Top 6 National Parks in the US

Traveling to National Parks has become a new family favorite of ours, man we had no clue just what we were missing out on! Once we visited our first Park, we immediately began making plans to visit another one. I recently shared a submission that Reaction.gov posted on their Share Your Story page about the park that changed it all for us. Click here to read that story.

There are sixty three National Parks in the United States. National Parks have been designated as such for their natural beauty, unique geological features, and diverse ecosystems. Twenty-eight of our states have a National Park (some have more than one).

While we haven’t even come close to visiting all 63 parks, we do have our favorites so far! We picked these National Parks as our top six for many reasons, but mostly based on how much fun our boys had at each one! At the end I will include information on the America the Beautiful Pass and the Every Kid Outdoors Pass – you will want to learn about this pass if you have a fourth grader, trust me!

Hiking Gear Favorites

Before I dive into our favorite parks, I want to share our favorite hiking gear finds! It’s so important to pack the correct gear, because weather conditions can change at a moment’s notice. We are a pretty frugal family, so none of our gear will break the bank.

Read on for our top 6 National Parks in the US!

6. Grand Canyon National Park

Short walk from Mather Point

Coming in at number six is Grand Canyon National Park in beautiful northwestern Arizona. This park is home to the infamous and immense Grand Canyon. This canyon is layered with bands of red rock that reveal millions of years of geological history. This is one place that you truly need to see in person to understand the beauty and “grandness” of the canyon. We visited the park in November and had the most pleasant weather for hiking and stops at the viewpoints.

Our Grand Canyon National Park Highlights:

  • Hiking to Ooh Aah Point from the South Kaibab Trail – 1.8 miles out and back
  • Mather Point (viewpoint)
  • Yavapai Geology Museum

We spent two days at the Grand Canyon and think that this is the perfect amount of time to enjoy most of the sights, especially if you’re there with kids. While we would have loved to have been able to hike rim to rim, that just wasn’t feasible at this time with our kids in tow. And while we thoroughly enjoyed our visit, there are some pros and cons that I will include below.

Outside of the Yavapai Geology Museum

Pros:

  • The sheer beauty of the canyon is something that I strongly feel everyone should see in their lifetime.
  • Shuttle bus services – The shuttle system is very organized and runs smoothly between the different popular viewpoints and parking lots.
  • Viewpoints – The locations are stunning and you do not have to walk far to see some of the best sights in the park.
  • Parking lots – This park had a lot more parking lots and spaces available than some of the other National Parks we have visited.
  • Food Options – This is one of the few National Parks that we have visited that offer different dining options! It was nice to explore for a few hours, stop in at a restaurant for lunch and beverages, and then explore a little more!
  • No reservations needed!

Cons:

  • Heights – If you have a fear of heights, this may be too much for you! Also, if you have children with you, you MUST watch them like hawks at all times. Those edges are no joke and sadly this park averages about 12 deaths per year.
  • Heat – In the summer the heat in this desert climate can be excruciating. In June, July, and August, the temperatures can be above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and even hotter below the rim on the hiking trails.
  • Crowds – Since this is a natural wonder of the world, people from all places come to visit. The hiking trails were less crowded, but the viewpoints were packed.
  • Hiking – The roads, viewpoints, and hiking trailheads all start at the top of the canyon. To get the best views, it is recommended to hike down into the canyon. If you hike down, you must come back up. We are a family that is in pretty good shape and it was a really tough hike back up!
  • After a day or so, the views start to look the same so it might become redundant for some.

Click here to read more about our adventures in the Grand Canyon, which includes more information on lodging, dining, and our 2-day itinerary.  

  • Address: 20 South Entrance Road
  •                Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm
  • Phone: 928-638-7888
  • Entrance Fee: $35 per vehicle (pass good for 7 days)
  • Annual Visitors: 5 million
  • Best Time to Visit: March – May, September – November

5. Badlands National Park

Badlands Loop Road

The next National Park that made the list is Badlands National Park in South Dakota. My boys LOVED all of the unique formations (made from gravel, sand, and mud) and hills to climb. This park is hugely underrated and so very unique. There are a lot of short hiking options and this is a great park for a day trip!

Our Badlands National Park Highlights:

  • Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) – 40 mile scenic drive
  • Window Trail Hike – quarter mile roundtrip
  • Notch Trail – 1.3 miles roundtrip

We only spent one day here and took advantage of this National Park while we were staying in Rapid City, SD. This is the perfect day trip if you are in the area to see Mount Rushmore! As with all places, there are some pros and cons, but this park has a lot more pros than cons.

Notch Trail Hike

Pros:

  • Crowds – This park was not crowded at all when we visited in the summer.
  • Unique formations and landscapes that the kids loved to explore!
  • Hikes – Range of skill levels, several are easy/moderate
  • View – You can see a lot from your car
  • Great day trip if you are already in South Dakota to see the popular tourist attraction, Mount Rushmore
  • No reservations needed

Cons:

  • Heat – It was extremely hot when we visited in the summer
  • We did not see food/dining options in the park

Click here to read more about our adventures in the South Dakota, which includes more information on lodging, dining, and our full itinerary.  

  • Address: 25216 Ben Reifel Road
  •                 Interior, SD 57750
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm
  • Phone: 605-433-5361
  • Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle (pass good for 7 days)
  • Annual Visitors: 1 million
  • Best Time to Visit: April – June, September – November

4. Arches National Park

Delicate Arch

These next two National Parks on my list all basically tied because of their close proximity to each other! Arches NP lies just North of Moab in Utah. It is known for having more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, the most famous being Delicate Arch, along with pinnacles and balanced rocks. The geological formations are so magnificent to see in person. This is a hiker and climber’s paradise!

Our Arches National Park Favorites

  • Delicate Arch Hike (3 miles roundtrip)
  • The Arches Scenic Drive (22 miles)
  • Double Arch (0.3 miles)
  • Windows Loop Trail (1 mile)

We only spent one full day in Arches National Park, but I would’ve loved to have had more time here. We were in Moab for the week, but had other adventures on the schedule! This is one of my most favorite destinations in the US. Another National Park (Canyonlands) is also in the area, as well as, an amazing state park. We truly loved the town of Moab and had a blast exploring the 2 National Parks in the area and taking a UTV tour in the canyons! If you are looking for awesome views, breathtaking hikes, adventure and more, then Moab, and the Arches National Park area, are a must!

Double Arch area

Pros:

  • Scenic Drive – you can see a lot from your car if you’re not a hiker!
  • Views – the whole area is stunning
  • Hikes – wide range of hikes for all skill levels and abilities
  • Kids loved it here – there were so many cool places for them to explore and climb
  • Town – really cool town with lots of dining options!
  • Adventure – there are UTV,  Jeep, and rafting tours in the area

Cons:

  • Transportation – NO shuttle service inside the park (must use your own vehicle)
  • Reservation System/Timed Entry Tickets implemented for April 3-October 3, 2022
  • Temperatures – can be extremely hot in the summer months

Click here to read more about our adventures in the Arches National Park, which includes more information on lodging, dining, and our full itinerary.  

  • Address: Hwy 191 (5 miles north of Moab)
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/arch/index.htm
  • Phone: 435 719-2299
  • Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle (pass good for 7 days)
  • Annual Visitors: 1.5 million
  • Best Time to Visit: April – May, September – October

3. Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch

Canyonlands National Park is in southeastern Utah, near the town of Moab. This park offers a few different areas with varying features, such as, countless canyons, mesas, ancient rock paintings, colorful landscapes, and towering rock pinnacles. It’s actually the largest National Park in Utah, but is often overshadowed by the more popular parks in the area.

Our Canyonlands National Park Favorites

  • Island in the Sky District
  • Mesa Arch Hike (0.5 miles)
  • Needles District
  • Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument
  • The nearby Dead Horse Point State Park

We visited this Park when we were in Moab, Utah for spring break this past March. We only had a day here and made the mistake of driving between two districts of the Park, The Island in the Sky District and the Needles District. We had no idea that these two areas were several hours apart before we started the drive. It made for a long day, but we still had fun nonetheless! I would suggest to do your research to decide which district you want to visit if you only have a day. If you have multiple days, then plan on seeing one area per day to cut down on your driving time!

Canyonlands Area (near Dead Horse Point)

Pros:

  • Crowds – there were ZERO crowds when we visited in the spring!
  • No reservation or timed entry tickets required at this time
  • Stunning views and hiking trails

Cons:

  • There are three districts in Canyonlands NP and they are pretty far apart from each other. (2-3 hour drive)
  • No dining options in the park
  • Cliff edges can be very intimidating – make sure to keep an extra eye on your kiddos!
  • Very spotty cell service

Click here to read more about our adventures in the Canyonlands National Park, which includes more information on lodging, dining, and our full itinerary.  

2. Redwood National & State Parks

Stout Memorial Grove area

Redwood National Park is in northern California and is home to the world’s tallest trees on Earth! Here you’ll also find prairies, woodlands, rivers, wildlife, and miles and miles of rugged coastline. The National Park Service and California State Parks manage and preserve the lands for us to enjoy.

Our Redwood Favorites

  • Humboldt State Park – Avenue of the Giants
  • Humboldt State Park – Tall Tree Grove
  • Jedidiah Smith State Park – Stout Memorial Grove
  • Nearby Crescent City Beach

We just recently visited this National Park over our spring break, and man were we amazed! I have never seen trees so large in my life! My pictures absolutely do not show the perspective of the size, but believe me, they were massive! My boys had the best time hiking, climbing, and exploring.

Stout Memorial Grove

Pros:

  • Crowds – we saw a total of maybe five other people in the Parks over two days. I am not sure if this is because we visited in the spring, but it felt like we were the only people there.
  • The sheer beauty of the forests and the size of the trees are something I think anyone can appreciate!
  • This park was free to get into!
  • Proximity to the beach!

Cons:

  • Distance from a major city – these parks are not very close to a large city with an airport. Be prepared for several hours of scenic driving from the nearest airports.
  • Carsick – I got extremely carsick on the drive. There are so many winding roads over mountains. Be sure to bring Dramamine if you suffer from motion sickness.
  • Very spotty cell service
  • Address: 1111 Second St.
  •                 Crescent City, CA 95531
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/redw/index.htm
  • Phone: 707-464-6101
  • Entrance Fee: Free Entrance
  • Annual Visitors: 700,000
  • Best Time to Visit: May – September

Check back soon to read more about our visit to Redwood National Park!

1. Rocky Mountain National Park

Emerald Lake

Coming in at number 1 is Rocky Mountain National Park! RMNP is in northern Colorado and here you will find stunning mountain peaks, forests, the alpine tundra, aspen trees, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and an assortment of wildlife for your viewing pleasure! There’s also 355 miles of hiking trails for all skill levels.

Our Rocky Mountain National Park favorites

  • Emerald Lake Hike – 3.6 miles roundtrip
  • Alberta Falls Hike – 1.6 miles roundtrip
  • Sprague Lake – 0.5 mile loop
  • Trail Ridge Road

We visited RMNP over the summer last year and had the most amazing trip! This park has inspired us to specifically plan destinations and road trips to other National Parks across the country. I feel like there is something for everyone here, whether you’re an avid hiker ready to conquer a mountain or just want to drive through the Park and witness the views and wildlife from the comfort of your car. If you get the chance visit, take it! I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Along the hike to Emerald Lake

Pros:

  • Wildlife – Abundance of wildlife that you can view, even from your car!
  • Convenient location – We enjoyed the town of Estes Park
  • Sheer beauty of the mountains and entire landscape

Cons:

  • Timed entry tickets required for summer visits (between May-October)
  • Crowds – it can be extremely crowded in the summer
  • Bathrooms – some of the worst Park bathrooms we have ever seen… or smelled!
  • Address: 1000 US Hwy 36
  •                 Estes Park, CO 80517                
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm
  • Phone: 970-586-1206
  • Entrance Fee: $35 per vehicle (pass good for 7 days)
  • Annual Visitors: 4.5 million
  • Best Time to Visit: November – April

Click here to read more about our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park!

Every Kid Outdoors Pass:

Did you know that all 4th grade students are eligible to get an Every Kid Outdoors pass that allows free entry to America’s National Parks? Not only does your 4th grader get in free, but so does your entire vehicle! Be sure to click here if you have a 4th grader to get more information and to register for your student’s free pass! We took advantage of this pass last year and were able to visit 3 National Parks for free!

America the Beautiful Pass:

Now that our child is older, he’s not eligible for the Every Kid Outdoors pass, so we decided to go ahead and purchase the American the Beautiful pass for $80. We have plans to visit several Parks this year, so it will actually save us some money and time in line! Click here to learn more about this pass!

Thank you for taking the time to read this information! Be sure to follow the blog our travels on Instagram!

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