33 National Parks to See Before You Die

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The National Parks System officially turned 100 in 2016, and it could easily take that long to see America's vast and impressive range of landscapes. Let us help. This short list of the country's must-sees includes parks that stand out for sheer beauty (Glacier National Park), enormity (the Grand Canyon), and novelty (Great Sand Dunes). It's no wonder we call the parks America's Best Idea.
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    ••• Daniel A. Leifheit/Getty Images
    In Alaska's most well-known national park, wildlife is diverse, mountains (including America's highest peak) are grandiose, and the subarctic landscape is astounding. It's no surprise that tourism to the park has increased drastically over the past few decades. The state of Alaska is home to some of America's most breathtaking scenery, full of glaciers, valleys, cliffs, lakes, and wildlife. And with over six million acres, Denali is no exception.
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    Scientists have likened the icy Glacier Bay to a living laboratory due to the park's glacial retreat, plant succession, and animal behavior. As the melting ice retreats, new vegetation and mammals move in on land, while underneath the water's surface, humpback whales, killer whales and seals continue to call the region home. It's only accessible by boat or plane, but Glacier Bay is an area that deserves a visit, especially if you are a lover of nature and wildlife.
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    The nearly one million acres of Olympic National Park offer visitors three distinct ecosystems ripe for exploration, including rainforest valleys, snow-capped peaks, and a colorful coast. In 1976, the area was declared an international biosphere reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding natural attributes and importance to the planet.
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    ••• Jersey JJ via Flickr.
    Crater Lake was formed when Mount Mazama—a dormant volcano—erupted in about 5700 B.C. Eventually rain and snow accumulated to form the deepest lake in the United States. On a clear summer day, the water in Crater Lake is such a deep blue that many have said it looks like ink.
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    Mount Rainier is one of the world's largest volcanoes and dominates the skyline for some 100 miles—no surprise, considering it stands at almost three miles high, the tallest peak in the Cascade Range. Stroll through fields of wildflowers, examine trees over a thousand years old, and listen to the sound of cracking glaciers.
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    Stand in the middle of the vast redwood forests—home to the earth's tallest living things—and it's easy to feel like you stepped back in time. Stroll along the beaches or hike in the woods to take in the region's abundant wildlife and quiet peace.
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    Rocky Mountain National Park may be the most spectacular park in the United States. With the massive mountains as a backdrop, tundras of rolling wildflowers, and Alpine lakes, everything from a scenic drive to a horseback ride or hike rewards visitors with impressive vistas.
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    The country's first national park is perhaps its most inspiring, with miles of mountains, lakes, and rivers; magnificent free-roaming bison (some of the country's last-wild herds); and geothermic activity, including natural hot springs, geysers, and rainbow colored pools.
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    With alpine meadows, pristine lakes, and rugged mountains, Glacier National Park is a hiker's paradise—and one that global warming puts at risk. Visit before the namesake glaciers retreat.
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    Not only does this stretch of land preserve some 70,000 acres of otherworldly badlands, it also honors Theodore Roosevelt, the president who did more to promote the National Park System than any other. He first visited North Dakota in 1883 and fell in love with the natural beauty of the rugged landscape, earning him a namesake park.
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    With dunes up to 750 feet tall extending for miles, Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park feels like an otherworldly ocean of sand hills. Explore diverse habitats, including sand dunes, pines and aspens, and even spruce-fir forests and tundras—or spend time sandboarding down the dunes themselves.
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    It's known as The Wall—a natural barrier through the dry plains of South Dakota stretching for hundreds of miles. Running water carved amazing pinnacles and gullies over the course of some 500,000 years to create this stark moonscape.
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    It's no surprise how Arches National Park got its name—it claims some 2,000 natural arches, giant balanced rocks, pinnacles, and slickrock domes, carved out by millions of years of erosion and weathering.
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    The iconic sandstone creations of Bryce Canyon National Park, known as hoodoos, attract more than one million visitors to the region annually. Explore via hiking and horseback trails to get an up-close-and personal look at the stunning fluted walls and sculptured pinnacles.
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    About five million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year and it's no wonder why. The Grand Canyon is a mammoth gorge that stretches 277 miles along the Colorado River, dramatically showcasing the powers of erosion over time. The region boasts some of the nation's cleanest air, and a great deal of the park's 1,904 square miles are maintained as wilderness.
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    Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers visitors the opportunity to view multistoried dwellings in cliff alcoves some 2,000 feet above Montezuma Valley. The dwellings are remarkably preserved, allowing archaeologists to uncover more than 4,800 archaeological sites (including 600 cliff dwellings) dating roughly from A.D. 550 to 1300.
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    In the middle of Arizona's vivid Painted Desert lies this hidden treasure showcasing a 200 million-year-old environment. This living example of the earth's history reveal's the world's largest concentrations of brilliantly colored petrified wood.
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    Located in Utah's high plateau county, the Virgin River carved a gorge so deep that sunlight rarely reaches the bottom. Weathered sandstone shines red and white, creating amazing sculptured rocks, cliffs, peaks, and hanging valleys. Explore them all via the park's major attractions or on remote backcountry trails.
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    It may be one of the smaller national parks, but Acadia National Park is certainly one of the most scenic in the U.S. Whether you go in the fall to enjoy the stunning foliage, or visit in the summer to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, Maine is a beautiful area to tour. Seaside villages offers shops for antiques, fresh lobster, and homemade fudge, while the national park houses rugged trails for hiking and biking.
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    Only five percent of Biscayne Bay National park is on land; the majority of the attractions are underwater, in a coral reef housing a complex ecosystem full of brightly colored fish, uniquely-shaped coral, and miles of wavy sea grass.
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    In the Gulf of Mexico about 70 miles off of Key West lies a seven-mile-long chain of islands — the centerpiece of Dry Tortugas National Park. This bird and marine life sanctuary—named for the turtles populating the area—contains some of the healthiest coral reefs remaining along North American shores, plus legends of pirates and sunken gold.The area is also known for its legends of pirates, sunken gold, and military past.
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    Everglades National Park remains one of the most endangered national parks in the country. The development of southern Florida has impacted the habitats of the park's crocodiles, manatees and panthers. Visit to see its mangrove swamps, prairies, and reptiles.
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    Great Smoky Mountains National Park welcomes over 9 million visitors every year. Its 800 square miles of mountainous land preserves some of the world's most stunning deciduous forests.
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    Hot Springs is a national park even urbanites will love. The smallest of the national parks—at only 5,550 acres—Hot Springs actually borders the city that has made a profit out of tapping and distributing the park's main resource, mineral-rich waters.
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    Vast Lake Superior's Isle Royale is one of the most isolated national parks. Visitors must carry in what they need and carry out everything, including garbage. The island's landscape is rugged, eerily surrounded by one of the most intact collections of shipwrecks in the country.
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    Descend 300 feet below the surface of the earth to explore Mammoth Cave, the world's longest cave system. Some 365 miles of this five-layered system are already mapped, yet spelunkers and scientists continue to discover new caves.
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    This tranquil and quiet national park — just 75 miles outside of Washington, DC — showcases massive mountains, majestic woods, and stunning vistas. Each season presents its own treasures, with wildflowers in the spring, striking foliage in the fall, and opportunities to spot wildlife year round.
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    You don't have to travel outside the United States to unwind on a white sandy beach surrounded by crisp, turquoise water. Located on the Caribbean island of St. John, Virgin Islands National Park is a small treasure, with 800 subtropical plant species, mangrove swamps, and coral reefs teeming with fragile plants and animals. No passport, no shoes? No problem.
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    Though it may be most popular for its unbelievable valleys, Yosemite is also home to some of the nation's most spectacular waterfalls, meadows, and ancient sequoia trees. Within its 1,200 miles of wilderness, visitors can find wild flowers, animals grazing, crystal clear lakes, and amazing domes and pinnacles of granite.
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    At more than 4,000 feet high (and still growing,) Hawaii's Kilauea volcano adjoins the much larger and older Mauna Loa volcano to form the landscape of this national park. Mauna Loa itself is massive, towering 13,679 feet above sea level—larger than Mount Everest, when measured from its underwater base.
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    The three-million-acre Death Valley National Park, the largest park outside of Alaska, spans the border of eastern California and southern Nevada, linking the state's harsh deserts—and housing the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.
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    Five separate isles comprise California's Channel Islands National Park: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara, each rich with wildlife and jaw-dropping views. The six nautical miles of park around the islands are protected, housing giant kelp forests, elephant seals, California sea lions, and the pacific gray whales that migrate between Alaska and Baja each year.
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    Actor Will Rogers once referred to New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns as the Grand Canyon with a roof on it, which is pretty accurate. This underworld lies beneath the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico and is one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever discovered.

33 National Parks to See Before You Die