Wondering which of America’s 60 national parks you should visit next? For this first installment of SmarterTravel’s new series on national parks, I interviewed park rangers and specialists to find out the lesser-known tips for visiting the best national parks, including stops that most tourists miss, the best times to visit, and which ones are their favorites.
Here’s what these experts dub “the best national parks.” (Spoiler: Most are in Alaska.) They might inspire your next vacation to be one that takes advantage of “America’s Best Idea.”
Meet the National Park Experts:
- Rhonda Schier, Chief of Museum Services and Interpretations, Gateway Arch National Park.
- Sally Hurlbert, Management Specialist, Shenandoah National Park.
- Christie Anastasia, Public Affairs Specialist, Acadia National Park.
- Pete Christian, 25 years as a National Park Ranger in various Alaska national parks.
- Gary Bremen, Park Ranger, Biscayne National Park, and guest blogger also known as “The Traveling Ranger.”
- Molly Schroer, Mammoth Cave National Park Spokesperson.
Black Hills & Badlands, South Dakota
Rhonda Schier of Gateway Arch National Park recommends the Black Hills area, where she grew up. “We call it the fly-drive. You can fly into the local airport or Denver and then drive to an assortment of parks within a week: Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Crazy Horse, Minuteman Missile, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, and more.”
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Denali is also a favorite for Christie Anastasia of Acadia National Park. She used to work in Denali and lists it among her top choices to visit.
Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Gary Bremen, a Biscayne National Park ranger and guest blogger on National Park Patch Lady, has been to 243 of the 417 national designated areas (including monuments and other culturally significant sites). He says, “Katmai National Park recently stepped to the top of my personal podium as my favorite park. I don’t think it will be unseated any time soon. Documentarian Ken Burns summed it up beautifully though: sometimes, it is less about the place than who’s holding your hand while you’re there.”
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Pete Christain, who’s worked as a park ranger at various Alaska national parks for 25 years says “Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is a secret gem. Situated entirely above the Arctic Circle, Gates of the Arctic is one of America’s least visited national parks. Here, you can experience primeval wilderness, as it was when it was created, without any detectable trace of the human world.”
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska
“I find that ‘favorite park’ for me equates with ‘surprising park,'” says Bremen. “I love when I don’t expect much and am blown away by a story that changes how I look at the world. That happened most recently at the largest national park, . I thought I understood the concept of glaciers, but after hiking on Root Glacier for six hours, all I really knew was that I knew so little about glaciers.”
Flagstaff Area National Monuments, Arizona
“There are so many lesser-known parks along the way that get overshadowed, such as the Flagstaff Area National Monuments, a personal favorite,” says Molly Schroer of Mammoth Caves National Park just outside Bowling Green Kentucky.
The “Big Ones”
Popular national parks are popular for a reason, and even park rangers recommend experiencing them for yourself. Bremen says, “[the] Grand Canyon is where I came to terms with who I am, so it will always be special. Acadia, White Sands, Yellowstone, and Zion would all rank high among the big parks.” Anastasia echoes Acadia as a top recommendation. Schroer says, ” I find that the big ones such as Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite are always the top of my recommendation list.”
Honorable Mentions of Other National Parks:
- Point Reyes National Seashore in California
- Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado
- Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park in New Jersey
- Rosie the Riveter World War II Homefront National Park in California
More from SmarterTravel:
- A Year of National Parks: Your Month-by-Month Guide to America’s Best Idea
- The Secret Caves of America’s National Parks
- 10 Secret Spots in America’s Top National Parks
Editor’s note: Some quotes are edited for clarity.