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10 unbelievably photogenic US national parks to explore

10 unbelievably photogenic US national parks to explore

I’m always amazed at the number of Americans that haven’t explored their own backyard.

There are such a diverse range of landscapes to explore in this country – one minute you’ll be winding along a scenic coastline, and the next you’ll be driving through a desert surrounded by more cacti than you can count.

As a foreigner who has come back to the US again and again to explore more of both the big cities and the varied countryside, I’ve had the pleasure of getting acquainted with some of it’s best national parks. Taking some time to explore these wild areas in depth is something I would recommend to anybody.

Every April is US national park week. During this time, entrance fees are waived making it 100% free to visit any national park! So, if you’re in the states and have a day to spare, dust off your hiking boots and grab your camera, then pick one of these unbelievably photogenic US national parks to explore.

Sapphire Pool, Yellowstone National Park

1. Yellowstone

It’s really no surprise that Yellowstone was declared the world’s first national park back in 1872. Before I visited, I knew that it would be an amazing place to explore, but really nothing could prepare me for just how large and wild and scenic Yellowstone is. This place has the ability to blow your mind.

At Yellowstone you’ll find everything from multi-day hikes through the wilderness, to geysers (watching Old Faithful blow every 35-120 minutes is a must), thermal lakes, massive waterfalls, and grizzly bears. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with Yellowstone – it has something for everyone.

Take a look at my guide to visiting Yellowstone National Park for more info getting there and things to do!

Redwood National Park

2. Redwood

I’m not really a car person (you can read my reasonings here) but I put aside my prejudices for a day of driving through Redwood National Park.

The redwood trees, some of the tallest in the world, have trunks the size of a small house and sit directly beside the road – so close that you have to be careful not to knock off your side mirror as you pass by. As we navigated each curve of the narrow road through this impressive rainforest, I got the feeling that I was in a foreign and unfamiliar world.

This national park, which is situated along the northern Californian coast, has multiple day hikes and picnic grounds for you to enjoy a day frolicking in the forest. You can find more info on the park through the NPS website.

Bryce Canyon National Park

3. Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon is the kind of place that looks fairly interesting in photos, and then when you actually get there it’s way more amazing than you imagined. As you stand on the rim of the canyon, you literally can’t comprehend how crazy this unique landscape is.

Bryce Canyon’s rocky spires (otherwise known as hoodoos) change colour depending on the time of the day, and there are countless angles for you to take photos from. Spend a day hiking or just sit and watch the canyon reflect the sunset.

See the Bryce Canyon website or NPS website for more info on hikes and activities.

Zion National Park

4. Zion

This national park is not one of the most famous in the US, but it should be. Most people visit Zion just because they’re passing through, but are surprised by how unbelievably scenic it is. The park’s yellow and orange rock-like mountains surround some scattered forest, rivers, waterfalls, and wildlife.

I visited Zion as part of a tour and managed to take the above photo with just a shitty point-and-shoot digital camera. Zion’s scenic vistas are spectacular enough to make a photographer out of anyone.

It’s possible to experience Zion National Park in just 1 Day. Find more info on the Zion National Park website or NPS website.

Yosemite National Park

5. Yosemite

Any MacBook users might recognise Yosemite from the OS X desktop images. El Capitan (the giant rock-mountain that towers over Yosemite valley) is the most photographed scene.

This national park wins the competition for the most spectacular waterfalls (including Horsetail Falls which glows orange with the sunset at certain times of the year). It also features a lush deep green forest of pine trees, and hikes ranging from super easy to stupidly hard.

Yosemite is one of those places where I spent half a day exploring, and wished I could extend it to a few days instead. If you’re planning a trip, make a weekend of it if you can!

Head to Travel Yosemite or the NPS website to plan your trip.

Grand Canyon National Park

6. Grand Canyon

There’s no way I could put together a list of the best US national parks without including the Grand Canyon. I’ve visited twice (once to the south rim and once to the north rim), and I could honestly go back another 10 times and not get sick of it. It’s just so damn big that you could easily spend a week there and manage to do a different thing every day.

There are day hikes, multi-day hikes, rivers, cliffs, forest, and wild landscapes. If you have a bit of cash lying about, you can even do a helicopter ride over and into the canyon (I splashed out on this when I visited in 2011 and can vouch for it being a truly awesome experience).

Take a look at my guide to visiting the Grand Canyon for more info getting there and things to do!

Badlands National Park

7. Badlands

Badlands is sort of an otherworldly place. The landscape is all grey and rocky with grass covered plains that you can wander through and pretend like you’ve landed on an unfamiliar planet.

The road winds right beside many of the rock formations, so taking a car through here is a must. Badlands is also not so far away from Mt Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, so if you have a weekend to spare, you can tick off them all in one go!

Get more info on Badlands at Travel South Dakota or on the NPS website.

Grand Teton National Park

8. Grand Tetons

I’ll admit, I didn’t actually go into Grand Tetons National Park, but I vividly remember staring intently out the window of the bus for at least an hour as we made our way south past it’s spectacular mountains. If you’re looking for a place to take scenic photos, you will be guaranteed to get some here.

The national park also has lakes, hikes, wildlife, campgrounds, and native american history. Head to the Jackson Hole website or NPS website for more activities and things to do.

Saguaro National Park

9. Saguaro

I really love cactuses, so I guess it makes sense that I really loved Saguaro National Park. I had no idea how absolutely massive these cactuses grew until I stood beside one and looked up at it towering metres above my head.

The best things to do in Saguaro are to drive through the cactus forest, do some walking trails, or take a picnic to enjoy while you admire the landscape. Check out the Saguaro National Park website or NPS website for more details.

Estes, Rocky Mountain National Park

10. Rocky Mountain

My visit to Rocky Mountain National Park started in Estes, a gorgeous little town in the valley of the mountains. If you head here in summer, you can grab free shuttle buses running to all of the park’s major attractions and trailheads approximately every half hour. You don’t even need a car!

Rocky Mountain National Park has so many activities that you’ll be spoilt for choice. Take your pick of hiking, fishing, horseback riding, rafting, bicycling, climbing, or wildlife watching.

Find out more on the Rocky Mountain National Park website or NPS website.

By the way, National Park Week isn’t the only time that the national parks fees are waived – check out this list by the National Park Service for more free entry days!

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14 Responses to “10 unbelievably photogenic US national parks to explore”

  1. Claire

    Ooh I’ve never heard of Badlands National Park, but now I really want to go! Not sure if this counts as a national park but Antelope Canyon is absolutely worth a visit. Also Arches National Park and Joshua Tree for sure!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Ooh I definitely want to hit up Antelope Canyon – my parents went a few years ago and their photos were fabulous! It would be nice to do a big trip to all the Utah national parks I think. Thanks for your suggestions Claire 🙂

  2. LisaLDN

    WOW, there are so many amazing National Parks! I’m heading to Seattle for a few days this Autumn, and am so excited to visit some that are around there! 🙂 Not being from the US makes it trickyer to see them all, but I will make sure to visit as many as I can!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That’s awesome, Lisa! I hope you enjoy exploring the national parks around Seattle 🙂 It’s definitely hard to see them all even if you are living in the US – I’ve spent a total of about 12 months here and I’ve barely seen any! It’s a long list!

  3. Liz Peterson

    I couldn’t agree with you more about Americans failing to explore their back yards. I think we’re just so enamored with foreign lands, we forget that there’s a totally diverse landscape right out our windows! I haven’t been to Brice or Zion, but am dying to go soon! Great photos!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      USA is so freakin’ beautiful, and it’s cheap to fly domestically so I’m honestly baffled as to why more of the locals don’t explore their own country! Not that I’m against international travel, but it’s important to know that sometimes you don’t have to go that far to see something new and exciting. I’m so glad you agree Liz, and hope you get to visit Bryce and Zion soon 😀

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Those two parks should definitely be first on your list! But they are all incredibly beautiful 🙂 Thanks Sophie!

  4. margo

    amazing that you’ve hit all of these! so gorgeous! as an american I’m embarrassed that I really haven’t been out west while most european friends have traveled the region extensively! shame on me!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      It’s strange how that happens, and I think it’s the same for many countries – the locals tend to explore places further away instead of discovering what’s in their own backyard. If you can organise a trip out west, then I highly recommend checking out some of these national parks, Margo! You’ll be surprised at what you’ll find 🙂

  5. Petra @ The Global Couple

    I recommend Acadia National Park in Maine – it’s the only NP in New England and it’s great! There are heaps of lovely hikes and beaches too (FYI we’ve got a blog post about it 🙂 ). And not too far from your base in NYC! I’d also recommend Death Valley – what a crazy, amazing landscape that is. Top favourites are Grand Canyon and Yosemite, and I’d love to visit Zion one day!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I’ve heard really good things about Acadia NP! Apparently Maine is fabulous in the Fall with all the changing leaves so maybe I should head up there then 😀 Death Valley also sounds awesome. There are seriously so many NPs that I want to check out in USA, even with this list I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface!

  6. Amanda Carew

    We went to our first State Park in New York last year, Letchworth State Park. Worth checking out, it was gorgeous! However, it can also be a little dangerous with young kids, so we hung on to our boys hands quite tightly. Well worth it though! It is gorgeous.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Ooh that sounds like a good trip – I’ll definitely have to check out Letchworth when I have a chance! I’m glad you and the family enjoyed exploring the parks around you, Amanda 🙂


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