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National Park Vacation Ideas

April 27th, 2018 - 9:41 AM

Finding adventure in a national park

What’s your idea of a perfect time: walking out of a tent and watching the sun rise over the mountains, exploring a trail with your family, or hopping in the car to see gorgeous sights? If any of those sound appealing, a national park vacation will be a dream come true. Learn more about top spots across the country, and get ideas for your next adventure.

national park road trip

Choose the best national park for a vacation

National parks are protected by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) because they have scenic or historic importance. Each one offers different benefits, but because there are more than 400 across the country, it may be difficult to choose the right one. To help you decide, we’ve narrowed down the options based on different personality types. Take a look at which parks would make great vacation destinations for families, adventurers, road trippers and more.

Note: The amenities, fees and policies vary for each park. Before you visit, check with the individual park to learn what to expect.

Best parks for families

Exploring the great outdoors with several family members? Multiple generations can enjoy the amenities and activities offered within the parks! Yosemite in California is perhaps the ultimate family destination. You can hike, camp, horseback ride, swim, fish and more! And since many of the sights at Yosemite are accessible by vehicle, you can drive to spots you want explore (perfect for family members that may tire on longer hikes).

Traveling with young children? A trip to Gap Cave at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in Kentucky would provide an easy adventure. The 1.5 mile tour takes you on a two-hour exploration of an underground cathedral and amazing rock formations (note: kids under age 5 are not permitted in the cave). Bryce Canyon in Utah is another fun place to take children. This park has easy hikes and a visitor’s center with several kids programs.

Explore these great hiking trails

Many national parks have options for day hikes and multi-day (backcountry) hiking. While backcountry trips require more gear and planning, they can provide sights and experiences only available by foot (just be sure to check on any required permits).

Grand Teton in Wyoming has several backcountry trails including Death Canyon. You can view the peak, Phelps Lake and a scenic overlook as you traverse through the park. Or visit Isle Royale National Park in Michigan for the Greenstone Ridge Trail. The 42-mile trail has boat-only access, so it’s a one-of-a-kind experience.

For a shorter hike, Big Bend National Park in Texas has a fantastic three-mile trail to Cattail Falls, an 80-foot waterfall with crystal blue pools. Or visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The guided tour through Slaughter Canyon Cave is moderately-strenuous, but will take you just half a mile up to the cave where you can see world-famous rock formations.

Best national parks for camping

Similar to hiking, you can choose front-country and backcountry camping. Front-country camping utilizes the campground facility, and backcountry involves hiking and staying deeper in the park.

Take your pick of ideal spots at Glacier National Park in Montana where there are more than 1,000 campsites over one million acres. Or for a quieter trip, visit Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota where all of the campsites are only accessible by watercraft.

Want to really get away? Backcountry camping can’t be beat at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where you can camp at the bottom of the canyon.

Places with scenic drives

While the parks have many opportunities to explore on foot, many also have amazing sites to see from a car. At the Grand Canyon, take the long trip from the South Rim to the North Rim. Just over 200 miles, this trip will get you just about every great view the park has to offer. For a shorter drive, check out the Rocky Mountain peak-to-peak route in Colorado. It’s a 55-mile journey from Estes Park to Black Hawk, passing through the Continental Divide.

If you have an off-road vehicle, don’t miss Joshua Tree in California, where two deserts (the Mojave and the Colorado) come together. There are both paved and 4x4 trails to explore.

Best national parks for history buffs

Many historic sites are part of the NPS, and they make perfect vacation spots for history lovers. In Central Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace is one not to miss. You can see the birth cabin, the spring that provided water for the Lincoln family, and the first Lincoln Memorial.

Another ideal stop is Colonial Historical National Park in Virginia. Here you can visit Jamestown, and step back in time to the 1600s to visit America’s birthplace. Or learn about native history at Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico. See the buildings of ancestral Pueblo people during the day, and enjoy the amazing star show at night. It’s designated as one of four International Dark Sky Parks, where you can enjoy natural darkness (no permanent outdoor lighting exists here) and unbelievable star gazing.

Unique lodging

One of the highlights at some parks is the lodging. Available for overnight stays and meals, these lodges make you feel less like you’re in the wilderness and more like you’re at a high-end resort. Zion Lodge in Utah is an oasis for hikers and adventurers. With a combination of cabins and hotel rooms, guests can enjoy private porches or balconies, gas fireplaces, and even some rooms with a wet bar and sitting area.

Another not-to-miss lodge is Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone in Wyoming. It was built in 1903 with local resources, and guests can choose from accommodations ranging from premium suites to Old House rooms with shared baths.

One of the oldest lodges is the El Tovar Hotel in the Grand Canyon, which opened its doors in 1905. It’s a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Norwegian Villa on the rim of the canyon.

National park road trip itineraries

For the ultimate vacation, take a road trip and visit several stops! Below are some fun ways to see multiple parks.

Cost saving tip: If you plan on visiting more than one national park, you may want to get an America the Beautiful Pass, which gives you access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites for an annual fee.

  • The Grand Circle — This trip takes you to some of the most scenic parks in Utah, Arizona and Colorado. If you’re not from nearby, you can start this tour either in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City or Phoenix. You’ll visit Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon and Capital Reef. In total, this trip would take you 1.5-2 weeks if you plan on spending a day at each park and traveling in the evenings. If you have extra time, take detours to nearby Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
  • National Parks East Coast Trip — In about a week’s time, you can visit several unique spots. Take off from Charleston, SC and head north to Congaree National Park and then to the Great Smokey Mountains. Visit Booker T. Washington National Monument outside of Roanoke, then travel north to Shenandoah National Park.
  • Ozark Road Trip — For those looking to travel more in the central U.S., the Ozark road trip is a great way to see the sites. Circle through Hot Springs National Park, the Ozark National Forest, the Buffalo National River and Ouachita National Forest. This is a trip you can take over a weekend, as the locations are located just a couple hours apart.
  • Tour the national parks in California — Take in all the sights that California has to offer with this road trip. For a round trip, start by visiting Point Reyes National Seashore, Redwood, Lassen Volcanic Park and Lava Beds National Monument. Then, come back home through the Plumas National Forest and make Yosemite your last stop. You can also make this a one-way trip of West Coast national parks, starting in San Francisco and ending in Oregon (either Eugene or Medford). If you choose this route, go from Point Reyes all the way to Lava Beds, and then head north to Crater Lake. This road trip would take about a week if doing the one-way itinerary, or 1.5-2 weeks for the entire tour.
  • Colorado national parks Tour — Spend time visiting Colorado’s highlights. Start in Denver and drive to the Rocky Mountain, then Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes. Finish the trip by stopping at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument on your way back. In total, this would be a week’s trip, spending a day at each attraction.

Which parks are on your list?

Are you more into hiking, camping or the fantastic lodges? Which parks have made your vacation list? Let us know your favorite spots or the places you’d like to visit in the comments below.

Check out more road trip tips with this helpful planning resource:

The Ultimate Guide on How to Plan a Road Trip