Acadia National Park, Maine
Image 1 of 11
Traverse the famous craggy Atlantic coastline of Maine while filling your lungs with clear, crisp air along the 254 kilometres of hiking track in this 20,000-hectare park. There are two dreamy swim spots within: Sand Beach, where it’s chilly, and Echo Lake Beach, where the water’s a little warmer. Leaf-peepers will love the red, gold and orange autumnal colour show of the forest.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Image 2 of 11
Come for photos of electric green trees that seem to wade in still swamps, upgrade to an adventure. Take a daytrip or overnighter into the backcountry on the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. As you paddle though primeval old-growth forest, keep your eyes peeled for river otter, turtles and the odd alligator.
Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
Image 3 of 11
Stretched entirely above the Arctic Circle across nearly three million hectares, this is one of the most pristine, unchanged environments on the continent. A bucket-list ticker, it serves up vast mountain views, six wild and scenic rivers, polar bears and aurora-lit skies in winter. You’ve got to earn it, though: Gates of the Arctic is remote and temperatures dip to bitter outside of high summer.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado
Image 4 of 11
Where is this, exactly? With the famed Aspen forests and snowcapped ski peaks of the Rocky Mountains as their backdrop, these massive desert-style dunes (the highest in North America) look like they’re from another planet. More surreal still, green grasslands and alpine lakes surround the base of the sand. After reaching their magnificent zenith, slide down on a sandboard and slip straight into the cool water of Medano Creek.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Image 5 of 11
While everybody else packs to Yellowstone, get your secluded wilderness fix at this remote island on Lake Superior. The only way in is by boat or seaplane, there are no roads and bikes are banned – this is a sanctuary for a hiker, camper or kayaker’s soul. The isle is often heavy on moody atmosphere: moose amble out of the cool forest cloaked in mist and greyish clouds give even the bright autumn leaves of sugar maples and yellow birches a brooding vibe.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Image 6 of 11
Fumaroles spurt and steam, hydrothermic mud pots bubble and volcanic domes loom – Lassen boasts all four types of volcano known to the world (shield, composite, cinder cone and plug dome, if volcanology is your thing). It’s exciting and interesting. Yet, with meadows speckled in bright pink, purple and yellow wildflowers and massive blue lakes, it’s also one of the prettiest places to frolic in the Cali summer.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Image 7 of 11
There’s a story inside these caverns beneath Kentucky’s rugged hills: Native Americans shaved gypsum off cave walls more than 5000 years ago, outlaws hid out in the dark among shimmering stone columns, frozen pools and chambers lofty enough to host opera. The largest known room (the end of the labyrinth remains undiscovered) covers almost an entire hectare. Back above ground, trails wander between oak trees and by the languid Green River.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Image 8 of 11
This spectacular wilderness is one of the most glorious places on Earth to see glaciers and temperate rainforests in one location, yet it’s one of the least-visited national parks in the entire US. That could be down to the hardcore hikes – trails are rugged and you will definitely huff and puff but the exertion is worth the effort to spot a rare bald eagle from paths where only the elusive grey wolf and wolverine usually tread.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Image 9 of 11
It’s astonishing how alive a desert can be. Named for the green saguaro cactus that can tower up to 15 metres high (the biggest in the nation), this desert-scape outside of Tucson explodes into colour in summer months. Mexican gold poppies, desert marigolds and brittlebrushes burst between dry earth and lucid blue sky – even the saguaros bloom by night from May to June, with a stunning white flower that lives only 24 hours. In the higher, “wetter” Rincon Mountain District of the park, look for wildlife such as black bears and white-tail deer.
Zion National Park, Utah
Image 10 of 11
This where to see the other canyon. The park’s showstopper, Zion Canyon, soars, all bright orange, cream and pink sandstone, into a brilliant azure sky – it’s definitely a sight to fully appreciate from the bottom up. When you’re done marvelling, walk one of the many trails that wind to the top for an aerial take on the green-dotted valley and stone pools below. If you hit Canyon Overlook for early sunset, the whole place lights up with an otherworldly glow.
Up Next: 21 of Australia’s Most Beautiful National Parks
Image 11 of 11
Four per cent of Australia is national park. That might sound a small number but when you consider these protected forests, deserts, mountains, reefs and islands account for 28 million hectares, it’s quite a lofty achievement. These are some of the most incredible ones to see.