Mandalapa's Excursions

Travel experiences, itineraries, tips, rants and more!

Currently in: New York | Miles traveled: 450,000 miles | Countries Visited: 27

Best National Parks in America

Every year, I make it a point to visit at least one national park in America, not because they are closer and cheaper, but because they are way beautiful than people give them credit for. Ease of accessibility, sheer natural beauty, more secluded backcountry camping spots, diversity in wildlife, gorgeous hiking trails and breathtaking scenery are what makes National Parks very special.

I am going to list the best national parks that I have been to so far. If I missed anything in the list, please let me know!.

1) Denali National Park, Alaska: ~ 350,000 Visitors per year

Denali National Park - Mt.McKinley During sunset

Denali National Park – Mt.McKinley During sunset – Credit: Denali Park Preserve

Seriously, this is just something straight from Disney world. Denali is six million acres of wild land with tundra at middle elevations, and glaciers, rock, and snow at the highest elevations. It also has the tallest mountain in North America named Mount McKinley which is about 20,000 feet. Wild animals small and large roam unfenced lands and this park possesses one of the most pristine ecosystems in North America. Solitude, tranquility and wilderness awaits in Denali. There is only one road going through the park and it’s closed for private vehicles. You have to take the park bus and that’s your only option. This drive is one of the most beautiful drives as you can see the entire Denali range on a clear day. You will see a tonne of wildlife including black bears, foxes, grizzlies, wolves, caribou, elk and lots of birds.

Denali Mountain range Panaroma

Denali Mountain range Panaroma

I boarded a small plane in Talkeetna and they took us and showed the Denali mountain range from high up in the air. The huge mountain faces, glaciers, snow capped peaks, ice melt off’s forming massive rivers just made it such an amazing experience. If you have about 300$, I highly recommend taking this air taxi to check out the beauty of Denali. We even landed on a glacier and played there with the fresh white powder for a while.

Camping in Denali by a stream.

Camping in Denali by a stream.

Rakesh’s Tip: No matter what you do, you will not be disappointed. I stayed in Mountain morning hostel in Denali and had my tour base from there. There are so many hikes here including the famous hike from “Into the wild” movie (yes, you can still see the school bus).

2) Glacier National Park, Montana: ~ 1.1 million visitors per year

Avalanche Lake - Glacier National Park

Avalanche Lake – Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is not just known for its scenery. It has over 700 miles of hiking trails and most of the park is in the wilderness. The park has combination of vertical, glacier-scoured banded mountains, pristine turquoise lakes and streams, dense ancient forests and an unrivaled assemblage of plants and animals makes superlatives inadequate. It is also home to black bears, grizzly bears, mountain goats, , lynx, mountain lions, wolverines, bighorn sheep, elk, moose and wolves. It has the most pristine ecosystem of the lower 48 states. If you take a trip there, make sure to drive along the “going to the sun road”. Your heart might skip a beat as its one of the top 10 drives in the world according to National Geographic. If you don’t know where the best hikes are and what the best hidden spots are, check out my article I wrote about glacier park here.

St.Mary's Lake - Glacier Park

St.Mary’s Lake – Glacier Park

Best time to visit the park is spring/summer when the roads are open and the bears wake up from hibernation.

Hidden Lake by Logan Pass - Glacier National Park

Hidden Lake by Logan Pass – Glacier National Park

Rakesh’s Tip: Stay in Polebrige which close to the north entrance of the park and explore Bowman and kintla lakes. Take the inner North fork road from Polebridge to Apgar visitor center. It is a great drive as its a gravel road. If you staying for more than a week, try hiking Ptarmigan pass via dawson pass, Mt Brown lookout trail, hidden lake trail (all the way to the bottom), and Highline trail to grinnel glacier overlook. These are amazing scenic hikes.

3) Yosemite National Park, California: ~ 4.1 million visitors per year

Yosemite Valley and Half Dome - Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley and Half Dome – Yosemite National Park

This park is recognized for its spectacular granite cliffs,huge waterfalls, clear streams, Giant Sequoia trees, and excellent biological diversity. Almost 95% of the park is designated wilderness. You will find deep valleys, huge mountain faces, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, amazing hikes, vast wilderness area, and much more.

Nevada Falls - Yosemite National Park

Nevada Falls – Yosemite National Park

The best time to see waterfalls is during spring, when most of the snowmelt occurs. Peak runoff typically occurs in May or June, with some waterfalls (including Yosemite Falls) often only a trickle or completely dry by August.

Vernal Falls - Yosemite National Park

Vernal Falls – Yosemite National Park

Half Dome is perhaps the most recognized symbol of Yosemite and it towers as you look at it from the yellowstone valley. Rising nearly 5,000 feet above the Valley floor, it is one of the most sought-after landmarks in Yosemite.

I spent about 2 days there and my only regret was that I should have spent at least a month there. I am not even kidding. This park is huuuuuuuge. 95% of the park visitors spend their time on Yosemite Valley. There is more to it. So many trails, backcountry camping, ski slopes, wild camping etc.

Rakesh’s Tip: Avoid going to the yosemite valley, instead go to glacier point road, southern yosemite or Tioga pass road. If you happen to be on yosemite valley, try going to Vernal falls, Nevada falls and the panaroma trail.

4) Big Sur, California:

Big Sur - A rest stop right by Monterrey Bay

Big Sur – A rest stop right by Monterrey Bay

Is there a more beautiful drive in the world than this 100 mile stretch from Monteray to San Simeon riddled with creeks, mountains, rivers, wildlife and the pacific ocean. It has jaw dropping vista points one after the another. One thing I noticed was the quality and crispness of the ocean air while driving. There are a lot of beaches along the highway. Just park your car, step out and hike for about 10 minutes or so and you will see some gorgeous beaches and if you are lucky you might see seals, otters and sometimes even whales.

Big Sur Coastline

Big Sur Coastline

Big Sur is one of those places that makes you feel good all warm and fuzzy. To watch the sun interact with the ocean, mountains and sky is magical and deeply moving.

Rakesh’s Tip: The biggest mistake I did was spending just one day in the park. I wish I had more time and camped out in the wild for a night or two, checked out the stars, go for a moonlit hike in the woods or hangout by the ocean for a whole day. There are a lot of good places to eat but none better than big sur bakery. This place has amazing pastries and coffee.

5) Yellowstone National Park and the Tetons: ~ 2.7 Million visitors per year

Yellowstone National Park in Winter

Yellowstone National Park in Winter

Yellowstone National Park is the first and oldest national park in America and is truly one of the most unique places on Earth. In terms of features and terrain, Iceland is the only other place which resembles Yellowstone. The whole park is underneath a super volcano. It has geysers, hot springs, mud pots, steam vents, wildlife, rivers, lakes, mountains and wilderness. The Old Faithful Geyser is the top attractions in yellowstone which spews about 8,500 gallons of water everytime it erupts. It erupts once every 45 minutes or so and its spectacular.

Much of the land is covered with rocks and lava flows, yet it spans miles of lakes, rivers, and mountain ranges, making it one of the earth’s largest ecosystems.

Bison grazing in Yellowstone national park

Bison grazing in Yellowstone national park

There are about 2,000 earthquakes happening in Yellowstone National Park every year. The sad news is yellowstone erupts once every 600,000 years and the last eruption was about 700,000 years ago. So we are long overdue for a big one.

Old Faithful erupting - Yellowstone national park

Old Faithful erupting – Yellowstone national park

Rakesh’s Tip: The park is very crowded during the summer, so try to take a trip to old faithful in the winter. Trust, me, you will not be disappointed. The scenery is simply stunning with snowy landscapes, steaming geyser basins, and incomparable wildlife viewing and not to mention the winter activities around the area. Just make sure you reserve a spot in old faithful inn and check for road closures and stuff. Also, check out Grand Tetons if you have plenty of time.

Winter in Yellowstone

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6) Grand Canyon National Park: ~ 5 Million Visitors per year

Grand Canyon from South Rim

Grand Canyon from South Rim

The park offers exploring of all levels of hiking, site seeing and rafting on the Colorado River that flows through the canyon. I have been to this park twice and I am still not done with this park. I want to go back again. At first, I had my doubts about a park just being a canyon and a river, but it had more to it. The wildlife, the fragile ecosystem, the history (rocks dating a billion years can be found here) and the geology of this place make this an attractive spot for visitors. It is mind boggling to see how a river can do such a damage to the landscape.

Grand Canyon River at the bottom of the canyon

Grand Canyon River at the bottom of the canyon

The Colorado River travels for 277 miles through the canyon from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs. At the South Rim, near Grand Canyon Village,it’s about 5,000 feet from the rim to river or a 7 mile hike through bright angel trail or a 8 miles through south kaibab trail. The width of the canyon at Grand Canyon Village is 10 miles although in places it is as wide as 18 miles.

Grand Canyon - North Rim

Grand Canyon – North Rim

Rakesh’s Tip: Skip the busy south rim and don’t hike the bright angel trail or south kaibab trail halfway. Just go straight to north rim, It is less crowded, amazing views of the south rim that no one sees as it is in higher elevation (1000 feet higher). Note that it is a longer drive to get to the north rim because it is not easily accessible. But if you happen to land in the south rim, don’t you worry. Try to get to the bottom of the canyon. You have to see the river that carved this monster. This river is just so huge and you don’t get to see it from the top. Stay hydrated if you are hiking in the summer.

7) Great Smoky Mountains National Park: ~ 9.4 million visitors per year

Smoky Mountain National Park entrance during fall

Smoky Mountain National Park entrance during fall

If there is one park in the east coast that is as good as the west coast counterparts, it is the smokys. It is part of the Appalachian mountain range in North Carolina and Tennessee. The Smoky mountains are named for the blueish white mist that always seems to hover around the peaks and valleys of the mountains. There are lots of hiking trails, cabins, waterfalls, small towns in this park. Also, there is a train that cuts through the heart of the forest. One day, I will take that train!.

Blue Smoke from Smoky mountain park

Blue Smoke from Smoky mountain park

Small towns such as Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend in this park make this a magical place if you are spending a getaway from the big cities. These towns offer a bunch of attractions and have a lot of cabins. Try the hot fudge in Gatlinburg if you are around. It is pretty yummy!

Rakesh’s Tip: Last time I was there, my friends and I rented a cabin in the woods. It was very cheap (about $100 per day and shared between 5 people). Rent a cabin somewhere in the woods, go hiking on trails less walked, check out some wildlife (black bears are quite common in the area) and spend an evening in gatlinburg.

8) Mount Rainier National Park: ~ .5 Million visitors per year

Surprisingly, I loved this park very much. After I spent 2 weeks in glacier park, I decided to explore Mt. Rainier national park because someone I met in the park suggested this place. It’s a bit far though, about 11 hour drive but I decided to check it out. I was so glad I spent couple of days at this park. Mt.Rainier is just this massive strata volcano (14,110 feet) located about 50 miles south east of Seattle, Washington. The whole park is formed around this volcano in the cascades mountain range.

Mt.Rainier from one of the view points

Mt.Rainier from one of the view points

There are a tonne of trails, highlands, glaciers, old sequoia, redwood trees in this park. The most popular hiking trail is Camp Muir which is the basecamp for climbers to the summit of Mt.Rainier.  Camp Muir is between the Nisqually and Paradise Glaciers.

Mt.Rainier

Mt.Rainier

Rakesh’s Tip: Be very carful hiking this mountain. The weather here is unpredictable. When we tried to hike to camp muir, we were stuck half way and couldn’t move because of a small storm that hit the mountain. The wind was pretty insane and eventually it died but still dangerous at these elevations. Don’t depend on weather predictions, always be prepared.

What did you think about these parks? Do you have any other parks that deserve to be on this list? Can’t wait to hear from you.

3 Comments

  1. Michelle Carter

    Rakesh: Could I have your permission to use your photo of Half Dome in Yosemite that appears above in a magazine article? Do you have a higher-resolution version of the same photo. Contact me for an example of how I will use it. Thanks, Michelle

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Loved your article on the National Parks. My son and I also try to visit at least one NP a year. We are visiting Denali & Kenai this summer and your article helped us decide to go south to Kenai. My son loves to fish so we try to work in one day fishing. Here’s a suggestion, the next time you visit Yellowstone stay in the Grand Tetons. Less people, more wildlife and yet close enough to visit Yellowstone. Also you need to add Olympic NP to your list when you visit Mt Rainier as well as Kings Canyon & Sequoia NP when you visit Yosemite especially if you like to hike. Kings Canyon is great and those giant trees are awesome.
    Thanks. BBeerbower

    Reply
    • Rakesh Mandalapa

      Thank you so much for your support. I am the same way as well. I love to go to a NP every year. Denali should be a lot of fun. When are you guys visiting Denali? Thank you for your suggestion on Grand Tetons, I wanted to stay there but since we drove from Chicago to Yellowstone, we didn’t want to go to Tetons again. Believe me, we really wanted to but we didn’t have any time. I have been to Mt.Rainier and Sequoia NP. They are both spectacular!

      Reply

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