11 U.S. National Parks You Can Do in a Day
You can still get in plenty of natural splendor, even if you don't have time for a long trip.
Even ambitious travelers know that visiting the vast expanses provided by the National Park System can be as daunting an experience as it is awe-inspiring. After all, it's spread out over more than 85 million acres across all 50 states plus territories, with each ranging in size from the largest at 13.2 million acres to the smallest at just 0.2 acres, according to the National Park Service (NPS). But just because you don't have enough vacation days to spend weeks out in the wilderness doesn't mean you can't enjoy the natural wonders they have to offer with a quicker visit. In fact, some national parks make for a great stopover or day trip. Read on to see what experts say are the 11 best sites in the system for an abbreviated adventure.
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National Parks You Can Do in a Day
1. White Sands National Park – New Mexico
Some parks are known for their big-name attractions, like Old Faithful, Half Dome, or the Narrows. But others in the system maintain beauty throughout, making it easy to appreciate without feeling like you're rushing between landmarks.
"Few places enchant first-time visitors more than White Sands National Park [in New Mexico], despite the entire park being located adjacent to only one dead-end road that is only seven miles long," Adam Marland, a travel photographer and writer for We Dream of Travel, tells Best Life. "There is no one must-see viewpoint. Instead, the joy is in just getting (proverbially) lost in the silky-soft white dunes. Even with some short recommended walks, most travelers are in and out of the park within a few hours, save for the photographers who just can't leave."
There's also a dazzlingly beautiful bonus for those who stick around later during their day trip.
"The white 'sand' for which the park is named is neither white nor sand! It is actually translucent gypsum that reflects the ambient color," Marland explains. "This means it appears white most of the day due to overhead sunlight, but can appear shades of red, orange, blue, and purple depending on the colors of sunset and twilight!"
2. Indiana Dunes National Park – Indiana
The Midwest is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions "sandy beaches." But Indiana Dunes National Park provides visitors with a quick and easy way to enjoy the splendors of nature without having to book out days on end for travel or lodging.
"Whether you're going to hike the picturesque sand dunes, bird watch, or simply enjoy a relaxing day on the beaches of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park is the perfect park for a quick getaway," Brooke Bergen, a travel blogger and founder of Brooke in Boots, tells Best Life. "It's also located between Michigan City and Gary, Indiana, making it less than an hour's drive from Chicago."
And even if you're not looking to lounge by the water on the park's 15 miles of sandy Lake Michigan shoreline, the site offers plenty for the active set.
"The park has over 50 miles of hiking trails, including the West Beach Dune Succession Trail, a 1.1-mile loop that's dog and kid-friendly," Bergen adds. "But beach parking can fill up on summer weekends and holidays, so make the most of your day and arrive early!"
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3. Carlsbad Caverns National Park – New Mexico
While the idea of visiting a national park usually conjures up images of vast, open skies, there's at least one site that provides an entirely different experience.
"There are few places on earth as otherworldly as Carlsbad Caverns National Park," Dave Martirosian, founder of Hikers Daily, tells Best Life. "There are over 119 caves to explore, but the main attraction is the Big Room cavern. Once you're in the caves, it's like looking at a magical, upside-down cityscape."
But even if you're pressed for time, you can still get the most out of the park. "The entire trail is only 1.25 miles, and there's even a shortcut if you're feeling a bit claustrophobic that cuts down the trail length to around half a mile," Martirosian says. "It's quick, accessible, and such a unique national park experience."
However, others point out that the conveniently compact site still holds a surprise for those who stick around.
"While the park is technically more than just the cave system, there is little to explore outside of this small area," Marland adds. "Most visitors are in and out in three to five hours at the most, though many stay for the 'sunset bat show' which occurs each night (seasonally) as resident bats swarm away for their nightly feast in a harmonic display."
4. Hot Springs National Park – Arkansas
For those who are bigger fans of self-pampering than hiking or climbing, there's still an easy and accessible park you may want to add to your list for a day trip.
"The second smallest national park, Hot Springs is a quirky [park] unlike any other. In the heart of the Ouachita Mountains in central Arkansas, natural hot springs bubble up from the mountains, and for centuries were believed to possess medicinal healing properties by both Native Americans and European settlers," Bergen explains.
"Hike the parks miles of dog and kid-friendly trails, and don't forget to keep an eye out for the early-morning steam rising from the springs," she recommends. "Visitors looking to indulge can book modern treatments and enjoy the first-come-first-served indoor pools at the Quapaw Bathhouse, or experience the 'traditional' bathing treatments performed in the early 1900s at the oldest continually operating bathhouse, Buckstaff."
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5. Dry Tortugas National Park – Florida
Many national parks are remotely located deep in the arctic wilderness or sprawling desert. But one relatively removed site provides a bite-sized and sun-soaked way to take in nature that travelers can cover in under 24 hours.
"Dry Tortugas National Park is the perfect place to spend an idyllic day," Erin Moreland, travel blogger at The Simple Salty Life, tells Best Life. "Accessible only by seaplane or ferry boat, this park is located 70 miles off the shore of Key West, Florida, in the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico."
Visitors will likely first notice Fort Jefferson—the 19th-century military installation that covers a portion of the island—when they arrive. But unlike other national parks, you should probably opt for a pair of fins instead of hiking boots for your day trip.
"The most popular thing to do once you get there is to go snorkeling in the clear turquoise water, where healthy, vibrant corals, sea sponges, and tropical fish are abundant," Moreland says. "And with 99 percent of the park being actually underwater, there are miles of unspoiled shoreline to explore during your epic day!"
6. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – The Big Island, Hawaii
It's not every day you get to see two of the most active volcanoes in the world. But if you plan a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, experts say you can easily get in an awe-inspiring day between breakfast and dinner with the help of your vehicle of choice.
"The main park road leads to overlooks of smoldering Kilauea Volcano and other major park landmarks," Joe Yogerst, a travel expert and author, tells Best Life. "Better yet, sign up for a guided downhill bicycle tour that ends with a lunch stop beside the Pacific Ocean and then a van ride back into the town of Volcano just outside the park."
7. Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Dakota
As Teddy Roosevelt is the founder of the NPS, it may not come as a surprise that Teddy Roosevelt National Park holds a soft spot among many outdoors enthusiasts making their way through North Dakota.
"Set in the rugged Badlands, it is equally a tribute to the beauty of the land along with the vision of its namesake. No president did more for National Parks than Teddy, and his love of nature is a center point for any visit," Nate Axvig, traveler and founder of Scandinavian clothing company Aktiv, tells Best Life.
According to Jennifer Melroy, writer and founder of National Park Obsessed, you can get the most out of one day by visiting the park's south unit and heading up to Buck Hill, the park's second-highest point that "provides a panoramic view of the Badlands." You can also spend the day spotting prairie dog towns and visiting the Maltose Cabin, which was built by Roosevelt himself along with his ranch hands.
The site can also make for an excellent stopover for any long road trip in the area. "Practically, the park isn't that big, so it is easy to glide through if your travels are taking you towards Yellowstone," Axvig says. "It's also a quick drive up from Mt. Rushmore."
8. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Colorado
Colorado offers no shortage of natural beauty and outdoor activity no matter where you look. And for those with just enough time on their hands to get in a quick day of natural splendor, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park provides an accessible option.
"Located southwest of Denver in the San Juan Mountain Range, this park sits at 8,300 feet of elevation and has sheer vertical cliffs dropping 2,250 feet down into the canyon," Moreland says. "Driving the South Rim Road takes you through a seven-mile-long scenic route showcasing all of the park highlights. There are 12 scenic overlooks off of this road, most with short trails and easy out-and-back hikes."
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9. Badlands National Park – South Dakota
If you've got a day to spend in South Dakota, it's worth your while to check out Badlands National Park. The park attracts visitors from across the globe every year, thanks to its geologic deposits that contain some of the "richest fossil beds," per the NPS.
"The Badlands Loop Road is a spectacular way to see the cliffs, spires, pinnacles, and prairies that make the Badlands so unique," Moreland says. "The road winds throughout the national park and provides over a dozen overlooks, each with easy areas to pull off and either enjoy the phenomenal views or to begin a hike."
The entire loop takes less than an hour to drive if you don't stop, but Moreland says half the fun is taking your time and spotting different animals across the park.
"Between viewing the incredibly agile mountain goats perched high along the ridge to the massive bison herds grazing in the fields, the Badlands is definitely worth a day trip!" Moreland says.
10. Haleakala National Park – Maui
Another Hawaiian spot to make the list is Haleakala National Park on Maui. According to Marland, the views are breathtaking—and even though you don't need more than a day to see the sights, you may want to stay a little longer.
"Standing majestically above the golden-sand beaches and swaying palms of Maui reigns mighty Haleakala," Marland says of the volcano for which the park is named. "The entire island of Maui owes its existence to this towering volcano and Haleakala National Park protects the biodiverse landscape it has manifested."
Marland recommends hiking to the peak of Haleakala "for the most iconic sunrise of Hawaii." But beyond that, he suggests exploring the park's many waterfalls "tucked away into the 'windward' rainforest" or biking from the top of the scenic road downhill to the bottom.
"Regardless of how visitors choose to explore Haleakala, this volcanic park promises an endless array of spectacular vistas, landscapes, and natural history that showcase a different kind of magic that extends well beyond the tropical beaches of Maui," Marland says.
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11. Joshua Tree National Park – California
One of the more well-known national parks is also doable in just 24 hours.
"Joshua Tree National Park is an ideal destination for those looking to explore one of America's great national parks in a single day," Nadia Podrabinek, founder and CEO of the travel blog Why This Place, tells Best Life. "This park features stunning desert vistas, unique rock formations, and an abundance of interesting wildlife that will captivate visitors with its beauty."
Depending on how you want to fill your day, Joshua Tree has plenty of options. Podrabinek suggests exploring the hiking trails peppered with the Seuss-like Joshua trees or participating in a ranger-led program to "help you better understand how this iconic landscape has been shaped over time."
It's also a great stop on a longer trip, especially if you want to explore the City of Angels.
"Joshua Tree National Park is also located just two hours east of Los Angeles, making it easy to access and convenient if you are short on time but want to experience all the wonders it has to offer," Podrabinek says.