Whoever decided summer is the best (or only) season to hit the road probably hasn’t snowboarded down Mount Rainier in January, driven past Virginia’s stunning foliage in October, or seen a rainbow of wildflowers bloom among the Southern Arizona cacti in May. Travel enthusiasts know there are many treasures lurking across the U.S. all year round – and many of those treasures can be found by consulting the country’s National Park Service (NPS).
The U.S. National Parks are a great destination in any season, whether you’re looking for a long vacation, weekend getaway, or day trip. The system boasts 423 different areas that span more than 85 million acres in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
Keep reading to learn about the best parks to visit during each season of the year. Before heading out, be sure to check the NPS website at www.nps.gov for information on opening dates and hours, entrance requirements, contact info, and COVID-19 restrictions (where applicable).
- Mount Rainier National Park, Washington: Towering just east of Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park provides plenty of winter snow for skiing, snowboarding, sledding, and snowshoeing. The area known as Paradise averages 54 feet of snow a year. There are also numerous options for winter camping and hiking.
- Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: Located in northern Colorado among some of the highest elevations in the U.S., Rocky Mountain National Park offers a chance for backcountry skiers to cut through the continental divide. The park also offers world-class sledding, hiking, and snowshoeing.
- Acadia National Park, Maine: If you’re looking for a national park with an ocean view, Acadia fits the bill. Located primarily off the coast of Mount Desert Island, this park offers views of crashing waves and marine mammals such as seals, dolphins, and whales. You can also go backcountry skiing, fishing, snowshoeing, and dog sledding.
- Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming: Yellowstone’s iconic landscapes and geysers make it a popular destination. Those geysers are even more impressive during winter, thanks to the cool, clear air. You’ll also have an easier time spotting elk, moose, bison, wolves, and other wildlife. The recreation-minded will have plenty of skiing and snowshoeing options.
- Yosemite National Park, California: If you want to get a view of Yosemite’s many waterfalls at their peak, visit in late April or May. The spring thaw quickly melts the snow above, creating powerful flows of water down the mountains. You’ll also see plenty of dogwoods and blooming flowers during the spring.
- Saguaro National Park, Arizona: Saguaro, located in the southern part of Arizona, is perhaps best known for its wide saguaro cactus forest that spans the valley floor near Tucson. Springtime is when the wildflowers bloom, giving you a chance to see marigolds, penstemons and gold Mexican poppy on the desert landscape. It’s also a good time to see coyotes, desert tortoises and other wildlife, and explore ancient rock carvings known as petroglyphs.
- Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee: Spring brings more than 1,700 types of wildflowers that bloom for your viewing pleasure as well as colorful wildlife. It’s also an ideal time to hike the many trails at Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
- Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska: If your idea of a great vacation is seeing nature in all of its splendor, this is the park to visit. You’ll have spectacular views of pristine mountains and lakes, which are accentuated during the spring by low-hanging clouds and vibrant sunlight. Keep an eye out for marine life as well – including humpback and orca whales – by taking a boat tour.
- Crater Lake National Park, Oregon: Summer is the best time to enjoy the clean air and see Crater Lake’s clear blue water and 2,000-foot cliffs. You’ll have access to more than 100 miles of hiking trails – including the 2.5-mile Mount Scott Trail, which offers excellent views of Crater Lake.
- Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin: This lakeshore at the northern tip of Wisconsin features 21 islands in Lake Superior, which means plenty of summertime boating, kayaking, water skiing and fishing. It’s also an ideal time to scuba dive amid old shipwrecks.
- Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming: Grand Teton is the highest peak in the Teton Range at 13,775 feet above the Jackson Hole valley floor, and the warmer climate of summer makes it the best time to enjoy it. Numerous water options are available, including streams, smaller lakes and the 15-mile-long Jackson Lake.
- Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky: This park features the world’s longest cave system, so it’s the perfect place to escape the summer heat. You’ll have access to more than 400 miles of caves. In the summer, park rangers lead more than a dozen different tours. Above ground, you can enjoy boating, canoeing, kayaking and riverside camping.
- Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: Few areas in the U.S. offer more colorful fall foliage than Shenandoah National Park. Visitors can take part in the annual Fall Foliage Bike Festival, hike the Appalachian Trail, or take a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway for a kaleidoscope of colors.
- Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming: You’ll get great views of the yellow aspens at Grand Teton during September and October – including reflections off of the park’s many lakes. There are also plenty of recreational options, including hiking, boating, and fishing.
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas: Rich colors paint the breathtaking views from the four highest peaks in the state, as well as desert and dunes for hiking. This west Texas park has the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef, and the night skies are filled with an endless galaxy of stars.
- Zion National Park, Utah: The brilliant fall colors in Zion Canyon are best seen in late October. The cooler temperatures during the fall also make it an ideal time to take advantage of recreational activities such as hiking, climbing, and horseback riding.