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.”
Acadia National Park
Set off in an ocean kayak from Seal Harbor Beach for a paddle around Mount Desert Island.
Biscayne National Park
Canoe the park’s shallow bays (read: too shallow for motorcraft) and camping at the Elliott Key — all with Miami in eyesight.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dive the wreck of the Windjammer, an 1875 three-masted ship destroyed on Loggerhead Reef in 1901.
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.
Image via Goblin Empire
Mammoth Cave National Park
Overnight (next to your horse) at the Maple Springs Group Campground.
Virgin Islands National Park
Book in for a stay at the newly spruced-up Cinnamon Bay Resort, a private concession on park ground — and then get snorkeling.
Cycle the family-friendly 20 miles of the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath trail inside the park.
Voyageurs National Park
Rent a houseboat and settle in for a stay at Brown’s Bay on Sand Point Lake.
Gaze skyward during the park’s annual astronomy festival, for views of the Milky Way over the park’s singular hoodoos.
Technical four-wheel drive from Hans Flat to Chimney Rock — with the park service noting that the trails “present considerable risk of vehicle damage.”
Explore the rock-wall petroglyphs alongside Highway 24, near the visitor’s center.
Grand Canyon National Park
Land a permit for a two-week self-guided trip down the Colorado River — at your own pace and on your own time.
Walk the 8.5-mile hike to Texas’s highest point — Guadalupe Peak.
Petrified Forest National Park
Do the Jasper Forest Hike across the legitimately bizarre landscape of the petrified desert.
Zion National Park
Practice your superior canyoneering skills in the Subway, requiring cold-water swimming and serious route-finding.
Badlands National Park
Hike the Notch Trail — it’s short (1.3 miles) but exciting, given its cliffside location and ladder challenges.
Great Basin National Park
Mesa Verde National Park
Sign up for a twilight tour of the spectacular Cliff Palace, set up specially for the history-loving, cliff-dwelling curious Instagrammers among us.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
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.
Wind Cave National Park
Channel Islands National Park
Watch not just for whales but porpoises, orcas, humpbacks, gray whales, dolphins and more on an Island Transportation tour.
Joshua Tree National Park
Hike into the backcountry — and bring some binoculars along with the water, for stargazing.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Trek across 16 acres of bubbling mudpots and sulphorous steam vents — from the safety of a boardwalk.
Redwood National Park
Horseback ride under redwoods, up switchbacks, and across streams with salmon busy spawning.
Yosemite National Park
Climb Half Dome, whispering thanks to John Muir, its great admirer, for his efforts to safeguard this park.
Crater Lake National Park
A couple nights at Crater Lake Lodge, overlooking the spectacular blue volcanic lake.
North Cascades National Park
Canoe to the single available site at Diablo Lake’s Hidden Cove.
Glacier Bay National Park
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 NPS Alaska
Kenai Fjords National Park
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 Jose Torres
Lake Clark National Park
Watch brown bears at play while fishing Silver Salmon Creek for its titular resident.
Hire a guide for a seven-day trek along the Wrangell Mountains, passing gold mines, rock glaciers, and snowfields.
Haleakala National Park
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.