Must-do activities at every national park
When considering a trip to any of America’s 60 national parks, one must ask a few questions before choosing a location since each offers a little something for everyone, from the icy wonders of Alaska’s remote glaciers, to the crystal-blue waters of the Florida Keys.
Looking for a little adventure to tap into your inner Indiana Jones? Maybe just a place to relax, dip your toes in the sand, and watch the water kiss the beach? Is history and nature your thing? Whatever your pleasure, Stacker has compiled a list of the must-do activities at every national park.
Using data from the National Park Service’s Annual Park Ranking Report to rank all 60 national parks by their recreational visits in 2018, Stacker searched for the best, most interesting activities to do at each, along with the best time to visit and how to prepare for a journey to each.
To see the lightning bugs in perfect unison in South Carolina or paddle through California’s Painted Cave, you must be ready to make your trip at a specific time of the year, but venturing deep into the world’s largest cave system in Kentucky or exploring the reefs and history around Fort Jefferson are available year-round.
While no water gear is needed when visiting Joshua Tree, which straddles the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, no bathing suits are required at Gates of the Arctic in Alaska, which is only open in the summer but remains frigid all year. However, most of the parks will call for sturdy shoes, water, food-filled backpacks, and a sense of direction and wonder to make the most of your visit.
Read on to see Stacker’s list of must-do activities at every national park and don’t be surprised if you find yourself booking your next vacation.
You may also like: Polar Bears and 50 other species threatened by climate change
#60. Gates of the Arctic: Backpack, camp the Arctic
- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2018: 9,591
There are several reasons backpacking, and camping are the primary activities if you find yourself at the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. The 8.3-million-acre preserve has no access roads, trails, or park services and remains one of the most pristine, untouched parcels in the world. The Brooks Mountain Range runs along the edge of the park, providing scenic views. The best way to the Arctic is taking an air taxi from Fairbanks 280 miles to one of the remote villages around the park, and hiking in from there. Summer is the only time to visit the park, as the temperatures reach minus-20 to minus-50 degrees Faherenheit in the winter.
#59. Lake Clark: Visit Proenneke Cabin
- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2018: 14,479
Lake Clark offers plenty for the outdoor adventure seeker, from kayaking and fishing on the 50-mile lake to hiking and sightseeing in the 4 million, mostly unexplored acres. The shores of nearby Upper Twin Lake are host to Proenneke Cabin, built in 1968 by Richard Proenneke using resources from the area and tools he made himself. Getting there can be tricky, with no roads leading to Lake Clark, so an air taxi and water landing on the lake are the best routes for getting there in the summer when the cabin is open for tours.
#58. Kobuk Valley: Hike Great Kobuk Sand Dunes
- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2018: 14,937
Like Alaska’s previous national parks, Kobuk Valley is only accessible by plane, snowmobile, or dog sled for much of the year. Nestled inside its nearly 1.8-million serene acres are the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, formed by the residue from ancient grinding glaciers. Located 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the dunes and surrounding area are hosts to a variety of wildlife, including the migration of a half-million caribou every year.
#57. Isle Royale: Scuba dive shipwrecks
- Location: Michigan
- Recreational visits in 2018: 25,798
On Lake Superior between Michigan and Minnesota, Isle Royale’s frigid depths preserve the remains of 10 notable shipwrecks ready for exploration by licensed divers. Ranging in depth from two to 260 feet, the oldest ship dates back to 1877, when the island was teeming with copper mines. Anyone without scuba training can still find something to do on Isle Royale, including exploring those old copper mines, seeing the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, which dates back to 1855, and seeing the Northern Lights.
#56. North Cascades: Hike Desolation Peak
- Location: Washington
- Recreational visits in 2018: 30,085
The top of Desolation Peak provides beautiful views of the North Cascades range, which contains one-third of all the glaciers on the mainland United States within its 789 square miles. The peak offers literature fans an added thrill, as writer Jack Kerouac spent a summer inside the fire tower at the top while serving as a fire lookout. Summer is the best time to visit the park since snow closes down many of the access roads from October through June.
#55. Katmai: Stay at Brooks Camp
- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2018: 37,818
Katmai National Park is located on the Southern Peninsula of Alaska and is home to more brown bears than people, an estimated 2,200. The best spot to view them is from Brooks Camp, which features multiple viewing platforms to watch them feed on salmon in the Brooks River. June through mid-September is the best time to visit since these hibernators hunker down for the winter, and the camp closes down for most visitors.
#54. Dry Tortugas: Explore Fort Jefferson
- Location: Florida
- Recreational visits in 2018: 56,810
The Florida keys offer great opportunities for sun and fun—and a little bit of history at Fort Jefferson, the largest brick building in the western hemisphere. The fort served as a prison during the Civil War, requiring over 16 million bricks to complete, with many shipped from Maine. Guided snorkeling tours of the fort’s underwater ruins provide colorful fish and reefs, and encounters with wildlife like sea turtles, from which the island draws its name.
#53. Wrangell-St. Elias: Go flightseeing
- Location: Alaska
- Recreational visits in 2018: 79,450
Measuring more than 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias in south-central Alaska is the largest designated wilderness in America. Access to much of the park is incredibly tricky, including its most extensive collection of peaks above 16,000 feet in North America, led by Mount St. Elias, the second-largest mountain in the U.S. For more adventurous types, flightseeing tours can end with a wilderness dropoff for backpacking through the mostly unexplored terrain.
#52. Virgin Islands: Dive beneath the surface
- Location: Caribbean
- Recreational visits in 2018: 112,287
It’s tough to see Virgin Islands National Park without a pair of swim trunks, as over 40% of the park is underwater. Crystal-clear water and a variety of colorful reefs and wildlife make the seas a prime spot for snorkelers and scuba divers. For snorkelers, Hawksnest Bay boasts one of the most extensive stands of Elkhorn coral, while Cinnamon Bay Beach offers a submerged historic village and a sunken plane to explore. Congo Cay presents a chance to dive a little deeper, dropping off into the open ocean, and see more abundant wildlife such as rays.
#51. Congaree: Follow the fireflies
- Location: South Carolina
- Recreational visits in 2018: 145,929
For a two- to three-week period between mid-May and mid-June, the night sky in Congaree National Park lights up for the Fireflies Festival. Visitors descend upon Congaree to see the millions of synchronous fireflies illuminate in perfect unison just feet off the ground during mating season (Just put insect repellent on before you visit). Although there are several restrictions during the famous festival, the park is open late, and nearby Columbia offers plenty of places to stay.2018 All rights reserved.