The concept of national parks isn’t exactly a new thing. The first, Yellowstone National Park, was established 150 years ago. Since then numerous national parks have been established all across the globe with the aim of varying degrees of protection. It is estimated that there are more than 4,000 national parks in the world many of which are also listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.Combining our first hand experiences as well as deep research and local connections we have come up with the list of 20 best national parks in the world, spanning across 5 continents.
National Parks in North America
Yosemite National Park – the birthplace of the idea of national parks
This is where the idea of national parks came to life. On June 30, 1864, then President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act which gave the jurisdiction of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Groove to the state of California. At that time the news was overshadowed by the American Civil War, but this act would go on to become the founding base for the formation of the National Park Service. Hence, it is here in the Sierra Nevada, thanks to the popular and passionate writings of American environmentalist John Muir, that the concept of National Parks came to life. Yosemite is neither the biggest national park in the US nor the first. However, these 1,187 sq. miles of unparalleled beauty, wilderness, and sheer diversity in scenic landscapes have been pulling millions (2.27 million in 2020 and 3.3 million in 2021) of people each year. Located in California, the Sierra National Forest and the Stanislaus National Forest surround Yosemite and form an important link in the Sierra Nevada ecosystem. Owing to its importance to the ecosystem, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 and is definitely one of the best national parks in the US
The 8 sq. mile of Yosemite Valley includes two of the very famous landmarks: Half Dome and El Capitan along with many other frequently trailed hiking paths. The Yosemite Falls Trail is a wonderful way to explore one of the tallest waterfalls in the world: the Yosemite Fall which stands staggeringly at 2,425 feet. One of the most famous national parks in the world among climbers, Yosemite is also one of the few places in the US where you can see a moon-bow i.e a rainbow at night.
Banff National Park – one of the most luxurious national parks in the world.
Located in the Rocky Mountains in Southwestern Alberta, Banff National Park is the oldest national park in Canada. One of the best national parks in the continent, it was also included in our “ Seven Wonders of the World” list and is just more than your average national park. It is a complete holiday destination for families and also for people looking for an unfiltered face-to- face with jaw-dropping Canadian natural beauty. Summer or winter, millions of tourists flock to the picturesque town of Banff which lies at the southern end of the national park. A gondola ride to Sulphur Mountain will reward you with several locations to get stunning views of the entire valley below. However, the most photographed and most famous spot in the national park is Lake Louise whose turquoise waters mirror the 3,469 meters of Mount Victoria. There are several hike trails here with views that you will not get anywhere else in the world. For people, especially with families, who don’t find long hiking into the woods feasible, the Icefields Parkway provides with once in a lifetime road trip between the northern part of Banff National Park and the southern end of Jasper National Park. The Chateau Lake Louise and Banff Springs Hotel combine luxury with natural views that very few if any, five-star hotels canprovide anywhere across the globe making it one of the poshest national parks in the whole world.
Basaseachic Falls National Park – one of the best off the beaten path national parks in North America.
In the heart of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in the state of Chihuahua lies one of the most dramatic national parks in Mexico: the Basaseachic National Park. When I visited it in 2017, as a student of geology, I was absolutely struck on the face by how violent the topography was. Violent in a sense that the deep canyons which are four times the size of Grand Canyon, is lined with incredibly unyielding rocky mountains, a result of some powerful tectonic movements thousands of years ago. The Cascada de Basaseachic or the Basaseachic waterfall is the focal point of and pulls numerous tourists and hikers looking for something off the beaten path. Technically this waterfall located in the Candemeña Canyon is Mexico’s second highest waterfall as Piedra Viola is taller. However, the Piedra Viola doesn’t flow all year round making the Basaseachic falls the center of attraction. Apart from the Basaseachic waterfall, it is a haven for hikers who are fed up with touristy spots in the name of national parks. It is difficult to get to and the views from the summit of the rifts, overlooking the thick pine-oak forests and sheer sided cliffs are sure to please the most hardcore of hikers. Wildlife enthusiast can enjoy sights of cougar, white tailed deer, Mexican fox squirrel, varieties of birds like jays, canyon towhee, mourning dove, along with the 162 varieties of flora.
Glacier National Park – visually one of the most stunning national parks in the US
The Glacier National Park is nick-named “Crown of the Continent” and it couldn’t have been more aptly named. Situated in northwestern Montana, the Glacier, and Waterton Lakes National Parks form the world’s first “peace national park”. In my personal opinion, this is one of the most visually stunning national parks in the US. The chief attractions include 50 miles of the Going-to-the-sun road which is one of the most scenic roadways in the whole world. Old forests of hemlock and cedar in the Avalanche Creek, the hairpin turn on the road called as the Loop, the Weeping Wall, and the Logan Pass aremajor attractions that are near the scenic roadway. Highline Trail as well as the Loop Trail are also wildly popular among hiking enthusiasts.
National Parks in Europe
Jotunheimen National Park – one of the best national parks in Norway for hiking and mountaineering.
Thanks to the comic books, movies and video games like God of War, the word Jotunheimen isn’t unheard among the general population. Referring to “the Home of Giants”, the Jotunheimen covers an area of 444 sq miles and is one of the best national parks in Southern Norway. Mountaineering, hiking and photography enthusiasts flock to here for it’s wide variety and frankly, wide number of natural landmarks like glaciers, mountains, and hiking trails.There are 250 mountains taller than 2,000 meters in Jotunheimen National Park making it the most densely concentrated mountainous area in Northern Europe. It is one of the most popular national parks among hikers and mountaineering geeks and the Besseggen Ridge hike trail with the unparalleled views of Gjende and Bessvath lakes is very popular. Apart from hiking, this Norwegian national park has activities like cross-country and alpine skiing, climbing, horse back riding, and rafting in the wild waves of the river Sjoa for adrenaline junkies.
Belluno Dolomites National Park– one of the most peaceful national parks in Italy
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Italy’s massive tourism industry didn’t just add a lot of money in the economy but also posed a huge risk to the natural ecosystem of this beautiful nation. Keeping exactly that in mind, the Belluno Dolomites is one of those national parks that were created to protect the rare flora, fauna, germ ecosystem of the region from the explosion of winter sports infrastructures like ski lifts and hotels. In a region like Northern Italy that is packed to the brim with tourists the untamed, vivid natural landscape is one of the best national parks in the region to get away from the crowds. The Belluno Dolomites contains 6 mountain ranges out of which the Schiara is the most famous and the highest while Piz di Mezzodi is the most prominent. The Dolomites, which outspan the borders of this national park are the chief attraction. However, a distinct lack of resorts, hotels or ski resorts but abundance of streams running into deep gorges, springs, picturesque pastures, meadows, many species of animals, more than 1,400 species of plants, and picturesque hiking trails with all levels of difficulties make this one of the best national parks for people wanting to be away from touristy places.
Rila National Park – one of the most underrated national parks in Europe
Barely a 90 minute drive south from the capital city of Sofia, lies Bulgaria’s biggest National Park: Rila. Although not the top name in most peoples’ travel list, Bulgaria’s Rila National Park offers a variety of activities and sights to see from the UNESCO World Heritage Site Rila Monastery to the Seven Rila Lakes hike. After watching wild horses under the alpine trees, you can spend the night in one of several huts inside the premises of the national park and soak in one of the hottest mineral springs in Europe in Sapareva Banya. The Rila is undoubtedly one of the most underrated national parks in Europe.
Peneda-Gerês National Park – one of those national parks that offer you everything.
Known as simply Gerês, this is Portugal’s only national park. But unlike other national parks included in this list until now, the Peneda-Gerês has deep, as deep as 6000 BC, roots tohistory of mankind and various empires. Around an hour drive from Porto, this national park is a mixture of villages, rare animals, and incredible natural beauty. I know my internal bias is working but the terraced farmlands here reminds me of national parks in South East Asia and China. However there is a distinct presence of Roman empire with the roads, bridges and milestone markers. There are even tombs that date as early as 6000 BC here. There is no lack of beautiful flora and fauna here. The Serra do Gerês iris is found nowhere else except in this national park while extremely rare animals like the Iberian wolf can be spotted by lucky visitors making it one of the best national parks in the world to see rare wildlife. Hiking trails around scenic lakes surrounded by gorse and heather grasslands feel like they came straight out of a postcard.
National Parks in Asia
Chitwan National Park – one of the best national parks in the world to see the consequences of conservation efforts
We have included Nepal’s Makalu Barun in our 7 must visit places in the world. However, for this list of 20 best national parks, we travel to this Himalayan nation for its most famous one:the Chitwan National Park. It is home to a wide array of wildlife including the majestic Bengal Tiger but the crown jewel is the Greater One Horned Asiatic rhino and the remarkable conservation efforts that have brought back the species from the brink of extinction. The tributaries of the rivers Narayani and Rapti separate this area from local human habitat and also offer boat rides where you can catch large crocodiles, starred tortoise, white throated Kingfisher and if you are lucky the now rare gharials. An estimated 656 One Horned Asiatic Rhinos live here whose numbers were once dwindling due to poaching for their hide, hooves and horn (37 rhinos were killed in 2002 alone). Chital stag, leopards, antelopes, Bengal Tiger are the most famous among 68 mammal species here and it is also one of the prime national parks in Nepal for bird watchers and conservationists.
Guilin Lijiang River National Park – one of China’s most famous national parks and diplomatic sites
Etched in the Chinese 20 Yuan Note, the scenery of the Guilin Lijiang is what I can only describe as magical. The hills rise erratically from the ground as if they were scales on the back of a giant dragon, the river Li Jiang, swerves around the fields, limestone karst hills, caves making you feel like you are a mere visitor in some mystical land. Located between the bustling cities of Yangshuo and Guilin, one of China’s most famous national parks has also been host to several American Presidents on their visits to China.
Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks – Two of India’s most hidden national parks.
India is a storied land but much of the attractions are based around the cuisine, the culture, the landmarks in North and South India. High up in Western mountainous region lie two of the most underrated national parks in India: The Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks. I know, it’s a bit of cheating including two national parks in one spot but they are so near to each other that you couldn’t and wouldn’t want to visit just one. These two national parks are a part of a larger biosphere reserve in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand in North Western India. As the name suggests the national parks are carpeted with more than 498 species of flowering plants along with sub alpine forests of birch and rhododendron which on a nice day with the sun shining down makes it feel like fragment of what paradise would be like.
During sunsets, the tip of India’s second tallest mountain, Nanda Devi glows bright orange adding to the already scenic beauty of these national parks. Apart from the mountain, forest covered hills, and the carpet of mesmerizing flowers, these national parks offer you something that can be hard to find in India: a sense of being away from the crowd as it hasn’t been heavily capitalized into a tourist attraction. Consequently these are absolutely prime places to catch a glimpse of usually shy animals like the snow leopard, bharal or the blue sheep, Asiatic Black bear, red fox and 114 species of birds. One thing to be kept in mind is that these national parks open only during summer from June to October as the winter makes it absolutely unvisitable.
Nikkō National Park – one of the best national parks in Japan to see the autumn colors.
In just a 3 hours 20 minutes drive from Tokyo, lies one of those Japanese national parks which offers visitors absolutely everything they could have imagined and then some. Visitors can see Japan’s highest swamp, the Kinu-numa swamp, hike on trails that start at the hot spring Nikkō Yumoto Onsen, climb on trails on Mt. Nikkō-Shirane, visit hundreds of shrines including the richly adorned Toshogu shrine, and the post card worthy Kirifuri plateau covered with day lilies. However, my reason for why the Nikkō National Park is one of the best national parks in the world is because it comes alive in autumn when the orange, yellow leaves, and bright red leaves mixed with green leaves capturing the essence of what the Japanese call as Koyo and Momiji.
National Parks in Africa
Chobe National Park- one of the best national parks in Africa to see elephants.
Usually, national parks are quite separated and exclusive areas and you only feel the presence when you are deep into the area. However, when you get to the town of Kasane near Africa’s Four Corners, you can see the wildlife from the Chobe National Park spilling all over its borders. Located in Northwestern Botswana, this 11,700 sq. km protected area is one of the most diverse and exciting national parks in all of Africa. The Northeastern border of the national park, is lined by the Chobe river which attracts large numbers of animals including elephants, giraffe, African Buffalo, and a variety of birds. Luckily for you, boat cruises provide the best views of these animals by the riverside. The unique and curious Savuti Marsh in the west of the national park is where the white southern rhinos, prides of lions, hyenas, zebras frequent during rainy season while Linyanti Marsh is home to rare mammals like red lechwe, marshbuck, hippos, African wild dogs and Nile crocodiles. The central attraction in the Chobe National Park, however, is the presence of around 50,000 African Elephants.
South Luangwa National Park – one of the best national parks for walking and night safaris.
The South Luangwa National Park is one of three national parks in the valley of the Luangwa River. But, as the river winds through the center of its area creating ox-bow lakes and lagoons, the life in the form of animals, plants, birds, insects just explodes into every square inch of the place. In fact, the South Luangwa National Park is one of the most densely populated as well as diverse stretches of national parks in all of Africa when it comes to wildlife. I cannot tell you about South Luangwa National Park and not talk about walking safaris. Many national parks have now a days incorporated walking safari for the daring visitors but the tradition was born here. These safaris (where the visitors are guarded by armed guards and experienced guides) take you as close to the real wilderness as possible without you being theprey. If you don’t like the sound of it then, the next most adventurous thing to do would be to take a night safari.
Volcanoes National Park – one of the best national parks in Africa to see the majestic mountain gorilla.
We have seen elephants, giraffes, lions, and African buffaloes in this list of best national parks in Africa. After all, these are stable features of the ecosystem here in Africa. However, the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is home to a different but equally majestic, terrifying, and incredible animal: the mountain gorilla. One of the smallest national parks in the list, its name comes from the presence of volcanoes inside its area. As compared to other national parks, it’s quite small is size at 62 sq. miles. But the flora consisting mostly of rain forest due to high altitudinal range is home to the massive mountain gorilla, golden monkey, spotted hyenas, and 200 species of birds some of which are endemic to this area. The national park lies in the Virunga mountains and also contains 5 out of 8 volcanoes in the mountain range, almost all of which are dormant.
Table Mountain National Park – one of the best national parks for people searching for adventure and laid-back vibes.
Look I get it, not everyone has to be a huge fan of wildlife and intricate ecosystems and forests and what not. You can want to be away from the hustle and bustle of big cities and their arduous daily lives, do something adventurous and exciting without poking your nose in the lives of Africa’s wildlife. Table Mountain is one of the most exciting and activities focused national parks in South Africa. Table Mountain is The natural landmark in South Africa with the national park stretching from Signal Hill to Cape Point. Although there are various granite mountains, beaches, and forests the main attraction is of course the 1085 meter plateau. The views of Cape Town from the famous cable car that goes to the top of this plateau are incredible. Hikers will absolutely love this national park as there are several trails leading up the mountain that vary in difficulty. The most famous among those is the hike up to Lions Head. A lovely stroll in the Kristenbosch Botanical Garden, watching African penguins in Boulders Beach, and whale watching in Cape Point are also must do things at the Table Mountain National Park.
National Parks in South America
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park – one of the most unusual yet stunningly beautiful national parks in the world.
Sometimes you visit certain places that are so unusual and beautiful that months later you actually have a hard time deciphering whether it was reality or just a figment of some movie that stuck into your sub consciousness. The Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is one of such places. Situated in the Maranhão state of Brazil, this 594 sq. miles this feels like a modern art painting by nature. The physical geography of this place makes it feel like a desert however, it receives far more rainfall than what a desert would. The Parnaíba and Preguiças rivers carry sand from inland to the park and the wind blows back this accumulated sand giving rise to dunes. Since it receives almost 1,200 mm rainfall between January and May the gap between the dunes are filled and lagoons up to 100 meters in length are created.
Torres del Paine National Park – one of the best national parks for beautiful landscapes
Huge mountains, icebergs, glaciers, and flatter lower lands covered in golden grass, the Torres del Piane in the Southern Chilean Paragonia throws everything at you. It’s not merely a random stretch of land with diverse kind of land, it’s a work of art, it is one of the most beautiful national parks in South America. A heaven for outdoor enthusiasts it demands you have your camera ready all the time. The French Valley hike will be one of the most beautiful hikes of your lives as the views of the mountains, the guanacos, the glaciers is spell binding. As if no amount of attention was enough, the center piece of the national park has these granite rock towers that shoot up from the earth reaching thousands of feet into the sky. Visitors can also hike or kayak across the Grey Glacier
Tayrona National Park – one of the best national parks for beaches
Located in Northern Carribean region of Colombia, it allows only limited number of people that at a time in order to protect the fragile ecosystem of the area. However, if you are lucky enough to get inside, the lush green tropical forests descending gently down into beautiful beaches lined with clear water will welcome you to one of the most scenic national parks in South America. The beaches aren’t connected with roads so hiking between the beaches adds to the fulfillment of reaching the beaches. Apart from that, it is also home to Howler Monkeys, Capuchin Monkeys and the endemic and rare Cotton-top Tamarin.
Tierra del Fuego National Park – one of the best national parks in the world to see the mix of mountain ranges and the ocean
Imagine jagged mountains of the of the Andes and windswept valleys covered in subantarctic forest abruptly coming to an end in the chilly part of the ocean where Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet. Imagine moody, dramatic, hauntingly beautiful landscapes. Imagine the End of the World. A 30 minute drive from the Southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia in Argentina, takes you to Tierra del Fuego, one of the most moody, dramatic and jaw droppingly beautiful national parks in the whole world. The hiking trail from Ensenada Bay to Lapataia Bay on the Lake Roca is very popular where visitors can see mountain horses grazing under the stunning Andes mountain range. Unique wildlife like Andean condors, guanacos, red foxes and many sea birds wandering in this heavenly landscape makes Tirera del Fuego one of the most beautiful national parks in the entire world.