AAA Magazines

10 national parks to soothe your soul

451932111-olympic-national-park-washington-camping-hiking-woman Olympic National Park | Photo by Getty Images

In times of stress or strife, many of us turn to nature for solace. The sweet song of the canyon wren, the fragrance of sagebrush and pine, the kiss of ocean mist. The childlike joy that comes from collecting kindling to ignite a campfire or hopping from boulder to boulder to cross a creek. In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the obligation to shelter in place stripped us of our most beloved outdoor sanctuaries when it felt like we needed them the most. Now, with additional safety precautions in place, our national parks are again waiting for us with open tree branches.

Here is a short guide to 10 bucket list national parks to inspire your next vacation in the nourishing outdoors.

1. Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park

Photo by Harry Lichtman

This area of “Down East” Maine is one of America’s premier vacation destinations, with creature comforts and the symphony of nature in symbiotic harmony. Set yourself up on the park’s doorstep in the seaside town of Bar Harbor and settle in to leisurely days capped by lobster dinners. More than 90 percent of the park is located on coastal islands, and you might see harbor porpoises and gray seals frolicking near the rocky headlands. During the crowded summer months, Island Explorer buses offer free transportation to rustic carriage roads, beaches, shops and restaurants, and hiking trails. 

Best time to visit: May–October.

Check out: Don’t miss these Ranger Pro Tips to help you make the most of your trip to one of our 10 most-visited national parks.

Plan your trip.

You may also like: Top things to do at Acadia National Park

2. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park

Photo by Osia Strasner

This easily accessible park boasts more than 2,000 natural stone arches, and many of its most famous red-rock formations can be viewed from your car along the 18-mile (one way) scenic drive. Active visitors might want to hike 3 miles round-trip to Delicate Arch, widely recognized from its depiction on Utah license plates. Make the outdoor-adventure mecca of Moab your base and combine your trip with hiking in nearby Canyonlands National Park, rafting on the Colorado River, or mountain biking on the famed Slickrock Mountain Biking Trail. 

Best time to visit: April, May, September, and October.

Check out: The Geology of Arches boils down hundreds of millions of years into about three minutes, revealing how water, wind, and time combined to sculpt these distinctive stone formations.

Plan your trip.

You may also like: A delicate balance at Arches National Park

3. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park

Photo by Alamy Stock Photo

For a family road trip, it’s hard to beat the Black Hills and Badlands of the Mount Rushmore State. You can discover corny kitsch like the Corn Palace, relive Old West gunslinger history in the town of Deadwood, and view bison in Custer State Park. Badlands National Park, home to one of the world’s richest fossil beds, is worth a full-day excursion to experience the mixed-grass prairie, where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope (and the bighorn sheep and prairie dogs) play. 

Best time to visit: June, September, and October.

Check out: Learn how the National Park Service is working with Native people and other stakeholders to conserve and increase the bison population in the Great Plains. 

Plan your trip.

You may also like: Epic scenic drives in U.S. national parks

4. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park

Photo by Steve Jordan

To really get away from it all, head to the “Big Bend” of the Rio Grande, nestled in the southwest curve of Texas. Nearly 300 miles from El Paso and some 370 miles from San Antonio, this is one of the most remote and least-visited national parks in the contiguous United States. It also has the least light pollution of any other national park in the Lower 48, making it ideal for stargazing. At 1,252 square miles, it’s a beast of a park to cover, but local outfitters offer horseback riding, river tours, and scenic flights to help explore the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. 

Best time to visit: November–April.

Check out: The park film “Land of Stone and Light” covers the history, culture, and wildlife of this desolate and layered landscape.

Plan your trip.

You may also like: 6 Must-See Places in Big Bend National Park

5. Channel Islands National Park, California

Channel Islands National Park

Photo by Alamy Stock Photo

“North America’s Galápagos,” an easy day trip from Southern California, is home to more than 2,000 plant and animal species—145 of them are found nowhere else in the world. Stay overnight in Ventura and take the early-morning boat with Island Packers Cruises’ to Santa Cruz Island. Then take a kayak tour through the sea caves with the Channel Islands Adventure Company, followed with a hike on the 2-mile loop to Cavern Point. Pack your own lunch: No food is sold on the island. 

Best time to visit: July–September.

Check out: Follow a park ranger as she dives to the bottom of a kelp forest off Anacapa Island and see how the algae’s root-like holdfast attaches to a rock, anchoring the fast-growing seaweed.

Plan your trip.

You may also like: Exploring the Channel Islands, California’s Galápagos

6. Haleakalā National Park, Hawai‘i

6. Haleakalā National Park, Hawai‘i

Photo by Daniel Lim

Many visitors to Maui drive the famous “Road to Hana” on a long, hurried day trip, but this paradisiacal stretch of the Valley Isle deserves at least a couple of nights. Where else can you lounge on a black-sand beach, a red-sand beach, and a white-sand beach in the same day? Stay overnight in Hana, and arrive at Ohe‘o Gulch, in the park’s Kīpahulu District, first thing in the morning to have the “seven sacred pools” practically all to yourself. When the tour buses start to arrive, head up the Pīpīwai Trail to the bamboo forest and Waimoku Falls. 

Best time to visit: Year-round. 

Check out: See why Maui residents have voted the Pīpīwai Trail, or “the bamboo forest hike,” the best hiking trail on the island. 

Plan your trip.

You may also like: The top things to do at Haleakalā National Park

7. Olympic National Park, Washington

Olympic National Park

Photo by Andrew Barber

This jewel of the Pacific Northwest boasts three vastly different ecosystems: glacier-capped mountains, the Pacific coast, and an old-growth temperate rain forest. Each is worth a visit. Experience all three during a weeklong road trip around the park, spending a couple of nights at each of these historic lodges: Kalaloch Lodge, Lake Crescent Lodge, and Lake Quinault Lodge. 

Best time to visit: May–September.

Check out: National Geographic Kids’ Nature Boom Time’s six-minute episode on the Hoh Rain Forest explores the rich biomass of this lush woodland wonderland.

Plan your trip.

8. Redwood National and State Parks, California

8. Redwood National and State Parks, California

Photo by Trent Preston

Home to herds of Roosevelt elk and the tallest trees on Earth, Redwood National and State Parks on the Northern California coast are recognized as a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. This park network has some of the best campgrounds in California, with easy access to groves of majestic coastal redwoods. If you’re not a camper, park yourself in the seaside enclave of Trinidad, about 25 miles south of the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitors Center. 

Best time to visit: July–October.

Check out: In a memorable episode of California’s Golden Parks, television host Huell Howser toured Fern Canyon, a mystical gorge where Steven Spielberg filmed a scene from The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Plan your trip.

9. Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite National Park

Photo by Susan Bandak

You could spend a day here, driving into Yosemite Valley and taking in the famed views of Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, and Half Dome. Or you could spend seasons here, following in the footsteps of John Muir and Ansel Adams. This park has a bit of everything: waterfalls, rivers, glacial lakes, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and some 90 mammal species. Park accommodations range from campgrounds to the historic Ahwanee luxury hotel to traditional or canvas-sided tent cabins. Book early. 

Best time to visit: To avoid crowds, anytime except summer weekends.

Check out: There is something magical about visiting Yosemite in winter, and this video reveals how the valley remains accessible even during the coldest months. Yes, you’re required to carry snow chains for your tires. But, no, you probably won’t have to use them because the main road into the park is regularly plowed, rangers say. 

Plan your trip.

You may also like: A personal search for Yosemite's Chinese American history

10. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park

Photo by Byron Bauer

Utah’s first and most-visited national park is a hiker’s paradise, with Angels Landing and the Narrows among the most popular hikes in the entire national park system. Park shuttles make the 80-minute trip from the visitors center to the Temple of Sinawava, and there are trailheads at each of the eight stops along the way. Stay in one of the many hotels lining the gateway town of Springdale and spend a long weekend exploring the trails. 

Best time to visit: April, May, September, and October.

Check out: The Introduction Movie offers a quick overview of the visitors center, the park, and the shuttle system, and makes a case for exploring beyond the Narrows and Angels Landing.

Plan your trip.

You may also like:

We 🧡 National Parks Activity Pack

Download the AAA National Parks Activity pack, which has games, coloring activities, and more to entertain the whole family.

Follow us on Instagram

Follow @AAAAutoClubEnterprises for the latest on what to see and do.

Read more articles

You'll find more of the articles you love to read at AAA Insider.

Travel offers & deals

" "

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

" "

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

" "

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

" "

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

back to top icon