The United States is home to some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes in the world, and there’s no better way to experience them than by visiting the country’s incredible national parks.
From the majestic peaks of Yosemite to the geothermal wonders of Yellowstone, each park offers a unique and unforgettable experience for visitors of all ages.
Historian Wallace Steiner called America’s national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
Our parks are open to everyone. Can you imagine if places like Joshua Tree or Zion had been sold to developers, or to private parties? Instead, you and I can experience their beauty for ourselves, and they’re preserved for future generations.
Whether you’re an avid hiker, a wildlife enthusiast, a history buff, or simply looking for a scenic drive, the US National Parks have something for everyone.
But with so many parks to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why we’ve put together this handy US National Parks Checklist.
There are also practical tips to help you plan your next National Park adventure.
US National Parks
A Brief History of US National Parks
The first federally protected land in the United States was in Arkansas. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Hot Springs Reservation in what was then the Arkansas Territory.
The area had become increasingly popular and the locals were concerned that it would become overdeveloped.
The next step in our national parks evolution was when President Abraham Lincoln ceded the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to California in 1864. This prohibited private ownership and answered the question: does the government have the right to create parks?
Yes, yes it does.
The first national park in the United States was also the first national park in the world.
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation creating Yellowstone National Park.
Because this massive park was in federally governed territory and spread into what would later become three different states, there wasn’t a question about the government’s jurisdiction.
Montana didn’t become a state until 1889, and Idaho and Wyoming joined the union the following year.
It would be another eighteen years before the second national park, Sequoia, was created. It was followed quickly by Kings Canyon and Yosemite.
One of the biggest advocates of protecting the country’s resources was President Theodore Roosevelt.
A camping trip with John Muir, who is often considered to be the father of our national parks, greatly influenced the president and Teddy signed the Antiquities Act in 1906, which enabled presidents to use executive orders to create National Monuments.
Devils Tower National Monument in the northeast corner of Wyoming was the first.
Then, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service.
In 1933, another President Roosevelt got in the act when FDR signed Executive Order 33, which moved the administration of National Monuments and military sites to the NPS, and finally, in 1970 the General Authorities Act further defined the National Park Service, creating the system we know today.
National Park Service Today
The National Park Service (NPS) is a federal agency in the United States responsible for managing and preserving the country’s natural, cultural, and historical resources for the benefit of future generations.
The agency was established in 1916 and has since grown to oversee more than 400 different sites across the country, including national parks, national monuments, historic sites, and more.
Today, the National Park Service operates under the Department of the Interior and is headed by a director who is appointed by the President of the United States.
The agency’s mission is to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of the country and to provide educational and recreational opportunities for visitors from around the world.
The NPS is responsible for managing a diverse range of sites, each with its own unique history and significance.
National parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, are some of the most well-known and iconic sites managed by the NPS. These parks typically feature vast expanses of natural landscapes, such as forests, mountains, and waterfalls, and are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna.
In addition to national parks, the NPS also manages other types of sites, including national monuments, historic sites, and battlefields.
National monuments, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, typically honor significant historical or cultural events.
Historic sites and national battlefields, such as Gettysburg and Independence Hall, preserve important sites from the country’s past.
Overall, the National Park Service plays a critical role in preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the United States and providing visitors with unique opportunities to explore and connect with the country’s rich history and stunning landscapes.
Check out this wonderful guide to the best National Parks in the USA.
Total National Park Sites
- 423 Individual Sites
- 63 National Parks
- 85 National Monuments
- 76 National Historic Sites
Tips for Visiting US National Parks
Plan the best times to visit US National Parks
As you’re planning your National Parks adventure, check for the best times to visit the specific parks you’re thinking of. This is often dependent on the weather.
For example, parts of Bryce Canyon National Park and Mesa Verde National Park are closed during the winter due to their altitude.
If you plan on visiting Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the most beautiful road trips in the USA, is only open during the summer.
Book National Park reservations in advance
Once you’ve figured when you’d like to visit one of America’s National Parks, book your reservations for camping, accommodations, and tours ASAP.
Outdoor adventures are more popular than ever and all of the above fill up quickly. The most popular parks are booked far in advance.
Be aware of potential closures
Due to the ongoing health crisis, many facilities and US National Park Service sites are closed or have limited hours. Call ahead or check nps.gov to find out if the activities you want to do will be available.
If you’ve planned far in advance, check periodically as your travel dates grow near. We’re in a fluid situation and things can change quickly.
Consider your tolerance for crowds
You’ll also want to take your crowd-tolerance level into consideration. The last thing you want is to sit in a traffic jam in a National Park, but that happens when you visit the most popular parks during the most popular times.
Consider going during shoulder seasons, the weeks before and after the busiest times.
Before you go, pack these road trip essentials.
Stay overnight in the National Park
If the park you plan to visit has accommodations within the park and/or campgrounds, stay there. Being inside the park itself means less time driving to and fro.
It also means that you can get to the most popular parts of the park before the tour busses and masses of humanity arrive.
National park lodges offer a variety of accommodations, from rustic cabins to luxurious hotels, all situated within the park boundaries.
National park campgrounds provide visitors with an opportunity to pitch their tents or park their RVs in some of the most stunning natural settings in the world.
One of the primary benefits of staying in a national park lodge or campground is the easy access it provides to the park’s attractions and activities.
Many national park lodges are in the heart of the park, providing easy access to hiking trails, scenic drives, and other popular destinations.
Additionally, staying in a national park campground allows visitors to fully experience the park’s natural beauty, with stunning views and wildlife sightings right outside their tent or RV.
Visit lesser-known national parks
Lesser-known national parks can provide visitors with equally amazing experiences and opportunities to explore unique and lesser-known corners of the country.
These less-frequented parks offer a more secluded and peaceful experience, often with fewer crowds and a more off-the-beaten-path feel.
One of the benefits of visiting lesser-known national parks is the chance to experience a wider range of landscapes and natural environments.
For example, while Yellowstone is famous for its geysers and hot springs, visiting American Samoa, the least visited national park, offers a chance to explore tropical rainforests, coral reefs, and pristine beaches.
A visit to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado offers a glimpse of an ancient civilization and offers visitors a unique opportunity to step back in time and experience the rich history and culture of the American Southwest.
Visit less busy areas of the most popular National Parks
Even National Parks have tourist traps. For example, in Yellowstone, everybody wants to see Old Faithful. Old Faithful is great (and much easier to see if you stay in the park itself – see tip #5).
The Lamar Valley is often overlooked, yet it’s home to some of the park’s most diverse wildlife, including wolves, bison, and grizzly bears, and offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
If you have limited time, you don’t want to spend it sitting in a backup of vehicles trying to get to the predictable geyser.
If that’s a bucket list item for you, by all means, see it! But if you want to experience more and spend less time in a car, then visit other, less well-known parts of the park.
While many national parks have well-known and highly popular areas, exploring less well-known areas of these parks can provide visitors with unique experiences and a deeper appreciation of the park’s natural beauty.
Venturing off the beaten path can also provide a more peaceful and secluded experience, allowing visitors to truly connect with nature and escape the crowds.
Visiting less well-known areas of popular parks can also offer a more authentic and immersive experience.
For example, exploring the backcountry of Yosemite National Park provides visitors with a unique opportunity to fully connect with the park’s natural beauty and explore areas that few visitors get to experience.
Hiking to remote waterfalls, camping in secluded wilderness areas, and spotting wildlife are just some of the experiences that can be had in less well-known areas of Yosemite.
Visit the National Park Visitor Centers
One of my biggest pieces of travel advice is to visit the Visitor Center. This isn’t just true when you’re visiting cities and towns. It’s true when you go to National Parks, too.
Each Visitor Center will have rangers on hand to give you all the advice you want, including how to find those lesser-known areas that don’t get as much love as they deserve.
While you’re there, pick up a park map and, if available, a park newspaper. The former will come in handy when you have no cell service.
The latter is a goldmine of information about the park, including weather, potential warnings about animals, special programming, and other tips for visiting.
TLTip: If you’re in a larger park with lots of hiking, you can often get maps for the individual trails at the Visitor Center.
Take advantage of special National Park Ranger Programs
National Park Service Sites often have special programs hosted by park rangers. In Glacier, we learned about the park’s geology.
In Badlands National Park, a ranger taught us how to throw an atlatl. Devils Tower featured an insight into the National Monument’s sacred status among the Lakota and other Native Americans.
Leave wildlife wild
When you’re visiting US National Parks and you come across wildlife, remember that you’re in their home. Keep your distance and never ever ever feed them.
Don’t try to pet them.
Don’t try to get near them.
Basically, you want their existence to be as minimally impacted by your presence as possible.
Leave no trace
The wonderful thing about US National Parks is that they’re meant for everyone. That means that when you visit, you’ll want to leave it the way you found it.
The National Park Service abides by the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, and they ask that you do, too:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.
Get an America the Beautiful Pass
An America the Beautiful Pass gets you into all NPS fee-based sites for $80 a year. If you’re 62 or older, you can get it for $20 a year, or spend $80 for a lifetime pass.
The pass provides access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country, including all national parks, national forests, and other public lands managed by agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Another benefit of the America the Beautiful pass is the convenience it offers. With the pass, visitors can bypass long lines and entry fees at national parks and other federal recreation areas.
The pass can also be used for multiple visitors in one vehicle, making it a great option for families or groups.
Record your visits with a National Parks Passport
Want a reminder of your National Park visits? Get a National Parks Passport. Bring it with you to NPS sites and you can get it stamped, just like a real passport. There’s also a map and information on the parks.
Plus, your purchase helps fund these national treasures. Visit americasnationalparks.org for details and to get yours.
Use Recreation.gov to book reservations
Recreation.gov is the official website and app for making reservations in US National Park Service sites. You can find campgrounds and lodging, tours and activities, sign up for lotteries, and find information on what permits are required near you.
Related: Best campgrounds in the Midwest
Fill your gas tank before you need it
Many parks are huge and gas can be hard to find. Yellowstone National Park has gas stations within the park, but it’s more expensive than if you fill your tank outside its boundaries.
Use GasBuddy or Upside to locate stations and prices.
Check pet rules in advance
Want to bring your furry friend? Find out in advance if dogs are allowed on trails, etc., in the park. Many parks do not allow pets, even if they’re leashed, because of the wildlife.
Pack your own food and water
Some parks have general stores, but you don’t want to count on them, especially if you’re visiting during off- or shoulder seasons.
Instead, bring your own. You’ll definitely want to bring lots of water if you plan on being outside or doing any hiking, biking, kayaking, or other physical activity.
I’ve got a whole guide on road trip food, which includes suggestions for snacks and meals. The printable road trip planner includes meal planning worksheets to make it easy for you.
Take LOTS of photos and video
You’ll want to remember your experience (and probably show it off to friends when you get back home). Document your trip by taking lots of photos and videos. And then…
Put down your phone
It’s great to record your trip, but then put your phone down. Be sure to soak it all in with your eyes as well as your camera lens.
I hope these national parks tips help you get the most out of this incredible resource.
National Parks Packing List
These items will help make your National Parks experience a success!
- Snacks/energy bars
- Water bottle/camelback
- Trekking poles
- Day pack for hikes
- Bear spray (depending on park)
- Bug spray
- Park map
- Install GasBuddy
- Install Recreation.gov
- Two-way radios
- Back up phone chargers
- Basic first aid kit
- A Flexible Attitude!
National Parks Checklist
Here’s a US National Parks list by state. Want a printable US National Parks checklist PDF to mark them off your bucket list? Here you go!
- Alaska National Parks
- Denali National Park and Preserve
- Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
- Katmai National Park and Preserve
- Kenai Fjords National Park
- Kobuk Valley National Park
- Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
- Arizona National Parks
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Saguaro National Park
- Arkansas National Parks
- Hot Springs National Park
- California National Parks
- Channel Islands National Park
- Death Valley National Park*
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Kings Canyon National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Pinnacles National Park
- Redwood National and State Parks
- Sequoia National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Colorado National Parks
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Florida National Parks
- Biscayne National Park
- Dry Tortugas National Park
- Everglades National Park
- Hawaii National Parks
- Haleakalā National Park
- Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
- Idaho National Parks
- Yellowstone National Park*
- Kentucky National Parks
- Mammoth Cave National Park
- Acadia National Park
- Isle Royale National Park
- Voyageurs National Park
- Gateway Arch National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Yellowstone National Park*
- Death Valley*
- Great Basin National Park
- New Mexico
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- White Sands National Park
- North Carolina
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park*
- North Dakota
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- South Carolina
- Congaree National Park
- South Dakota
- Badlands National Park
- Wind Cave National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park*
- Big Bend National Park
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Arches National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Zion National Park
- Shenandoah National Park
- Mount Rainier National Park
- North Cascades National Park
- Olympic National Park
- West Virginia
- New River Gorge National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Yellowstone National Park*
- US Territories
- American Samoa National Park
- Virgin Islands National Park
How many of these National Parks have you visited?