If you have never visited a national park, it might seem intimidating. However, no need to be afraid! While some parks may be difficult to visit, most national parks are made to be accessible to all people whether you are a first time visitor or a national park veteran.
If you have never been to a national park before, you may be asking,
which national parks should I visit first?
While any park could be visited by someone on their first national park trip, the best national parks to visit first are Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Mount Rainier National Park.
Qualities that make a national park great for first time park visitors include a wide range of activities to do, easy to navigate, easy lodging options, and a wide variety of things to see. Many parks have these, but I feel that the parks listed in this post best emulate what the national parks have to offer and will spark a lifelong love for national parks.
I have highlighted 5 national parks I believe are best for first time national park visits with quick tips of what to see while you’re there.
***Note: Included in this post are links to some Amazon products. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases (at no extra cost to you), but don’t feel pressured to buy anything! I only include links to products that we have tried or would use ourselves.
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most majestic national parks in the United States. There is nothing else like the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon National Park is great to visit as your first national park because you can see the Grand Canyon without having to hike or walk long distances. There are wheelchair ramps to the best viewpoints, free buses that take you to different parts of the park, and even Grand Canyon views from some of the hotel rooms. Another reason that the Grand Canyon is a great park to visit as your first national park is because it has a lot of lodging in the Grand Canyon Village at the rim, so you can park your car and not have to drive for the majority of your time here if you don’t want to. If it’s your first time visiting the Grand Canyon, be sure to visit Mary Colter’s Lookout Studio, walk the rim trail, and if you are super adventurous, hike the Bright Angel Trail that goes down into the canyon.
Grand Canyon National Park Guidebook on Amazon https://amzn.to/3P7DUvi
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is another one of those national parks that has so much stuff to do and see! You could spend weeks in Yellowstone National Park and not see it all. Yellowstone National Park also has a lot of things to see that are accessible to those of any ability. There are many roadside viewpoints of beautiful things and wheelchair accessible paths, but also long extended hikes for others. Yellowstone has a ton of wildlife to see (it’s not uncommon for traffic to stop due to large herds of bison crossing the road!). There are also many different lodging options in Yellowstone National Park, all spread out throughout different parts of the park. If it is your first time visiting Yellowstone, some highlights that you must see are the Old Faithful Geyser, Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Prismatic, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park Guidebook on Amazon https://amzn.to/3P6UyLz
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is a classic national park that has so many beautiful things to see. While it has always been a popular park, it has become even more popular in the past few years with the release of the movie Free Solo about a man climbing El Capitan in Yosemite. The park is expansive and there are endless things to see in Yosemite National Park. The park is known for bare gray rocks (that are great for climbing) and waterfalls. There is a lot of lodging throughout the park as well. Some things that you should see in the park if you can are Glacier Point (with views of the iconic Half Dome), Tunnel View, Bridalveil Falls, and Yosemite Falls.
Yosemite National Park Guidebook on Amazon https://amzn.to/3P67ZKH
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is another park great for beginner national park visitors. There are endless trails in Rocky Mountain National Park that make it ideal for people of all levels. While the other parks that have been mentioned so far have super iconic things to see, Rocky Mountain National Park is beautiful all around and is a great representation of the Rocky Mountain Range. There are a lot of camping opportunities in the park and many lodging options right outside the park in the nearby town of Estes Park, CO. Note that in 2022, to enter the park between 5 AM and 6 PM, you need a reservation that can be made online on Recreation.gov (just search for Rocky Mountain National Park). Some recommendations for first time park visitors include hiking the 3 Lakes Trail (a gorgeous trail that passes Bear Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake), taking the main highway through the park and stopping at all of the viewpoints, and stopping at the Alpine Visitor Center. Keep on the lookout for elk and marmots!
Rocky Mountain National Park Guidebook on Amazon https://amzn.to/3KMIHzx
Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is the last park on my list that I think is great for beginner park visitors. When we first visited Mount Rainier National Park, we were completely blown away and couldn’t believe how much this park has to offer. Mount Rainier National Park is a great national park for first time visitors because it has so many different options of beautiful things to see that are easily accessible. There are waterfalls, mountain views, and alpine lakes along the road or on short walks. There are also many hiking options with many hikes great for families or also long hikes into the wilderness if that is something that you prefer. There are many lodging options in Mount Rainier National Park (I recommend staying at Paradise Inn if it fits in your budget!) and also outside the park in nearby towns such as Ashford, WA. Some things I recommend seeing if it is your first time visiting Mount Rainier National Park are Sunrise (a part of the park), Myrtle Falls, the Skyline Trail in the Paradise part of the park, Reflection Lake, and Narada Falls.
Mount Rainier National Park Guidebook on Amazon https://amzn.to/44mybGr
Bonus: Any national park that you live close to
Often the best national park to visit is the one close to your home if you live close to a national park. Starting small and going to a national park or national land in your area is the best first step of visiting national parks. At a national park close to your home, you can get a feel for national parks, speak with park rangers, try hiking a national park trail, and, the most important part of visiting any national park– enjoy nature. With over 400 national lands throughout the country, there are federally owned lands within driving distance of most people in the United States.
I hope that this guide has been useful to you in deciding which national park you should visit! If you need more help choosing which national park to visit, be sure to check out my post on How to Choose the Right National Park for Your Trip.
Also be sure to check out my national park guides for each park to help plan your trip to a specific park!
Thanks for reading!