Prepare to be left in awe at the sight of the stunning landscapes across the west coast. Most Americans don’t know of the wonders hidden and preserved in these incredible national parks in the western United States.
From magnificent rainbow sandstone to sublime canyons and steamy freshwater geysers, the variety of geological features makes each visit a memorable experience for the adventurous traveler.
Whether you enjoy hiking, cycling, bird watching, or photography, there’s something for everyone in America’s hidden treasures.
Read on to find a complete list of the best national parks in the western United States, what you can do there, and the best routes.
10 Best National Parks in the Western United States
Table of Contents
- 10 Best National Parks in the Western United States
- 1. Yellowstone National Park
- Fairy Falls Trail
- North Rim Trail
- Lone Star Geyser Trail
- Attractions To See
- Animals To Spot
- 2. Yosemite National Park
- Tunnel View
- Cloud’s Rest
- Four Mile Trail
- Taft Point
- Scenic Drives
- 3. Grand Teton National Park
- Mormon Row and Moulton Barns
- Delta Lake
- Taggart Lake
- Jenny Lake
- Moose Ponds Loop
- 4. Zion National Park
- Canyon Overlook Trail
- The Narrows
- 5. Channel Islands National Park
- San Miguel Island
- Anacapa Island
- Santa Barbara Island
- 6. Grand Canyon National Park
- South Rim
- North Rim
- 7. Glacier National Park
- Trail of the Cedars
- Avalanche Lake
- Highline Trail
- 8. Petrified Forest National Park
- Tawa Trail
- Painted Desert Rim Trail
- Puerco Pueblo Trail To Ruins
- Crystal Forest
- 9. Olympic National Park
- Activities For Children
- Hot Springs
- Kid-Friendly Hikes
- Best Trails
- 10. Bryce Canyon National Park
- Navajo Loop Trail
- Rim Trail
- Drive To Rainbow Point
- Final Thoughts
1. Yellowstone National Park
One of America’s most popular national parks, Yellowstone, is known for its famous geysers and hot springs. If you’re looking to dip your feet in some sparkling rivers, spot wildlife like coyotes and lynxes, and explore breathtaking canyons, this park is for you!
You’ll want to start designing a complete itinerary with the Norris Geyser Basin, Grand Prismatic Spring, and Old Faithful. Once you have the basics down, you can curate your trip to focus on your interests.
Hikers will have a fantastic time exploring the endless trails in Yellowstone park. Here are some of our top picks!
Fairy Falls Trail
Around 105 feet (32 m) high at its peak, this trail covers anywhere between 5.4 to 6.7 miles (8.6 to 10.7 km). If you start early you can park in the smaller Fairy Falls lot, or in the Midway Geyser Basin parking that’s around a mile away.
Walking through a peaceful pine forest, the trail leads you straight to the park’s tallest waterfall! The stunning landscape is covered in beautiful wildflowers and offers picturesque views of the Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser, perfect for travel photographers.
North Rim Trail
While most hikers gravitate towards the more popular South Rim Trail, the North Rim Trail is a hidden gem.
This trail gives you direct access to all of Yellowstone’s major viewing points, and phenomenal views across the entire canyon from a height of 1000 feet (304 meters). These include Inspiration Point, Red Rock Point, and Brink of the Lower Falls.
Overall, the trail is 8 miles (13 km) long. You can start at the Inspiration Point parking or the Upper Falls parking to access the North Rim Trail, but be warned, the switchbacks going down are steep and often crowded.
Lone Star Geyser Trail
Want to avoid the crowds and explore off the beaten path? Check out the Lone Star Geyser Trail. It takes you to one of Yellowstone’s most enormous geysers, which erupt every 3 hours.
The trail starts near the Kepler Cascade parking, and the path is paved, so you can even take your bikes onto the trail.
It’s around 4.8 miles (8 km) long with a peak elevation of 22 meters. That’s about 3 hours on foot. The Lone Star Trail ends at the Howard Eaton trail junction, so you can keep traveling to Shoshone Lake for more breathtaking views!
Attractions To See
Other attractions involve the Morning Glory Pool, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Mount Washburn. You may also want to explore trails like Storm Point, Clear Lake, Observation Point, Osprey Falls, and Grand Prismatic.
Animals To Spot
Animal and bird watchers can expect to spot coyotes, lynxes, black bears, mountain goats, elks, bison, bighorn sheep, and even white-tailed deer as they meander through Yellowstone’s stunning trails and forests.
2. Yosemite National Park
Another popular site is Yosemite National Park, a formidable landscape spread over 1200 square miles. This park is known for its striking rock formations, amazing backcountry trails, scenic photography spots, and impressive waterfalls.
Whether you want to hike a strenuous trail, rent a cabin in the woods, or enjoy golden-hour views, Yosemite has a lot to offer.
Visitors start their tour from Yosemite Valley and make their way past gorgeous sights like Yosemite Falls, hiking up to the Half Dome and El Capitan. The vantage point at Tunnel View is the highlight for photographers.
The iconic view from Ansel Adams’ most popular photographs was taken from this very spot.
From this point, you can look across El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall without needing to hike. Simply park at one of the lots near Wawona Tunnel and make your way to the tunnel.
In early spring Bridalveil Fall flows at rapid speeds creating a phenomenal experience, while in early winter you can gaze across the snow-draped peaks of the dome.
Summers are the busiest season, as tourists flock to Tunnel View hoping to get one look at the magnificent views.
Experienced hikers will love some of Yosemite’s most daring trails. The 7-mile (12 km) hike for Cloud’s Rest guarantees a once-in-a-lifetime experience as you reach the 1775-foot (540-meter) peak. The best time to hike is between June to October before the snow hits.
The magnificent panoramic view stretches from Hawaii to Nebraska, with the trail promising striking views of Tenaya Lake, Sentinel Dome, Mount Hoffman, and the Half Dome.
Plus, few visitors are prepared to make a 7-mile hike uphill, making this one of the few crowd-free spots across Yosemite!
Four Mile Trail
Another amazing hike is the Four Mile Trail that leads to Glacier Point. The 4.8-mile (7.7 km) hike is incredibly strenuous, taking you to a peak elevation of 3200 feet (975 km).
But the magnificent views are definitely worth it! If you only want to hike one way, make sure you arrange a pick-up or coordinate with one of the 3 daily guided bus tours.
Enjoy some of the best golden hour views at Taft Point! The 1.1-mile (1.7 km) hike takes you to an elevation of 7500 feet (2285 meters) and is easier than some of the other trails on this list.
Be warned; Taft Point will test anyone’s fear of heights with the sharp cliff edge letting you peer straight down into the valley!
If you don’t want to hike, you can always take a scenic drive through Glacier Point and Tioga Pass Road. Plan out your route or check out one of Yosemite’s guided bus tours!
3. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton is a stunning example of conservation and reclamation. Much of the land used to be covered by cattle ranches and towns, until the 1930s and 40s when John Rockefeller Jr. led the efforts to protect the Teton Range’s stunning peaks. His efforts to preserve the natural landscape worked.
Today, beautiful staircase valleys, crystal rivers, diverse wildlife, and snowy peaks make the Grand Teton National Park one of America’s most attractive protected zones. From wildlife tours and hiking to rock climbing and backpacking trips, there’s a lot to do at Grand Teton.
Mormon Row and Moulton Barns
Although the park’s focus has been on restoring and repairing the natural ecosystem of the region, they have also preserved the Norman village, rancher’s houses, barns, and fences that once existed in the area.
These make for stunning props in the middle of the park, especially for the eclectic photographer or tourist.
The stunningly gorgeous Delta Lake will wow you with its clear, turquoise waters. This is one of the more challenging trails at Grand Teton and not for the faint of heart.
This 4.4-mile (7 km) unofficial trail is one of the park’s best-kept secrets. You won’t find it on any of the official maps. But if you’re willing to scramble over boulders and adventure off the beaten path, then the glacial lake at the end will make it worth your time.
If you want a short and easy hike, the 2-mile (3.2 km) trail to Taggart Lake is perfect for beginners.
You’ll meander through the stunning Aspen groves, following clear streams through open fields until you get to the lake. A wildlife photographer’s dream, keep on the lookout for moose, elk, and black bears!
Hike 2.45 miles (3.94 km) to reach the magnificent Jenny Lake. Its glacial waters cover 1100 acres, making it the second-largest lake in the park.
Toward the west, you’ll find Inspiration Point, which offers unparalleled views of not just the lake, but also Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains.
Moose Ponds Loop
Animal lovers must check out Moose Ponds Loop! An offshoot of the Jenny Lake Trail, this spot is known for its moose sightings. Don’t make a lot of noise, and you may even come across a mother and her calf relaxing in the water.
Other amazing one-day trails to check out include the Cascade Canyon Trail, Phelps Lake Loop, and Storm King Summit. You can also plan a multi-day backcountry hike through Paintbrush Canyon, the Teton Crest Trail, or Marion Lake.
4. Zion National Park
Zion National Park is worth visiting with its sharp peaks, twisting canyons, and rainbow rocks.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an experienced hiker or a beginner, there are plenty of trails to explore, with the massive sandstone cliffs guiding your path. Don’t want to hike? Try one of their guided horseback tours through the wilderness.
Canyon Overlook Trail
A moderately challenging hike, the Canyon Overlook Trail is 1 mile (1.6 km) long and offers stunning views.
Ideal for beginner hikers or families with children, the trail takes around 30 minutes to complete.
If you get there early, you get a magical, once-in-a-lifetime view of the sun lighting up the entire canyon. You can start your hike from the east entrance of the Mount Carmel Tunnel.
If you’re going to visit Zion National Park you won’t want to miss out on the Narrows. The narrow gorge draws in thousands of visitors each season.
You’ll have to wade through the river, so prepare to get your feet wet, enclosed by mountainous walls over a thousand feet tall on either side! You’ll want to start your hike on the Riverside Walk and make your way to the Temple of Sinawava.
We’d recommend getting there early so you can avoid the crowds on the shuttle service. That way, you can get dropped off exactly where you want to start your hike fully energized.
5. Channel Islands National Park
If you love the ocean and want to spend some time enjoying the cool seaside breeze, look no further than Channel Islands National Park.
Although it isn’t accessible by land, you can reach the park by plane or boat. Tours often start from Santa Cruz island, which is around 2 hours away from the park.
The crystal clear waters boast numerous species of dolphins and whales, which you’re sure to spot on your way to the mainland. Wildlife lovers should keep an eye out for eclectic species like the island fox and scrub jay that occasionally makes an appearance.
Channel Islands National Park offers a host of activities to watersport lovers, from snorkeling and scuba diving to kayaking and sailing. You can also go hiking or remote camping through the acres of green forest, not to mention, bird watching.
San Miguel Island
San Miguel forms the western barrier of the Channel Islands, experiencing the brunt of nature’s wrath.
Extreme weather results in a harsh yet sublime natural environment. Animal lovers especially can visit San Miguel Island to see the endangered pinnipeds or sea lions that breed and live on the 27-mile-long coastline.
Experienced hikers can sign up for the full day 16-mile (25.7 km) round trip across San Miguel to reach the magnificent Point Bennett.
Anacapa Island transforms throughout the year. From dull and lifeless during the summer to blooming color in the spring, visitors may find themselves overwhelmed by joy at the sight.
You’ll see the bright yellow burns of the tree sunflower, the vibrant scarlet paintbrush, the pure white morning glory, and the pale buckwheat scattered across the island.
Another reason wildlife lovers enjoy visiting Anacapa Island is to spot the endangered California brown pelicans that flock to the island’s coastline.
Anacapa is the largest breeding colony for these western gulls who begin nesting near April, harch chicks in June and fly away come July.
Anacapa’s kelp forests make the perfect spot for watersports like kayaking, snorkeling, and diving!
Santa Barbara Island
Santa Barbara is one of the Channel Islands’ smallest but is also the closest to the mainland.
So, if you’re playing on visiting this ocean getaway, you’ll want to find a place to stay on Santa Barbara Island. Visitors can also enjoy birdwatching species like the endangered horned lark, orange-crowned warbler, and house finch.
Other spots to visit include the Santa Rose and Santa Cruz Islands.
6. Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular trip destinations in the US, and one of the world’s deepest canyons, at an astonishing 6000 feet.
A unique and incredible experience, the Grand Canyon is worth visiting for several reasons. From the incredible hiking trails and stunning views to the mule rides and historical museum, this is an experience you won’t forget.
The most popular section of the Grand Canyon, the South Rim, offers travelers numerous services.
From convenient shuttle service to food stops, high-quality hotels, museums, and shops, few parks offer as comfortable an experience as the Grand Canyon. It’s open year-round and there is a ton of things to see.
Some popular hiking trails include the Rim Trail, Bright Angel Trail, and South Kaibab Trail. The Desert View Watch Tower and Lookout Studio offer some of the most breathtaking scenes in the canyon. And there are also ground and helicopter tours you can book in advance.
If you’re looking for some solitude, we recommend you visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is routinely visited by less than 10% of the canyon’s visitors.
The hike from the South Rim to the North Rim is around 21 miles (34 km), offering stunning views like Point Imperial and Cape Royal.
At an elevation of 8803 feet (2683 meters), Point Imperial is the highest vantage point on the North Rim.
Offering views of the Painted Desert with its layered red and black rocks and the winding gash of the Marble Canyon, the view is astounding. Cape Royal is best visited at sunrise or sunset, offering a magnificent panoramic view across the canyon, from the Colorado River to Angels Window.
7. Glacier National Park
A dramatic and breathtaking vision, Glacier National Park leaves visitors in awe as its snow-covered peaks create a sharp contrast against its lush green valleys. What makes Glacier National Park worth visiting are its hiking trails and stunning views.
The shorter 4-mile trails to Avalanche Lake offer an amazing opportunity for beginner hikers to stretch out their legs, while experienced hikers will adore the adrenaline rush of the 11-mile Highline Trail. Glacier Park has something for everyone.
Plus, animal lovers will spot a wide variety of wildlife in this natural landscape, from grizzly and black bears to foxes, mountain goats, and eagles.
Trail of the Cedars
Trail of the Cedars is one of the most accessible trails in Glacier Park. Suitable for beginners of all ages, the trail is also wheelchair accessible.
This makes it extremely popular year-round, so you’ll want to get an early morning start or risk parking trouble. You will start and end this 0.60 mile (0.97 km) trek on the Going To The Sun Road.
A raised boardwalk makes the eastern side of the loop, twisting through the 100-foot high, 500-year-old hemlocks and cedars.
Halfway through the trek, you’ll reach the Avalanche Creek bridge, which offers sublime views of the gorge. Past this bridge is the Avalanche Lake Trail junction, which allows you to either continue along the easier trail or move on to the harder one.
Avalanche Lake is a moderately hard trail that starts as an offshoot of the Trail of the Cedars. After turning left at the junction following the Avalanche Creek bridge, you’ll face a short, steep upward climb that takes you past a dense forest.
Eventually, you’ll reach the creek bank for a close-up view of the running glacial waters. The trek is 6 miles (9.5 km) long and will take under 3 hours to complete.
The highline trail is a 7.6 mile (12 km) long, extremely difficult trek only suitable for the experienced hiker. It offers some of the most beautiful views, following the Garden Wall.
Between the stunning valleys, wildflowers, and wildlife it’ll make for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
At its most precarious parts, the ledge narrows to a width of 6 feet, with a hundred-foot drop along the side of the cliff. That’s enough to challenge even the ardent hiker’s fear of heights!
8. Petrified Forest National Park
The Petrified Forest National Park in Northeastern Arizona offers a stunning landscape of changing colors. This painted desert hypnotizes visitors with its radiant colors that range from lavender and pink to orange and red.
In addition to the beautiful landscape, the Petrified Forest holds tree fossils and fascinating petroglyphs created by ancient Puebloan people anywhere between 650 to 2000 years ago.
These stunning sights make this a trip worth taking. Plus, the Forest is pet friendly, so you can even take your dogs!
Walking along one of the trails is the best way to explore the badlands, petroglyphs, ruins, petrified logs, and colorful rocks. But remember that the Petrified Forest is only open from 8 am to 5 pm, with park rangers closing the gates at 4:30 pm.
Tawa Point is one of eight marked vistas that offer magnificent views of the Petrified Forest. From here, you can see the colorful bands of rock that make this forest such an attraction. Tawa trail takes you directly from the Point to the Painted Desert Visitor Center.
This 1.2-mile (1.9 km) one-way trail is easy to walk on and has a paved path that swerves through the tranquil grasslands. Tawa trail also connects with the Painted Desert Rim Trail.
Painted Desert Rim Trail
A 1.5-mile (0.8 km) walk either way, the Painted Desert Rim Trail swerves through the natural woodland leading to the stunning vista of Kachine Point. A short distance from the Point is the Painted Desert Inn where you can visit the restrooms, get some water, and recharge!
Don’t forget to visit Newspaper Rock, a magnificent display of over 650 petroglyphs!
Puerco Pueblo Trail To Ruins
A 0.3-mile (0.5 km) loop, the Puerco Pueblo trail takes you to a magnificent archaeological settlement that dates back to 1250 CE. With 100 rooms, a large piazza, and intricate petroglyphs you can immerse yourself in the history of the Petrified Forest lands.
Visit during the two weeks around the summer solstice and you’ll get to witness the light show among the rocks that make up a solar calendar.
Remember that this trail is completely unshaded, so if you visit during the summer, be sure to bring sun protection, hats, and plenty of bottled water!
Dozens of petrified logs, arranged in clusters, give this park its name, and the 0.7 mile (1.2 km) looping trail of the Crystal Forest twines through this stunning landscape.
Beautiful crystal glint among the logs, and although you’re not allowed to remove any materials from the park, this trail allows you to experience them up close.
9. Olympic National Park
One of the best parks for children and families, Olympic National Park covers more than 900,000 acres.
The variation in landscapes means you’ll experience everything from rainforests to mountains and even beaches, all in one location. There are several hiking tracks for different skill levels and multiple kid-friendly activities.
Activities For Children
The highlight of Olympic National Park for many parents is its focus on family fun! The Junior Ranger programs accept children between the ages of 5 and 13 for a series of wilderness activities.
If you want your kids to develop a deeper bond with nature, Olympic National Park Ocean Stewards Junior Ranger Program accepts kids above the age of 4 and teaches them about the park’s unique ecosystem.
Don’t feel like enrolling your kids in organized activities? You can always take them to the beach.
Both Rialto and Second Beach are filled with massive rock forms and driftwood that kids will love to climb over and explore. Plus, the tide pools contain all sorts of water animals like starfish, crabs, fish, muscles, and even anemones.
Parents traveling with infants will love the Olympic National Park Hot Springs. Between the 3 mineral baths and 1 freshwater pool, two are open to kids of all ages, while the other two are suitable for kids 4 and older.
You will have to pay a nominal fee for kids older than 3, but experiencing these Washington hot springs is definitely worth it.
If you’re hiking with kids, explore trails like Marymere Falls. The 3.5-mile (5.6 km) round trip covers flat ground through picturesque woods, crossing a tadpole creek and leading up to a stunning waterfall. The trail is carrier friendly and easy to walk.
You can also try the Hoh River Mouth Trail, a 2-mile (3.2 km) round trip through the Hoh rainforest covering flat ground. You can follow the trail straight to the sea and even follow it up with a visit to one of the many beaches.
Solo hikers can explore mountain trails like Hurricane Hill, a 1.6-mile (2.6 km) hike to the end of Hurricane Ridge Road, or the Klahhane Ridge Trail, a 6.8-mile (10.9 km) hike to Lake Angeles.
These mountain hikes gain up to 700 feet in elevation and offer gorgeous panoramic views to the experienced hiker!
Of course, if you don’t want to go uphill you can always enjoy some of the lowland forest hikes like the 0.8-mile route to Sol Duc Falls or the 2.6-mile Mink Lake Trail starting at the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort! Trails around Rialto and Second Beach offer a more coastal hiking experience.
10. Bryce Canyon National Park
A strange yet intriguing landscape, Bryce Canyon National Park boasts thousands of irregular stone pillars called hoodoos.
When put together they make an alien composition that draws in thousands of visitors a year. You can choose whether to drive along the rim, hike to various viewpoints, or visit landmarks.
The best places to get a spectacular view of the park are from multiple viewpoints. Sunrise Point and Sunset Point offer picturesque scenes of the sun rising and setting over the hoodoos.
Rainbow Point is located at the southern end. It looks over the entire park, including the White, Pink, Grey, Vermillion, and Chocolate Cliffs as the differently covered rocks blend into one another.
Inspiration Point and Bryce Point offer spectacular views of the main amphitheater, with the layers of silent hoodoos spookily set against the Boat Mesa.
The Navajo Loop, or Queen’s Garden, is a 2.9-mile (4.6 km) trail of moderate difficulty. It’s immensely popular and draws in crowds year-round. Many people walk this loop trail in an anticlockwise direction, making the steepest section a descent so the journey is easier.
However, the park authorities recommend doing it in a clockwise direction so you can get excellent views of the hoodoos and other structures along the way.
The trail ends with a hoodoo called Queen Victoria, a rock formation that eerily resembles the late monarchy!
The Rim Trail is an 11-mile (17.7 km) round trip that will take you directly above the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater. It goes from Fairyland Point to Bryce Point, and the steep elevation changes make the trial unsuitable for beginner hikers.
Drive To Rainbow Point
You don’t need to hike to get a good view of the hoodoos. A 17-mile drive will take you directly to Rainbow Point to enjoy the best panoramic views the park offers.
You can also stay in the small village on the park’s outskirts and enjoy a good meal at a restaurant followed by a western dinner show!
America has a lot of spectacular national parks along its west coast as well along its east coast.
These hidden gems contain acres of natural wonders and magnificent sights, from rainforests and desserts to woods, beaches and waterfalls.
Whether you want to go on a hike, enjoy some sights, take a family trip, or lose yourself in the wonders of nature, there’s a lot to see and explore!
I covered all of the costs involved in writing this article on the best national parks in the western United States. Just so you know, this post may contain some affiliate links. That means if you click through and end up making a purchase I will receive a small commission. I wanted to make sure you were aware of this.