When you think of the USA, there’s a good chance your mind starts conjuring up images of Los Angeles or New York. You may be picturing busy streets, tall buildings and row after row after cool restaurants and bars. Yep, those are all things you can experience when you visit, but America is more than just big cities. It’s also home to some of the most amazing, beautiful, wonderful National Parks and gorgeous landscapes you could ever hope to visit and a lot of them are in West Coast USA!
Instead of basing your next trip to the States around big cities, why not base it around the incredible natural beauty the country has to offer as well. We’re talking wide open spaces, huge mountains, outdoor activities galore and photo opportunities that will make your memory card quiver in its socket. Seriously.
Here are my tips on the most beautiful, must-visit scenic destinations in West Coast USA. Read it, print it, send it to your travel companion, then get busy planning! Even if you can’t see all of them, promise me you’ll try to visit at least a few of these places.
Zion National Park
Located in southwest Utah, this stunning nature preserve is defined by the incredible red cliffs of Zion Canyon. Aside from views that will take your breath away and have you snapping a million photos, you’ll find forest trails that will lead you along the Virgin River to the Emerald Pools, home to waterfalls and a hanging garden. The contrast of the bright red cliffs against a brilliant blue sky really is something to behold. Find out more about Zion National Park here.
Death Valley National Park
Don’t let the scary name fool you, Death Valley is actually all kinds of wonderful (and extreme HEAT!) The area is below-sea-level and maintains a steady drought with record-breaking heat during summer. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is something to behold. It’s the lowest point of elevation in North America and is the lowest, driest and hottest place too. Why visit? Well, the vast open spaces make for some pretty spectacular photos and it’s one of those places you’ll never forget visiting, the scenery is so dramatic and contrasting. Find out more about Death Valley National Park here.
Redwood National Park
Redwood is home to the tallest trees on the planet, which makes it visit-worthy all on its own. In contrast to huge mountains and vast deserts, Redwood offers up prairies, woodlands and river ways straight out of your forest-loving dreams. Expect to take lots of photos of massive trees with people walking along the winding path between them, to highlight just how gigantic they really are. Find out more about Redwood National Park here.
Mojave National Preserve
The Mojave is huge, some 1.6 million acres huge! You’ll find it located between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a magical place of calm away from the hustle and bustle of these big cities. The park is home to Joshua tree forests that cover entire parts of the preserve and an abundance of wildflowers as well as sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, canyons, mountains and abandoned mines and more. Natural features of the preserve include the Kelso Dunes, Marl Mountains, Cima Dome and volcanic formations Hole-in-the-Wall and the Cinder Cone Lava Beds. Find out more about Mojave National Preserve Here.
Yosemite National Park
One of the most well known national parks in the States, Yosemite is a must-visit destination for anyone visiting the West Coast of the States. The area is more than just a great valley, it’s home to some of the most beautiful waterfalls you’ll ever see as well as wide open meadows, majestic sequoia trees, bears and other wildlife as well as incredible hiking opportunities. Be sure to see the famed Half Dome and El Capitan while you’re there and take in a spot of hiking to find the best photography opportunities. Find out more about Yosemite National Park here.
When you think of America’s wild west, there’s probably a good chance you may be picturing Monument Valley. The iconic landscape of this area has been used in many films like Forrest Gump, National Lampoon’s Vacation, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Thelma and Louise, The Lone Ranger, Mission Impossible II and Back to the Future Part III. The red-sand dessert region is on the Arizona-Utah border and forms part of the Navajo Nation Reservation. Find out more about Monument Valley here.
Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands National Park comprises five of eight islands off the coast of California. The National Park aims to preserve and protect the unique animals, plants and archeological resources found on them, which cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. These unique groups came about due to the isolation of the islands, away from the mainland. Visit in Spring to catch migrating whales and an abundance of beautiful wildflowers. Visitors can experience hiking, camping, kayaking or just photograph the magnificent islands from the mainland if you’re low on time. Find out more about the Channel Islands National Park here.
Grand Canyon National Park
Certainly one of the most famous National Parks in the states, a trip to the Grand Canyon is well worth the visit. You’ll find yourself overwhelmed with the beauty of the place and I really recommend you give yourself at least a full day or two to let it all soak in. You can camp or stay on-site and the South Rim is home to a great visitor centre, free shuttle bus service and more to help visitors enjoy their stay. Take in a sunrise and sunset at the park, hike down to the bottom of the canyon, marvel at its beauty and explore the abundance of hiking trails available to you. Find out more about Grand Canyon National Park here.
Point Reyes offers fantastic views of a dramatic coastline just itching to be explored and photographed. You’ll find it home to big waves smashing up against the rocky headland as well as open grassy areas, hillsides and ridges, beaches and loads of native plants and animals. Lying North-West of San Francisco, it’s the perfect spot to escape the big cities and reconnect with nature in a very beautiful way. Find out more about Point Reyes here.
The Castle Mountains are tucked between the Nevada state line and the Mojave National Preserve. The 21,000 acres of mountains are home to Joshua tree forests, grasslands and stunning natural landscapes. You’ll find the area perfect for moody desert photographs with Joshua trees in the foreground and the jagged mountaintops in the background. The area used to be home to gold mining, but this ceased when the price of gold plummeted. Find out more about Castle Mountains here.
Santa Monica Mountains
You’ll find the Santa Monica Mountains home to hundreds of miles of hiking trails waiting for you to explore them. These coastal mountains run parallel to the ocean, making them the perfect spot to find hidden viewpoints and discover unforgettable views all for yourself. Given how close they are to LA, they’re visited by loads of people too. Don’t let that turn you off though because you can access some pretty amazing beaches by visiting. Find out more about Santa Monica Mountains here.
Joshua Tree National Park
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Joshua Tree NP before and there’s a good reason for that; it’s awesome! The National Park is where two deserts collide; the Mojave and Colorado. You’ll find the park home to the Little San Bernardino Mountains in the South, lots of wildlife, rock formations that formed millions of years ago and, of course, a lot of Joshua Trees. Be sure to check out the Giant Marbles, Old Woman Rock, North Horror Rock and the Hidden Valley, if you have the time. Find out more about Joshua Tree National Park here.
Lassen Volcanic National park
Now, this is one you may not have heard of before. Lassen Volcanic National Park is the perfect place to see what happens to the Earth when volcanoes are involved. The park is home to Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. This area is extremely photogenic, so prepare your camera appropriately. You’ll find the landscape abundant with trees and jagged peaks jutting out of the Earth, while wildflowers dot the ground and clear mountain lakes from glassy reflections for it all to bounce off. Find out more about Lassen Volcanic National Park here.
Arches National Park
This magnificent place is home to some 2,000 natural sandstone arches and they are absolutely something to behold. Apparently, around 47 of them have collapsed already, which is really sad, so it’s probably a good idea to visit this place before any more of them are lost. Expect to see bright red, towering arches smoothed by the winds, jutting out of the ground and contrasting brilliantly against a bright blue sky. Be sure to visit the well-known Delicate Arch, Tower of Babel and The Organ. Find out more about Arches National Park here.
Yellowstone National Park
I might be stretching the whole West Coast thing here with Yellowstone NP, but if you’re an Aussie (like me) and you’re going all that way, it will feel like Yellowstone is in the same area as all these other places (Sort of. Aussies have a weird perception of distance, we think everything is a fun road trip away). Put Yellowstone on your life travel bucket list immediately, because it’s awesome. The park was first established in 1872 to protect the number of amazing geysers there, including the world-famous ‘Old Faithful’. The park is also home to some incredible views, hiking trails and an abundance of wildlife, like grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk. Find out more about Yellowstone National Park here.
Sequoia National Park
Seeing the huge Sequoia trees is something I won’t forget anytime soon, they really did take my breath away and make me realise how incredible our planet is and just how tiny we are. This place is home to the LARGEST tree in the world, General Sherman, and he really is something to behold. This behemoth of a would-be-canoe towers above you and makes you realise all kinds of things about yourself and your place in the universe. It’s crazy. Aside from that humbling experience, you’ll find the park to be extremely photogenic, lots of opportunities to capture winding paths set among the towering trees and the beautiful, lush wildlife surrounding. Find out more about Sequoia National Park here.
(Images used in this blog post are courtesy of RGB Stock. Why? Because I had a really shitty camera when I travelled through the States and few good photos worth sharing. Sad, but true!)
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Phoebe is a travel writer and photographer with a love for storytelling and making people laugh. Matt is a videographer and photographer with a passion for the great outdoors and big adventures. Together we inspire big adventures through our guides, videos, vlogs and photographs. Find out more about us here.