I’ve been excited to put together this blog post since we started visiting the National Parks! We’ve enjoyed seeing how other people rank the US national parks, and everyone’s perspective is different! So while we haven’t yet visited every US national park, we’re going to share our current National Park Adventure rankings and keep this list updated as we travel.
How We Rank the US National Parks
We haven’t put together an official rubric with assigned point values, although I have been tempted to! Here’s what gets points from us:
Mountains – Preferably gigantic ones. No points awarded for the East coast ‘mountains’ we grew up with. Bonus for snow caps.
Crystal blue and green lakes – Bonus points if they’re easily accessible and we can paddle on them.
Waterfalls – Preferably cascade or multi-step, but we don’t need to get too picky about our types of waterfalls.
Unique landscapes – Uniquely beautiful topography. Something you can’t see in other parts of that area.
Solitude – We don’t expect the parks to be deserted and would actually prefer some people on the trails with us. But we want to have many moments when it’s just our family in nature.
Larger parks – If there’s more to explore, the park will rank higher than smaller parks. How long can you stay here and fill your days with new activities?
Freedom to wander – Parks that require a tour (like Wind Cave or the Everglades) will lose points for explore-ability (technical term).
Variety of touring options – When we visit a park, we look for a scenic drive, a hike less than 4 miles, and an alternate way to explore (paddleboard, bikes, backcountry drives, guided tour, rafting tour, etc). These small adventures get us out of the car and give us alternate ways to explore the park. Parks that don’t have this kind of variety will rank lower.
What Doesn’t Matter in Our Rankings:
Geographic location – A park doesn’t lose points for me if it’s difficult to travel to. We RV, so obviously someone who flies to every National Park adventure might feel differently.
Wildlife – Don’t get me wrong, we are always on the lookout for wildlife while traveling, but it’s not a main factor in how much we enjoy a national park and we don’t plan around it at all.
Big Huge Caveat:
None of the National Parks are bad. This is not Subpar Parks. (Although we love them. This Yellowstone review is my favorite.) We highly recommend that you visit all of the national parks. Consider this a descending list of our favorites and reasons we loved one park more than others.
National Parks Visited as of Summer 2023: 13
We visited Glacier and Grand Teton as part of the same travel itinerary and it has always been hard to choose a favorite. Snow capped mountains and beautiful blue & green lakes are our favorite and both parks have those in spades. Glacier gets the win thanks to their numerous waterfalls, and also because it’s a larger park with more adventure opportunities to explore. And biking Going to the Sun Road is just incomparable.
You can see the key feature of the park from wherever you are. These mountains are massive, rugged, and in May beautifully snow covered. But since you are looking at the same gorgeous mountain range no matter where you are, you start pitting the views against each other. It’s a bit of a bummer to realize that today’s views aren’t as good as yesterday’s. Glacier also gets a slight edge for weather flexibility. Visibility was a huge problem for us at Grand Teton. We experienced bad weather in Glacier too, but it was easier to drive to a different section of the park or focus on a waterfall hike instead.
As you can see, all the blue lakes and mountains rank top for me. Each spot we stopped at Crater Lake was a huge WOW! It’s incredible from all angles and it’s hard to take in just how massive it is, even when you’re standing on the very edge of it. Crater Lake ranks lower than Glacier and Grand Teton simply from the perspective of park size, length of stay, and variety of activities, but it will also be a top-ranked adventure for me.
This park is full of adventure! We wanted to explore every inch of Big Bend National Park, because the desert landscape was so varied! It may also rank high for us because it was our boys’ first national park and the keystone piece of that RV trip’s travel itinerary (our first multi-week trip in Bex). Big Bend is massive! The Chisos mountains are truly stunning, the backcountry campsites are unique, the canyon is striking, and there is so much backcountry to explore! It really couldn’t feel much more remote! And I couldn’t get over how many colors of cacti I found!
There is a whole lot of hot springs, geysers, and wildlife here! Trying to see it all is overwhelming. Yellowstone gets points for size and uniqueness but it loses a lot for us in the solitude department. We love that it’s popular and accessible, because everyone should get to see this amazing park. And while there are many options for getting away from the parking lots and the travel crowds, we don’t love long remote hikes in bear country with small children, and we felt mostly restricted to boardwalks, which is a bit different than our usual nature experiences.
I wasn’t sure what to expect here, and it was a pleasant surprise to us! The vast expanse of barren landscape reminded us of Big Bend National Park, on a much smaller scale. Two factors that give this park a boost is the ease of seeing wildlife – bison and prairie dogs just on the side of the road – and the ‘walk anywhere’ open hike policy. You can explore open areas and climb formations without sticking to a designated path. It loses points on park size and variety of touring. And you can also see badlands formations from the highway in South Dakota, so it’s not imperative that someone visit the national park to enjoy them. (Although the view is definitely better inside the park!)
Mammoth Cave National Park
Ryan has been on two different cave tours here and he did one of them with the boys while I was in Iceland. We agree with all of our other rankings, so I’m trusting him to put this in the correct place.
Mammoth Cave National Park is the longest known cave system in the world and you can see almost every geological formation here. The park has several different tours that rotate on a schedule, so you can see something completely different on a repeat visit. We rank this higher than other caves because these tours give you more time down in the caves is higher than others we’ve done.
Ryan visited Great Sand Dunes National Park with the kids while I was in Iceland. Here you’ll find the tallest sand dunes in North America surrounded by the towering Colorado mountains, which makes for some pretty unique views. The park has a less traveled route via the 4WD high clearance Medano Pass that the boys really loved. The off-road trail takes you across the mountain and there are gorgeous views of the dunes behind the aspens as you descend to the sand. Medano Creek also flows right through the park and creates a beach style area right near the parking lots, which is a great way to cool off.
This is a truly beautiful place but it doesn’t feel like a national park to me. It feels very similar to Cannon Beach, Oregon: a lovely coastal town with some history, cute little shops, and beautiful nature to enjoy. It would rank very high on a list of vacation towns, but it doesn’t rank as high next to other national parks.
This park felt like a tease of the adventure you get in the Badlands. You get a taste of the formations but not a bunch in one huge expansive section like the Badlands. Take the scenic drive and the short walks from overlooks and you’ve covered everything in just a few hours. That said, it’s particularly lovely in June when everything is green, and it’s a great opportunity to learn how Theodore Roosevelt preserved many of our national treasures in the NPS.
Shenandoah National Park
We grew up in Virginia so these mountains and lush forests don’t feel impressive or unique to us. We haven’t explored the north end of the park, so I try not to judge it too harshly because maybe we’re missing something. But Skyline Drive is right next to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and they’re equally lush in the summer and stunning in the fall. I truly don’t see a difference between the views you get to justify Shenandoah as a top national park.
Wind Cave National Park
We really enjoyed our cave tour, but it felt too short. An hour cave tour ends up being less than 30 minutes when you account for the welcome spiel, the elevator rides, the intro talk, and the exit elevator ride. It went by so fast and there wasn’t an opportunity to see anything more. We came and saw our scheduled thing and now it’s time to go. We really wanted something more to do when the tour was over. More details in the exhibit area, like a 3D printed display of the cave would go a long way in extending your visit and your enjoyment of Wind Cave.
The park does have extensive grasslands and wildlife but we also drove through Custer State Park (and saw all of its wildlife) on the way there, so that doesn’t feel as unique.
St Louis Arch National Park
No matter how great the museum is and how cool the monument is, I don’t think the arch should be a national park. It should be a national monument or national historic site under the NPS just like Mt. Rushmore not a full-fledged national park. It’s in a fully urban area and covers only 92 acres. It is by far the smallest national park, with the next largest park covering more than 5,000 acres. The largest 12 parks each cover at least 1,000,000 acres, with the top four all being larger than the state of Connecticut. The St. Louis Arch simply cannot compare to other national parks in size, natural landscape, or in variety of experiences. It’s a monument not a park so it ranks last.
So that’s how we’ve ranked the US National Parks that we’ve visited. Someday I hope we get to all 63!
Check out our national park guides & itineraries here.
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