When it’s time to get out in the wild in the United States, you’ve got an astounding 62 national parks to choose from. But that’s just the problem: You have to choose. To make it easier on you, we looked across the country and selected the absolutely best national park for your circumstances — whether that’s traveling with kids or a furry friend or your fiance — or what you plan to do, be it camping or fishing. Some of the national parks are better known, some are less expected, but all are perfect for what you need.
Best national park for kids: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Kids love volcanoes, and there’s no better national park in the contiguous United States to explore them than Lassen. Little ones will learn that there are four types of volcanoes — lava domes, cinder cones, composite volcanoes, and shield volcanoes — and they can see all four within the park. In fact, the park’s namesake Lassen Peak is the largest plug dome volcano in the world.
Your kids will walk next to boiling water and gurgling pools of mud, dazzled by the plumes of fumaroles heading skyward. They’ll see vast fields of hardened lava, and see how life is springing back slowly over time. It’s all probably more interesting to them than another pretty mountain view — although there are plenty of those as well, since Lassen is located where the volcanic Cascade Mountains meet the Sierra Nevada range. So the 150 miles of hiking trails don’t just pass by eerie calderas, but they also traverse pine forests and skirt piercingly blue alpine lakes. Of these, Manzanita Lake is the best for boating, and you can rent kayaks, canoes, or stand-up paddles.
In winter, the family can cross-country ski or snowshoe, perhaps joining a ranger-led snowshoe excursion. Kids should also stop by the visitors center to pick up a Volcano Club Card and complete the activities to be eligible for a Volcano Club patch.
Best national park for hiking: Olympic National Park, Washington
For diversity of landscapes, it’s hard to beat the 611 miles of trails at Olympic National Park in Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. One of the best-loved hikes in the park takes you through the Hoh Rain Forest, one of the world’s few temperate rainforests, which gets 140 inches of rain per year. The ground is packed with ferns while trees are completely covered in bright green moss, making for an eerie, emerald-hued version of an enchanted forest. While that ramble is flat and suitable for all levels, more rigorous trekkers have plenty of other options. You can hike to waterfalls and glacier-fed rivers, or along Hurricane Ridge, always windswept and often snow-covered well into summer.
Add to that coastal trails, since a long stretch of the park runs along the wild Pacific Ocean, complete with sea stacks and tide pools, and it comes out to an astounding variety of hiking choices. Your Instagram followers won’t believe that all those photos — with glowing green trees, glacier-capped peaks, alpine lakes, cascading waterfalls, and crashing ocean waves – each came from a visit to a single, stunning national park.
Best national park for camping: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, California
The two jointly administered parks have 14 campgrounds between them, including everything from lower elevation campsites in the foothills that are snow-free in winter to campgrounds at higher altitude that stay pleasantly cool in the warmer months. Kings Canyon and Sequoia — which rival Yosemite with their own sheer granite walls, scenic meadows, and alpine peaks — nonetheless attract far fewer visitors than their northern neighbor — meaning you’re also more likely to snag a campground here in the height of summer.
The three campgrounds near Grant Grove put you in strolling distance to the General Grant tree, the second largest living organism in the world. Waking up surrounded by stately giant sequoias – that have each been growing for thousands of years — is its own form of meditation, as stress-eliminating an experience as you can find. The campgrounds in Cedar Grove lie along the Kings River, flanked by King Canyon’s granite walls, while the Lodgepole lies at 6,800 feet. From there you can walk two miles to Giant Grove and behold the German Sherman tree, the largest tree on the planet. Full-service campgrounds come with showers, hot water, electrical hookups, and a nearby general store while primitive campgrounds come with the sound of silence. You can also camp in the high Sierra backcountry with a permit.
Best national park for stargazing — Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
National parks in desert areas from California to Texas all have incredible night skies — located far from city lights and in arid plains where the air is clearer. The dry weather is free from the moisture that muddies crisp astral views; it also ensures you’re more likely to have a rain- and cloud-free night to begin with. Among all the great nighttime viewing options, we’re going with Bryce Canyon on this one, because there’s nothing quite like observing the stars framed by the canyon’s hoodoo spires.