The U.S. has 59 awe-inspiring national parks, along with scores of national monuments, memorials, rivers, seashores, lakeshores and battlefields. The National Park Service manages about 400 units overall, stretching from coastal Maine to the Northern Mariana Islands, and any attempt to compile a definitive "must-see" list is doomed to inadequacy.
Still, it would be un-American not to try. The U.S. National Park System is too enormous for most people to thoroughly explore, and while it's full of hidden gems and overlooked overlooks, certain iconic highlights have become cultural touchstones over time.
Below are 15 national park views we think fall into that category, based on a mix of cultural salience, environmental novelty, critical acclaim and je ne sais quoi. But as good as we feel about our picks, this list is inevitably incomplete. If you know of any must-see scenery we didn't include, please help us improve the list by leaving a comment.
Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park
Photo: James Chang/Flickr
With sweeping views of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls from a platform just off California State Route 41, Tunnel View overlook offers a convenient and compelling introduction to the majesty of Yosemite National Park. The 80-year-old site was renovated in 2008, mainly to improve accessibility and traffic flow for the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people who gather there daily during the peak tourism season.
Delicate Arch, Arches National Park
Photo: Jacob W. Frank/NPS
The 65-foot-tall Delicate Arch is an icon of Arches National Park, located in the high desert of eastern Utah. It's one of some 2,000 natural stone arches at the park, formed by the weathering and erosion of Jurassic-era sandstone, but its dramatic shape and placement help raise its profile. Getting there means hiking 3 miles round-trip with no shade, so bring plenty of water. At night, the dry climate and dark skies make for great stargazing.
Chimney Tops, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Photo: Scott Oves/Flickr
Along the lush, foggy spine of southern Appalachia's Blue Ridge Mountains, half a million acres are protected as a U.S. nature preserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site. There's a lot to see in Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the country's most visited national park, drawing nearly 10 million people a year — but some of the best views are from Chimney Tops, a 4,677-foot-tall mountain that features a popular 4-mile hiking trail.
Mount McKinley, Denali National Park and Preserve
Across the continent from the Smokies, a very different mountain scene sprawls across 6 million acres of untamed Alaska. Denali National Park and Preserve is the third-largest U.S. national park, and it's also home to North America's tallest peak: the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. Climbing it is no walk in the park — aside from skill and luck, you'll need $350 and 60 days notice — but thankfully it's just one of Denali's many natural wonders.
Geothermal springs, Yellowstone National Park
Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
America's first national park is too full of sights to pick just one. Yellowstone National Park has epic vistas like Yellowstone Lake and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, plus hordes of iconic wildlife, but its real magic is geology. A supervolcano under the park fuels Earth's largest array of geysers, hot springs, mudpots and steam vents, including such landmarks as Old Faithful, Castle Geyser, Mammoth Hot Springs and Grand Prismatic Spring.
Halema'uma'u Crater, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Photo: Keith Burnett/NPS
A few thousand miles southwest of Yellowstone, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park offers an even closer look at Earth's inner beauty. Visit Jaggar Overlook at night to see lava cast an orange glow from Halema'uma'u Crater, home of the fire goddess Pele. By daylight, hike Kilauea-Iki's misty moonscape or head south for a chance to see flowing lava at Kilauea, one of the park's two active volcanoes. (But make sure to check conditions first.)
South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
Photo: Michael Quinn/NPS
Few places on Earth elicit awe like the Grand Canyon, a 277-mile-long chasm that dives a mile deep and gapes up to 18 miles across. Most of the 4 million yearly visitors to Grand Canyon National Park flock to busy South Rim overlooks, but nearby trails are worth a look, too. The 7-mile South Kaibab Trail isn't easy, but its 360-degree views reward hikers with an "exhilarating sense of exposure to the vastness of the canyon," the NPS says.
Zion Canyon, Zion National Park
Unlike the Grand Canyon's famous top-down views, most people look up at the towering walls of Utah's Zion Canyon. Carved into Navajo sandstone by ancient winds and the Virgin River, this hallmark of Zion National Park is too steep for many tourists to ascend, but trails like the 2-mile hike up Angel's Landing offer stunning views from above. There's also lots to see on the valley floor, including riverside trails and a diverse mix of wildlife.
Turner River, Everglades National Park
Photo: Chauncey Davis/Flickr
It only covers a fifth of the original Everglades, but Florida's 1.5 million-acre Everglades National Park — also a U.N. Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site — is still huge. There's hiking, biking and camping, but the swampy park is best seen by boat. Paddle through sawgrass prairies and mangrove tunnels on popular canoe trails like Hell's Bay, Nine Mile Pond or Turner River, keeping an eye out for alligators and mosquitos.
Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo: Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado has a dozen taller mountains, but the 14,259-foot Longs Peak stands out due to its location. Jutting up from the Front Range near the Great Plains' western edge, it's visible across most of the 265,000-acre Rocky Mountain National Park. The Keyhole Route is a popular way up, but the NPS warns it's a climb, "not a hike." If you're not into heights, the park also has more than 300 miles of hiking trails with great ground-level views.
Monument Valley, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Photo: Franck Mahon/Flickr
Although it's not part of the U.S. National Park Service, Monument Valley still belongs on this list. Located in the 92,000-acre Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, a Navajo Nation equivalent to a national park, it's a former lowland basin where wind and water sculpted ancient sediments into towering buttes and mesas. More recently, it has become an iconic Western backdrop thanks largely to John Ford movies and Wile E. Coyote cartoons.
Hidden Lake Overlook, Glacier National Park
Photo: David Restivo/NPS
It takes a lot of nature to fill a million acres, but Glacier National Park is up to the task. The park boasts six 10,000-foot peaks, 25 named glaciers, 130 named lakes, 1,500 miles of streams and 745 miles of trails. The hike to Hidden Lake Overlook is a good way to soak up the scenery, especially in early morning when crowds are smaller. Look for wildlife like moose, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats — and be prepared for grizzly bears.
While these 12 views cover many of the best U.S. wilderness areas, they still barely scratch the surface. Yellowstone or Yosemite alone could fill an even longer list, not to mention all the popular parks like Acadia, Death Valley, Grand Teton and Mammoth Cave that we couldn't fit into this roundup. Check out the related links below for more must-see national park scenery, or share your favorite vistas in the comments section.
Related national park lists on MNN:
- Wonderful waterfalls in U.S. national parks
- The 7 best national parks for fishing
- 10 national parks with big movie cameos
- 8 creepy places in U.S. national parks
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