National Parks Travel Guide: Tours With Road Scholar

North America is graced with some of the most incredible natural phenomena in the world, and the best of that is captured in the 106 national parks in the U.S. and Canada. From the ancient geysers of Yellowstone to the mist-filled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains to the awe-inspiring vastness of the Grand Canyon, the national parks exemplify the North American wilderness in its rawest, most awesome form.

The national parks in Canada and the U.S. attract nearly 900,000 visitors a day, but how many of those visitors get the full experience? With Road Scholar, you'll have the benefit of expert instructors who can lead you off-the-beaten path to hidden groves and secret viewpoints. With decades of experience, they can teach you little-known facts and show you the national parks as they're meant to be experienced - as part of your life's journey.

To learn more about traveling to North America's national parks, to discover the best national parks in the U.S. and Canada and to hear the history of the U.S. National Park Service, you've come to the right place. Explore our National Parks travel guide below to get a complete picture of what the parks have to offer and how to prepare.

National Parks Collections

Looking for the best national parks list? You’re in the right place. Explore our national parks collections below, so you can find a learning adventure that works for you. Whether you’re interested in national parks of the Southwest or exploring national parks with your grandchildren, we have an educational travel experience for everyone.

National Parks Fast Facts

Our national parks hold endless information and secrets that are waiting to be discovered. The rich history of each park allows you to get a deeper understanding of America and Canada’s heritage and how these protected areas have shaped and defined our cultures. Explore some of the national park fast facts to get even more excited about your next national park tour.

  • The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) also protects historical parks, monuments, battlefields and more, totaling 413 sites under the NPS's care.
  • Parks Canada also protects 170 national historic sites.
  • In 2016, NPS celebrated its 100th birthday.
  • In 2017, park entrance fees will be waived in Canada to celebrate the country's sesquicentennial.
  • Yellowstone was the first national park in the nation and in the world-established in 1872.
  • Canada's oldest national park is Banff-established in 1885.
  • More than 305 million people visited the U.S. national parks in 2015-an all-time record. In 1920, there were only 1 million, and in 1960 there were 79 million.
  • Canadian national parks welcome 12-15 million visitors yearly.
  • U.S. national parks are home to at least 247 species of threatened or endangered plants and animals.
  • Canada's national parks range in size from 14 square kilometers to 45,000 square kilometers.
  • More than 660,000 children participated in the NPS Junior Ranger program in 2015.
  • Over 8% of Parks Canada staff are Indigenous, and 115 National Historic Sites in Canada commemorate Indigenous themes.

National Parks Videos

To prepare for your next national park trip, take a look at our collection of national parks videos. Here, you can get a closer look at the wildlife, scenery, and landmarks that make up some of the most popular national parks.

About the National Park Service

The National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016! But what exactly does the NPS do? The agency is tasked with managing, maintaining and conserving all 59 U.S. National Parks along with 350 other federal sites. They preserve national history, conserve natural beauty and care for communities across the country.

Before the National Park Service, the future of our national parks was dire. Yellowstone, the first national park, was established in 1872 but the National Park Service wasn't formed until 1916. In the interim, Yellowstone and all the other parks were governed independently and with little success. Yellowstone was mismanaged in turn by the federal regulators, a civilian staff and the U.S. Army before prominent businessman Stephan Mather intervened. Alarmed by the exploitative opportunists, poachers, and robbers that were plaguing the park, he pleaded the case of Yellowstone to Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane. For the ongoing protection and prosperity of the parks, he decided to form a new federal agency dedicated to preserving the purity of our national parks. The National Park Service was created, they saved Yellowstone and 100 years later our National Parks are still thriving.

Getting a National Park Pass

If you're a national park aficionado or if you're looking to start your national park adventures, you might be wondering - is there a national park pass? You're in luck! The National Park Annual Pass grants entry to every U.S. national park, forest, grassland and any other Federal Recreational Land, and it covers all amenity and day use fees! Be sure to check out the Senior Pass for U.S. citizens or residents over 62. Learn more here.

Additionally, Parks Canada offers both daily and annual National Park passes that grant access to its national parks. The Canada Parks Discovery Pass is its annual pass and offers year-round access to any of the 80+ destinations in Canada’s national park system.

Also, keep in mind that all entrance fees are included in the price of a National Park program with Road Scholar.

Best Times to Visit National Parks

The best time to visit the National Parks in the U.S. or Canada is October. This autumn month offers a sweet spot between high and low seasons when there are fewer people in the parks, but the chance for good weather is still high. Smaller crowds mean lower rates for hotels, and the lovely weather is accompanied by active wildlife and brilliant foliage in many of the national parks across the U.S. and Canada.

However, many national parks can be visited year-round-like those in Hawaii or California. Others are at their most beautiful with a fresh layer of snow, and still others are best seen when their native fields of flowers are in full bloom.

But really, aside from running into a serious snowstorm up north or a miserable heatwave in the national parks of the southern U.S., there's really no bad time to visit the national parks. The best time is now.

Best National Parks

All 59 National Parks hold something unique, inspirational and breathtaking. But these parks are the best of the best. If you’re looking to experience the finest our National Parks have to offer, look no further. Below, you’ll find our list of the top national parks to visit, with some of the key attractions of each protected area.

Yosemite National Park

The glacier-carved valleys, mighty sequoia groves and cascading waterfalls of Yosemite National Park are a testament to the true power of nature. Half Dome and El Capitan tower over a vast and pristine wilderness that boasts 800 miles of hiking trails begging to be explored.

Yellowstone National Park

The Yellowstone Caldera is literally bursting with geothermal phenomenon. Old Faithful’s eruptions are legendary, and the park’s brightly colored hot springs and boiling mud pots add to the park’s otherworldly mystique. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is full of dramatic waterfalls, and the park’s rugged mountain ranges are home to remarkable wildlife like gray wolves, grizzly bear and elk.

Zion National Park

The orange and pink sandstone cliffs, rich green vegetation, and brilliant blue skies of Zion National Park combine to paint a gorgeous natural masterpiece. Narrow slot canyons and natural arches form an enchanting maze, and grand mesas and rock towers create a desert landscape that has to be seen to be believed.

Glacier National Park

Snow-capped peaks rise above serene lakes and alpine meadows. The park’s lush mountain forests are packed with hiking trails and quaint lodges and chalets. And most importantly, the park’s 26 glaciers dominate the landscape. Glacier National Park is home to truly incredible mountain vistas as well as some of the world’s best-preserved sedimentary fossils.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Gazing upon the Great Smoky Mountains is like looking out a vast ocean — mountain ridges rise and fall on the horizon, the mist ebbs and flows between rolling valleys, and instead of ocean blue, the tree-laden mountains are forest green. America’s most visited National Park is home to over 5,000 plant species and boasts over 800 miles of scenic hiking trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail.

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon is a spectacle unlike anything else on Earth. At 277 miles long, up to 18 miles across and a mile deep, the canyon is jaw-dropping for its size alone. Add in the multi-hued canyon walls, fantastic rock formations, and the mighty Colorado River and it makes the Grand Canyon a truly can’t-miss national park.

Olympic National Park

The showers and untamed rivers of the Pacific Northwest have let the region’s old-growth forests to flourish into an emerald sea of rich vegetation and incredible wildlife. This wildly diverse national park includes the alpine slopes of Mount Olympus, a plethora of lush rainforests and the rugged Pacific shoreline. At nearly one million acres and with a massive network of interconnecting trails, the vast Olympic National Park is a hiker’s dream come true.

Acadia National Park

The best of Maine’s pristine wilderness is encapsulated in Acadia National Park. Boasting coastal islands teeming with life, a shoreline graced with dramatic cliffs and the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast, Acadia National Park is a stunning to behold. There’s plenty of hiking and exploration to be had among the park’s rugged granite peaks and peaceful woodlands.

How Do We Rate?

With so many national parks to choose from, how do we rate our best national parks list? Every national park offers visitors excellent opportunities to explore preserved areas and discover the wildlife, history, and cultures that make these parks so special. With that said, we curated our list of the top national parks by taking wildlife, culture, and adventures into consideration. For example, Yellowstone National Park gives visitors the chance to witness unique wildlife like bison, elk, moose, and grizzly bears up close, while Olympic National Parks is filled with endless trails that bring adventurers along the coastline and through rainforests.

History of National Parks

No national park travel guide is complete without an overview of the history that makes these parks so special. Below, you’ll find a timeline of the national park system and how these areas came to be.

1872: Yellowstone National Park established

Ulysses S. Grant signs the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, establishing Yellowstone as the world's first national park.

1906: President Theodore Roosevelt signs the Antiquities Act

Signed on June 8th, the Antiquities Act authorizes the President to designate national monuments. On September 24th of that same year, Roosevelt declares Devils Tower as the first National Monument, and by December, three more National Monuments were created (El Morro in New Mexico and Montezuma Castle and the Petrified Forest, both in Arizona).

1916: National Park Service founded

Congress passes the Organic Act, establishing the National Park Service and placing all existing parks under its management.

1933: National monuments, cemeteries and historic battle sites brought under National Park Service management

Executive orders bring parks and monuments from the War Department, the Forest Service and those in the nation's capital under management of the National Park Service during a massive reorganization project.

1935: Preservation Historic Sites Act

The Preservation Historic Sites Act is signed, making historic preservation a priority for the U.S. and the parks department. It declared for the first time "that it is a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance."

1956: Mission 66 begins

Mission 66 was a ten-year project initiated by the National Parks Department to build and upgrade visitor facilities, roadways and resources for the national parks in preparation for its 50th anniversary. Sites such as Clingman's Dome observation tower in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were constructed with the intent to increase visitor traffic to the parks. 

1964: The Wilderness Act is signed into law

The Wilderness Act created the legal definition of "wilderness" in the United States, and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System encompasses 109.5 million acres of federally owned land in 44 states and Puerto Rico (5% of land mass in the U.S.).

1966: The National Historic Preservation Act

The National Historic Preservation Act requires all historical parks to be entered into the National Register of Historic Places.  It created the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks, and the State Historic Preservation Offices. 

1968: National Trails established and Wild & Scenic Rivers preserved

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act adds sections of rivers to the National Park System, and the National Trails System Act now protects recreational trails like the Appalachian Trail.

1969: Volunteers in the Parks Act

The Volunteers in the Parks Act establishes a program in which volunteers can aid with park service and functions.

1973: The Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act protects the habitats of endangered or threatened species and bolsters the role of science in park management.

1978: Redwood National Park

The Redwood National Park Expansion Act protects not only the resources within the park boundaries, but also the surrounding ecosystem.

1980: Alaska National Lands Conservation Act

The Alaska National Lands Conservation Act doubles the size of the National Park System by adding 47 million acres in Alaska.

2016: The National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary

Today, the Park Service oversees 413 sites, including 59 major national parks, covering 84 million acres -- from the Great Smoky Mountains, the most visited, to the Grand Canyon, to the Everglades. The newest addition is the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine, designated by President Obama on August 24th.

National Park Travel Tips

Preparation is the key to the best national park experience. Follow these simple tips to supercharge your national park travel.

  • Most national parks don’t charge an entrance fee, but some charge $3 to $25 for entrance. Be sure to check beforehand.
  • Many parks have separate, small amenity fees for facilities and services, like camping and swimming.
  • If you’re traveling with pets, double-check the park’s policy before you get there. Many parks allow pets or have kennels, but some have special rules.
  • An annual pass to every park and federal recreation site is available for $20 or a lifetime Senior Pass is available for $80. These passes cover entrance fees and amenity fees.
  • Use this handy tool to find the park you want to visit and get the essential information.
  • Talk to the park rangers — they’re friendly, knowledgeable and eager to help!
  • Pick up maps and guides from the park visitor center. They’re sure to be invaluable on your travels.
  • Prepare for the worst. Pack storm gear, winter weather gear, and plenty of food and water.
  • Store all food and trash inside your car to keep wild animals away.
  • Keep your distance from the wildlife. You are in their natural habitat. Be respectful and be wary.
  • Take care of the parks — pick up your trash and don’t leave anything behind.

By knowing these national park travel tips, you’ll be able to fully prepare for your next adventure. From safety to protecting wildlife and knowing how to visit national parks, you can have peace of mind knowing you’ll make the most out of your next trip.

Planning Your National Parks Trip

National parks offer great opportunities to discover wildlife and learn more about the people and cultures who have used these lands throughout their history. With that said, it’s crucial to stay prepared when traveling to national parks. In order to ensure your next adventure goes smoothly, consider these national park travel tips

  • Time of year: When planning your next national park trip, it’s important to consider the time of year and the best times to visit national parks. For most national parks, summertime is the most popular due to warm weather and summer vacation for students. However, this also means most national parks become more crowded, which can take away from your experience. Spring, fall, and winter are often less crowded, but these months can have more cases of inclement weather, which can lead to road or trail closures and more dangerous conditions. When planning, weigh these options to pick a time of year that works best for you.
  • Safety: As stated, national parks can get dangerous due to weather and terrain, especially parks where there are water features like rivers and geysers or steep mountain ledges. When planning, keep safety top of mind. This means staying on designated trails, traveling with a group, and letting others know your itinerary for the day. It’s also best to explore with a national park travel guide, park map, and a GPS device if possible, as cell phone coverage can be sparse.
  • Gear: The gear you bring is dependent on the national park trip you take. However, it’s always best practice to bring multiple layers of clothing to account for temperature fluctuations. For mountainous national parks, waterproof hiking boots with great traction are recommended. In areas where snow may be prevalent, packing snow gear and hiking poles are advised. And for every national park, it’s best practice to pack a hat, visor, and sunscreen to keep your skin protected while exploring the great outdoors.
  • Wildlife: No matter the national park you visit, you’ll be immersed in a protected environment that’s teeming with unique wildlife and biodiversity. It’s essential to protect wildlife at all costs when visiting these parks, for both your safety and that of the plants and animals. To do this, stay on designated trails, don’t get near any wildlife, don’t feed wildlife, and always pick up your trash.
  • Fuel: Exploring national parks takes a lot of time and energy, which means you’re going to need enough fuel. This means packing plenty of snacks, food, and fluids to keep your body healthy and energized.
  • Itinerary: To get the most out of your national park trip, it’s best to create an itinerary. With a plan in mind, you’ll be able to explore all of the landmarks, features, and areas of your destination. At Road Scholar, you can find a wide range of national park tours with action-packed itineraries led by our expert guides, so you can discover all that our national parks have to offer.

With this list of national park travel tips, you can ensure your trip goes to plan. We also have travel tips for seniors that can be viewed for those traveling with grandparents or seniors looking for an adventure. For your next national park trip, keep our national park travel guide handy, so you can have a safe and memorable experience.

Blogs About National Parks

Are you interested in learning more National Park travel tips, including areas to visit, what to pack, and how to visit national parks? If so, then explore our list of blogs about national parks that cover topics like traveling to national parks and the best times to visit national parks.

Top 10 National Parks You’ve Never Heard of

“We all know why travelers flock to the natural wonders of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Zion. But what about those lesser-known gems? Have you ever gazed at the stars in an International Dark Sky Park, explored underwater trails or visited the tiniest national park in America?”

“Venture off-the-beaten path with our top picks for national parks you’ve never heard of.”

Read our blog 

U.S. National Parks Checklist: A Complete List of All National Parks in the United States

“Acadia, Bryce, Crater Lake and many more – how many national parks have YOU visited? With so many incredible landmarks to learn about scattered across the United States and several territories, it can be difficult to keep track! That’s why we’ve created a handy U.S. National Parks Checklist just for you.”

“Keep a record of your adventures in America’s canyons, forests and mountains with our National Parks Checklist!”

Anonymous

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