Photo Gallery: 10 Amazing National Park Adventures (And How To Pull Them Off)
By Michael Lanza
Yellowstone. Yosemite. Grand Canyon. Glacier. Zion. Sequoia (photo above). 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, and cross-country ski. But where do you begin, and what should you or your family do?
America’s passion for its parks has only grown. A record 307.2 million visitors toured a national park, seashore, or historic site in 2015, on the heels of a record 292.8 million visitors in 2014. Do you have plans to visit at least one park this year? If you’re going to make that happen for yourself or your family, now is the time to start planning.
As inspiration or a form of gentle prodding, I’ve assembled here 10 inspiring photos from 10 national parks, with links to stories (and more photos) about great adventure trips in each one. 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.
Yellowstone National Park
Visiting Yellowstone should be a requirement of U.S. citizenship—period. Erupting geysers (like Grand Prismatic Geyser 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 summer and winter. 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” and all of my stories about Yellowstone for ideas on what to do there.
Grand Canyon National Park
One. That’s how 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, and a three-day hike I took with my 10-year-old daughter from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point.
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Yosemite National Park
Sure, Yosemite Valley is overcrowded with tourists. But don’t let that dissuade you from seeing those magnificent cliffs and some of the tallest waterfalls in the world. Check out all of my stories about Yosemite National Park, including my story about a glorious, 65-mile backpacking trip south of Tuolumne Meadows, and my story from two of my favorite dayhikes in The Valley, Upper Yosemite Falls (photo above) and the Mist Trail-John Muir Trail loop. And here’s a little tip for avoiding the crowds: Start up the Mist Trail at daybreak, way ahead of the crush of hiker traffic; and if you’re a strong hiker, start up the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in early afternoon (not necessarily the same day!), so that most hikers are coming down as you’re going up (and you get more shade than hot sun—but bring a headlamp, just in case you have a late return). Each hike will be a completely different, more solitary experience.
Glacier National Park
For backpackers, Glacier is the major leagues. You will probably see mountain goats, there’s a good chance of sighting bighorn sheep and moose, and you might even spy a bruin of the grizzly or black variety. But above all, the scenery every day will blow you away. And the glaciers won’t be there for many more years (as I write about in my book about family adventures in national parks), so what are you waiting for? Looking for a really big adventure of a lifetime? Check out my story about a 90-mile trek in the park. Prefer to start smaller? Read about my family’s three-day hike on the spectacular Gunsight Pass Trail, plus see all of my stories about Glacier National Park.
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Canyonlands National Park
Poll serious river people for their favorite, easy, multi-day wilderness float trip, and you’ll find one answer consistently cropping up: the Green River through Stillwater Canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Five to seven days of looking at enormous spires and soaring, burgundy canyon walls, plus gorgeous riverside campsites, will convince you, too. And it’s very family-friendly: We took a multi-family trip when our kids were six and four. Read about it and start planning your own, and check out all of my stories from Canyonlands National Park.
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 three summers 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.
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Zion National Park
Southern Utah’s wealth of canyon-country riches certainly doesn’t begin and end with this park. But there’s a good reason Zion is the best-known of the numerous national parks and other public lands gracing Utah. The trails below and amid Zion Canyon’s half-mile-tall, gold and white monoliths are a good place to start. But don’t stop there: Treat yourself to the incomparable vistas from the West Rim Trail and in the Kolob Canyons by repeating this family backpacking trip in Zion. Are you a seriously ambitious hiker or trail runner? Read about an ultra-dayhike across the park and a descent of The Subway. And see this photo gallery from all the hikes I’ve done in Zion, and all of my stories about Zion.
Mount Rainier National Park
No matter how many times you see it, The Mountain will take your breath away. Hiking at the foot of it offers the finest perspective on Rainier’s unfathomable scale, but also treats you to one of the best wildflower shows in the Northwest, views of some of the biggest glaciers in the Lower 48, foaming rivers, waterfalls, and lush temperate rain forest. Check out my story about a three-day, 22-mile family backpacking trip from Mowich Lake to Sunrise, my Ask Me post describing my favorite dayhikes at Rainier, and all of my stories about Mount Rainier National Park.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
On a three-day backpacking trip, I was transfixed by the shifting, high-contrast light on the sprawling dunes, how the morning frost of late autumn sparkled in morning sunlight—and the magical sound of the sand “singing” in squeaks and booms when it slid down the flank of one of these steep-sided dunes. We walked along the crest of giant waves of sand as narrow as the peak of a roof. At night, shooting stars arced like flaming arrows through a pitch-black sky. Spreading out almost ironically below the 13,000-foot-high Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Great Sand Dunes are fun to explore whatever your age. Read my story about that trip.
Sequoia National Park
The southern High Sierra are home to many of the highest mountains and one of the biggest chunks of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48—a pristine and incredibly photogenic land of razor peaks and alpine lakes so clear you could stand on the shore and read a book laying open on the lake bottom. On a nearly 40-mile backpacking trip into the backcountry of Sequoia, our second national park (designated 18 years after Yellowstone and a week before Yosemite), my family stood at the foot of giant sequoias, camped by pristine, clear-water lakes reflecting jagged, granite ridges, crossed mountains passes as high as 11,600 feet, and enjoyed six days of constant, big views in big wilderness. Read my story about that trip.
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