Superlative natural wonders appear wherever you turn in the USA's national parks. Whether you're working on your bucket list – 'Climb North America's highest mountain!' – or just wanting to hug the world's largest living tree, you can explore nature's extreme outer limits at these record-setting US national parks.

Here are the top wonders to add to your list for 2022. 

Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone's Midway Geyser Basin, Wyoming
Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the many geysers throughout Yellowstone's Midway Geyser Basin, Wyoming © kwiktor / Getty Images

The most geysers in the world

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana

Equally impressive wonders are the spouting geysers of Yellowstone National Park, shared between the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. More geysers are found here than anywhere else on the planet, with superheated water from underground volcanic rocks bubbling to the surface in hot springs, fumaroles and roiling mud pots. Old Faithful, the park's most famous geyser, erupts more regularly than any other geyser on earth, spouting up to 8400 gallons of water over 100 feet high into the air every hour or two, day and night.

Experience Yellowstone National Park sustainably: your guide to going green

North America's highest waterfall

Yosemite Falls, California

Looking for North America's highest waterfall? Head to California's Yosemite National Park, where the triple-decker cascade of Yosemite Falls tumbles 2425 ft into a glacially carved valley. One of the world's 10 highest waterfalls, Yosemite Falls swells in late spring, when melting snow from mountain peaks roars as it drops into the Yosemite Valley, which conservationist John Muir described as nature's temple.

How to spend your first visit to Yosemite National Park

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Wizard Island in Crater Lake National Park
Wizard Island, the centerpiece amongst the great depths of Crater Lake National Park © Brinley Clark / EyeEm / Getty Images

The deepest lake in the US

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Closer to the West Coast lies the USA's deepest lake at Oregon's Crater Lake National Park. The astounding clarity of 1943ft-deep Crater Lake, formed by rainfall in an extinct volcanic caldera, will have you instantly reaching for your camera. Peer over the crater rim from roadside viewpoints or hike down to Cleetwood Cove, where you can catch a boat tour over to Wizard Island, the volcanic cinder cone popping up above the lake's surface that looks like an enchanted lost world.

North America's largest collection of glaciers

Glacier National Park, Montana

With global climate change accelerating, you'd better hurry if you want to see North America's largest collection of glaciers. Of the 25 large glaciers remaining in Montana's Glacier National Park, several are expected to melt away by 2030. You're best off heading north to chilly Alaska, where Glacier Bay National Park and Wrangell-St Elias National Park are preserved as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The number of glaciers there dating from the Little Ice Age – including a few record-breakers that flow for 75 miles or have grown to be 3000 feet thick – is uncountable.

Why Montana's national parks are United States treasures

George Parks Highway into Denali National Park
George Parks Highway leading to the great heights of Denali © Michael Rosebrock / Shutterstock

The tallest mountain in North America

Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska

Alaska also boasts the USA's tallest peak. At 20,030 feet high, Denali (formerly Mt McKinley)– an Athabaskan word meaning 'The High One' – dominates the epic landscapes of Denali National Park. If you can't journey that far, California's Sequoia National Park offers the chance to climb Mt Whitney (14,505ft), the highest peak in the Lower 48 states. Towering over the Sierra Nevada range, Mt Whitney's summit – with its views of craggy granite peaks, not to mention head-spinning elevations – may take your breath away, literally. Sequoia National Park is also home the world's largest living tree, a giant sequoia that measures over 100 ft around.

15 unforgettable experiences in US national parks

The lowest elevation in North America

Badwater, California

Less than 140 miles from Mt Whitney you'll find the lowest elevation in North America: Badwater. Covering almost 200 square miles of Death Valley National Park, Badwater is one of the world's largest salt flats. Once a prehistoric lake, this arid spot now sits at an elevation of 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley also holds the unenviable record of being the hottest place in the USA, with the temperature at Furnace Creek hitting an excruciating 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10, 1913.

Stay in a luxury 'oasis' in California's Death Valley

Hawaii, Big Island, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, tourists standing on lava field
Visitors standing on a glowing lava field in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park © Westend61 / Getty Images

Longest-running continuous volcano

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawai'i

Here's some more hot stuff for you: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawai'i protects what was the world's longest-running continuous volcanic eruption since 1983 – it flowed for over 10,000 days until May 2018. The wonders of the lava lake and glowing flows might have stopped for now, but there are still plenty of otherworldly sights in this unique environment. You can see what the volcano is doing on the National Park Service's website.

8 US national parks where you can scuba dive

World's longest cave system

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is famous for its walk-through lava tubes, too. But diehard spelunkers should head back to the mainland instead to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park. There you can crawl inside the world's longest known cave system, a subterranean maze of chambers that measures almost 400 miles long. Like Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, Mammoth Cave is a valuable hot spot for biodiversity and has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The complete guide to Mammoth Cave National Park

Airboat in Everglades National Park
An airboat tour takes a break in the Everglades National Park © Mia2you / Shutterstock

Largest subtropical wilderness in North America

Everglades National Park, Florida

If the wonders of biodiversity really have you hooked, you'll want to fly south to Florida's Everglades National Park, another Unesco World Heritage Site and the largest subtropical wilderness in North America. Watch pink flamingos flock to its crystal bays and sharp-toothed crocodiles and alligators swim beside rivers of grass.

Discover 11 US national parks that are total hidden gems

North America's deepest canyon

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona 

Otherwise, if going deep into the bowels of the earth is what fascinates you most, hit the road to Grand Canyon National Park. Though not North America's deepest canyon, it's the longest, winding for more than 275 miles along the Colorado River. Peering down into the canyon's pastel-painted depths at sunset from more than a mile high atop the rim is a view that's hard to beat.

Grand Canyon National Park is geological and human history writ large

Introducing the USA's National Parks

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Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.

This article was first published August 2019 and updated February 2022

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