Must-do activities at every national park

Written by:
August 16, 2021
daveynin // Flickr

Must-do activities at every national park

America is a tapestry of national parks, offering everyone the chance to enjoy the great outdoors in some of the most stunning natural settings in the country. From the icy wonders of Alaska’s remote glaciers to the crystal-blue waters of the Florida Keys, there’s something for everyone.

Using data from the National Park Service’s Annual Park Ranking Report to rank the top 60 national parks by their recreational visits in 2020, Stacker searched for the best, most interesting activities to do at each, along with the best time to visit and how to prepare for a journey to each.

To see the lightning bugs in perfect unison in South Carolina or paddle through California’s Painted Cave, you must be ready to make your trip at a specific time of the year, but venturing deep into the world’s largest cave system in Kentucky or exploring the reefs and history around Fort Jefferson are available year-round.

Looking for a little adventure to tap into your inner Indiana Jones? Maybe just a place to relax, dip your toes in the sand, and watch the water kiss the beach? Is history and nature your thing? Read on to see Stacker’s list of must-do activities at every national park and don’t be surprised if you find yourself booking your next vacation.

Editor’s note: Check the park’s website ahead of time, as COVID-19 restrictions result in some parks temporarily closing or limiting access. Some of the activities described may not be available while restrictions are in place.

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Paxson Woelber // Wikimedia Commmons

#60. Gates of the Arctic: Backpack, camp the Arctic

- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2020: 2,872

There are several reasons backpacking and camping are the primary activities at the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. The 8.3-million-acre preserve has no access roads, trails, or park services and remains one of the most pristine, untouched parcels in the world. The Brooks Mountain Range runs along the edge of the park, providing scenic views. The best way to the Arctic is taking an air taxi from Fairbanks 280 miles to one of the remote villages around the park, and hiking in from there. Summer is the only time to visit the park, as the temperatures reach -20 to -50 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.

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National Park Service // Wikimedia Commons

#59. Lake Clark: Visit Proenneke Cabin

- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2020: 4,948

Lake Clark offers plenty for the outdoor adventure seeker, from kayaking and fishing on the 50-mile lake to hiking and sightseeing in the 4 million, mostly unexplored acres. The shores of nearby Upper Twin Lake are host to Proenneke Cabin, built in 1968 by Richard Proenneke using resources from the area and tools he made himself. Getting there can be tricky, with no roads leading to Lake Clark, so an air taxi and water landing on the lake are the best routes for getting there in the summer when the cabin is open for tours.

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#58. Isle Royale: Scuba dive shipwrecks

- Location: Michigan
- Recreational visits in 2020: 6,493

On Lake Superior between Michigan and Minnesota, Isle Royale’s frigid depths preserve the remains of 10 notable shipwrecks ready for exploration by licensed divers. Ranging in depth from 2 to 260 feet, the oldest ship dates back to 1877, when the island was teeming with copper mines. Anyone without scuba training can still find something to do on Isle Royale, including exploring those old copper mines, seeing the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, which dates back to 1855, and seeing the Northern Lights.

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National Park Service // Flickr

#57. Kobuk Valley: Hike Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2020: 11,185

Like Alaska’s previous national parks, Kobuk Valley is only accessible by plane, snowmobile, or dog sled for much of the year. Nestled inside its nearly 1.8-million serene acres are the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, formed by the residue from ancient grinding glaciers. Located 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the dunes and surrounding area are hosts to a variety of wildlife, including the migration of a half-million caribou every year.

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#56. North Cascades: Hike Desolation Peak

- Location: Washington
- Recreational visits in 2020: 30,885

The top of Desolation Peak provides beautiful views of the North Cascades range, which contains one-third of all the glaciers on the mainland United States within its 789 square miles. The peak offers literature fans an added thrill, as writer Jack Kerouac spent a summer inside the fire tower at the top while serving as a fire lookout. Summer is the best time to visit the park since snow closes down many of the access roads from October through June.

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Acroterion // Wikimedia Commons

#55. Dry Tortugas: Explore Fort Jefferson

- Location: Florida
- Recreational visits in 2020: 48,543

The Florida keys offer great opportunities for sun and fun—and a little bit of history at Fort Jefferson, the largest brick building in the Western hemisphere. The fort served as a prison during the Civil War, requiring over 16 million bricks to complete, with many shipped from Maine. Guided snorkeling tours of the fort’s underwater ruins provide colorful fish and reefs, and encounters with wildlife like sea turtles, from which the island draws its name.

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Christoph Strässler

#54. Katmai: Stay at Brooks Camp

- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2020: 51,511

Katmai National Park is located on the Southern Peninsula of Alaska and is home to more brown bears than people, an estimated 2,200. The best spot to view them is from Brooks Camp, which features multiple viewing platforms to watch them feed on salmon in the Brooks River. June through mid-September is the best time to visit since these hibernators hunker down for the winter, and the camp closes down for most visitors.

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Larry Koester // Flickr

#53. Denali: Spot the Big Five

- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2020: 54,850

The spectacle of North America’s most significant peak, Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), is a close second, but wildlife is the main attraction in the 6 million-acre park. There are 39 species of mammals to check out at Denali, but the Big Five—moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears—are the holy grail. The best way to see Denali is by bus tour in the summertime since there’s only one road through, and winter weather is especially unpredictable.

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#52. Kenai Fjords: Take a boat tour

- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2020: 115,882

Taking in the sights from aboard a tour boat is the best way to experience all that Kenai Fjords has to offer. Float to the base of a few of the park's 40 glaciers and spot a variety of marine wildlife, including sea otters, seals, and a variety of whale species. Summer is the best time to visit when the days are longer, and roads can remain open—and don’t fret if it rains since it creates ephemeral waterfalls off the glacier.

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Sushantk2212 // Wikimedia Commons

#51. Congaree: Follow the fireflies

- Location: South Carolina
- Recreational visits in 2020: 119,306

For a two- to three-week period between mid-May and mid-June, the night sky in Congaree National Park lights up for the Fireflies Festival. Visitors descend upon Congaree to see the millions of synchronous fireflies illuminate in perfect unison just feet off the ground during mating season. Although there are several restrictions during the famous festival, the park is open late, and nearby Columbia offers plenty of places to stay.

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Trail Sherpa

#50. Great Basin: Traverse Bristlecone Trail

- Location: Nevada
- Recreational visits in 2020: 120,248

The five-mile hike through the Bristlecone and Glacier Trail leads to the base of Wheeler Peak and Nevada’s only glacier. Along the way, hikers can walk through the Bristlecone Pines, one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. Great Basin offers several experiences unique to its borders, including tours of the Lehman Caves, which offers over 300 shield formations in its explorable depths. The park is open year-round, but some areas close during the winter months.

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Thomas Shahan // Flickr

#49. Guadalupe Mountains: Desert hiking

- Location: Texas
- Recreational visits in 2020: 151,256

Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers over 80 miles of hiking trails deep in the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas. Devil’s Hall Trail, featuring a natural rock staircase, and Guadalupe Peak, dubbed the “Top of Texas,” present two good day-hiking options. Visitors to the park should come well-prepared, since the nearest gas station is 35 miles away, and the park has no store and no cell service.

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Scott Frier // Wikimedia Commons

#48. Pinnacles: See a California Condor

- Location: California
- Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

One of the smallest and youngest national parks, Pinnacles offers a variety of places for birdwatching and hiking. High Peaks is the prime spot to see the pinnacle of birdwatching in the park. Visitors can enjoy the birds year-round.

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daveynin // Flickr

#47. Channel Islands: Kayak Painted Cave

- Location: California
- Recreational visits in 2020: 167,290

Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island is one of the largest sea caves in the world, cutting a quarter-mile into the island and providing amazing views. Getting to Santa Cruz Island by charter will also allow visitors to do some whale watching, snorkel the kelp forest, and see plenty of marine wildlife all in a single visit to the Channel Islands.

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#46. Virgin Islands: Dive beneath the surface

- Location: Caribbean
- Recreational visits in 2020: 167,540

It’s tough to see Virgin Islands National Park without a pair of swim trunks, as over 40% of the park is underwater. Crystal-clear water and a variety of colorful reefs and wildlife make the seas a prime spot for snorkelers and scuba divers. For snorkelers, Hawksnest Bay boasts one of the most extensive stands of Elkhorn coral, while Cinnamon Bay Beach offers a submerged historic village and a sunken plane to explore. Congo Cay presents a chance to dive a little deeper, dropping off into the open ocean, and see more abundant wildlife such as rays.

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daveynin // Flickr

#45. Carlsbad Caverns: See the Big Room

- Location: New Mexico
- Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835

The largest single cave chamber in North America, the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns, was once dubbed “The Grand Canyon with a roof” by Will Rogers. Visitors can take an elevator or walk the winding mile-plus Natural Entrance Trail down to the massive limestone enclosure, where multiple trails await. The best time to visit the park is at sunset from late-May through October, when hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats leave the caves to hunt. The park offers an amphitheater to watch the flight, but you will have to take mental pictures as cellphones and cameras can disrupt the bats’ behavior.

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#44. Voyageurs: Rent a boat

- Location: Minnesota
- Recreational visits in 2020: 263,091

The only national park in Minnesota, Voyageurs is a system of lake waterways that requires a boat most of the year to see its vast beauty. Fishing in the waters of the Rainy Lake Basin yields some of the best walleye and bass populations in the country. The park is open year-round, but trade in the boat for a snowmobile during the winter months.

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#43. Redwood: Drive among giants

- Location: California
- Recreational visits in 2020: 265,177

The National Park Service reports a scenic drive through Redwood reveals ancient forests, a rugged coastline, upland prairies, and oak woodlands. When not driving, visitors are encouraged to walk through the Redwood forest for half-day and full-day excursions. At the end of the day, backcountry camping gives visitors the full Redwood experience of sleeping under 240-foot trees.

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daveynin // Flickr

#42. Mesa Verde: Tour Long House

- Location: Colorado
- Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477

The Pueblo called Mesa Verde home from 600 to 1300 AD, constructing elaborate buildings and dwelling in the cliffs of Colorado. Long House is the second-largest of Mesa Verde’s 600 cave dwellings, and the best chance to get up close and personal with the history of the Pueblo. The only way to see Long House is via ranger-led tour, and you have to buy a ticket for the two-hour tour before making the 45-minute drive out to Wetherill Mesa. The park itself is open year-round but provides tours only in-season.

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NPS Photo

#41. Mammoth Cave: Take a tour

- Location: Kentucky
- Recreational visits in 2020: 290,392

Mammoth Cave is the most extensive known cave system in the world, at over 400 explored miles, and all the history and beauty can be overwhelming without a guide. From simple tours like the Frozen Niagara Tour to the steep inclines and stairs of the Historic Tour, Mammoth has something for the history or adventure buff inside. Mammoth Cave is open year-round, but tours can vary from season to season.

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#40. Haleakala: Catch a sunrise/sunset

- Location: Hawaii
- Recreational visits in 2020: 319,147

The drive to the top of Haleakala will take you through as many ecological zones as a trip from Mexico to Canada, featuring more endangered species than any other national park. Seeing a sunrise or sunset from the peak of Haleakala, or “House of the Sun,” draws nearly half the visitors to the park annually. Check the weather before you go and make sure you have reservations for sunrise (none needed for sunset).

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Ken L. // Flickr

#39. Black Canyon of the Gunnison: Drive the rims

- Location: Colorado
- Recreational visits in 2020: 341,620

The South Rim at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison offers a dozen different spots, including Chasm View, Painted Wall, Pulpit Rock, and Sunset View—a walk right to the edge of the sheer, 2,000-foot walls of the canyon. July is the busiest time at the South Rim with around 46,000 visitors, while a few hours’ drive further is the more scenic North Rim. Only 1,200 people visit at the busiest times, and the weather makes the rims inaccessible by car from November to April.

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#38. Petrified Forest: Camp in the Painted Desert

- Location: Arizona
- Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483

In the northern section of Petrified Forest lies the Painted Desert, 100 miles of multicolored badlands that stretch through the Navajo Nation to Grand Canyon National Park. A little preparation is required to camp beneath the dark skies, like obtaining a free backcountry permit, but once you get off the half-mile trail leading into the desert, you’re free to roam and camp anywhere. You can check out the old Studebaker on Route 66 on your way in, too.

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Michael Massa // Flickr

#37. Big Bend: Soak in Langford Hot Springs

- Location: Texas
- Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907

A soak in the Langford Hot Springs is the perfect way to end a day of hiking inside Texas’ Big Bend National Park, exploring popular spots like Santa Elena Canyon, once called the Grand Canyon of Texas. J.O. Langford built a limestone bathhouse in the early 1900s after hearing of the healing powers of the 105-degree springs on the banks of the Rio Grande. The springs are a short quarter-mile hike from the trailhead on the southeastern part of the park, so after a full day of hiking, relief is a short walk away.

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National Park Service Digital Image Archives // Wikimedia Commons

#36. Biscayne: Snorkel reefs and shipwrecks

- Location: Florida
- Recreational visits in 2020: 402,770

Get out the snorkel and scuba gear for a trip to Biscayne National Park, aka Watery Wonderland. Sunken ships are just a few underwater sites for visitors. For those who prefer to stay above water, boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, lobstering, and watching wildlife are other activities to enjoy. Children have the option to be a Junior Ranger by visiting three mascots including Peter the Panther, Diego the Dolphin, and Aleesha the Alligator at three of South Florida’s national parks, including Big Cypress and the Everglades.

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daveynin // Flickr

#35. Kings Canyon: See General Grant

- Location: California
- Recreational visits in 2020: 415,077

The second-largest tree in the world, called General Grant, can be seen at this park. It extends 268 feet into the sky and reaches 34 feet in diameter. It’s less than a half-mile walk down a paved trail to see General Grant. The park is open 24 hours a day all year and operates with nearby Sequoia National Park, where General Sherman, the largest tree in the world, lives, making it possible to hit both in one day.

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Mahmoud Ghazal // Shutterstock

#34. Wind Cave: Take the Natural Entrance Tour

- Location: South Dakota
- Recreational visits in 2020: 448,405

Wind Cave features the world’s highest concentration of boxwork formations, a structure of honeycomb-patterned calcite protruding from the cave walls. The best way to view this rare geologic sight is the Natural Entrance Tour, beginning at the cave’s only known natural opening, which the Lakota consider sacred as the place their people first emerged from the Earth. The park is open year-round and offers plenty of hiking trails, wildlife, and camping opportunities for anyone that doesn’t want to venture beneath the Earth.

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balu // Flickr

#33. Wrangell-St. Elias: Backpack a sixteener

- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2020: 448,405

Measuring more than 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias in south-central Alaska is the largest designated wilderness in America. Access to much of the park is incredibly tricky, including its most extensive collection of peaks above 16,000 feet in North America, led by Mount St. Elias, the second-largest mountain in the U.S. For more adventurous types, sightseeing tours can end with a wilderness drop-off for backpacking through the mostly unexplored terrain.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

#32. Great Sand Dunes: Go sandboarding

- Location: Colorado
- Recreational visits in 2020: 461,532

Flying down a mountain in Colorado isn’t a unique experience, but doing it on the sands of Great Sand Dunes National Park certainly is. The park has a lot to offer, including climbing North America’s tallest dune, but sandboarding and sledding are the unique activities at the park. The park is open year-round, but spring and fall are the best times to carve some sand since it can reach 150 degrees during summer days. Special equipment is needed as well, which you can rent at a couple locations outside the park entrance.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

#31. Gateway Arch: Ride tram to the top of the arc

- Location: Missouri
- Recreational visits in 2020: 486,021

Renamed Gateway Arch after being the “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial,” this Missouri region known for its 630-foot monument—which visitors flock to annually for the famous site—is now national parkland. Two popular visitor spots include the Museum of Westward Expansion and the St. Louis Courthouse. Riding on a St. Louis Riverfront Cruise, taking a tram ride to the top of the arch, or hovering over the site in a helicopter are also activities at the park.

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John Buie // Flickr

#30. Canyonlands: Mesa Arch

- Location: Utah
- Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914

The views at Canyonlands begin as soon as you get to the visitors center in southeastern Utah, and there are plenty of scenic drives to satisfy the inner sightseer. Sunrise is the best time to visit and photograph Canyonlands’ feature attraction, Mesa Arch, which is just a half-mile walk down the Mesa Arch Trail. The Island in the Sky section of the park, which contains Mesa Arch, is open year-round, with shorter winter hours. If you have a few days (and some survival skills), a trip out to the remote Maze area offers solitude and serenity.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

#29. Lassen Volcanic: Hike Boiling Springs Lake Trail

- Location: California
- Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274

While Bumpass Hell Trail may be the feature attraction at Lassen, Boiling Springs Lake is worth a trip in and of itself. A short walk through meadows and fields leads to the 125-degree lake, with some of the park’s best mudpots at the outskirts. Make sure you stay on the trails: stepping off could result in a dip in acid water.

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#28. Theodore Roosevelt: Drive the Badlands

- Location: North Dakota
- Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303

Two different scenic routes put all the Badlands offer on display, with frequent scenic overlooks and tons of wildlife, from bison to snakes. Theodore Roosevelt was called the Conservationist President—protecting over 230 million acres during his presidency—and visiting Maltese Cross Cabin gives visitors a look into the past. The best time to visit is May through September to avoid the snow, though the park is open year-round.

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Janice Wei // NPS Photo

#27. Hawaii Volcanoes: Drive the Crater Rim

- Location: Hawaii
- Recreational visits in 2020: 589,775

Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park centers on a pair of active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. While the Crater Rim Drive sustained serious damage when Kilauea erupted in 2018, much of it is open again and gives an up-close look at the steam vents and lava that make up most of the island. The park is open 365 days a year, but monitor the weather before you go.

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Ian Poellet // Wikimedia Commons

#26. Crater Lake: Drive the Scenic Rim

- Location: Oregon
- Recreational visits in 2020: 670,500

Crater Lake itself is the featured attraction in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, and the 33-mile Scenic Rim Drive is the best way to see the nation’s deepest lake. The park is open year-round, but the roads around the rim close from late October through early April. The trail is narrow but offers a bunch of spots to jump out and take pictures. Boat and trolley tours are available if you want to skip the driving.

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NPS Photo

#25. Everglades: See gators

- Location: Florida
- Recreational visits in 2020: 702,319

There are plenty of ways to get an up-close look at one of the thousands of alligators in Everglades National Park, the third-largest park in the lower 48 states. The 15-mile road to the Shark Valley Visitors Center can be done by tram, bike, or foot, and alligators can be spotted sunbathing along the asphalt trail. For more daring types, several alligator farm shows offer feeding giant reptiles that can reach 15 feet. The dry season of December to April is the most popular time to visit since temperatures and humidity are low, but the wet season offers more alligator activity.

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#24. Saguaro: Hike among giant cacti

- Location: Arizona
- Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226

Hiking the trails provides a great view of the mighty saguaros, the largest cacti in the country, growing up to 50 feet tall. Saguaro National Park is divided into two districts, separated by the city of Tucson, but both spots have trails with varying degrees of difficulty and are open year-round. If you can stand the heat, visiting from late April through June offers a chance to see the saguaros’ flowers in full bloom.

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m01229 // Flicr

#23. Sequoia: Pay homage to General Sherman

- Location: California
- Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086

Measuring in at 275 feet tall with a 36-foot diameter at the base, General Sherman is the world’s largest tree by volume. General Sherman is the main attraction inside Sequoia’s largest sequoia grove, the Giant Forest, and is reached with just a half-mile walk down a paved trail. On your way to the Giant Forest, drive up Crescent Meadow Road and you will pass through the tunnel log caused by a great sequoia falling across the road in 1937.

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Supercarwaar // Wikimedia Commons

#22. Death Valley: Visit Badwater Basin

- Location: California, Nevada
- Recreational visits in 2020: 820,023

The giant Badwater Basin salt flat, the largest at America’s lowest level of minus-282 feet, is a must-see at Death Valley, with the National Park Service reporting, “These large salt formations, in the shape of a large polygon, form a unique landscape that appears to stretch on forever.” Other activities include listening to underground pops and pings at Devils Golf Course, and visiting Zabriskie Point, considered one of the most famous sights in Death Valley.

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Chris Light // Wikimedia Commons

#21. Badlands: Scramble Notch Trail

- Location: South Dakota
- Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932

Large, multicolored rock formations are the premier attraction within the 244,000 acres that make up the Badlands. The Notch Trail is the best way to step right to the edge of the cliffs and see all that the White River Valley offers. People with a fear of heights should avoid the 1.5-mile trail, which includes climbing a log ladder to reach the Notch. Avoid the rain as well, since roads can become impassable, and trails slippery.

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The Dye Clan // Wikimedia Commons

#20. Capitol Reef: Stand atop Cassidy Arch

- Location: Utah
- Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038

It’s difficult to get to the spot where outlaw Butch Cassidy hid out in the hills of southern Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, but the hike is worth it. Stop by Fruita Ranch or Gifford Homestead on the way to Cassidy’s Arch and get a glimpse into the lifestyle of the area’s first settlers. Check harvest schedules to visit one orchard and eat fruit straight from the trees.

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Mount Rainier National Park // Flickr

#19. Mount Rainier: Experience a wildflower 'paradise'

- Location: Washington
- Recreational visits in 2020: 1,160,754

A trip to Mount Rainier in early August is the prime time to see the vast wildflower fields of Paradise in full bloom. Multiple trails lead straight into the lush fields of pink, purple, red, and white wildflowers at the base of Mount Rainier. For winter buffs, the area experiences huge amounts of snow every winter, perfect for skiing, sledding, or snowshoeing.

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Ken L. // Flickr

#18. Arches: Peer through The Windows

- Location: Utah
- Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083

Arches National Park is a great spot to take the family, with several easy hikes and breathtaking views. The Windows Section gives visitors the opportunity to view beautiful red-rock arches all within a half-mile walk. The park is most popular during the winter, since the temperature exceeds 100 regularly in the summer.

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Brandonrush // Wikimedia Commons

#17. Hot Springs: Take a hot bath

- Location: Arkansas
- Recreational visits in 2020: 1,348,215

There are 26 miles of trails through Hot Springs National Park to explore, but sitting down afterward for a thermal bath along Bathhouse Row is the way to go. The springs are noted for their healing and therapeutic benefits, and there are eight bathhouses to choose from, including Buckstaff, which has been operating since 1912. When the day is done, sit back at the first brewery in a national park, and enjoy a beer made from the thermal spring water.

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Giuseppe Milo // Flickr

#16. Bryce Canyon: Watch the sunrise

- Location: Utah
- Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655

The Bryce Point scenery draws visitors to the Utah park, according to U.S. News & World Report, which notes, “One former visitor who made the early morning trip called it breathtaking, but others said it is just as stunning at all hours of the day.” But it’s not just Bryce Point that visitors often frequent; they also praise positively named points including Inspiration, Sunrise, and Rainbow. Even the visitor center is a must-see, as the prairie dog maze and interactive consoles offer incredible experiences.

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Shenandoah National Park // Flickr

#15. Shenandoah: Skyline Drive

- Location: Virginia
- Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265

It’s a slow drive along the 105-mile Skyline Drive, Shenandoah’s only public road, with 70 lookouts to see the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fall is the best time to take the three-hour drive, after the leaves have changed, but pay attention to the weather because snow can close the road rapidly. Winter visits are still worth the trip and increase the chances of seeing some of the area’s diverse wildlife.

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daveynin // Flickr

#14. Glacier: Photograph Grinnell Glacier

- Location: Montana
- Recreational visits in 2020: 1,698,864

The National Park Service reports “a quintessential part of any Glacier visit” is touring Going-to-the-Sun Road. When you get out of the car from the scenic drive between the east and west sides of the mountain, hiking the Highline Trail and photographing the Grinnell Glacier is a top activity, according to the U.S. News & World Report, which notes that “most recent visitors called this daylong hike a ‘must-do’ and loved the variety of wildlife, from bighorn sheep and mountain goats to marmots and bears.”

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#13. Glacier Bay: Take a boat tour

- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2020: 1,698,864

There are several activities at Glacier Bay, from hiking trails to flightseeing, but taking a boat tour is the most personal way to see all that the park’s 3.3 million acres have to offer. Passengers can see massive ice chunks calve from Margerie Glacier or icebergs exploding to the surface as they break off the base of Johns Hopkins, spotting wildlife from whales and sea lions to grizzly bears and moose along the way. Dressing in layers is recommended for boat tours, which run every morning from mid-May through mid-September since the park closes for the winter.

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HylgeriaK // Wikimedia Commons

#12. Yosemite: Hike Half Dome

- Location: California
- Recreational visits in 2020: 2,268,313

Calling Yosemite “a shrine to human foresight” made up of glaciers and granite, the National Park Service says the best time to visit the High Sierra is April through October. Seeing the many viewpoints of Half Dome, an 8,800-foot mountain, encompasses all the best things to do at the California park. If not ice skating under or hiking up Half Dome, visitors can also experience it while rafting or tubing down the Merced River.

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Yinan Chen // Wikimedia Commons

#11. Indiana Dunes: Go geocaching

- Location: Indiana
- Recreational visits in 2020: 2,293,106

Writing for National Geographic Jacqueline Kehoe notes, “Fifteen miles of beaches give way not only to impressive sand dunes and blowouts, but marshes, wetlands, groves of black oak savanna and maple sugar trees, and fields of wildflowers that come and go with the seasons.” Geocaching, the world’s largest treasure hunt, is one of the unique visitor experiences at the national park, as well as Dark Sky parties, fun-filled nights of constellation study, or the annual Indiana Dunes Bird Watching Festival every May.

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Contributor7001 // Wikimedia Commons

#10. Joshua Tree: Climb desert sandstone

- Location: California
- Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542

There are many must-do activities at Joshua Tree, according to the California Travel & Tourism Commission, reporting the top three are discovering wildlife on the Indian Cove Nature Trail, rock climbing at Echo Cove, or hiking among hulking boulders on the Arch Rock Trail. Eight developed campgrounds offer overnight excursions, with most visitors frequenting Joshua Tree during the week from October through May, and on the weekends from mid-February to mid-May. Of course, checking out the park’s namesake trees in the Colorado and Mojave Deserts is one of the first things any visitor does when visiting the grounds.

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#9. Olympic: Hike up your shorts and go tidepooling

- Location: Washington
- Recreational visits in 2020: 2,499,177

Tidepooling is one of the top things to do at Olympic National Park in Washington, with TripAdvisor reviews reporting Rialto and Second Beach as the best spots to explore underwater wildlife. Roaming through the Hoh Rain Forest is also a must-do activity, according to U.S. News & World Report, rating it before Hurricane Ridge, which can be hiked in the summer and accessed by sled in the winter.

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Ken L. // Flickr

#8. Acadia: Cruise on the Queen Mary

- Location: Maine
- Recreational visits in 2020: 2,669,034

Acadia National Park includes Mount Desert Island, the most massive island off the Maine Coast in the town of Bar Harbor. Some must-do activities in the area include soaking up the scenery while walking the shore path or cruising on the Queen Mary. From March to October, whale watching is widespread, according to Sally Barber of USA Today, who calls the 36,000-square-mile gulf “one of the planet’s most productive aqua ecosystems.” The Maine park launched the Artists-in-Residence experience to attract new visitors—particularly artists who can express the beauty of the land through their respective creative mediums.

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Corey Balazowich // Flickr

#7. Cuyahoga Valley: Watch birds in Beaver Marsh

- Location: Ohio
- Recreational visits in 2020: 2,755,628

Great blue herons are just one of the magnificent birds visitors can see in the Beaver Marsh. They are regularly seen in and above the area, and some visitors even see their young. There are several more activities to participate in at Cuyahoga Valley, with John Pana of recommending his top five: Hiking the Virginia Kendall Ledges, riding the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, biking along the Towpath Trail, taking in Brandywine Falls, and camping at the Stanford Trail campground. 

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Grand Canyon National Park // Flickr

#6. Grand Canyon: Visit Grand Canyon Village

- Location: Arizona
- Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098

The grandest sections of the Grand Canyon include the North Rim and Bright Angel Trail, both of which recommend setting aside a half or full day to visit, according to U.S. News & World Report. For serious visitors, the Grand Canyon offers a Ranger Program, with walks and talks during the year on the North and South Rim. But the most popular part of the park is the Grand Canyon Village, the entryway to the ravine and location of Yavapai Point.

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Dan Thornberg // Shutterstock

#5. Grand Teton: Camp in the backcountry

- Location: Wyoming
- Recreational visits in 2020: 3,289,638

Two prime spots to visit at Grand Teton are the scenic mountain valley of Jackson Hole and Jenny Lake, a two-mile long, 250-foot deep basin and seven-and-a-half-mile trail that leads to falls or canyons. Other must-do activities according to the National Park Service include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter and backcountry camping in the summer, which requires advanced planning. Another must-do is hiking any of Grand Teton’s 12 top-rated trails, which range from arduous and lengthy to aligned and short.

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#4. Rocky Mountain: Hike at high elevation

- Location: Colorado
- Recreational visits in 2020: 3,305,199

The Colorado national park sees up to 4.4 million visitors annually in typical years, with many walking along the five-state-long, 3,100-mile Continental Trail Divide, according to National Geographic. While visitors can enjoy the six-mile hike into the ghost town Lulu City, an abandoned mining village notorious for apparitions, all year, they can also spend a long weekend in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain National Park Night Sky, a three-day event held every summer.

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Pavel Špindler // Wikimedia Commons

#3. Zion: Hike Angels Landing

- Location: Utah
- Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254

The Travel Channel’s Erin Gifford reports that aside from hiking Angels Landing, running the Zion Half Marathon is one of the best things you can do in the national park. When not in the sky touring the mountain from a helicopter, visitors can look up to the sky when stargazing, both very popular park activities. Lastly, rock climbing, scenic roadway tours, off-roading, and watching a sunrise or sunset in the canyons are considered a “must-do” at Zion.

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Greg Willis // Wikimedia Commons

#2. Yellowstone: See Old Faithful

- Location: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
- Recreational visits in 2020: 3,806,306

Old Faithful—a predictable cone geyser that has spewed every 44 to 125 minutes for 19 years—is one of the most magnificent offerings of any park. But there’s more to do at Yellowstone, including hiking to the Yellowstone Grand Canyon that tops the hot water springs, according to U.S. News & World Report. Another incredible spot is Yellowstone Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the park where panoramic views are most visible by car.

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Eric Brinley // Shutterstock

#1. Great Smoky Mountains: Cycle Cades Cove

- Location: Tennessee, North Carolina
- Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720

With a small section of the Appalachian Trail running through it, Great Smoky Mountains touts towering mountains with cliff-side walkways perfect during all four seasons. Considered the most popular spot in the park by the National Park Service, Cades Cove promises many wildlife sightings including black bear, coyote, and turkey. While many walk and bike the 11-mile loop, a roadway circles the cove for motorists who prefer a scenic drive. Other famed Smoky Mountains sections include the trails of Charlies Bunion, Andrews Bald, and Chimney Tops, with a 1,400-foot elevation, two-mile hike.

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