Our 5 Favorite National Parks of 2016

Last December we shared our 2016 National Parks Wishlist — the top five parks we hoped to hit in 2016. Tomorrow we’ll be sharing our 2017 National Parks Wishlist (my, how time flies!) but first we wanted to take a look back at 2016. Today we’re rounding up our national park stats from 2016 … reviewing how we did on last year’s wish list … and talking about our five favorite national parks we visited this year!

Acadia-Bound Our Streamlined Life
These are our national park excitement faces.

First up: Numbers, names, and fun facts.

  • In 2016, we visited 28 national park sites!
  • We checked off parks in five of the nine national park regions. (Curious which regions we missed? National Capital Region, Midwest Region, Rocky Mountain Region, and Pacific Northwest & Alaska Region. Fingers crossed, we should get to all of those in 2017!)
  • We spent the most time in Acadia National Park (14 days), followed by Big Bend National Park (6 days). No surprise those two parks top our “favorite national parks of all time” list.
  • Our shortest trip was to Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, due to weird park hours and unfortunate time zone placement.
  • We checked off all the state parks in one state — and not even one of those funny ones with just one national park site! (Which, if you’re wondering, includes Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Delaware.) And, even though we wrote about how to visit all of New Jersey’s national park sites in one day, it isn’t New Jersey, either! Drum roll please: After visiting Bluestone NSR, Gauley River NRA, Harpers Ferry NHP, and New River Gorge NR, we’ve now visited all the national park sites in West Virginia!

So: How did we do on our 2016 national parks wish list?

Short answer: Not very well. In fact, we only managed to visit two of the six parks on our 2016 national parks wish list (Grand Canyon National Park and Acadia National Park). Two of them (Zion and Hot Springs) I was hoping to make part of our Southwest Adventure, but we were having so much fun in deserty places like Big Bend that we just didn’t have time. And the final two (Shenandoah and Cuyahoga) were planned as summer trips that just didn’t materialize.

And, last but not least: What were our five favorite national parks of 2016?

The good news is, we visited so many amazing national parks that it was hard to narrow them down. But you can certainly tell from our list that we learned to love the desert in 2016!

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

If you’ve been following our travels for any length of time, this should come as no surprise to you. Big Bend National Park was the breakout surprise and a highlight of our 2016. In fact, it’s become a strong contender with Acadia National Park as our favorite national park of all time. We stayed there twice as long as we planned, and can’t wait to go back this winter for two full weeks — the longest you’re allowed to camp in the park during peak season. Big Bend was a magical combination of wide desert skies, gorgeous river views, and spectacular mountain hikes and we had no trouble declaring it our #1 favorite national park of 2016.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park

Is it possible to visit the Grand Canyon in any given year and not put it on your favorite parks list? I submit to you that it is not. The camping was spectacular, the weather was gorgeous, and the views were so incredible they actually looked unreal. We both expected to be a tad disappointed in the Grand Canyon; we were not, even a little bit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns was a surprise hit (and another stop on our Southwest Adventure itinerary). Will Rogers called it “the Grand Canyon with a roof on it,” and the comparison is apt; it’s overwhelmingly deep and has become the standard by which we measure all future cave visits. There’s just something mind-boggling about hiking down a 750-foot trail into the earth.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park

We both loved Saguaro National Park but it found a particularly cozy spot in Ryan’s heart — it’s the one he almost always mentions second (after Big Bend!) when we talk about 2016. We weren’t sure what to expect when we visited, but there was just something incredibly friendly about those giant cacti! And the combination of a scenic drive, short hike, and pleasant picnic were exactly our speed. (It’s like the national parks version of “the perfect combination of sexy and cute.”)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We left Great Smoky Mountains marveling that we’d never been there before; as die-hard East Coasters, you wouldn’t think it’d have taken us thirty years to make it to the United States’ most visited national park. We could easily have spent weeks there, hiking, camping, and enjoying the gorgeous views — we’ll most definitely be back. (My favorite thing about the park? The constant gurgle of streams and brooks that was audible seemingly everywhere we traveled in the park. It made me want to sit on a rock with a picnic and a book and never leave.)

We want to know: What were your favorite parks of 2016 … and of all time?

I'm the oldest of 12 crazy kids and two pretty awesome parents. My love of travel developed during my early years traveling the globe as an Air Force brat. I'm a runner, a writer, and a reader, and I love cooking up good food and cozying up our camper.


  1. Rebecca,
    Looks like you have been to some amazing places this year! While we are not full-time travelers, we manage to get somewhere out west every year. Acadia is on our list of parks to visit, but we tend to go west, not east! We are very fortunate to live just 30 minutes from an entrance into the Great Smoky Mountains. It is a gorgeous place, and I totally agree with your sentiment about the babbling brooks, a book, and a picnic.
    The Grand Canyon is grand, for sure!
    My top five NPs (visited in a 2 year span, but actually in 5 weeks of travel time)– Grand Tetons (gorgeousness in every way), Zion (you MUST get there–I recommend the Narrows hike), Sequoia/Kings Canyon (unbelievably beautiful, but QUIET), Mt. Ranier (spectacular), and Canyonlands (if you like deserty places, find a way to do part of the White Rim trail). There are so many other beautiful places we’ve visited, too!! We’re looking forward to a PNW trip this year. Lots of beauty to explore!!! Wishing you safe travels and happy memories for this coming year! Merry Christmas!!! 🎄

    1. Kristie — we’re hoping to get to a few of your top national parksthis year (Zion, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, & Canyonlands) and I can’t wait! We went to Grand Canyon in 2015 and it was fantastic, although we definitely didn’t do it justice as we just passed through as an afterthought to Yellowstone. But those mountains are mind-bogglingly gorgeous. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Kristin, we are so excited to get to Rocky Mountain NP this winter. I absolutely loved seeing your pictures on Instagram! I’ve been to the area (my brother is stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs) but we haven’t actually gotten into the park to explore yet. I can’t wait!

  2. I am jealous of all of these! While you might not have made it everywhere you hoped, you certainly went to some incredible parks this year.

    We cannot WAIT to get out west and start exploring the big national parks out there. Unfortunately, we’ll be stuck east of the Mississippi for most of the next 12 months (family and friend obligations, etc). But… we are planning for some time in Acadia and we might be able to spend some time in the Smokies. We’ll certainly do our best to get there!

    And isn’t it amazing how difficult it can be to check these places out even when they are right next door???
    Laura recently posted…Wishing For More Time In CharlestonMy Profile

    1. Laura, we are super excited to be heading west this year and getting to some of the big parks we missed last winter … those big Utah parks are calling our name! If you’re staying east, you DEFINITELY have to get to Acadia. It is just perfect. Happy travels!

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