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Best National Parks for Seniors: Parks Every Older Traveler Should Visit

“The story is, a man came up to Yosemite and the ranger was sitting at the front gate and the man said, “I’ve only got one hour to see Yosemite. If you only had one hour to see Yosemite, what would you do?” And the ranger said, “Well, I’d go right over there, and I’d sit on that rock, and I’d cry.”

Dayton Duncan, author of “the National Parks: America’s Best Idea

For us older adults, there’s no time to cry. It’s time to get out and enjoy the richness of the national parks. The United States has over 84 million acres of federally protected land. We – the American people – have parks with breath-taking vistas and abundant wildlife, as well as volcanoes, geysers, waterways, and vast cave systems to explore. Where to start? I’ve been fortunate to visit 21 national parks (two thirds of the 63 NPS parks still to see!) and suggest what I consider the must-see parks – the best national parks for seniors.

My Dad, brother, and I in Yellowstone
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Fun Facts About the U.S. National Parks

Today, across our land, the National Park System represents America at its best. Each park contributes to a deeper understanding of the history of the United States and our way of life; of the natural processes which have given form to our land, and to the enrichment of the environment in which we live.”

George B. Hartzog, Jr.

Tips for Visiting a U.S. National Park

Plan ahead! The parks have busy, slow, and shoulder seasons. And they fill up FAST! If you are restricted to visiting during the busy season, book your accommodations far in advance. We booked our Southwest parks two years in advance and got the lodges we’d hoped for. On our trip to the Pacific Northwest parks we were unable to find a room in any of the park lodges with 6 months lead time.

For information on the park’s schedule, accommodations, accessibility, etc., you can go to each park’s page on the NPS website. Note: service dogs are allowed in every park in the system. Emotional support animals are not included in the ‘service dog’ category.

Download the NPS app. It’s free and has all the information, maps, and updates you’ll need for your visit. The updates include road closures, and estimated wait times at the park’s entrances. Very important! You can use the included trail maps offline too.
[ NPS app available for Android | Apple ]

Another useful app for your visit is iNaturalist. With this app you use your smartphone to photograph and identify species seen in the parks (or anywhere!). Using iNaturalist adds enjoyment to your visit and is useful to the park for recording and monitoring species. I’ve used iNaturalist for several years and have been pleased with the simplicity of the app.
[iNaturalist available for Android | Apple ]

When you arrive at the park stop first at the park visitor’s center. The park rangers are great sources of information, and the center will often feature a film or similar introduction to the park. The center’s gift shop has the usual souvenirs, but also guidebooks and histories specific to the park. This is also where you can get your NPS passport book stamped if you enjoy this collectible activity.

America the Beautiful Senior Pass

This is the ultimate prize for reaching ‘senior’ status. The Senior Pass is a lifetime pass to every site in the park system for only $80. Note that the pass covers walk in entrance fees but also fees for a car and entrance to all the passengers in the car regardless of age! You can get the pass at any of the parks or online through the NPS website. U.S. citizens and permanent residents age 62 and older.

Other passes available:

Be a Responsible Visitor to the National Parks

The National Park Service was established with the mandate to conserve the scenery, natural and cultural resources, and other values of parks in a way that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. As visitors to the parks, and beneficiaries of this national treasure, we can do our part by following basic guidelines of ethical wildlife viewing and the principles of Leave No Trace.

Put simply:

A national park is not a playground. it’s a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.

Michael Frome,
For more information on sustainable and ethical tourism read: How to Be a Responsible Traveler

The Traveling Tulls Best National Parks for Seniors

These parks are chosen for several criteria –
1. truly must-see parks for the American experience,
2. relatively easy to get to by car, bus, or on a tour.
3. accessibility once inside the park. This last criteria is challenging. The National Park Service is working towards accessibility for all, but the age of the parks, the topography, etc. make many of the parks inaccessible except from viewpoints. If I’ve listed some of these parks, in my opinion they are still worth the trip.

Laminda Nickla on Unsplash

Yellowstone National Park

Why is Yellowstone one of the best national parks for seniors? Because (in my opinion) Yellowstone is the best park for everyone! Yellowstone has extraordinary geological features and is one of the best national parks for wildlife viewing. There are wolves, black bears, grizzly bears, bobcats and 63 other species of mammals in the park. Yellowstone is the only place in the U.S. where buffalo have roamed freely since prehistoric times.

But it’s the unique geological features that take center stage. The park is actually part of the Yellowstone Caldera, a super volcano that’s produced some of the world’s biggest volcano eruptions. Today this is evidenced in the active geysers, the sulfur pools, and the salt flats. It’s an otherworldly park.

Tips for visiting Yellowstone National Park – Yellowstone is not open year round. The park is open from late April until the roads close in September due to snow. The park reopens for snow vehicles from mid-December through March.

National Park Tours for Seniors: There are several approved bus companies which offer service in the park. Other options for park tours can be found on Viator, Road Scholar, or for the ultimate Yellowstone/Grand Teton experience book a Tauck Ken Burns trip.

Zion National Park

Why is Zion one of the best national parks for older adults? Zion has something for everyone. For those fit (and brave!) there is Angel’s Landing, one of the most well known and treacherous climbs in any of the parks. Less dangerous but equally challenging is the hike through the Narrows, a slot canyon where you’ll be waist deep in water part of the time. But within Zion there are also gorgeous, wheelchair accessible trails, and wide fields for the kids to enjoy. And there are photo-worthy sandstone cliffs everywhere you look!

Tips for Visiting Zion National Park – Private vehicles are strongly discouraged in the park, though people with mobility issues may be granted an exception. The park operates an regular, accessible, shuttle service to all the trailheads. (Much easier than trying to drive actually!)The park is open year round, but the shuttle only begins regular run in mid-March.

Grand Canyon National Park

What make the Grand Canyon National Park a must-see for older travelers? The fact that it’s listed as one of the Seven Natural Wonders gives you a idea of the canyon’s scope and magnificence. The Grand Canyon is 277 miles in length and at points over 1 mile in depth.

Though the trails into the canyon are inaccessible to people with mobility issues, there are many view points along the rim that make this park worth the visit. Travelers can request a scenic drive accessibility permit to allow them access to more of the park.

Read about our Grand Canyon river rafting adventure.

Yosemite National Park

Why is Yosemite one of the best national parks for seniors? Yosemite is another of those iconic parks where there’s something for everyone to enjoy. It’s a photographer’s dream destination with three of the ten highest waterfalls in the world, giant sequoias, and the iconic Half Dome towering over the valley. In addition there’s abundant wildlife, horseback riding opportunities, hiking trails from easy to challenging, and rock climbing for the top athlete.

Yosemite has one of the grandest of the National Park Inns, the Ahwanhee Hotel. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, I’d suggest you visit to admire the architecture and get a delicious meal.

Yosemite gets VERY busy so make a reservation early if you’re interested in visiting.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Acadia National Park

Why is Acadia one of the best national parks for seniors? Acadia is located on Mt. Desert Island near the town of Bar Harbor, Maine. It’s is one of the top ten most visited parks in the U.S and one of the few national parks on the East Coast. That in itself makes it a great destination, but Acadia is ruggedly beautiful, with the highest rocky headlands on the Atlantic coast.

Visitors to Acadia can bike, or drive along the coast, enjoying stunning views at every turn. The park operates a wheelchair accessible shuttle to most of the park’s attractions. Or for a change from the usual national park experience, take a ranger led boat tour, or a commercial whale watching trip out of Bar Harbor. And while you’re in town, don’t forget to get a lobster roll!

Everglades National Park

What makes the Everglades National Park unique? The everglades are one of the most important ecosystems protected by the park service. It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S., the largest stand of mangrove, and is thus essential habitat for many endangered animals. Unfortunately this environment is at risk from invasive species and climate change.

Why is it one of the best national parks for senior travelers? The Everglades National Park is one of the most accessible parks in the NPS. Visitors with mobility issues can enjoy the park on boat tours or can explore on the many wheelchair accessible trails.

Note that there are distinct wet and dry seasons in the Everglades. Travel is recommended for the dry season (December through April) as the mosquito population thrives during the wet season.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Why is Rocky Mountain a great national park for older adults? Rocky Mountain National Park has some of the most picturesque topography in the United States. With towering mountains and crystal-clear alpine lakes those who enjoy photography will love this park.

This is one of the top national parks for wildlife. Bighorn sheep, the largest wild sheep in the U.S., can usually be spotted from the park’s roads. Black bear and mountain lions are present, but more difficult to find. Birdwatchers will enjoy looking for the over 260 species of birds that have been recorded in the park.

After a day of hiking or touring, visitors will find good food, artisan shopping, and (expensive) lodging in the town of Estes Park. Those on a budget should look towards Boulder for more economical hotels.

Rocky Mountain National Park is less than two hours from Denver but be aware that the roads will be steep at times. Admission to the park is through a timed entry from the end of May through October. Book your entry ahead of time.

Mt. Rainier National Park

Why do we recommend Mt. Rainier as one of the best national parks for seniors? Mt. Rainier is less than 2 hours from the Seattle/Tacoma airport, making it one of the easiest destinations on this list. It is a gorgeous park with the mountain, the most glaciated peak in the continental U.S., visible from almost everywhere within the park. The park has easy trails leading to fields of wildflowers and stands of over 1000-year-old trees – Douglas-fir, hemlock, and western red cedar.

Though the park is open year-round, many of the facilities close for the winter season. Check the NPS app or webpage for more information.

Our family trip to the Pacific Northwest, including Mt Rainier and Olympic National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Why is Great Smoky Mountains National Park a must-see park? The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its biodiversity, in part due to the mountains’ geologic history as some of the oldest mountains in the world. Of note, the park has recorded over 30 species of salamanders, giving it the nickname – the Salamander Capital of the World.

In addition to the views and wildlife viewing, visitors can also tour historic homes and learn about southern Appalachian Mountain culture. Due to the age of these homes, they are not accessible to visitors with mobility issues.

The park is open year-round, though roads may be closed seasonally. There is no entrance fee for this park.

Bryce Canyon National Park

More of the Best National Parks for the Active Senior Traveler

Mammoth Caves National Park

Why visit Mammoth Cave? It’s the longest cave system in the world!

Bryce Canyon National Park

What is unique about Bryce Canyon? There are more hoodoos (spire and pinnacle formations) than anywhere else in the world.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde was the first national park established to protect man-made structures. Within the park are 600 cliff dwellings built by the Pueblo people.

Ready for adventure? Check out our guide for preparing for outdoor travel.

Beautiful National Parks We Look Forward to Visiting

We have yet to visit some of the most beautiful national parks. But we will correct that shortly! These parks are known for the beauty of their landscapes, but also for the wildlife in the national parks. We may very well add these to our list of the best national parks for seniors.

Denali National Park

Glacier National Park

Carlsbad Canyon National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

Reading Suggestions For the National Park Traveler

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns
Lassoing the Sun 
by Mark Woods
Dear Bob and Sue 
by Matt and Karen Smith
National Geographic Atlas of the National Parks
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is available to rent on Prime VideoKindle copy available FREE with Prime membership.

“If the national park is, as Lord Bryce suggested, the best idea America has ever had, wilderness preservation is the highest refinement of that idea.”

Wallace Stegner

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