10 Amazing National Park Adventures (And How To Pull Them Off)
By Michael Lanza
Yellowstone. Yosemite. Grand Canyon. Glacier. Zion. Grand Teton. These names are iconic to people who love exploring America’s national parks. And beyond those flagship parks are dozens more units of the National Park Service (53 more, to be precise) creating infinite opportunities to hike, backpack, kayak, canoe, climb a mountain, fish, or just gape in blissful awe at the scenery. But where do you begin, and what should you or your family do?
In 2016, the centennial of the National Park Service, national parks saw a third consecutive year of record visitation—331 million people. That’s actually greater than the entire population of the United States. And that record came on the heels of two previous high marks: 307.2 million visitors in 2015 and 292.8 million in 2014. That many people can’t be wrong.
Will you visit at least one park this year? It’s time to think about which one to put on the calendar for 2017.
For your inspiration, I’ve assembled here 10 inspiring photos from 10 national parks, with links to stories (and more photos) about great adventures in each one. Many of these places grace my lists of my top 10 adventures ever, top 10 family adventures, and my 25 favorite backcountry campsites. Any one of them will provide an experience of a lifetime. All of them deserve a spot on your to-do list.
Now get busy. You have your fun cut out for you.
1. Yellowstone National Park
Visiting Yellowstone should be a requirement of U.S. citizenship—period. Erupting geysers, natural hot springs (like Grand Prismatic Spring in the photo above), bubbling mud pots, whistling fumaroles, waterfalls, rivers, wildlife you can’t see in most parks and wilderness areas… it’s impossible to summarize the experience in a few words. I’ve visited many times, with my kids and before I had a family, in every season. It’s wonderful for everyone, at any stage in life, partly because so many of its highlight features can be seen on short walks. See my stories “The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone,” “Ask Me: The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone,” and all of my stories about Yellowstone.
2. Olympic National Park
My kids were nine and seven when we backpacked this three-day, 17.5-mile traverse of Washington’s southern Olympic coast several years ago, and they still rank it among their favorite trips. Any why not? For them, it was all about playing for hours in tide pools, exploring a massive boulder wallpapered with mussels, sea anemones, and sea stars, and having a wild coastline almost entirely to ourselves. For us adults, it was all about the abundance of sea life and birds—we saw seals, a sea otter, and a great blue heron, among others—the beauty of the sea stacks rising straight out of the ocean, giant trees, and having a wild coastline almost entirely to ourselves. Need more convincing—or just ready to plan it? See my story from that trip, and all of my stories from Olympic National Park.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
3. Grand Teton National Park
Few destinations or trips that I’ve written about at The Big Outside generate as much visitor traffic or as many reader emails to me as backpacking in Grand Teton National Park (lead photo at top of story), especially on the Teton Crest Trail. Little wonder. It’s step for step one of the most gorgeous mountain walks in America, a true classic offering all the elements of an unforgettable adventure: incomparable views of the Tetons skyline, wonderful campsites, wildflowers, mountain lakes and creeks, and a chance of seeing moose, elk, marmots, pikas, mule deer, and black bears. See my story “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail,” and all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail and Grand Teton National Park.
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
and my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”
4. Glacier Bay National Park
When John Muir visited Alaska’s Glacier Bay in 1879, he wrote that, at night, “the surge from discharging icebergs churned the water into silver fire.” On a five-day, guided sea-kayaking trip in Glacier Bay’s upper West Arm, my family saw sea otters, seals, sea lions, mountain goats, bald eagles, puffins, and countless other birds, and a brown bear wandering the beach (as well as bear scat that convinced us to choose another campsite). We listened to the concussive explosions of enormous chunks of ice calving from giant glaciers into the sea. See my story “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay.”
5. Grand Canyon National Park
One. That’s how many places there are on the entire planet like the Grand Canyon. Seeing it from the South Rim—as most visitors do—is certainly pretty grand. But to really appreciate the Big Ditch, you gotta go down into it. See my story about hiking across the canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim and back (photo above) and my numerous stories about the Grand Canyon, including a four-day, family backpacking trip from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail, a three-day hike I took with my 10-year-old daughter from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point, and backpacking the remote and rugged Royal Arch Loop.
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