If you live in America and haven’t yet heard about filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest project, you may well be hiding deep in a national park already. In which case, good for you! For the rest of us, Burns’ PBS series is a welcome reminder of the importance of our national parks--and a call to visit them. But with 391 to choose from, where should you start?
You can’t go wrong with the classics, so we rounded up IgoUgo members’ advice for the five parks visited more than any others last year.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Why go: The 9,044,010 visitors who went in 2008 can’t be wrong, can they? Just in case, we consulted our members’ reviews (and pulled photos like the one above), and they’re in agreement: this park is “a hiker's paradise” and “one of the best-managed parks in the country.” It’s famous for wildlife from bears to salamanders--and it’s FREE to visit!
What to do: Commune with deer and elk in historic Cades Cove; hike to the rock summit of Chimney Tops; climb Clingmans Dome to reach the highest point of the Appalachian Trail.
Where to stay: For something like the “great lodges of the Old West,” check into Bearskin Lodge on the River; for a rental cabin, Greenbrier Valley Resorts is recommended.
Where to eat: Try the Cherokee Grill--and it’s unanimous that you must order the Prosperity Steak.
2. Grand Canyon National Park
Why go: Yes, as one traveler puts it, “there are probably 1,000 or more Grand Canyon reviews, and a bazillion Grand Canyon pictures.” But as another says, “You cannot do justice to the scenery with words or photos...this is something you really have to see for yourself.”
What to do: Ride a mule along the North Rim (it’s “far more remote and rugged” than the South); hike Bright Angel Trail; and get a “lifetime experience” on a Papillon helicopter tour.
Where to stay: On a rim-to-rim hiking trip or mule tour, bunk at Phantom Ranch; atop the North Rim, try “friendly” Kaibab Lodge.
Where to eat: The El Tovar Hotel’s dining room boasts a “great location and ambiance” and “delicious, perfectly cooked” food.
3. Yosemite National Park
Why go: Go to John Muir’s valley because “this place is so beautiful it’s nearly surreal;” because “shortly after entering the park, all concerns melt away;” and because many IgoUgo travelers consider it the “gem of the US National Park system.”
What to do: See the sequoias of Mariposa Grove; take the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls; and, if you’re adventurous, attempt “the mother of all Yosemite day hikes” to the top of Half Dome.
Where to stay: If you can handle historic, try the “venerable” Wawona Hotel, a National Historic Landmark with a “long front porch.” For a “cute” and “affordable” option, Mariposa’s River Rock Inn comes with a local’s endorsement.
Where to eat: “Make up for all the calories you burned hiking” at the Mountain Room Bar & Lounge.
4. Olympic National Park
Why go: A “wonderland” in every way, the Olympic Peninsula offers “wilderness within reach.” With beaches, mountains, and forests, it’s difficult to decide which terrain is most stunning, but it’s easy for everyone to find an outdoor experience they love.
What to do: Enjoy the views of Hurricane Ridge, the “most accessible” of the park’s alpine heights; explore the Hoh Rain Forest; and stroll along Rialto Beach.
Where to stay: Kalaloch Lodge enjoys the park’s best beach location; The Five SeaSuns serves unforgettable Dutch Baby pancakes for breakfast.
Where to eat: Locals like Bella Italia in Port Angeles, where “wondrous greens” kick off “fantastic” meals.
5. Yellowstone National Park
Why go: It’s the world’s original national park and a thermal maze of geysers and hot springs that’s roamed by bison and spotted with petrified trees. Simply put, Yellowstone is “one of the most memorable national parks” you’ll ever visit.
What to do: Wait for an eruption at Old Faithful, of course; enter “nature’s museum” at Mammoth Hot Springs; see the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone,” Lower Falls.
Where to stay: Want national-park rustic? There’s the Roosevelt Lodge. Want slightly less rustic? The Grant Village Lodge is recommended.
Where to eat: For either a buffet or an à la carte menu, the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room, with its “remarkable craftsmanship,” is a hit.
Need more parks? Check out our list of 10 National Parks Families Will Love--it includes three of these top five most visited, plus more favorites!