Best U.S. National Parks in the West
Best U.S. National Parks in the West
The content in this guide is provided for general information only, and is not intended to address specific circumstances of any particular individuals. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.
When you think of the American West, you may call to mind images of cowboys riding through the desert or tumbleweeds rolling through sleepy, deserted mining towns. However, there is so much more to the West than cowboy clichés. This region includes Alaska, California and even Hawaii.
Diversity is common in the West, from the ecosystems to the people and the cities that they live in. The fabulous, star-studded Hollywood and Los Angeles stand in contrast to the vast, snowy expanses of the Alaskan wilderness.
This region is separated into two divisions: Mountain and Pacific. Mountain states here include Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico, while the Pacific division includes states such as Oregon, California, Hawaii and Washington.
From the beautiful Pacific Ocean and its sprawling coastline to Hawaii’s tropical paradise and volcanoes, from Alaska’s Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, to the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon and majestic desert rock formations, there are plenty of natural attractions in the West to delight.
The gold rush and westward expansion brought many early pioneers to the western wilderness, but today, the region looks very different from visions of the region immortalized by movies and television shows.
Millions flock each year to experience first class entertainment and try their luck in the casino capital of the U.S.: Las Vegas, Nevada. San Francisco once drew crowds of peace-loving hippies in the 1960s, and the Golden Gate Bridge here still carries more than 110,000 vehicles each day.
Despite these bustling metropolises, the National Park Service (NPS) has preserved much of the beautiful, organic, natural landscapes in this region for the public to enjoy. In fact, it was the beauty of the area that inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to create the NPS in the first place.
The Great Sand Dunes in Colorado and the iconic Grand Canyon of Arizona are just two of the stunning locations in this region. Whether you are flying in a helicopter over an active volcano or observing a rare and quickly-disappearing glacier, there is so much to see and do in the West.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park, sometimes called the Crown of the Continent, is one of the greatest parks of the American West. Located in central Montana near the Canadian border, this precious natural environment has a very notable main highlight: glaciers.
These magnificent environmental features are also fleeting and quickly disappearing. Scientists have been studying the unique systems at work in this park for years and believe that massive glaciers during the Ice Age carved a majority of the park’s landscape, including the breathtaking mountains.
This certainly is an ancient place, and evidence of human activity dates to over 10,000 years ago. Native American tribes hunted in the forests and fished the waters here. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation still exists nearby and is home to the largest tribe in the state. When European trappers arrived in the early 1800s, they set up trap lines for beavers and established a railroad for easier access to the region.
For its rich history and stunning natural environment, this park is definitely worth a visit. In addition to the 25 glaciers, there are waterfalls, alpine meadows and 200 lakes for you to experience up close and personal. While there were once an estimated 150 glaciers, there are now just 25. Visiting the park promises that you can see them — before they are gone.
Home to one of the largest grizzly bear populations, the wildlife at Glacier is something special. The extremely rare and endangered lynx has also been seen within the park. Spot one of the many beavers and their dams on the water. The largest feline in North America, the mountain lion, roams here, too. Mountain goats love the high, rocky cliffs and ridges. With huge horns that can weigh more than 25 pounds, bighorn sheep can live not only among the meadows and slopes, but even survive at the highest elevations.
A day hike or backpacking trip gives you the best opportunity to see some of the wildlife. Logan Pass, the highest elevation that you can reach by car, is a great place to start. Logan Pass is one of the most popular places to visit, as many different animals can be seen grazing and roaming through the meadows here. During the summer, wildflowers add color to the meadows and landscape.
There are several self-guided walks that you can take at your own pace, including The Trail of the Cedars, Forest and Fire, Hidden Lake, Running Eagle Falls and Swiftcurrent Nature Trail. The Trail of the Cedars and Running Eagle Falls are wheelchair accessible. Save yourself a drive and take one of the free shuttles. You can also take a drive or bike ride on Going-to-the-Sun Road, which bisects the park and offers truly amazing views.
Many Glacier, another area in the park, offers more spectacular views of the glaciers, lakes and mountains. There are so many trails here that a full week wouldn’t be enough to explore them all!
If you want to escape the crowds, The North Fork (open seasonally) is one of the more secluded areas within the park. It can only be reached by private vehicle. However, the bumpy, rough dirt roads lead to the best in untouched, rugged mountain beauty.
In addition to hiking, the abundant lakes and rivers provide plenty of opportunities to enjoy water sports, including canoe paddling, whitewater rafting and fishing. Watersports are best done in summer, but there are plenty of things to do in other seasons as well.
Winter typically brings plenty of snow, and the park has winter trails where you can snowshoe or cross country ski. Please note that snowmobiles are not allowed in the park, and many roads and heavily skied trails can ice over. There is also a risk of avalanches, so use caution.
Surrounding the park are several picturesque and friendly towns. The nearby town of Whitefish was counted as one of the “Top 25 Ski Towns in the World ” by National Geographic and also has shopping, gourmet restaurants and live theater. Kalispell is another charming town that boasts two ski resorts, a championship golf course and outstanding arts and culture.
There is much to see, so you may consider staying conveniently within the park. There are many lodging options, from cozy cabins to historic hotel rooms. On the shore of Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park, you can find the Swiss-influenced rustic hunting lodge, Lake McDonald Lodge. Comfort and absolutely spectacular lake views — what could be better? You might want to make reservations in advance, as accommodations book up quickly.
You can also stay at the Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake. Or, after a day of hiking, you may want to rest your head at one of two backcountry chalets that can only be reached by trail: the Granite Park Chalet at the west end of the park or the Sperry Chalet. For those who wish to camp within Glacier, there are 13 campgrounds and numerous camp stores and restaurants.
During the summer months of June through September, the Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille Native American tribes share their history and culture in the Native America Speaks program. This unparalleled program is a must-see if you are visiting Glacier National Park during these months.
If you can brave the cold, catch the Brash Winter Series Rodeo in Kalispell in late January or the Whitefish Winter Carnival in Whitefish in early February. Or, for a warmer event, check out the Under the Big Sky Festival in July.
Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Idaho and Montana
When most Americans think of national parks, Yellowstone is frequently the first one that comes to mind. Yellowstone National Park is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, with a little overlap into Idaho to the west and Montana to the north. If you are flying in, Denver has the closest major airport.
Yellowstone is an enormous park, comprising more than 3,500 square miles. It features five entrances; two in Montana and three in Wyoming. If you are coming north from Grand Teton National Park, you’ll use the South Entrance Station. The busiest entrance is the West Entrance Station in West Yellowstone, Montana because it is nearest to the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, Old Faithful, and the Norris Geyser Basin. There are often long lines at the West Entrance Station, so if you are approaching from that direction, it is best to get there before 8:00 AM or late in the afternoon.
This region of the country was considered so precious that it was the very first to be deemed worthy of protection, conservation and the coveted status of a national park. It’s easy to see why. From hot springs to forests, this park has it all, and there is no limit to outdoor activities to enjoy here.
One of Yellowstone’s main attractions is the world’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful, which has erupted more than one million times since Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. In addition to Old Faithful, Yellowstone has more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, of which more than 500 are geysers. Another must-see in Yellowstone is the Norris Geyser Basin. Here you can walk along the boardwalk to take in the hottest and oldest of the park’s natural thermal areas.
Yellowstone is home to the most extraordinary collection of hydrothermal features in the world. Because of microorganisms called thermophiles that live in the extremely hot water, many of the hydrothermal features have bands of different colors that make the springs even more beautiful.
Yellowstone has more than 290 waterfalls, including the spectacular Lower Yellowstone River Falls, which has a 308-foot drop. Or, if you want to see a waterfall with fewer crowds, check out the Kepler Cascades, a 150-foot waterfall nestled in the woods.
You can visit one of the many authorized outfitters to rent anything from boats to bicycles. Many even guided hiking, boating, whitewater rafting and fishing tours. Some establishments provide guided photography and painting tours, too! There is bound to be something for everyone.
For some water fun, take to the lake by boat. The waters can be frigid, and wind can cause sizable waves, so paddlers should stay near the shore and away from the open water. Fishing is one of the most popular water recreation activities, especially fly fishing for trout, moth hatches and Hebgen Lake gulpers. The park estimates that 50,000 people fish within the park each year and many take the trip just for fishing. Although most visitors fish in the park during the summer and fall months, some intrepid anglers come during the winter to fly fish on the rivers and ice fish in the lakes.
When you are ready for some activities on solid ground, you could try your hand at horseback riding during a day trip. Or, perhaps you’d be interested in a guided overnight backcountry trip.
You can go at your own pace when you bike down one of the established routes, or take a leisurely stroll beside one of the hot springs. The Rendezvous Trail System is open to hikers and bikers in the summer and cross country skiers in the winter. There are numerous hikes for every ability level.
Many mountain bikers and road cyclists enjoy taking the scenic Continental Divide Trail and the TransAmerica Trail, especially in the spring, when the trails are closed to motor vehicles. If motorsports are your thing, you can explore Yellowstone on an ATV or snowmobile through miles of well-maintained and well-marked trails.
While hiking, biking or otherwise exploring, consider making a visit to Hayden Valley, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where you might catch sight of bison, elk and grizzly bears. The valley is a particularly great place for bird watching, including ducks, geese, bald eagles and sandhill cranes.
Yellowstone has a unique kind of beauty any time of the year. In the spring, you can often find a carpet of vivid green grasses and wildflowers, and it is a great time for scenic drives and wildlife spotting. Spring is one of the best times to see bears, since this is when they come down from higher elevations. Mid to late spring brings fly fishermen from all over as well as bicyclists who can own the road while it is closed to cars.
Summertime is the busiest time in the park because of all the boating, fishing and other activities you can do. It also brings annual events such as local rodeos, The Museum of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone Aerial Adventures rope and zipline course, Yellowstone Giant Screen Theater and the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, as well as a family-fun Fourth of July celebration.
Fall brings vibrant color and gives you the opportunity to witness elks battle each other with their giant antlers during the rutting season. Photographers love to come to Yellowstone in fall, since the fog and steam make for amazing pictures. This is also a big fly fishing season, as brown and rainbow trout migrate from Hebgen Lake up the rivers.
During the winter, visitors can enjoy skiing, snowshoeing and even snowmobiling. When enough snow is on the ground, the roads are open exclusively to “oversnow” travel, which means visitors can only venture through the park via guided snowmobile or snow coach tours. Ice fishermen venture out on the frozen lakes to try their luck at the NAIFC Ice Fishing Tournament in January. Winter sports enthusiasts can compete in Nordic ski races, and children can try out winter activities at the Kids ‘N’ Snow weekends once a month from December through March.
Yellowstone is a camper’s paradise, since it has 12 campgrounds on property with over 2,000 sites! An additional nine lodges within the park means there are plenty of places to stay and many options for spending the night in Yellowstone. Two of the lodges even operate during the winter.
If you’re interested in roughing it in the backcountry, you’ll need to obtain a backcountry permit. There are also more comfortable accommodations in the surrounding towns, such as the Adventure Inn Yellowstone in West Yellowstone or the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in the park.
One last thing to note: your $35 entrance fee per non-commercial vehicle lasts for one week and will get you into both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. However, extra activities like rentals and guided tours carry additional costs, so budget accordingly.
Grand Teton National Park
Majestic snow-capped mountains and pristine lakes characterize this Wyoming national park. The Teton Range rises more than 7,000 feet above the Jackson Hole valley, with a dramatic shift from uniformly flat land to jagged, rocky peaks. Forested mountain sides and meadows blanketed in wildflowers abound in the spring and summer, but give way to bitterly cold and snowy winters for much of the year.
Grand Teton National Park is just south of Yellowstone National Park in western Wyoming. If you are planning to visit Yellowstone National Park as well, you may consider taking the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, which connects Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Not only is it a convenient way to travel, it also offers some fantastic scenery. The closest major airport to the park is in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Explore this rugged wilderness along any of the 200 miles of trails that promise a glimpse of this area’s natural beauty. Bike, hike or travel down a route that Native Americans and fur trappers may have used hundreds of years ago. Paddle a kayak or float down one of the scenic rivers, such as the Snake River.
For those who are less inclined to hike some of the steep trails, cruising the scenic drives is a great option. Drives like The Teton Park Road or the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive provide less strenuous ways to see it all. Many road pullouts along the way offer some of the finest views. The Signal Mountain Summit road in particular climbs 800 feet and pays off with unforgettable panoramas.
There are a variety of trails in the park with varying difficulty levels. High elevations in this rugged landscape can present some difficulty for new hikers. For example, the Bannock Falls hike located in the southwest area of the park near Bradley Lake is a strenuous six-mile round-trip hike, as is the Garnet Canyon hike, which goes through the heart of the Teton Mountains. It is a good idea to research hiking trails that best suit your level and take into consideration any safety recommendations.
For those who prefer a more leisurely hike, a lakeside trail is a safe bet. You can try the Heron Pond-Swan Lake Loop Trail or the Lake Creek-Woodland Trail Loop. If you love pristine mountain lakes, you’re in luck. Grand Teton has numerous hiking trails to gorgeous lakes, including the Lakeshore Trail, Leigh Lake, Lake Solitude and Phelps Lake.
Commercial horseback rides are available within the park and present another great way to take to the trails. For those who wish to take their trip to the water, commercial fishing trips, motor boating, paddling and floating are some of your options. Fishing at the Snake River is a popular park pastime, but a fishing license is required.
Jackson Lake adds the bonus of opportunities for water skiing, windsurfing and sail boating. Water activities may come to a halt during the freezing Wyoming winters, but snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are other unique kinds of fun.
There are six campgrounds and multiple RV sites with full hookups within the park. Backcountry camping requires some advanced planning as well as a permit. Reservations for the year open on the first Wednesday of January. The park also provides backcountry campers with bear-proof canisters, which are required for any overnight stays.
Grand Teton also has many lodges, ranches and cabins. You can check out the rustic log cabins at the Dornan’s Spur Ranch Cabins or the modern rooms at the full-service resort, Jackson Lake Lodge.
The park’s wild spaces are home to all kinds of wildlife, including bears, coyotes, bald eagles, elk and more than 300 species of birds. You might be relieved to learn that there are no venomous snakes in the park.
For an unforgettable trip, consider exploring the local scenery and wildlife with EcoTour Adventures, which takes you into Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Adventure lovers can enjoy the thrill of whitewater and scenic rafting trips on the Snake River.
Jackson Hole is a charming, upscale town located at the southern park boundary. It is bordered by three ski areas:
- Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
- Snow King Mountain Resort
- Grand Targhee Resort
The town’s shops sell unique handmade clothing, jewelry, candles and art that help remind you of your fabulous trip. Grab some breakfast at the Whistling Grizzly at the Wyoming Inn, enjoy a juicy steak at the White Buffalo Club or sample local beer and see live music at the Mangy Moose brewpub.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is in north central Colorado, just a short drive from Denver. Whether you are taking it in by foot, car or horseback, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts 415 square miles of nature’s most pristine mountainous environments. Elevations here range from 7,800 to 14,000 feet, making it one of the highest national parks in the nation.
Hike or take a horseback ride along more than 300 miles of winding trails. With this many hiking trails to explore, there are choices for every ability level. Choose between relatively flat and easy trails or steep climbs to the top of a beautiful mountain vista. The Bear Lake Trail is an easy hike of a little more than a half mile along a subalpine lake.
For a higher elevation of 700 feet, the Mills Lake hike is around 2.8 miles and brings you to a mountain pond that is particularly lovely in the fall. If you love waterfalls, you’re in luck. There are plenty of beautiful waterfall hikes, including Ouzel Falls and the dramatic Cascade Falls. For more advanced hikers, the challenging hike to the Twin Sisters Summit will make you feel like you are on top of the world.
Rocky Mountain National Park boasts 60 towering peaks above 12,000 feet for some unforgettable vistas. You can take a scenic drive, spread out a picnic or camp along the way. The popular Trail Ridge Road scenic drive is the highest paved highway in the nation. It crosses the Continental Divide and crests at 12,000 feet!
Snap some photos along the drive, keeping a lookout for wildlife. This park is known for its wildlife and is practically bursting with diverse species. The three distinctly different elevation levels are the ideal habitat for each individual type of flora and fauna.
Each ecosystem area offers something different. The Montane area, with an elevation of 5,600 to 9,500 feet, is marked by meandering rivers, meadow valleys and grassy slopes. During the summer, this area is blanketed with wildflowers. It is home to the widest range of plant and animal life in the park. Mule deer, badgers, coyotes, bobcats, moose and mountain lions can be found here. If you enjoy bird watching, this ecosystem is the best place to spot some fine-feathered friends, like the golden eagle and great horned owl.
The subalpine ecosystem, at 9,000 to 11,000 feet, is the next area on the way up the mountains. Here, evergreen trees and crystal-clear lakes support animal populations like black bears, woodpeckers and snowshoe hares. You might also spot porcupines, elk or long-tailed weasels here. Because conditions become gradually more harsh at this elevation, some of the trees may look stunted. As you continue, you may notice a treeline, above which there is little greenery.
The next-highest ecosystem is considered alpine tundra, which sits above the treeline at 11,000 feet and higher. Rocky Mountain National Park has the largest contiguous area of tundra ecosystem in the continental United States. It is windy and cold, so be sure to bring a jacket. Even in summer, it is common to see some patches of snow. July is the warmest month, with an average high temperature of 52 degrees.
The only plants growing in this area are the sort that cling to the ground, such as moss and cushion plants. However, many still feature full-size flowers, especially in the summer. The alpine tundra supports plenty of life, like herds of elk and bighorn sheep as well as badgers, yellow-bellied marmots and red foxes.
The highest elevation in the park has several small glaciers. Ice has long been a sculptor of this environment and, though the large glaciers are no longer present, the park still has several small glaciers that can be seen from the many scenic vistas. These three different areas combine to make Rocky Mountain National Park one of the best parks for viewing wildlife, with roughly 60 species of mammals and 280 bird species, butterflies, insects and fish.
Aside from the wildlife viewing, there is plenty to enjoy within the park. You can fish for trout in one of the 48 lakes or numerous streams. Anglers should avoid fishing in high altitude lakes, however, since it is too cold and there is no spawning habitat for fish to live. Sport fishermen need a Colorado fishing license, as the fish populations here are protected to maintain balance.
Those interested in taking to the trails on horseback can visit one of the two stables within the park. There are also a handful of authorized stables outside the park limits, which are permitted to bring riders in.
The fun doesn’t end in winter, either. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and sledding are popular wintertime activities. You can even take a ranger-led snowshoe walk. If you didn’t bring your snowshoes or other equipment, don’t worry; there are plenty of shops where you can rent or buy them in nearby Estes Park and Grand Lake. Many winter visitors enjoy looking for bighorn sheep, snowshoe hare, ptarmigan, coyotes, elk and mule deer, as well as a variety of birds, including Steller’s jays, Clark’s nutcrackers and magpies.
Despite this, the most popular time of year is summertime. Do not be surprised by long lines and heavy traffic; remember to pack your patience. You can avoid some of the crowds by entering the park from the east, since nearly 80% of visitors enter from the western side. A bonus is that you are more likely to see a moose in this part of the park.
During the summer, the weather is usually sunny and clear, and the rivers and waterfalls are swollen with winter melt. Temperatures range between 45 and 80 degrees, so it pays to dress in layers.
If you plan on staying overnight, you can make wilderness campsite reservations online far in advance and obtain your overnight permit when you arrive. Or, stay at one of the five campgrounds:
- Glacier Basin
- Moraine Park
- Timber Creek
- Longs Peak
All sites except Longs Peak accept reservations, which are highly recommended. There are no cabins or hotel rooms within the park, but you can find many in the nearby towns. The Della Terra Mountain Chateau in Estes Park is a frequent spot for weddings and has beautiful rooms. The Historic Rapids Lodge in Grand Lake offers simple or rustic quarters, some with kitchens, and is right in the center of town.
When you’ve had your fill of natural beauty, head over to the charming town of Estes Park for some shopping at unique boutiques, many with handcrafted items. Have a delicious mountain breakfast at the family-owned Mountain Home Cafe or dine with spectacular views at the Dunraven at the Estes Park Resort. Or, stop by Grand Lake, where moose sightings are loved pastimes. In fact, one particular moose named Bruce is often seen strolling through town, especially near the lake.
Death Valley National Park
California and Nevada
Although Death Valley might not sound too inviting, you shouldn’t let it scare you away from experiencing one of the most unique national parks in the country. Accurately deemed “a land of extremes,” harsh summer heat and drought contrast with the snow-covered peaks. It is one of the driest places on the planet; it receives less than two inches of rain each year and has basins sitting below sea level.
Although you may think more of Nevada when it comes to desert, the majority of Death Valley National Park is in eastern California, about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas. The park, which boasts more than 5,000 square miles, is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. Be prepared to pay $30 per vehicle for a seven-day pass.
The temperatures in Death Valley often soar well above 100 degrees, so you may be surprised to find that many creatures can survive in these conditions. In fact, many different species have adapted to this harsh environment. For example, bighorn sheep can survive without water for days, and the unbelievable kangaroo rat can live its entire life without water!
Other animals rest during the heat of the day and only come out at night, like the coyote. Desert tortoises live underground in a burrow for a majority of the year to escape the extreme weather. Jackrabbits use their large ears to lose heat and stay cool. Other signs of life can be seen in the few vegetation zones.
While most of the park is very brown, it is beautiful. Desert holly, Joshua tree and blackbrush are just some of the plants that grow in Death Valley. On the rare occasion that it does rain, you may be able to see impromptu fields of wildflowers. This most likely happens in the winter and spring months.
Because of its unforgiving environment, the main attraction in Death Valley is its geologic features, including sinuous sand dunes, cracked ground, salt flats, snowy mountain peaks, landscape of folded barren mountains and colorful rock formations.
There is little man-made light here, so the stargazing is among the country’s best. In fact, it has been given the highest level from the International Dark-Sky Association, so you may be able to see celestial objects there that are not visible anywhere else in the world. Top stargazing spots include the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Harmony Borax Works, the Badwater Basin and Ubehebe Crater. Don’t forget about the sunrises and sunsets, which feature mind blowing color set against the otherworldly vistas.
You can begin your visit at the Furnace Creek visitor center, where you can watch a short introductory film on the park and learn about any special events or programs. There are often guided tours, like the Golden Canyon Walk. During the winter and spring, special paleontology hikes take you through areas of the park that are often closed to the public.
You can even visit the Devil’s Golf Course, a large rock salt pan with a jagged, serrated surface. If you listen closely, you can hear the popping of millions of salt crystals expanding from the heat. Stop by Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. A boardwalk makes this an easy walk and wheelchair accessible.
If you want to escape the heat, take in the scenery from the comfort of an air-conditioned car on Artist’s Palette, a scenic loop drive with picture-perfect vistas. Dante’s View, which sits at more than 5,000 feet in elevation, is a great place to view the landscape below.
Zabriskie Point is the most popular viewpoint to overlook the splendor of the desert badlands, especially during sunrise and sunset. The setting sun offers relief from the heat and the starry night sky is a must-see. Bring your binoculars and find an elevated, open area for the best view. Consider visiting during the new moon, when the sky is darker and even more stars are visible.
If you are biking or hiking with dogs, 20-Mule Team Canyon Winding is a great route. There are more than 780 miles of roads and hundreds of miles perfect for mountain biking. If you want to get off the beaten trail, you can easily navigate and create your own hiking route, or ask a ranger for suggestions. November through March is the best time to hike and avoid the summer’s relentless heat. Whenever you choose to visit, be sure to bring plenty of water!
Extend your visit for multiple days of hiking by staying overnight within the park. There are four lodging options, like rooms at the historic Inn at Death Valley or the cabins at Panamint Springs Resort. Many campgrounds are also available. The most popular, Furnace Creek Campground, accepts reservations for the camping season, October 15 to April 15. If you are traveling with an RV and require a site with hookups, reservations are even more essential, as it is virtually impossible to find a site without one. If you decide to camp in the park, consider taking a full moon night hike in a relatively flat area like Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Be sure to bring a flashlight and water, as it can reach up to 100 degrees in Death Valley even at night during the summer.
There is not much around Death Valley in terms of population, but if you want to make a trip around your visit to Death Valley, you can take in the sensational entertainment options in Las Vegas. To experience more nature near Death Valley, consider a visit to Sequoia National Forest, Inyo National Forest or Yosemite National Park to the west.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park is located in southwest Utah near the city of Springdale. It is roughly a three-hour drive from the nearest major airport in Las Vegas. Zion is a desert oasis, where the Virgin River brings rare water to the surrounding desert. The river has etched the red rock cliffs and created canyons, cliffs and towers that are a sight to behold. Bordering the river and through the canyons is a diverse ecosystem. Cliffs, waterfalls, canyons and plateaus make this an ideal landscape for inspiration and recreation.
Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations roamed through this land hunting giant sloths, mammoths and camels. The ancient way of life eventually gave way to pioneer farming in this rare and ideal environment for crop growth. Surrounded by barren desert, the Zion wilderness of today still supports a range of plants and animals among its canyons, deserts and forested mesas.
The Narrows, one of the most crowded and popular places in the park, is a deep gorge with stunning 1,000-foot walls. It is the narrowest portion of the Zion Canyon. A hike through The Narrows can last a few hours or all day, depending on how far you wish to go.
The Angels Landing trail is one of the most famous hikes in the United States. It offers views of the canyon rock layers, which are millions of years old. Visitors who are not fans of heights might want to steer clear of the last portion of this route. It is full of sheer drop-offs and steep climbs, with only chains attached to poles providing secure handholds.
These two popular hiking areas often fill up early and quickly, but there are plenty of other quieter trails to trek. A must-see attraction is the Emerald Pools, a series of desert oases punctuated by lush plant life, waterfalls and red rock formations. The walk to the first pool is quick and easy and is suitable for small children, seniors and individuals in wheelchairs.
For the more seasoned outdoor enthusiast, 90 miles of trails and 36 designated backpacking sites make Zion a backpacker’s paradise. This park is also one of the premier places in the U.S. to experience canyoneering, which combines rappelling, swimming, hiking and route finding. One such popular route is called the Subway. It is a semi-technical slot canyon hike, where the majority of it is wading and swimming in the cold water. Rock climbers can also find plenty of big walls and sandstone cliffs, ripe for the ascent. The best time of year for climbing is March to May and September to November.
Thanks to the Virgin River, wildlife abounds, including 78 species of mammals like mountain lions, mule deer, foxes, bighorn sheep and bats. There are also 291 bird species, 37 reptile species and amphibians and eight species of fish in the park. Bird watchers can spot birds as large as the California Condor and as small as the black chinned hummingbird in the park year round. In fact, Zion National Park has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the Bird Life International program at both the state and global levels.
Millions of travelers visit Zion National Park each year, and with such high numbers come long wait lines and road congestion. The best way to get around quickly and effectively is on the free shuttle service from Springdale. The two shuttle loops take visitors anywhere they need to go within the park. The Zion Canyon Shuttle connects the visitor center to the nine locations along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.
You may prefer to avoid traveling on four wheels and instead take a horseback ride on one of the guided trips, which are offered from March through October. Or, bring your bike to cruise any of the scenic park roadways.
To beat the crowds altogether, visit during the off-season, which takes place from November to February. If you come during the winter, pack a rain jacket and warm clothes because it rains and snows regularly. Spring weather is variable, with swings of up to 30 degrees from noon to midnight. In summer, be prepared for heat that often soars above 100 degrees. You may also have to contend with sudden and violent thunderstorms, which can cause flash floods. Fall is the ideal time to visit, with cooler temperatures, less rain and blooming trees.
Like any national park visit, the best way to ensure a great time is by planning ahead. Make reservations whenever possible. There are three overnight campgrounds in the area, two of which are in Zion Canyon. These fill up very quickly, so you may want to make a reservation or plan on arriving early to secure a spot. If you plan on camping in the backcountry, keep in mind that canyoneering trips, river trips and overnight backpacking all require a Zion Wilderness Permit.
The Zion Lodge, three miles north of the scenic canyon drive, is open all year long and has rooms, suites and cabins. Or, you may want to stay at the quaint Bumbleberry Inn or Cable Mountain Lodge in Springdale.
There are camping options as well, from tent and RV campgrounds at the Watchman Campground, tent sites at the South Campground, primitive sites at the Lava Point Campground as well as glamping at the Under Canvas Zion Luxury Campground. Get some family-friendly fare at Oscar’s Cafe or the Zion Pizza and Noodle Co. or live it up with fine dining at the Bit ‘n Spur or the Switchback Grille.
While you are in the area, consider visiting the nearby Bryce Canyon National Park, where you can take in more of the stunning Utah landscape. Weekly passes are $35 per vehicle. No off-road vehicles are allowed in the park. However, you can explore the park on horseback. Vendors provide horses for rent right in Zion Canyon. This is a great way to see the wildlife, since animals are less likely to get spooked by a horse than a vehicle.
Arches National Park
If you love rock arches and keyholes, this is the national park for you. Arches National Park is located in eastern central Utah near the town of Moab and near the border of Colorado. The closest major airport is Salt Lake City, which is just an hour and a half by car. Entrance to the park is $30 per vehicle for a seven-day pass.
Arches National Park is aptly named for the densest concentration of stone arches in the world, with over 2,000 of them in all shapes and sizes. The arches were created by a combination of unique geology, with sandstone in different consistencies mixed with layers of salt and the steady erosion of rain. You can see several types of arches in the park, including a cliff wall arch that resembles a bus shelter, a free standing arch which looks like a window, a pothole arch reminiscent of a doorway and a natural bridge that reaches over an active stream.
There are also all kinds of arches in progress, holes and openings of various sizes. One interesting formation of this type is called tafoni, and it looks like a honeycomb. Intricate tafoni can be found in the Entrada and Navajo sandstones.
You might want to start out by taking a scenic drive through the park to get an overview; this is the way that most visitors experience the park. Drive to the Windows Section to see some of the park’s largest arches, or drive out to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint for a terrific view of the most famous arch. Either of these drives will take about an hour and a half.
Hiking and canyoneering are popular pastimes at Arches. Most of the trails in the park are relatively easy, such as the Balanced Rock trail (which is wheelchair accessible), the Skyline Arch and the Landscape Arch at Devil’s Garden. More experienced hikers can try their hand at the Double O Arch at Devil’s Garden, the Fiery Furnace (requires a ranger or a day-use permit) or the Tower Arch.
Canyoneering requires a permit for each route. Permits are available online, but if you plan on canyoneering in Fiery Furnace, you will need a special permit. They typically sell out quickly, so it is best to apply at least seven days ahead of time in the busy season.
When hiking, biking or canyoneering, it is always encouraged to exercise safety precautions. Rangers respond to hundreds of search and rescue calls each year. Plan to protect yourself from the sun, stay hydrated, let someone know where you will be going and wear proper footwear. It can reach over 100 degrees in the summer and plunge to 40 degrees at night, so bring plenty of layers, including a rain jacket.
If all that sounds too strenuous, there are three authorized driving tour operators:
- Adrift Adventures
- NAVTEC Expeditions
- Moab Scenic Adventures
Or, you could get into the spirit of the wild west and tour Arches on horseback. The areas where you can go on horseback are limited, so check with the park authorities before setting out.
Many desert animals are nocturnal, including skunks, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions and bats. At dawn or dusk, you may be able to see mule deer, coyotes, porcupines, desert cottontails and a variety of songbirds. In the heat of the day, you are unlikely to see many animals, other than an occasional lizard or a soaring eagle looking for a snack. During late spring and early summer, clouds of biting gnats are common, so bring some insect repellent.
Arches is a great place for professional and amateur photographers alike, especially at night when the sky is bursting with stars. The park has little artificial lighting, so it has spectacular stargazing and is a certified international dark sky park. Amateur astronomers are encouraged to bring their telescopes for a unique glimpse into the Milky Way. Head over to the Balanced Rock Picnic Area, The Windows Section, the Garden of Eden Viewpoint or Panorama Point for the best view of the night sky.
Devils Garden Campground is the only campground in the park. It features tent and RV sites for vehicles up to 40 feet. You can reserve a spot there between March 1 and October 31, though it is usually full every night during the busy season, so book ahead. If the Devils Garden Campground is full, don’t panic; there are other campgrounds nearby outside the park itself in Moab, like the Under Canvas Moab Luxury Campground. Moab has all kinds of other lodging options, like the Moab Rustic Inn, the Robbers Roost Motel and rental vacation homes.
Moab has a charming Main Street where you can browse unique stores and restaurants. The Moab Adventure Center has information about all of the area’s tours and trips, including whitewater rafting in Westwater Canyon or Desolation Canyon, a Sunset Evening Hummer Safari or a zipline adventure.
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park is on the bucket list for many Amercans and is widely considered one of the wonders of the world. It is one of the most popular and iconic outdoor locations in the country. More than 200 miles long, 16 miles wide and one mile deep, this steep, striking canyon is absolutely breathtaking.
The park is extensive, beginning in the middle of Arizona’s top third and continuing west to the Nevada state line. The closest major airport is in Las Vegas, which is about a three-hour drive to the West Rim. Or, for a more scenic drive, you can fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor and drive about four and a half hours north to the South Rim.
The canyon itself was formed through the forces of erosion and carved over the course of millions of years by the Colorado River. The Grand Canyon is a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide, providing awe-inspiring views of the river below and the iconic red rock cliffs.
This national park is divided into two areas: The North and South Rims. Most tourists visit the South Rim, which is open year-round and located closer to the highway and large cities like Phoenix and Flagstaff. The North Rim is less popular, as it is harder to get to and only available during a short season due to snowfall during the winter. The North Rim also sits at a much higher elevation, making the climate and landscape here very different from the South Rim. Whether you choose to visit one or both, planning and making reservations before your visit is strongly recommended.
This is a place of rich geological and national history. Ancient fossils, numerous visits from the founder of our National Park Service, President Roosevelt, and thousands of years of Native American history and culture promise many stories and plenty to learn.
The South Rim offers the most ranger-led activities and visitor services. Rangers give talks in the Yavapai Point outdoor amphitheater on a variety of topics at 11:00 AM, Thursday through Monday in the months of January and February. There are sometimes evening ranger programs in the South Rim as well as cultural demonstrations at the Desert View Watchtower. In August, the North Rim is home to the Native American Heritage Week, where visitors can learn about Native American culture and enjoy music and dance performances.
There are so many ways to explore the Grand Canyon. For example, you may want to consider renting a bicycle and cruising along any of the paved roads or the Scenic Hermit Road, one of the best places to take in a view of the Canyon. Hermit Road runs along the west end of the canyon rim for seven miles. Because there are no private vehicles on the road most of the year, it is very biker-friendly.
Another option is to take a free shuttle to sightsee, as private vehicles are only allowed during December, January and February. The vistas along Hermit Road are stunning — and don’t miss the sunset! If you choose to take the shuttle, hop off on one of the stops for a short hike or leisurely stroll.
For unbelievable views, walk out on the transparent Grand Canyon Skywalk in the western part of the park on Hualapai Tribal lands. A separate $20 ticket for the Skywalk is required. However, it may not be a great choice for those who are afraid of heights! Another fun option is to take an educational walk on the Trail of Time, a 2.83 mile flat paved path. You can learn about the geological forces that created the Grand Canyon and get an idea of its timeline; each meter of the path equates to one million years of the canyon’s geologic history.
Serious hiking in the Grand Canyon can be a challenge for even the most fit and seasoned hiker. If you plan on making hiking a priority, come prepared with plenty of water, electrolytes and food, especially salty snacks. The park features extreme heat and cold, and the sheer size of it means that you will see few others on your journey. Make sure you are in excellent physical condition and come prepared for heat, rough terrain and exhaustion. As a rule of thumb, avoid hiking between the hours of 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM, when the sun is at its strongest.
For some cool water adventure, journey down the Colorado River on one of the river trips. There are one-day commercial trips, as well as opportunities for two-to-five-day noncommercial river trips that book over a year in advance! Mule trips are another fun activity in the South Rim. Riders cannot weigh more than 200 pounds or be shorter than 4’7’’. These are offered all year long and can be booked up to 15 months in advance.
For a bird’s eye view, book a tour on a helicopter or airplane into the Canyon. Some other things that visitors may enjoy include the 20-minute park introduction film at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, ranger-led programs like the Fossil Walk, the night sky programs or spotting some of the wildlife.
This park is home to a sizable bison herd. Though numbers for these animals were once very low, the population now is growing quickly. You may spot them on the Kaibab Plateau, but most prefer to spend their days in the North Rim. You may also see bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, mountain lions, skunks and some of the 450 bird species. Grand Canyon National Park is a designated Globally Important Bird Area and is home to some of the rarest birds in the world such as the Mexican spotted owl, southwestern willow flycatcher, western yellow-billed cuckoo and California condor.
Summer is the peak season. It brings long, sunny days and extremely high temperatures, which can reach into the triple digits inside the canyon. Expect heavy, sudden thunderstorms in July, which present risk of flash flooding.
In the fall, temperatures drop into the 60s, but can go as low as 20 degrees at night. The aspen trees turn bright orange and yellow, adding to the gorgeous views. Although you may picture hot, dry desert when you think of the Grand Canyon, it gets pretty cold in the winter because of its elevation. It averages around 40 degrees during the day and drops into the teens at night. This is a peaceful time, and the snow in the canyon is absolutely stunning, making it a favorite of photographers.
Spring is the best time to see elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep, since they start making their way north. National Park Week takes place in April, featuring all sorts of programs and events that are not available the rest of the year.
A $35 per vehicle entrance fee is good for seven days of Canyon adventuring. There are many restaurants, grocery stores and coffee shops within the park, and two lodging companies offer a wide range of different accommodations. Lodging sites include the picturesque El Tovar Hotel and the Thunderbird Lodge. Or, set up your tent in one of the many campgrounds. If you prefer the more secluded backcountry, obtain a permit for your overnight stay.
One last thing to keep in mind during your visit: this is an extremely popular park, so be prepared for long lines, limited parking and large crowds. Plan for your accommodations and activities in advance to make the most of your time in the Grand Canyon.
Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park is a treasure trove for established and budding geologists, archeologists and paleontologists alike. Step back in time to when this desert area was a lush forest filled with giant trees that are now immortalized as almost solid quartz, in colors derived from iron, carbon and manganese.
The park is located in northeastern Arizona, east of Flagstaff, and stretches on both sides of Interstate 40. It is a relatively small park; you can drive through it in an hour or take as long as half a day to do a drive through, pull over on some overlooks, see the paleo lab and explore some trails and perhaps the backcountry.
Whether you are in a car, on a bicycle, or on foot, the park offers views of the Painted Desert. The desert got its name from its weathered rock hills, striated with layers of minerals in shades of beige, cream, brown, burnt orange and bluish gray. With little else around other than these rock formations and petrified logs, the Petrified Forest National Park is a serene place to walk and contemplate nature and time. Go on your own or join a ranger-guided tour.
The petrified wood is scattered on either side of the trails, particularly the Crystal Forest, Giant Logs and Long Logs trails. As you walk in this transformed area that is now dry, you can imagine what it might have looked like in ancient times, and you can see the changes that time has made to the wood. The Rainbow Forest Museum dives deeper into the features of this ancient ecosystem with displays of prehistoric animal skeletons.
The park is animal-friendly and you are free to bring your dog or horse. When bringing a horse trailer, you must drive two miles north of the Painted Desert Visitor Center to the Painted Desert Wilderness access trail. You can park and unload there. Please note that there are no maintained trails in the Wilderness Area, so you should ride in the dry washes as much as possible to preserve the unique geological features at ground level.
On the south side of the park, there is a 100-site compound that was built and lived in by the Ancestral Puebloan people 600 years ago. There are petroglyphs and other archeological sites sprinkled throughout the park, including Agate House, an 8-room pueblo built of petrified wood and occupied between the period between 1050 and 1300.
Although not quite as old, the Painted Desert Inn on the north side of the park dates to the 1920s and features murals by famed Hopi artist Fred Kaboutie. You can find Petrified Forest history exhibits here as well as ice cream for sale in the summertime.
To camp overnight in the Wilderness Area, you’ll need to get a free permit from either the Painted Desert Visitor Center or Rainbow Forest Museum. Be prepared for primitive camping conditions, and keep groups to eight people and four horses or smaller. There is no water available, so it is important to bring water for all people and any animals.
You can also stay in one of the nearby cities, including Flagstaff to the west or Pinetop-Lakeside to the south. Holbrook is the closest town and has a number of budget lodging choices, including the La Quinta Inn & Suites, the off-grid Painted Desert Ranger Cabin and Brad’s Desert Inn.
Pinetop-Lakeside is in the White Mountains and has the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pines in the world. There are 65 lakes and streams there, which will be a definite change of pace from the desert. Flagstaff is northern Arizona’s largest city and is just 80 miles from the Grand Canyon, so it’s a great stopping off point if you are planning to visit both parks.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern New Mexico. It has plenty to see, both above ground and underground, including more than 119 natural limestone caves.
While many caves are formed by rainwater slowly shaping limestone, the Carlsbad caves are completely different. In the former type of caves, cracks and sinkholes allow water to flow through, creating underground streams and rivers, which eventually form the cave system. But here in New Mexico, something even more unique and rare occurs.
Water forms into sulfuric acid, which eventually dissolves the limestone and leaves behind huge gypsum deposits and cave formations. If that explanation is a little too scientific, suffice it to say that these caves are truly exceptional and no trip to New Mexico is complete without stopping by this national park.
The park truly begins below ground within these incredible caves. The Big Room Trail, which is relatively flat, is the most popular cavern walk. It has multiple areas, each with its own unique formations, and takes about an hour and a half to complete. In many parts of this cavern, the dramatic pointy formations create a scene reminiscent of the ice castle in the movie “Frozen.” If you can handle a steep hike into the caves, check out the Natural Entrance Self-Guided Trail and see its fancifully-named features, such as Devil’s Spring, Iceberg Rock and Witch’s Fingers.
If you prefer a ranger-guided tour, reservations are highly recommended and should be made at least 48 hours in advance. Some tours, like the one through Spider Cave, require belly crawling through tight spaces, while others are not quite as daring.
Tickets for these tours can be purchased in advance, but must be picked up at least 30 minutes before the start of the tour. Another thing to keep in mind: while age limits vary depending on the tour, children younger than four years of age are not permitted on any of the ranger-led tours. Most of the tours also require visitors to bring batteries, and a light jacket is suggested in the chilly caves. Comfortable walking shoes are a must.
While the caves are spectacular, don’t let your adventure end there. Hike above ground to enjoy some wildlife viewing. A shocking amount of wildlife thrives here in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. In fact, this is one of the most diverse places in the country, with over 60 species of mammals, 357 species of birds, 55 amphibians and reptiles, fish and a jaw-dropping list of insects. The creatures here are drawn by the water of Rattlesnake Springs — and even predators like cougars live here year-round.
If you plan on hiking above ground, keep in mind that summers are very hot. Sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water can be your best friends while battling the sun. Stick around at night to catch the flight of the bats or gaze up at the brilliant night sky. Ranger programs for these nighttime activities are often available.
When you get hungry or thirsty, you can head over to the visitor center and grab a bite at the Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company restaurant. There are picnic tables at the east side of the visitor center parking lot and at the Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area. Additional dining can be found seven miles away in White’s City or about 20 miles away in Carlsbad.
Lodging and campgrounds are not available in the park, and primitive camping is the only option here. However, there are campgrounds and hotels in both Carlsbad and White’s City. If you are flying into the area, the closest major airport is at El Paso, about 145 miles west of the park.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali National Park and Preserve features six million acres of Alaskan wilderness, and a majority of it is completely untouched. This is the largest national park and is roughly the same size as Switzerland. Remote, rugged and untamed, visitors have a unique opportunity to explore forests, alpine tundra and the dramatic rise of the snow-covered mountains. The crowning jewel is North America’s tallest peak, Denali, which soars to 20,310 feet and features five glaciers. Denali National Park is located in the center of Alaska, 240 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks.
There is only one road in the entire park, which also serves as its only entrance. During the summer, private vehicles are allowed 15 miles into the park up to Savage River. From that point on, you can take a narrated bus tour or a non-narrated transit bus further into the park, or start your hike or bike ride. Shuttle buses run from May through October. The road travels through scenic valleys and elevated mountain passes.
The entire park is unfenced, so tourists may spot some of the wildlife along the way. However, since the animals have so much room to roam, it is a good idea to bring binoculars with you. Large mammals like grizzly bears and black bears are well suited for the cold. Wolves, caribou, foxes, marmots, Dall sheep, snowshoe hares and moose also live here. But perhaps the most popular creatures are the birds — and there are many. The golden eagle soars through the Alaskan sky, as well as many other bird species. Fish, reptiles and amphibians are nearly impossible to come by here.
There are a few notable areas for spotting wildlife:
- Moose: Between the entrance and Savage River, Mile 15. In the spring, near the Riley Creek Campground and in the fall, the area between Mile 9 and 13.
- Dall sheep: Up on the mountains overlooking Igloo Canyon (Miles 34-38), near the road at Mile 45 and near the Eielson Visitor Center. Hikers may see them on Mount Margaret (Mile 15), Mount Wright (Mile 22) and Polychrome.
- Bears: Along the rivers, including the Savage River, Teklanika River and Toklat River. They can also sometimes be seen in Sable Pass, Highway Pass and Thoroughfare Pass.
- Caribou: Brushy areas and many of the same areas as bears.
- Birds: Varies by type of birds, but ptarmigan are common in brushy areas and along creeks, owls are in thickly wooded areas and eagles can be spotted high above the ridge lines.
- Small mammals: Foxes and snowshoe hares can be seen throughout the park. Beavers are sometimes visible in Horseshoe Lake (Mile 1) or in ponds near Wonder Lake (Mile 85).
Around 80 million years ago, Denali had a much milder climate and was home to many different dinosaurs and other ancient species of animals and plants. Check out the fossils in the Murie Science and Learning Center and learn about the creatures that lived here in the Cretaceous period.
Though there are a few planned hiking trails, but there are innumerable opportunities to make your own route through the vast landscape. There are a few trails in the Savage River area (although this area is closed in the winter), near the Eielson Visitor Center and at Wonder Lake. Other than the handful of trails, you will need to blaze your own trail if you want to hike Denali.
Daring and seasoned visitors who can brave the winter’s cold are rewarded with ample room for cross country skiing, winter biking, snowshoeing and dog sledding. The park offers free snowshoe rentals, but any other equipment you require will need to come into the park with you. You can rent or purchase skis and other gear in Fairbanks or Anchorage. Telemark skiing and snowboarding are possible if you don’t mind a climb. Even in the summer, the temperatures are chilly, with a high of 64 degrees and a low of 41. July and August see the most precipitation, so if you’re visiting at this time of year, bring a rain-proof jacket.
Sudden and extreme weather is not unusual, and avalanches are a possibility in some areas. It’s best to stay alert and knowledgeable about the best safety practices and concerns. It is always best to come prepared and travel with a group, if possible.
Perhaps the best way to experience winter in Denali is behind a team of dogs, riding a sled. Even winter camping is a possibility here, though a free backcountry permit is required. If you plan to visit at the end of February, you may also enjoy Denali Winterfest, a celebration of Alaska’s longest season.
Another great way to see and experience Denali is from the air. Flightseeing companies offer a variety of options for those who wish to soar above the glaciers and get a bird’s eye view of the mountains. Speaking of mountains, there are plenty of opportunities for climbing. From vertical ice walls to North America’s highest peak, there are many options for climbing and mountaineering. This is a premier location for climbers from around the world. Those who attempt the advanced trek up Denali or Mount Foraker are required to pay a special fee and register with the national park 60 days or more in advance. These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities — and there are more!
Denali is a prime location for viewing the aurora borealis. Check the aurora forecast and remember that seeing this rare occurrence is not a guarantee. The sky must be dark and clear, but if the timing and circumstances line up just right, you are one lucky camper to have the pleasure of seeing the northern lights.
Denali has a number of campgrounds where you can really experience the natural beauty of this park:
- Savage River Campground: open mid-May to mid-September
- Sanctuary River Campground: open mid-May to mid-September
- Teklanika River Campground: open mid-May to mid-September
- Igloo Creek Campground: open mid-May to mid-September
- Wonder Lake Campground: open mid-May to mid-September
- Riley Creek Campground: open year-round
Riley Creek, Savage River and Teklanika River accept RVs up to 40 feet, but there are no electrical or water hookups at any campground in the park. Within the park, there are some privately owned wilderness lodges in the Kantishna area at the end of Park Road. These include Camp Denali, Kantishna Roadhouse, Denali Backcountry Lodge and Skyline Lodge.
For more comfortable accommodations, try the Aurora Denali Lodge in Healy or the McKinley Chalet Resort, which is only a mile away from the Denali National Park entrance. When you get hungry, stop in at the Denali Park Salmon Bake for this signature dish. When you’re looking for fine dining in the area, a good bet is The Overlook at the Crow’s Nest, which features farm-to-table options including fresh local seafood like weathervane scallops and Alaskan oysters. For a family-friendly restaurant, grab a bison slider at Fannie Q’s Saloon or the Prospectors Pizzeria & Alehouse. There are even several choices for live entertainment including Cabin Nite Dinner Theater and Music of Denali Dinner Theater.
Olympic National Park
The massive Olympic National Park encompasses almost half of the landmass of Washington and is located in the northern central part of the state. The park is just over 2 hours from Seattle and just under 2 hours from Tacoma. You can also take your car across Puget Sound via the Washington State ferry system.
With almost a million acres of vast wilderness, Olympic National Park is a place of great diversity. A range of ecosystems such as beaches, glacier-capped mountains and old-growth temperate rainforests are host to an even wider range of animal species that live within them.
With 300 species of birds, like bald eagles, sooty grouse and northern pygmy owls, birdwatchers will have plenty of birds to observe. Dawn and dusk are the ideal times for wildlife viewing. The elk who roam in the lower valleys, the deer that make their home in the forests and the majority of the park’s native fauna are most active at these times.
There are five species of Pacific salmon that swim in the waters and, if visiting during the fall, you may see their dramatic upstream salmon migration. The park’s 75 miles of Pacific coastline, 800 lakes and 4,000 miles of rivers and streams support populations of wild salmon, trout and char. However, lower than expected levels of some fish have resulted in the closing of some areas to recreational fishing. Check with park authorities before you go to find out which areas are available for fishing.
April through May and October through November are prime visiting months for whale watching. The temperate rainforest ecosystem in Olympic National Park is lauded as one of the best remaining examples of this particular habitat. Giant trees give way to a verdant forest floor, covered in moss and ferns. The forests and meadows are home to racoons, beaver, mink, deer, elk, cougars and bears. There are also lynx, red foxes, mountain goats and wolverine as well as species that can only be found here such as the Olympic marmot, Olympic snow mole and the Olympic torrent salamander.
Green forests stand in contrast with the other popular feature here: beaches. Kalaloch’s many beaches are perfect for a sandy stroll and wading in the tide pools. Looking for marine creatures in the tide pools is a great family activity and is popular in Kalaloch’s beaches and Mora’s Hole in the Wall, as well as Second Beach, Third Beach and Ruby Beach.
Low tide is a great time to go out and adventure on your own or take one of the ranger-led programs through the pools. It is easy to slip on the algae-covered rocks, so you may want to wear sturdy shoes. Wherever you go within this Washington national park, you will be met with exceptional natural beauty and charm.
Opportunities to paddle abound. You can kayak or canoe on the big, blue Lake Crescent, along one of the many rivers or even along the coast. Sea kayakers should prepare for a challenging route, as the Pacific waters can be quite formidable. Motorized boats and fishing from a boat are permitted in some areas, but special regulations apply.
Good shoes also come in handy during day hikes down the many trails. From the wheelchair accessible to the strenuous, high-elevation treks, there is something for any level of hiker. To experience the rainforest, hike the short Hall of Mosses Trail near the Visitor Center, the Sam’s River Loop or the Kestner Homestead Trail.
For mountain action, try the Klahhane Ridge or Rainshadow Loop. One of the longest trails in the park is the 5.8-mile Lover’s Lane Loop, which goes through lowland forest and Sol Duc Falls. Most of the beach trails are fairly short, although the Cape Alava Trail and Sand Point Trail are both close to three miles. Ranger-led walks and talks are available during the summertime.
Ranger-led snowshoe walks are offered at Hurricane Ridge in the winter. Cross-country and downhill skiing, snowboarding, tubing and sledding are also popular wintertime activities. Skis and snowshoes are available to rent at Hurricane Ridge, or bring your own tube or sled to the Small Children’s Snowplay Area. Hurricane Ridge Road opens at 9:00 AM and all traffic must exit by 5:00 PM, although these times may be shortened on account of weather. Weather conditions can change rapidly, so check the weather and any road closings before you head out for winter fun.
Spring is the best time to see wildlife. The waterfalls and rivers are swollen with snowmelt and the vegetation is budding. You can also see migrating gray whales from Port Townsend, Port Angeles, Shi Shi Beach, Rialto Beach or Kalaloch Beach. It is also a less busy time than the summer, since most people visit from July to September, so you can encounter fewer crowds. To counter variable weather conditions in spring, dress in layers and bring a rain jacket.
Olympic National Park is a wonderful place for mountaineering and climbing. Remote alpine climbing and shale and sandstone rock formations offer some challenging climbing opportunities. The 7,980-foot Mt. Olympus is the highest peak in the park. Climbing season usually takes place between July and September. Avalanches and rockfalls are two particular threats that climbers may face. The rock here is often loose, unlike in other Cascade climbing destinations. Be prepared with a helmet, a sling and other safety equipment and plan your route in advance.
A range of accommodations here include numerous campsites, as well as rustic log cabins including Kalaloch, Mora and Hoh Rain Forest Campgrounds, the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort RV Park & Campground and the Log Cabin Resort RV & Campground. Only two of the campgrounds accept summer reservations, the remainder are all first come, first served. Backpacking and backcountry camping is a great option for the seasoned outdoorsperson. Obtain an overnight backcountry permit if you plan on staying in the wilderness.
The Kalaloch Lodge is open all year with campsites, cabins and lodge rooms as well as a gift shop and restaurant. The stunning Lake Crescent Lodge operates from approximately May to December and has cabins, cottages and lodge rooms, as well as a restaurant, a gift store and kayak rentals. Wherever you choose to stay, be sure to breathe in the fresh mountain air and take in the glittering stars, swimming in the sea of the dark night sky.
Crater Lake National Park
Visit the deepest lake in the United States! Crater Lake’s brilliantly deep blue water is fed entirely by rain and snow, and scientists consider it some of the cleanest fresh water in the world. The lake is so pure that it is a stunning, deep blue color. Because of the geothermal activity far below, it never freezes.
Over 7,000 years ago, Native Americans witnessed the massive, violent volcanic eruption that caused the collapse of a tall peak, forming Crater Lake in the belly of the once-active volcano. At a depth of 1,943 feet, the lake is surrounded by towering cliffs, lush forests and meadows bursting with wildflowers. Lava formed Wizard’s Island in the middle of the lake, and there are other volcanic structures such as the Phantom Ship, a second rocky island.
However stunning the lake is, Crater Lake itself takes up only 10% of the area of the national park. The rest of the park consists of old-growth forest filled with ponderosa pines, ancient whitebark pines and other protected conifer species.
Crater Lake National Park is located in southwestern Oregon in the Cascade Mountains. The nearest cities are Klamath Falls, which is a 60-mile drive to the southeast and Medford, 80 miles to the southwest. The closest major airport is the Eugene Airport, 120 miles northwest of the park.
Take the 33-mile Rim Drive, with its many scenic pull offs. Open from approximately July to October, the full loop typically takes a few hours to properly enjoy. The Watchman Overlook, a visitor favorite, offers stunning views of Wizard Island. The popular Pinnacles Overlook features colorful volcano-formed spires that rise into the sky, which are surely worth a stop. Rim Drive can also be explored by trolley, along with a narrated tour from one of the park rangers.
During the summer, join a ranger-led sunset hike or listen to ranger talks at the Sinnott Memorial Overlook in Rim Village. There are frequent evening presentations in the campground amphitheater, too. You can also take a boat tour around the lake or go wading or swimming from the Cleetwood Cove Trail, the only legal shore access point. While swimming is allowed in the lake, keep in mind that the water is uncomfortably cold, even during the summer.
Summer is an ideal time to enjoy Crater Lake. During this time, not only is Rim Drive open, but there are many options for outdoor recreation, such as bicycling. Cyclists are welcome to any of the paved park roads, as well as the unpaved Grayback Drive. Bicycling along the Rim Drive, while popular, is physically demanding and involves steep climbs in elevation.
For those who prefer an easier route, consider the shorter (and flatter) path around Diamond Lake. Be sure to bring a jacket and dress in layers. Even in the summer, it can get as cold as 20 degrees at night, and you can expect an average of 23 inches of snow on the ground, even in June.
Summer is also a great time for fishing. Crater Lake is home to rainbow trout and kokanee salmon. There are no fishing restrictions on size and number, and a fishing license isn’t required. In addition to the lake itself, you can fish in any of the streams in the park except for Sun Creek and Lost Creek. While wildlife such as deer and elk may sometimes be seen near the water, they can be difficult to spot in the park. Mountain lions, black bears, wolves, mountain lions and bald eagles, while present, are rarely seen.
Winter offers a vastly different list of recreational activities, from ranger-led snowshoeing to sledding down a hill. The park gets over 40 feet of snow during a typical winter, which turns the environment into a white, wintery wonderland. Free snowshoe walks are available on the weekends for participants 8 years of age and older, and snowshoes are provided. Snowmobiling, cross-country skiing along the ungroomed trails, sledding and even snowboarding are other winter offerings.
Unfortunately, the winter isn’t the best time for those looking to stay and dine within the park. There are three restaurants and one general store in the park, including the Rim Village Cafe, Annie Creek Restaurant and the Crater Lake Lodge Dining Room. The restaurants and grocery operate from May through October.
There are two campgrounds in the park, which have sites for both tents and RVs, though only the Mazama Campground has running water and shower facilities. The park is open to backcountry camping year-round, with a free permit. If you are staying overnight in the park, be sure to look up at the night sky to catch sight of planets, satellites and unprecedented views of the Milky Way. Or, stay at Crater Lake Lodge. This historic hotel was originally built in 1915 and is a great place to stay right in the middle of the action. It is also open from May through October.
Joshua Tree National Park
Perfectly situated at the intersection of the Colorado Desert and Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park combines the best of both, with the added bonus of a unique ecosystem that forms when the two become one. This park is 140 miles east of Los Angeles, 175 miles northeast of San Diego and just an hour’s drive from Palm Springs. It has an amazing variety of ecosystems in close proximity, including sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, rugged mountains, granite monoliths and oases.
The Joshua tree, for which the park is named, has a history almost as rich as the park itself. The tree is a member of the agave family and was used by Native Americans as a material for baskets and sandals. The seeds and flower buds were also a part of their diet. Later, many pioneers would arrive to dig for gold and used the tree’s wood for fencing and building. From the Joshua trees to the 750 other vascular plants found here, this park is still well-known for its plant life.
Where there are plants, there are birds, and Joshua Tree has many. The cactus wren, greater roadrunner, Gambel’s quail, prairie falcon, red-tailed hawk and many more live in this area throughout the year, while the white-crowned sparrow and sage sparrow only visit for the winter. Due to its sudden and severe thunderstorms, unexpected life can be found in the desert such as two species of amphibians. Most of the over 700,000 acres are vast tracts of wilderness.
Overall, there are 52 species of mammals in the park, but almost half of them are small rodents. Many animals spend the day in hiding and only come out when the temperature drops at night. Well-adapted to the desert lifestyle, 44 species of reptiles have been recorded in the park.
You can learn more about the wildlife, geology, history and astronomy here during one of the ranger-led events or programs. You can even enjoy it all at once; the Indian Cove Evening Program is a nighttime presentation about the park’s natural and cultural history underneath the stars.
The park is an adventurer’s paradise. There are 250 miles of trails fit for horseback riding. Joshua Tree is also a world-class destination for climbers and boulderers. With more than 8,000 climbing routes and 2,000 boulder problems, this area is famous for traditional-style slab, crack and steep face climbing features. Nearly 85% of the park consists of wilderness, so it’s perfect for backpackers and hikers. A number of trails begin at Cottonwood Spring, which was an important location for miners during the gold rush.
Today, a short walk on Cottonwood Wash takes guests through an area where bighorn sheep, mule deer and red-spotted toads can sometimes be found. The waters of Cottonwood Spring draw many of the park’s thirsty animals and make it one of the premier birding spots in Joshua Tree, especially during the winter when migration occurs.
There are trails here for any level, from the quick and easy Bajada Trail, which takes about 15-20 minutes to the Lost Horse Mine Trail, an hours-long hike that takes you around one of the most successful gold mines in the park. Experienced hikers can explore the Lost Palms Oasis, which will take you by sandy washes, rolling terrain and then down into a canyon to find a hidden oasis. Hikers are cautioned not to attempt the more challenging hikes in the heat of the day because of high temperatures, sun exposure and dehydration risks.
If you visit the park between February and April, you may get to see the rare and spectacular desert wildflower blooms. For some cool photos to bring home, stop at Skull Rock. You can park just across the road or reach it from a 1.7-mile nature trail across from the Jumbo Rocks Campground. Keys View, located on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, provides spectacular views of the Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault. On a clear day, you may even be able to see Mexico.
Pitch your tent beneath the marvelous night skies at one of eight campgrounds. The Black Rock, Cottonwood, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan and Indian Cove Campgrounds require reservations. The Belle, Hidden Valley and White Tank Campgrounds are first come, first served. They usually fill up quickly during the cooler months, especially on the weekends. Make reservations, if possible, and have a backup plan just in case.
There aren’t any lodging options or restaurants within the park, but there are eight picnicking sites throughout. Even if you choose not to stay in the park overnight, don’t miss an opportunity to see the night sky here. It will surely leave you feeling starstruck.
Yosemite National Park
As one of the oldest and most famous national parks, Yosemite is visited by millions of travelers each year. Living in this gorgeous setting is what inspired famous naturalist John Muir in his lifelong obsession with preserving and appreciating natural environments. Yosemite was also the frequent subject of famed photographer Ansel Adams, whose images spread the beauty and majesty of the park to a wider audience.
In 2016, the park set a record of over five million visitors in one year. A staggering number of visitors come to see the famous waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, granite cliffs, mountains, meadows and glaciers. The park is situated in the scenic western Sierra Nevada and covers over 700,000 acres. A three-hour drive from San Francisco, this park offers a getaway from the typical urban backdrop all year long.
Hiking trails spanning 800 miles are just waiting for you to explore. If you are hiking in the summer, a beautiful and easy hike is the Lukens Lake from Tioga Road, which goes through a mixed conifer forest and down to a small mountain lake surrounded by a wildflower-filled meadow. Experienced hikers can view the park’s famous sequoias such as the Bachelor and Three Graces, the Faithful Couple and the Clothespin Tree along the Mariposa Grove Trail to Wawona Point.
For spectacular mountain top views, hike Sentinel Dome and Taft Point, which start off in forest and meadows and climb to the top of the dome for a bird’s eye panoramic view of the valley. Bring your camera or pack your paints, as there is a wealth of artistic inspiration to take in. Unique plants and wildlife create a backdrop like no other.
See more at your own pace on the 282 miles of scenic roadways. The most famous of these is the 46-mile ride along the Tioga Road from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass. The road is usually open from late May until November, weather permitting. You can also take a guided mule ride or horseback trip through the park with Wawona Stable.
The Tuolumne River and Merced River are two scenic waterways that pass through the park and offer opportunities for water recreation whenever the weather allows. Fishing is a popular pastime here and trout are plentiful. You will need a California fishing license, which can be obtained online.
The most popular place in the park is the stunning Yosemite Valley. Here, you can take in the tallest waterfall in North America, the 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls. The Valley Floor Tour is a two-hour open tram tour open from April to October, and a closed bus tour from October to March. There are 12 miles of bike trails in the Valley area alone. Rent or bring a bike to cruise down the path with the enormous mountains all around you.
Bring your binoculars for some wildlife or bird watching. There are over 150 species of birds that live or migrate here in Yosemite. In addition, you may be lucky enough to spot some of the 90 mammal species living in the park, such as black bears, bighorn sheep, Sierra Nevada red foxes, mountain lions and mule deer.
No park guide would be complete without mention of the climbing opportunities. This is one of the world’s premier climbing destinations, with an endless variety of climbs available. Yosemite has big walls, domes and cracks that are just begging to be explored and conquered. If you will be staying overnight on big wall climbs, you are required to get a wilderness climbing permit. The National Park Service does not maintain routes, so climb at your own risk and be prepared for the possibility of injury, unplanned bivouacs and sudden weather changes.
April through October is the most popular time of year to visit. The best tip for avoiding the rush of peak hours is to arrive before 9:00 AM or after 5:00 PM. The early (or late) bird gets the worm! If you are visiting in winter, check road conditions, as some roads may be closed due to heavy snowfall. Spring is the ideal season for waterfalls because of the snowmelt.
Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Falls and many others are usually at their peak water flow in May. During the summer, you can enjoy rafting along the Merced River or fishing, swimming and boating throughout the park.
Backpacking is a popular way to stay overnight at Yosemite. There are 13 campgrounds, 10 of which can accommodate RVs and trailers, but almost all are usually full from April to September. Make reservations as soon as possible. Some campgrounds are open all year long and others may be first come, first served, depending on the time of year. Aside from campgrounds, a wide range of lodging is also available within the park, from rustic cabins to luxurious suites at the Ahwahnee Hotel.
Additionally, there are multiple restaurants and groceries available throughout the year including the food court at the Base Camp Eatery, casual dining at the Loft at Degnan’s and light fare and drinks at the Mountain Room Lounge.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Did you know that volcanoes formed the Hawaiian Island chain? These powerful, incredible forces of nature are monuments to time itself and, at this national park, you can experience it firsthand. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is on the island of Hawai’i, 30 miles southwest of Hilo and 95 miles southeast of Kailua-Kona.
This is one of the most biologically unique places in the world. The park is a result of over 70 million years of volcanic activity. Mauna Loa, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, is also the biggest mountain on the planet! The summit is over 50,000 feet above the sea floor, much higher than Mount Everest. Mauna Loa and Kīlauea are still adding to the Hawaiian island’s land mass with their rivers of molten lava that cool and build up layer by layer.
Native plants and animals find rich nutrients in this environment that ripens into a lush, verdant and tropical ecosystem. Rare species like carnivorous caterpillars and happy face spiders that can be found in only a few places in the world are at home here. In fact, 90% of the native flora and fauna are found exclusively on the Hawaiian Islands. Marvel at the wonder of this special place and the mighty volcanoes that formed it when you visit.
With wonderfully scenic drives, Crater Rim Drive and the Chain of Craters Road are the two main ways to travel within the park. Begin at the Kīlauea Visitor Center, where you can check for eruption updates, current road conditions and the calendar of events. While most visitors come by bus or car, biking through the park offers a different way of viewing the rainforests and dramatic volcanoes.
Take a guided tour like the “People and Land of Kahuku,” which is a three-hour, moderate walk through forests, lava fields and pastures to explore some of the intriguing human and natural history of the islands. Or, take a step into history with “A Walk into the Past.” It features a dramatic actor/presenter dressed in period costume that aims to bring the past to life.
There are many fabulous trails for day hiking, like the Ha’akulamanu Trail, which is great for spotting birds. The accessible boardwalk winds through a volcanic thermal area with cracks that emit steam. Another easy hike is the Kipukapuaulu Trail, which will take you through an old-growth forest that is home to some of the rarest plants and animals in Hawai’i.
Amateur anthropologists can enjoy the Puʻuloa petroglyphs, markings that the elders of the Native Hawai’ians inscribed for blessings on Pu’uloa, which means “hill of long life.” There are approximately 23,000 petroglyphs along this 1.4-mile trail, which traverses a half-century old lava field.
Hawai’i Volcanoes has ample opportunities for those interested in backcountry hiking as well, with hikes on volcanoes, along the coast, across grassy fields and throughout barren lava fields. Mauna Loa is an unforgettable hike and ascends to the top of the 13,678 foot active volcano. If attempting this hike, beware of loose and jagged rocks as well as cooling lava. Or, hike Halape on the southern seacoast, where you will pass through grasses to a small sandy beach studded with coconut palms where you can pitch your tent.
There are two drive-in campgrounds within the park. The Nāmakanipaio Campground has restrooms and water. However, the Kulanaokuaiki Campground’s nine sites have no water and only a vault-type toilet. Wherever you stay, come ready for wet and cold. Nighttime weather can be cool and the climate is often damp. Backcountry camping has a $10 fee in addition to admission to the park. Your $25 fee per non-commercial vehicle is good for a week.
If you don’t plan on camping during your Hawaiian vacation, consider staying within the park at the picturesque Volcano House. The hotel is situated on the rim of the Kīlauea caldera, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. If you can’t stay in one of the 33 guest rooms or cabins, consider dining at the restaurant during the evening to bask in the red-hot glow of the volcano. Volcano House is also conveniently situated near the visitor center, a great starting place for planning your day of fun.
While the National Park System doesn’t offer these officially, one of the most amazing ways to see the park is to take a volcano air tour. There are many nearby companies who offer plane and helicopter tours that soar over the volcanoes. Some of the most popular helicopter tours even offer door removal service, allowing riders to feel the heat of the lava!