Autumn, Photos, Travel

The 10 Best National Parks for your Money

From swampy marshes to soaring canyons, from pristine glaciers to scorching deserts, America’s national parks encompass nearly every possible ecosystem and offer a world away from the everyday hustle and bustle.

The 60 official national parks form a vast system that collectively spans 84 million acres, and was visited over 331 million times last year alone. But with such a plethora of options, it can difficult to pick just one to visit for any given vacation.

Each of the top 10 parks is packed with must-do experiences and amenities but at prices that, relatively speaking, make them a steal.

Read on to discover which of the national parks should be at the top of your to-do list this year.

1. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Cost to spend a week for two: $2,336
Average summer airfare: $277
Average nightly lodging: $192
Park entry: $30 per vehicle

Even if you’ve never been to Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ve likely seen its iconic peaks. In fact, Longs Peak—the park’s tallest at 14,259 feet—graces the back of Colorado’s state quarter. Aspen and pine forests blanket the slopes of the Rockies, providing shade for the park’s prolific wildlife—including bighorn sheep, elk, black bears, and moose.

Located northwest of Boulder, the park is a hiker’s paradise, with 355 miles of hiking trails available for all skill levels. For example, if you don’t have the expertise needed to climb to Longs’ summit via the Keyhole Route, try the Lily Mountain trailhead, a modest 4-mile, round-trip trek that offers panoramic views of Longs Peak, as well as the nearby Mummy mountain range. Families should check out the Bear Lake Loop, a paved nature trail that passes through pine forests and circles the pristine waters of Bear Lake.

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Rocky Mountain National Park is also home to the highest continuous paved road in the U.S., Trail Ridge Pass Road. The 48-mile road, called “Highway of the Sky,” travels through pine forests and high-Alpine tundra and offers numerous viewpoints in which to gawk at the mountainous vistas. During July and August, wildflowers bloom in the meadows and temperatures are comfortable.

2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee / North Carolina

Cost to spend a week for two: $2,297
Average summer airfare: $421
Average nightly lodging: $148
Park entry: Free

This Tennessee-based park is the most popular national park in the U.S.; more than 11 million people visited it last year. That’s roughly the equivalent of the number of visitors at the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone combined. Part of the reason for its popularity is its free admission, a constant over the years thanks to a stipulation in the park’s original charter.

For the best views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, head to the observation tower on Clingmans Dome, which offers spectacular 360-degree views.

Gatlinburg, Great Smoky ⛰ MountainsBut despite the views from Clingmans or even the main artery of the park,Newfound Gap Road,the experts at Lonely Planet say the best way to explore the park is by foot—you can wander amid blueberry patches, explore swimming holes, and even scale wild waterfalls. Check out the Trillium Gap Trail, a meandering 3-mile trek that winds through a hemlock forest and takes visitors to Grotto Falls, a 25-foot waterfall. Great Smoky offers visitors a chance to experience a range of ecosystems brimming with wildlife. In fact, over 900 new plant and animal species have been discovered here over the years.