Julia’s been hot-footing around the United States and has come back filled with handy tips on how best to see all of America’s national parks, plus the inside scoop on eight parks that usually fly under the radar.

Few countries represent a range of diverse landscapes, and the United States is one of them.

Over billions of years, the Earth’s wobbly slow dance has resulted in spectacular sceneries sprawled across the country: a mishmash of snowy mountain chains, ice fields, deep canyons, and gnarly rock formations suited to cinematic viewing.


Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana | @ryanstone


But instead of observing it on the big screen, go out there and see it yourself. The United States has options to rival a streaming service with over 400 national parks to discover.

Those designated public places of admiration and recreation go back to the days of President Lincoln, with the 1864 Yosemite Grant paving the way for preserving natural landscapes and cultural sites for future generations.

Indeed, we are the lucky ones reaping the benefits of great foresight!

However, entering these parks is not as easy as just showing up, trigger-happy with a camera in tow.

To help plan your next adventure to America’s national parks, use our handy guide to best experience these timeless icons styled by nature. Psst – we’ll let you in on some of our favourites too!

Types of United States National Park Passes

You’ll need to purchase a pass or ticket to check out the long list of impressive parks and sites. Or, as we like to think of it, investing in nature and cultural preservation.

A mindset change makes it easier to part with those green dollar bills, right?



If you’re planning to visit a few of America’s national parks in one big trip, we highly recommend purchasing an ‘America the Beautiful – National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass’ for $80USD.

The annual pass covers entry fees for everyone in a personal vehicle or up to four adults per site that require a per person entrance fee. It also provides unlimited entrance to parks across the country for 12 months from the month of purchase, giving you more bang for your buck.

Expanded Amenity fees such as camping, guided tours, timed entry permits, boat launching, ferries and parking are not covered in the Annual Pass. For a bit more of the ins and outs of the pass, check out annual pass use and make your purchase at USGS.

If you want to visit only one or two parks on your trip, purchasing a separate day ticket for each park makes sense. Entry fees vary, with tickets available for purchase online or at the park entrance.

Lastly, who said the best things in life aren’t free? On selected days throughout the year, national parks will waive fees so try and align your visit with the dates below:

Please note! The prices listed are subject to change without notice.

United State National Parks Timed Entry Permit

There’s nothing worse than after a prolonged waiting period, getting to the start of the line and  being told that admission into a much-celebrated national park is a no-go; capacity has been reached. Turn around and come back another day.

Cue the high-pitched ‘Bye!’. But perhaps time isn’t on your side – you have places to be and landscapes to see. To avoid this doomsday holiday scenario and potential FOMO, plan ahead with booking a timed entry permit reservation.

Combating crowds is moving to be a thing of the past. Time entry permits are being trialed and introduced to selected national parks, hikes, and historical sites over peak periods to lessen the masses descending all at once.


The Grand Canyon, Arizona | @thomashaas


This way, it improves the overall visitor experience — a win for you and a win for conservation.

Each timed entry permit reservation for national parks is a non-refundable $2USD. It’ll cover one vehicle, including all passengers, to enter the park in the designated one to two-hour window.

Time entry permits to selected historical sites and popular hikes such as Old Rag Mountain in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, start from a measly $1USD. Please note that all timed entry ticket reservations can only be made through recreation.gov.

Be mindful that these time entry permits don’t replace park entrances with a park pass or ticket required to enter the park. Flash them together, and happy days, start exploring!

But which of America’s National Parks will you visit?

You now know that there are hundreds of America’s national parks to visit. But what park should you go to first? It’s a tough selection for sure, but while we don’t want to overcomplicate the decision, these are a few off-the-radar parks deserving of an exploration.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

It may surprise a few folks to learn that the United States has ancient ruins dating 550AD. Just outside of mountain biking capital, Durango in southwest Colorado, you’ll find the first national park of cultural significance, with President Theodore Roosevelt’s wish to ‘preserve the works of man’ in 1906.



Mesa Verde National Park is a World Heritage-listed site with over 4,500 archaeological remains. For over 700 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people moved along mesa tops, growing crops, hunting while residing in naturally sculptured nooks in canyon walls. Impressive sandstone and mud mortar structures were built within these overhangs, ranging from small rooms to tiered villages.



Towards the end of the 12th century, they started to abandon their cliff communities, migrating south to what’s now known as New Mexico and Arizona.

Visiting Mesa Verde will excite ancient civilisation fans as you’re able to immerse yourself in the life of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Popular cliff dwellings Long House and Cliff Palace can only be accessed by joining a tour so make sure to book ahead via recreation.gov.

Read more: What I Learned Preparing to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Pack your hiking boots and head east to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

This park’s a travel content creator’s dream with spectacles sandwiched between the Blue Ridge to the east and the Alleghenies to the west. It’s like walking straight into a fairytale with gushing waterfalls, looming forests, and wildflower meadows banded by the dreamy Shenandoah Mountain range aka Virginia’s Appalachians.


Shenandoah National Park in winter | @zjosephson


Are you chasing those perfect panorama shots? There are plenty of opportunities along the historic 168km-long Skyline Drive. While en route, make sure to be on the lookout for its occupants – deers, black bears, and songbirds – who call this colourful park home.

Arches National Park, Utah

Stand alongside or under burnished red skyscrapers at Utah’s Arches National Park. Extreme temperatures, an underground salt bed and severe erosion have sculpted this unique landscape to be the rock-filled concourse it is today, just moments away from the eastern city, Moab.



Over 2,000 peculiarly shaped sandstone formations, including arches, pinnacles, spines, and oversized fins, are peppered throughout the park. There are even balancing rocks providing a corny photo-op to hold the rock in place!

Denali National Park, Alaska

Alaska is famously known as America’s final frontier, boasting pristine wilderness left, right, and centre. And if solitude is bliss, then Denali National Park is the place to achieve that inner zen.



The park covers over six million acres of land. Its vastness ranges from low-lying taiga forests to snow-capped mountains, with North America’s tallest peak, Denali, towering over a mountain chain at 6,910m. There are plenty of hikes to trailblaze, including the wind-swept Savage Alpine Trail. Just bring the bear spray, as you wouldn’t want giant furry friends to accompany you mid-adventure!

Read more: 7 Trails That Prove Alaska is a Dream Hiking Destination

Devils Postpile National Monument, California

The devil in disguise lies outside the Californian adventure capital, Mammoth Lakes. Devils Postpile National Monument is a geological spectacle comprised of symmetric basalt columns rising to 18m high.



Neighbouring this rare formation is Rainbow Falls, an apt name with rainbows mainly present (during the day, of course!) against a stunning mountainous backdrop. A perfect place for a short hike.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

A park that has ‘petrified’ in its name is sure to intrigue.

Quell the curiosity by visiting Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Located on the outskirts of Holbrook in the state’s north, this park has a bit of everything – geology, archaeology, paleontology, and architecture. Oh, and a whole lot of petrified wood.


Petrified wood | @noeldejesus


The high-desert wonderland is famed for its ancient trees, undergoing a metamorphosis from wood to an almost solid quartz state. You can also see the unusual formations used in ancient architecture, with the park boasting ruins built by the Ancestral Puebloan people.

A great example is the archeological marvel, Agate House – an eight-room house believed to have been used between 1050 and 1300 – built with petrified wood.

Brighten up your visit by checking out the nearby Painted Desert. Its varied rock formations – canyons, mesas and slopes – sport colours of the rainbow, making the badlands a good place for top-notch viewing.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Ensure your island adventure is a lava-ishing affair by visiting Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on Big Island. The International Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts volcanoes – Maunaloa and Kilauea – considered to be two of the world’s most active. Witness an active lava lake’s crust being hauled into simmering pours from an eruption viewpoint or walk fiery terrains such as lush forests, crater rims, and even into craters.


An active volcano in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park | @cedricletsch


You can also be blown away by the park’s violent beauty along the 17km-long Crater Rim Drive. The scenic drive winds through impressive yet contrasting vistas of Puu Puai, Kilauea Iki Crater, and the Devastation Trail.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

For a state that doesn’t have any coastline, it sure has a lot of sand. Fringing Alamosa, Colorado, is North America’s tallest dune system, Great Sand Dunes National Park. It sure seems like a bizarre placement on Mother Nature’s behalf, with the soaring dunes next to the rocky Sangre de Cristo Mountains, snaking streams, and montane forests.



Besides the hiking opportunities, have a scream or laugh-out-loud ride in nature’s amusement park. Hire a sandboard or sand sled from a local rental outlet in San Luis Valley and make your way down the dunes at your own leisure. Who needs snow anyway?