Stacey Leasca is an award-winning journalist. Her photos, videos, and words have appeared in print or online for Travel + Leisure, Time, Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many more. You'll usually find her in an airport. If you do see her there, please say hello.
As far as classic American vacations go, it doesn’t get much better than a visit to a national park. These parks, found in 30 states and stretching for millions of acres through arid deserts, lush forests, icy mountains, and the crystalline waters of the tropics, provide travelers with precisely what they need: inspiration. And in a time like now, it’s no surprise that people are flocking to these outdoor bastions of hope. In 2021, total recreational visitors to the national parks system (including national forests, monuments, and scenic byways) hit nearly 300 million.
Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. U.S. national parks were rated on their natural attractions, activities, lodging, wildlife, accessibility, and cleanliness.
Travel + Leisure readers once again narrowed their focus to national parks in the American West, including Yosemite National Park in California, home to Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, and Katmai National Park in Alaska, which visitors raved over for its awe-inspiring views and ability to thrill. "Flying into this amazing park and walking along paths where grizzlies are also walking was one of the most amazing experiences of my life," one reader noted.
Though President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service on Aug. 25, 1916, the first U.S. National Park actually predates that. Yellowstone National Park — this year’s No. 1 choice — was created by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. Learn more about what makes this park so fantastic, and find out which other national parks made the cut, below.
March 1, 2022, marked the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. It's a destination that seems to just get better — and more precious to protect — with time. It's a place where endangered animals and rare natural attractions abound, including more than 500 geysers. To help ensure this space remains the same for generations to come, the park set out "five major strategic priorities" in 2019, each meant to support the National Park Service's mission and each "critical to Yellowstone's success." The priorities include strengthening the Yellowstone ecosystem, delivering a world-class visitor experience through interactive exhibits, celebrating the Indigenous people who call the area home, and more. The park gained high praise from readers thanks to its wildlife, accessibility, and natural attractions, which are all well taken care of so this park can remain a reader's top choice for years to come.
More information: nps.gov/yell/
The mountaintops seem to graze the heavens at this gorgeous national park. Home to an array of wildlife, including its fair share of moose and more than 300 species of birds, Grand Teton is one that will take your breath away (and not just because of the altitude).
More information: nps.gov/grte
Yosemite, a wilderness that covers 1,200 square miles, is worthy of endless exploration: wander through its plains, marvel at its waterfalls, and catch a glimpse of Half Dome at sunset.
More information: nps.gov/yose
Attention, hikers: Rocky Mountain National Park is the park for you. Its 415 square miles include more than 300 miles of hiking trails that traverse diverse landscapes, from flower fields to craggy mountains.
More information: nps.gov/romo
In 1910, when the park was first established, it was home to nearly 150 glaciers. Today, however, they are quickly melting into history, with just a few dozen remaining. Head there soon to catch a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse and spot a few fossils from the Cretaceous age.
More information: nps.gov/glac
Let the majesty of Zion take your breath away. From its gorgeous sandstone cliffs to its narrow slot canyons, Zion is a place that leaves hearts pumping. "Wow, the views," one reader wrote. "The narrows were amazing. We hiked about 2.5 miles back with our three kids. They were begging to keep going. This will be a fond memory for all time."
More information: nps.gov/zion
Katmai may be a gorgeous place, but it's not just all looks and no fun. The national park is home to thousands of brown bears, which are celebrated during the beloved Fat Bear Week each year, when a chunky new boy or girl is crowned the winner.
More information: nps.gov/katm
You don't need a special machine to time-travel; you just need to head to the Kenai Fjords. It's a space where the Ice Age still feels like the present reality and where visitors can trek across glaciers and spot moose, coyotes, and beavers along the way.
More information: nps.gov/kefj
Sure, you may need to train a little to prepare to hike through the Great Smoky Mountains, but you may want to work out your "ooh" and "ahh" muscles as well, because this park is chock-full of astonishing vistas. "The Great Smoky Mountains is my favorite place to visit," one reader shared. "The scenery is awesome, the wildlife is plentiful and easy to spot, and there are so many attractions to visit. There is no place on Earth I would rather be."
More information: nps.gov/grsm
Social distancing has always been the name of the game at Olympic National Park. With nearly 1 million acres, it's a spot you can roam for days without another soul in sight.
More information: nps.gov/olym
Not all national parks are made up of rugged mountains and pine trees. Just look to Virgin Islands National Park as the perfect example. This park is made up of sugar-sand beaches and bright-blue water. Go explore its coral reefs — just don't forget to bring some reef-safe sunscreen.
More information: nps.gov/viss
The views in Denali National Park seem to go on for days — and that's because they do. With 6 million acres, the park is massive. Still, it's hard to miss its main attraction, Denali, which is North America's tallest peak at 20,310 feet.
More information: nps.gov/dena
Take a dip in one of the country's best national parks. Isle Royale offers water enthusiasts, including boaters, kayakers, and even scuba divers, something to rave about thanks to its Lake Superior access, which makes it the ideal spot to spend hot Michigan summers.
More information: nps.gov/isro
Though it's not the oldest park, the Grand Canyon could be the poster child for all the others. Its dramatic views, incredible hiking trails, and rugged rivers make it a picture-perfect destination any time of year.
More information: nps.gov/grca
Need more space to roam? Glacier Bay National Park covers 3.3 million acres and is part of a 25-million-square-mile World Heritage Site, which makes it one of the world's largest protected areas. You could return every day for a lifetime and never see enough.
More information: nps.gov/glba
Never heard of Voyageurs? That's what makes it so great. "Beautiful and off-the-beaten-path park in pristine wilderness, with few visitors," one reader said. "Most of the park is the lake, so a boat or kayak is a must. Wildlife such as deer, bald eagles, loons, and lots of fish are abundant. Unbeatable sunrise and sunset views. Lodging is limited, but it is an excellent camping destination."
More information: nps.gov/voya
If you love your national parks with a side of danger, Rainier is for you. At the center of it all is Mount Rainier, a still-active volcano. But don't let that fool you — this park also comes with plentiful wildflower meadows and colorful treetops to remind you of Mother Nature's softer side.
More information: nps.gov/mora
Remind yourself how small you really are by paying a visit to Sequoia National Park. Home to towering giants, this park allows you to meander through the Sequoia groves and feel the wonderment of 3,000-year-old trees.
More information: nps.gov/seki
Acadia has long been a T+L reader favorite for one main reason: It's absolutely stunning. "It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen so far," one reader said. "There is so much to do, and my whole family loved the adventure. We did hiking, trekking, went on the lobster boat, and dined in many amazing restaurants."
More information: nps.gov/acad
Walk one of the favorite paths of President Teddy Roosevelt. The park is the living embodiment of his conservation efforts and is a place where you can still see buffalo roam free.
More information: nps.gov/thro
If the giant sequoias weren't enough, then it's time to make your way to Redwood National Forest, home to the tallest trees on the planet. See the trees, then take to the park's coastal edges for an equally alluring view.
More information: nps.gov/redw
North Cascades National Park is the spot to be if you need your parks packed with a variety of views and ecosystems. Find mountains, emerald-green lakes, meadows, and forests all in one spot.
More information: nps.gov/noca
Located close to the nation's capital, Shenandoah makes for an easy escape for city dwellers. "There's always something new to see or do," one reader said. "The fall colors are usually spectacular."
More information: nps.gov/shen
Oh, you don't know what a "hoodoo" is? Head to Bryce Canyon to learn all about it. Hoodoos are irregular columns of rock, and you'll find Earth's largest concentration of them in this park.
More information: nps.gov/brca
The saguaro cactus is a sight to behold. This towering behemoth can reach up to 16 feet tall and live for more than a century. In this park, you can pay your respects to many of them — just don't get too close, as they will leave you with thorny reminders of their presence.
More information: nps.gov/sagu
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