Over 300 million people head to U.S. national parks every year to explore natural landscapes, discover American history, and learn about conservation. While there's no shortage of excellent activities to chose from in these wild spaces, here are ten that should make the top of any park-lover's list.
Find the Perfect Stargazing Spot: Death Valley
In 2013, the International Dark-Sky Association certified Death Valley National Park at its highest level, meaning visitors can enjoy a near pristine sky while standing in the desert destination. To enjoy our galaxies best views, book a campsite in the park or trek into its deeper regions for backcountry camping. On a clear night, visitors can look up and spot astronomical objects that are impossible to see most other places around the world. To expand your already awe-inspiring experience, attend a night sky program or tour with one of Death Valley’s park rangers in the winter or spring.
Take the Rafting Trip of a Lifetime: Grand Canyon
There are plenty of ways to explore Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, but perhaps the most coveted is a multiday rafting trip down the Colorado River. While shorter trips will take you from Diamond Creek to Lake Mead in two to five days, the ultimate white water adventure through the sandstone and shale canyon is a 12- to 25-day self-guided trip between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek. Permits for these trips, which should only be taken by experienced paddlers, are made available through a weighted lottery each year and are consistently tough to grab.
Scuba Dive Through a Kelp Forest: Channel Islands
Channel Islands National Park, which consists of five islands off the coast of southern California and the surrounding ocean ecosystems, is home to unique flora and fauna best discovered by snorkeling and scuba diving. Explore the renowned kelp forests and sea caves around Santa Barbara, Anacapa, and eastern Santa Cruz with a buddy, but stay out of the water at Santa Rosa and San Miquel if you aren’t properly trained and conditioned for extreme wind. The islands are incredibly well-preserved, so there aren’t any stores or rental shops for visitors. Be prepared and pack everything you need for the excursion ahead of time.
Take to the Skies: Arches
Arches National Park in Utah is covered in over 2,000 natural stone arches, along with hundreds of jagged pinnacles. Hikers can see their beauty from below, staring up while they walk around the red rocks. Campers can stare at them at night, framed by glowing stars. But if you want a truly unique view of these ancient formations, head to the sky. A hot air balloon ride will take you through the nearby mountains, over the desert arches, and high above the park’s cacti and wildflowers. Many nearby companies are available for tours, so you won't have trouble booking a ride. Choose one, pack your camera, and take a deep breath.
Discover Real Backcountry Camping: Denali
Most backpackers head to Denali National Park in Alaska from May through September, but permits—given only in person—are available year-round for campers and hikers who aren’t intimidated by less than ideal weather, a lack of bus service, and decreased daylight hours. Whatever the season, camping in this landscape is no small feat. Before you head into the park to discover glaciers and spot caribou, you’ll be required to talk with a ranger about your plans and watch a video on the backcountry. With only a few official trails, there are tons of off-route areas to explore, each with its own array of outstanding hikes and amazing views.
Ride Back in Time: Glacier
The clear waters and wildlife-filled forests of Glacier National Park have been drawing people inside their bounds for thousands of years. Eventually, after pressure from naturalists, President Taft signed a 1910 bill to officially establish the region as a national park. Though the destination now has plenty of modern lodges, restaurants, and paved roads, there’s still a way to discover the diverse landscape as early explorers did—on horseback. During the spring, summer, and fall months, you can find guided rides from Many Glacier, Lake McDonald, and Apgar. If Many Glacier is your base, be sure to make time for one of the area's worthwhile day hikes while you're there.
Climb El Capitan's Sheer Walls: Yosemite
The summit of El Capitan, a monumental formation in California’s Yosemite National Park, rises 3,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor. Climbers from around the world are drawn to the challenge—and they're reaching new achievements every year. During the first ascent in 1958, climbers made it to the top through The Nose. In 1961, another group went up the Salathé Wall. In 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall. If you join the ranks of these accomplished climbers and make it to the top of this granite treasure, you’ll get the privilege of looking down from the epic cliff to the lush forests and blossoming meadows below.
Surf in Glacial Waters: Kenai Fjords
Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park might not be on your current list of must-visit surf spots, but it needs to be. From the park’s rocky coastline, surfers will find secluded coves and sizeable waves. In the summer, head to Bear Glacier Lagoon to ride your board beneath towering mountains and blue skies—and to stock up on impressive stories about navigating icebergs and spotting sea lions. It’s possible to kayak the 12 miles to the lagoon from Seward, but it’s a challenging route even for experienced paddlers—plus you’ll have your surfboard. Instead, catch a water taxi or a private boat and bring your camping gear to extend your trip.
Climb a Waterfall of Ice: Pictured Rocks
Though Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore isn’t technically a national park, it is the country’s very first national lakeshore and protected by the National Park Service. The region, located along Lake Superior, offers excellent warm weather activities, but if you’re brave enough to venture north in the winter, you’ll be rewarded with a truly one-of-a-kind experience—ice climbing along the numerous waterfalls and rocky cliffs above the massive Great Lake. It’s easiest to find a column to climb between Munising Falls and Sand Point, but with just a three-mile ski or snowshoe trek, visitors can ascend Miners Falls as well. Since these routes are not preset and are wide open for climbers, remember to protect and preserve the natural structures around the ice when you visit. And if you just can’t get enough of this winter wonderland, add a winter camping trip or a cross-country ski session to your adventure.
Snorkel through Historic Shipwrecks: Biscayne
Not only does the park service look after coral reefs and mangrove forests in Florida’s Biscayne National Park, it safeguards the deep, complicated human history of the area. You can certainly see traces of these footprints on land, but head under the surface of the sea to get a different perspective on the past. Along with the colorful coral and plentiful marine life, visitors can boat from shipwreck to shipwreck on the Maritime Heritage Trail and hop into the water to get up close and personal with the vessels. The park’s warm, welcoming water is shallow, so be sure to watch the tide tables before making your plans.