive of all the national park drives. The park has some really cool hikes, top-notch lodges, turquoise-blue waters, and wildlife galore. Plus, a baby bear charged me once and I got it on video 🙂
#1 – Yellowstone National Park
Were you expecting anything else? You know this is #1, don’t lie! Crowds aside and ignoring that you may have been several times by now and ready to see something new… Yellowstone is the #1 park in the system. Where else are you going to see some of the planet’s most astonishing features, and from the comfort of an accessible boardwalk? There is no place on earth quite like Yellowstone National Park, and it’ll be #1 in my heart forever ❤ ❤ ❤
The parks truly are “America’s Best Idea”.
So what do think? Did I get it right? Leave a comment on which is your favorite and why!
– The Time Traveler