7 national parks to visit along the USA’s West Coast

The USA is a tapestry of richly diverse landscapes and there are few better places to witness this than the national parks along its West Coast. Here are seven of the best to visit…

Team Wanderlust
16 January 2024
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All images: Shutterstock

Spectacular sights and wonderful wildlife abound throughout the mesmerising mosaic of national parks that stretch along the USA’s stunning West Coast. From California in the south up to Oregon, Washington and Alaska to the north, you’ll find endless opportunities to connect with nature, breathe deep and embrace the great outdoors.

1. Denali National Park, Alaska

Nowhere does wilderness quite like Alaska, and Denali is not just one of the state’s, but also one of the world’s most spectacular national parks, with more than six million acres of untamed territory to explore. Known as ‘The Last Frontier’, Alaska gives a glimpse into a land where nature still rules, and Denali’s rumbling rivers, alpine tundra and snow-capped peaks – the park is home to North America’s tallest mountain – offer plenty of opportunity to digitally detox and reconnect with your wilder side. With just one tarmac road winding through Denali, it’s easy to take a hiking or biking trail less travelled, watching out for the park’s own ‘Big Five’: moose, caribou, wolves, grizzly bears and Dall sheep, while golden eagles soar through the big skies overhead.

2. Yosemite National Park, California

From its crystalline mirrored lakes to its towering granite peaks, Yosemite National Park is the jewel in California’s crown and a natural paradise that must be seen to be believed. Just four hours from San Francisco, this vast wilderness offers vistas so perfectly pristine they could be Romantic-era paintings of heavenly plains, replenished by plunging waterfalls, which paint rainbows as they tumble to the valley floor below. In Mariposa Grove, hikers will find some of the oldest and largest trees on Earth: more than 500 giant red sequoias, including the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant. And while there are no grizzlies of the furry kind in the park, their black bear cousins can often be spotted in this wildlife haven they share with mule deer and bighorn sheep.

3. Olympic National Park, Washington

Protecting one of the largest stretches of pristine wilderness in the United States, Olympic National Park covers almost one million acres of Washington state, and is a must-see on any visit to the Pacific Northwest. This is a land of dramatic landscapes, with glacier-capped mountains, alpine lakes and more than 110km of coastline, perfect for exploring by kayak or canoe. The park’s Hurricane Ridge is a wonderland for winter sports, with downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and tubing, while the park’s primeval, temperate rainforests are magical realms, where America’s largest wild populations of Roosevelt elk, black bears and blacktail deer roam. Walk the beaches and you’re likely to see grey whales offshore from March to May, or look out for otters, seals and sea lions playing alongside the Pacific surfers.

4. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Shimmering high in the Cascade Mountain Range of southern Oregon, Crater Lake National Park is home to the deepest lake in the USA, formed after a volcanic eruption 7,700 years ago saw the collapse of mammoth Mount Mazama. Leaving a 8-9.5km wide and 1.1km deep caldera in its place, rain, snow and ice melt filled the crater to form the dazzling clear blue lake of today, with the rugged volcanic cinder cone, Wizard Island, rising from its midst. Take the 53km historic Rim Drive for outstanding views from the 30 designated overlooks, hike through fragrant forests of ponderosa pines and meadows of spring wildflowers, or join a boat tour on the lake to hear more about the geology and indigenous culture of this magical American park.

5. Death Valley National Park, California

While road tripping around Mars may still be science fancy rather than fact, travellers can take an extra-terrestrial-style trip through some of our own planet’s out-of-this-world landscapes with a daring drive through Death Valley. Stretching through east California into Nevada, America’s hottest, driest and lowest national park delivers adventure in spades, from hiking its deep canyons and desert peaks, to cycling its hundreds of miles of biking trails, and backcountry camping. Despite its foreboding name and extreme terrain, the park is alive with incredible desert-adapted animals like jackrabbits, bobcats and coyotes, and dazzling wildflowers that blanket the valley after rain. Designated an International Dark Sky Park, venture out at night and you’ll find a blanket of sparkling stars illuminating the heavens, too.

6. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Inhabited by Native Americans for millennia, who came to the region for shelter and to hunt and gather foods and medicinal plants, this icon of the Pacific Northwest is now a magnet for adventure seekers, offering exciting snow sports, mountain climbing, hiking and biking. A young volcano, formed over the past 500,000 years, Mount Rainier rises 4,392m and was born from millions of years of geological history, with rock formations, lava flows, hot springs, waterfalls and ridges which are ripe for exploration. The national park’s incredible wildlife is another draw, with black bears, bobcats, mountain lions and the rare Cascade red fox found throughout the varied terrain, which ranges from lush old-growth forests to subalpine meadows and glacier-carved valleys, which bloom with a kaleidoscope of wildflowers in summer.

7. Scenic byways, California

Running through awe-inspiring mountain ranges, ancient redwood forests, lunar desert landscapes and along stunning stretches of coastline, 63 of California’s iconic driving routes have been named Scenic Byways, celebrated for their scenic, cultural, natural, historical, archaeological or recreational attractions. Travel by car, stopping off at contemporary resorts, luxe traditional lodges or family-run inns along the way, or take your home along with you as you explore by camper van (known as an RV or recreational vehicle in the USA), staying in the state’s many well-maintained campgrounds. From the pine-clad peaks and lakes of the UpState Shasta Cascade region, to the dark skies and dunes of the Mojave Desert to the south, the Golden State has a byway that will lead to your ultimate USA adventure.

Explore with the experts

American Holidays is a USA travel specialist, with more than 35 years’ experience in creating tailor-made itineraries, from exciting city breaks to dreamy beach escapes and thrilling active adventures. Visit the west coast’s national parks on a breathtaking road trip by car or camper van (RV), or join an escorted tour with one of our expert USA travel guides.

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