Top 10 US Destinations
Here you will find our top ten favorite places we have visited in the United States. We have explored all but four states (ND, MS, AL, HI). We love to visit and stay at many of the state parks and campgrounds. Of the designated, most popular, 63 US National Parks, we have explored 28 and camped in many of them. These spectacularly unique areas are national parks for a reason.
It is very difficult to identify an order of the very best travel destinations in the United States, but we did it!
- #1 Yellowstone National Park
- #2 Sequoia National Park (& Kings Canyon National Park)
- #3 Glacier National Park
- #4 Redwood State and National Parks System
- #5 West Coast Highway 101
- #6 Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- #7 Saguaro National Park
- #8 Bryce Canyon National Park
- #9 Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- #10 Grand Canyon National Park
A big priority for us in rating our choices for the best places we have visited in the United States of America is reflected in our ability to immerse ourselves in a location and comprehend why it is so unique. Can we, as individuals, ponder how we relate to the grand magnitude of our surroundings? Are we able to identify more meaning, purpose and perspective as a result of our visit?
Most of our list includes National Parks but they can be very crowded and this can hamper the awe-inspiring gratitude for our amazing world and the experience we want to remember. Although we would rather explore wonders of nature without having to wonder about human nature, we do have national parks in most of our top, favorite places in the US because of the magnificent adventures of such a grand scale that they offer.
Also note that the National Park Service manages 425 individual units such as “historic sites (74)” or “historical parks (63)”, monuments, seashores and many more which are also great places to enlighten your understanding of the connection to people and places in this magnificent country.
National Park #1
Yellowstone National Park is hard to beat in terms of the most unique, varied landscapes and natural wildlife all in one park. These reasons are probably why it is the often listed as the most popular and the top bucket list location in this beautiful and diverse country. It is not surprising that this park was designated the first national park and, after discovering for ourselves the mystic hydrothermal, geologic features and large mammals in abundance, it seems unparalleled.
It’s hard to believe that some of the areas in this park are real, and seeing for yourself, leaves you in awe at our ever diverse planet.
National Park &
National Park #2
The giant sequoia is the largest tree in the world by volume and has a massive trunk with a very slight taper. Simply standing beside one of these old giants it is easy to see for yourself just how huge, impressive and majestic they are.
The largest (by volume) of the giant sequoias were easy to locate in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park because the most notable were identified on the map and its signage.
Take note, these are often confused with the coast redwoods rated below in the #4 slot. In contrast, those redwood trees of the north west, also in California but along the coast, are the world’s tallest with more slender trunks. Another difference in these trees is that the cones and seeds of the giant sequoia are about three times smaller in size than those produced by the coast redwood trees which can also reproduce by stump sprouts and burls.
Fortunately, we had the chance to hike the Big Stump Loop Trail even though we were not able to check out much of the Kings Canyon portion due to flooding in early spring. The trail was accessible and meanders through old growth trees that had been cut and harvested years ago.
There were several big old stumps in this historic giant sequoia logging area that brought a long-lost air of regret for the once living giants. Thoughts lingered of the difference in the forest of when they were still towering above versus the lush undergrowth that now thrives.
Located less than a 1/4 mile past the main Kings Canyon National Park entrance on Highway 180, Big Stump Loop Trail is a gentle two-mile hike with an elevation gain of only about 200 ft.
National Park #3
We were able to explore much of both the east and west ends of Glacier National Park in early July. However, the most alluring and widely popular middle section of the drive and Logan Visitor Center on Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed due to 40′ of ice still blocking the route. So, do plan accordingly because the window of opportunity to visit this stunning area for the hiking and views is very short compared to other places to explore in the U.S.
The west entrance at Apgar Visitor Center and the east entrance at Saint Mary Visitor Center are the two areas on either end, Apgar and St. Mary respectively, were the campgrounds that we stayed at within the park that enable quick access within the park first thing in the morning since parking lots fill quickly.
We sought out waterfalls in this park as we do in destinations wherever we go. We arrived early to some of the central sections along Going-to-the-Sun road and parked and hiked along trails to some awesome waterfalls.
The sun peaked around the looming mountains or struck the rock walls with an illuminating force of energy. Wildflowers skirted the paths as birds joyfully expressed their love for the beauty of their home even in the fire-scorched areas now easy nesting spots and spaces for the lush new growth.
We satiated our love for witnessing the ever renewing earth motivated by swift rivers spilling over slabs below with shocking washes of water. Saint Mary Falls, was a surreal walk through the formerly burned forest to the river and bridge. We were happy we added a little more distance to see Virginia Falls express the majesty of the park in a long, heavy shower reaching out to the forest in arms of mist.
On our last day, we took the lesser traveled Baring Falls trail bright and early where we observed a Bald Eagle right above our heads on the path and then another bird, a Dipper, diving and swimming in the pool just below the waterfall. Even though we had a spectacular visit, missing the big draw of driving the full distance of Going to the Sun Road and further exploration along more popular hiking trails is enticing us to return.
State Parks #4
How does one pinpoint the adventures in the redwoods to choose from when there are vastly different landscapes within? Many are also surprised to find out that the redwood forests are in a system of multiple parks, collectively identified as the Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP). The soft ground of the tree-lined trails in the forests lead our steps softly over hundreds of years of sediment in the rolling hills and gave off a deep, quiet, reverent mood.
The pairing of this magical environment with the stark contrast of cliffs at the edge of the redwoods as they descend right into another world of rocky beaches is the culmination of the reasons to visit these areas of grandiosity. The Pacific Ocean here gives reason to linger for a few days longer to take it all in. Wildlife teams mostly along the beaches where there is more opportunity for sunshine and nourishing undergrowth, where forest meets beach, along the shorelines and in the surf.
I did a lot of research to plan our visit and found it overwhelming to decide on the best areas in the many different parks within the whole system of the Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) to soak in the magnitude of these trees in their coastal rainforest ecosystem. There are a plethora of other California State Parks that have a beautiful redwood experience as well.
This was a very different scenario from Sequoia National Park as you may have read in the description above in the #2 slot. As a note, if you want to visit the “coast redwoods” and the Sequoias back to back, there is a good ten hours of driving between them and their different habitats.
Along the coast of California, four of the redwood state parks encircle a specific redwood grove that has been acquired and is now protected by Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP). There are multiple locations to decide on to plan your must-see visit and behold these tall trees which is the most notable reason to purposely stop for along the scenic Highway 101.
The tallest coast redwoods are not marked on any identified trail or in any specific Redwood National and State Parks system areas. The “secret” to the tallest redwood seems to be almost impossible to discover or visit as we were told by park rangers that it is actually illegal to hike to due to worries that the vegetation and tree itself will be destroyed. In addition, it’s hard to even learn where the largest concentration is of these tallest trees in the world.
We loved our short walks in Hendy Woods State Park and the quiet, serene forest to witness in quiet speculation, the stunning growth of these trees. We most enjoyed our encounters on the longer hike around Trillium Falls which, “because of the scenic beauty of the trail, and facilities at the trailhead, many rangers recommend this as one of the best walks in Redwood National and State Parks.”
Our favorite campground stay, by far, is in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park on the coastal campground of Gold Bluffs Beach. This is because of the less-crowded, more remote location and abundant wildlife. Note, this is a no-hook-up campground but it does have a water spigot here and there and wonderful, free hot-water showers for campers only. Gold Bluffs Beach & Davison Rd do not allow trailers of any kind and a max length of 24′ motorhome.
Over our three-day stay at Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, we were mesmerized by daily visits from the elk herd including the four little ones still with spots, fox, harbor seals and birds where we camped on the beach and traveled on Davison Road.
We experienced the lush Fern Canyon hike but, expect a river crossing or two in your vehicle to park at the trailhead or just walk a little extra from the day use parking lot at Gold Bluffs Campground. Be prepared to also get your hiking boots mildly to thoroughly wet, depending on the season, as you will be trekking up the river. It’s about two miles roundtrip from the trailhead parking lot.
Highway 101 #5
U.S. Route 101, or U.S. Highway 101 (US 101), north of San Francisco through to Washington state, is a stunning trip where coastal rain forests meet the rugged beaches of the Pacific Ocean. This historic route travels through the Redwood National and State Parks and natural treasures which are enjoyed today as a result of partnerships to preserve this natural wonder.
I specify “north of San Francisco” because it is the beautiful, unpopulated, wild coastal views and vistas to commune with that strike a serene chord in the human spirit.
It is a north–south United States numbered highway. It traverses the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, on the Pacific west coast of the U.S. for over 1,500 miles. It is also known as The Redwood Highway along the California coast in the section I will be referring to, north of San Francisco. It continues north as the Oregon Coast Highway in Oregon and the Olympic Highway in Washington state. Muir Woods National Monument has a redwoods hike and is where we started our northward journey on this highway, all the way up to Olympic National Park.
National Park #6
Another favorite place to immerse ourselves in and learn about our amazing world, is this site. It extends our awe and understanding to walk through the spectacular underground dimensions, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southern New Mexico. Take the elevator down 750′ to the Big Room Loop Trail which encircles these active displays of stalactite creations and invisible life along the only wheelchair accessible route covering the 1-mile path back to restrooms and a snack bar.
We chose to walk down the Natural Entrance Trail which is a very steep, dirt ramp having multiple switchbacks and descends about 75 stories. From the light of day, with each step, we experienced more of the dampened sounds and breathed in the cool, earthy aroma. We soaked in the shadowy aura and with all of our senses, felt the depths of the underground caverns as we meandered further and further below.
There are more than 119 known caves within the park. They are some of the biggest and longest caves in the world. All of them reveal a very unusual ingredient in cave dissolution (creation)—sulfuric acid. It was fascinating learning about how these caves were formed. In contrast, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is a great visit but does not compare in its other worldly, ever-changing formations of its competitor, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.
National Park #7
I chose Saguaro National Park (pronounced suh·waa·row) to be in the top ten destinations because it is another environment like no other. The enormous cactus that gives the park its name is the universal symbol of the American southwest although these majestic plants are found only in a small portion of the United States. We loved learning about how they survive and thrive and with every step, it was another the visual reminder that brought us to ponder the intricate extent of life on our planet.
Here, in this national park, you have the unique opportunity to see these enormous cacti, silhouetted against the expansive beauty of the magnificent mountain peaks and desert horizons. A multitude of floral and fauna live in this remarkable environment. Note, this park is divided into separate east and west portions.
National Park #8
Another choice for the top 10 US Destinations has to be Bryce Canyon National Park in south western Utah for its unique red, orange and white rock formations. Yes, there are a LOT of places to view amazing, red rock geological landscapes but these in-“spiring” hoodoo pinnacles that tower up to 200′ are highly concentrated in a string of amphitheaters within the plateau that extends more than 20 miles. Walking amongst these towering castles left by time cannot be beat when hoping to look through a human-sized perspective and for its accessibility.
Because of its more remote location and being a smaller park, it receives fewer visitors than the more popular Zion National Park which can be very congested and hard to find parking. Bryce Canyon has a more quiet vibe than usual for the very popular National Parks, more options for camping, some of the darkest of skies, great hiking, and it has close access to other amazing parks.
National Park #9
One might be surprised that I have this park listed in my top 10 places to visit in the US or that it beats out the ever popular and well known Grand Canyon. As my preference is to be able to grasp the full spectrum of grand design and perspective in understanding its measure of existence, my choice here is reflective of that.
“Big enough to be overwhelming, still intimate enough to feel the pulse of time, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. With two million years to work, the Gunnison River, along with the forces of weathering, has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky.” as depicted on the National Park website for Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Due to its remote location, it is quite underrated. This gives the park a lone wolf kind of vibe. From whichever direction to get to this park, you will travel through some of the most magnificent views notable of the Rocky Mountains. The snow-capped spine of Colorado has the most number of peaks higher than 1400 feet elevation above sea level, called 14 ners (fourteeners). Expect a chill of awe to run up your spine at every breathtaking scene in the state of Colorado .
CAUTIONARY Note: For those sea level dwellers, here’s a friendly reminder for visiting here at higher elevations and most other locations in the Rocky Mountains. Plan to tame your zest for special occasion extreme physical endeavors, drink more water and imbibe less caffeine.
High altitude sickness is a real thing and is compounded by lack in physical health and exerting yourself. It usually doesn’t give one more than a mild surprise to need more rests while briskly hiking uphill, in breathing more heavily and an occasional dizziness.
No worries though. There are many overlooks to park at and meander on over to the stunning drop offs. There are plenty of opportunities, as well, to venture further down some well trodden paths giving a more adventurous panorama. There are plenty of hiking trails for everyone here although not a hub of unlimited options to get significant mileage in your boots.
The South Rim is the side of the park with lots of dizzying viewpoints to determine who really does have a fear of heights in your party of travelers. This edge of the canyon also has a visitors center and paved roads.
The North Rim is the rugged side of the park providing a 7-mile unpaved road and alternative views to see the canyon from the other side. It is closed in the winter.
The East Portal is accessed by driving a steep, curvy road to the area at the bottom of the canyon. This in-depth vantage point gives impressed guests yet another deep regard for the canyon cliffs looming above the river banks below. The narrow, paved 2-lane road has a maximum of a 16% grade, is limited to vehicles less than 22 feet and not for the faint of heart.
I am partial to Colorado, as we lived here for almost 14 (fourteen) years and we were able to appreciate, explore and witness for ourselves the towering mountain ranges and valleys, plateaus and buttes, waterfalls and wildlife throughout this state which is always calling for adventure.
National Park #10
Grand Canyon National Park in Northern Arizona, is a mile deep, encompasses 278 miles of the Colorado River which divides the park between the South Rim and the North Rim. This canyon is one of the most spectacular examples of erosion anywhere in the world and is unmatched in the undoubtably, incomparable vistas offered to visitors from both the South Rim and the North Rim.
Even though the average distance across the canyon is only 10 miles, it takes 5 hours to drive the 215 miles between the park’s South Rim Visitor Center and Village and the North Rim Service Station. Because of the expansiveness of the canyon, it is hard to see, understand or experience just how large and enormous it is even with some human perspective. Note, the close up of the selfie survivor in the photo below…
We loved stopping at each of the vista pullout locations at different times of the day with changing highlights to try to grasp the scope and immensity of what we were looking at. Of course, the Grand Canyon is known world wide and is an iconic destination to travel to for obvious reasons.
We camped at the convenient location accessible to groceries, biking, horseback riding and much more in Mather Campground. It is located in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. We were surprised by how many elk there were here, just hanging out throughout our stay.
There you have it. Our top ten list of best places to visit in the beautiful, diverse landscapes of America the Beautiful from “purple mountain majesties…above the fruited plain…and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea”.
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