A Guide To U.S. Must-See National Parks

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Stay at home orders? Curfews? Social distancing and masks? Sometimes it can seem as if Covid has prevented us from doing much of anything. So, is there anything we can do in these socially restricting times?

Well, actually, yes. In fact the introduction of a pandemic to our formerly normal lives has opened a variety of doors, not as seemingly accessible prior. Time has gone from a priceless asset holed up in responsibilities and day-to-day errands, to a priceless asset with a capacity for being spent in other, more self-oriented ways. With that abundance of good ol’ selfish time, one activity people have found themselves doing is visiting some of the United States’ natural wonders. Exploring the diverse national parks that make up the U.S has become a dream fulfilling possibility for many. This guide will take you through the best parks to plan a Covid-Plan B trip around.

1. Yosemite

Yes I know it’s your screensaver if you, like me, never changed it since buying your Macbook, but I promise this place has even greater value in person. Established in 1890 as a national park, this 1,200 square mile section of eastern California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range does not disappoint. From expansive ranges of sequoias, to towering cliffs of granite, to lush meadows divided up by flowing streams and rivers within glacial hills and valleys, I think you get the idea. If all that sounds decent, you and I have some similarities and I think you should keep reading. If not, well nature might just not be your game so check out:

All anyone wants is a solid resumé and if you’re a national park, Yosemite might be who you’d model after. It’s the classic answer to “what is your greatest weakness?”… having too many strengths, obviously. Yosemite Valley boasts an array of natural wonders including 2,425 ft tall Yosemite Falls, the 3,000 ft walls of El Capitan, 500 ancient Sequoias that make up Mariposa Grove, and of course, screensaver worthy Half Dome. The best part is that all of these highlights have roadside access points as well as modifications so that anyone can enjoy the vistas. Tunnel View parking lot by Route 41 north of Wawona provides breathtaking views of Half Dome and El Capitan for those of us who think smarter, not harder. For those of us who revel in the thrill of  hiking and exploration, the 800 miles of trails and 95% of the park designated as undeveloped wilderness should suit your needs just fine.

Now I bet you’re thinking, this is great and all, but why are you telling me this in the dead of winter? Well, the silent, snow-covered wonderland that is Yosemite in the Winter, yields some of the fewest crowds of any season. But, it also makes sense to plan ahead for trips like this, and early Spring has small crowds too despite it featuring the largest waterfall volume and river flows. The truth is, really, there isn’t a bad time to visit this incredible place with every season offering something new, and unlike Covid, this is something you can actually plan for.

For more specifics regarding lodging, eats, hikes, activities and directions, check out this awesome guide from AARP:

2. Yellowstone

geyser within mountain range during daytime

I came along
I wrote a song (blog) for you
And all the things you (can) do
And it was called “Yellow” (stone)
– “Yellow” – Coldplay (revised version)

Singing aside, as the country (and world’s) oldest national park circa 1872, this iconic piece of the American West has more variability in its scenery than Chris Martin does in his vocal range. If you aren’t following these Coldplay references, no worries, if anything they’re for me.

The geological diversity of Yellowstone paired with that within its wildlife is a sight spectacular for those interested in… well, actually it doesn’t really matter what you’re interested in; this will impress you. Like Yosemite (carved by glaciers), but unlike Yosemite (sitting on top of a volcano), Yellowstone looks as if God himself had a creative urge whilst painting the United States and decided on a splatter paint method. But thermal pools and geysers aren’t the only natural wonders. From bison, to elk, to mule deer, to antelope, and even the rare but occasional moose, wolf, big horn sheep, black bear or grizzly bear, prepare to see some of North America’s largest and most iconic mammals. Additionally, for any ornithologists out there, it’s a dream come true.

Due to the results of precipitation met with superheated underground temperatures from magma, Yellowstone claims home to the largest concentration of thermal features in the world as well as half of the world’s geysers. These colorful pools populated by thermophiles which give them their colors, spot Yellowstone’s rocky surface creating a scene akin to something out of a Sci-Fi flick. If you stay up to date with the geyser eruption cycles and time it right, you’ll have a good shot of watching water explode into steam out of some of these! And being home to over half the world’s geysers, this isn’t a farfetched hope.

Now, if my writing has had an indelible impression on you (I know, how could it not?) and you’re thinking, “I want to go to Yellowstone, NOW”, I have some good and bad news for you. The good news is that in the winter season, Yellowstone yields small crowds, serene snow-covered landscapes, and the opportunity to see the park on guided snowmobile tours. The bad news is that it’s winter. It’s cold and most of the park is closed to the public unless you’re on a snowmobile tour, or only visiting the Northwestern most portion of the park. Now I know that deep down you all want to race through trees at high speeds on a death machine, so this might be great news actually. Unfortunately, in actuality, the guides take you at moderate speeds on the wide roads that weave throughout Yellowstone, providing a safe and unique way to view the park (I know, lame right?). If you would like to see the awe-inspiring Mammoth Hot Springs and check out the Northwestern point of the park, that section remains open to vehicle access through the winter. Otherwise, probably best you wait until Spring, Summer and Fall.

With weekly passes to see the park at $25 per vehicle, a trip to Yellowstone is very financially reasonable. A pro of the national parks in the U.S. is that they are meant to be seen. For only $80 you can purchase a one-year national park pass that grants you unlimited access (for two people) to every park in the country. There is plenty of lodging available within the park, but for a more affordable stay, look to towns on the outskirts of the park like Gardiner, MT and Jackson Hole, WY. Lastly, for those not too keen on hiking, fortunately there is roadside access to the walkways of most of the park’s biggest attractions. From the comfort of your car you can access Castle Geyser, Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone Lake, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Blue Star Spring, Hayden Valley, Minerva Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley, Fishing Cone, Old Faithful, and experience the scenic drive between Madison and West Yellowstone.

For more info on an in-depth trip to Yellowstone, check out this great guide from Thrillist:

3. Zion

man wearing yellow shirt standing on edge of cliff facing rock formations

Mormon settlers in the late 1800’s hit the nail on the head when they landed on Zion as the name for this incredible park. A conglomeration of some of the most spectacular and varying kinds of terrain, it’s easy to see why these Mormon settlers told of a spiritual connection within its walls. It’s also why you see so many of Zion’s greatest feats titled with religious reference. But Mormons weren’t the first ones to explore the significance of Zion. In fact, inhabitants of Zion date all the way back to the mammoth-tracking peoples of 6,000 B.C. It has always served as a place of refuge, peace, prosperity, hope and well, sustainability, as Zion hosts a plethora of water sources and wildlife.

So, what does Zion have that the above parks don’t? Well, if it were up to me, I would say everything on this list is more than worthy of a visit and if you have the time, try to hit them all. But, what I love about Zion specifically, is that it fields so many skilled players of different positions. It’s like if you made an all-star team for the coolest bits of terrain in the United States. Because the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert all converge in this Southwestern corner of Utah, the result is a landscape rich with colorful canyons, cliffs, mesas, hoodoos, rivers, creeks, caves, and wildlife. These features, shaped over thousands and thousands of years by wind, ice, volcanic activity, seismic uplift and the extreme pressure from the Virgin River, are amazing sights to behold. The thunderous Virgin River carves its way through the park, cutting deep into rock, and deepening Zion Canyon every year.

Visiting Zion does require a bit of preparation, but don’t fret. Firstly, to get the cautionary info out of the way, because of Zion’s steep cliffs, deep canyons and many waterways, it’s important to track the precipitation forecast for the area you’ll be visiting and the canyon’s source point. The National Weather Service’s flash-flood-potential rating is a great resource. Secondly, getting around Zion is a gorgeous, but sometimes long process. To get into Zion canyon on your own, you will need to take SR-9 as it bends towards the East entrance, but you may run into limited parking south of Canyon Junction. Luckily there is a shuttle system to solve such issues and avoid traffic buildups. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is limited to shuttle use and to those staying at Zion Lodge, the only lodging option within the park, from mid-March through October, November weekends, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Presidents’ Day. Two free shuttles are available to catch, one that makes multiple stops in the town of Springdale, and another that runs the length of Zion Canyon.

Depending on what kind of experience you’re looking to get out of Zion, the season in which you visit will matter. Winter, like the other parks, yields fewer crowds and starkly contrasting vistas of bleach white snow on deep red cliffs. Parts of the park will close due to snow accumulation, but Zion Canyon remains open. Spring begins the resurgence of life and activity within the park, both from nature and tourism. While wildflowers emerge from under the snow and thawing results in a thunderous Virgin River, tourists begin to trickle in and the popular Narrows area of the canyon is closed to hikers. Summer results in high temperatures and larger crowds, making visits to upper elevation features such as Kolob Canyons and Kolob Terrace as well as lower elevation features such as the Narrows a good idea. Fall gives way to gorgeous foliage, comfortable temperatures and moderate crowds. November marks the end of Fall, where the leaves disappear and a layer of frost takes over, providing a still pretty and not crowded visit. Regardless of when you go, you’re sure to feel the same soul touching forces felt by those thousands of years before.

If you go, be sure to also check out Bryce Canyon and Arches national parks which live in close proximity to Zion.

Give this great guide from “Outside” a read if you’re interested in planning a detailed trip to Zion:

4. Glacier

You thought I was going to leave out the great state of Montana? Not only is Montana home to over half of the Grizzly Bears that still exist in the lower 48 United States, it also is a natural wonderland. No you don’t have to worry about being attacked by Smokey Bear, but if you plan on doing any hikes, carrying bear spray and making noise while you walk is important. Glacier earns its name from being one of the few places in the contiguous United States where you can view our planet’s endangered glaciers. This truly spectacular bubble of the U.S. has been referred to as the “Switzerland of North America”, due to its gorgeous sapphire and turquoise lakes tucked in-between massive, sharp cliffs. The accolades don’t end there though, as Glacier is also known for its exuberant wildlife scene, boasting an array of animals such as lynx, elk, wolves, wolverines and of course, grizzly bears.

One of the reasons why Glacier lands at the top of my list is because of its accessibility. It doesn’t require much exertion to experience the breathtaking views here. I’m not usually one to skimp out on a good sized hike if the views are worth the walk, but if we’re being logical, why break even when you could make a profit? The scale of physical exertion to visual stimulus tips towards the latter at Glacier. You can get out and hike 1-3 mile trails rated easy to moderate and see amazing things. Walk the 1 mile flat Trail of Cedars and view Avalanche Gorge, or check out Hidden Lake Overlook, a beautiful overlook of a lake within rock spires inhabited by mountain goats and bighorn sheep, or try the 1.7 mile trail at St. Mary Falls and witness these turquoise falls in all their glory, or don’t hike at all! Possibly the best part about Glacier National Park is Going-To-The-Sun road. This 50 mile stretch of road weaves through mountains and the Continental Divide and really feels like you are on top of the world. To drive the full length of the road takes about 2 hours with some traffic, but trust me, this is maybe one of the only places you will be thankful for traffic. Particularly noteworthy sections include Logan Pass and Wild Goose Island, which you may recognize if you’ve seen The Shining. In addition to this iconic drive, other must do activities include boat tours on at least one of the many lakes in Glacier (I would suggest Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park), kayaking (Swiftcurrent Lake is a prime spot), and partaking on a famous Red Bus Tour in one of Glacier’s vintage 1930s style buses from their personal fleet.

There are a couple of logistical notes to consider for Glacier. The first is that, unlike the other parks, Glacier does have a prime time slot in which to visit. The Going-To-The-Sun road is only open from late June to mid October. Also, blizzards are common through the winter up until early spring and can begin again as early as late summer. For these reasons, July and early/mid August are the best times to plan a trip (depending on your visitation goals of course). Second, lodging options within the park are in beautiful locations, but they are rustic so don’t expect anything fancy. Honestly, I think this adds to the aesthetic of the park and fits the vibe, but keep it in mind so you aren’t caught off guard.

Besides that, get excited because this is probably the most spectacular natural wonder in all of the continental United States.

I thought these two guides combined give a good idea of what else exists in Glacier and detail how to plan a full trip:

5. Acadia National Park

green trees near body of water under white clouds during daytime

A more digestible park than those aforementioned, Acadia is a gorgeous coastal pocket in the Northeast where forest meets ocean. Named after French settlers who were expelled from Atlantic Canada by the British, Acadia’s granite cliffs collide with misty ocean tides, and evergreen woodlands surround glacially carved oceanic pools to create a fairytale picture. With tons of easy to moderate hiking and walking trails, as well as ocean view drives, beaches and quaint towns, it is a prime getaway in summer and fall. Compared to the other parks listed, Acadia is relatively small in its above-ground geological feats, but this doesn’t make it any less impressive. Part of what makes Acadia a special product is its intersection of mountain, forest and ocean. Where you can’t see mountains that graze heaven’s gates, you can see endless amounts of ocean drop off into the horizon. Where you can’t see a 250 ft sequoia tree, you can boat through a 250 ft deep crater sculpted by a glacier years before that’s now full of ocean water. This is a coastal wonder, so get on your crow’s nest because you won’t want to miss the sunrise from here.

Cadillac Mountain is a must visit and probably the most popular destination for newbie park goers at Acadia. It is the tallest mountain on the Atlantic coast of the United States and due to its height and positioning, one of the first places in the United States to see the sunrise. You’ll need to get up early and plan to arrive 30 minutes before sunrise to ensure you get a parking spot. Or you could pull out the walking sticks and make the trek with headlamps. If you do plan on driving, you might as well carry on after sunrise into the Park Loop Road. This 27-mile loop through Mount Desert Island connects multiple hot spots in Acadia such as Sand Beach, and provides scenic views along the way. For dining, shopping and lodging, be sure to explore one of the east coast’s most quintessential towns: Bar Harbor. There isn’t much use in describing all the other must-sees in the park as there are so many that are easily accessible and within close proximity to one another, but I will list a few more essentials in what I refer to as a speed round.

Thunder Hole for the thrill seekers, Jordan Pond House for the foodies, Carriage Roads for the history buffs, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse for the artists, Echo Lake for the introverts, and Schoodic Point for the captains.

Logistically, Acadia Park is very easy, especially for those living in the Northeast, but even so, be sure to check out this guide from Earth Trekkers for a complete picture of how to do it right under your constraints:


In conclusion, there is no right or wrong, no “better than the other”, no “see this but not that”. In conclusion, all these places are special in their own right and all more than worth a visit. It can be easy to stay in your pocket of the U.S., but I encourage you to get out and explore some of these natural wonders, as they lend a gorgeous pallet to this country. In 2020, Covid has shut many doors, but in so doing, opened a few and this is one of them. I hope you got something out of this read and if this motivates you to plan a trip to one or more of these amazing spots, I will be ecstatic. Please be sure to check park modifications amidst Covid regulations and stay safe. Best of luck on your travels and let us wish for a positive 2021!

brown animal on brown field during daytime

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