13 best national parks in the USA
When you're planning a North American itinerary, including some of the top US national parks will add natural excitement and adventure to your holiday. Many of the world's most amazing landscapes can be found within US borders; you'd be mad not to explore a couple of them.
There are more than 60 national parks in the USA; we can't profile them all of them in this article, but here are some of the best:
Best national parks to visit on the East Coast and Midwest
To visit these national parks, you can fly Air New Zealand non-stop to either Houston, Chicago or New York*, with onward domestic USA connections available with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website.
* Fly non-stop from Auckland to New York from November 2020.
Indiana Dunes National Park, near Chicago
One of the newest national parks in the US, Indiana Dunes encompasses 24 kilometres of white sand beaches and dunescapes along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. The big things to see are the park's tallest dunes - Mount Tom, Mount Holden and Mount Jackson. There are trails up each of them, with incredible 'tree graveyards' of white pines along the way. Do the Three Dune Challenge if you want a big fitness challenge. In summer you can swim and camp at the beaches. In winter the whole lake freezes and there's snow on the beaches, changing the landscape dramatically.
Badlands National Park & Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
Badlands National Park is pretty darn good. It protects a bizarre landscape of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires that have been painstakingly crafted by nature over millions of years. The horizontal stripes of sedimentary layers are striking - like something from a science fiction movie. You can explore the park easily by car, stopping for hiking trails and viewpoints as the opportunities pop up. Roberts Prairie Dog Town is a special treat - a reliable place to see coyotes, pronghorns and eagles (as well as prairie dogs!)
You'll have seen Mount Rushmore before, in images and TV shows, but they don't prepare you for the huge reality. As America's shrine to democracy, Mount Rushmore National Park presents the stony faces of four great USA Presidents - they're more than 18 metres high and brilliantly sculpted. A father and son team, Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum, took 14 years to take the project from drawing board to completion. While you're here you can stroll the Avenue of Flags, see the giant faces from Grand View Terrace, walk the Presidential Trail and eat historic ice cream at the Memorial Team Ice Cream Station.
Mammoth Cave and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
If delving underground is your kind of adventure, Mammoth Cave National Park is a grand and gloomy experience. It's one of the world's biggest cave systems; so far more than 640 kilometres have been explored. You can do subterranean tours with park rangers, plus there are self-guided hikes above ground. Visit the Cedar Sink to see a sinkhole that's 90 metres in diameter or set off into the backcountry from one of six trailheads.
The Great Smoky Mountains (aka the Smokies) have a history of human habitation that goes back around 14,000 years. They also have 760 square kilometres of 'old growth forest', which lets you see untouched mountain country at its best. The national park that protects the Smokies is loved for scenic drives, bike rides and hiking. The ultimate experience is to walk some of the Appalachian Trail, the world's longest hiking-only trail. It's more than 3,000 kilometres long, so hiking the whole thing is probably not going to happen (it takes about seven months!)
Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri
If you watched Ozark on Netflix, this park is going to grab you. It includes 215 kilometres of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers in the verdant Ozark Highlands. For exploring in a canoe or kayak, there's possibly no better place on earth. You can also explore the area in a car, calling into places like Big Spring and Alley Mill. Spotting wildlife - deer, squirrels, raccoons and a multitude of bird species - is one of the main reasons to visit the Ozarks (apart from all the peace and tranquillity your heart desires).
Acadia National Park, Maine
A sea-scented nirvana for outdoor appreciators, Acadia National Park is a place for bike rides on old carriage roads, kayaking around the coast and hiking up Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak on the USA's Atlantic seaboard. Anytime between late spring and fall is ideal for a visit, if you want to maximise your time in the great outdoors. The best place for accommodation while you're exploring the park is Bar Harbor, a deliciously quaint heritage town that was established as a schooner port 200 years ago.
Best national parks to visit on the West Coast
To visit these national parks, you can fly Air New Zealand non-stop to either San Francisco or Los Angeles, with onward domestic USA connections available with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website.
Joshua Tree, Yosemite and Redwood, California
Joshua Tree National Park is full of things you'll want to photograph - desert wildlife, cactuses, rock formations and bluer-than-blue skies. Stop off at the visitors' centre for an old-fashioned paper map then take your pick from the trails, which have evocative names, like Lost Horse Mine, Skull Rock, Hidden Valley, Arch Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden and Mastodon Peak Loop. Barker Dam's a great place for a picnic and creative photography around the rock formations. If you want to see wildflowers, visit during March or April.
There's an incredible documentary about Yosemite National Park that lets you see the power this place has over people. Called 'Valley Uprising', it showcases the park's phenomenal geography through the eyes of free-form climbers who spend months ascending El Capitan's torturous routes. You don't have to be a climber to enjoy this park though; it's full of hiking and biking trails that'll blow your mind. You can also relax at the base of El Cap with binoculars, watching others do it the hard way. A good place to stay is Curry Village, aka Half Dome Village.
Redwood National and State Parks, commonly called 'Redwood', is home to the tallest trees on the planet - some are more than 1,000 years old. It was used for forest scenes in the classic Spielberg movie E.T. There are hiking, biking and horse riding trails to explore here, as well as kayak trips on Stone Lagoon. The park also has a network of roads. The town of Orick, once a forestry hub, is the base for a range of organised outdoor adventures.
Canyonlands, Arches and Zion National Park, Utah
The Green and Colorado Rivers have spent millions of years crafting Canyonlands National Park, an almost-unbelievable collection of colourful mesas, arches, canyons and buttes. It's a natural maze you can discover in a car, on foot or by rafting a section of river. Moab, the local town, has everything you need when you're not exploring the park. Road trip scenes for the movie Thelma & Louise were filmed in and around Moab.
Next on the Utah 'must-do' list is Arches National Park, also handy to Moab. Here you'll find more other-worldly formations, including over 2,000 natural stone arches. If you fancy camping in the park, or you're motorhoming your way around the US, Devil's Garden promises some memorable storytelling nights around the campfire. Arches National Park was featured in the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Further west in Utah is Zion National Park, where the reddish-tan of eroded Navajo sandstone contrasts with lush green valleys. This park is perfect for hikes, climbing and horse riding. It's also where you can get right out of your comfort zone with a canyoning adventure that combines rappelling, swimming and climbing. Read more about things to do in Utah.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The granddad of all USA parks, Grand Canyon is highly popular - but there-s a lot of it, so you can pick your viewing point to avoid crowds. The South Rim is open all year; it has 20+ viewing points and includes Grand Canyon Village, which has the full kit of tourist services. The North Rim opens only for summer and has three viewing points. The ultimate way to see the canyon without raising a sweat is from the air. If you're visiting Las Vegas in your travels, you can easily arrange to fly over the Grand Canyon on a helicopter tour.
Glacier National Park, Montana
If you love mountain hiking, Montana is your state - its name literally means 'mountainous country'. And the Glacier National Park has to be the ultimate place to embrace Montana's mountainous magnificence. With rugged mountains, glacier-carved valleys, alpine meadows and picture-perfect lakes, this park is gob-smacking. It's also home to grizzly bears, lynx, black bears, moose, bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer and coyotes, so you could capture some wild locals for Instagram. Best things to do in Glacier National Park include driving the Going-to-the-Sun alpine road and hiking the Grinnell Glacier.
Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and the Rocky Mountains, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park protects the USA's Pueblo heritage. It includes more than 5,000 archaeological sites within a concentrated area of peaks and cliffs. Towering over the Montezuma Valley, the park has mesa-top villages and cliffside dwellings that will have you permanently glued to the camera app on your phone. There are trails to follow for a self-guided wander or you can take a ranger-guided tour to gather extra information about Puebo history and see inside some of the dwellings. Exploring is adventurous, involving climbing tall ladders and squeezing through tight rock tunnels.
You can go to the beach without going to the beach at Grand Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado. Bring your boogie board, or some other hard polished surface, because dune surfing is a top thing to do here. You can also rent purpose-built sand sleds for the fastest kind of ride. In this surreal park you have the chance to stand on the tallest dune in North America, swim Medano Creek, camp in the sand and get an eyeful of the Milky Way.
Covering more than 650 square kilometres of the USA's most famous mountain range, Rocky Mountain National Park is an epic destination for hiking and camping during summer and snowshoeing in winter. You can also do overnights in a cowboy-style cabin (the YMCA operates more than 200 of them) or sign up for a ranger programme to see the night sky. The park is home to bighorn sheep, coyote, elk, moose, mule deer, squirrels and chipmunks, just to name a few. Panoramic views come with the territory - Deer Mountain, Twin Sisters Peaks and Flattop Mountain are the big three summit hikes.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Wyoming
Established in 1872, Yellowstone was the USA's first national park. The reason is obvious - the geothermal attractions here are legendary, including the Old Faithful geyser that puts on a show about every two hours. There's a supervolcano beneath the park that keeps all the fumaroles, geysers, craters and steaming silica terraces well-supplied with heat. Yellowstone National Park is quite different to New Zealand geothermal attractions, because it covers 2.2 million acres and includes roaming wildlife. You can see bison, elk, bear, coyote, bighorn sheep and eagles, especially if you're exploring early in the day.
Grand Teton National Park protects a human history that stretches back for eons. Nomadic tribes started living in the area shortly after the last ice age; they were eventually followed by European fur trappers and homesteaders. Today the park is a mountainous paradise for hiking, river rafting and discovering colonial history. The park includes Jackson Hole, a vast valley between the Tetons and the Gros Ventre Range, which is a mecca for skiing and snowboarding.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Alaska's Denali National Park is one of the least-visited national parks in the USA, because it's really off the beaten path. Home of Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, the park is about 2.5 hours' drive from Anchorage. The main motivation for visiting this park is wildlife spotting, however there are some excellent hiking trails to discover, including all-day ranger-led hikes. You could tick off some of your bucket list goals here, like seeing a grizzly bear or wolf in the wild.
Best southern national parks
To visit Florida, you can fly Air New Zealand non-stop to Houston, then connect to Miami with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Dipping into the incredible watery world of the Everglades National Park is a must if you plan to visit Florida. The park can be explored in many ways: in a car, following the road between the visitor centre and Flamingo; on a bike, along the Shark Valley Trail; on foot, guided by a gladesman or ranger; or in a kayak or canoe around Cape Sable or Snake Bight, launching from Flamingo. In the Florida everglades you can hope to see alligators, manatees and a profusion of extraordinary birds, such as pink spoonbills and wetland raptors. Find out about our flights to Miami.