From scenic drives to boat trips, kayaking to slough slogging, hiking to backpacking, we’ve come up with the best of every national park.
Part of what makes national parks so special is that there’s no wrong way to visit them. Transcending all ages and fitness levels, all of the United States’ national parks are welcoming doors to the wilderness accessible to all. No two parks, however, were created equal, and everywhere from Denali National Park in Alaska to Yellowstone in Wyoming offer vastly different ways to experience nature. Here’s our guide to the best things to do in every one of the national parks in America.
Top Picks for You
See North America’s Highest Peak
WHERE: Denali National Park, Alaska
There are peaks around the world taller than Denali—Mount Everest and K2 are more than 8,000 feet higher than North America’s highest mountain—but from afar, not one of them can hold a candle to Denali, which has the highest vertical relief in the world: 18,000 feet from base to peak, and still growing. Located at the junction of two active tectonic plates, Denali grows about a millimeter each year. Visible for miles within the New Hampshire-sized Denali National Park, this sacred mountain, “the high one” in the Athabaskan language of the region’s ancestral Koyukon people, literally cannot be missed.
INSIDER TIPIn 1992, the remains of Christopher McCandless, the subject of the book and movie “Into the Wild,” were discovered in Denali. His bus, still parked near Lake Wentitika, has become a destination for those in search of solitude.
Hike Wild Game Trails
There are no roads, no trails and no developed campsites in Gates of the Arctic National Park, just 8.4 million acres of untouched boreal forests, frigid lakes, and the rugged peaks and valleys of the Brooks Range. The only way to get to the park is by plane or on foot. Flying gives you a spectacular bird’s eye view of Alaskan beauty, but only by hiking ancient caribou game trails will you truly be in awe of this far-flung northern wilderness.
INSIDER TIPThere are no park services in Gates of the Arctic and no cell phone reception. If you aren’t confident in your outdoor survival skills, hire a backcountry outfitter to guide you into the park, and never go it alone.
Take to the Water for an Alaskan Safari
Glacier Bay National Park is just one corner of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site protecting a unique coastal landscape teeming with wildlife. You’ll get the best views of coastal brown bears, orcas, sea otters, bald eagles, and humpback whales from the water; the only choice is by what type of vessel. Both small cruise ships and day boats traverse the Bay but if you’re game for an adventure, kayaking the turquoise waters and camping overnight on the shores of the Bay is an unforgettable experience.
INSIDER TIPOver the years the glaciers of Glacier Bay have retreated and today it’s more than 40 miles from the visitor center at Bartlett Cove to the closest glacier, Riggs. If you plan to kayak, the day boat will drop you off up-bay so you don’t have to travel the whole distance on your own.
Catch Sight of Bears at Brooks Camp
Thousands, yes thousands, of bears live in the four-million-acre Katmai National Park in southern Alaska. In summer and early fall, the bears like to congregate at Brooks Camp at the mouth of the Brooks River and the shores of Naknek Lake where salmon are plentiful. The park has set up viewing platforms at these spots, as well as a visitor center and campground. When you’ve had your fill of furriness, lace up your hiking boots and head for the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Road, a moderate trail with impressive views of the site of the 20th century’s largest volcanic eruption.
INSIDER TIPGet a taste of what’s in store for your visit on the park’s live streaming bear cams (July through early October). Summer highlights play during the offseason.
View the Harding Icefield
The Ice Age never came to an end at southern Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park. Though it’s named for its beautiful, steep banked fjords, the most unusual feature here may be the Harding Icefield, 300 square miles of ice, ice, and more ice. From the Harding Icefield, close to 40 glaciers extend in all directions. A hiking trail across the icefield, the aptly named Harding Icefield Trail, offers intrepid explorers a strenuous 8.2-mile look at this unbroken landscape of ice and snow.
See the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes
Above the Arctic Circle might be one of the last places in the world you’d expect to find sand dunes, but that’s where you’ll discover the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes stretching as far as the eye can see at Kobuk Valley National Park. Great Kobuk is the largest of three sand dune fields in Kobuk Valley, remnants of windblown glacial detritus from the Pleistocene Era. It’s also one of the sites NASA uses as a model for studying the polar dunes on Mars. Like at the neighboring Gates of the Arctic National Park, there are no roads, no trails, and no campsites in Kobuk Valley. If backpacking across the park with only your compass and wits to guide you seems daunting, you can see the dunes year-round from above via air taxis leaving from Nome, Bettles or Kotzebue.
Hike the Historic Dena’ina Athabascan Route
From time immemorial, the native Dena’ina Athabascan people have hunted, traveled and lived on the land now protected as Lake Clark National Park. They recognize it not only for its spectacular beauty but for the bountiful resources it provides thanks to the convergence of three mountain ranges, a rainforested coastline, alpine tundra, two volcanoes (one of which is still active) and plenty of salmon-bearing rivers, lakes, and streams, and the bears who love them. The Telaquana Trail, a two to four-day hike, was once part of the network of overland routes used by the Dena’ina Athabascans. On the trail from Telaquana Lake to Kijik Village on Lake Clark, traditional indigenous place names recorded by local elders help to give a cultural context to this rich natural landscape.
INSIDER TIPBefore hitting the trail, check out the University of Alaska Fairbanks Project Jukebox which has recordings of Native American elders describing the trail.
Snorkel or Scuba Dive From the Shore of Tutuila Island
WHERE: National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa
The National Park of American Samoa protects three islands—Tutuila, Ofu and Ta’u—and their fragile coral reefs and rainforests. As one of the least visited national parks, American Samoa has very limited infrastructure but thanks to the abundance of underwater beauty here, you don’t need a boat to see over 250 species of coral and 950 species of tropical fish. As long as you’ve got your own gear (which can be rented at the territorial capital of Pago Pago on the island), you can step into the deep straight from the beach on Tutuila Island.
INSIDER TIPThe water may be warm but Samoan culture is conservative: modest swimwear is a good choice if you’re not looking to draw attention.
Visit the Only Place in the U.S. Where Mail Arrives by Mule
The views from the rim of the Grand Canyon are the best way to get a sense of America’s best-loved geological feature but down below, where the Colorado River and its tributaries flow, are the canyon’s most fascinating details. Perhaps the most surprising is the small village of Supai. The Havasupai people, one of the smallest native American tribes, have lived here for over 800 years, eight miles from the closest road. While more than 20,000 people visit Supai annually, it can only be reached on foot (two or four legs are acceptable), making this the last town in the country to receive its mail by mule.
INSIDER TIPNo day hiking is allowed to Supai, you must make a reservation and get a permit to visit and stay overnight in a campground or at the Havasupai Lodge.
Look Thousands of Years Into the Past
Thousands of years of human history is scattered throughout the high elevation desert landscape at Petrified Forest National Park; over 600 archaeological and petroglyph sites have been found within its boundaries. These ancient places are in varying states of preservation and most are kept secret in order to prevent troublemaking tourists from removing valuable artifacts but two of the most important, Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock, are open for exploration. At its height, Puerco Pueblo, which was abandoned around 1380 CE, was home to around 200 Puebloan people. Nearby, at Newspaper Rock, there are over 650 carved drawings (petroglyphs), some dating back 2,000 years. Unfortunately, because the hillsides around Newspaper Rock are unstable, it can only be viewed from above on a catwalk studded with free spotting scopes.
INSIDER TIPIf you want to check out a smaller single-family dwelling, it’s just a mile walk to the reconstructed 700+ year old, eight-room pueblo at Agate House, which was first excavated in the 1930s.
Take in the Scenery Along Cactus Forest Drive
The Saguaro cactus, the largest succulent in the U.S., grows in abundance in the slice of the Sonoran Desert known as Saguaro National Park. From afar, the towering plants, which can reach heights of 40 feet, take on an almost forest-like appearance. To catch views straight out of a John Wayne movie, take a ride (on four wheels or two) on the 8-mile long scenic loop, Cactus Forest Drive.
Take a Stroll Down Bathhouse Row
WHERE: Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park is not just one of the most unusual national parks in America, it is technically the first, protected before the national park system even began back in 1832. The thermal waters at the park, which include a portion of the town of Hot Springs, have been visited for centuries for its therapeutic effects. Instead of preserving the pools in their natural form, early entrepreneurs built bathhouses which still stand today on Bathhouse Row, a National Historic Landmark. While most are undergoing restoration, you can still enter the healing waters at two original bathhouses, the Buckstaff and Quapaw.
Kayak Around Santa Cruz Island
Though it’s just an hour boat ride from the southern California city of Ventura, Channel Islands National Park could not be farther away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. Due to thousands of years of isolation, these islands have a unique ecological environment with species of plants and animals literally found nowhere else on earth. Santa Cruz Island, the easiest of the park’s five islands to access and the one with the best weather, can be explored on foot (there are no roads or services on the island) but for a different perspective, all you need is a kayak. Rent one or take a guided tour with the Channel Islands Adventure Company based at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz.
INSIDER TIPYou can camp on all five of the park’s Channel Islands but for a cushier overnight experience, leave the park and head to nearby Santa Catalina Island, the only one of the Channel Islands with a permanent settlement, the resort town of Avalon.
Explore a Ghost Town
Once upon a time, there was gold in the hills of the Panamint Mountains of Death Valley National Park. Small mining towns popped up throughout the valley but when the riches ran out, so did the people, leaving behind a ghostly shell of the lives they once led. Several of these abandoned towns still stand around Death Valley and two, Ballarat and Panamint City, are within the park boundaries. At Ballarat, you’ll find the remains of a post office, jailhouse, cemetery and general store dating to the late 1890s, as well as a rusted out truck once owned by Charles Manson’s followers. At Panamint City, a 7-mile uphill hike from Surprise Canyon, the remains of a mining operation in the 1870s are being slowly consumed by the desert.
INSIDER TIPCamping is permitted at Ballarat with no reservations necessary. Just check in at the general store where you can also buy cold drinks and use the bathroom.
See the Desert in Bloom
Two deserts, the Mojave and Colorado, come together at Joshua Tree National Park. Named, of course, for its unusual Joshua Tree, a tall, stately yucca plant, this rocky landscape is uniquely beautiful. But what is lovely in summer, fall, and winter becomes absolutely incredible in the springtime when cacti, succulents, and the Joshua Tree are in full bloom. The rainbow of flowering desert plants typically begins in mid-April and lasts into May.
Hike a Portion of the Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail stretches 2,659 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian one, passing through seven national parks in California, Oregon, and Washington. Through the Kings Canyon National Park section of High Sierra, a landscape of steep peaks and deep valleys carved by ancient glaciers, the trail hits its formidable highest point at Forester Pass, 13,153 feet above sea level. Even though the trail can be covered in snow well into early summer, when passable it’s an incredible view of the rugged mountainous spine of the west coast, accessible both for day hikes and backpacking trips.
Trek to the Summit of the Lassen Peak
Lassen Peak, which dominates the landscape at Lassen Volcanic National Park, is the world’s largest “plug dome” volcano, a rounded mound-shape volcano made from the slow seepage of lava from a volcano. The hike isn’t long, just 2.5 miles each way. From the top, panoramic views of the “Devastated Area,” a portion of forest destroyed by the erupting Lassen volcano between 1914 and 1917, offers impressive insight into the power of Mother Nature. The rotten-egg smell of sulfur hanging over the summit is a good reminder that Lassen, though dormant, is still considered the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range
INSIDER TIPLike at the better known Yellowstone National Park, evidence of volcanic activity can be found all over Lassen Volcanic National Park, from boiling mud pots and hot springs on the Lassen Plateau to the steaming geothermal areas of Little Hot Springs Valley, Diamond Point, and Bumpass Hell, not to mention all four types of the world’s recorded volcanoes, one of the few places in the world where they exist in close proximity.
Explore Fern Canyon
Redwood National and State Parks are, not surprisingly, known for their redwood trees; 45% of the world’s remaining redwoods are found within their boundaries. But there’s even more fascinating flora to see here. In Fern Canyon, a 325 million-year-old stream canyon, steep cliff walls carpeted with ancient ferns frame the gorge. As the walls narrow, a series of footbridges pass under miniature waterfalls, and hanging gardens frequented by Pacific giant salamanders which can grow nearly a foot in length.
INSIDER TIPKeep an eye out for dinosaurs! In the ’90s Steven Spielberg used this ancient canyon for a scene in “Jurassic Park II.”
Gaze up at General Sherman
WHERE: Sequoia National and State Parks, California
Giant Sequoia trees, massive conifers that can grow up to 300 feet tall with a trunk circumference of over 100 feet, are typically found scattered sparsely among the forests of the high Sierra Nevada mountains. But natural conditions at Sequoia National Park have conspired to create 40 different groves with up to tens of thousands of sequoia each. The crowning jewel of them all is the General Sherman tree, the largest living tree in the world, 275 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter at its roots. Admire the ancient behemoth via a short ½-mile paved trail or take a shuttle to its base.
INSIDER TIPAt the Giant Forest Museum in the park you can learn more about the unique biology and ecology that make the Giant Sequoia so spectacular.
Hike to the Top of Half Dome
WHERE: Yosemite National Park, California
Hiking Half Dome, Yosemite National Park’s iconic semi-rounded monolith, isn’t for the faint of heart. Not only is it 16 miles round trip but the trail up is almost straight up, nearly 5,000 feet. And then there are the cables—400 feet of them—which take hikers to the tippy top of the dome on a route that could previously be passed only by using climbing gear. It’s a challenge, but one that’s richly rewarded with views of the Yosemite Valley unlike those found anywhere else in the park.
INSIDER TIPBecause summiting Half Dome is one of the park’s most popular activities, rangers have put major restrictions on how many people are permitted to ascend during peak months. Permits are available beginning in March and are rewarded via a lottery system. If your number isn’t chosen, check back 48 hours before your trip when the park releases a limited number of last minute spaces.
Spot Rare California Condors
WHERE: Pinnacles National Park, California
Pinnacles National Park, a surreal moonscape of eroded volcanic detritus, is an important part of a statewide effort to rebuild the endangered California condor population, black and white scavengers with an impressive 9-foot wingspan. Juveniles born at captive breeding facilities are released at Pinnacles when they’re just under 2 years old. Because the birds do not migrate, park biologists can closely monitor them year round. There are currently just over 70 California condors in the park and the best chance for getting a glimpse of the birds is in the early morning or early evening at High Peaks or from the Peaks View scenic overlook.
Cruise South Rim Drive for 12 Unique Scenic Views
The chasm at the center of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a scar in the earth so deep that sunlight struggles to reach the bottom (hence why it is “black,” shrouded in shadow). Carved out by the Gunnison River, this section of the canyon drops quickly in elevation between almost vertical cliff walls that appear to grow taller and taller as the river sinks. The most shocking feature of the canyon is its width, just 40 feet across at its most narrow point with steep volcanic cliffs on either side. Hiking to the bottom of the formidable rocky canyon is extremely strenuous and there are no maintained trails to mark the route. For something a little less daunting, the 7-mile South Rim Drive has 12 separate overlooks each offering a different perspective of the park’s famous gorge.
Sand Sled Down the Steepest Dunes in North America
WHERE: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
The sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park are an unexpected feature in a Colorado landscape more often associated with aspen forests, alpine lakes, and wetlands. But there they are, on the eastern edge of San Luis Valley, made up of 5 billion cubic meters of sand once found at the bottom of mountain lakes. While visitors can hike the dunes, it’s much more fun to ride them on sleds or boards. Rent one made just for the sand at the nearby Kristi Mountain Sports, Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Recreation or Oasis Store then hit the park’s tallest slope, High Dune, which soars 750 feet into the air.
Explore the Cliff Palace, the Park’s Largest Dwelling
WHERE: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
The largest archaeological preserve in the United States, Mesa Verde National Park, has more than 4,300 archaeological sites. The most impressive are the cliff dwellings, 600 of them tucked into natural rock crevices and balanced on outcroppings of steep canyon walls. The Cliff Palace, the largest pueblo dwelling at Mesa Verde, was inhabited by around one hundred people for just over a century before it was abandoned, probably due to a disruption in food production during mega-droughts in the 13th century. The sandstone Cliff Palace and its 23 kivas (sunken ceremonial rooms) and dozens of rooms were restored by archaeologists between 1908 and 1922 and have been open to the public ever since.
INSIDER TIPThe Cliff Palace is open from late May through mid-September and can only be visited via guided tour. Make reservations in advance if you want to guarantee your spot.
Ride Across the Park on Horseback
Rocky Mountain National Park is 415 square miles of incredible alpine beauty. There are 60 peaks in the park over 12,000 feet high and five distinct geographical zones which include meadows teeming with moose and elk, frigid tundra, forested wilderness, mirror-smooth lakes, and waterfalls. While there are over 300 miles of hiking trails and well-maintained scenic drives including Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the country, one of the best ways to commune with nature in the Rocky Mountains is on horseback. There are two stables in the park—the Glacier Creek Stables and Moraine Park Stables—that offer guided tours in the summer, and other companies outside the park permitted to bring riders in.
INSIDER TIPRocky Mountain National Park is notorious for having extreme, unpredictable and quickly changing weather conditions. At the higher elevations there can be snow all year round. Pack a jacket and rain gear along with you, even at the height of summer.
Follow a Trail of Historic Shipwrecks
Florida’s Biscayne National Park is 95 percent water, stretching from south of Key Biscayne all the way to just north of Key Largo. These seas may appear calm but their deeps reveal another story, one of turbulent waters, storms, and sinking ships. Biscayne has selected a string of six separate shipwrecks for their Maritime Heritage Trail, the only underwater archaeological trail in America’s national parks. The Erl King, which sank in 1891, the 1905 Alicia wreck, and the 1913 Lugano wreck, are relatively deep and best seen with scuba gear. The 1966 remains of the Mandalay, on the other hand, are shallow enough to be easily ogled with just a snorkel and mask.
INSIDER TIPWhile you’re out on the water, be sure to stop over at Stiltsville, the hurricane-tortured remains of a small community built on pilings in a shallow section of the Bay in the 1930s.
Explore a Massive 19th Century Fort
Dry Tortugas National Park protects seven of the most isolated islands in the Florida Keys and the archipelago’s best-preserved coral reefs. On the second largest, Garden Key, are the well-preserved remains of Fort Jefferson, a coastal fort constructed between 1846 and 1874 that was abandoned before it was even completed. Today the historic fort shares the island with the park’s visitor center and campgrounds and is open to visitors through ranger-guided tours and living history demonstrations.
Slough Slog Through the River of Grass
If you’ve never spent a lot of time in the swampy southeast, you’ve probably never heard of slough slogging, wading through shallow swamps to get up-close-and-personal with its unique living, breathing ecosystem. At Everglades National Park, rangers guide small groups of visitors along the River of Grass through one of the swamp cypress domes. The walk is buggy and wet—sturdy closed-toed lace-up shoes and long pants are required and will be soaked by the end of the tour—but slough slogging is a fascinating glimpse into a watery world that’s more intensely intimate than gliding along in a kayak or canoe.
Drive the Spectacular Chain of Craters Road
WHERE: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
After a temporary closure following unprecedented volcanic activity after the eruption of Kilauea Volcano in June, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open to the public once again. Unfortunately, the volcanic activity resulted in the disappearance of the park’s extant molten lava sites at Halema’uma’u and Pu’u ‘O’o craters. The park’s stunning natural beauty, though, that isn’t going anywhere. For the best views, hit the Chain of Craters Road which goes from the rim of Makaopuhi Crater to the coast at Kalapana. Ten labeled stops along the way will draw your attention to other volcanic activity, Hawaii’s largest petroglyph field (23,000 images altogether dating to between 1200-1450 AD) and a dramatic 90-foot sea arch reaching into the Pacific Ocean.
Watch the Sunrise From the Volcano’s Peak
WHERE: Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
The sunrise views from the summit of Haleakala Volcano at the heart of Haleakala National Park are so spectacular that in 2017 the park began issuing permits in order to keep the landscape from becoming too overrun by early morning visitors. Permits, which cost just $1.50, are good for a parking spot on the peak, from which visitors have access to four separate viewing overlooks. Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance.
INSIDER TIPWhen the sun’s majestic rise is complete, hit the summit’s trails. Over 30 miles of hiking trails up here pass through the aeolian cinder desert and native shrubland. Be sure to pack for quickly changing weather conditions and be prepared for strenuous high altitude conditions.
Go Deep Inside America’s Longest Cave System
WHERE: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
The only way to enter Mammoth Cave, the underground centerpiece of Mammoth Cave National Park, is by guided tour. There are several options that cater to explorers of all types. For an easy route, check out the Frozen Niagara Tour (1/4 mile, $14 adults/$10 youth) which can accommodate small children and elderly visitors or the longer Mammoth Passage Tour (1 mile, $8 adults/$6 youth). For a more in-depth look, try the Violet City Lantern Tour (3 miles, $20 adults/$15 youth), which guides visitors through the darkness by candlelight. Advanced reservations are highly recommended for all tours, especially during the summer.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re interested in the human history of the cave, which has been visited by writers, scientists, and celebrities since the 1800s, check out the 2 hour/2 mile long Historic Tour ($17 adults/$12 youth).
Climb the Rugged Precipice Loop up Champlain Mountain
WHERE: Acadia National Park, Maine
The Precipice Loop at Acadia National Park isn’t long—just 3.2 miles round trip—but it’s brutal, rising over 1,000 feet in less than a mile. And the trail’s intensity isn’t just its steep grade; with iron rungs, ladders and granite stairs that take you up a sheer cliff, Precipice is as much a non-technical climb as it is a hike. Carefully make your way to the granite slopes of the summit of Champlain Mountain for stunning views of the park far below.
INSIDER TIPThe Precipice Loop is open all year round but in wet weather the rugged trail can get dicey. Even when it’s sunny out, small children and anyone with a fear of heights are likely to struggle on this one.
Backpack Across the Isle Royale
WHERE: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
To call Isle Royale National Park isolated is a bit of an understatement. The 45 mile long Isle Royale and around 400 smaller islands in the middle of Lake Superior are only accessible by boat and have no permanent residents or services. What the island does have is campgrounds, 36 of them, to be exact, scattered around the island two to 12 miles apart. In other words, the National Park Service has created the perfect backpacking environment, with outhouses at each campground and fire rings and drinking water at some sites, including Rock Harbor and Windigo. Hit the trail for 2-3 nights or go for the gold with a full 40+ mile loop around the island.
INSIDER TIPMost Isle Royale campgrounds are close to the waters of Lake Superior where the lake trout, northern pike and lake herring are plentiful. Get a fishing license in advance and bring along fishing gear to eat like a king on the trail.
See the Northern Lights Without Leaving the Continental U.S.
WHERE: Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
The expanse of wilderness on the Minnesota/Canada border that is Voyageurs National Park offers what is unarguably one of the best views of the Northern Lights in the continental United States. From here, with no light pollution to speak of, the radiation and magnetic waves space hurls towards the earth can be seen in brilliant colors of red, green, blue and purple as they collide with our atmosphere. You don’t have to be at a lakeside campsite to watch the skies come to life (though it’s one magical option); the lights are just as spectacular from the Rainy Lake and Ash River visitor centers, the Voyageurs Forest Overlook Parking Lot and Woodenfrog Beach.
Drive the Famous Going-to-the-Sun Road
Construction began in 1921 on the 53-mile long Going-to-the-Sun Road, which spans the width of Glacier National Park from the park’s west entrance to Divide Creek in St. Mary on the eastern boundary. When built, the road was a feat of modern engineering that still tortures those charged with its maintenance today, especially in the spring when there can be snow over 80 feet high to plow. When passable—typically between early June and mid-October—the road offers incredible views of the park’s most iconic features, including Lake McDonald, Bird Woman Falls, Garden Wall, and the Jackson Glacier. Wildlife, including mountain goats (the park’s official mascot), bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and deer are also frequently visible as you’re going-to-the-sun.
See One of the World’s Oldest Organisms and Feast on Pinyon Nuts
Two fascinating pine trees dominate the landscape in Nevada’s ancient high-elevation forest, Great Basin National Park. The Bristlecone pine, which grows in groves just below the treeline, is considered by scientists to be the world’s longest-living tree and possibly its oldest living organism. There are at least three Bristlecone groves in the park but the interpretive signs spread out along the easy-to-moderate 2.8 mile Bristlecone Trail are an ideal way to learn about the lives of these one-of-a-kind trees. A little lower in elevation, between 6,000 and 9,000 feet, pinyon pine trees grow cones heavy with edible pinyon nuts (pine nuts), a historically important foodstuff for the region’s Native American community. Great Basin allows visitors to collect 25lbs of pine cones (three gunny sacks worth) per family when they are plentiful in the late summer and early fall.
INSIDER TIPPinyon pines are found around the same elevation as the Lehman Caves where rangers offer two tours into the depths of the earth. The 0.4 mile Lodge Room tour is good for those with limited mobility or small children while the 90-minute, 0.6 mile Grand Palace Tour explores several different “rooms” of the cave. Cave tours regularly sell out so be sure to book in advance.
Witness the Beauty of the Big Room
WHERE: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
There are several ways to see the caves at Carlsbad National Park but the massive cavern’s most beautiful section is a softly lit ballroom of sparkling speleothems called the Big Room. The only part of the underground Carlsbad cave complex that doesn’t require a tour guide or advanced reservations, the Big Room is ringed with a paved path that makes this underground world accessible to visitors of all types. Hike down to the chamber on the steep Natural Entrance Trail or take the cave’s 750-foot deep elevator down from the visitor center.
INSIDER TIPIn 1979, four men took 200 tourists and park staff hostage at the cafeteria adjoining the Big Room deep in the earth. Look closely to see bullets fired by the men still lodged in the wall near the elevator. The incident was ultimately resolved with no casualties.
Explore Historic Log Cabins, Churches and Schools
WHERE: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
Before it was protected as a national park, people lived in the remote mountain landscape now known as the Great Smoky Mountains. Today, nearly 100 historic structures—log cabins, barns, churches, schools, and grist mills—are still standing in Cades Cove, Cataloochee, and Oconaluftee. On the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, you can drive a 55.5-mile loop past some of those that have been best preserved.
INSIDER TIPAn important part of Great Smoky Mountain’s human history is its burial landscape: there are dozens of small cemeteries throughout the park, most of which are hidden in the forest requiring GPS coordinates to find.
Watch the Goings on at Prairie Dog Town
Black-tailed prairie dogs live in “towns” of interconnected burrows and tunnels at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Each acre is occupied by a single family group—an adult male, several females, and their offspring—which cooperatively builds and defends their territory, using their distinct “bark” (more accurately a high-pitched squeak) to warn of approaching threats to the colony. You can see the busy little rodents scuttling about at more than one location in Theodore Roosevelt but the official “Prairie Dog Town,” less than a mile down the Buckhorn Trail from the Caprock Coulee Trailhead, is the most easily accessible.
Ride a Scenic Railroad Through the Valley
WHERE: Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is different from the others. Just beyond its boundaries along the rural landscape of the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland are dense urban areas and small towns for whom this 51 square mile stretch of riverfront has provided outdoor recreation since the 1870s. In 1880, the Valley Railway began operations, transporting coal and passengers between Ohio’s industrial cities. A 26-mile portion of that original rail line still operates today, taking Cuyahoga visitors on a 3.5-hour round trip along the valley’s marshes, lakes, and rivers.
INSIDER TIPBring your bike aboard and hop off at any station to ride a portion of the 87-mile Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, a historic route dating back to 1827 where mules once pulled boats up and down the historic Ohio and Erie canals.
Explore Wizard Island
At the west end of Crater Lake, an extinct volcano and the deepest lake in the United States is the whimsically named Wizard Island. Wizard is a volcanic cinder cone is capped with the “Witches Cauldron,” a 500-foot wide, 100-foot deep crater that formed when the volcano erupted nearly 8,000 years ago. In the summer months, Crater Lake National Park ranger-led boat tours ($57 adult/$36 child), demystify the island and the volcanic wreckage that is Crater Lake without docking. To hike around the rocky island, take the Wizard Island Shuttle ($32 adult/$20 child), instead.
Paddle the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail
WHERE: Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Once upon a time, the river and lake floodplains of the southeastern U.S. were covered in old-growth hardwood forests. But hardwoods are valuable building materials and it wasn’t long after colonization that the forests started to disappear. Congaree National Park protects the largest of those remaining, a wilderness of towering champion trees, oaks and elms. Beneath their high canopy flows the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, a 15-mile waterway rife with opportunities to sight river otter, turtles, wading birds, and alligators. Kayak or canoe a section of the trail or pack up for an overnight trip that takes you all the way to the Congaree River.
INSIDER TIPThere are no kayak or canoe rentals inside the park but several outfitters in nearby Columbia rent them. Free ranger-guided canoe tours held in the spring and fall provide participants with boats and paddles.
Discover Extinct Creatures
In 2010, a seven-year-old girl found the skull of a saber tooth tiger that had eroded out of the earth near Badlands National Park’s Ben Reifel Visitor Center. That’s how exceptional this stark landscape of eroded rock formations is at preserving the remains of mammals 33 million years old. See replicas of some of the fossils discovered here over the years on the Fossil Exhibit Trail and get a look at what a real paleontologist does at the Fossil Preparation Lab (open daily from June through September).
See Unusual Boxwork Cave Formations
Wind Cave National Park in western South Dakota is the sixth longest cave system in the world boasting more than 140 miles of underground passageways. There are so many passageways, in fact, that Wind Cave is considered the densest “maze cave” on Earth. Add to the cave’s list of superlatives the unusual honeycomb-patterned boxwork calcite formation; this cave has 95 percent of the boxwork in the world. Three regular tours, which range in difficulty from easy to strenuous, offered daily on a first-come-first-served basis will introduce you to the unusual boxwork, along with frostwork formations, stalactites and stalagmites, and underground lakes.
INSIDER TIPFor a more extreme adventure, try the Wild Cave Tour, a four-hour journey through undeveloped caverns that requires hardhats and knee pads for crawling through tight passageways. Advanced reservations are required and kids under 17 must have a signed consent form.
Hike to the Dramatic Santa Elena Canyon
The sheer cliffs of the dramatic Santa Elena Canyon flank the Rio Grande, forming the boundary between Mexico and Texas in Big Bend National Park. With vertical rock walls that rise as much as 2,400 meters above sea level here, Santa Elena Canyon is easily the most stunning feature in the park. Hike to the edge of the canyon walls to the river’s edge via the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, a moderate 1.7-mile round trip that crosses Terlingua Creek.
INSIDER TIPAfter visiting Santa Elena Canyon, take another short hike down the Hot Springs Historic Trail for a soak in the Boquillas Hot Springs, a natural jacuzzi that hovers at 105 degrees year round.
Hike to the “Top of Texas”
WHERE: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the highest point in the state of Texas, a whopping 8,749 feet above sea level and if you’re game enough to make it to the top, you’ll hike three thousand of them. The 8.5-mile round trip trail, which begins at the Pine Springs Campground, passes through several ecosystems, from high desert to pinyon pine forest to ponderosa pine forest, before topping out at the mountain’s summit where impressive views range across the state and into neighboring Mexico.
Visit an 18th-Century Sugar Plantation
WHERE: Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands
The Virgin Islands were once an important way station in the barbarous sugar trade that dominated the Caribbean. The legacy of that slave-driven industry is still visible on the island of St. Johns, 60 percent of which is protected by the Virgin Islands National Park. Explore the ruins of one of St. John’s earliest sugar plantations, Annaberg, from the L’Esperance and Reef Bay Trails. After passing Annaberg, both end at the beautiful beach at Reef Bay and can be either hiked independently or on a ranger-guided tour that will reveal details of the plantation’s history and the island’s local flora and fauna.
INSIDER TIPOn the L’Esperance Trail, keep an eye out for the St. John’s sacred baobab tree, an African plant brought and planted by slaves hundreds of years ago.
See Delicate Arch and the Windows Section
WHERE: Arches National Park, Utah
Arches. Yes, arches! Arches of all types—big arches, small arches, skinny arches, fat arches. You like arches? You’ll find them at the aptly named Arches National Park. The large concentration of sandstone arches here have been carved by thousands of years of wind, water, and ice to become some of the most iconic symbols of the American southwest. In the Windows Section of the park, hikes of varying difficulty lead to the North Window, Turret Arch, Double Arch and other formations impressive enough to deserve names of their own. Set apart from the others is the most famous formation of them all, Delicate Arch, the largest freestanding arch in the park located high up on a sandstone butte.
INSIDER TIPDelicate Arch can be seen from two viewpoints but for a detailed look at its rocky curves, hit the Delicate Arch Trail, a moderate two to three-hour hike up a steep slickrock slope.
Watch the Hoodoos Change Color at Sunset
Bryce Canyon National Park has the largest concentration of hoodoos, towering rock formations carved by the elements, in the world. The stone spires here are the stuff of Native American legends—the Paiute believed the hoodoos were ancient “legend people” trapped for eternity for misbehaving—and at no time of day do they inspire the imagination more than in the early evenings. As the sun sets, shifting light across the natural amphitheaters of Bryce Canyon set the hoodoos ablaze in pinks, oranges, yellows, and reds. Get a view of their incredible density and shapeliness from viewpoints along the park’s main road skirting the rim of the plateau above the canyon.
Visit All Four Distinct Districts of the Park
WHERE: Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The Green and Colorado Rivers carve up Canyonlands National Park into four separate districts of canyons, mesas, arches, and hoodoos. To see them all, allot two to six hours to drive between the regions, not one of which is directly linked to the others. The most accessible of the districts is Island in the Sky, a massive sandstone mesa with sides dropping over 1,000 feet to the valley below. The Needles in the southeast corner of the park is known for the towering spires that dominate sites like Elephant Canyon and Horseshoe Canyon district preserves some of North America’s most significant Native American rock art. Finally, there’s The Maze, the most remote of the four, at which you’ll find fascinating rock formations like the Chocolate Drops: tall, thin curtains of sandstone, and plenty of backcountry solitude.
Explore a Geologic Wrinkle in the Earth
WHERE: Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Utah’s nearly 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold is a geological wrinkle in the Earth’s crust where shifting tectonic plates sent sedimentary rocks upwards into a spiny plateau. The most scenic section of the fold is protected within the boundaries of Capitol Reef National Park, so-called for its domes of white Navajo Sandstone that resemble the dome on a capitol building. Since its formation millions of years ago, the elements have continued to shape the Waterpocket Fold, forming massive not-to-be-missed monoliths like the stone temple in Cathedral Valley near the park’s northwestern boundary.
INSIDER TIPCapitol Reef is painted in colors of browns, reds, whites, and oranges, which makes the park’s Fruita Campground an anomaly. This historic orchard fed by the Fremont River is an oasis of green in the desert where visitors can camp overnight at one of 64 RV/tent sites and seven walk-in tent sites ($20/night, reservations recommended).
Hike the Narrows
WHERE: Zion National Park, Utah
The Narrows is one of the most popular areas of Zion National Park but that doesn’t mean that hiking it will be a walk in the park. No matter what route you choose, the only way to pass through The Narrows, a gorge so slim that it’s less than 30 feet wide at some points, is by walking in the Virgin River. Get your feet wet by hiking from the Temple of Sinawava to Big Spring and back (a strenuous 10-mile trip) or travel downstream from Chamberlain’s Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava (16 miles, permit required).
INSIDER TIPFlash floods in The Narrows have stranded, injured and even killed hikers. Always check the weather before heading into the canyon, especially in the late spring and summer when flooding is more common.
Hike to a 93-Foot Waterfall
There are several stunning waterfalls in Shenandoah National Park but the tallest is Overall Run Falls, which drops from a soaring, 93-foot ledge. To get there you’ll have to hike down 1,850 feet. If the 6.4-mile round-trip Overall Run Falls hike seems too intimidating, try Rose River Falls or South River Falls, both of which are 2.6-mile round-trip hikes that require a return climb of only 720 to 850 feet.
Hike One of the World’s Most Dangerous Volcanoes
WHERE: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the Cascades, is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to its large film of glacial ice. When the volcano erupts, the ice will combine with debris to create a destructive slurry that will spell disaster for communities down below. The only unknown is when the event will occur. While we wait, Mount Rainier National Park does, too. The gorgeous mountain landscape spanning five major rivers can best be seen from one of its many hiking trails and scenic roadways.
Backpack Beneath Mountain Glaciers
WHERE: North Cascades National Park, Washington
Since its inception, North Cascades National Park was envisioned as a “wilderness park,” meaning most of its land would remain undeveloped backcountry. True to the National Park Service’s original plan, today 94 percent of the park remains vast, untouched wilderness dotted with alpine lakes, forests, and 300 separate glaciers. Pack your gear and head out overnight to see all the park has to offer which isn’t accessible by road. 140 designated campsites are scattered along trail corridors in the backcountry and “cross-country camping” is permitted half a mile away from trails.
INSIDER TIPBefore leaving, check out North Cascades Wilderness Trip Planner for information on park regulations, permits, trail conditions and more.