Top 10 National Parks: Is Your List Better Than Mine?

Yellowstone belongs on every park lover's Top 10 list of parks, no? Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River by Kurt Repanshek.

People like lists. No, check that, they love them. Particularly when they disagree with them and think they have a better list. So, here's my personal Top 10 list of national parks.* How does it match up with yours?

1. Yellowstone. Does this selection really need to be explained? It's the world's first national park, it features the world's greatest collection of thermal features (hot springs, fumaroles, geysers, etc.), has wolves, two species of bears, eagles, osprey, moose, bighorn sheep, streams for angling, lakes for paddling and angling, and an incredible backcountry for getting away from it all.

Alternate Text
You could spend an entire vacation watching the surf at Acadia. NPS photo.

2. Acadia. Perhaps because this was the very first national park I ever visited, this deserves to be in my Top 10. That said, it can stand on its own. The wonderful mix of forests and surf, the carriage paths, the eclectic vibe that runs through Bar Harbor, the great B&Bs and cottages, and, of course, the fresh lawbsta make this park a crowd pleaser.

3. Olympic. One park, three vastly different experiences: Surf, rainforest, and alpine. Just one of those three would justify a visit to this park overlooking the Pacific Ocean from Washington state's peninsula. But when you have all three in one visit...well, it's a no brainer.

Alternate Text
Great Smoky is rife with hiking options. Kurt Repanshek photo.

4. Great Smoky. Family friendly, rich in American history, fantastic hiking, it's all here. When the dog days of summer get hot and lazy, there are more than a few streams to cool off in. The historic structures found in Cades Cove, (Big and Little) Cataloochee, and Oconaluftee allow you to peer into an earlier, somewhat simpler, more self-reliant time.

5. Canyonlands. This park likely won't make everyone's list, but then, that's probably because they haven't visited. There's prehistory on display in the form of granaries, petroglyphs and pictographs, vestiges of cowboy history, bizarre geology, bucking rivers for white-water cowboys, and vast expanses to walk into.

6. Glacier Bay. Again, not likely to make everyone's list. But it's rich in glacial history, boasts a cornucopia of wildlife (both terrestrial and marine), and is most definitely wild. And the fishing is not lacking.

Alternate Text
You want glaciers? Glacier Bay has glaciers. Kurt Repanshek photo.

7. Sequoia. Big trees, big backcountry, great backcountry and front-country trails, a kid-pleaser. A bonus is that it's connected by border, and administratively, to Kings Canyon National Park.

8. Yosemite. While the Yosemite Valley is the main attraction, if you spend all your time there with the millions of other visitors, you won't really get to know this park. The high country with its granite domes, peaks, and hiking trails is sublime.

9. Everglades. Sure, it's hot in summer, but show up between November and April and you've got a reasonable climate in which to explore the paddling trails, go birding, take in a hike or two, explore the largest officially designated wilderness east of the Rockies, and the fishing is waiting for you.

Alternate Text
You haven't experienced Yosemite if you neglect the high country. Kurt Repanshek photo.

10. Virgin Islands. Another personal favorite that might not show up on many lists. But if you're looking for relaxation in the form of reclining in your beach chair on the park's sugar-sand beaches, want to explore some dazzling marinelife while snorkeling the park's coral reefs, or study Caribbean history, this is the place to head.

* For the purposes of this list, I considered just the 58 "national" parks.

Comments

From the ones I've already visited - but in no particular order:
Joshua Tree NP
For being my first-ever NP. And the one I always want to return to. I hopelessly fell in love with the landscape of the Mojave destert. Mojave NPres is great, too.
Yellowstone NP
The whole thermal stuff is just amazing. The north-eastern part of the park is my favourite.
Arches NP
Those rock formations are so scenic.
Canyonlands NP
The beauty of Grand Canyon & Arches combined, but without the masses.
Badlands NP
Wind Cave NP
What a gem of a park. Best wildlife experiences I had in a National Park. Bisons, prairie dogs, all kind of deer... and the beauty of the Black Hills.
Redwood NP
Capitol Reef NP
Rocky Mountain NP
Crater Lake NP

I enjoyed the smaller parks for different reasons often more than the big one. Grand Canyon NP and Glacier NP left me quite disappointed. A lot of National Monuments would make my NPS site overall top 10 list.

We have no idea how someone with Kurt's expertise could omit Glacier National Park from a top ten national park list. Going-to-the-Sun Road, historic lodges, unsurpassed scenic beauty, lack of large crowds, and delightful meals at Serranos Mexican Restaurant in East Glacier (across the road from Glacier Park Lodge) make this one of America's premiere national parks.
Among the smaller parks, Devils Tower National Monument has always been one of our favorite stops. The pleasant and generally uncrowded campground set amid the cottonwoods, the trail to the visitor center, the prairie dog town, and the splendid view of Devils Tower upon getting out of the tent each morning place this monument high on a list of best parks. Best of all is the initial sighting of the tower while driving toward the park. Its as if Richard Dreyfuss will be hitching a ride just over the next hill.

I daydream about this list all the time! And it changes, too!

Theodore Roosevelt
Acadia
Congaree
Isle Royale
Rocky Mountain
Death Valley
Great Smoky Mountains
Grand Teton
Redwood
Yellowstone

(I also have a strange weakness for Hot Springs: coffee from the thermal springs, then a day hiking the Sunset Trail loop through the Ouchita Moutains, to end with a thermal bath, beer, and dinner. And Markus is right about Wind Cave!)

I'm in Fresno, so visit YOSE & SEKI often, but CHIS (Channel Islands NP) is my very favourite.

From what I have this far been to:
1. Sequoia and King's Canyon.
2. Grand Canyon, North Rim.
3. Saguaro, Rincon Mountains district.
4. Yosemite.
5. Everglades.
6. Joshua Tree.
7. Shenandoah.
8. Zion.
9. Mammoth Cave.
10. Capitol Reef.
I doubt the top three would ever change, though I have yet to experience Olympic, Glacier, and Isle Royal. I think Saguaro is very much underrated. Try experiencing it after a spring rain on a misty, overcast day and wander amongst the paths braching off of Cactus Forest drive. The smells and sights are just ethereal, almost unearthly. I have yet to see the Redwood, but the Sequoias are something everyone should see once in a lifetime, especially people who say that they are not otherwise moved by nature.

Since I enjoy hiking, climbing, and wildlife viewing my top ten list focues on the large wilderness parks of the west and I've been lucky enough to work at all but three of them.
Yellowstone NP;
Besides the geysers there are hundreds of miles of trail and dozens of spectacular peaks
Death Valley NP;
Who can argue with 3.1 million acres of wilderness and hundreds of rugged peaks
Glacier NP;
Wildlife, 1,000 miles of trails, and spectacular peaks
Grand Canyon NP;
There's only one and everyone should hike it once in their lives
Olympic NP:
Remote beaches, rain forest, and high mountain wilderness
Kings Canyon NP:
High Sierra wilderness and rugged mountains
Yosemite NP;
Plenty of more remote trails to get away from the crowds
Big Bend NP:
A real gem
Canyonlands NP:
Should be larger, but still lots of room to get lost in
Capitol Reef NP:
If it's not on your list, you haven't been there.

I tend to rate the parks based on my visiting experiences, and those don't tend to be better in the most popular parks, so while I think Grand Canyon and Yosemite are awesome, my visits to these parks have put them on my top 10:
1. Arches NP
2. Great Basin NP
3. Crater Lake NP
4. Guadalupe Mts NP
5. Capitol Reef NP
6. Mt. Rainier NP
7. Isle Royale NP
8. Redwood NP
9. Lassen Volcanic NP
10. Yellowstone NP (too great not to make the list)

1. Canyonlands NP 2. Zion NP 3. Lake Clark NP 4. Olympic NP 5. Wrangell St. Elias NP 6. Denali NP 7. Glacier NP 8. Capitol Reef NP 9. Guadalupe Mountains NP 10. Klondike Gold Rush NHP – Skagway Unit

Hey celbert,

I'm heading to Guadalupe Mountains NP in a few weeks for the first time. Anything I definitely shouldn't miss?

Love them all (at least all the ones I've been to) but of those, here is my list:
1. Great Smoky Mountains: My first and the one I return to most often. It gets under your skin, especially when you get onto its trails. Running water everywhere, wildlife, flowers galore, brilliant autumn colors, snow to hike in during winter without arctic deadly temps.
2. Glacier: The "Smokies of the West" to me. Lots of uncrowded hiking trails, wildflowers, wildlife, and the best huckleberry treats anywhere I've been.
3. Death Valley: This one surprised us. Spectacular scenery, no crowds, lots of color, and great hiking. Will return to this one.
4. Mammoth Cave: This is another one of those that we visited without knowing what to expect and had a fantastic experience and great time.
5. Wrangell St. Elias: They don't call it the mountain kingdom of North America for no reason. Grand scenery, glaciers to hike on, temperate weather (for AK), and a vastness you cannot describe without experiencing.
6. Yellowstone: I was frankly surprised that I enjoyed this as much as I did considering I don't care for crowds or "tourist" attractions, but it got me.
7. Zion: Great hiking, great scenery, and a good shuttle system that keeps traffic congestion down.
8. Acadia: Beautiful serene little park with good trails, accessible vistas, ocean sounds and mountains to climb.
9. Congaree: What a pleasant surprise! The trees are immense and it's called "Redwoods of the East." One of the most unique places we've been. Had a great time hiking there and it felt very remote.
10. Rocky Mountain: Good mountain scenery, plenty of wildlife, and lots of good trails. The only thing keeping it from being higher to me is the elevation can make it tough for "outsiders" to enjoy without discomfort.
In keeping with the original article's method of only naming actual "Parks" that would be my list, however, plenty of other NPS units would work there way in if included, such as:
Blue Ridge Parkway, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Appalachian National Scenic Trail, New River Gorge National River, Chickamauga National Military Park, and Big South Fork National Recreation Area.

To follow-up my earlier reply, my wife wanted me to mention a few others on her behalf:

Grand Canyon (north rim)
Shenendoah
Cumberland Gap NHP

Yellowstone, Yellowstone, Yellowstone.
That said, here's my other nine:
Mt. Rainier (my mountain -- I live an hour and a half from Paradise)
Olympic
Crater Lake
Redwoods
Rocky Mountain
Okay, this one isn't a park, so to speak, but I have to include the Blue Ridge Parkway
Zion
Arches
Mesa Verde
And it was really hard to narrow it down to just ten!
But Yellowstone!!!

Well, this is fun!
Yellowstone
Mesa Verde
Grand Canyon
Badlands
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Crater Lake
Rocky Mountain
Wind Cave
Redwood
Great Sand Dunes

These parks made my list because I've actually been there, and also because I have fond memories of good times. I have yet to visit Yosemite, Acadia, Everglades, Big Bend, or Death Valley, but someday!

1. Yellewstone is my favorite of all the National Parks
2. Zion
3. Bryce
4. Grand Canyon.
5. Sequoia and King's Canyon.
6.Yosemite.
7. C & O Canal
8. Grand Teton.
9. Glacier Bay, Alaska
10. Glacier National Park, MT

Everyone's list looks good. My list (like everyone's) is based on where I have been. I have a few on my list that I have not seen mentioned yet. For example, Organ Pipe Cactus Nat. Mon. (which admittedly I explored multiple times many years ago before it got impacted by a lot of illegal cross-border traffic) is a simply magical piece of the Sonoran desert.

Yellowstone NP

Glacier NP

Acadia NP

Grand Canyon NP

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Olympic NP

Rocky Mountain NP

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Great Smoky Mountains NP

Redwoods National & State Parks

Sadly I have not made it to Yellowstone (or Acadia, or Isle Royale, or many others) so I won't aim for 10 favorites, but of the parks I've been to, my memories are fondest of:
Hawaii Volcanoes -- I've been there twice, and it was awesome (really) both times, but on my second visit the ground was rumbling, the lava was flowing -- hard to beat for geologic drama.
Glacier Bay -- Still, crystalline beauty vs. booming bergs as they tumble into the sea.
Olympic -- For the reasons Kurt listed: It's three parks in one.
Mount Rainier -- The Lonely Mountain of the West, brooding and beautiful.
Zion -- Great views, great hikes.
Glacier -- The most wildlife I've seen on one trip, and mostly camera-close.
Mammoth Cave -- For the fun of exploring such an alien environment.
Everglades -- Especially the southern tip of the park, where the land just seems to break up and float off to sea.
(This list is West to East, by the way, though I'd keep Hawaii Volcanoes at the top no matter what.)

Restricting it to those titled "national parks"
1) Yellowstone; 2) Acadia; 3) Arches; 4) Everglades; 5) Zion; 6) Mount Rainier; 7) Glacier;
8) Isle Royale; 9) Olympic; 10) Yosemite.
It gets much more interesting when you talk about naming favorite units (no matter the designation). That brings in the smaller, more intimate treasures: Devils Tower, Fort Frederica, Montezuma Well unit of Montezuma Castle - three of my favorite places.

We're taking it a step at a time, Anonymous, a step at a time. We'll get more specific regarding other units in future posts....

Of the 39 Parks that I have been to so far, I have ranked my top ten based off of a combination of the enjoyment that I had while there and the degree of longing I feel to go back:
Yosemite
Glacier
Zion
Grand Teton
Yellowstone
Acadia
Mt. Rainier
Shenandoah
Great Smoky Mountions
Kings Canyon

1.) Capital Reef NP
2.) Sequoia NP
3.) Grand Canyon NP-North Rim
4.) Redwoods NP
5.) Death Valley NP
6.) Mt. Rainier NP
7.) Zion NP
8.) Bryce NP
9.) Joshua Tree NP
10.) Olympic NP

Can you tell I live on the west coast?

I've been foutunate enough to travel to 21 parks and have enjoyed every one. If I had to pick a top 10, here it is (disclaimer-this list is subject to change at any time):
1. Yellowstone - If you can only go to one park, go here. I agree with many of the other posters that Yellowstone is eaisily #1, ranking the rest is quite a bit harder.
2. Grand Canyon - We hiked down the Bright Angel trail and floated the river to Lake Mead in '05. This was my single greatest NP experience and gave me a whole new appreciation for the canyon. It would not rate as high to me without the rafting experience.
3. Glacier - Beautiful scenery, wildlife, lots to do, less crowded than many of the more "famous" parks.
3. Arches - If you go, be sure to hike to Delicate Arch; many other great day hikes.
4. Kings Canyon - Great Sierra scenery, Grant grove of Giant Sequoia is spectacular, few people
5. Bryce Canyon - I love the orange creamsicle color, the Navajo loop trail is one of my favorites.
6. Hawaii Volcanos - Where else can you go and have a fairly good chance of seeing molten lava.
7. Yosemite - The scenery lives up to its reputation; unfourtunatly so do the crowds.
8. Mt. Rainier - The Paradise Inn is one of the coolest places I have ever stayed. I was lucky enough to be there on a clear day.
9. Olympic - A little bit of everything, the rain forests and rugged coast are amazing.
10. Death Valley - Beautful desert scenery with easy access from Las Vegas and few tourists.

My top ten list:

1) Yosemite. My first national park, or at least that's what my parents tell me. There's a lot of criticism of the crowds, but there's nothing quite like being alone on the top of Clouds Rest.

2) Yellowstone. It's nature's freakshow, and in a good way.

3) Sequoia and Kings Canyon. They really have to be seen as the same park. Hiking through Redwood Canyon Grove was a life-changing experience - especially the bear with three cubs that I came across.

4) Grand Teton. Just off the charts the most beautiful place I've ever visited.

5) Arches. There is absolutely no place on Earth like it. Just seeing Delicate Arch come into sight gave me goosebumps.

6) Hawai'i Volcanoes. Enough said.

7) Grand Canyon. Everyone should visit once in their lifetime.

8) Zion. Pictures just don't do it justice.

9) Olympic. I don't think there's any other park with quite the diversity, including beaches, mountains, and rainforests.

10) Everglades. I'm sort of wondering how a place like that so close to large population centers gets such little visitation.

No mention of North Cascades!

After 36 US National Parks it is:
1.Yosemite 2. Grand Canyon 3. Zion 4.Yellowstone
5. Glacier 5. Mount Rainier 5. Kings Canyon
8. Capitol Reef 8. Arches 8. Bryce Canyon 8. Sequoia
If we include all North America Banff, Yoho, and Jasper make my list and it comes out to an even 10 as my 8's drop out. Sequoia has the most chance to move up among these as I have not hiked Mineral King yet.

Been sick so finally getting around to this but after 38 NPs in US. Rating on both enjoying visit and desire to go back.
1. Yellowstone
2. Glacier Bay
3. Sequoia/Kings Canyon (View these as more or less the same)
4. Mount Rainier
5. Olympic
6. Acadia
7. Hawaii Volcanoes
8. Mesa Verde
9. Arches
10. Yosemite
When I get to Denali, Glacier I might put them on this list and if I ever rafted Grand Canyon it might also make the list but w/o having been to the bottom I can't put it above those listed.

I am really surprised by the lack of mention of Denali or actually many other of the Alaskan Parks. I know that they get visited less but Wragell St. Elias was mentioned twice as was Glacier Bay. That got me to thinking if the Alaskan Parks I've visited would make my list.
1. Olympic
2. Arches
3. Rocky Mountain (I love being on top of the mountains)
4. Yellowstone
5. Grand Tetons
6. Zion
7. Mt. Rainer
8. Shenandoah
9. Glacier
10. Glacier Bay
I feel like I need to justify my list, so I'll say this. California NP's begin this summer. Some of these are just based on time spent there. Denali is awesome but it needs more time and you really have to hike it to get all of it. 3 days on buses won't do it.
Man, I'm ready hit the road again.

Rafting the Grand Canyon made a big difference in my rating. The Rims just do not do the place justice.

I am surprized that so many lists omit Glacier National Park! Glacier is wonderful! don't miss it! My list would include;
Glacier
Grand Canyon - rafting through it on the Colorado River (adventure and spiritual)
Acadia
Yosemite
Denali
Shenendoah
Yellowstone
Grand Tetons
Great Smokey Mountains
Sequoia
(Maybe Valley Forge should be on the list!!!)

I haven't been to all the national parks but my top 10 that I have been to would be
Yosemite
Glacier
Grand Teton
Yellowstone
Great Smoky Mountains
Acadia
Shenandoah
Grand Canyon
Rocky Mountain
Arches
Honorable Mention: Fort Frederica National Monument, only because I used to work there.

I chuckled at Markus's list and his inclusion of Wind Cave, a very fine area. I think this shows the futility of this exercise. In my opinion, Wind Cave plays second fiddle to Custer State Park, just to the north, and lacks the spectacular spires of the Needles, to boot. When the Wind Cave underground system is finally fully mapped, doubtless some of the cave system will lie within Custer as well. I was tickled to see Canyon de Chelly on one list - again, just me, but CdeC has qualities, especially a certain intimacy, lacking in both Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon.

Trying to compress all the wonders of our country into a list containing merely ten entities just isn't useful. There are some amazing, worthy areas that aren't even parks.....

Have been to 30+
How about Big Bend!!!
Top ten:
1. Great Smoky Mountains (Clingmans Dome at sunrise and Cades Cove during early morning)
2. Big Bend (canyons, desert, and mountains) (best sunset in any park at the The Window)
3. Grand Canyon - Wow!
4. Yellowstone (West Thumb at sunrise, Riverside Geyser, and a 1000 other places)
5. Badlands (What a scenic drive, great short hikes too)
6. Carlsbad Caverns (The Big Room - I was blown away!)
7. Shenandoah (views and hiking)
8. Arches (great walking, don't miss Sand Arch)
9. Olympic (Hurricane Ridge, Hoh Rain Forest, and beaches)
10. Capitol Reef (very colorful and scenic)
best other parks: Chaco Culture NHP, John Day Fossil Beds NM, Harpers Ferry NHP, and Edison NHP.
best non-national park: Bodie SHP.

Its so hard to narrow it down to ten, so many spectacular parks.....
My number one is Yosemite, followed by Denali, Yellowstone, Zion, Acadia, Capitol Reef, Death Valley, Sequoia, Olympic, and Rocky Mountain.
Also love Great Smoky Mountain, Kenai Fjords, Arches...

Since I have only started to go to national parks in 1980, on my honeymoon. They have been all out west.
Yellowstone, watching Disney growing up I always wanted to go there. I have numerous times
Grand tetons
Arches
Canyonlands
Grand Canyon, I saw this the 1st time last week. What an amazing place. We have made plans to revisit in the fall. (we were in vegas and drove to the south rim)
Carlsbad Caverns, I esp like when the bats fly out at dusk. But I didn't like the lights out portion of the tour.
Capital Reef
Zion
Bryce Canyon.
I would like to go to Vermillion one day as well.
I live about 2hrs from RMNP, but it is not a favorite of mine. I have the rockies as my playground. There are a lot of state parks in Colorado that are less touristy then RMNP. Estes is such a big turn off with the attitiude that they have in the town.

1. Zion
2. Sequoia
3. Olympic
4. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
5. Rocky Mountain
6. Mammoth Cave
7. Wrangell St-Elias
8. Kenai Fjords
9. Death Valley
10. Joshua Tree

I've been to twenty National Parks so far, plus three in the Canadian Rockies. It's hard to put them in order, but I'll give it a try.
1. Glacier
2. Grand Teton
3. Olympic
4. Yosemite
5. Yellowstone
6. Bryce Canyon
7. Zion
8. Grand Canyon
9. Arches
10. Acadia

To pick out the top ten of the 29 I have been to is kind of hard when you love all of them. Like picking out which kid is your favorite in the family.
Yosemite: First, because I can't wait to get back for the third time. Just there in 2011
Yellowstone: The fishing is great. The sights fantastic. Animals all over the place.
Glacier: The last three visits, the Road to the Sun Highway was closed. Even at the end of June in 2011.
Zion: I just fell in love with this one. Been there 5 times over the years.
Canyonlands: Wow! What a Park.
Rocky Moutain: Another Wow!
Arches: Hard to believe the wind and rain could do all that.
Death Valley: On the list because it was the hottest place I have ever been to. 117 degrees with 30MPH winds. Something you don't see or feel around the Great Lakes
Bryce Canyon: Just beautiful. Looking forward to another visit this summer.
Grand Canyon: I put this one last because I haven't seen it all yet. This summer I'll get to see the South Rim and then the bottom of the canyon on a raft. Seen Marble Canyon, Toroweap, and the North Rim already. The GC could move up this list after the summer trip.
Hope to add at least three new parks to my list this summer and hopefully before I die, I can see all of the 58.

It's great reading everyone's list and why they are their favorites or sharing a specific memory!There are many new favorite places, I am sure, just waiting for us to explore, this is from what we've done!
1) Glacier NP-a hiker's paradise, tons of unbelievable memories!
2) Yellowstone NP- Where else can you see so much diversity?
3) Arches NP- a smaller treasure but so many amazigng geological wonders!
4) Bryce Canyon NP-Hiking in the hoodoos is such a blast!
5) Grand Canyon NP- It's 2 different parks!
North Rim is my favorite, North Kaibab Trail, less visitors, more isolated, intentional.
South Rim has so many amazing viewpoints, Lipan Point is one of the best for sunrise!
6) Yosemite NP- Waterfalls and sheer granite!
7) SEKI NP- The trees overwhelm me! (personal note:we need more time there so we can do some great hikes!)
8) Mesa Verde NP- I love the ruins and the record of human history there!
9) Sand Dunes NP-it holds many wonderful family memories for us! Hiking to the top, kids and grown ups playing in Medano Creek, camping amongst Pinon Pinres, sigh...
10) Rocky Mountain NP- My very first ever National Park so it holds a special place in my heart!

My ten:

1. Yellowstone
2. Yosemite
3. Zion
4. Wrangells-St. Elias
5. Glacier Bay
6. Arches
7. Mesa Verde
8. Joshua Tree
9. Grand Canyon
10. Saguaro

Rick

By just adding one more national park i.e. Shenandoah National Park in your list, it can be more effective. It has river beaches, ponds, Blue Ridge Mountains, natural beauty, animals etc. enough to admire people for visiting.