12 of the best US National Parks

In honour of this week's National Park Week, 12 of the world's leading adventurers and extreme sports athletes recommend their favourite National Park in the USA

6 mins

1. Yosemite National Park, California



The American rock climber and mountaineer Conrad Anker says, Yosemite is unique in the world. From the towering Sequoia trees to the tranquil backcountry to the impressive size of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, there’s something spectacular for anyone who goes there. My personal favourite here, as a climber, is the sweeping granite walls. The cracks soar to the sky, a small weakness that allows passage. When I’m there, I discover the intricacies of the rock and, in doing so, I learn a bit more about myself. There isn't a climber in the world that hasn't heard about Half Dome. If gravity is your calling, then Yosemite is a ‘must do’ on the Bucket List of life.”

 2. Denali National Park, Alaska



Lisa Tamati, an ultramarathon runner from New Zealand, says, “The name ‘Denali’ alone conjures up images of wild places. This National Park in Alaska is also home to the highest peak in North America, Denali (formerly known as Mt McKinley) and one of the toughest to climb. I visited this scenic wonderland in autumn after spending weeks canoeing down the Yukon river, trekking the 33-mile Chilkoot trail and walking and climbing in Kluane National Park, so by the time I reached Denali all I wanted was to suck in the stunning show that autumn brings to this part of the world every year, to pay homage to the massive peak and watch and wait for wildlife. We trekked and camped out, and were lucky enough to fulfill some dreams: seeing wolves roaming in packs, mountain goats, a number of bears and - the most magic moment - coming face to face with a huge moose. Awe-inspiring and huge, this National Park is one of Earth’s treasures.”

3. Olympic National Park, Washington



The American ski mountaineer Christy Mahon says, “As a college student from Colorado, I had the chance to spend summers at Olympic National Park as an interpretive park ranger. The experience opened my eyes to so many adventures that, without knowing it then, would shape my life. Located in Washington on the Olympic Peninsula, the park’s home to three unique ecosystems, including rugged glacier-capped mountains, wild Pacific coast beaches and a magnificent old-growth temperate rain forest. Here, I did my first big crossing of a wilderness, hiking through the park for 50 miles, north to south, only to hear of a park ranger who would run the route before going to work. I barely believed this was humanly possible, let alone that one day I’d be an accomplished ultramarathon runner myself. I frequently camped alone, experiencing late night camp visitors such as mountain goats and bears on the trail. I distinctly remember an enlightening moment in the park’s Hoh rainforest, sitting alone on a moss-covered fallen tree, when a leaf-filtered ray of light touched my face, and I felt like I had finally found myself. National Parks have a special way of teaching us not only about the natural world we live in, but also about our place within it.” 

4. Canyonlands National Park, Utah



Martin Strel, a long distance swimmer from Slovenia, says, “As an adventure swimmer, I always look for new places to explore and challenge myself. Canyonlands National Park, which is home to the Colorado and Green rivers, offers an incredible landscape of canyons, mesas and buttes. Before the Colorado joins the Green river and goes into Cataract Canyon, there are some wonderful parts to swim. The water is incredibly clean and it offers a fantastic open water river-training venue. Quite often, I end up drinking the river as well and I’ve never had any health problems. The Colorado river has been my training venue for the last 10 years and I always find it inspirational and challenging. I hope other people get inspired by it as well.” 

5. Death Valley National Park, California



American ultramarathon runner, Dean Karnazes, says, “The hottest temperature ever recorded on earth was in Death Valley National Park, a skin-searing 56.7C. The road gets so hot during the summer it can melt the soles off your sneakers. Places have names like Dante's View, Furnace Creek, Devil’s Hole and Stovepipe Wells. It’s not the most inviting place for a run, but that’s precisely what a small group of runners do every year during the annual Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile continuous foot race through Death Valley that pits the world’s most extreme athletes against the world’s most extreme elements. But that’s not to say it isn’t beautiful. In fact, Death Valley National Park is stunning. From the first time I participated in the Badwater Ultramarathon two decades ago, I’ve been captivated by this majestic land. There’s something magical about it, something entirely otherworldly. Death Valley National Park is about as far away from earth as you can get while still being tethered to it. If that’s the sort of escape you seek, this is the right place. Just don’t forget your running shoes.” 

6. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona



Krissy Moehl, an American ultramarathon runner says, “Within the landscape of Grand Canyon National Park lays an ultrarunner’s rites of passage. The Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim is a 48-mile trek that exposes runners to incredible changes in elevation (20,000ft), extreme temperature and exposure. On my first night inside the National Park, on the eve of my 28th birthday, I stared into the depths of the dramatic gash cut through the earth, the mighty Colorado River appearing as a squiggle in the dirt, and realised our goal of double-crossing the canyon with only the power of our legs was an intimidating endeavour. We faced intense heat, cooled ourselves in the river, blew out our quads on the descents, indulged in lemonade and Snickers at Phantom Ranch, and ran a reverse mountain, climbing to the safety of the Bright Angel Lodge as our finish. Marking my birthday with 28 candles and hundreds of dramatic photos remains a notable highlight in my ultrarunning career. I’ve run the ‘R2R2R’ at least four times since that initial visit. I’ve set a fastest known time, as well as hauled out a struggling friend. Each experience puts me in my place, shows me what I’m capable of and, most importantly, increases my respect for what great, wide open spaces offer our personal growth.”

7. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho



Ed Farrelly, a British mountaineer and adventurer says, “Yellowstone National Park has dramatic, epic scenery and incredible numbers of animals, including wolves, bison, elk and bears. What’s more, the whole place has the fragility that comes from being placed right over the top of one of the largest volcanic zones in the world. Yellowstone represents everything about nature in the modern world, strikingly and stunningly beautiful on the one side, but just a sniff away from being totally destroyed, never to return, on the other, teetering on the edge of existence. In the end, we’re not going to be on this planet for long and everything has a lifespan. Yellowstone reminds me we have to make the most of the now because you never know how long everything sticks around for and before you know, it might all be too late.” 

8. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah



Jason Lewis is a British explorer and first person to circle the Earth using only human power. He says, “I first came across Capitol Reef National Park during my 13-year human-powered circumnavigation of the globe. Having already biked through the famous Zion National Park with its skyscraper walls and Bryce Canyon’s natural amphitheatres, my expectations for Capitol Reef weren’t overly high. However, the further I got into this little-known 100-mile wilderness ride of twisting canyons, cathedral domes and natural bridges, the more I could feel the prehistoric landscape winding its way into my heart. Early visitors clearly felt the same way. Fremont Indians settled along the Fremont River 700 years ago, happily planting fruit trees and leaving intricate petroglyphs on the surrounding cliffs, followed by 19th-century Mormon pioneers. This National Park is a hidden gem.” 

9. Acadia National Park, Maine



Lea Davison, an American cross-country mountain biker, says, “When we were growing up, my parents took my sister and I camping every summer to a different location. From an early age, this inspired my infatuation with the outdoors and a taste for seeing new places. One particular camping trip location that really stuck in my mind was Acadia National Park in Maine. The park is geographically diverse. We rode the carriage roads on our mountain bikes, we tasted lobster for the first time and we explored the coastline. This was my first interaction with the ocean. All of these things really inspire my lifestyle, my approach to travel, and how I see my career as a professional cyclist.  I race in world cups in different locations around the world. There's a big focus on resting for each race, but I’m able to explore these areas a lot by bike, just like we did the carriage roads in Acadia. Our family trips to National Parks laid the foundation for me to make the most of a professional cycling career.  It gave me a taste for adventure, so I really make a point of experiencing all of these places I'm lucky enough to visit.”

10. Zion National Park, Utah



The British World Champion professional cyclist Tracy Moseley, says, “Travelling has always been the best bit of my job, but often there’s never time to really visit an area properly as a tourist. But in 2010, I planned a US road trip at the end of the season to ride our bikes in some famous biking destinations and to watch one of mountain biking’s biggest extreme freeride competitions: Red Bull Rampage in Virgin, Utah. We camped close by in Zion National Park in our RV and, with just one day to spare before the competition, we thought we’d go and check out the park. We chose to head up Angels Landing as it looked like an interesting walk. A few hours later, we were clutching on to chains and taking some calculated, well-positioned footsteps as we scaled the heights to the top. What a spectacular walk and a stunning view. I loved the fact that health and safety hadn’t gone crazy and we were still allowed to walk up something like this in a busy National Park. I also loved the local chipmunks that took no time to make themselves known, as they were in my backpack as soon as I had opened up a zip and put it on the floor. Zion is a truly beautiful place I’ll remember fondly forever.” 

11. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia


The view from Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (Shutterstock)
The view from Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (Shutterstock)


Jeremiah Bishop, an American professional bike racer adds, “It’s no wonder John Denver wrote about Shenandoah’s legendary ‘country roads’ in his most popular song Country Roads (Take Me Home). It’s a breathtaking place, not for towering foreboding rocky peaks, but rather its mysterious landscape. The long ridgeline has 115 miles of velvety ribbon of blacktop known as Skyline Drive, which is punctuated with overlooks that I enjoy for some mid-ride photo opps with riding buddies. Part of the charm of riding Shenandoah National Park is that it’s always different. Some days, I climb up through the fog and emerge to sapphire blue sky and sun with peaks emerging like green islands in a white sea. Other days, its autumn’s splendour, with crimson and gold leafs flying. On winter days, the trees are somber and the ripples of the mountains show their true shape with a light dusting of snow. Regardless of the weather, I know I’ll be in for a treat of some sort. Shenandoah National Park is for me often a space of reflective suffering, as I’m usually up there grinding out a massive training day, but I am always glad I made the trip. I’ve travelled to over 20 countries, racing and riding, and Shenandoah National Park is still one of my favourite places. Maybe John Denver had it right.” 

12. The Gates Of The Arctic National Park, Alaska


A grizzly bear in the snow (Shutterstock)
A grizzly bear in the snow (Shutterstock)


Ray Mears, a British wilderness bushcraft and survival expert and TV presenter, says, “The Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska is an awe-inspiring place. If you are a lover of untamed wilderness, then this is an incredible landscape to explore, home to astonishing natural beauty. The silence of the winter forest is a profoundly beautiful contrast to the summer. Each frosty morning, fresh tracks betray the presence of fellow winter specialists, such as the grizzly bear, the Dall sheep or the regal wolf. Winter camping demands days of honest labour and rewards us with long nights made memorable by the magical spell of good cheer found in the glow of candles illuminating the snug of the tent.”

Read more about National Parks: 

7 of the best national parks in Fiji

The best national parks in the USA for adventure

5 lesser known UK National Parks that deserve your attention

8 of Africa’s secret National Parks every wildlife-lover should know about

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