North America might only be the third largest of the world’s continents, but it’s arguably the most diverse. This is a land of rocky canyons, hulking glaciers, soaring mountains, dense forests, pristine lakes, and vast, sun-scorched deserts. But North America isn’t just home to staggeringly beautiful scenery, it also boasts some of the most impressive national parks in the world.
North America’s national parks are far more than protected areas of wilderness; they’re corners of the continent that inspire awe. Whether it’s towering redwoods, smoking volcanoes, or alligator-filled wetlands, these national parks never fail to inspire – and if you’re looking for an outdoor adventure, they’re the best place to head. But with so many national parks, which ones are most impressive?
If you’re thinking about visiting either the USA or Canada and want to find out more about the best national parks, we’ve got you covered! We’ve partnered with Cosmos, a leading provider of escorted tours around the world. On a Cosmos tour, everything is taken care of for you, from accommodation to transport to tours, leaving you free to focus on enjoying your trip and making lasting memories.
So, with that in mind, here are 10 incredible national parks to visit on a trip to North America.
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA
Yellowstone isn’t just the oldest national park in North America; it’s the oldest national park in the world. Since it was first designated in 1872, its dramatic, unearthly beauty has awed visitors from all across the globe, and today it remains one of the most visited national parks in the US. Shaped over millions of years by geological activity, Yellowstone is essentially a vast volcanic playground.
Here you can find the world’s most impressive concentration of hydrothermal features, from geysers and mud pots to hot springs. There are over 900 miles of hiking trails that wind past gleaming lakes and alpine tundras, and through rugged canyons and glacier-carved valleys. Then there’s the wildlife: keep an eye out for bears, deer, moose, wolves, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep…to name just a few!
2. Yosemite National Park, California, USA
It might not be the oldest national park on the continent, nor the biggest, but California’s Yosemite National Park is certainly a contender for the most spectacular – and iconic. Yosemite is packed with more natural wonders than you can shake a stick at, from the highest waterfall in North America (Yosemite Falls) to the world’s tallest granite monolith (El Capitan, which rises a dizzying 3,000 ft).
Thanks to the many skyscraper-like monoliths dotted across the landscape, Yosemite is beloved by climbers – but there’s just as much here to please even the most discerning hiker. This park’s glacier-carved beauty is breathtaking, and the memories of hiking through soaring sequoia forests, rugged canyons, and snow-capped mountains will stay with you forever.
3. Denali National Park, Alaska, USA
If you’re searching for raw, untamed wilderness – a chance to feel like you’re the only person in the world – then few places can match Denali National Park. Alaska is known as the USA’s last frontier, and it’s one of the most wild and remote places in North America. Due to Alaska’s sheer size (it’s more than twice the size of Texas!), exploring can be tricky, which is why Denali is a must-visit.
A single road cuts through this six-million-acre wilderness, giving you access to the astoundingly beautiful scenery. Here, you can admire North America’s tallest mountain, do some incredibly challenging trekking, experience a unique sense of peace and tranquillity, and spot wildlife including bears, moose, caribou, sheep, wolves, and eagles.
4. Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
As Canada’s top tourist attraction and the gateway to the Canadian Rockies, the beauty of Alberta’s Banff National Park is certainly no secret. Regularly topping lists of the most beautiful places in the world, Banff draws millions of visitors from around the world – and while you may encounter crowds at some of its most famous sites, there are also plenty of places where you can find solitude.
The town of Banff and Lake Louise are always busy, but still worth visiting – particularly if you want to enjoy a spot of canoeing! But there are 1500 km of trails to explore here, and no matter which path you pick, you’re guaranteed sublime scenery. From thundering waterfalls and churning rivers to majestic mountains and alpine meadows – and even hot springs – Banff is as dazzling as it is diverse.
5. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Home to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it’s no surprise that Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most famous – and popular – parks in the USA. No matter how many videos or photos of the Grand Canyon you might have seen, nothing can prepare you for seeing it in person. The sheer size and jaw-dropping beauty of this canyon may quite literally leave you speechless.
If you’re interested in geology, you’ll be fascinated by the way the canyon walls tell a story that’s two billion years old. The colour of the canyon changes from yellow to orange as the sun moves across the sky, and staring down into the shadowy abyss from the canyon’s edge is a truly magical experience. If you like adventure, you can go hiking or whitewater rafting along the Colorado River.
6. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, USA
Home to craggy cliffs, sandy beaches, and dense coniferous forests, Oregon is an incredibly beautiful state…but nowhere is more impressive than Crater Lake National Park. The lake itself lies inside the collapsed summit of a now-dormant volcano, and the water is an astonishing sapphire blue. It’s the deepest and clearest lake in the country, and the waters are some of the purest in the world.
The lake is perfect for swimming and, in the summer, you can take a boat over to Wizard Island, a volcanic cinder cone that rises 800 ft above the water’s surface. While the lake is the heart of the park, there are 90 miles of hiking trails that weave their way through ancient forests, wildflower meadows, and over wooded peaks, so hikers – and photographers! – will be spoilt for choice.
7. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, USA
If you’re interested in volcanoes, there can be few places in the world that compete with Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Home to two active volcanoes, the landscape rises 13,677 ft from the palm-fringed coastline to the smoking summit of Mauna Loa. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes is one of the most volcanically active spots in the world, a place where you can see land being born before your eyes.
The park was set up to protect this unique geological, biological, and cultural landscape, and during your visit, you can learn all about the significance of the volcanoes to local Hawaiian culture. There are excellent hiking trails that wind through the park, and the scenery will take your breath away. Trek through lush rainforests teeming with birds, past eerie lava tubes, and even alpine tundra.
8. Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
Stretching on for 4,200 square miles, Jasper National Park is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies – but it isn’t just its size that makes it worthy of a place on this list. Jasper National Park is an astoundingly beautiful part of the world, a region that’s wild in every sense of the word…and it’s also chock-full of fascinating wildlife, from grizzly bears and wolves to moose, elk, and eagles.
The landscape is just as inspiring, comprising towering rock spires, sweeping valleys, foaming rivers, rugged mountains, emerald-green lakes, and cascading waterfalls. There are over 100 ancient glaciers here, and you can admire them simply by driving along the phenomenally scenic Icefield Parkway. But it’s the hiking Jasper is most famous for – and, luckily, there are more than 600 miles of trails!
9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, USA
While Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon may be some of the US’s best-known national parks, they’re not the most visited. That honour falls to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Stretching for a whopping 522,427 acres, the park is stupendously beautiful and is home to one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world.
There are over 850 miles of hiking trails that cut through the park, taking you through shady forests, over mist-shrouded peaks, and past plunging waterfalls. Mornings are especially beautiful here, as the fog causes the ridgelines to haze against the sky, which gives the mountains their iconic smoky look. The flora and fauna here are just as impressive as the views, so don’t forget your camera!
10. Arches National Park, Utah, USA
Utah is home to five national parks, but it’s Arches National Park that’s arguably the most impressive. The landscape here is truly otherworldly, and nowhere on the planet can you find such a large array of natural arches, whittled down over millions of years by water and wind. There are over 2,000 arches here, and the grand, craggy landscape has a timeless and indestructible quality to it.
If some scenery looks familiar, it’s because the park appears in countless films, from Thelma & Louise to Indiana Jones, and the soaring spires and jagged pinnacles look incredibly cinematic against the huge blue sky. Arches is especially popular with thrillseekers, who enjoy climbing the arches, jumping off, and even mountain biking over them. But for something more laidback, hiking here is just as fun!
National parks aren’t only beautiful, protected stretches of wilderness – they’re also expressions of nature’s bounty. They’re places where you can seek solitude, find inspiration, be awed, and feel at one with nature and wildlife.
Many of the world’s most spectacular national parks are located in North America, and the 10 parks we’ve featured go a long way to highlight the astonishing diversity of this continent. From the snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies to the parched canyons of the American West, these national parks are welcoming destinations that transcend all ages and fitness levels.
If you’re a thrill seeker, you can go white-water rafting, mountain biking, climbing, and canyoning – or you can take things easy and explore on foot. The hiking trails that weave through these parks are some of the best in the world, and trekking through such sensational scenery is as invigorating as it is inspiring.
Cosmos offers plenty of opportunities to visit some of North America’s stunning national parks through their range of tours. To browse tours and get inspired, you can visit their website below.
Are you inspired by any of these national parks? Or perhaps you’ve visited before? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.