The United States is full of unspoiled natural beauty, and the National Park Service is a great way to experience it. Almost all of the national parks provide visitors opportunities to camp, boat, swim, hike, horseback ride, and bike. Even if you’re not a big nature nerd, the parks have many activities to try! The best part? It is possible to make a trip without breaking the bank. So gather your friends, pack your hiking shoes, and read about the ten most popular parks below.
The Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee and North Carolina
The Great Smoky Mountains offer activities for every park goer. Get in touch with your inner explorer and travel the many roads, trails, and paths by car, bike, foot, or even horse! But don’t forget to take a break to stop and smell the roses: Nature lovers can use the Species Mapper to track the largest variety of flowering plants in any North American national park. For history buffs, over 90 historical sites and cemeteries provide a closer look at the history of how American settlers in the region lived. If this is your first National Parks experience, the Great Smoky Mountains is the perfect combo of education, recreation, and relaxation.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Considered one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Grand Canyon National Park, usually measured by the length of the river that runs through it, runs for a whopping 277 miles (446 km). Make sure to bring your camera because there is one view you can’t afford to miss: Sunset over the canyon transforms the washed out brown rocks into vibrant shades of red and orange. Set against the blues and pinks of the evening sky, sunset is a must-see (and a must-Instagram)!
The park has various viewpoints to best see the gorge, like the North Rim's Cape Royal. Campgrounds in the South Rim and hiking trails along the river also provide beautiful views.
Speaking of classic photo-ops, snag the perfect landscape pic when you visit Half Dome, the park's most iconic granite rock formation. Over the years, it has become a rock-climber's paradise, and even has its own mountaineering school. An eight-mile trail winds its way to the top for spectacular views. Horseback riding through mountain paths, fields, and shallow streams make Yosemite the perfect destination for anyone who's ever wanted try out life as a cowboy.
Yellowstone, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana
Home of the famous Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone is perhaps the most famous of the national parks. The park is home to more natural geysers and hot springs than anywhere else on Earth. But that’s not all it has to offer: For just $5, you can buy a boating permit to fish or kayak at Bridge Bay Marina on Yellowstone Lake. For the more wilderness-seeking visitors, there are over 300 backcountry campsites that visitors can explore on foot or by boat. For hikers looking for a challenge, the rocky landscape provides higher-intensity trails to explore the mountains.nYellowstone promises the classic American camping experience – so make sure to buy s’mores supplies in advance!
Rocky Mountain, Colorado
For those of us that prefer to view nature from a comfortable distance (preferably with the added comfort of air conditioning) the Rocky Mountains is the best park to tour from the driver's seat. Drive along the Old Fall River Road, originally opened in 1920, and take the scenic route to see the 150 lakes and 450 miles of streams nestled in the mountains. Picnic spots abound with tables to snack and stretch your legs. Fly-fishing is an especially popular activity to try along any stream, and poses a fun challenge for first-time fisher!
Hiking trails along the coastline give visitors scenic views of the Pacific Ocean, and for visitors curious about aquatic life, there are many tide pools you can explore during low tide. One of the most scenic spots on Rialto Beach is the Hole in the Wall, the most well known of the naturally occurring holes in the rock face formed by ancient volcanic eruptions.
Grand Teton, Wyoming
Mountain lovers will be thrilled with the numerous trails to hike in the park’s nine central peaks, known as the Grand Tetons. For animal lovers, there are many opportunities for birdwatching and wildlife viewing. Fun fact: Timbered Island, a raised, ridge of land full of trees, is actually not an island. Sitting 6,785 feet (2,068 meters) above sea level, Timbered Island is a sudden, tall shock of green among the grey sagebrush that dominates the area. It is also is the best area to spot small bands of pronghorn antelope, the fastest land animal in North America. If you’re quiet (and lucky), you might even see a moose!
Zion has more than 100 miles of trails, making it a perfect destination for hiking enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Take a canyoneering trip – an outdoor activity that “combines route finding, rappelling, problem solving, swimming, and hiking,” according to the National Parks website, to test survival skills and experience the canyons up close.
For those of you who can't decide whether you want to see mountains, ocean shoreline, woodlands, or lakes, Acadia boasts a variety of habitats so you don't have to choose! Explore while testing your detective skills with the EarthCache scavenger hunt, a National Park Service-sponsored trail of special sites. Using a smartphone or GPS, follow a set of instructions on the website to find clues hidden along your journey to discover the park! Plan an autumn Acadia trip for the bonus of leaf peeping and enjoy the explosion of color as the leaves change for the season.
Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio
You’ll find many hiking and biking trails that allow visitors to view waterfalls, caves, and animal life. For the night owls, check out the park’s Guide to Stargazing. Cuyahoga’s dark skies are perfect for observing meteor showers, or the rise or setting of Mercury.