Torres del Paine one of the Best National Parks Around the World

Today, national parks are found all over the world, but the United States invented the concept in 1872 when then-president Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone with a decree that proclaimed it “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” And the idea caught on fast. Today, these protected landscapes span six continents, 1,000 locations, and 100 nations. Each exists to protect landscapes, plants, animals, and historical landmarks while also serving as a respite for humans to enjoy stunning natural wonders. 

From the red sandstone cliffs of Zion and the Grand Canyon to the wildlife paradises of Kruger and Galapagos, the planet’s national parks are so diverse that it’s hard to know where to explore first. Instead of trying to compile your own checklist, use this guide to our favorite national parks (many also classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites) to plan your travels. Our selections feature diverse wildlife, unique geology and ecology, and outdoor recreation opportunities that make them important to protect for this and future generations.

Torres del Paine, Chile

From glaciers to lakes to mountain peaks, the dazzling landscapes of Torres del Paine make it one of the world’s most spectacular national parks. Challenge yourself with a hike to the base of the Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine), a set of granite peaks that appear to rise from the ground into the sky. See ice formations up close and personal with a boat tour to Grey Glacier or a hike along crystal blue, ice-filled Lago Grey. Find the best panoramic views of the park’s turquoise lakes and mountains from the Mirador Las Torres viewpoint.

Killarney National Park, Ireland

Explore this island nation’s rugged mountain landscapes in Killarney National Park. Start with a hike to see the magnificent McGillycuddy’s Reeks, Ireland’s highest mountain range at over 3,400 feet. Then ride a horse-drawn jaunting car to admire the evergreen trees and shrubs or stroll through the exquisite gardens of Muckross House, a preserved 19th-century mansion. From the house, walk to the ruins of a preserved Franciscan friary called Muckross Abbey. Or skip the woods and get on the water with a boat tour from Ross Castle to Innisfallen Island to explore ruins on a now-deserted island.

Plitvice National Park, Croatia

Croatia’s oldest and largest national park is also the country’s most beloved, and while Plitvice Lakes National Park primarily protects grasslands and forest vegetation, it’s best known for its cascading lakes and waterfalls. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is made up of 16 named lakes that create over 90 waterfalls. Wander through the woods on seven trails featuring boardwalks suspended over these dazzling turquoise waters for fairyland nature views.

Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Yosemite National Park’s rocky wonderscape was the world’s first land protected for the public good in 1864. The park’s known for its towering granite monoliths, waterfalls, lush valley, abundant wildlife, and giant ancient sequoia trees. Summer is its busiest season, but the park is a spectacular destination year-round. Yosemite’s diverse landscapes also house and protect over 400 animal species, including black bears, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States

Claiming the title of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone sits on top of a dormant volcano and was preserved to protect its hydro and geothermal features. The park is home to 50 percent of the planet’s hydrothermal features, including hot springs and the iconic Old Faithful geyser. Spanning 3,500 miles, Yellowstone is one of America’s largest national parks and is home to wildlife like grizzlies, bison, wolves, and deer. Don’t miss the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the world’s largest hot springs, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

Galapagos National Park, Ecuador

Established in 1959, Galapagos National Park is the oldest National Park in Ecuador. Today about 97 percent of it is part of the National Park System and remains uninhabited. Visitors primarily visit to see the park’s many endemic species, including giant tortoises, marine iguanas, Darwin’s finches, and blue-footed boobies. Over 9,000 species have been discovered, but more are found here each year. Visitors can take cruises or guided land-based day trips to explore, kayak, and hike around the islands.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, United States

Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park dazzles with its unique red rock hoodoos. These thin orange, red, and white spires appear to rise from the canyon floor, but they’re actually the product of millions of years of erosion. The best way to see these wild rock formations is on a sunrise or sunset hike along the Navajo or Fairyland Loop Trails. Visit in winter to snowshoe and hike among snow-dusted hoodoos. No matter when you visit, Bryce is accessible to any fitness level. Simply stand on the canyon’s edge and marvel at the wonders below.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, United States

Known as one of the Earth’s most iconic natural landmarks, the Grand Canyon’s claim to fame is its deep, colorful cliffs carved by the Colorado River over millions of years. The canyon itself is over a mile deep and stretches 277 miles through Arizona. Visitors come to gaze into its open expanse below or to venture down winding trails for hiking, river rafting, horseback riding, and camping. Various viewpoints showcase the area’s geology and history, but none is more stunning than the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass walkway bridge at Arizona’s Eagle Point.

Zion National Park, Utah, United States

Travel to southern Utah to experience the beauty of Zion National Park’s red rock cliffs, canyons, and rock formations. From wading through the Virgin River in The Narrows to using chains bolted into the rock to free climb up technical switchbacks at Angels Landing, adventures here are thrilling, scenic, and undeniably unique. Take in the full beauty of this place on a drive along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, or catch a shuttle from the visitor’s center to ride through this desert panorama and access popular trails.

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China

Channel Avatar vibes in China’s Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, where towering sandstone peaks and pillars served as the inspiration for Avatar’s floating mountains. Often blanketed in fog, the Hallelujah Mountains can be seen via cable car or a hike up the mountain. The park’s also home to a man-made wonder, The Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge, a 400-meter span that makes it the longest and tallest pedestrian bridge in the world.

Mount Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania

Hikers and mountaineers venture to Mount Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania for summiting, sightseeing, and wildlife viewing. This UNESCO World Heritage site is known for its namesake peak: Mount Kilimanjaro. The rewarding climb takes visitors up the highest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet. From Uruhu Peak, the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro, enjoy vast panoramas of the surrounding African landscape. Beyond the peaks, the region is home to monkeys, baboons, leopards, elephants, and more.

Kruger National Park, South Africa

People come to Kruger National Park not for the scenery but for the wildlife. This park is home to lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo, giraffes, zebras, and rhinoceros, and you can experience them up close on a guided game drive. Available morning to night, they’re the safest way to see the animals. A scenic drive also showcases the rivers and landscapes, or you can venture on foot with a guided bush walk. Led by an armed safari ranger, the walks take three to four hours and can feature adrenaline-pumping experiences like elephant and buffalo sightings.

Victoria Falls National Park, Zambia

See Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, in this expansive national park in Zambia. The waterfall is a mile wide and over 300 feet tall, making it the planet’s largest (and easily the most impressive). Jump in the water at Devil’s Pool, a thrilling swimming experience on the edge of Victoria Falls. Adventures abound here, and visitors can get their thrill zip lining, whitewater rafting, and bungee jumping, or keep it simple by hiking beautiful trails spread through natural landscapes.

Hawai’i Volcanoes, Hawaii, United States

Head to Hawaii’s Big Island to see two of the world’s most active volcanoes in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. See Kilauea’s lava flows, craters, and steam vents with a drive along Chain of the Craters Road, then learn about the area’s geology and history at Jaggar Museum — located on the rim of Kilauea Crater. Explore eruptions past with a hike through Thurston Lava Tube, an underground cave formed by flowing lava.

Fuji Hakone Izu National Park, Japan

Explore Japan’s highest mountain and soak in popular natural hot springs in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. The bucket list goal here is taking a guided hike up Mount Fuji, but if you’re not up for the climb, chill and take in the mountain view at Lake Ashi. After a day spent hiking the trails, head for the nearby town of Hakone Hot Springs to soak your cares and muscle aches away.

Banff National Park, Canada

Experience the majestic beauty of the Canadian Rockies in Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest and most visited national park. Glacial-blue lakes, snow-capped peaks, and endless forests make up the dazzling landscapes, with the most iconic sights being teal-colored Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. Canoe the icy blue waters, or simply bask in the view with a walk around the lakeshore. Skiing and snowboarding are popular winter pursuits, with hiking and camping taking center stage in summer. For spectacular vistas, ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain and visit the restaurant and boardwalk.

Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

Southwest New Zealand is home to Fiordland National Park, a natural oasis filled with fiords, rainforests, mountain peaks, and endangered species. Explore legendary Milford Sound, a glacier-carved sea inlet surrounded by waterfalls, mountains, and marine life, by kayak or boat tour. Then visit triple-tiered Sutherland Falls, one of New Zealand’s tallest waterfalls. For those looking to lace up and put in mile after mile, head to The Milford Track, one of New Zealand’s most famous hiking trails. It takes four days to complete and showcases the region’s waterfalls, rainforests, and mountain passes.

Lake District National Park, England

Northwest England’s Lake District National Park features 16 lakes spread through spectacular mountains and forests. While the lakes are a popular destination for boating and fishing, many visitors come with an entirely different plan: summiting Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. History buffs may want to skip the long hike and venture instead to Castlerigg Stone Circle, a prehistoric monument that dates back 4,000 years and is regarded as one of Britain’s best-preserved stone circles. To learn about the region’s slate mining history, visit Honister Slate Mine to see this old business-turned-tourist attraction, try mine climbing, or traverse a thrilling via ferrata.

Saxon Switzerland National Park, Germany

The somewhat confusingly named Saxon Switzerland National Park is located not in Switzerland but in Germany and is known for its unique sandstone formations that attract hikers and rock climbers across the globe. Bastei Bridge, a set of sandstone formations viewable from an iconic bridge, is the park’s most popular landmark. Created by eons of water erosion, the wondrous sight is often called ‘the throne above the Elbe River.’ Beyond the rocks, the historic hilltop Königstein Fortress is a beloved destination for visitors looking to take a break from the outdoors and peruse its museums and exhibits. Lunch breaks are made better at Lichtenhain Waterfall, a favorite destination for hiking and picnicking reachable by the Kirnitzsch valley tram.