If you’re not an experienced outdoors enthusiast, planning a trip to one of the country’s national parks can seem like a daunting process. And even if you’re no stranger to the parks, you might assume you need to plan an entire vacation around a park visit. Fortunately, neither scenario is true; in fact, there are many national parks that are relatively easy to visit in a day—you don’t even have to spend the night. We’ve selected 15 cities and picked the best national parks that are less than 3 hours away. Whether you’re a resident of these cities or just visiting on vacation, these parks make for extremely worthwhile (and breathtaking) day trips.
San Francisco: Yosemite National Park
Travel Time: 3 hrs.
By merely standing in Yosemite Valley and turning in a circle, you can see more natural wonders in a minute than you could in a full day pretty much anywhere else. Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Sentinel Dome, the Merced River, white-flowering dogwood trees, maybe even bears ripping into the bark of fallen trees or sticking their snouts into beehives—it's all there.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Yosemite National Park Guide
Los Angeles: Channel Islands National Park
Travel Time: 1 hr. 50 mins. to Ventura, where you’ll hop on a boat to the islands.
The Channel Islands are home to 145 species of terrestrial plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. With no cars, phones, or services, these undeveloped islands provide a glimpse of what California was like hundreds of years ago, away from hectic modern life.
As an alternative to the islands, you can visit Joshua Tree National Park (2 hrs. 15 mins.).
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Channel Islands National Park Guide
San Diego: Joshua Tree National Park
Travel Time: 2 hrs. 40 mins.
Ruggedly beautiful desert scenery attracts more than a million visitors each year to Joshua Tree National Park, one of the last great wildernesses in the continental United States. Its mountains support mounds of enormous boulders and jagged rock; natural cactus gardens and lush oases shaded by tall fan palms mark the meeting place of the Mojave (high) and Sonora (low) deserts. For spectacular natural fireworks, visit in mid-August during the Perseid meteor shower and watch shooting stars streak overhead.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Joshua Tree National Park Guide
Seattle: Olympic National Park
Travel Time: 2 hrs. 15 mins
A rain forest in the Pacific Northwest? Indeed, Olympic National Park is one of the few places in the world with this unique temperate landscape. A dip in Sol Duc’s natural geothermal mineral pools offers a secluded spa experience in the wooded heart of the park.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Olympic National Park Guide
Portland: Mount Rainier National Park
Travel Time: 2 hrs. 30 mins.
Like a mysterious, white-clad chanteuse, veiled in clouds even when the surrounding forests and fields are bathed in sunlight, Mt. Rainier is the centerpiece of its namesake park. About 35 square miles of glaciers and snowfields encircle the mountain, including Carbon Glacier and Emmons Glacier, the largest glaciers by volume and area, respectively, in the continental United States. More than 100 species of wildflowers bloom in the park's high meadows; the display dazzles from midsummer until the snow flies.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Mount Rainier National Park Guide
Denver: Rocky Mountain National Park
Travel Time: 1 hr. 35 mins.
Anyone who delights in alpine lakes, dense forests, and abundant wildlife—not to mention dizzying heights—should consider Rocky Mountain National Park. Peer out over more than 100 lakes, gaze up at majestic mountain peaks, and soak in the splendor of lush wetlands, pine-scented woods, forests of spruce and fir, and alpine tundra in the park’s four distinct ecosystems.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rocky Mountain National Park Guide
Miami: Everglades National Park
Travel Time: 1 hr. 5 mins.
It’s one of the country's largest national parks and is recognized by the world community as a Wetland of International Importance, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a World Heritage Site. Come here if you want to spend the day biking, hiking, or boating in deep, raw wilderness with lots of wildlife.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Everglades National Park Guide
Washington D.C.: Shenandoah National Park
Travel Time: 1 hr. 45 mins.
Steep, wooded ridges with rocky slopes stand out in the foreground of vistas taking in the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont to the east. Skyline Drive traverses the park end to end, from Waynesboro to Front Royal, and is the most common way to see the park. But hikers can find beautiful terrain just yards from the drive on some of the park's 500 mi of trails, trout fishers may wade into more than 25 streams, and riders can rent horses for wilderness trail rides.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Shenandoah National Park Guide
Phoenix: Saguaro National Park
Travel Time: 1 hr. 50 mins.
Standing sentinel in the desert, the towering saguaro is perhaps the most familiar emblem of the Southwest. Known for their height (often 50 feet) and arms reaching out in weird configurations, these slow-growing giants can take 15 years to grow a foot high and up to 75 years to grow their first arm. A typical saguaro lives 150 years, but many survive more than 200 years. They are found only in the Sonoran Desert, and the largest concentration is in Saguaro National Park.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Saguaro National Park Guide
Las Vegas: Zion National Park
Travel Time: 2 hrs. 30 mins.
Pick just about any trail in the park and it’s all but guaranteed to culminate in an astounding viewpoint full of pink, orange, and crimson rock formations. From spring through autumn, cars are generally not allowed in Zion Canyon, allowing for a quiet and peaceful park.
As an alternative, you can take a 60-minute helicopter ride from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Zion National Park Guide
Charleston: Congaree National Park
Travel Time: 2 hrs. 5 mins.
High bluffs border this 22,200-acre South Carolina park. Some of the oldest and largest trees in the southeastern United States fill America’s biggest, old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest. Miles of hiking and canoe trails ensure views of varied wildlife, even wild boar. Primitive camping is available, and naturalists lead evening tours into the dark, creepy forest. Wander through 20 miles of trails or follow the 2½-mile boardwalk that meanders over lazy creeks and under massive hardwoods.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s South Carolina Guide
Nashville: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Travel Time: 3 hrs.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the great wild areas of the eastern United States and the most visited national park in the United States. Some of the tallest mountains in the East are here, including 16 peaks over 6,000 feet. The highest in the park, Clingmans Dome, was reputedly the original inspiration for the folk song “On Top of Old Smoky.” It rises 6,643 feet above sea level and 4,503 feet above the valley floor. These are also some of the oldest mountains in the world, far older than the Rockies, the Alps, or the Andes. Geologists say the building of what are now the Great Smokies began about a billion years ago.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide
Honolulu: Volcanoes National Park
Travel Time: 45-minute flight to Hilo, then a 45-minute drive to the park.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park sprawls over 520 square miles and encompasses Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the five volcanoes that formed the Big Island nearly half a million years ago. Even if lava-viewing conditions aren't ideal, you can hike and camp amid wide expanses of aa (rough) and pahoehoe (smooth) lava, a fascinating experience. (Be sure to obtain a backcountry pass.) If you plan to visit the Halemaumau summit crater at night (which you absolutely should if it's glowing), or drive down to the coast to try to see lava steaming into the sea, spending a night in Volcano Village is the ideal way to go about it.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Volcanoes National Park Guide
Louisville: Mammoth Cave National Park
Travel Time: 1 hr. 30 mins.
Spanning a distance of more than 400 miles, Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world, and the best place to experience a little stretch of this massive system is Mammoth Cave National Park. As Cave City's biggest attraction, it draws hoardes of tourists, and summertime cave tours can get crowded. The U.S. National Park Service offers a range of themed tours throughout the year to different sections of the cave, ranging from an easy quarter-mile to a physically demanding six-hour exploration.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Cave City Guide
Santa Fe: Great Sand Dunes National Park
Travel Time: 3 hrs.
Created by winds that sweep the San Luis Valley floor, the enormous sand dunes that form the heart of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve are an improbable, unforgettable sight. The dunes, as curvaceous as Rubens' nudes, stretch for more than 30 square miles. You can see eight completely different life zones in this park, ranging from salty wetlands and lush forests to parched sand sheet and frozen alpine peaks, all in a single day.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Great Sand Dunes National Park Guide