With 388 national parks to choose from, you’d think that picking a park would be easy. The first parks to come to mind might be Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but if you look a bit deeper and you’ll find many amazing national parks you might not have even heard of. America’s National Parks are more than just hiking trails, campgrounds,sweeping vistas and chances to watch deer, moose, buffalo and bears run wild. Many are famous historical sites, and smaller parks with big scenery.
Whether you want a wild adventure or an easy road trip you should follow these tips:
Follow Your Sense of Adventure
There are so many ways to spend your time in America’s National Parks. You can climb an active volcano in Hawaii, face the adrenaline pumping class V rapids through awe inspiring gorges and valleys in a raft at Gauley River National Recreation Area or spend a day on Alcatraz Island. You can watch the oil droplets bubble to the surface of Pearl Harbor above the USS Arizona Memorial or traipse through the quiet, moss covered stillness of the old growth forests of Olympic National Park before having a campfire on the beach at dusk.
Define What You Really Want
Picking the right park for you might depend on how much you mind crowds. Some National Parks get millions of visitors a year while others maintain a quieter, wilder feel. Even the most crowded parks, like the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, have plenty of areas where your footprints will be the first ones of the day.
Most Visited National Parks (According to the National Park Service)
1 Great Smoky Mountains National Park
2 Grand Canyon National Park
3 Yosemite National Park
4 Olympic National Park
5 Rocky Mountain National Park
6 Yellowstone National Park
7 Cuyahoga Valley National Park
8 Zion National Park
9 Acadia National Park
10 Grand Teton National Park
Visitors flock to the parks listed above, but others are relatively free of crowds, making it easier for solitary adventure, family outings and undisturbed wildlife. Here are a few possibilities for your next escape.
North Cascades National Park (Washington)
Visit some of the most rugged and wild terrain in the country. Winding along the North cascades Highway you’ll be spoiled by thick old growth forests, rivers and lakes painted a deep blue-green by glacial silt and soaring, snow capped rocky peaks in every direction. Watch Bald Eagles as they snatch fish from deep mountain lakes. The rugged trails into the surrounding landscape assure that you can find solitude even in peak season.
Isle Royale (Michigan, Minnesota)
You can elude the crowds of people in the wild woods of the North, but you might encounter groups of wolves, otters and moose along the way. Roadless Isle Royale is a 45-mile long wilderness archipelago in the heart of Lake Superior. It has a 165 mile network of hiking trails that connects historic lighthouses, shipwrecks, ancient copper mining sites and sweeping vistas for observing wildlife.
Crater Lake National Park (Oregon)
Crater Lake has awed people for thousands of years. The combination of a mountaintop lake, deep and pure, with two picture perfect islands. The lake is surrounded by cliffs soaring as high as 2000 feet. With it’s tranquil and amazing beauty it’s hard to believe it is the site of such a violent volcanic past. For a very unique and rewarding destination, Crater Lake National Park definitely delivers.
When to Go
It’s a good idea to check with each park to confirm that it will be open to the public during your planned visit. To avoid the crowds, and enjoy more time in leisure pursuits, travel during the spring and fall or whenever the park reports it’s slow time. Unfortunately, slow times often correlate with more unpredictable weather so be prepared.
If you’re spending an extended period of time on a road trip or living in a van, you’ll find that it’s much easier to coordinate your trip to miss the crowds and soak in the silent solitude and splendor of some of Americas most beautiful places.
Where to Stay
Camping is the most popular option, whether in a tent, RV or in the back-country. You’ll find that campgrounds in the more popular National Parks can be expensive, crowded and often times damaged by overuse. For free camping options you can always look to the nearest National Forests where free dispersed camping is permitted. Otherwise, ask the local park ranger for more information.
Fun for the Whole Family?
National parks are great places for families to visit and explore together but if you’re planning on traveling with pets you should inquire ahead of time to make sure they’re allowed. Many National Parks prohibit pets on hiking trails and in other main visitor areas. You might want to leave your dog at home or make sure that you have a good plan for them while you’re out hiking.
Check to see if there are any park entrance fees. If so, you might consider an annual National Parks Pass.
Check with the park ranger or local office for trail maps and information.
Make sure that you get enough food and water before venturing into the park to avoid having to make any unnecessary trips back to civilization.
Research what you want to accomplish while visiting each park before going. Pack accordingly so you have what you need and can make the best of your time.
Before venturing into the back-country for an overnight stay, make sure to check rules and permit requirements first. Many parks require that you obtain a back-country permit before camping or sleeping in the back-country. They may also require a bear canister or other proper food storage techniques to reduce or prevent negative interactions between humans and wildlife.
National Parks were set aside for people to explore and immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the wild. Each park has a unique set of features and qualities that makes it special. No matter what you’re looking for there is a National Park that’s right for you.