4 Can’t-Miss National Parks on the West Coast
Summer may be winding down, but the next few months are still peak season for a wide variety of outdoor adventures from coast to coast. And thankfully, even as the weather begins to transition to shorter days and cooler nights, there are still plenty of opportunities to get outside—particularly when it comes to the U.S. National Parks Service. With 63 National Parks under its conservation and care, and an incredible 430 natural, historical, recreational and cultural areas in total, the scale of natural wonders is truly unmatched anywhere in the world.
Recently, we featured four of our favorite Must-Visit National Parks on the East Coast. We highlighted some of the nation’s most breathtaking natural landscapes along the Atlantic, from low-lying marshes in the deep south to mountainous peaks in Maine. Now, we’re turning our attention to the ravishing and rugged West Coast with a complementary look at four superlative national parks near the Pacific coast that you have to see to believe.
Yosemite National Park, California
It’s impossible to round up the most spectacular parks on the West Coast without including a nod to the mighty Yosemite. It truly is among the crown jewels of the entire National Parks system. Situated in the heart of the Sierra Nevada—a major mountain range and watershed that runs through California’s Central Valley and the Great Basin—this park is composed of a massive 748,000 acres. It’s so expansive, in fact, that it spans four counties.
Even if you’ve never been to Yosemite yourself, it’s likely you’re familiar with some of its most iconic features. There’s the giant granite Half Dome, an often-photographed rock formation with its sheer face and rounded sides soaring to a dizzying 5,000 feet above the valley; there’s also El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical rock formation that has served as one of the most popular summits for experienced rock climbers; there’s the dramatic 620-foot Bridalveil Falls; and of course, the Yosemite Valley itself, which has formed the backdrop of vacation photos and postcards for generations of travelers. Here, you can experience giant (and quite ancient) Sequoia trees, granite cliffs, waterfalls and more, with a variety of trails for all skill levels.
Currently, Yosemite is recovering from some recent closures, leaving the popular Glacier Point Road (a favorite vantage for photographers) temporarily closed. Check with the NPS prior to planning your trip to confirm which entrances and trails are open today.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Another absolute stunner, Olympic National Park spans a whopping million-plus acres, and its diverse terrain shows off some of the very best of what the Pacific Northwest has to offer. From snow-capped mountainscapes to lush rainforests to ghostly driftwood beaches, there’s no shortage of visual surprises here. The hardest part is squeezing it all into a short trip, so if your plans allow, devote at least a few days to exploring this vast and varied park.
Occupying Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and within an easy drive of Seattle, this park spans numerous ecosystems and offers outdoor adventures of just about every kind. In fact, it’s home to the greatest diversity of ecosystems among all of the national parks on the West Coast. Hike or backpack your way through old-growth forests, or bike through wide open meadows—here, you can choose from over 611 miles of trails. Or for something more adventurous, you can climb any of the numerous soaring peaks, provided you packed the right gear (and know how!).
Wherever you may venture within this park, make time to visit any of the lovely beaches at low tide; explore the wonders of the Hoh Rain Forest; and enjoy the photo op at three-tiered Sol Duc Falls—a jaw-dropping waterfall that is among the most beautiful on the West Coast.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
It may be the only official National Park in the state of Oregon, but that doesn’t stop this relatively petite destination (at 183,224 acres) from making our list of the most beautiful and worthy West Coast parks. Discovered in 1853 and deemed a National Park in 1902, Crater Lake is most known and beloved for the eponymous lake at its centerpiece—easily one of the most photographed scenes in the entire park system.
Formed in the aftermath of an eruption at Mount Mazama over 7,700 years ago, the volcanic crater was fed with a steady diet of rainfall and snow over the course of several millennia. And because this particular lake was formed without any rivers or tributaries to flow into or out of it, it has never been filled with mineral deposits or sediment over time. This has helped to keep it in pristine condition. Today, in addition to being one of the most beautiful lakes in the United States, Crater Lake is also the deepest (reaching depths of 1,949 feet).
To snap your own iconic Crater Lake photo, the Sinnott Memorial Overlook is a favorite spot, and you can reach it even without adding a hike to your trip. The same is true of the popular Discovery Point. There’s also the Rim Drive, which—as it sounds—is a scenic route that surrounds the lake and offers a range of vantages as you explore the park at your own pace.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Don’t let its more distant location in the Alaskan wilderness—or the fact that Denali occupies over 6 million acres—fool you into thinking this park is too remote or too difficult to add to your travel list. Despite its incredibly expansive footprint, Denali is actually a relatively easy National Park to navigate. This is due, in part, to the fact that it has only one main road, with just one road entrance.
Once you’re inside, the park is truly an unmatched experience, with the 20,310-foot-tall Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) at its heart. As the tallest peak in all of North America, you can’t miss it, and it’s sure to form the backdrop for many of your park photos. Just don’t be surprised when, at such steep elevation, the summits of Denali and the rest of the Alaska Range vanish into the clouds and out of sight. And while the park itself is technically named for this monster mountain, there’s so much more to see and experience here than just the peak.
Denali is home to an unbelievable diversity of terrains, from tundra to glacier to lush green forestland. And with so many ecosystems, the local flora and fauna are every bit as varied. Expect to see everything from wolves and sheep to owls and eagles, along with moose, caribou, grizzly bears, marmots, ptarmigans, and whales of various species here. For excellent hiking, try the Roadside Trail, or the popular Horseshoe Lake Trail, which leads to the scenic lake for which it’s named.
While dramatic in its beauty, the West Coast is also known for its extreme range of temperatures and weather systems—no matter the season. Here’s how you can arrive prepared.
- Dress in layers that you can easily add or remove as the temps may swing throughout your visit. A UPF-rated performance shirt offers excellent sun protection during the hottest part of the day, while having a jacket or hoodie stored in your pack can keep you comfortable once the sun dips. Nighttime can be surprisingly cool out West, so bring these layers along no matter the forecast.
- Remember to pack plenty of water and snacks, even for shorter hikes. The shifting weather conditions mean you could find yourself far from the trailhead—and thirsty!—just as the sun comes out in full force.
- No matter when you may go, it’s a sure bet that the sun will be shining at some point (yes, even in Alaska!). So bring a UPF-rated hat and plenty of sunscreen to ensure you stay sun safe throughout the day.
- The breathtaking altitude variations in most West Coast parks make for frame-worthy photos, but those peaks and valleys can also mean very little cell reception (if any at all in some parts). To safeguard your cell phone’s GPS in case you run into any connection issues, ensure you have a backup plan. Bring along a paper copy of the park’s trail guides, which are available in most National Park visitor centers on your way in.
Get Your Park Pass
One of the best ways to take advantage of the National Park System is by purchasing an annual pass. For just $80, you can get two people in as long as you're traveling in the same car (Admits passholder and any accompanying passengers in a private, non-commercial vehicle at per-vehicle fee sites). The pass itself grants you access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including these national parks and many more, as well as a variety of state parks, national wildlife refuges and other stunning natural attractions.