When you think of national parks, you might envision mountain hikes, scenic drives, and desert sunsets surrounded by bison, bears and birds. But at some national parks, you’ll find incredible "trails" under water, where the flora and fauna are as spectacular as anything you’ll see on land.

Several of America’s national parks are obvious choices for scuba diving. Visitors regularly explore Dry Tortugas’ vibrant reefs, Biscayne’s subtropical wetlands, American Samoa’s volcanic coral gardens, Channel Islands’ sea lions and elephant seals, and the warm, clear waters of the Virgin Islands National Park. However, these lesser-known dive destinations often offer lower prices and fewer crowds. 

Editor's note: during COVID-19 there may be additional travel restrictions. Check the latest guidance before planning a trip, and always follow local government health advice.

The light filtering through the waters of Yellowstone lake forms a gradient from white to deep teal, illuminating greenish brown fronds of aquatic plants and bright yellow and chartreuse spheres, which are Nostoc cyanobacteria that can grow to the size of walnuts.
Many of Yellowstone National Park's most colorful features are the created by its microscopic residents, including these Nostoc cyanobacteria sacs found in scuba diving destinations like Yellowstone Lake. © Jennifer Idol/Stocktrek Images, via Getty Images

Yellowstone National Park

Majestic geysers shooting from the earth are Yellowstone National Park’s claim to fame. But did you know you can experience these geothermal features from an underwater vantage point?

At 390ft (119 m) deep and 125 square miles (324 km) in size, Yellowstone Lake is one of the world’s largest high-altitude lakes, and water temperatures range from drysuit-cold to scalding hot as vertical spires erupt toward the surface. Popular dive sites include West Thumb Geyser Basin, Firehole River at Mystic Falls, and vast fields of rising geothermic gas bubbles at Mary Bay that divers describe as "swimming through champagne."

A light blue-grey Pacific Ocean meets the curve of the shoreline in Redwood Forest National Park, where the sand is dark grey and brownish red seaweed clumps on the left side of the frame. In the background, deep green headlands meet the beach, with stands of pine and spruce shrouded in a light fog. Large seastacks and boulders appear far in the background. SCUBA diving national parks
Redwood Forest National Park is most famous for its towering trees, but divers at Gold Bluffs Beach, Reading Rock, Wilson Creek Beach, and Smith River will find equally stunning scenery under water. © jtstewartphoto / Getty Images

Redwood Forest National Park

Tall Trees Grove is a bucket-list hike for many people, but if you choose to look down rather than up, Redwood Forest National Park has other treats in store. Head to the pristine shoreline of Gold Bluffs Beach, then take a dive boat three miles out to Reading Rock. Its underwater walls and ledges offer the best diving in the park, where you’re likely to encounter sea lions and may even spot a shark. Redwood’s Wilson Creek Beach has easy shore diving on calm water days, and Smith River provides freshwater diving in an underwater gorge.

A dark grey humpback whale with a white underbelly breaches backwards out of the deep blue waters of Glacier Bay, surrounded by whitecaps and spray. In the background, jagged snow-capped peaks rise dramatically from the horizon, the hills in the midground almost the same denim blue as the sky. Scuba diving in national parks
Humpback whales are just some of the wildlife you might encounter while diving in Glacier Bay National Park, including dozens of sea creatures you can't see from ships on the surface. © Betty Wiley / Getty Images

Glacier Bay National Park

Getting an avalanche report isn’t usually on the prep list for a dive trip. However, Glacier Bay National Park’s snowy surrounds are just as breathtaking below the surface. You might think a summertime dive trip could offer warmer water and extended visibility in Alaska’s 20 hours of daylight, but that’s also when algae blooms can block the view.

Instead, plan an excursion in mid-May to June or September through October to see the most abundant marine life. You’ll come face-to-face with rockfish and halibut at Libby Island, anemones and nudibranchs at The Laundry, and sea lions at Graves Rocks. But the real star of Glacier Bay diving is South Marble Island. Huge white-plumed anemones wave at vibrant starfish, tube worms, triton snails and crabs, which are visited by pods of humpback whales. 

Two shovels, rusted and covered in marine sediment, stand straight up from the bed of Lake McDonald, with an equally rusted rake head perched on top. All around are the deep teal and bright aqua waters found throughout Glacier National Park
When workmen finished construction of Glacier National Park's famous Going to the Sun Road, they left behind tools that scuba divers now encounter at the bottom of Lake McDonald. © Jennifer Idol / Stocktrek Images via Getty Images

Glacier National Park

Montana’s Glacier National Park is often confused with Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, but they share one thing: both offer surprising scuba diving. Glacier’s Lake McDonald is home to a surreal underwater still life at the Lake Treasures dive site, where old farm implements eerily sprout from the sand near a dock sunk a century ago. You can also "hike" through an underwater forest at Sprague Creek and "sail" the Gertrude, a 100ft stern paddle-wheeler scuttled in 1918 in Upper Waterton Lake

A sea cave near Devil's Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The roof of the cave is supported by three thick columns of layered stone, which is illuminated in bright oranges and yellows on the left, dark blacks and yellows in the middle, and deep greenish browns on the right. The light plays on the swirled rock of the cave roof in a way that seems to reflect the deep green waters below. In the far background, a blue sky is streaked with wispy white clouds. Scuba diving in national parks
Kayakers already love exploring the sea caves throughout Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Bring your scuba gear along, too, to see the caves both above and below. © Posnov / Getty Images

Apostle Islands National Seashore

Six poorly-constructed lighthouses from the 19th century have resulted in some terrific present-day wreck diving at Apostle Islands National Seashore. Pick up a permit at park headquarters in Bayfield, Wisconsin, before exploring the 22 islands of the archipelago. You can charter a dive boat for any site, but it’s also possible to DIY-dive Apostle Islands from a kayak if you’d like to take things at your own pace. The Lucerne, a 195ft schooner that sank in 1886, and the Sevona, a 373ft bulk freighter sunk in 1905, sit in only 20 to 25ft of water and are perfect sites to splash from a small watercraft. Just remember to bring your diver down flag!

The ragged peaks of Grand Teton National Park rise steeply over Jenny Lake. The massif on the left is deep blue in the shadows and where trees cover its flanks, while the bright sunshine hi-lights its light grey rocky face. On the right, another peak is more brightly lit, appearing a light tan color with thin streaks of bright green vegetation. The lake itself is smooth and calm, a mixture of blues and greens, while in the extreme foreground the large, flat, stones on the shoreline are rust colored and grey
Scuba diving in Grand Teton National Park's Jenny Lake was quite popular in the 1980s, but comparatively few divers today are bringing their tanks and fins to Wyoming. © Jeff R. Clow / Getty Images

Grand Teton National Park

A short, 18-minute drive north of popular Jackson Hole, Wyoming, brings you to Jenny Lake. This quiet spot in Grand Teton National Park was popular with divers in the 1980s but practically disappeared from dive maps with the dawn of the new millennium. Add it to your list for crystal-clear water, a submerged stand of ancient trees, and plenty of trout, sculpins, suckers and chub. You can fill your air tanks and rent a canoe at Grand Teton’s boating center, then don your wetsuit and enjoy this natural lake’s tranquil atmosphere. 

The photo is taken from under water, peering up at the surface. In the foreground, tall stands of vivid green kelp reach towards the surface as a school of big, silvery fish pass overhead through the light blue water. Scuba diving in national parks
Olympic National Park affords both fresh and saltwater diving options, a treat for scuba enthusiasts who like to try a little bit of everything. © Angela and Mike Ballard / Lonely Planet

Olympic National Park 

Olympic National Park has one of the planet’s few temperate rainforests and several national wildlife refuges. While the latter are off-limits to visitors, the surrounding waters are brimming with marine life and dotted with dive sites ranging from shore entries to deep water wrecks. Located near Puget Sound, the naturally-formed Hood Canal is nearly current-free and filled with anemones, wolf eels and orca. Follow that saltwater dive with a freshwater dip in Lake Crescent, with its 150ft visibility that reveals huge crayfish and freshwater sculpins. This is also the only way to rinse off the salt, since the park doesn’t provide running water.

A brilliant sherbert pink and orange sunset reflects of dark blue clouds over Otter Bay in Acadia National Park in Maine. The ocean reflects the sunset in muted tones and a tall stand of trees is jet black in the background. Scuba diving in national parks
Many of the dives on this list are for intermediate or advanced divers, but the ones in Acadia National Park are quite technical. Don't forget to dive with a buddy and use diver safety precautions! © John Greim / Getty Images

Acadia National Park

Looking for a truly challenging dive destination? Look no further than Acadia National Park. The extreme tides, rough seas, and cold Maine water are best left to advanced divers, but those who brave them will be rewarded with an almost infinite number of boat dive sites that have been 500 million years in the making.

Moray eels, schools of copper sweepers, and radiant red sponges make for colorful sightseeing at Little Hunters Beach, and Seawall is a good spot for both scuba diving and snorkeling. If you’ve ever wanted to name a new dive site, grab a compressor and head for the remote waters of Acadia’s Schoodic Peninsula. You’ll find kelp beds, a pebble berm, and plenty of steep walls and drop-offs teeming with marine life – but you won’t find many other divers.

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This article was first published Sep 30, 2019 and updated Apr 16, 2021.

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