The US National Parks are home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the United States. From the craggy peaks of Denali to the lush swamps of Everglades, there’s plenty to enjoy and discover on your adventures to the United States’ finest outdoor recreation sites.
However, our beloved parks wouldn’t be the same without the passionate stewards that care for the land, day in, and day out: the US National Park Service.
Although the first US National Park—Yellowstone—was founded in 1872, the National Park Service didn’t come into being until August 25, 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act into law.
Every year since, the ever-growing National Park Service celebrates its birthday on August 25. That means that this year, we get to celebrate the agency’s 105th birthday! Needless to say, we’re already planning our adventure.
The National Park Service’s birthday is actually a fee-free day at all national park service units. So, get your hiking boots on, download your maps in PeakVisor, and get ready to hit the trail!
Not sure where to go for your next adventure? Here are 10 of the best parks to check out this August:
1. Acadia National Park, Maine
The first national park in the US established to the east of the Mississippi, Acadia National Park is a veritable treasure trove of adventure located on the ancestral land of the Wabanaki. Acadia is located predominantly on Mount Desert Island, which is just a 3 hour drive from the bustling city of Portland, Maine.
Acadia is known for its stunning seascapes, rich biodiversity, and fantastic hiking opportunities. While there, you can also head out on a whale watching trip in the hopes of spotting some of the region’s abundant marine life.
If peak bagging is more your style, you can take a sunrise hike to the top of Cadillac Mountain—the first place in the continental US to see the sunrise each day. For a more casual adventure, you can take a walk around the shoreline of Mount Desert Island to see the famous Otter Cliffs and the aptly named Thunder Hole.
2. Olympic National Park, Washington
Encompassing the bulk of Washington’s famous Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park is a land of dense temperate rainforests, glaciated peaks, and rugged coastlines.
The park is located on the traditional territory of the Makah, Quileute, Hoh, Quinault, Skokomish, Port Gamble S'Klallam, Jamestown S'Klallam, and Lower Elwha Klallam. Plus, it’s just a short drive from Seattle, so it’s the perfect place to adventure for locals and visitors alike!
Olympic was designated as a national park in 1938 and, since then, it’s become a go-to place to hikers and mountaineers. Summit attempts on peaks like Mount Olympus, Mount Deception, and Mount Constance are a right of passage for many local climbers, though there are plenty of less technical hikes in the park, too.
If you’re looking to get up into the mountains, a trek to Crescent Lake or the Staircase Region might be your best bet. Alternatively, head to the Hoh Rainforest if you want to see the park’s splendor and biodiversity on full display.
3. Channel Islands National Park, California
One of the more unique parks in the US, Channel Islands National Park is a seaside escape in southern California located on the ancestral lands of the Chumash. The park is located a relatively short ferry or plane ride from Santa Barbara or Ventura, after which you’ll arrive on craggy islands that feel like a world away from the big city of Los Angeles.
Channel Islands National Park consists of a collection of five islands—Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara—each of which boasts its own outdoor recreation opportunities.
Santa Cruz Island is arguably the most popular destination and it offers an array of hikes, like those to Smuggler’s Cove or El Montañon Peak. Or, you can take the path less traveled and visit the remote San Miguel Island where seabirds and marine life abound.
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
The most visited national park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a mountainous retreat located along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee on the traditional territory of the Cherokee. The park is just a short drive from Knoxville and Chattanooga, so it’s an ideal place to visit if you’re traveling around the southeastern US.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses the bulk of the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains, which are a subrange of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, you can take a scenic drive through the mountains or you can strap on your hiking boots and do some peak bagging.
The Appalachian Trail crosses through the park and offers endless opportunities for hiking. For a superb view, the trek up Clingmans Dome also shouldn’t be missed, though there are plenty of other panoramic viewpoints to enjoy in the park.
5. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
The only US national park that officially closes during the winter months, Isle Royale National Park is a magical landscape located on a small, rugged island in northern Lake Superior. Isle Royale has long played an important role for local communities, including the Ojibwe and others who have mined and hunted on the island since time immemorial.
These days, Isle Royale is accessible only by ferry or float plane during the summer months. Once at Isle Royale, you can venture around its rugged coastlines and experience its wonderful camping areas.
If you’re lucky, you might even get to see one of the members of the Isle Royale wolf packs or some of the many moose that call the island home. Either way, a trip to the gorgeous Isle Royale is one that you’ll certainly remember.
6. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Of the eight national parks in the great state of Alaska, Kenai Fjords is arguably the most accessible. The stunning glaciated landscapes of Kenai Fjords are located on the ancestral lands of the Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) in the south-central part of the Kenai Peninsula, just a 3 hour’s drive from Anchorage.
Kenai Fjords is relatively unique because it encompases both a wide swath of the massive Harding Icefield and the bulk of the surrounding rugged coastline. The park has just one road that leads to its only two maintained trails: the Exit Glacier Overlook Trail and the Harding Icefield Trail.
If you’re looking to get further off the beaten path, you can hire a guide to take you ice climbing on the famous Exit Glacier. Or, you can take a whale watching tour into the fjords. Better yet, you can hop on a water taxi and go kayaking around massive icebergs at Bear Glacier—the options are truly endless at Kenai Fjords!
7. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
One of the most iconic parks in the US, Grand Teton National Park is a must-visit destination for the hikers, climbers, and skiers among us. Situated on the traditional territory of the Eastern Shoshone, Grand Teton National Park boasts unparalleled natural beauty and some of the best mountain landscapes in the Rocky Mountains.
The park is centered around its namesake peak, the Grand Teton, which is the highest point in the Teton Range. Climbing the Grand Teton or any of its neighboring peaks generally requires rock climbing equipment and skills, so consider hiring a local guide if you’d like to make a summit attempt.
Otherwise, there are plenty of great hikes to enjoy in the park, including trips to Hurricane Pass, Static Peak Divide, Signal Mountain, the Teton Crest Trail, and Lake Solitude. You can also try your hand at fly fishing in some of the region’s pristine lakes and raging rivers.
8. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Although it’s perhaps not as well known as some of its southerly counterparts, like Yosemite and Joshua Tree, Lassen Volcanic National Park is a true gem that’s located in northern California. The park is located on the homelands of the Maidu, Yahi, Yana, and Atsugewi, and it’s just a modest drive from Sacramento.
As its name suggests, Lassen Volcanic National Park is situated around a volcano. In fact, its namesake, Lassen Peak, is the southernmost active volcano in the Cascades. While the peak’s last major eruption was quite a while ago, its landscape is dominated by lava domes and other volcanic features.
Hiking opportunities are seemingly endless in the park. Great options include the trek to Bumpass Hell, the Painted Dunes, and the Manzanita Lake Loop. You can also hike to the summit of Lassen Peak if you’re feeling up to the challenge.
9. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Encompassing some of the most stunning terrain in the Colorado Rockies, Rocky Mountain National Park is the country’s third most visited park, as well as one of its highest-elevation destinations. Rocky Mountain includes land that is part of the traditional territory of many peoples, including the Comanche, Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne, and it’s just a short drive from Denver.
As you might suspect from a park with the word “mountain” in its name, Rocky Mountain National Park has no shortage of peaks for visitors to enjoy. In fact, the park contains the truly stunning Longs Peak, which is one of the region’s most challenging alpine rock climbs.
For adventures that keep your feet a bit more firmly planted on the ground, consider venturing to Sky Pond, Chasm Lake, Mount Ida, or Emerald Lake. Or, you can enjoy a scenic drive down the gorgeous Trail Ridge Road if you’re keen for more panoramic vistas.
10. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Last but not least, we have the out-of-this-world landscapes of Badlands National Park. The park is located on the ancestral homelands of many tribal nations, including that of the Crow, Blackfeet, Northern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne, and Oglala Sioux. It’s situated just outside Rapid City in western South Dakota and offers a chance to see a landscape like no other.
The primary attraction of Badlands National Park is its namesake badlands, which are lands dominated by sedimentary rocks that have been heavily eroded by water and wind. Here, unique geological features abound, including pinnacles and buttes. The park is also home to one of the largest remaining mixed grass prairies in the country.
While at Badlands, you can check out the landscape on a number of hikes, including the Castle Trail, the Notch Trail, and the Cliff Shelf Trail. You can also take a drive down the Badlands Scenic Byway for an spectacular overview of the park itself.