First thing’s first: we could NEVER rank the national parks. After visiting them all with our kids, our favorites are based purely on our experiences in them. They are biased by the weather, the crowds, our moods, where we camped, the hikes we did as a family and, probably most of all, how much time we had. When we talk to other people about their favorite parks, familiarity and how long they’ve spent in a park seems to be a big factor in why they love it so much.
I include that caveat because we don’t think our favorite parks are better than the others—they are just, for whatever reason, the ones we enjoyed overall the most.
I guess we’re sensitive about this because, having spent time learning about each park, we know that every single one was fought for and is deeply loved by loads of people. One of my favorite ranger programs from our trip was in Hot Springs National Park; after hearing from lots of people that it was lame and undeserving of the NP designation, we walked around it with a ranger who was excited and passionate, who knew Hot Springs’ history and was absolutely stoked to be able to tell people about it. We genuinely loved that park, and we genuinely loved every other park we’d heard was “meh.” One of the first lessons we learned on our trip was to reserve judgment.
Redwood National and State Parks
This park has everything going for it: beaches, wildlife, history, jurassic landscapes, and ancient groves of giant trees. It’s accessible (right off the 101) and has a good mix of activities, from backcountry hiking to short loop trails. It’s also the perfect place to receive a primer on conservation issues, since the struggle to preserve old-growth Redwoods was recent and vicious. Combined with the surrounding state parks up and down the coast, there’s just so much to enjoy here, from Gold Bluffs Beach to Fern Canyon to Howland Hill Road to Stout Grove.
Redwood is also (and this surprised me) one of the less-visited parks (in 2017, it was #40 in visitation out of the 59), so it’s very quiet considering how iconic it is. This was one of the first parks we visited (the fifth, to be exact) and it was here that we first sort of cracked into the kind of experience we wanted to have at each park, from participating in ranger programs to digging into history to taking large chunks of time to set up in one place, relax and take in our surroundings.
Glacier National Park
For overwhelming grandeur, it’s hard to beat Glacier National Park. The lower 48’s answer to the brilliant landscapes of Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, Glacier’s views will knock the wind out of you everywhere you look. We experienced so many of our favorite hikes here: from Grinnell Lake to Hidden Lake, the Highline Trail to St. Mary’s Falls. There was wildlife galore—we saw bear, fighting bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and deer and had close encounters with a few moose. Smoke from a wildfire in the park filtered the light and made everything soft and pink and dreamy, and David caught his first glimpse of the Northern Lights one night while he was up late taking pictures. This place is just beyond imagining.
Acadia National Park
Acadia was love at first sight for us. We visited in October and had perfect weather, brilliant fall colors, one of our favorite hikes ever—on Precipice Trail—, one of our favorite bike rides ever—around Witch Hole Pond—, and ridiculously pleasant beach and tide-pooling experiences. Acadia is a perfect national park, plus it’s one of the East Coast’s few NP’s, which makes it even more of a treasure.
Katmai and Lake Clark
In terms of peak life experiences, Katmai is definitely on the short list for us and what was especially great was that we were aware of that fact the whole time we were there. Nowhere in the world gives you such easy and close access to coastal brown bears and because we happened to be there at an especially fortuitous time, there was a kind of strange alchemy to our visit to Brooks Camp—a combination of abundant bears and scarce crowds and interesting people and a gorgeously peaceful beach to camp on—and I felt like I was overflowing the whole time we were there.
We visited Lake Clark immediately after Katmai and our time there was not fortuitous at all—David blew out his knee and we had to cancel our backpacking plans in favor of pitching a tent next to the airstrip in town. But through a different lens, it was perfect. We got to know a handful of people in the tiny fly-in town of Port Alsworth and they were all so warm and lovely as to make you believe in humanity all over again. Plus the hike we did get in was endlessly lovely, and our bush flights in and out of the park were, hands-down, some of the most majestic moments of our entire trip. Plus Lake Clark introduced us to the Wilder family, who joined us for our final two parks the next summer—Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley—and made every moment so, so enjoyable.
This is the biggest cheat of all because Utah has 5 National Parks—but we really, honestly couldn’t choose just one. And considering the arbitrariness of park boundaries and that each of Utah’s parks highlights facets of the same geology, we don’t feel like we need to choose just one. Each is wonderful—full of multi-hued rock, arches, buttes, spires, hoodoos, fins, canyons and pioneer history. More than any other parks we visited, these ones make us feel at home. One of the things we learned on this trip is that we are desert people—the desert makes us feel clean and happy and whole—and of any spot in the U.S., I think we’re most likely to end up moving near one of the Utah parks.
Official Sites: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion
Also, Check out our post about Dinosaur National Monument
Yosemite & Kings Canyon
Yosemite was the first land set aside for protection simply for its natural beauty, and though it was second to become a national park (after Yellowstone), it set the standard and the precedent for American conservation. It’s also one of the most famous and visited of the national parks, and we were more than intimidated to try to tackle it in a week. You really could spend a lifetime exploring this park and still have plenty left over to do; we packed our week with activities and barely, barely scratched the surface.
Still, our time in Yosemite was one of the more peaceful parts of our trip, even with the inevitable crowds. Maybe it’s the experience of being dwarfed, everywhere you go, by monolithic slabs of granite and sweeping views, but for us the noise and busyness was absorbed in the grandeur of this place and we relished every minute there.
Even so, the crowds could be a drag at times. But the cure lay just a few miles south, where Kings Canyon National Park exhibits much of the same otherworldly beauty as Yosemite, but with far fewer people. We explored the canyon and beautiful Zumwalt Meadow, swam in the river, ran into the fluffiest little bear cub and his mom while hiking in Redwood Canyon, and experienced terrific sunsets over the valley. This was our favorite place to experience giant sequoias, too.
Though Sequoia NP borders Kings Canyon and the two parks are largely managed together, for some reason we had a much, much better experience in Kings Canyon. Sequoia was one of the only parks where everyone there seemed kinda surly and it really detracted from our experience. But beauty-wise, it’s on par with Kings Canyon for sure and we want to go back and experience it with a little more savvy so we can hopefully avoid the salty people and have a better time.
Official Sites: Yosemite, Kings Canyon
Cheating here, pretty majorly because Florida has 3 NP’s, but they are a real triumvirate of goodness and if you’re visiting one, you might as well throw in the other two as well, right?? In Biscayne, we had one of our happiest afternoons EVER, paddling in the bay with scads of manatees, aka the baked potatoes of the sea. In Everglades, we had some of our trip’s best wildlife experiences, seeing loads of alligators, crocodiles and incredible bird life.
We also learned more about conservation here than perhaps in any other park, plus we saw some of the best sunsets of our lives and spent a balmy Christmas paddling through the mangroves of Nine Mile Pond (and avoiding a sinister-looking croc). But maybe our favorite of the three was the remote and glorious Dry Tortugas—a tiny park jam-packed with history, incredible views, world-class snorkeling and sea life, this park is right at the top of our list of parks we’re looking forward to revisiting and spending more time.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
There are a several NP’s with major cave systems you can visit: Wind Cave and Mammoth Cave, of course, but also Great Basin, Sequoia, and Hawaii Volcanoes (to name a few!) But even though we absolutely loooooooved every cave visit, our favorite of them all was Carlsbad Caverns. Highly decorated, accessible and mind-blowing in scale, with incredible history to boot, this park made for an incredibly fun (and inspiring! Slow drips can have great impact over time!) visit. Making our way down into the cave through the Natural Entrance was a highlight, as were the terrific ranger tours we took here. We were there too early in the season for it, but we’re dying to come back to watch a bat flight program here, where hundreds of thousands of bats fly out of the cave at sunset to hunt for the night!
Death Valley National Park
As I’ve mentioned, we’re desert people, so we knew we’d love this park. We had no idea how very much we’d love it, though: WE LOVE IT A LOT. Death Valley is a place of extremes: the largest national park outside of Alaska, the lowest elevation in North America, and the driest place in the U.S., with the highest recorded temperature on Earth: 134 F, and that was in the shade.
It’s also incredibly varied: the park encompasses elevations from 200 feet below sea level to over 11,000 ft. on Telescope Peak; the topography ranges widely, from salt flats to juniper-covered mountains, sand dunes and badlands to dolomite-walled slot canyons. We had a snowball fight in Wildrose Canyon and the next day nearly melted in the heat of Badwater’s salt-pan floor. We had a longer-than-our-usual visit to Death Valley and were mostly out of touch with the world, which made for an immersive, present experience that quickly became a favorite for us.
Petrified Forest National Park
In terms of surprises on our trip, nothing quite matches the delight of discovering Petrified Forest. Before our visit, we’d heard basically nothing about it, so we went in with no expectations; what we found was a wonderland of multi-hued badlands, accessible off-trail hiking, petroglyphs and native history and, of course, the gorgeous, eponymous petrified wood. There’s so much to experience in Petrified Forest but unlike many of the parks, it feels manageable; it’s also terrific for kids since, other than the petroglyphs, the natural resources here are durable and can be handled. Graham and Margie loved being able to climb around on petrified logs and hold bits of trees that are hundreds of millions of years old.
Virgin Islands National Park
Visiting Virgin Islands National Park just a few months after it was ravaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria was a really incredible experience. Because we’d been raising money for hurricane relief prior to our visit, and because we’d spent a lot of time learning about its history and people, we landed on the island of St. John with our hearts and minds wide open.
We planned to spend our time there volunteering with cleanup, but quickly learned that the park didn’t need unskilled labor (we’re a little embarrassed we thought it would), but it very much needed visitation to bounce back. As some of the only tourists on the island, our hikes and beach visits were near-solitary experiences; in town, we were able to talk with and connect with a lot of locals, learning about their experiences with the hurricanes and being buoyed by their overwhelming positivity. This was also the site of Graham’s first-ever snorkel and the place where we met our very favorite park ranger, Ranger Shoemaker :). The whole island is an enormously special place.
National Park of American Samoa
If there’s one park that embedded itself in our hearts most firmly, to the point of (I don’t want to say it for fear of being over-dramatic, but it’s also true) being life-changing, it’s American Samoa. The natural beauty here is impossible to overstate: it’s dramatic and wild, full of volcanic peaks, soft white sand, fascinating wildlife, rugged coastline, tropical fruit trees, and one of the healthiest coral reefs in the world. But what really sets it apart is its warm, happy and community-minded culture.
Together with our visit to Western Samoa, this trip to the middle of the Pacific made us think so much about what we wanted the culture of our family to be, and how we wanted travel to fit into that. We committed to the idea of moving more slowly through the world, making people our priority, and filling our lives with things we love. Our three weeks in the Samoas is one of the happiest points in my life that I can remember, and this national park will always have the warmest of spots in my heart.