Yosemite is at the top of my list for everything it has to offer. It truly is the most unique gem of all of the national parks I’ve visited.
Glacier is like the Rockies but better; fewer people and colder temperatures. This park offers amazing views and a snowy environment almost year round. Glacier also holds a special place in my heart as it was where I did my first ever backpacking trip (27 miles)
Anyone who has been to Zion can tell you how amazing the park is. The only reason I put this park at 3rd is due to the sheer amount of people during the summer.
4. Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is an amazing site to see. In fact, I have traveled out of my way on surrounding trips just to stop at it. I put it at 4th for two reasons: there is an insane amount of people who visit the south rim every year and, being a sheer canyon, it is very difficult to do any hiking in it.
This is one of those parks I had been looking forward to going to for a very long time and boy did it not fail to disappoint. The park is fairly small but offers tons of views, trails, and backcountry roads. It’s also an extremely unique park with its primary attractions being the many, many arches throughout the park. Also, this park holds a special place in my heart being the 31st national park I’ve visited(halfway point of all the national parks).
6. Big Bend
Big Bend might surprise some since it is not very well known. In fact, it's one of the least visited parks in the US. Anyone willing to submerge themselves in one of the most isolated areas of the US will tell you that this is an amazing park. I have spent multiple days in Big Bend but I constantly want to go back.
7. Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns were the most unique of the national parks I’ve visited. The formations dating back hundreds of thousands of years are an unbelievable sight to see and every inch of the cave has something new and different to offer. The facilities inside the park make it very accessible and easy to visit as well.
8. Rocky Mountains
The Rocky Mountains has an unlimited amount of hiking to offer and incredible views everywhere you look. The park is large and has many different mountains and offers hikes of varying difficulty so there is always something amazing to do and see.
9. Death Valley
Death Valley was a park that took me by surprise. Being one of the largest national parks, it offered a ton of things to hike and see. I only was able to spend a limited amount of time and only scratched the surface of this park but it was an incredible park. My recommendation to this park is to give it more than one day to truly get a sense of what the park is. Due to its extreme weather, I placed it lower than it deserves because you can really only comfortably see this park close to the winter (with highs still going into the 80s).
10. Bryce Canyon
Being part of the “mighty five”, this is a park that can not disappoint. The park offers a lot of hiking and camping options. The “amphitheater” is a must see and one of the more memorable things I have seen in my journey through all of the national parks. This park is definitely a fall/spring visiting park because the winters (when I went it was 0F with a high of 24F) are brutally cold and the summers are fairly hot.
11. Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains has incredible views throughout. The park is large and has many different mountains and offers hikes of varying difficulty so there is always something amazing to do and see. However, the waterfalls in the park are absolutely amazing.
12. Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes was another very unique park nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. These are the tallest dunes in the US and are a very interesting and unexpected sight to see in contrast with the surrounding environment. There are not many easy hikes to do in the park but you are able to climb up the dunes and even sled down them which makes this a very unique and interactive park.
13. White Sands
White sands was a truly amazing place and a very pretty place. However, it is a tiny national park only offering five hikes and a handful of primitive camping sites. Still, it is unique and is definitely worth a day trip if you are in the area or even in New Mexico in general.
Redwood National Park is very interesting as it is one of the few focused around the amazing plant life in the park rather than the geographical formations. The trees in the park are startlingly large and unlike any that I’ve seen even in the surrounding area. The park didn’t have many large hikes to offer but had a number of smaller hikes through the forest.
Yellowstone was a huge park that offered a lot of very different things to see. Hot springs, geysers, Yellowstone Canyon, and incredible plant and animal wildlife are among the things that you can see driving throughout this huge park. It is also the first national park in the country and has a lot of history to learn and explore.
16. Grand Teton
Grand Teton National Park is strikingly beautiful and the prominent peaks are very unique and discernable from the landscape around them. There are various incredibly strenuous hikes in the park and the wildlife and surrounding environment is very scenic. From my experience, the park was not overcrowded which was surprising due to its location and the beauty of the park.
17. Capitol Reef
Capitol Reef is a great little park (also part of the mighty five) that is worth the trip if you are in the Utah area. If you get a chance to check it out, the panorama point is a must view point offering great views of the park plus the mountains in the distance. Capitol Reef offers a fair amount of hiking and primitive camping but it is a small park hence why it is lower on my list than the rest of the above.
18. Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is a fairly large park but being the closest park to LA, it was one of the most crowded parks I have ever seen. I planned out a few hikes throughout the park but I had to cancel several of them as I went from parking lot to parking lot not able to find a spot. In fact, the first hike I planned (I got there around 9am) had a full lot and full overflow lot as well. That being said, the park was very pretty and offered a lot of desert life to look at and excellent backcountry camping.
19. Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier was a beautiful forest region of Washington but the only reason why it is this low on the list is due to the weather. If you are blessed with sunlight, cherish it before it’s gone. Unfortunately, when I went, I wasn’t able to see much but it was still beautiful and offered tons of hiking.
Canyonlands makes the bottom of my list of the “mighty five” due to its lack of hiking and camping. Understandably so, it is on a literal cliff but it still offers amazing views of the canyons below as well as some mountains in the distance.
21. Guadalupe Mountains
The Guadalupe Mountains has the highest point in Texas and resides on the Mexican border. Once we summited Guadalupe/Signal Peak, the view of the Chihuahuan Desert was amazing. There are many long and beautiful hikes throughout this park and lots of smaller historic things to see as well. This park is quite a drive from any large cities so it was a long drive to get there and most likely is for anyone that wants to visit. There were practically no other people there and the park is very infrequently visited compared to other parks.
22. Mammoth Cave
Mammoth Cave is the largest cave system in the world and offers over 412 miles of discovered cave so far. The surrounding area is beautiful and it is fascinating to know that there is a massive cave system below you when there are practically no clues that it is even there. You can only explore the cave through guided tour and the one I took offered incredible views of the lakes, waterfalls, river, ruins from the War of 1812, and beautiful rock formations in the caverns, to name a few.
23. Indiana Dunes
Indiana Dunes was very cool because it had so much to offer for such a small park. The beach was indistinguishable from any beach along the coast and gave a lot of perspective on the size of the great lakes. The historic homesteads in the park are a must-see and the hikes within the park offer a number of different unexpected sights and experiences.
Sequoia was another park dedicated to the huge trees within the park. The trees were a bit smaller than those at Redwood National Park but were still incredible. There were a lot of easier hikes throughout the park that offered spectacular views of the forest and surrounding wildlife.
Saguaro is another unique biome park that has huge Saguaro Cacti. The park offers a fair amount of hiking and is fairly large but does not offer much more than the cacti and some backcountry mountains to explore. It, however, is worth the quick stop if you are driving through the area.
Congaree offers an unique swamp biome. This park is lower on my list as it is relatively small and the Boardwalk (the main hike) can be done in under two hours. However, if present, Congaree has much to offer in bird watching and other small animals.
27. Petrified Forest
Petrified Forest is one of those parks that unless you’re in the area, don’t take a dedicated trip to it. Don’t get me wrong. Petrified is a cool hidden gym with unique aspects with the most known being the petrified logs. But, there’s only a handful of hiking trails so the park is mostly a driving park with lookout points.
28. Cuyahoga Valley
Cuyahoga Valley National Park was a very scenic park with a lot of different ecosystems to observe. There are multiple very impressive waterfalls and scenic historic sites as well as a railroad that takes you all the way through the park. The park itself is free and is surrounded by multiple small towns and is only a short drive away from both Cleveland and Columbus. The only thing I didn’t particularly like about the park was the major interstates running directly through it.
29. Kings Canyon
Kings Canyon is a smaller park that is very scenic and is one of the oldest of the national parks in the US. It is, however, a smaller park and I didn't find that it had a large variety of things to see and was more of a single site to see than a number of different ones.
30. Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde had so much history to offer and was a look directly into the lives of ancient Native American life along a now-dried up river. The structures built along the side of the river are incredibly well preserved and surreal to see. The park did not offer much of any hiking but was very accessible and easy to see all of the sites within the park by driving.
31. Gateway Arch
Gateway Arch is definitely unlike any of the other parks as it’s a completely man made structure that is built on 90 acres of land, making it the one of the smallest national parks. There is practically no hiking as the obvious focus of the park is the arch. It is located in the heart of St. Louis and is not a very scenic landscape. You can pay to take a trip to the top of the arch which gets you a very cool view of St. Louis. The museum under the arch has a lot of history to offer and is very well-run.
32. Hot Springs
Hot Springs National Park has a lot of history but I, like what seems like a lot of visitors, don’t understand why this is a national park rather than a historic site. The springs are neat and the small wooded area around the bath houses are pretty. There are a couple of hiking trails up to the top of the small mountain behind the bath houses but they cost money to walk. Unless you are in the area or are trying to see every park, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going out of your way for this one.