Let me begin with a disclaimer: this list is by no means all-encompassing. Obviously, there more than five must-see national parks in the world. And I think you should see as many as humanly possible in your lifetime, because, in my experience, they’re declared national parks for good reason—they’re amazing. I should also note that, yes, some pretty big parks are missing from the list—Yosemite, Cinque Terre, Kruger, the Dolomites. This is because I personally haven’t been to them. In the great words of Susan Sontag, however…
“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”
1. Banff National Park
Banff National Park is about an hour and a half west of Calgary in Alberta and is Canada’s oldest national park. There’s no shortage of things to do. More recognizable sights include Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and the Valley of the Ten Peaks.
The Canadian Rockies are unbelievably breathtaking and the water throughout the park is so clear and reflective, every photo becomes an optical illusion. Drive the Icefields Parkway for a comprehensive scenic tour. All of this (and more) lands it a spot on Global Debauchery’s list of must-see national parks.
The #AdventurePartnerForLife and I only spent a couple of days here as part of a larger road trip, but we could’ve easily planned a weeklong Banff itinerary. We came in from Calgary, which we weren’t very impressed with. (Maybe we were missing something?) But the quaint town was great fun.
There are plenty of things to keep you occupied in the park year-round, but Banff in winter is a total winter wonderland. It also has the added benefit of being surrounded by several other parks, including Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho. If you’re an outdoorsperson with a taste for alpine terrain, Banff won’t disappoint.
2. Galápagos National Park
Galápagos National Park has become an increasingly popular tourist destination over the last several years. And, when you get there, you discover exactly why. About 98% of the 21 islands are declared national park by the Ecuadorian government. To access them, you must be accompanied by a certified park ranger. The surrounding ocean area is a marine reserve second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef. The islands were also, of course, the basis for Charles Darwins’ On the Origin of Species.
Being accompanied by a park ranger might seem like a real drag for some travelers, but in this case, it actually creates a very special experience. Tours are carefully planned, allowing only a set number of people on each island at a specific time. This means you—and maybe ten of your new tour group friends—get to enjoy white sand beaches with pure, turquoise waters all to yourselves. When we went, we shared a quiet swimming hole with marine iguanas, penguins, and sea lions who were not at all shy—a once-in-a-lifetime experience that places it on my list of must-see national parks.
3. Fiordland National Park
Ah, Fiordland. What can be said, really? Anyone who’s been there will tell you it’s among the best of the must-see national parks. If you want jaw-dropping views of glacial valleys and jagged peaks, then a drive through Fiordland just might be in order. I would argue the park was one of the primary highlights of New Zealand and, if you ever make it out that way, a trip there is non-negotiable.
There’s one main road into and out of the park, and you get to travel through a long, dark mountain tunnel known as Homer’s Pass to reach the Milford Sound. Stop at any of the myriad of sights along the way—Mirror Lakes or The Chasm. Once you get to the Sound, take a ferry or kayak and marvel at the imposing Mitre Peak. If you’re a true adventurer, embark on one of the famous multi-day tracks. Whatever you do, beware of the mountain parrots, or kea!
4. Þingvellir National Park
Iceland is home to only three national parks, the most accessible being Þingvellir (pronounced “thing-vuh-leer”). Þingvellir is located just outside of Reykjavik on the Golden Circle route and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The park sits directly on a tectonic rift and offers visitors extraordinary natural features, including the largest natural lake in the country and the Silfra fissure, a well-known diving and scuba site.
In addition to geological significance, the park is also of huge historical importance to Iceland. It’s where parliament was founded in 930 AD. It’s for its cultural criteria that Þingvellir is designated an official UNESCO World Heritage Site. When you go, be sure to throw in Gulfoss, the waterfall all waterfalls were named after. #TrueStory. Worthy of my top 5 must-see national parks list, surely. For more on Iceland, read my “What No One Told Us About Iceland” post.
5. Plitvice Lakes National Park
You’ve probably seen photos of Plitvice, whether you were aware that it was actually Plitvice or not. Located in Croatia on the Bosnia and Herzegovina border, Plitvice Lakes National Park is a series of cascading waterfalls connecting sixteen different lakes. Travertine creates natural dams in the landscape, and the color of the water constantly changes depending on the varying levels of minerals and organisms.
The park is easily navigable, with boardwalks throughout, and regular shuttles take you to and from the upper and lower lakes areas. Unfortunately, the boardwalks were largely flooded and closed when we visited. But we were still able to do multiple hikes all around the park and view the falls from above.
Unless you’re taking a tour, getting there can be a little trickier since it’s a couple hours outside any major cities. Jeff and I took a bus from Split and found ourselves dropped off in the mountains in the pitch black of the night. Obviously, we lived to tell the tale. More on that, here.
More Must-See National Parks?
If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting these must-see national parks, add them to the docket. Been to them already? What did you think? What are your favorite international, national parks, and which ones should I be adding to my list?
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