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Top US National Parks for Your Summer Bucket List in 2021

Last updated May 26, 2021

With the EU countries closed to Americans and cruises canceled, many travelers are rescheduling holidays and reimagining their summer bucket list. For those looking for places to visit locally in the United States, plenty of bucket list adventures and destinations await.

So fill up the tank and load up the car and vacation domestically this summer and head to what filmmaker Ken Burns coined “America’s Best Idea”—the US National Parks system.

When initially planning my epic cross country road trip 25 years ago, I made sure to then purchase an “Eagle Pass” for access to all the parks. With this pass, we explored over a dozen spots.

Unfortunately, all are not completely open during these times, but the National Park website will enable you to understand what is available.

As for recommendations, here are a few of my favorites from the iconic to a few lesser-known. But please know all US National Parks are worth a visit!

Yellowstone (Wyoming)

The Granddaddy of all US 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. Camping is an option, but you will need to make reservations to secure a campsite.

And since it is far for a weekend adventure, you can combine any adventure here with the chance to visit Grand Teton National Park too. The alpine views and hiking trails make that park so worth it. You can camp there, but sometimes visitors prefer the nearby likable town of Jackson, Wyoming. 

On the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Adventure you can embark on a 6-day exploration of some of the most iconic natural landmarks America has to offer. Marvel over the mesmerizing colors of Grand Prismatic Spring and take a dip in the rejuvenating waters of Mammoth Hot Springs. 

Spot wildlife such as moose, bears and beavers hidden within the Grand Teton mountain range and follow along with a real-life wolf tracker who will teach you their secret tracking tricks. 

The Tetons provide an abundance of stunning scenery—pristine freshwater lakes, trails filled with wildflowers, scenic viewpoints everywhere—and they’re all 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.

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. Yeah, I can confirm it is awesome. It is a moment people don’t often forget, I know I haven’t forgotten my day in the park and it was 25 years ago.

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.

Trust me, novice hikers must beware of attempting to do too much in one day. I clearly remember starting our hike too late in the day and almost being caught in the canyon, exhausted, after dark. 

This park is a manageable drive from Las Vegas, but when in Arizona, there are many other National Park sites to explore from Native American historic sites as well as other parks.

Saguaro National Park has very limited restrictions now compared to other parks. It makes sense to visit some of the less popular parks too. 

The National Parks of Utah

You can’t mention US National Parks without talking about “Bea-Utah-Ful” and the beauty that awaits the travelers who head to Utah.

In fact, every National Park calendar I’ve owned dedicates at least one month to the likes of Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands or Zion. After a visit, you’ll easily see why. 

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.

On your Zion Ranch Stay and Hiking Adventure, you’ll hike Zion National Park along a narrow ridge-line to Angels Landing, which is considered the best in the southwest.

You’ll also have the chance to enjoy a homecooked, family-style meal at a Navajo home inside Monument Valley and learn more about their traditions and culture. Experience the real wild, wild west.

The adventure-filled city of Moab, Utah resides between Canyonlands and Arches and also provides easy access to many dinosaur tracks and fossils too. On a 5-Day Moab Adventure, you can hike to the best views of this plateau in paradise on an unforgettable tour.

See the sunrise over Arches National Park—home to over 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. 

And 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.

Acadia National Park (Maine)

For those on the east coast and not planning an epic road trip to the west, why not head up to the Bar Harbor area of Maine for more than lobster. Just outside the popular Maine summer coastal town, travelers can visit Acadia National Park. 

Note that currently, only partial trails are open with some campsites available no earlier than August 1st. But summer doesn’t really arrive in Maine until August anyway (it’s still chilly if you ask me). 

Regardless of how long you stay, one popular spot in the park is the Thunderhole with the chance to see and hear the water blow through the hole. For reference, Acadia is a feasible drive from Boston. 

Pedal through quintessential New England fishing villages and visit some of the most inspiring lighthouses you’ll ever see on this cycling tour of Maine and Acadia National Park

From the rugged coastal scenery to watching the sunrise above the Atlantic Ocean, Maine offers something for every level of cyclist. During this tour, 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.

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 us in the southeast. The hike to Clingmans Dome (currently open) 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 and also close enough to visit the charming town of Asheville, North Carolina. 

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 New River Gorge Whitewater Rafting Adventure plus rock climbing, rappelling, ziplines, mountain biking, paintball and stand-up paddleboarding all with world-class guides and instructors.

San Juan Island National Historical Park (Washington)

Combine cycling, stunning coastline, relaxed island life and the best that western Washington has to offer Cycle The San Juan Islands is an unforgettable 5-night cycling vacation away from the stresses of everyday life.

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 USA 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.

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. 

From Anchorage to Kenai Fjords and then deep into Denali, Alaska Wildland Adventures will ensure you have a wilderness vacation adventure to remember. 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. 

Stay at award-winning eco-lodges on the Kenai Peninsula that feature the perfect balance of rustically modern and private cabins, delicious and locally sourced food, immersive activities and locations that introduce you to the real, authentic Alaska.

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 few National Parks inside the lower 48 states to add to your summer bucket list. There are 61 US National Parks and over 400+ National Park sites including recreational areas, historic homes, monuments, and more. Yes, there is plenty to see!  

Plus, health experts say your risk of catching the Coronavirus is much lower outdoors than indoors. Just make sure you research your adventure as restrictions are often changing in these times. 

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