17 things to do in national parks and the best parks to do them in

Our National Park system is so rich and diverse it can be overwhelming to plan a visit. One alternative to setting your sights on the “famous” ones is to target your visits based on what you like to do.

If you enjoy active sports like biking, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, or mountaineering, you’re in luck. Our national parks have all of these things.

If you like history, culture, art, archeology, or geology – you’re also in luck. Our national park system offers all these things, too.

After visiting about 200 sites administered by the National Park Service, here are our suggestions for the types of activities you can enjoy, and in which parks you’ll find that activity plentiful. 

1. Bicycling

Love to see the sights of a place by bike? So do we.  

One of the most popular parks for bicycling has to be Acadia NP in Maine, where Rockefeller money helped create a network of bicycle- and horse-only gravel trails that wind through the interior of the park.

The canal towpath in Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP near Washington, DC, is another hot spot for cyclists: scenic and mostly flat, with campsites sprinkled along the route for over 180 miles—or over 300 miles to western Pennsylvania, with a connection to the Great Appalachian Passage rail trail.

It’s possible to cycle in most large parks – even those that aren’t known for it, such as Canyonlands NP (Utah), Grand Canyon NP (Arizona), Great Smoky Mountains NP (Tennessee/North Carolina), Saguaro NP (Arizona), and Everglades NP (Florida).

And one more great spot for bicycling: the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. It’s a designated bicycle route with low traffic speeds for 444 miles.

2. Hiking / walking

The single best piece of advice I can give to someone visiting the parks is to get out of the car and walk, even just for a little while. Probably the most featured activity in nearly every large national park, it’s actually hard to fully experience most of the parks without walking at least a few trails.

Because nearly every national park has some type of walking / hiking trail, make your first stop the Visitor Center and pick up a map to check out what’s available, trail lengths, elevation changes, etc. And don’t hesitate to ask park rangers for their favorites – whenever we do that, we learn something new.

There are too many national park hikes to mention, but a few parks that contain some of our favorite hikes: Acadia NP, Great Smoky Mountains NP (TN)Guadalupe Mountains NP (Texas), Big Bend NP (Texas), Bryce Canyon NP (Utah), Zion NP (Utah), Great Sand Dunes NP (Colorado). There are many others.

If you like hiking, our national parks will not disappoint (Shenandoah NP)

3. Rock climbing

You’ll mostly find this rigorous activity in major National Parks like Utah’s Zion and Arches, California’s Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain, and Wyoming’s Grand Teton.  

But if you’re traveling in the east and feel the urge to scramble up the face of something, Acadia NP has some rare opportunities for climbing along sea cliffs, for example.

4. Kayaking

Opportunities for this buoyant activity can be found in almost any national park that has water.

It’s particularly popular around the Apostle Islands NL and Isle Royale NP in Lake Superior (Michigan), as well as in Everglades NP (Florida), Pictured Rocks NL (Michigan), Sleeping Bear Dunes NL (Michigan), Glacier NP (Montana), and various national rivers such as Buffalo National River (Arkansas), Ozark National Scenic Riverways (Missouri), Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway (Wisconsin/Minnesota), and Big South Fork NRRA (Tennessee/Kentucky).

Take your pick from many interesting waterways in dozens of national parks  (Apostle Islands NP)

For the salt-loving type, there’s sea kayaking in Channel Islands NP (California), off Cape Cod NS (Massachusetts), Dry Tortugas NP (Florida), Biscayne NP (Florida), and other places. 

Ironically, some of the most exciting river kayak and raft trips are found in desert environments like Big Bend NP (Texas), Canyonlands NP (Utah), and Dinosaur NM (Utah/Colorado), where you’ll find a uniquely American combination of red rocks, a bit of white water, and blue skies.

5. Beaches

If you enjoy spending time near the beach, you can’t go wrong with any park designated “National Seashore.” Camping tends to be scarce directly on the beach, but you can get close in most places, either at NPS or commercial campsites.  

If you really want to hear the surf at night, try Padre Island NS (Texas) or Cape Hatteras NS (on North Carolina’s Outer Banks). Padre Island is exceptional in that RV camping is allowed directly on the beach. That’s a great experience for the adventurous types, but if you’re not careful you might find the high tide lapping at your front door.

6. Lighthouses  

These historic charmers are often the perfect combination of water, history, architecture, and romance.

There’s something about the idea of living in a cozy home high above the pounding surf that drives the imagination. Tothie and I seek them out when we travel east (North Carolina in particular) and west (Oregon especially) – and have been known to geek out at lighthouse and maritime museums, too.

If this sounds like you, too, you’ll especially like Cape Hatteras NS and Oregon Dunes NRA for their many different styles of lighthouses.

7. American history

The bulk of colonial, revolutionary, and industrial American history happened in the east, so it’s no surprise that most national park sites with a historic focus are along the East Coast too.

Major cities such as Boston, New York, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia are loaded with such sites—but not many of them offer camping, so you’ll have to set up a base at a local campground and make day trips.

Those same historical sites are also good options for people whose personal mobility may be a limitation. The smallest sites (typically designated as National Historic Sites) are often a single building. Their stories can be surprisingly poignant and compelling.

There are great historical sites worth seeking across the nation, too, like Brown vs Board of Education NHS (Kansas), which tells a story of social change that goes far beyond the famous Supreme Court decision, and Minuteman Missile NHS (South Dakota), with its unsettling chill of the Cold War still in the air. 

8. Native American history and culture

American history is not the only kind of history that the National Park Service preserves and interprets. Many of our parks document the remains of ancient pueblos, petroglyphs and pictographs, as well as other artifacts that have lain in place for hundreds of years.

At Navajo National Monument you can enjoy tours of the Ancestral Puebloan's well preserved cliff dwellings

You can walk into many of those sites today and touch with your own hand a fragile fragment of pottery or an 800-year-old dried corncob, protected from the elements by a natural rock overhang and from modern destruction by the National Park Service.

The bulk of the national parks featuring Native American culture are in the west. If you are interested in visiting ancient pueblos and cliff dwellings, aim for the Four Corners region (where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet). There, you’ll find an abundance of fascinating sites, enough to keep you busy for months. Among them: Mesa Verde NP (Colorado), Hovenweep NM (Colorado/Utah), Canyon de Chelly NM (Arizona), Chaco Culture NHP (New Mexico), Petroglyph NM (New Mexico), Montezuma Castle NM (Arizona), Tonto NM (Arizona), and Gila Cliff Dwellings NM (New Mexico)

You’ll also find Native American culture and history interpreted in other parts of the country at sites like Pipestone NM (Minnesota), Big Hole NB (Montana), and Nez Perce NHP (Idaho/Montana/Washington/Oregon).

9. Westward expansion history

Think Lewis and Clark, the transcontinental railroad, “manifest destiny,” and the Louisiana Purchase, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Dozens of grand and small parks interpret this history and culture. Don’t just go to the big parks, because you’ll find the smallest forts, homesteads, and outposts often have the most compelling stories.

10. Civil War history

These parks, of course, are mostly in the east. This subject is so well documented that the National Park Service maintains a special landing page for it on their website.

11. Spanish Colonial history

Spanish Colonial history in our national parks? Yes. And the park system presents this interesting slice of America's past at locations as diverse as Castillo de San Marcos NM (Florida), Juan Bautista de Anza NHT (Arizona/California), and Tumacácori NHP (Arizona).

12. Great scenery 

This one is easy: Grab your camera and go almost anywhere. But be ready for photographic challenges, because some of the most impressive places – Death Valley NP [California/Nevada], Grand Canyon NP [Arizona], Big Bend NP [Texas], Olympic NP [Washington], Glacier NP [Montana], etc. – are vast and hard to capture. 

Photographers will appreciate the breathtaking scenery in Death Valley NP

13. Off-road exploration

If you travel with a 4x4, go west again. In California, you’ve got excellent off-road or rough-road trails at Mojave NPres, Joshua Tree NP, and Death Valley NP.

In Utah, try Arches NP, Hovenweep NM, and Canyonlands NP.

In Texas, Big Bend NP has a network of backroads with tent-only campsites for long expeditions.

In Colorado, you’ll find 4x4 experiences at Great Sand Dunes NP & NPres, Dinosaur NM (Utah/Colorado), and Rocky Mountain NP. Just be sure to unhitch the trailer first.

14. Culture and art

More of an aesthete than athlete? Cultural and artistic locations may be for you. 

The center of the park system for this is probably the Washington, DC, area, but really art is scattered all through the country. Nearly every visitor center has some sort of art or craft on display, both modern and historic.

Be sure to add Saint-Gaudens NHS (New Hampshire) and Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters NHS (Massachusetts) to your list, as well as the south rim of Grand Canyon NP (Arizona). If you are an artist and are looking for a longer stay, check out the artist-in-residence programs that are available in many parks—but be sure to apply well in advance.

15. Archaeology and geology 

Both are built-in features of almost every park, but if rocks and fossils turn you on, head to the western parks where the millennia are exposed for public view.

Grand Canyon NP in Arizona is an obvious choice. Utah has a pretty nice collection: Dinosaur NM, Bryce Canyon NP, Zion NP, Natural Bridges NM, and Capitol Reef NP.

Wyoming is pretty interesting as well, offering Devil’s Tower NM and Yellowstone NP, where you will be camping atop a gigantic volcanic caldera that will probably explode spectacularly someday (but probably not soon).

Belle Fourche Campground inside Devil's Tower NP gives you incredible views of the tower in a quiet setting

Of course, lava-lovers should also check out Crater Lake NP (Oregon), Lassen Volcanic NP (California), and Hawai’i Volcanoes NP (Hawaii). The latter is admittedly not a place you can easily take your RV, but it’s worth a visit if you find yourself vacationing on the Big Island.

Don’t overlook the lesser-known spots, such as Arizona’s Sunset Crater Volcano NM, New Mexico’s Capulin Volcano NM and El Malpais NM, Lava Beds NM in California, and Craters of the Moon NM & NPres in Idaho. One very nice aspect of all these parks is that they are completely different from each other and loaded with beautiful scenery.

16. Caves

Being underground fascinates a lot of people, and of course there are two big ones on everyone’s list: Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The crowds can be substantial in both places, so also consider touring lesser-known caves in other parks, such as Oregon Caves NM & NPres (Oregon), Craters of the Moon NM & NPres (Idaho), Great Basin NP (Nevada), and Mojave NPres (California).

17. Solitude

If you just want to relax and get far away from crowds, these parks really excel at providing solitude: Big Bend NP (Texas), Padre Island NS (Texas), Death Valley NP (California/Nevada), and Great Basin NP (Nevada).

Boondocking solitude at Great Sand Dunes NP 

 

If you’re willing to do some backcountry hiking for peace and solitude, look to the mountainous parks like Guadalupe Mountains NP (Texas), Rocky Mountain NP (Colorado), and North Cascades NP/Lake Chelan NRA (Washington).

Oh, and if it's solitude you seek, you'll want to avoid the really popular National Parks like Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon.

In the end, anything that compels you is a worthy reason to visit a park. Pick an activity, plan your trip, and get out there.

National parks

3 comments

Stephen Leonard Rutledge

Stephen Leonard Rutledge

All good ideas, Most people need motivation to explore what we havw at our disposal.

Raymond Russell

Raymond Russell

Thanks for the great overview of the national parks. We have to get on the road now to see all of these great places. The small parks, like Saint Gaudens, do not disappoint and are surrounded by beautiful scenery.

Tom Dewey

Tom Dewey

Thanks for all the information, etc. on the National Parks. It is amazing what is out there for us to enjoy. Thank you for getting this together and sharing it with us. We will pass it along.

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