A Regional Guide to 7 of America’s Most Inspiring National Parks
All across the U.S., from the floodplain forests of South Carolina to the Arctic tundra of Alaska, I’m constantly in awe of the diversity represented within the National Park Service. These magnificent lands, monuments, memorials, and historical havens represent the very best of America, and they inspire me like nothing else can. Some inspire me to face my fears, others inspire me to embrace my inner child, hike with my dog, learn more about the country I call home, or reconnect with family and friends. This powerful diversity is a testament to some of my favorite, most inspiring national parks, each of which represents something truly special in the geographic region they call home. Here are my top 7 most inspiring national parks in the U.S., categorized by regions designated by the NPS.
Congaree National Park/Photo courtesy of NPS
Southeast Region: Congaree National Park
When most people think of national parks, things like steaming geysers, bison, soaring snow-capped peaks, and intimidatingly vast canyons might come to mind. But in reality, there is so much more to the National Park Service, and few places capture that “Find Your Park” sense of discovery quite like South Carolina’s Congaree National Park. Located in the Midlands portion of the state, Congaree is a swamp-like floodplain filled with slow-moving waterways, hooting owls, boardwalk trails, spectacular fireflies displays, and some of the tallest trees in the eastern U.S. Venture off the main boardwalk a bit with the Weston Lake Loop Trail, which gets you up close and personal with some of the park’s most awe-inspiring trees. Added bonus: it’s super dog-friendly!
Check out Hello Ranger’s complete guide to Congaree National Park on our Patron.
Photo by Christine Livingston/Indiana Dunes Tourism
Midwest Region: Indiana Dunes National Park
Another one of the more unassuming national parks, located surprisingly close to the urban hustle and bustle of Chicago and nestled along the sprawling shores of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was officially upgraded in 2019 to Indiana Dunes National Park. It’s a place that’s absolutely full of surprises, like the fact that this 15,000-acre park boasts more biodiversity than almost anywhere else in the country, and that beyond the dunes, there are marshlands, forests, and prairies waiting to be explored. The Paul H. Douglas Trail is a good starting point; it’s a moderate jaunt through forest and marsh before culminating with sweeping lake views at a beach.
Check out Hello Ranger’s complete guide to Indiana Dunes National Park on our Patron.
White Sands National Park/Photo by Matt Kirouac
Intermountain Region: White Sands National Park
Clearly I’m in a sandy mood, because another one of my standout parks is New Mexico’s White Sands National Park. Although it was already the state’s most visited national park unit, White Sands got an upgrade in December of 2019 from National Monument to National Park, ensuring the enduring popularity of this one-of-a-kind landscape, home to the largest gypsum sand dune field on Earth. Just how large are we talking? The park protects a sprawling portion of a 275-square-mile dune field in the Tularosa Basin, which is so vast and vibrant that it can be seen from space. Said dunes are so pristinely white that they look like snow, and just like snow, you’ll want to do some sledding and have some hands-on fun to best experience this unique terrain. If you’ve got the time, trek into the sandy wilderness on the Alkali Flat Trail, the park’s longest marked trail.
Check out Hello Ranger’s complete guide to White Sands National Park on our Patron.
Lassen Volcanic National Park/Photo by Matt Kirouac
Pacific West Region: Lassen Volcanic National Park
Bubbling mud pots, volcanic lore, and shimmering lakes sound like something from a Land Before Time movie, but in fact these larger-than-life features can all be seen (and smelled) at California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, an under-the-radar destination in the northern half of the state. As the least visited of California’s nine main parks, there’s a refreshing sense of solitude and discovery here, from the towering summit of Lassen Peak (a must-hike for panoramic views) to the tranquil shores of Manzanita Lake, a peaceful mecca for kayaks and paddleboards.
Check out Hello Ranger’s complete guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park here.
Lincoln Memorial/Photo by Diana Bowen/Courtesy of NPS
National Capital Region: Lincoln Memorial
It’s a place as iconic as the most quintessential of American bucket list destinations, and one that certainly lives up to (and exceeds) the hype. Presiding over the National Mall in the heart of America’s capital, the Lincoln Memorial ranks right up there with the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore as one of the most pivotal of patriotic memorials. It’s the kind of place that’s so deeply etched in American lore that even if you haven’t witnessed it in person, you’ve surely felt its might in movies and history books. An apt homage to one of the greatest leaders this country—or any country—has ever seen, it’s a must-visit in the nation’s capital, a city filled with national park sites that serve to tell the story of our democracy.
Check out Hello Ranger’s complete guide to the Lincoln Memorial on our Patron.
Acadia National Park/Photo by Matt Kirouac
Northeast Region: Acadia National Park
As the most visited national park site in New England, or the entire east coast for that matter, Acadia National Park stands out as the true gem that it is. Perched along the famed craggy coast of Maine, the park commands more than 3.5 million visitors annually, making it among the top 10 most visited in the country, and for good reason. This is a place of stunning diversity and vivid scenery, from soaring trees and crashing waves to picturesque islands, oceanside mountains, and the bucolic town of Bar Harbor. The Jordan Pond Loop Trail is an easy option with serene landscape. And once you’re done, don’t forget the popovers at the Jordan Pond House, a delicacy that’s come to be as renowned as the park’s loons.
Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve/Photo by Ronald D. Karpilo Jr./Courtesy of NPS
Alaska Region: Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve
An apt nickname for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve might be “Call of the Wild National Park,” seeing as this is the kind of far-flung final frontier you’d expect to read about in a Jack London novel. Or see in a movie remake starring Harrison Ford. As the most northern national park in America, and the only park north of the Arctic Circle, Gates of the Arctic is truly unlike any place in the country or the National Park Service. You likely won’t see many humans here; at 8.5 million acres, it’s the second largest in the U.S., but it only receives about 11,000 annual visitors. This remote wonderland is brimming with epic wildlife and once-in-a-lifetime experiences that need to be seen to be believed.
Check out Hello Ranger’s complete guide to Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve on our Patron.
Header photo: Courtesy of Lassen Volcanic National Park/NPS
Matt Kirouac has been writing about food and travel since 2008, for outlets like Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy, DiningOut magazines, Plate Magazine, KOA, Culture Trip, Zagat, and Food Fanatics magazine. He fell in love with national parks while on a trip to South Dakota, where Badlands National Park stole his heart…and has been holding it ransom ever since.