There are currently 59 national parks peppered across the diverse terrain of the United States, but not all are treated with equal admiration. Some park landscapes have been photographed so often, their natural features are as recognizable as Mona Lisa’s smile.
There is no objective method to definitively name “The 10 Most Scenic National Parks,” therefore the following compilation is based on landscapes with startling contrasts or uncommon characteristics. So grab a camera and the car keys to discover some of America’s most stunning scenery.
Yosemite National Park: There are many views that have graced countless postcards and magazines within this 1,200-square-mile California park, as imposing granite cliffs, surging waterfalls, and giant sequoia and oak groves meld into a wildlife-rich valley. The Half Dome and El Capitan peaks are both famed climbing destinations. The Mariposa Grove features Yosemite’s largest stand of towering giant sequoias. For a sweeping vista of the High Sierras, Yosemite Falls, and Yosemite Valley, stand atop Glacier Point, easily accessed by Glacier Point Road.
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Kenai Fjords National Park: Time seems to have stopped at the Ice Age in a small region of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage. As the nation’s largest solely contained ice field, Harding Icefield is the source of nearly 40 glaciers that helped sculpt the untamed landscape. Sea lions, seals, orca and humpback whales swim the frigid waters of the park’s fjords and bays, and black bears and moose roam its lush forests. Take a scenic flight to appreciate the vastness of Harding Icefield, which is occasionally dotted by an isolated mountain peak.
Grand Teton National Park: Tucked into the expansive landscape of northwestern Wyoming, the park’s nine rugged peaks soaring more than 12,000 feet create a striking contrast to the flat, wind-swept grasslands and glacial lakes stretching before them. Elk and bison graze along grassy riverbanks; moose snack on shrubs at the edge of Cascade Canyon; and bald eagles and ospreys attend carefully constructed treetop nests along the Snake River.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park: Nowhere in the U.S. can one simultaneously witness such merciless volatility and staggering beauty than at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, located on the Big Island. Home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Mauna Loa and Kīlauea – the park features lava fields, rain forests, deserts, and fragile ecosystems all at the mercy of an unpredictable force of nature. From a U.S. Geological Survey observatory adjoining the Jaggar Museum, watch as reds and purples streak the deep-blue sky as the sun sets behind Halema’uma’u Crater amid its ongoing gas eruptions.
Arches National Park: A staggering number of natural sandstone arches – more than 2,000 – swoop over and around giant balanced rocks, massive fins, and soaring pinnacles that compose an arid landscape of red vistas in southeast Utah. The park offers boundless outdoor activities for exploration, such as rock climbing, horseback-riding tours, and canyoneering.
RELATED: Glacier National Park
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Virgin Islands National Park: Warm, turquoise waters and splendid coral reefs teeming with marine life encircle white sandy beaches, ruins of 18th-century sugar plantations and exotic plants. Stretching across much of St. John’s in the U.S. Virgin Islands, this Caribbean wonderland features an underwater, 225-yard snorkeling trail at Trunk Bay. Between photo excursions, a surplus of water sports awaits, including sailing, windsurfing, and scuba diving.
Acadia National Park: Meadows bursting with fragrant, colorful wildflowers blur into forests that carpet rolling mountains and crash into a rocky coastline and wind-swept beaches. Tucked along Maine’s southern coast, the park encapsulates a picturesque New England landscape sculpted by unforgiving winters. Before winter descends upon the region, varying shades of red, gold and orange paint the forest in a stunning display of fall foliage. Travel the 27-mile Park Loop Road to take in the park’s magnificent features. See the half-submerged cave called Thunder Hole and bask in the sun’s warmth at Sand Beach. Or stand atop Cadillac Mountain to watch the sun rise over small islands dotting the Atlantic Ocean.
Grand Canyon National Park: It’s difficult to imagine the sheer magnitude of Arizona’s Grand Canyon without standing at its rim. The canyon is 277 miles long, 10 miles wide and a mile deep. Nearly 5 million people each year flock to see what the Colorado River carved over millions upon millions of years. The North Rim, although harder to access than the South Rim, features wildflower meadows and aspen and spruce, in addition to views of the canyon. More adventurous visitors can journey to the Inner Canyon on foot or by mule.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee border, America’s most visited national park encompasses waves of Appalachian ridgelines that seemingly crash into the valleys below. About 72 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail extend through the park. For a memorable sunrise, drive or hike to the top of Clingmans Dome to absorb 360-degree views as the sun inches over the Smokies; on a clear day, visibility is up to 100 miles.
Great Sand Dunes National Park: The tallest dunes in North America rise against a backdrop of wetlands, grasslands, alpine lakes, aspen and conifer forests, 13,000-foot Colorado peaks, and rolling tundra. Use snowboarding and surfing skills developed on past vacations to try sandboarding, and hurtle down dunes more than 750 feet tall that formed more than 440,000 years ago in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.