From bat caves and coral reefs to molten volcanoes and craggy canyons, the National Park Service oversees some of the most extraordinarily epic destinations on the planet, each boasting its own singular beauty, ecosystem, activities, and wildlife. Of the 63 main national parks spread across the U.S., from the smoky mountains of Tennessee to the equally smoky volcanoes of Hawaii, all offer unique splendors and experiences — but a select few rise to the coveted crop of “must-see.” As you plan your 2023 national park plans, here are 14 destinations that deserve top billing on any life-changing bucket list.
These 14 National Parks are Must-See Destinations
1. The Popular One: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Year over year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park reigns as the most visited national park in the nation — and the competition isn’t even close. The latest numbers put the park, which spans the Tennessee-North Carolina border, at upwards of 14 million annual visitors, far surpassing the rest of the competition (Zion, in second place, clocks about 5 million). Naturally, any park that draws five times as many visitors as Dollywood has got to be worth a look. Indeed, there are myriad reasons to visit this Appalachian wonderland, a haven of soaring peaks, misty valleys, cascading waterfalls, luminous foliage, and scenic byways that zig and zag through some of the most iconic mountains on the east coast. Fishing, horseback riding, and biking are also popular pastimes in the Smokies, while some of the more immersive treks include trails like Alum Cave Bluffs, Rainbow Falls, and Chimney Tops, the latter being one of the most popular trails in the park, rewarding hikers with staggering views after its 1,400-foot ascent.
2. The O.G.: Yellowstone National Park
Great Smoky Mountains might be the most visited national park, but Yellowstone takes the cake as the original — not only was this massive 2.2-million acre park the first of its kind in the U.S., but it was the first national park in the whole world when it was designated in 1872. In addition to being the original national park, and among the most visited in the nation, it’s also home to some of the most iconic sights and wildlife in the country. Truly surreal and mesmerizing, like nothing seen elsewhere on Earth, Yellowstone is an over-the-top crowd-pleaser for its explosive geysers, kaleidoscopic hot springs, mighty rivers, and enormous Yellowstone Lake, the largest highest-elevation lake in North America with some 110 miles of shimmering shoreline. Said lake sits nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, over the enormous Yellowstone Caldera that formed the entire park and gave the terrain its molten topography. The park truly offers something for everyone, from arduous mountain hikes and paddling to bucket list stopovers like Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — not to mention Jurassic Park-level wildlife such as bison, grizzly bears, wolves, elk, swans, otters, bald eagles, and foxes.
Livingston / Paradise Valley KOA Holiday
Red Lodge KOA Journey
Cody KOA Holiday
Dubois / White River KOA Holiday
Yellowstone Park / Mountainside KOA Journey
Yellowstone Park / West Gate KOA
3. The Otherworldly One: Badlands National Park
With a landscape that looks more like another planet than South Dakota, Badlands National Park is full of unexpected — and wildly underrated — surprises. Nestled in the western portion of the state, about an hour from the Black Hills and other iconic attractions like Mount Rushmore, the singular Badlands seem to erupt from the Earth abruptly, emerging from an otherwise flat, prairie-like plain like a mini Grand Canyon in all its gnarly, craggy glory. Earthen spires, buttes, and pinnacles comprise the crux of the park, which is one of the rare ones where visitors are allowed to trek off-trail as far as they please (just be mindful of your location, and come fully prepared). Along your adventure, be on the lookout for resident wildlife like bighorn sheep, bison, and prairie dogs.
Badlands / White River KOA Holiday
4. The Desert Dream: Saguaro National Park
A singular sight that epitomizes the American desert, the majestic Saguaro cactus rises resolute over the Sonoran Desert in the Southwest, standing like a skyscraping beacon (up to 60-feet!) amidst a sea of arid mountains, dry river beds, and sun-soaked valleys. The best place to drink in the glory of it all is at Saguaro National Park, a cacti-filled park located on both the east and west sides of Tucson. Both whimsical and staggering, the towering prickly plants are a sight to behold — especially when they dot the horizon as far as the eye can see, lined along mountains and teeming with wildlife like javelinas, roadrunners, and gila monsters. Conveniently accessible to the city, the park is comprised of two main sections, the east and west districts, each with its own trails and views. On the east side, soak it all in on the Cactus Forest Trail, a 10-mile out-and-back jaunt along (mostly) flat desert terrain that boasts some of the densest cacti forests in the entire park. On the west side, meanwhile, hoof it up Wasson Peak, the tallest point on that side of town, with views that are well worth the climb.
Tucson / Lazydays KOA Resort
5. The Urban “Hot” Spot: Hot Springs National Park
Unlike most typified national parks in the country, Hot Springs National Park defies expectations at every turn. For starters, it’s tiny, and it’s mostly an urban park comprised of historic bathhouse buildings, museums, and architecture. It’s also technically one of the oldest national parks in the country, earning federal protection before Yellowstone, and before the notion of national parks was even a thing. Today, the heart of the bustling park is in the downtown portion of the Arkansas city of the same name, anchored by ornate mansion-sized bathhouses along Bathhouse Row. While only two of the vintage bathhouses are still used for old-timey baths, the rest have been divvied into museums, visitor centers, gift shops, a boutique hotel, and even a brewery — the only brewery in the U.S. located within a national park, and the only one that uses thermal hot spring water to make beer. Beyond Bathhouse Row, hike up Hot Springs Mountain for sweeping vistas of the town nicknamed the “Valley of Vapors” for all its billowing, steaming springs.
Hot Springs National Park KOA Holiday
6. The Volcanic One: Haleakalā National Park
For all its far-flung exoticism and mystique, Hawaii in general is a must-see destination filled with one-of-a-kind tropical beauty, pristine beaches, and wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. Of the various national park sites on the islands, though, Maui’s Haleakalā National Park is the kind of jaw-dropping sensation that far exceeds even the highest Hawaiian expectations. The massive park seems to soar above the clouds, especially atop its namesake volcanic mountain, Haleakalā, and at nearly 35,000 acres, it encompasses most of the island of Maui. Visitors can explore the Summit District, the most popular and accessible portion of the park, which is home to Haleakalā mountain and its coveted sunset and sunrise views. The crater is lined with 30 miles worth of epic hikes that descend down into the volcanic wilderness, where you’ll have the chance to see animals like nenes — the Hawaiian goose is the state bird, found nowhere else in the world. Then there’s the more remote Kīpahulu District, home to the extraordinary Road to Hana drive, along with tranquil bamboo forests, jungles, and waterfalls along the Pacific coast.
7. The Underground Labyrinth: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The Batman of national parks, thanks to its cavernous subterranean rooms and hundreds of thousands of bats, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an underground wonder world that needs seeing to be believed. Nestled in southern New Mexico, and among the largest cave systems on the continent (with some of the hugest caverns on Earth, no less), the park is filled with bottomless pits, massive stalactites and stalagmites, crystal-clear cave pools, and a natural entrance trail that descends into the Earth so deep that it’s the equivalent of walking down the entirety of the Empire State Building. Said trail culminates in the Big Room, the largest cave chamber in North America, so big that it can fit two football fields. Ranger-guided cave tours offer a deeper perspective, from old-fashioned lantern-lit tours to harrowing journeys that entail crawling through narrow passageways. In the spring through fall, the park’s massive colony of migratory Brazilian free-tailed bats makes its nightly exit into the evening sky — a truly staggering spectacle to witness from the mouth of the natural entrance.
Carlsbad KOA Holiday
8. The Deep One: Crater Lake National Park
For a volcanic caldera that dives a little deeper, look no further than Oregon’s majestic Crater Lake National Park. Home to the deepest lake in the country, formed from a volcanic eruption — and subsequent mountain collapse — nearly 8,000 years ago, the park protects one of the cleanest and clearest bodies of water on the planet, filled entirely by snow and rain. Today, the cobalt-blue lake makes for an amazing scenic drive, as Rim Drive circles its entirety over the course of 33 awe-inspiring miles. Wizard Island, a volcanic cinder cone on the west end of the lake, is among the park’s most iconic sights, viewable from the drive and from numerous hiking trails. In the warmer months, the Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only area in the park with access right to the shore, whee swimming and fishing are permitted.
Lemolo Lark / Crater Lake North KOA Holiday
9. The Largest One: Death Valley National Park
By sheer size, clocking in at a staggering 3.3-million acres, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the contiguous U.S. Sprawled across southern California, this is a park that’s all about impressive numbers and broken records, including scorching heat and low elevation — it’s infamously the hottest place on the planet, setting the record for highest air temperature ever recorded, 134°F, in 1913 from the Furnace Creek area. Then there’s Badwater Basin, which at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point on the continent. Basically America’s version of the Sahara, the enormous desert has much to see and do, especially in the far-less-scorching winter months. From soaring dunes and cavernous canyons to craters and mountains, there’s a whole world of topography to traverse. While the park features a scant few designated hiking trails, all of it is ripe for exploration. These run the spactrum from easy half-mile outings along the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail to the 14-mile behemoth that is Telescope Peak, which commands 3,000 feet worth of elevation gain.
Lake Isabella / Kern River KOA
10. The Icy One: Glacier National Park
Flanked by stunning scenic roads, crystalline lakes, mountains that look downright Alpine, and its namesake glaciers, Glacier National Park is the kind of place that seems almost too good to be true — more like a cinematic invention than a real-life park hugging the Canadian border in northern Montana. But indeed, this vast primitive wilderness is on par with the greatest of the greats, right up there with Yellowstone, as a must-see national park that packs a punch with its activities, scenery, and wildlife. Home to more than 700 miles of trails, this is a hiker’s paradise, and Going-to-the-Sun Road ranks among the top scenic drives in the country. Popular hiking areas include Lake McDonald and Many Glacier, while other seasonal activities range from cross-country skiing in the winter to rafting, boating, and fishing in the summer.
11. The Heavenly One: Zion National Park
The most visited national park in Utah (and newly the second most visited national park in the country), Zion attracts more than 5 million annual visitors for good reason. Sure it can get as crowded as Disney World here in the summer months, but this surreal landscape merits the attention. It’s so otherworldly and mesmerizing that it’s name, coined by settler Isaac Behunin in the 1800s, is a nod to how heavenly and godly the terrain is, ripe for hiking, camping, rock climbing, repelling, and awe-struck exploration. Among the most renowned treks in the country are The Subway, The Narrows, and Angel’s Landing, the latter of which ascends to heavenly heights and wows with unparalleled views along the way. River trips, biking, and stargazing are among the other famed activities here in Utah’s first national park.
St. George / Hurricane KOA Journey
12. The Mountain Gem: Rocky Mountain National Park
Of all the mountainous national parks, one that stands out as a must-visit icon is Rocky Mountain National Park, a place that feels like America’s very own version of the Alps. Located in northern Colorado and protecting 265,000 acres of the greater Rocky Mountain range, this high-elevation mecca is home to snow-capped peaks, ambling moose, bugling elk, and alpine tundra that soars high above the tree line. Said tundra is best explored via the “Highway to the Sky,” a mind-blowing scenic drive that weaves along the highest continuous paved road in America, linking the two sides of the park: Grand Lake and Estes Park. Naturally, a mountainous dreamscape like this is teeming with opportunities for camping, fishing, snowshoeing, and more than 300 miles worth of hiking trails, from tranquil lakeside jaunts to arduous summit routes, like the nearly 3,000 feet worth of elevation gain to reach Flattop Mountain. The western portion of the park is typically more lush and watery, while the eastern side skews more rugged. With 150 lakes and more than 60 peaks above 12,000 feet, there’s a lot to see and do in this soaring wonderland.
13. The World Wonder: Grand Canyon National Park
As the only national park that’s also one of the seven natural wonders of the world, it goes without saying that Arizona’s most visited national park — and one of the most visited in the country — is a requisite voyage for any nature enthusiast. Despite its almost mythical lore and impossibly high expectations, this is one place that exceeds the hype. No matter how many times you’ve been, the mighty chasm never ceases to stun and awe, especially when viewed at sunset, aglow in tints of orange, red, and pink. While simply marveling at the majesty of it all is enough to impress, there’s much more to see and do at the Grand Canyon that goes beyond the rim, like rafting the Colorado River far below, hiking down into the canyon, and guided mule trips (available year round from the South Rim and from May 15-October 15 from the North Rim).
14. The Instagram Icon: Joshua Tree National Park, California
Due in part to its proximity to see-and-be-seen hot spots like Coachella and Palm Springs, and coupled with its easy road trip proximity to Los Angeles and San Diego, Joshua Tree National Park has become one of the buzziest — and most photographed — parks in the country of late. An all-natural alternative to nearby music festivals and pool parties, the park boasts outdoor recreation aplenty, and geographic features like huge rock faces, cacti, and of course, its namesake gnarly Joshua trees. The sun-splashed desert is also rich with archaeological history, including local lore at nearby ghost towns. At night, the nature show continues with its star-filled skies.
Palm Springs / Joshua Tree KOA
Born and raised in New Hampshire, Matt Kirouac grew up with a love for camping and the outdoors. Though he’s lived in Chicago since 2006, he’s always on the lookout for new adventures. He writes about travel and food for outlets like TripExpert, Money Inc, Upventur, DiningOut, Food Fanatics magazine, Plate Magazine and Zagat, and he currently serves as Chicago editor for What Should We Do?! He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago (2016) and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago (2017).