Plot Summary: A guide to the best west coast national parks including highlights of the park, when to visit, and where to stay.
When we sat down to plan our year of traveling the US, we knew that a high priority on the list would be visiting the national parks. Why? As former city dwellers, we yearned to connect with nature beyond a city park or the small patch of grass in our former backyard. We were looking to experience big nature and for our two-year-old to develop a deep respect and connection to the natural world.
For us, there was no better place in the US than the national parks out west. With no intention to throw shade at the national parks of the east, there are quite simply more western national parks than in the eastern US. In fact, 70% of the national parks are in the west.
With so many national parks in the west, it can be hard to decide where to go and how to plan your travels. Here’s a full list recommended by fellow travel writers of 17 must-see west coast national parks. We’ve also included a short guide to the national parks and recommended itineraries for a west coast national parks road trip.
Also, while Alaska might arguably have the absolute BEST national parks in the west (no crowds, pure untouched land) we’ve chosen to focus on national parks in mainland US.
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What is a National Park?
A national park is a protected area of federal land where there is typically an emphasis on conservation of the ecosystem and its natural habitat. The National Park System (NPS) oversees the 57 national parks as well as the national monuments, national historic sites, national parkways, national lakeshores, and several other landmarks of historical or environmental value.
Why are National Parks important?
While this question is an entire post to itself, the short answer is national parks are vital to conserving and protecting incredible feats of wild nature. Protecting the land and the animals that live there allows future generations to walk upon the same untouched landscape, the same hiking trails, the same cliffs that we have been blessed to witness. In a rapidly developing world, protecting our land and keeping it untouched, allows us as humans to return to nature and find respite from our ever-connected world. Time in nature is essential to our wellbeing and mental health, and maintaining these spaces means there will always be somewhere we can return and get back to basics.
Recommended National Parks Book
If you’re looking for more guidance and inspiration for your west coast national park tour I highly recommend the following books:
1. National Geographic: Complete National Parks of the United State – National Geographic’s national parks guide is a thorough guide book that is also a beautiful display piece in your house. It’s National Geographic so you know the photos are out of this world beautiful. It also offers comprehensive, useful advice. Win, win.
2. Leave Only Footprints – Rather than a conventional guide book, Leave Only Footprints is a travel memoir through one man’s journey to every US national park. Written within the backdrop of a painful breakup with his fiance, Conor Knighton weaves readers through a journey to America’s finest natural landmarks, peppering in interesting history and tidbits about the parks and his own personal stories. Perfect for someone looking to go deeper than Google trivia.
National Park Pass
If you’ll be visiting more than one national park in a year, you might want to consider buying the National Park Pass. The pass allows you entrance into over 2000 federal land parks for a one-time annual fee. If you know the parks you’ll be visiting, you can do the math to see if you’ll come out ahead. You must check each individual park since some parks charge a per car rate while some charge per person.
There are discounts for the disabled, active military, and senior citizens.
National Park Passport
A fun way to commemorate your time visiting the west coast national parks is to purchase a national park passport and collect stamps along the way. While this is often touted as a fun activity for kids…I don’t see why adults can’t like it too. I want cool stamps too!
They can be purchased at any national park store or purchased beforehand online. While you can just as easily make your own passport journal with a spiral notebook, I tend to like the preformatted journal templates like this one with cute options to write in dates and what you did.
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Interesting Fact: At sunlight, El Capitan and Half Dome lights up in brilliant shades of orange and red. From January to February, Horsetail Fall is famous for seeming to be on fire when it reflects the orange hues of sunrise.
Contributed by Contance of The Adventures of Panda Bear
Yosemite is the crown jewel of California. Considered by many to be one of the best national parks on the west coast. With nearly 2700 square miles of wilderness, Yosemite offers something for everyone. From backpacking through the backcountry, majestic sequoias, awe-inspiring waterfalls, granite mountains, and hundreds of hiking trails, you could spend a week here and still barely touch the surface of the grandeur of Yosemite.
If all you have is one day in Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Valley is where you want to begin. It’s the most visited area of the park and home to the most popular sights. You can get amazing views of Half Dome, El Capitan, and a variety of waterfalls, including Yosemite Falls, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, and Bridalveil Falls.
If you want to see the best view in the park, be sure to check out Tunnel View. The viewpoint was made famous by renowned photographer Ansel Adams, and it is where you’ll be able to see Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Falls all at once.
For avid hikers, the Mist Trail takes visitors past Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, and to the base of Half Dome. Due to a large amount of granite throughout the park, Yosemite is a mecca for avid rock climbers. If you’re lucky enough to get a lottery permit to climb Half Dome, you’ll be able to proceed up the granite dome.
When To Visit: Yosemite is one of the most visited west coast national parks, so the best times to visit are May and late September when the crowds will have diminished. Springtime offers the best viewing of the park’s famous waterfalls.
Where To Stay: Yosemite Valley Lodge
Interesting Fact: Sequoias can live for over 3000 years and are some of the oldest and largest trees in the world. A chemical in their bark called tannin protects them from rot, pests, and fire damage.
Contributed By Ruth of Tanama Tales
Sequoia National Park, located on the Sierra Nevada, attracts thousands of solo travelers, couples, and families each year. The park is a paradise for those who want outdoor activities like hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, mountaineering, and fishing.
As the name implies, the stars of the park are the enormous sequoia trees. There are several sequoia groves within the park, but the most popular and easily accessed one is the Giant Forest. In there, you will find General Sherman, the largest tree by volume in the world. In the Giant Forest, you can take The Congress Trail (2-mile loop), which will take you to some of the oldest and biggest trees in the park.
The Giant Forest Museum is a must-visit if you want to learn more about these majestic trees. The Big Trees Trail (1-mile loop) is an easy hike that starts close to the museum. Other points of interest in the park include Morro Rock, Tokopah Falls, and Crystal Cave.
With so many things to see and do in the park, you’ll want at least two days to explore the park. Add an extra day or two if you are interested in seeing the Foothills Area, the Mineral King Valley, the Sequoia National Forest, or adjacent Kings Canyon National Park.
When To Visit: The park is open year-round, but certain parts of the park are not accessible all year. The park is completely open from July to early September and considered the best time to visit for maximum viewing. If you are okay with not accessing all of the park, late spring and early fall are the shoulder seasons with cooler weather and fewer people.
Where To Stay: Wuksachi Lodge
Location: California, Nevada
Interesting Fact: Aside from being the hottest place on Earth, Death Valley is home to the endangered Devils Hole Pupfish. These one inch bright blue fish survive in 98 degree water temperature and low oxygen concentrations lethal to most fish. Conservation of the pupfish has been a hot and often contentious topic of debate, but for the scientists who study the Devils Hole pupfish they offer insight into adaptation to adverse conditions.
Contributed by Allison of She Dreams Of Alpine
Located on the border of California and Nevada, Death Valley is one of the largest National Parks in the United States and also one of the most diverse parks. You could spend weeks exploring Death Valley and still not see everything it has to offer. Spend time exploring its rolling sand dunes, or adventure off to its remote dry lake beds, or if you’re up for it, hike to the top of Death Valley’s tallest peak, Telescope Peak, for epic views of Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
The Telescope Peak hike is one of the best hikes to do if you have time during your visit to Death Valley National Park. The total round trip distance is about 13 miles long, with 3,300 feet of total elevation gain. This trail is easily hiked in a day, and the trailhead starts at Mahogany Flat Campground. On the way to Telescope Peak Summit, you’ll wind your way through switchbacks and find extraordinary vistas of the Death Valley basin. You will be standing tall at 11,049 feet when you reach the summit of Telescope Peak.
You could choose to spend your time driving throughout the park and visiting the many different stops along Death Valleys established roads, including Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation point in all of the United States. You could go more off the beaten path with a four-wheel-drive jeep rental and visit an area called The Racetrack, where rocks “mysteriously” move across a dry lakebed and leave a track as their evidence. However you decide to spend your time in Death Valley, it is a must-visit West Coast attraction.
When To Visit: The park is open year-round, but spring and fall are the shoulder seasons and offer the best respite from the scorching 100-120 degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures. Visiting in spring means you may see the wildflowers in bloom, although wildflower sightings are completely dependent on how much rain the park gets that year. Late fall offers stunning clear skies and warm days.
Where To Stay: The Ranch at Death Valley
Interesting fact: While iconic band U2 did help to bring the Joshua Tree into popular consciousness with their 5th album named Joshua Tree, the album cover was actually taken in Darwin, California, a full 200 miles away from Joshua Tree National Park.
Contributed by Eden from Rock A Little Travel
Joshua Tree National Park is home to some of the most unique topography of any of the national parks in the west. The stark landscape is dotted with massive boulders and bushy green joshua trees set against a backdrop of endless desert. If you’re looking to skip the crowds at Yosemite, enjoy the crowd-free bliss of Joshua Tree. You’ll often find yourself alone at many of the biggest attractions in the park if you arrive early enough.
Joshua Tree is the perfect spot for landscape photography, hiking, bouldering, and rock climbing. In fact, many visitors come specifically for the rock climbing. The abundance of boulders and rock formations make it a great place to learn if you’ve always wanted to try. Rock climbing schools can be found just outside the park.
In the evenings, Joshua Tree is an optimal place for stargazing and astrophotography. The vast desert sky, combined with minimal light pollution, makes for the perfect setting.
One of the most popular points of interest inside the park is a large rock formation called Skull Rock. This attraction is, as the name suggests, a giant rock that looks like a skull. While it may not sound all that exciting, it looks great in photos. Plus, it’s fun climbing all over the big rocks and boulders.
For most visitors, Joshua Tree can be explored in just one day. For those looking to participate in extensive rock climbing or hiking activities, two days would be perfect.
When To Visit: The park is open year-round, but the ideal time to visit is March to May and October to November when temperatures average in the 80’s. In the summer months, temperatures can exceed 100 degrees.
Where To Stay: The Ridge at Joshua Tree Airbnb
Interesting Fact: The “talus caves” in Pinnacles are not limestone caverns, but rather rocky tunnels that have been created by large boulders breaking off and falling into chasms that are too small for them, creating a roof that gives the feeling of a cave.
Submitted by Ale at Sea Salt & Fog
Pinnacles National Park is one of the newest and most underrated National Parks in California. Established in 2013, Pinnacles is about two and a half hours south of San Francisco. The park has two entrances, with no connecting roads between them.
The east entrance is most popular and has the only campground and general store in the park. The west entrance has a visitor center but fewer facilities. No matter where you enter, you’ll see the spectacular, towering rock formations and rare talus caves the park is famous for.
Pinnacles is a must-visit dream destination for experienced and beginner rock climbers and adventure hikers looking to explore a rugged landscape. Most of the trails throughout the park lead to sweeping views of towering rock spires and formations.
Condor Gulch trail is a fantastic hike. Around 3.5 miles roundtrip with gains of about a thousand feet in elevation, you’ll get amazing views of the park. If you go early enough in the morning, you’ll likely find the endangered California condors when you reach the end.
You can spend anywhere from a day to a week in the park, but the sweet spot is a weekend trip while camping at the park. Make a trek out to see a talus cave, hike up to view the peaks, and go bird watching. If you have more time in the area, take a day trip out to a funky surf town an hour and a half away to take a dip in the ocean.
When To Visit: Temperatures can soar to uncomfortable heights during the summer, so the park is best visited during the cooler spring and fall seasons.
Where To Stay: Inn at the Pinnacles
Interesting Fact: Crater lake has a 30-foot ancient tree stump that seems to defy the laws of physics by floating vertically in the lake. The hemlock tree is affectionately called the “old man of the lake.” It’s been tracked since the early 1930s and is the subject of many superstitions and tales.
Submitted by Zach and Julie of Ruhls of the Road
Crater Lake is the clearest lake in the world and the deepest in the United States. Located in the heart of the Pacific Northwest, Crater Lake formed 7700 years ago when a volcano cratered and created an enormous bowl. Over thousands of years, the lake filled with rainwater and snowmelt, gradually filling up the lake. Because the lake doesn’t have any rivers that flow in or out, no sediment or mineral deposits enter the lake, keeping the water fresh and pure. The pristine nature of the lake is what makes it stunning and one of the best National Parks in the western USA.
The only hike down to the lake is the Cleetwood Cove trail, a short but challenging hike with a beautiful destination. You can also hike to peaks such as Mount Scott, Garfield Peak, and Watchman Peak for a bird’s eye view of the lake, where you’ll see the deep blue emerald colors of Crater Lake. If hiking isn’t your thing, Discovery Point is a perfect place to get great views without having to hike. You can walk a trail as far as you’d like and enjoy the views the entire way.
Like most national parks, there are tons of excellent campsites inside the park, as well as a handful of hotels with 360-degree panoramas of the lake and surrounding landscape.
When To Visit: The best time to visit is July, August, and early September when the entire park is accessible and sunlight will give you the best views of the water. You can visit in the shoulder season of June and October, but there is a chance roads will be closed due to snow.
Where To Stay: The Cabins at Mazama Village
Interesting Fact: Olympic National Park protects one of the few lasting temperate rainforests in the world. Other temperate rainforests are found in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.
Contributed by Gina Tarnacki of Evergreen & Salt
Olympic National Park is a must-see when planning a west coast national park trip. Covering over a million acres, the sprawling park covers such diverse terrains as driftwood beaches, old-growth forests, 3000 miles of rivers, and snow-capped mountains.
In the northern part of the park, you’ll find rugged mountains and excellent hiking, including the popular Hurricane Ridge Trail that offers stunning views of the surrounding scenery. Another gorgeous hike in this area is the Sol Duc Hike that takes you to Sol Duc Falls, a roaring series of waterfalls cascading over rocks and trees down the mountainside.
On the southwestern side of the park, you’ll come to the incredible, remote beaches of Olympic National Park. Ruby Beach and Rialto Beach both require a hike to get down to, but they are a must-see. The walk down will reward you with photo-worthy sea stacks and driftwood.
Head a bit inland from these beaches, and you’ll soon come to the temperate rain forest. No Olympic National Park itinerary is complete without a visit to Washington’s rain forests, a wonderland of bright green moss and foliage with incredible hiking trails, most notably the Hall of Moses hike in Hoh Rain Forest.
Two to three days is enough to get a glimpse of the highlights, but four to seven days is recommended to get an in-depth look into this glorious national park.
When To Visit: The weather in Olympic National Park can be unpredictable and varies wildly from place to place. Your best bet for warm, sunny weather is going to be the months of July and August. The park is open all year, but parts of the park can start to become inaccessible as early as September.
Where To Stay: Lake Crescent Lodge
Interesting Fact: The original name of the mountain, coined by the Native American tribes, is a variation of Tacoma or Tahoma, which means “the source of nourishment from the many streams coming from the slopes.”
Contributed by Michelle Stelly of The Wandering Queen
Mount Rainier National Park is one of the top places to visit in the Pacific Northwest. The park is packed with waterfalls, mountains, and outstanding forest views. The most popular trail in the park is Skyline Trail. With incredible 360 degree views of Mount Rainier and the surrounding mountains, it’s not hard to see why. You’ll pass Marymere Falls along the hike, creating a picture-perfect moment of the cascading waterfall against Mount Rainier.
Highlights of the park include hiking trails Comet Falls and Grove of the Patriarchs Loop Trail. Comet Falls takes you along the river with multiple waterfalls along the way. This area of the Pacific Northwest is typically rainy and cloudy, so seeing the waterfalls on a foggy day is the quintessential PNW experience. Grove Of The Patriarchs Loop trail is an easy trail that’s great for anyone traveling with family. For those looking for a more strenuous hike, make sure to try out Silver Falls. It is right next to the Grove Of The Patriarchs and not as crowded.
Two days is enough to see the highlights of the park. For those looking to explore further, 3-4 days is ideal.
When To Visit: The park is open year-round, but offers the most accessibility from June to September. Wildflowers will be in bloom and the drier weather provides optimum hiking conditions.
Where To Stay: National Park Inn at Mount Rainier
Interesting Fact: In 1850, Glacier National Park was home to 150 glaciers. Currently, Glacier has only 26 glaciers left and the number is expected to decline as climate change will inevitably reduce this amount.
Contributed by Margie DQ of DQ Family Travel
Glacier National Park is in a remote area of northeastern Montana. Known as one of the most beautiful national parks in the west, it combines pristine natural beauty and glacial blue lakes amidst soaring mountains.
With over 700 miles of hiking trails, Glacier National Park is a hiker’s paradise. While a week exploring this area is ideal, the highlights can be done in 4-5 days. Must do hikes include Trail of Cedars/Avalanche Lake, Highline Trail, Redrock Falls, Hidden Lake Overlook, and Grinnell Glacier. The park is excellent for all types of visitors. There are plenty of kid-friendly trails and other challenging options for the more adventurous hikers. The most popular section of the park is West Glacier, followed by St. Mary, then Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Polebridge is quite remote.
One of the main highlights of Glacier National Park is the famous Going to the Sun Road that is only open about three months of the year. This scenic drive is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the country, yet it offers some of the most spectacular views of the park. Although the road does have railings, it is quite high. There are several scenic overlooks along the drive to stop and take pictures as well. Another option is to take a guided tour of the park in a Jammer Red Bus. This unique vintage car takes guests for a narrated drive on the Going to the Sun Road and stops multiple times for pictures.
While there are a few campgrounds and lodges to stay inside the park, once again, they fill up over a year in advance. If you can manage to book early, then I highly recommend staying inside Glacier National Park. If it is booked, then try staying at the charming town of Whitefish, Montana. Although it is not located at the entrance like the closest town, West Glacier, Whitefish is only 27 miles away and has some great restaurants, biking trails, shopping, and a walkable downtown area.
When To Visit: Due to weather, Glacier has a limited window for when you can hike and see all of the park, so the best times to visit are going to be late June to early September. If you visit outside of these months, many trails and roads will be closed due to snow.
Where To Stay: Glacier Park Lodge
Interesting Fact: Yellowstone is America’s first official national park and was established in 1872.
Contributed by Adriana Plotzerová of Czech The World
Yellowstone National Park belongs among the most fascinating national parks in the western USA. Yellowstone is 3,472 square miles of wilderness and home to bison herds, grizzly bears, coyotes, wolves, deer, and elk. The park sits on top of a supervolcano, so 60% of all the world’s geysers can be found here, along with 10,000 other geothermal features. It’s a true natural wonderland.
Colorful hot springs, erupting geysers, bubbling mud pots, fumaroles, and steam coming out of the earth are a small sampling of the natural wonders found at Yellowstone. There are so many beautiful things to see in Yellowstone National Park, that it’s best to plan a longer visit. It is possible to see the best of Yellowstone in 2-3 days, but if you plan to do some hikes as well, you’ll want to stay for a whole week.
The highlights of Yellowstone National Park are the Grand Prismatic – the 3rd largest hot spring in the world, the monumental Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and the Old Faithful geyser – a predictable geyser, which erupts about every 90 minutes.
Yellowstone is a family-friendly place, as well as the ideal place for adventurous souls. It’s an excellent base for backcountry hiking and camping with more than 900 miles of hiking trails! If you have spare time for hiking, go to Mt. Washburn, hike the Avalanche Peak or head to the Shoshone lake trail. Just remember that you are in bear country, so always follow bear-safety rules.
When To Visit: The best time to visit is the summer months when all of the park wil be open and the weather will be at its best. That is the high season, so crowds will be significant. If you want to avoid crwods, April to May and mid September to October will be quieter, but the weather will be cooler and parts of the park might be closed due to snow and bear activity.
Where To Stay: Canyon Lodge
Interesting Fact: At less than 10 million years old, the Tetons are the youngest mountains in the Rockies and some of the youngest mountains in the world.
Contributed by Wendy Norton of Travel The Parks
The Tetons are some of the most recognized mountains in the United States. Grand Teton National Park showcases the grandeur of these majestic jagged peaks, as they seem to magically rise out of the valley floor. Grand Teton is perfect for the traveler who loves extraordinary nature. Children will love seeing pronghorn antelope, elk, and bears roaming the grasslands and hikers will appreciate the abundant hiking trails. You can choose a simple day hike or explore the wild backcountry to experience the breathtaking views at higher altitudes.
For those who want to explore the park by car, the 42-mile scenic loop drive offers unparalleled views. Highlights along the way include Schwabacher Road, Cunningham Historic Cabin, Oxbow Bend Turnout, and Leigh Lake. If you’re driving in the afternoon, leave time to pull over and experience sunset at the Mormon row.
Must do’s include taking the boat shuttle across Jenny Lake, hiking along the Cascade Pass trail to see Hidden Falls, climbing to Inspiration Point, and renting a kayak to cruise on the crystal clear waters of Jackson Lake. The breakfast boat cruise to Elk Island is a photographer’s paradise with outstanding views of Mt. Moran and Mt. Teewinot. Alternatively, spend one incredible afternoon floating down the Snake River looking for moose that frequent the oxbows.
Grand Teton is a treasure. Visitors should allow at minimum 2-3 days to explore the many facets of this amazing park.
When To Visit: The best time to visit is from May to September when the weather will be more temperate and everything in the park will be open and accessible. July and August are the busiest times of the year, with late September offering fewer crowds and pleasant weather.
Where To Stay: Jackson Lake Lodge
Interesting Fact: Zion is famous for its stunning landscape, but is also rich in archeological findings. The earliest inhabitants date back over 1o,000 years. Scattered throughout the park are cave paintings, rock drawings, and carved pathways giving clues to the lives of the indigenous people.
Contributed by Nicole from American SW Obsessed
Zion National Park is the most popular national park of the Mighty 5 in Utah. It’s not hard to see why, with its expansive landscape and some of the best hiking in Utah. Due to its proximity, Zion is often used as a fun day trip from Vegas since it’s the closest airport to the park.
The top thing to do in Zion is to try some of their legendary hikes. Most notably, the challenging (and bucket list-worthy) Angel’s Landing. Angel’s Landing is a 1500 foot rock formation that hikers climb to get to the top and have magnificent views of Zion. In 1926, a trail was cut into the solid rock along with chains installed so you can pull yourself up to see incredible viewpoints of Zion Canyon. It is not for the faint of heart! If you are afraid of heights or have vertigo, it’s best to pass on this hike.
For those looking for a more leisurely hike, Canyon Overlook or Riverside walk, offer stunning scenery and vistas of Bryce Canyon. Other highlights of the park include hiking the narrows, the emerald pools trail, or driving through Kolob Canyons.
Plan to spend at least 2-3 days to see the highlights or 5-7 days if you want to explore deeper.
When To Visit: The best time to visit is from April to May and late September to October when the weather will be warm with an average temperature between 60-90 degrees and the park’s shuttle will still be in service.
Where To Stay: Zion Lodge
Interesting Fact: Arches National Park has been used as the backdrop for several big blockbuster films, most notably in the opening sequence of the 3rd Indiana Jones movie.
Contributed by James Ian from Travel Collecting
Arches National Park is one of the best national parks in the west for hikers. People often think of it as a one-note park, with a few natural arches and not much else. The reality, however, is very different. There are several distinct sections within the park that are full of natural ‘fins’ formed of stone. Over time, weak points have eroded and developed natural arches. There are dozens of them in the park, and they are spectacular. The fins and narrow ravines in between create a fascinating environment to explore.
Some arches are very accessible and ideal for families or people with more limited mobility. Sand Dunes Arch, Skylight Arch, the Park Avenue lookout, and the Windows section are easily accessible.
That being said, Arches NP is a hiker’s paradise, and longer trails lead to even greater rewards. Moderate hikes take you down into Park Avenue with steep cliffs on both sides, and then up to the stunningly located Delicate Arch which adorns Utah’s license plates. The arch is hidden until the last moment, and nothing prepares you for the first breathtaking view.
For serious hikers, Devil’s Garden Trail is a full-day hike. This primitive trail through Fin Canyon takes you over the tops of narrow fins with steep drops on both sides. Along the trail you’ll see a dozen arches and several cairns. One of the most challenging hikes in the park is Fiery Furnace. This 2 mile hike is so disorienting, with no signs or markers, that you can only go on a ranger-led group hike or with a special ranger-obtained permit.
It’s possible to see the highlights in a day, but if you want to explore deeper, three days is recommended.
When To Visit: The best time to visit is from April to May and September to October. Flash floods and 100-degree weather can make visiting in the summer months of July and August an uncomfortable and dangerous experience.
Where To Stay: Moab Springs Ranch
Interesting Fact: Bryce Canyon National Park is home to the largest collection of hoodoos in the world. Hoodoos are tall rock formations, created in arid regions from sedimentary and volcanic rock. The hoodoos in the park are older than 65 million years.
Contributed by Melissa Douglas of High Heels and a Backpack
Bryce Canyon is often overshadowed by its famous neighbor Zion National Park. With its ethereal sunsets, unique rock formations, and scenic hiking trails, Bryce Canyon is arguably one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders and one of the best national parks in the west.
Several hiking trails weave through the scenery of Bryce Canyon. Those looking to get up close and personal with some of Bryce Canyon’s mysterious rock formations will love the Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop trails. Both treks descend into the canyon. They allow you to observe such infamous and unusual rock formations such as Thor’s Hammer, Twin Bridges, and Gulliver’s Castle.
The Rim trail is one of the easiest and most accessible hiking trails. This route is suitable for families and hikers with limited mobility. The footpaths are flat and well-paved, and the trail takes you to all of the most scenic overlooks of the canyon. Try to do the hike at sunrise for the most spectacular panoramas.
It is possible to enjoy Bryce Canyon National Park on a day trip, however, to get the full experience, it is worthwhile to dedicate a long weekend. Stay for the weekend and camp at one of the park’s camping grounds. The North and Sunset campgrounds provide a stunning backdrop for evenings spent cooking s’mores over the campfire. They are both situated just a stone’s throw away from the park entrance.
When To Visit: The park is open all year, but is most accessible from May to September. October to April brings fewer people and c00ler weather, but many services and campgrounds will be closed.
Where To Stay: Bryce Canyon Lodge
Interesting Fact: Capitol Reef National Park gets it name from the white features in the park that resemble the capitol building, while reef refers to the rocky land of the park.
Contributed by Megan Johnson of Red Around The World
Capitol Reef is the most underrated national park of the Mighty 5 in Utah. Most people just pass through when they’re going from Zion to Moab and don’t get to experience the amazing nature the park has to offer. The bonus of visiting the least talked about national park in Utah…a crowd free experience.
Highlights of the park include hiking Hickman Bridge, Cohab Canyon, and Sulphur Creek. If you have time, Headquarters and Surprise slot canyons in the Waterpocket Fold are excellent short hikes that are often combined together. If you have even more time and a high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle, drive the Catherdal Valley Loop.
A unique thing to do in Capitol Reef is picking fruit in the orchards planted by the Mormon settlers. If you want to do this, you’ll have to visit in late summer or fall when it’s ready to harvest. No matter when you visit, stop in the Gifford Store for pie, ice cream, cinnamon rolls, and salsa.
Capitol Reef is perfect for anyone, whether you’re visiting as a family or a solo hiker or even a non-hiker; it’ll be tough not to find something to do. If you have the time, spend at least two days here, but if you only have one, you can still see a lot.
When To Visit: The best time to visit the park is October and November when the scorching summer heat will have passed but it’s still nice enough to enjoy the scenery.
Where To Stay: Red Feather Lodge
Interesting Fact: No dinosaur bones have ever been found at the Grand Canyon. The rocks that make up the canyon walls are about a billion years more ancient than dinosaurs, but the canyon itself probably didn’t form until after the dinosaurs were long gone.
Contributed by Katie Bessant from Life at Number 26
Does the Grand Canyon need any introduction? As one of the seven natural wonders of the world, a trip to the Grand Canyon is sure to be an iconic and unforgettable experience.
If you’re traveling solo or with young children, the South Rim and Grand Canyon Skywalk are the most popular and a great way to see the Grand Canyon from Vegas. For hikers and those seeking a more intimate experience with the canyon, the North Rim is much less crowded.
The rim trails are a great place to start if you’re looking to explore the park on foot. The North Rim has a shuttle bus service that runs regularly so it’s a great option for an easy hike. You can walk in comfort, knowing that if you become tired, you can hop aboard the shuttle bus and head back at the next stop. Another popular hiking trail on the North Rim is Bright Angel Point and offers some of the most spectacular views of the Grand Canyon.
If you have a healthier budget and want to try something new, you may think about booking a helicopter tour to see the breath-taking expanse of the Grand Canyon from the air. If you don’t fancy walking, but don’t have the budget for a helicopter flight, there are also jeep tours and bike rentals available.
Most people explore the Grand Canyon for only a few hours, but a two-night stay would allow you to explore the beauty of the Grand Canyon sufficiently.
When To Visit: The best time to visit is March through May and September through November when temperatures are cooler, prices are lower, and the throngs of tourists have subsided.
Where To Stay: Under Canvas Grand Canyon
Interesting Fact: Bighorn sheep are the symbol of Rocky Mountain National Park. With 400 bighorn sheep living in the park, odds are good you’ll see one when you visit. Bighorn sheep are the largest wild sheep and can weigh up to 300 pounds.
Contributed by Brittany McNamara of B Out Exploring
With more than 265,000 acres of protected land and 350 miles of trails, Rocky Mountain National Park’s rugged peaks, picturesque valleys, and abundant wildlife make it a quintessential gem of the National Park System. Located in Colorado just under two hours from Denver International Airport, Rocky Mountain National Park is a worthwhile year-round destination for families and adventurers alike.
Every first-time visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park needs to drive Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in the U.S. This 48-mile route that connects the town of Grand Lake to Estes Park reaches a height of 12,183 feet. Along the way, take in the vistas and watch for wildlife such as bighorn sheep, elk, and marmot. When planning your trip, keep in mind that Trail Ridge Road closes annually from mid-October to mid-May.
Families and day hikers should visit the popular Bear Lake trailhead. Make sure to arrive early, as the parking lot fills up fast, or plan on taking a shuttle bus. From here you can walk the quick and easy loop around Bear Lake, or visit Alberta Falls, a 30-foot waterfall within a mile of the trailhead. Those interested in something a little more challenging should hike to Emerald Lake, a 10,110-foot-high alpine lake, which can be reached by a moderate, 3.5-mile round trip hike.
There’s plenty to challenge hardcore hikers, too, since the park has more than 60 mountains with peaks over 12,000 feet. The most iconic is Longs Peak at 14,259-feet. This 16-mile hike to the top is only for advanced and experienced hikers with technical skills.
Three or four-days should give you enough time to experience the park. Most visitors choose to stay in Estes Park, where there are several restaurants, shops, and accommodations to suit everyone’s needs.
When To Visit: The park is most accessible from June to September when daily temperatures average 70 degrees. Visiting in the winter months will mean fewer crowds, but you will be contending with snowy conditions and closed roads and trails.
Where To Stay: The Stanley Hotel
Interesting Fact: It is believed that the last inhabitants of Mesa Verde left around 1300. It’s unknown as to why they left, but one theory is crop failures forced them to leave.
Contributed by Oksana & Max from Drink Tea & Travel
There are few national parks in the United States as unique as Mesa Verde National Park. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site with plenty of hiking trails to explore and activities to participate in, you’ll find a lifetime of things to do in Mesa Verde National Park. We discovered it on our United States road trip and can confidently say it was one of the highlights of our trip.
There are over 5000 archaeological sites within the park. Before exploring them on foot, make sure to stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center to get a map of the park and then stop by the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Through interactive exhibits and the 25-minute introductory film, you’ll gain powerful insight into the lives of the Pueblo people who inhabited the area and created the ancient dwellings you’ll see within the park.
Mesa Verde National Park offers ranger talks and other activities throughout the year. Don’t miss taking the guided tour to the Long House. You’ll be accompanied by a ranger who will further explain the history of the park and this particular structure. It is one of the few dwellings that you can enter.
For a bird’s eye view of the ancient ruins, the 6-Mile Mesa Verde is a scenic drive that will not disappoint. There are various lookout points which offer excellent views of the ancient dwellings and the incredible scenery which occupies the park.
This park is suited to everyone from families, friends, couples, and solo adventurers. Whether you are more interested in hiking or history, you’ll be pleased with this park. Plus, for anyone with limited mobility, the lookout points offer an excellent way to see the park’s main attraction without a rigorous workout.
When To Visit: To avoid crowds, the best time to visit is September when tours are still being offered and the weather is still pleasant. The high season for the park is in the summer months when school is out and the weather is nice.
Where To Stay: Airbnb Canyon Hideout Cabin
West Coast National Park Road Trip
If you’re trying to plan your own west coast national park tour here are a few options to consider. The amount of time it will take will be dependent on your travel style and how much time you want in each park. The following options are for a moderate to slow pace. They can all be done quicker for those that prefer quicker trips.
1. Crater Lake NP > Olympic NP > Mount Rainier NP (10 Days)
2. Joshua Tree NP > Death Valley NP > Sequoia NP > Yosemite NP (12-14 days)
3. Grand Canyon NP > Zion NP > Bryce Canyon NP > Capitol Reef NP > Arches NP > Grand Mesa NP (2 to 3 weeks)
4. Glacier NP > Yellowstone NP > Grand Teton NP ( 7 -10 Days)
Happy travels on your quest to visit the best of the best west coast national parks! We’ll see you on the mountain.
If you liked this post, you can check out our sister post about 9 Must-See East Coast National Parks.
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