There is so much to do in the national parks across the U.S. and its territories that you could probably spend an entire vacation at each one and still not hit every landmark or overlook. That’s the beauty of nature…since it’s ever-changing, there’s always something new to see.
Unfortunately, we often have a limited amount of time when we’re on vacation. If you can’t hit every single sight at a park, we’re highlighting some here that you definitely don’t want to miss.
Can’t Miss Sights At National Parks
If you have a limited amount of time at a park, start by seeing the big landmarks first. You can then move on to exploring much more of the park, after you’ve prioritized your “bucket list.” Who knows? You may even find that you want to see those things more than once during your trip – at sunset, for example, or at different times of day to watch the light play. This way, you can also leave room for mishaps – if you arrive at your must-see point and it’s crowded or closed-off for some reason, you can plan to return later.
1.) Tunnel View Overlook, Yosemite National Park
There are a lot of breathtaking sights at Yosemite. Fortunately, you can see many of them from one overlook as you arrive at the park. The Tunnel View Overlook is on Wawona Road and is one of the most famous lookouts. You can see Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and El Capitan all from that vantage point, as well as take in the sweeping view of the entire valley.
2.) Delicate Arch, Arches National Park
Delicate Arch is the symbol of Arches National Park, and, in fact, of the state of Utah as many license plates feature the iconic formation. You can’t see Delicate Arch easily from the road through the park, but a short walk gets you to a nice overlook about a mile from the arch. If you want to get close to it, the walk is 3 miles roundtrip with a mild elevation gain. That hike also takes you past Ute Indian petroglyphs and the Wolfe Ranch cabin.
Runner-up: Arches Scenic Drive
This 19-mile drive goes from Highway 191 to the Devils Garden trailhead and leads you past many of the other arches and rock formations throughout the park. In theory, it’s a half-hour drive, but you should plan much more time to stop, take pictures, and appreciate the scenery.
3.) Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park
Trail Ridge Road is the main thoroughfare between the east and west sections of the park, and soars to over 12,000 feet above sea level. It provides amazing views of the Rockies in all directions and usually has snow at the very top year-round. You’ll often see wildlife including elk, moose, and the yellow-bellied marmots who thrive at that high elevation. There are plenty of pull-offs and a visitor center near the tippy-top of the road. The road is only open seasonally, however, usually from late May to mid-October before it’s buried under a whole lot of snow.
4.) Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park
It’s tough to decide between this and Old Faithful, and while the geyser is probably more popular, the size and colorful scope of the Grand Prismatic Spring makes it a unique attraction that you don’t want to miss. The spring is 120 feet deep and 189 degrees F and it’s the largest hot spring in the United States.
Runner-up: Old Faithful
The geyser is synonymous with Yellowstone, and appears on many pictures, postcards, and other mementos of the park. Pop into the Old Faithful visitor center to see when the next eruption is predicted to happen – generally within 30 minutes of the last one.
5.) Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park
The tallest mountain on the North Atlantic seaboard is on Mount Desert Island at Acadia. The mountain is 1,530 feet tall and from the top, you get beautiful ocean views, as well as views of the islands surrounding it.
6.) Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This hike at the most popular national park takes you to the highest point in Tennessee. You can drive the access road from Newfound Gap, then it’s a short, half-mile hike to the summit. You can also climb the futuristic-looking observation tower to get a view from the top. The hike is a popular one, so make sure you leave early to avoid crowds.
7.) Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon National Park
To be fair, the must-see sight at the Grand Canyon is the view of the canyon itself. But we’re taking that as a given, and these falls are a beautiful sight, about two miles north of Supai Village. The turquoise falls get their color from minerals in the water. The shocking blue color contrasted with the red rocks make this a picture-perfect place to visit (and yes, you can even swim in them!).
8.) The Narrows, Zion National Park
The Narrows is the, well, narrowest part of Zion Canyon, and adventurous hikers need to hike right in the Virgin River (so plan your footwear accordingly!). The hike is strenuous, but you’ll see some impressive rock walls towering 1,000 feet or more above you on either side as you trek through The Narrows. At times, the steep canyon is just 20-30 feet wide where you walk.
9.) The General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park
In a park filled with impressive trees, the General Sherman is the most impressive – the tallest tree in the world, measured by volume. General Sherman towers 275 feet above the forest floor and is more than 36 feet in diameter.
10.) Crater Lake, Crater Lake National Park
The lake itself is the focal point of this park, and you can’t go wrong at any of the overlooks or pull-offs where you can view it. You can hike to the bottom and see the lake up close – it’s only 2.2 miles round trip, but the steep climb takes between 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours to complete and the elevation gain on the way back out is 700 feet. Crater Lake is the deepest and arguably most pristine lake in the United States.
11.) Saint Mary Lake, Glacier National Park
Kayaking at Saint Mary Lake offers a one-of-a-kind view of the second largest lake in Glacier National Park. Get right out in the middle of the lake and take in the mountains and forest-lined shores that surround it. If you don’t have time to kayak, there are several hikes in the area. At the very least, pull off of Going-To-The-Sun Road and take a look at the lake!
12.) Bryce Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park
This is the most popular overlook of Bryce Canyon, and for good reason – the amphitheater gives a great view of the bizarre hoodoos that make up Bryce Canyon. The shadows playing off the stunning red rocks make this a changing exhibit, too – try coming back at sunrise or sunset to see an especially spectacular sight.