The One Thing You’ve Gotta Do in All 59 National Parks

The Totally Comprehensive Guide to the Quintessential Experiences in All 59 National Parks From A(cadia) to Z(ion)

Happy 100th, National Park Service

Forget apple pie and baseball: nothing says America like our glorious national parks.

And today, the National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday.

To honor the occasion, we’ve come up with the single most essential experience you've gotta try in all 59 of 'em (including every single one in Alaska, where you can throw a coin in the air and hit a new one).

In the words of the Park Service: "Park your car, set the brakes and enjoy the scenery."

NORTHEAST

 

Acadia National Park
Maine

Set off in an ocean kayak from Seal Harbor Beach for a paddle around Mount Desert Island.

 

THE SOUTH

 

Biscayne National Park
Florida

Canoe the park’s shallow bays (read: too shallow for motorcraft) and camping at the Elliott Key — all with Miami in eyesight.

 

Congaree National Park
South Carolina

Pitch a tent under autumn leaves at vehicle-free Bluff Campground.

 

Dry Tortugas National Park
Florida

Dive the wreck of the Windjammer, an 1875 three-masted ship destroyed on Loggerhead Reef in 1901.

 

Everglades National Park
Florida

Kayak the 99-mile, marked Wilderness Waterway, with alligators and sea turtles along the way.

 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee and North Carolina

Cycle the loop road through Cades Cove — do it before 10 a.m., when the road is open to car traffic.

 

Hot Springs National Park
Arkansas

Take it all off for a soak in the mineral-rich “therapeutic waters” at park concessionaire Buckstaff Bath House.

 Image via Goblin Empire

Mammoth Cave National Park
Kentucky

Overnight (next to your horse) at the Maple Springs Group Campground.

 

Shenandoah National Park
Virginia

Book into a two-room cabin at the Big Meadows Lodge for an easy family retreat — then gather in said meadow for stargazing.

 

Virgin Islands National Park
Virgin Islands

Book in for a stay at the newly spruced-up Cinnamon Bay Resort, a private concession on park ground — and then get snorkeling.

 

 

MIDWEST

 

Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Ohio

Cycle the family-friendly 20 miles of the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath trail inside the park.

Image via Joe Ross 

Isle Royale National Park
Michigan

Scuba dive the cold, deep, dark waters of Lake Superior — the perfect aquatic environment for shipwrecks.

 

Voyageurs National Park
Minnesota

Rent a houseboat and settle in for a stay at Brown’s Bay on Sand Point Lake. 

 

 

SOUTHWEST

 

Big Bend National Park
Texas

Float 13 miles down the Santa Elena Canyon over a leisurely few days.

 

Bryce Canyon National Park
Utah

Gaze skyward during the park’s annual astronomy festival, for views of the Milky Way over the park’s singular hoodoos.

 

Canyonlands National Park
Utah

Technical four-wheel drive from Hans Flat to Chimney Rock — with the park service noting that the trails “present considerable risk of vehicle damage.”

 

Capitol Reef National Park
Utah

Explore the rock-wall petroglyphs alongside Highway 24, near the visitor’s center.

 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
New Mexico

A guided 90-minute tour of Kings Palace, with a huge variety of cave formations, all 830 feet below the ground.

 

Grand Canyon National Park
Arizona

Land a permit for a two-week self-guided trip down the Colorado River — at your own pace and on your own time.

 

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Texas

Walk the 8.5-mile hike to Texas’s highest point — Guadalupe Peak.

 

Petrified Forest National Park
Arizona

Do the Jasper Forest Hike across the legitimately bizarre landscape of the petrified desert.

 

Saguaro National Park
Arizona

Explore the desert garden — and then look for the titular cacti on a trip into the backcountry.

 

Zion National Park
Utah

Practice your superior canyoneering skills in the Subway, requiring cold-water swimming and serious route-finding.

 

 

ROCKY MOUNTAINS

 

Badlands National Park
South Dakota

Hike the Notch Trail — it’s short (1.3 miles) but exciting, given its cliffside location and ladder challenges.

 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
National Park

Colorado

Hike into the unmarked wilderness of the Inner Canyon — where it’ll be just you and the bears.

 

Glacier National Park
Montana

Climb those titular glaciers — before they’re gone for good.

 

Grand Teton National Park
Wyoming

Set off on a two-hour horseback ride from Jackson Lake Lodge. 

 

Great Basin National Park
Nevada

Summit the 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak, the tallest point in the Snake Range.

 

Great Sand Dunes National Park
and Preserve
Colorado

Sandboard the Great Sand Dunes — or sand-sledding, if you prefer to do things sitting down.

 

Mesa Verde National Park
Colorado

Sign up for a twilight tour of the spectacular Cliff Palace, set up specially for the history-loving, cliff-dwelling curious Instagrammers among us.

 

Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado

Get away from the crowds (of the third-most popular park) by pitching a tent off-trail in a wilderness cross-country zone.

 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
North Dakota

Pay tribute to the president who did so much to make the national parks a reality — by blazing your own cross-country ski trail through his wilderness.

 

Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming

Celebrate the original with one of its greatest sights: the Grand Prismatic Spring.

 

Wind Cave National Park
South Dakota

Explore the intricate cave formations underground — and then get topside and watch bison and elk play on the prairie.

 

 

CALIFORNIA

 

Channel Islands National Park
California

Watch not just for whales but porpoises, orcas, humpbacks, gray whales, dolphins and more on an Island Transportation tour.

 

Death Valley National Park
California

Scramble through — and photograph — the marble walls of Mosaic Canyon in Stovepipe Wells.

 

Joshua Tree National Park
California

Hike into the backcountry — and bring some binoculars along with the water, for stargazing.

 

Lassen Volcanic National Park
California

Trek across 16 acres of bubbling mudpots and sulphorous steam vents — from the safety of a boardwalk.

 

Redwood National Park
California

Horseback ride under redwoods, up switchbacks, and across streams with salmon busy spawning.

 

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
California

Dodge bears on Raes Lakes Loop, the iconic, 42-mile tour of the Sierras. Stop by Cat Haven Park to spot some rare wild cats.

PACIFIC NORTHWEST

 

Crater Lake National Park
Oregon

A couple nights at Crater Lake Lodge, overlooking the spectacular blue volcanic lake.

 

Mount Rainier National Park
Washington

Trek through wildflowers to the peak of this active volcano.

 

North Cascades National Park
Washington

Canoe to the single available site at Diablo Lake’s Hidden Cove. 

 

Olympic National Park
Washington

Explore the tidepools (kids love tidepools, trust) at the dramatic Hole in the Wall.

ALASKA

 

Denali National Park and Preserve
Alaska

Hike the highest point in America. Obviously.

 

Gates of the Arctic National Park
Alaska

Float the headwaters of the Alatna River, beneath snowy mountain peaks and following the traditional paths of its native peoples.

 

Glacier Bay National Park
Alaska

Kayak Glacier Bay — an experience so sonorific that there’s an art piece dedicated to its sounds: whale song, moose growls, and salmon splashing (and being eaten by bears).

 Image via Paxson Woelber

Katmai National Park and Preserve
Alaska

Arrive at Brooks Camp via seaplane — and spend the afternoon bear-watching.

 Image via NPS Alaska

Kenai Fjords National Park
Alaska

Hire a guide to tour the tricky waters of the Kenai Fjords — so you can leave the orienteering to a local and focus on the wildlife: otters, sea lions, whales, and more.

 Image via Western Arctic National Parklands

Kobuk Valley National Park
Alaska

Charter a plane to get a close-up look at the biggest sand dunes in the Arctic.

 Image via Jose Torres 

Lake Clark National Park
Alaska

Watch brown bears at play while fishing Silver Salmon Creek for its titular resident.

PACIFIC

 

Haleakala National Park 
Hawaii

Secure a cabin in the park’s wilderness — at $75 a night, the best bargain in the state, with hiking trails from your front door.

 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii

Make your way by cairn along the Kīlauea Iki Trail, through both rainforest and a lava lake, with steam vents and cinder cones along the way.

 

National Park of American Samoa
Hawaii

Hike through a Samoan rainforest on the Mount ‘Alava Trail — and at the top, celebrate making it to the South Pacific.

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