Growing up in Canada always meant winter vacations to Florida. As a Canadian, the United States was so accessible, that it was never really high on my list of priorities to explore because it never seemed exotic enough. That is until a family member organized a three-day hiking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. This was certainly an adventure I was not going to skip. After this amazing trip – I got the U.S. Parks bug and am totally addicted!
Here is a list of my favorite National Parks (and some State Parks) in the United States. I certainly have not had the pleasure to visit them all yet so if you have suggestions on what to see next please let me know in the comments below.
Bryce Canyon National Park (UT)
Bryce Canyon National Park is our personal favorite – but we’re completely biased because this is where we got engaged! From sunrise to sunset, this park is full of jaw-dropping views. It also has the largest collection of hoodoos (towers of rock created by erosion) in the world! You ideally need at least 2 days and 1 night in the park. Luckily it is located quite close to Zion and Grand Staircase which makes for an essential stop on a parks tour through Utah. Learn more about Bryce Canyon from the National Parks Service here.
Nearest Airport: Las Vegas, Nevada
Grand Canyon National Park (AZ)
Even though the Grand Canyon`s reputation proceeds it, the park certainly does not disappoint once you arrive. At 227 miles in length and 18 miles wide at its widest point, this canyon is considered to be one of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World. Climbing from top to bottom you will go through multiple ecosystems with each one offering its own unique beauty. Challenge yourself to go as far into the Canyon as you can to really maximize your time in the park. To go all the way into the park and stay at Phantom Ranch you will need to book your trip over a year in advance. Learn more about Grand Canyon from the National Parks Service here.
Nearest Airport: Pheonix, Arizona
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (AZ/UT)
Spanning nearly 1.9 million acres of America`s public lands, you need a great deal of time to see Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) and to not feel like you are just driving all the time. (Although even the drive is worth-while). Hidden within the canyons of this region are some of the most stunning rocks formations in the world. Be prepared to hike to see these features since many of them are located in slot canyons which means you are best to visit during a dry season or you may be rained out. Learn more about Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from the Bureau of Land Management here.
Nearest Airport: Las Vegas, Nevada
Joshua Tree National Park (CA)
Visiting Joshua Tree National Park is like walking into a Dr. Seuss book. It has this strange, Mars like quality with random Joshua Trees sparsely popping up from the desert floor. Even though it spans the intersection of two deserts (the Mojave and the Colorado), most of the common tourists areas are located on the Mojave Desert side. A favorite activity in Joshua Tree is climbing giant boulders which makes it a haven for rock climbers. You will need a car to visit this park as there is no shuttle running throughout like many of the larger National Parks. If you are a photographer this is a great place to flex your night photography muscles as there is nothing around to block the starts in the sky. Learn more about Joshua Tree National Park from the National Parks Service here.
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles, California
Letchworth State Park (NY)
Called the “Grand Canyon of the East”, this park is a must see if you ever find yourself in Upstate New York. Located about an hour drive from Buffalo, this park comes out of nowhere as the Genesee River has carved out a gorge as high as 600 feet in some areas looking out over 3 major waterfalls. This park is very user friendly with paved walking paths along the entire park looking over the river. Learn more about Letchworth State Park on the New York State Parks website here.
Nearest Airport: Buffalo, New York
Mojave National Preserve (CA)
Even though we used Mojave National Preserve as a way to break up a road trip between California and Utah, it really was a destination onto itself. We decided to visit the Kelso Sand Dunes which can reach up to 600 feet making it one of the most difficult, and most fun hikes we have ever done. Running down the sand dunes is like running at zero gravity – I couldn’t stop giggling the whole way down. I highly recommend visiting this park when you are next venturing down Route 66. Learn more about Mojave National Preserve through the National Parks Service here.
Nearest Airports: Las Vegas, Nevada and Los Angeles, California
Niagara Falls National Heritage Area (NY)
Spanning the US/Canada border this incredible area features 3 stunning waterfalls; the American Falls, the Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls. You are able to walk from the US to the Canadian side and back again but the Canadians by far have the better view as you can see all 3 falls from the Northern side. More than 168,000 cubic metres (6 millions cubic feet) of water goes over the crestline of the falls every minute during peak tourist hours every day. The area around Niagara Falls is a popular tourist destination year round so there is always a restaurant, hotel or casino within walking distance. Learn more about Niagara Falls National Heritage Area from the National Parks Service here.
Nearest Airports: Buffalo, New York and Toronto, Ontario
Watkins Glen State Park (NY)
Watkins Glen is definitely the smallest park on the list but it’s emerald pools are so beautiful that I couldn’t leave it off the list. Only two miles in distance and a mere 400 foot drop in elevation, makes this river path extremely accessible to a variety of fitness levels. You will be mesmerized as the path moves under, over and around 19 waterfalls while you are surrounded by 200 foot cliffs on either side. You only need about 3 hours to walk the full park which leaves plenty of time to visit nearby wineries in the Finger Lakes District. Learn more about Watkins Glen State Park through New York State Parks here.
Nearest Airports: Rochester, New York and Syracuse, New York
Zion National Park (UT)
On the other hand Zion is so expansive that you can easily spend a week hiking through these 229 square miles of red rock and still not see it all. This park will leave you in awe at every turn. Although some of the hikes here are incredibly challenging (Angel’s Landing and Observation Point), they are well worth the climb. The most popular hikes here can be packed with tourists as the park receives almost 3 million visitors annually, so aim to visit on weekdays. However, you can always opt to go back-country hiking if you desire more solitude. The park is also very accessible as the main road is fairly flat throughout the length of the gorge and has shuttles running frequently. Learn more about a visit to Zion National Park from the National Parks Service here.
Nearest Airport: Las Vegas, Nevada