Top US National Parks To Visit In 2018

There are 58 National Parks in America, spread across 27 different states.

Each year, over 330 million people come to visit Americas National Parks.

But with so many to choose from and so much to see, which ones are the best National Parks to visit in 2018?

 

Arches National Park – Utah


Arches - The famous double O arch
The famous double O arch

What’s To See In Arches National Park?

With Arches National Park, the clue is very much in the name.

The park comprises over 2,000 naturally made sandstone arches.

That’s the densest concentration of natural sandstone arches anywhere in the world.

A long time favourite with photographers, this delicate and intriguing landscape changes dramatically with the light of each day.

In the morning, you’ll snap the first delicate rays of light breaking to reveal a stunning landscape followed by a day of changing shadows and bright, vivid reds as the sun sets on another awesome day.

Recommended Hikes In Arches National Park

The aptly named Primitive Trail is the hike to do in Arches National Park.

It’ll give you a great snapshot of the park and allow you to take in some of it’s most well known sights. You’ll also get a good taste for the diversity of the terrain, as you take in all of the awesome rock formations.

If you only get around to one lengthy hike in the park, this one wont disappoint.

It’s 7.2 miles long and will take you through some of the classic arches in the park like double O arch and landscape arch.

As you might expect from it’s name, the trail is a little tricky going at times, with some slippery rock faces to scramble across.

Navigation is also something to be careful about. Keep a close eye out for little stone kerns. They’re very easy to miss and we actually ended up turning back around and retracing our steps on more than one occasion. Jess should probably know better by now than to let me lead.

Arches - Hiking the primative trail
Hiking the primitive trail

Where To Stay In Arches National Park

There is one NPS maintained campsite near the entrance to Arches National Park. You’ll find it at Devils Garden, and there’s more info about it on the National Park Service website here.

There are 51 sites available here and reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance during the peak season. Make sure to get your request in early if you want to camp here as it fills up fast during the busy summer months.

As well as this official campsite, there are also plenty of options for free disbursed camping in and around the local area. For more information on how to find free campsites in the US, check out our guide here.

The nearby town of Moab also has lots of accommodation options from campsites to motels to higher end hotels depending on what level of luxury and comfort you’re looking for.

Good budget options to check out include the Inca Inn or Virginian Motel or there’s always Moab Springs Ranch for a more expensive but awesome base for your Arches Adventure.

Moab is packed with plenty of accommodation options for all kinds of budgets. And they’re super easy to find since they’re mostly located right on the main road that runs through the middle of town.

So it’s pretty easy to just show up and figure it out from there.

Arches - delicately balanced rocks at Arches National Park
Delicately balanced rocks at Arches National Park

 

Canyonlands National Park – Utah


Canyonlands - the view of the wash below
The view of the wash in the canyon below

What’s To See In Canyonlands National Park?

Like Arches National Park, Canyonlands is also located near the small town of Moab in Utah.

But that’s pretty much where the similarities between these two neighbouring parks end.

Unlike the delicate arches and rocky pinicles of it’s neighbour, Canyonlands is the home of vast and intricately carved out canyons.

And they’re all up for exploration!

The park is super Off Road Vehicle friendly, and you’ll always find people in ATVs, dirtbikes, OHVs and whatever else you want to call them, taking the day (or longer) to take in what this vast park has to offer.

Oh, and did I mention the skies?

Turns out that Canyonlands is also an International Dark Sky Park.

That means it has been awarded special status for the quality of it’s night sky, having worked hard to battle light pollution and preserve the natural darkness of the Canyonlands.

The areas history and connection with the night sky and the role it has played in the lives of its prehistoric people is enough to be the subject of a whole other post in itself. If you want to find out more about the parks fascinating history with the dark night sky, make sure you check out some of the ranger led night sky tours on your visit.

Recommended Hikes In Canyonlands

The Needles district has heaps of great hikes like Squaw Canyon or the hike to Druid Arch.

The only problem is that the Needles district is difficult to get into and you’ll need a 4 by 4 to access most of them. Either that or you can take advantage of the many interconnecting trails and form your own multi day route through the park.

Your next best option for a long hike is the 10.8 mile Murphy Loop in the Island In The Sky district.

Canyonlands - checking out the view towards witewash road
At the bottom of the Murphy loop, checking out the view towards witewash road

Super easy to access, and a very rewarding hike which goes straight down the side of the canyon and loops around the wash below.

Where To Stay In Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park has 2 NPS maintained general access campgrounds.

There’s a 12 site campground at Willow Flat which is in the Island In The Sky district and a 30 site camp at Squaw Flat in the Needles district.

You can find out more info on both of those campgrounds here.

Backcountry camping is also permitted and popular within the park providing you get a permit. More info on that here.

Other accommodation options are available within the local town of Moab. See recommendations under Arches National Park section for more details on that.

Canyonlands - taking a breather on the way back up to the canyon rim
Canyonlands – taking a breather on the way back up to the canyon rim

 

Zion National Park – Utah


What’s To See In Zion National Park?

Zion - view from the top of angels landing
View from the top of angels landing in Zion National Park

Zion has been on the bucket list for a long time, and last year we finally got the chance to cross it off.

Out of all the parks featured here today, Zion is probably the ultimate “hikers park”.

Recommended Hikes In Zion National Park

The “classic” hike – Angels Landing

This hike is the reason most people know about Zion National Park.

It’s easily the most popular and probably the most revered hike in Zion National Park, and every year thousands of people battle their fears for a chance to get a shot out over it’s iconic viewpoint.

The trail is open, with massive and unguarded drop offs at regular points in the trail.

It also gets extremely busy, and at peak times you can have far more people on there than is really safe.

Zion - taking in the view on the Angels Landing trail
Taking in the view and the shear drops on the Angels Landing trail

But the view’s worth it.

But be warned – people fall and die while attempting this hike every year. Don’t risk it if the weather’s crap. Just put it down as a good excuse to come back and try again.

The “lesser known but with better views” hike – Observation Point

For those who like their hikes a little less “death-ish”, I would highly recommend the 8 mile hike to Observation Point.

It’s a bit of an effort to the top, but totally worth it.

You’ll be higher up, looking down onto the top of Angels Landing and out through the valley beyond.

The view from here is actually better than the one from the top of Angels Landing, as the angle gives you a clearer view further back down the valley.

It’s also a hell of a lot less crowded!

The “something different” hike – The Narrows

I’ve never done a hike quite like The Narrows before.

While a lot of hikes might have you following along a river, The Narrows has you walking IN the river.

You’ll be following the Virgin River right up through a narrowing slot canyon.

This hike can be made as long, or as short, as you like.

The water rarely gets above waist deep. In fact, most of the time it’ll stay comfortably below knee level and it gives you a chance to see the real power of the Virgin River, as you wade through deep canyons carved out over thousands of years of erosion.

The “underdog” hike – Hidden Canyon

While we’re talking canyons, the short 3 mile hike to Hidden Canyon is well worth a look if you find yourself with a couple of hours to spare here.

There’s usually a lot less people on this hike, and it doesn’t quite boast the same kind of views you’ll get from the others. But that’s kind of what makes it cool too.

With a total of 940ft elevation gain, you wont be climbing as high as some of the more popular hikes like Angels Landing or Observation Point, but you do get the steep drop offs that leave you clinging onto the safety chains.

You’ll also have more time and space to enjoy it without the crowds.

There’s a great guide to the Hidden Canyon Hike over here if you’re keen to find out more.

Where To Stay In Zion National Park

The tiny township of Springdale is where you’ll most likely want to base yourself for your Zion trip.

This little hub exists mainly to service visitors to the park and there are heaps of accommodation, food and most importantly, coffee, options here.

Handily, the small little township is located right at the entrance to Zion National Park and there is even a shuttle bus which runs to ferry people in and out of the park for those who are keen to beat the traffic and leave the cars behind.

Accommodation options in Springdale range from camping and RV parks to high end luxury lodge style accommodation. Other good, budget friendly options include Pioneer Lodge and Bumbleberry Inn.

Or if you want to go the whole hog and stay inside Zion National Park, the Zion Lodge is usually open for bookings. Or if you’d rather tent camp in the park then the NPS maintain 3 campgrounds at various points in Zion.

 

Bryce Canyon National Park – Utah


What’s To See In Bryce Canyon National Park?

Each of the parks in this list have been chosen because they have something unique and very different to offer.

None of them, though, do “unique” to quite the same level as Bryce Canyon National Park.

Watching the sun go down at Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon
Watching the sun go down at Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon

In fact, of all the 58 National Parks in America, not one of them can boast anything even remotely similar to the staggering rock formations on display here at Bryce.

Known as “hoodoos” these strangely shaped pillars of rock are the result of the relentless forces of erosion on the landscape over thousands of years.

And Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration of them anywhere in the world.

This pokey, pointy amphitheatre of impossibly balanced red, orange and pink sandstone peaks is interwoven with miles of awesome hiking trails.

There are also some not to be missed overlooks that give you a staggering view over the amphitheatre below. Sunset point being top of that list.

We came here on a day trip recently, during a week based in neighbouring Zion National Park (also on the list) and were blown away by the contrast between these two fantastic parks.

The scenery inside Bryce Canyon is so unlike anything else around it that it’s well worth a visit, and a very worthy contender for the most interesting park you’ll see in 2018.

Recommended Hikes In Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce - hiking down into the ampitheatre
Hiking down into the amphitheatre

If you want to get a great taste for what Bryce is all about and get up close and in amongst the great rock formations, you’ll want to check out the Fairyland Loop.

This is an 8 mile track that takes you down into the amphitheatre and weaves it’s way through the hoodoos before coming back up to the rim for a great overview.

The slightly shorter 5.5 mile Peek-A-Boo loop is another great option.

Where To Stay In Bryce Canyon National Park

Accommodation options are fewer here in Bryce Canyon than in other more popular parks, but a range of options can still be found if you take a look around the northern edge of the park boundary.

There’s the Pines Motel, Stone Canyon Inn, Buffalo Sage Bed and Breakfast and even the KOA for a good camping option.

Lodging is also available within the park and the NPS have more info on that here.

 

Glacier National Park – Montana


What’s To See In Glacier National Park?

Glacier - the drive into Glacier National Park from the east entrance
Glacier – the drive into Glacier National Park from the east entrance

If it weren’t for the bears (and the 8 months a year of winter) Montana would have just about everything.

Glacier National Park is all the best bits of this awesome and massively undersung state.

As well as being home to 25 active glaciers, the park is also home for many impressive animal species like moose, bears, elk, big horn sheep and mountain lions.

The only thing more impressive than the chance to see some of these awesome animals in the wild, is the chance to see the equally impressive scenery they live in.

Bright green, dense forests disappear into the kind of deep blue rivers and lakes that could only have been oil painted in afterwards.

The “Crown Of The Continent” is packing some seriously bling gems.

Recommended Hikes In Glacier National Park

If you only get chance to do one hike in Glacier National Park, make sure it’s the 9.6 mile jaunt to Iceberg Lake.

You wont regret it.

After a short walk around the side of Swiftcurrent Lake (Watch out for moose here, we saw one on the other side of the lake. Unfortunately by the time we ran around to get a closer look, he was long gone.) you’ll then climb gradually up to get an elevated view over the blue of lakes Fishercap and Redrock.

Glacier - The hike to Iceberg Lake
Glacier National Park – The hike to Iceberg Lake

Once you’ve had a chance to catch your breath and take in the incredible views, it’s onward over some great open terrain to the star of the show.

Glacier - Iceberg Lake
Iceberg Lake at Glacier National Park

As you might have guessed from the name, Iceberg Lake is where you’ll usually find lots of floating mini icebergs.

They’re created in the winter when the lake freezes and it snows a lot. And because the lake is fairly well sheltered by the surrounding mountains, the summer temperatures never really get high enough to melt it all back away.

The Highline Trail is also supposed to be great, though I can’t say much here as I’ve yet to hike it. Still, it’s on my ‘to hike’ list though and for now it’s providing me with yet another great reason to go back to Montana some day soon.

Just remember – this is prime bear country! Be alert, be in a group and know how to stay safe while hiking in bear country.

Notable Mentions

Hidden Lake Overlook hike at the top of the Going To The Sun road is well worth an hour or two of your time. When you get to the head of the trail, where most people stop, you can veer off to the right and carry on all the way down to the water.

Well worth the detour.

You’ll also have a good chance at spotting some wildlife as you get down here away from most of the crowds.

Where To Stay In Glacier National Park

Most accommodation options exist on the West side of the park near the entrance to on the Going To The Sun road.

There’s a bit more a luxury accommodation market here than you’ll find in some of the other smaller parks, but budget options can still be found.

Lodge style accommodation can be found within the park,

At the budget end of the scale there’s Glacier Campground and the KOA on the West side or glamping options at Glacier Glamping. Meadow Lake Resort is another good budget option.

 

Yellowstone National Park – Wyoming


Yellowstone - stunning rainbow colors of the many springs
Stunning rainbow colors of the many springs of Yellowstone

What’s To See In Yellowstone National Park?

No good National Parks roundup is complete without mentioning Yellowstone.

It’s perhaps one of the best known National Parks in the US, thanks to it’s unique and abundant array of geothermal features.

Here you’ll see bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers, countless hot springs and rainbow coloured pools, all sitting ontop of an active super-volcano.

So unique and important is the area, that Yellowstone holds claim to being the very first National Park, not just in the US, but in the world.

This place is crowded and popular for a lot of very, very good reasons.

The wildlife in the park is also impressive and varied.

You’ll find bears, elk, bison, moose, deer, badgers, bobcats, cayotes, lynx, cougars, the mysterious and rarely seen wolverine and of course, the famously reintroduced Yellowstone wolf population.

There so much to see and do here that you could spend weeks exploring the park and still not even scratch the surface.

Yellowstone - a bison grazes in the meadow
Yellowstone – a bison grazes in the meadow

Recommended Hikes In Yellowstone National Park

Because it’s so popular and attracts so many people, most visitors to the park simply drive around, get out of the car to snap a few pictures, then get back in and drive on to the next spot.

The park’s great for that, and most of the things you’ll most likely want to see can be easily accessed by the parks road network.

However, if you’ve got a little more time to kill and more energy to burn, there are a lot of awesome hikes on offer here that’ll give you a much more detailed and close up look at what the park has to offer.

Fairy Falls Trail is a 5 mile roundtrip hike that takes you up a slight elevation for great views out over a Yellowstone classic – Grand Prismatic Spring.

Artists Paint Pot is another short hike that’s well worth checking out.

If you’ve got a bit more time on your hands then the slog up to 10,243 ft above sea level to the top of Mt Washburn is a classic Yellowstone hike that gives you uninterrupted views out of the whole of the Yellowstone Caldera. If you want to truly get a feel for the landscape and geology here, there’s no better way to do it.

Where To Stay In Yellowstone National Park

With so many visitors flocking to Yellowstone each year, accommodation options are plentiful.

If you’re looking for decent lodge accommodation, you’ll find all the usual options from the NPS. Through a private provider, the National Park Service maintain a total of 9 lodges throughout Yellowstone.

There’s also the Stage Coach Inn and the Moose Creek Inn amongst the many options on the west entrance to Yellowstone.

Or if you’d rather set up base on the east side of the park there’s certainly no shortage of hotels, RV parks, lodges and campsites to choose from.

 

Yosemite National Park – California


What’s To See In Yosemite National Park?

For years, Yosemite has been drawing in climbers and extreme adventurers from all over the world.

Yosemite - the land of towering granite cliffs
Yosemite – the land of towering granite cliffs

The seemingly un-climbable shear faces of famous El Capitan and Half Dome have hailed as something of a Mecca in the climbing world for a long time, and this was fuelled recently by the first ever un-roped ascent of El Capitan.

But there’s much more to Yosemite than climbing.

The parks dramatic and towering granite cliffs are only half the story.

Down in the valley below, you’ll get up close and personal with ancient and giant sequoia trees and iconic views of what is surely one of the most photographed valleys anywhere in the world.

And if you’re there in February, do not miss the sunset at Horsetail Falls when the waterfall can be seen glowing a firey orange.

Recommended Hikes In Yosemite National Park

Half dome is the famous hike in Yosemite and the one you’ll want to hit.

It takes you to the top of the prominent “half a bell” shaped peak in the park and gives you a great view out over the valley below.

Because it’s so popular though, you’ll need to register for a permit pretty far in advance. It’s also pretty dangerous and is often closed if the weather is bad.

A better option, and the option we picked, is North Dome.

Yosemite - hiking to north dome
Yosemite – hiking to north dome

It’s less popular and much less dangerous than it’s big brother, and you don’t need a permit to hike it.

Once you reach the top, you’ll get similar views that the Half Dome survivors get, but without the hassle.

You wont be quite as high up, but the views of the valley are incredible. You’ll also be able to look across and see the climbers making their way up and down Half Dome.

Cathedral Lakes is another excellent middle distance hiking option.

Yosemite - Cathedral Lakes
Yosemite – Cathedral Lakes

This time though, you’ll be dealing with a fair bit less elevation, as the hike starts and ends down on the valley floor.

You’ll hike through meadows and towering granite peaks to view two High Sierra lakes. Upper Cathedral Lake and Lower Cathedral Lake.

The crystal clear waters of the upper lake make it well worth the effort.

With the granite peaks mirrored in the lakes surface, it’s easy to get caught up and loose track of time.

But it’s no worries if you do.

Because sunsets here are spectacular.

Where To Stay In Yosemite National Park

Perhaps more so than some of the other parks, accommodation options within the park boundaries are pretty plentiful.

There are 13 campgrounds within Yosemite National Park, as well as numerous lodges run by private concessionaires.

Just outside of the park boundaries you’ll also find heaps of different options for every budget.

There’s Oakhurst lodge and Yosemite Mountain Trail lodge on the west side of the park and Tamarack lodge and Austria Hof around lake Mary on the east side.

But really, there are so many good accommodation options here that you could easily just figure it out when you get here.

Yellowstone - stunning rainbow colors of the many springs

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