With temperatures rising and summer lurking around the corner, millions of Americans are daydreaming about planning their next big getaway. But forget overcrowded beaches: This summer, visit one of America’s great national parks for a vacation that is budget-friendly, adventurous and unforgettable. Whether you’re an adventurous hiker who enjoys backpacking in rugged terrain or a busy mom toting a diaper bag, our nation’s treasures offer something for everyone. We’ve narrowed down a list of the best national parks for every activity, so you can get out and enjoy America’s great backyard.
Located in eastern Utah, Arches National Park is a unique geologic wonderland, boasting the world’s largest collection of natural sandstone formations. In order to best appreciate the breathtaking beauty of this national gem, you must lace up your boots and hit one of the park’s numerous hiking trails, which are suitable for hikers of all ages and abilities. “Hiking in Arches is truly a delight for the senses. People describe it as magical; it’s unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before,” says Sharon Brussell, Staff Ranger at Arches National Park. “The landscape is so striking.” Not to be missed is the Delicate Arches hike, a 3-mile jaunt that leads visitors to the base of the awe-inspiring Delicate Arch. Sharon recommends that hikers bring plenty of water to stay hydrated in the humid, dry desert climate. And don’t forget a camera: “It’s hard to come here and not want to capture images of the scenery,” Sharon adds.
Grand Teton National Park is renowned for its sweeping vistas, jagged peaks, and exceptional wildlife, but this iconic national treasure is also consistently recognized as a top family-friendly vacation spot. “We definitely cater to families,” says Jackie Skaggs, Public Affairs Officer at Grand Teton National Park. “Our park is very accessible, very intimate, very easy to get from location to location. We have a lot of easy trails and activities where we try to engage families.” The park offers a variety of kid-friendly programs, activities and events. Throughout the year, Grand Teton National Park hosts a number of educational programs such as astronomy star-gazing sessions, art contests, scenic float trips on the Snake River, and horseback riding excursions. Additionally, children are invited to earn a Junior Ranger badge by completing the “The Grand Adventure” pamphlet, an interactive activity guide for children. Families can leisurely stroll the park’s myriad easy trails, three of which are stroller-accessible, or rent bikes at Dornans and ride the bike path. And, of course, children will surely delight in the park’s wildlife activity: “The opportunity to spot wildlife is incredible,” Jackie concurs. “We have grizzly bears and elk and charismatic large animals that are unusual for most families coming from urban environments.”
Dip your blade into crystal-clear pristine waters at Channel Islands National Park, one of the nation’s premiere sea kayaking destinations. Located just off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura, this California gem is a marine lover’s paradise. Paddlers can explore the park’s natural sea caves, arches, blow holes and more, as well as encounter unique marine wildlife including dolphins, sea lions and whales. According to Yvonne Menard, the Chief of Interpretation & Public Information Officer, kayaking Channels Islands is a truly exhilarating and adventurous experience. “It’s challenging but rewarding,” Yvonne says. “When you’re kayaking, you’re very intimate with the surroundings. It’s a great way to experience the diverse marine and terrestrial environment.” She cautions that kayaking at Channel Islands can be a strenuous activity, so kayakers must come prepared with the proper equipment, including helmets, and take the proper safety precautions. Less experienced kayakers have the option to embark on one of many guided kayaking tours offered at Channel Islands National Park, which are designed to be low rigor but high adventure. If you get lucky, you might even spot a blue whale lurking in the depths of the crystalline waters.
With four developed campgrounds and numerous backcountry camping sites, Big Bend National Park is a hub for adventurous campers seeking a unique camping experience in a secluded desert mountain landscape. Big Bend, which spans most of the rugged Chihuahuan Desert and Chisos Mountains, offers a vast swath of undeveloped wilderness for primitive roadside camping. “Camping in Big Bend is a chance to get away from the day-to-day in one of the most beautiful and wild places to be found anywhere. You can camp under the darkest night skies in Texas, with stars abounding after watching a West Texas sunset sink below the horizon. It is a magical place,” says David Elkowitz, Public Information Officer at Big Bend National Park. Flanked by majestic rocky cliffs, the remote Chisos Basin Campground is one of the park’s most sought-after campgrounds. Consider Big Bend for your next romantic getwaway; the park’s clear night skies create some of the best stargazing opportunities in the nation.
The first national park east of the Mississippi, Acadia National Park is a runner’s paradise with over 120 miles of hiking trails varying in length and difficulty. Situated on the craggy Atlantic coast, the park’s trails take runners on a scenic tour through dense spruce-fir forests, up steep granite ascents, and along exposed cliffs.. The park’s historic Carriage Road system, the gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., presents runners with 45 miles of rustic pavement ripe for the pounding. “The carriage roads are non-motorized, so people can bike or walk or run. It’s a great place for runners. They’re nice forested roads,” says Betty Lyle, Supervisory Park Ranger at Acadia National Park. One popular beginner-friendly trail is the Ocean Path, a flat four-mile trail with breathtaking views of the Atlantic coastline. “There is also gorgeous scenery along the ocean. If you are hardy and wanted to run up to the mountaintops, the views from up there are just spectacular,” Betty says.
Death Valley National Park is a lesson in extremes: summertime temperatures can creep up to a scorching 120 degrees, and the nighttime chill can plummet to zero. In spite of its morbid name and hostile environment, Valley National Park is a popular hot spot for avid cyclists seeking a one-of-a-kind biking experience in the Wild West. This immense, 3.3 million acre park has thousands of miles of dirt and paved roads to choose from, ideal for the novice cyclist and extreme mountain biker alike. Bicycles are permitted on all park roads that are open to public vehicular traffic, in addition to several backcountry trails for the adventure seekers, such as the strenuous Artist’s Drive or West Side Road. A must-see for experienced bikers is the thrilling Dante’s View, a 23-mile ride perched high atop the Black Mountains that affords riders breathtaking panoramic views of the sprawling valley below.
Every year, Rocky Mountain National Park lures thousand of novice and experienced climbers alike, who come to explore the park’s iconic snowcapped peaks and granite rock formations. A mecca for passionate climbers, Rocky Mountain National Park offers world-class rock climbing, bouldering, and ice climbing. In particular, The Diamond on Longs Peak has been ranked one of the top ten rock climbs in the world.
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