Top 10 National Park Activities
Our national park system invites visitors to choose their own adventures in the most beautiful spots in the U.S. Here's our selection for the most exciting and unusual national park activities including sandboarding, spelunking and more.
Rock-Climbing: Yosemite National ParkYosemite National Park is a climber's paradise with craggy outposts, sustained crack climbs and multiday dome excursions. Since 1969, the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service has been training newbies and accompanying seasoned climbers on trips in the park's many climbing areas. Full-day classes are available from April through October in Curry Village or Tuolumne Meadows, while specialized programs like Girls on Granite cater to women looking to scramble and scale up the rocks. 960 1280
Snorkeling: Virgin Islands National ParkYou'll want flippers, a mask and snorkel to explore the best trail in St. John because it's actually underwater. The snorkeling trail at Trunk Bay is a 225-yard swim lined with signs describing the fish, coral and plants that live in the warm turquoise waters. After exploring the sea, relax on the crescent-shaped beach and appreciate the scenery at one of the country's most idyllic national parks. 960 1280
Orienteering: Prince William Forest ParkSet off on a modern-day treasure hunt at Prince William Forest Park. Leave the GPS system at home for an orienteering adventure using just a map and compass to follow clues around one of the park's 30 courses. You can choose to set your own pace, whether it's a slowpoke family stroll while the kids master the compass or a competitive jaunt to race to the final clue. 960 1280
Hiking: Great Smoky Mountains National ParkHikers can set off on a great adventure on foot any time of year in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With more than 800 miles of trails, there are plenty of options including scenic strolls through fields of wildflowers and strenuous climbs to the top of the park's glorious waterfalls. A popular day-hike is a strenuous 8-mile trip to Charles Bunion along the Appalachian Trail. The 3-mile trip to Baskins Creek Falls follows an accessible trail with footbridge crossings to a 25-foot waterfall while the 8-mile roundtrip to Ramsay Cascades is a moderately strenuous trek through old-growth forest. 960 1280
Horseback-Riding: Theodore Roosevelt National ParkExperience the wild badlands on a horseback ride through Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The former president galloped through these vast prairies himself in the late 19th century. The park's trail system is open to horses, and some visitors choose to ride in on their own steed. For the rest of us, Peaceful Valley Ranch organizes day-trips all summer long for riders over 7 years old. 960 1280
Rafting: Grand Canyon National ParkWhile more than 5 million visitors head to the Grand Canyon every year, many make the mistake of simply peering out over the Rim before climbing back in the car. To truly experience the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, set off on a white-water-rafting adventure on the Colorado River. Float down smooth water on half- or full-day trips, or check out a longer excursion and spend three to 18 days riding the rapids in the shadows of the canyon's towering red walls. 960 1280
Spelunking: Mammoth Cave National ParkMammoth Cave National Park is the world's longest known cave system with spacious chambers and twisted labyrinths beneath Kentucky's Green River Valley. Serious spelunkers can descend 300 feet down 670 stairs and narrow passageways and tunnels to explore the underground rooms and hills on the Grand Avenue Tour. It takes over four hours to traverse this 4-mile-long stretch of the cave system. Lantern tours of the caves' passageways at Violet City give guests an idea of what it was like for the early cave explorers in the 1800s. 960 1280
Paddling: Glacier Bay National ParkMany visitors take in Glacier Bay's snow-capped mountains and towering glaciers from the deck of a cruise ship. For a more intimate tour of the park, glide through the waters in a low-lying kayak.
Sandboarding: Great Sand Dunes National Park and PreserveWho says you can't ski in the summer? Rocket down rolling sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado. You'll need good equipment, such as downhill skis, a snowboard or a flat-bottomed plastic sled, to set off on a wild ride through the sand. The conditions aren't good after rain or when the weather is too dry as the sand may be too soft to pick up some speed. Sandboarding is permitted on any of the unvegetated dunes and is particularly good at the 300-foot slope near the Castle Creek Picnic Area. 960 1280
Wildlife Viewing: Yellowstone National ParkEnjoy a wild safari a bit closer to home at Yellowstone National Park, home to more than 60 types of mammals and 318 species of birds. Black bears and grizzlies make their home in forests while coyotes, gray wolves and bobcats frolic in the meadows. Bison, elk and moose roam the grasslands while bighorn sheep meander along the mountainside. Bald eagles soar overhead and trumpeter swans make their nests alongside the park's rivers. Bring a pair of binoculars and a camera, and join a ranger tour to learn more about these fascinating residents. 960 1280
Gates of the Arctic National Park and PreserveThe remote park is accessible by bush plane, air taxi and, for the truly hardcore, on foot. Hikers may approach the park from Dalton Highway, but there are multiple river crossings along the way and no trails. 960 1280
North Cascades National ParkWashington state has its share of glaciers with more than 300 mountain glaciers in North Cascades National Park. Get your bearings at any of the park's 6 visitor or service centers where maps and exhibit rooms can help you plan excursions. 960 1280
North Cascades National ParkThe mountains are dotted with the glaciers as well as more than 127 alpine lakes and cascading waterfalls. The most popular waterfalls can be found at Gorge Falls along State Route 20 in between Newhalem and Diablo and Rainbow Falls in Stehekin Valley. 960 1280
Great Basin National ParkGreat Basin National Park is a diverse spot with quiet deserts, caves and dense forests filled with 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines. It's remarkable that this is one of the least-visited national parks, often dismissed as a wasteland. 960 1280
Great Basin National ParkStargazers will delight in the view from Great Basin, one of the darkest spots in the country after the sun goes down. You'll want to spend the night so you can marvel at the Milky Way and constellations in the deep night sky, a rare treat as light pollution blocks the view from many cities around the country. 960 1280
Dry Tortugas National ParkThe state of Florida gets hordes of visitors each year, but somehow Dry Tortugas plays host to only a small fraction of them. This cluster of 7 islands is just 70 miles west of Key West, but its quiet island pace sets it apart from its nearest neighbors. 960 1280
Dry Tortugas National ParkScuba divers explore the Windjammer Wreck, a complete wreck site featuring an impressive sailing ship that sank in 1907. Back on the beach, sea turtles build nests in the sand where they lay their eggs along these protected sandy shores. 960 1280
Paddle the Pacific
Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands National Park, just off the coast of Los Angeles, is home to some of the best kayaking on the West Coast. Rich with marine life and boasting the much-photographed Arch Rock, Anacapa is the perfect day trip or overnighter for the city dweller looking to get into some rough water. It’s a cliff island, so beware of winds, currents and fog.
Float the BorderThe mighty Rio Grande runs through Big Bend National Park in Texas, but it also represents the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Rafting down the river not only takes you through some eye-widening scenery, like 1500-foot deep canyons, but will also toss you back and forth across the border. 960 1280
Hit the Sandy Slopes
Colorado has Aspen, one of the most famous skiing destinations on the planet. It also has Sand Dunes National Park, one of the only sandboarding and sandsledding destinations on the planet. Slalom down the granular slopes like some diabolical combination of Jean-Claude Killy and Lawrence of Arabia. Hit the dunes early in the morning or late in the evening, lest you roast in the 150° midday heat. And don’t forget the lip balm.
Cold StorageThe upper regions of Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park have over 35 square miles of permanent ice and snow, providing a year-round paradise for hearty souls who consider ice camping a pleasure. If you’re going to stay the night on the mountain, securely lock your vittles to keep them from the clutches of foxes and other aggressive winter wildlife. 960 1280
Take in the LightsMinnesota's Voyageurs National Park sits just below the Canadian border and offers campers a ringside seat to the Northern Lights. Voyageurs encompasses 270 campsites only accessible by watercraft, but we recommend the remote Echo Lake Campground for best visibility. Check a variety of weather services to determine your best chance of seeing the Northern Lights. 960 1280
Yosemite GlidingIt may seem crazy, but people have been leaping off Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park for decades. Hang gliding was once sanctioned and overseen by park employees. These days the private Yosemite Hang Gliding Association coordinates it. 960 1280
The RaftersIf a weekend of seething whitewater just doesn’t cut it anymore, try an eight-day Grand Canyon raft trip down the Colorado River. There are a host of operators who will happily guide you down 200 miles of rapids. By the end of it, you’ll have seen Native-American ruins, mile-high cliff walls and countless eagles. 960 1280
Hit the Heights
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park boasts rock formations that will set a climber’s mouth to watering. The 415-square-mile park is a full-service climbing destination, featuring opportunities for scaling rock, wall, ice and snow. Lumpy Ridge and Longs Peak are favorites of local and international climbers. Whether you are an experienced sport climber or a beginning boulderer, be safe and leave no trace of your visit.