U.S. National Parks for Your Summer Bucket List

Last updated March 20, 2024

Did you know that spending five minutes in nature makes you smarter, stronger, healthier, happier and more productive? U.S. national parks are nature in full splendor. After all, there is no better reason to visit a U.S. national park than to enjoy nature.

But if you find yourself in need of recommendations, here are some favorites to add to your summer bucket list. Everything from the iconic national park to the lesser-known. 

As a perk, America the Beautiful gives you access to all of the U.S. national parks. The pass allows you to explore over a dozen spots. So, load up the car for an epic summer road trip!

1. Yellowstone National Park — Wyoming

The granddaddy of all U.S. national parks, visiting Yellowstone is a no-brainer. The park—essentially the same size as Connecticut—stretches into three western states, mainly Wyoming. It showcases a remarkable landscape filled with geysers, thermal basins, and its own (Yellowstone) Grand Canyon complete with waterfall.

The park is also home to some of the best wildlife viewing in North America. One iconic favorite remains the roaming herds of bison. As some of the first protected lands in America, it remains extremely popular for any summer bucket list. 

And while in the “area,” you can combine this adventure with a visit Grand Teton National Park, too. Marvel over the mesmerizing colors of Grand Prismatic Spring and take a dip in the rejuvenating waters of Mammoth Hot Springs. 

The Tetons provide an abundance of stunning scenery—pristine freshwater lakes, trails filled with wildflowers, scenic viewpoints everywhere—just waiting to be discovered. In the evenings, unwind like the cowboys used to, with dinner, drinks and entertainment in the famous frontier town of Jackson, Wyoming.

2. Grand Canyon National Park — Arizona

The most iconic landscape in America may very well be the Grand Canyon. Standing at the overlook at any rim leaves people in awe. It is a moment people don’t often forget. 

A word of warning: summer can be a challenging time to visit this park because of the hotter temperatures and heat advisories that make any hike even more challenging. Novice hikers must beware of attempting to do too much in one day.

This park is a manageable drive from Las Vegas. But when in Arizona, there are many other national park sites to explore. I highly suggest Saguaro National Park and the Petrified Forest. 

3. The National Parks of Utah

You can’t mention U.S. national parks without talking about “Bea-Utah-Ful” and the beauty that awaits the travelers who head to Utah. Inside these parks, the views of the red rocks, arches, canyons, natural bridges and hoodoos (irregular columns of rock formations) reset our perspective. Plus, with the near promise of clear skies, visitors can expect starry filled nights. However, picking which one(s) may be a challenge.

Zion National Park is Utah’s first national park and one of the most visited parks in the whole United States. The hiking is world famous here for its views of sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches and narrow canyons. With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, Zion is also a great place to enjoy fresh air and get a little extra Vitamin D in the winter months. Winter visitors will still find plenty to do including hiking, photography and gazing up at the wonders of the night sky.

The adventure-filled city of Moab, Utah, resides between Canyonlands and Arches and is a stepping stone to Arches National Park. One of the most popular activities is to watch the sunrise over the park which is home to more than 2,000 arches. You won’t believe your eyes as a palette of reds, oranges and browns turn brilliant shades of violet as the sun sets over this all-encompassing desert dreamscape.

After a day spent hiking, unwind at the local winery and swap tales of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who used the canyons to hide from the law in the late 1800s. The charming town of Moab is the gateway to some of the west’s most spectacular scenery and colorful history.

4. Acadia National Park — Maine

For those on the east coast, why not head up to the Bar Harbor area of Maine for more than lobster? Just outside the popular Maine summer coastal town (and a feasible drive from Boston), travelers can visit Acadia National Park. 

There are many ways to enjoy Acadia National Park, from hiking to rock climbing. But biking is one of the most popular experiences. From the rugged coastal scenery to watching the sunrise above the Atlantic Ocean, Maine offers something for every level of cyclist. Spend your days riding quiet and beautiful tree-lined roads and your evenings enjoying some of America’s finest seafood cuisine—the perfect antidote to busy city life.

5. Great Smoky Mountains — Tennessee and North Carolina Border

One of the most visited parks resides between Tennessee and North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offers free access to visitors, along with plenty of hiking trails and stunning vistas. Plus it includes sections of the famous Appalachian Trail, too!  

It is a great beginner park for those in the southeast. The hike to Clingmans Dome allows you to ascend to one of the highest points on the map east of the Mississippi River. The short moderate hike ends with the reward of a 360-degree manmade overlook. I can confirm it is worth it. The park is within a day’s drive from Charlotte or Chattanooga. It is also close enough to visit the charming town of Asheville.

6. New River Gorge National Park — West Virginia

Nestled in the heart of Southern West Virginia is a hidden gem, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Some say it is Almost Heaven. The rugged, whitewater New River flows northward through deep canyons and is among the oldest rivers on the continent. 

The park encompasses over 70,000 acres of land rich in cultural and natural history and offers an abundance of scenic and adventure opportunities like whitewater rafting the Lower Gorge or mountain biking the Arrowhead Trails.

Premier adventure resort Adventures on the Gorge offers just this thing for your next national park getaway. Drawn to the rim of the New River Gorge by world-class whitewater, rock climbing, mountain biking and hiking, the founders created a resort that could live up to the natural wonders that surround it. 

You can experience exhilarating whitewater rapids on their rafting adventures plus rock climbing, rappelling, ziplines, mountain biking, paintball and stand-up paddleboarding all with world-class guides and instructors.

7. San Juan Island National Historical Park — Washington

With great weather and scenery and marine wildlife second to none, the San Juan Islands are a cyclist’s paradise to ride quiet roads from delightful fishing villages to the pristine waters separating the United States from Canada. 

Off the bike you’ll find fascinating history, friendly locals and amazing cuisine. This cycling adventure takes in the best of it all at a pace everyone can enjoy.

8. Kenai Fjords National Park and Denali National Park — Alaska

Did you know that by area, Alaska holds more than half of America’s national parklands? With seventeen national parks and sixteen national wildlife refuges, the options to explore the wild outdoors here are as limitless as the snow-capped mountains, ice-age glaciers, white rapids, clear water streams, dense forests and wide-open tundra. 

Spot sea lions, sea otters, whales and puffins in an ever-changing arctic landscape and try sea kayaking among the glacier bergs and canoeing the lagoon for coastal sightings. 

Whether it’s hiking the hemlock forests and snow-capped peaks of Denali National Park or paddling a kayak amid harbor seals and tidewater glaciers through the majestic coastal fjords of the Kenai Peninsula, you learn much about the 49th state and its hospitality. 

So live out your secret wilderness fantasy in Alaska’s national parks—where purple mountains majesty meets salmon-filled rivers, grazing grizzly bears and roaming caribou.

To Sum It Up

These are just a sliver of national parks inside the lower 48 states to add to your summer bucket list. There are 63 U.S. National Parks and over 400+ national park sites including recreational areas, historic homes, monuments and more. Yes, there is plenty to see!  

Which national park or national parks will you put on your U.S. summer bucket list?

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