It’s safe to assume all of them share prehistoric landscapes, stunning views, and exotic wildlife, but it can be tough to narrow down which ones to visit based on those parameters. But for those with an adventurous spirit—who want mountains to scale and lakes to kayak and trails to trek—these are the national parks that offer the most bang for your buck.
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1. Wrangell-St Elias National Park, Alaska
“This park may be my all-time favorite,” says Joe Yogerst, author of National Geographic’s 100 Parks, 5,000 Ideas. At 13.2 million acres—the size of five Yellowstone National Parks—Wrangell-St Elias is the largest national park in the U.S. (it dwarfs Alaska’s more well-known national park, Denali), and includes a major segment of the Saint Elias Mountains, which include most of the highest peaks in the United States and Canada. Around and on top of the rugged glacial peaks (up to 18,000-plus feet), there’s no shortage of outdoor-adventure activities. “I’ve kayaked down at Icy Bay, done fly-in backpacking out of McCarthy, and landed on glaciers with legendary bush pilot Paul Claus, who also runs one of the park lodges,” says Yogerst. We recommend exploring and hiking through the ice caves, too.
2. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
“Torres del Paine Opens a New Window. is Patagonia at its best,” says Yogerst. Mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers cover nearly 450,000 acres of southern Chile, and “the hiking here is incredible, especially along multi-day treks like the ‘W’ Circuit.” Not to mention, it would be tough to find a better place on the planet for extreme rock climbing and mountaineering, especially on the three famous granite peaks of the Paine mountain range near the town of Puerta Natales. Around 252,000 visitors head to Patagonia each year, 54 percent of which are foreign. “The park is also surprisingly good for wildlife—it’s sort of a Patagonian version of the GalapagosOpens a New Window.,” Yogerst adds. “One of my favorite things at Torres is horseback riding with the gauchos who lead equestrian trips in the park.”
3. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
“In my opinion, one of the most underrated national parks for adventure seekers in the U.S. is Theodore Roosevelt National ParkOpens a New Window. in North Dakota,” says Paul Johnson, the founder of NorthOutdoorsOpens a New Window.. It’s situated on 70,446 acres in the rugged badlands, a mix of canyons, hills, cliffs, buttes, and a heavy dose of solitude. “We think of it as a mini-Grand Canyon,” he says. “It can be hard to get to—the nearest big cities are Bismarck, ND, or a little farther away, Rapid City, SD. But because of that, you won’t have the crowds you might experience in Colorado’s or California’s parks. Hiking, rock climbing, and wildlife viewing are all excellent at TRNP, but the real star of the show is the mountain biking on the nearby Maah Daah Hey trail, a 150-mile trail with some of the most challenging terrain you’ll find.”
4. Kakadu National Park, Australia
Australia’s largest national park is located at the top end of the Northern Territory, and “Kakadu National ParkOpens a New Window. is the Outback on steroids,” says Yogerst. “It’s half the size of Switzerland”—at 20,000 square kilometres—“and the landscape is larger than life.” The Aboriginal people have been living here for 65,000 years, and you can ogle rock art on the red-rock cliffs and canyons dating back 20,000 years. There are mighty rivers and waterfalls for fishing, boating, and swimming, and rangers can take you out on 4x4s to get up close and personal with iconic Aussie animals, like kangaroos and kookaburras, dingoes and wallabies, and saltwater and freshwater crocodiles. (There’s one croc every two square kilometres, on average, while more congregate around Cahill’s CrossingOpens a New Window. and Yellow Water WetlandsOpens a New Window..)
5. Jasper National Park, Canada
“While you may be able to do a wider range of things in neighboring Banff National Park (which, at 11,000 square kilometers, is roughly the size of Yellowstone and Yosemite combined), Jasper National ParkOpens a New Window. allows you to hike, bike, snowshoe, or cross-country ski with a lot less people around,” says Yogerst. “There’s also terrific climbing (on both ice and rocks), horseback riding, kite surfing on mountain lakes, and whitewater rafting or kayaking on the Athabasca River.” Not to mention, you’ll get incredible views of the glaciers, lakes, and peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Just driving in along the subalpine forest and Columbia Icefield via the the Icefields Parkway, a road from the town of Jasper, will take your breath away.
6. Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
“Yala National ParkOpens a New Window. tends to really fly under the radar, but it’s one of the world’s most diverse national parks,” says Yogerst. Located on the island’s south coast, it covers over 320,000 acres of light forests, scrubs, grasslands, and lagoons. Originally a hunting ground for the British elite, it was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900; now it’s home to 44 varieties of mammals and 215 bird species. “It’s primarily known for wildlife, especially leopards and elephants,” says Yogerst. “But the park also has terrific beaches, ancient rock temples that are still active places of worship, and a choice of lodges or camping for overnight stays. There aren’t many places on the planet where you can safari drive in the morning and surf in the afternoon.”
7. Acadia National Park, Maine
Maine’s Acadia National ParkOpens a New Window. is the seventh most visited in the U.S., with 3.3 million people exploring the seven peaks above 1,000 feet, 158 miles of hiking trails, and 45 miles of carriage roads.“There’s excellent hiking, scaling granite peaks, and other dry-land activities to keep you busy for several days,” says Johnson. “But what sets Acadia apart is the fact you also have great water activities. World-class kayaking along the rugged Acadia shoreline is a memory of a lifetime; passing along The Ovens, some intriguing sea caves, is our top choice if you’re looking for saltwater kayaking. If you prefer to stay off the big water, Jordan Pond gives you an excellent freshwater paddling experience.”
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8. Jostedalsbreen National Park, Norway
“If you’re looking for pristine natural beauty that’ll stick with you for a long time, head to Norway,” says Johnson. “They have a whopping 47 national parks, and all provide incredible scenery and activities.” Jostedalsbreen National ParkOpens a New Window. is only about 1,310 square kilometres, but 800 of those are covered in glaciers, including the largest glacier on the European mainland, Jostedalsbreen. “The scenery—rugged hills and mountains, glaciers, fjords, and everything in between—is outstanding, and if you want to get active and explore, you won’t run out of things to do,” says Johnson. “Hiking and climbing are great, but the one must-do is to kayak the legendary Sognefjord, Norway’s largest fjord and, in my opinion, its most stunning.”