There are better ways to see our national parks than staring at Old Faithful or crawling in Yosemite’s traffic. Jump on a paddleboard, hike around a volcano or cast out in pristine waters - these trips put the parks in a whole new light.
Glacier National Park, Montana
This million-acre wilderness contains 131 named lakes—deep, sparkling remnants of the ice sheets that sculpted the park’s peaks and valleys. Ever since Sonny Schierl opened the first paddleboard shop here, you can actually get on the water instead of just admiring it from shore. Rent boards, life vests, and paddles from Great Northern Raft Company, near the park’s west entrance ($60). Then ply the ten-mile lake’s open water and sheltered coves or navigate the mild Class I–II Middle Fork of the Flathead, which forms Glacier’s western boundary. To get into Glacier’s wild backcountry, rent an inflatable board ($60) and pack it three miles from the Bowman Lake picnic area to high-alpine Quartz Lake, which is surrounded by snowcapped peaks and filled with lake and cutthroat trout. (Bring woolly buggers and olive scuds.) At night, bunk at the recently restored Belton Chalet, built in 1910 to attract visitors to the park ($130).
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Back in 1916, Lassen got national park status thanks to its collection of otherworldly volcanic gas vents, mud pots, and boiling pools. These days, visitors gawk at thermal zones like Bumpass Hell, Boiling Springs Lake, and Devils Kitchen, each less than 4.2 miles from trailheads on the park’s main roads. Those are nice, but not as nice as the two-day circuit of the 13-mile Snag Lake Loop, which tours past 200-foot-tall piles of black basalt at Fantastic Lava Beds, conical volcanic peaks, and waters teeming with trout. Start at Butte Lake Trailhead, pass within sight of the lake, then head south for six miles through tall pines to Snag Lake. Camp at Grassy Swale (free backcountry permit required) and wet your line in the lake, angling for browns and rainbows. The following day, head north for great views of 6,907-foot Cinder Cone—if you’re feeling ambitious, it’s a steep half-mile to the summit—and views of the pink and purple Painted Dunes. The park’s best lodging is at Drakesbad Guest Ranch, at the south entrance in the Warner Valley. A classic, century-old spread, it offers horseback rides and easy access to natural thermal pools (from $140, meals included).
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Most visitors to Rocky Mountain zero in on 14,259-foot Longs Peak and the nontechnical Keyhole Route. But that has its hazards, too. "It's a very lightning-prone mountain," says Chris Van Leuven, with Colorado Mountain School. For another classic, Van Leuven directs clients toward the Petite Grepon, a knife-blade spire in the rugged Loch Vale Valley. A daylong, eight-pitch ascent of a moderate 5.8 route on sturdy metamorphic rock, it's a terrific introduction to technical alpine climbing with an even better payoff: a sidewalk-width summit with precipitous views of high-alpine Sky Pond far below (from $190). It's a five-mile approach, so to beat the afternoon thunderheads, you'll sleep under the stars in the meadow below. (Tent camping isn't allowed in the Loche Vale; a permit is $20.) Back in Estes Park, you'll be ready for fish tacos on the deck of Ed's Cantina, where you can grab the famous avocado margarita made with fresh lime. Then recover at Della Terra Mountain Chateau. Each of the posh resort's 14 suites includes a private hot tub with mountain views (from $265).
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Located on the southeast shore of the Big Island, Volcanoes National Park may be most spectacular after sundown. That's when the glowing red steam column from active Halemaumau Crater lights up the sky. The best place to see it is from the newly renovated Volcano House hotel, perched on the lush green edge of the Kilauea caldera ($285). During the day, watch clouds tear through the crater, or hike to the top of occasionally snowcapped, 13,670-foot Mauna Loa. Some of the park's best-kept secrets are the four beach campsites at the south end of the park, each accessible via half-day hike. (There's no fee, but be sure to reserve a day in advance.) Apua may be the most scenic, surrounded by hardened lava flows, but you have to haul in your own water. (It's available at the other three.) Keauhou, though shadeless, affords the best snorkeling.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Roughly as large as the state of Vermont, Denali contains just a single road that runs 92 miles through the tundra in the northern shadow of the towering Alaska Range. Almost at the end of the road is the 15-room North Face Lodge, located near Wonder Lake, which features the best views of the park's 20,320-foot namesake peak. The three-night minimum affords plenty of opportunities to venture out with staff naturalists, ride the 1.5 miles to Wonder Lake (borrow a bike from the lodge), or just chill in front of the stone fireplace with a book (from $1,665 for three nights, all-inclusive). But Denali's best experiences are off the road. For a true epic, hitch a ride in a floatplane to the vast, roadless south side of the park. Alaska Alpine Adventures will drop you and a guide on the shore of Moraine Lake at the junction of the Backside and Ruth Glaciers. From there, you'll backpack a 35-mile loop designed to maximize views of Denali, a mere 15 miles away. You'll camp in lush, verdant tundra overlooking Ruth's Ice Ribbon. Rarest of all, the area is free of mosquitoes ($2,995).
Acadia National Park, Maine
Want to go big but only have a long weekend to work with? Acadia's 47,000-plus acres of wild ocean bays, granite cliffs, and twisty trails largely splashed across Maine's Mount Desert Island is the perfect place. Base yourself in Bar Harbor, which is surrounded on three sides by national park—and an impossibly scenic shoreline on the fourth—and embark on half-day rock-climbing, stand-up-paddleboarding, hiking, or road-biking excursions. The boutique West Street Hotel is Bar Harbor's newest property, with sharply appointed rooms and a rooftop pool overlooking the ocean and Acadia's outer islands ($209). Cross the street to the pier to rent boards from Acadia Stand Up Paddle Boarding ($45 per half-day) or to arrange a private guided trip around the Porcupine Islands or fjord like Somes Sound (from $75). "No matter the wind or fog, there's always a place to challenge anyone's skill level," says owner Chris Strout. After that, bang out a ride on the park's 27-mile Loop Road, spinning around Otter Point and Hunter's Head. (Add a 3.5-mile climb to the top of 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain if you feel like pushing yourself.) The next day, set out on a scramble up the Precipice Trail, a short 1,000-foot climb up the granite dome of Champlain Mountain—part of it on iron ladders bolted to the rock. Afterward, hit happy hour for half-priced mojitos at Galyn's in Bar Harbor, where the specialties include prime rib and—of course—lobster.
Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Utah
It doesn't get more beautiful than Zion. There are 2,000-foot red sandstone walls and other-worldly, verdant slot canyons like the Narrows. Unfortunately, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more packed park. Thanks in part to its proximity to Las Vegas, more than 300,000 monthly visitors show up in the relatively small, 229-square-mile spot from May to September. That's why Wisconsin-based outfitter Trek Travel smartly designed a six-day, van-supported road ride that takes you through less-visited Bryce Canyon and finishes 87 miles later in Zion ($1,899). Think of it as a surgical strike on an astonishing place. You'll start with a tour through Bryce's Hogsback Ridge, then bunk at the iconic Lodge at Bryce Canyon, just steps from mind-boggling day hiking in the famous Bryce Amphitheater. In Zion, you'll zip past the Towers of the Virgin and Watchman Spire. Be sure to set one afternoon aside for the 2.5-mile hike up to Angels Landing. It's full of camera-toting masses, but the crowds are worth braving: the sheer 1,488-foot face offers the most astounding view outside of the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
"Riding through the Grand Canyon on a dory is one of the last great adventures in America," says Rondo Buecheler, who pilots the stretch for legendary outfitter Grand Canyon Dories. For one thing, the trips are long—up to 18 days—which gives you plenty of time to forget about work. For another, you get to immerse yourself in a place for which the word grand was seemingly invented. Finally, the boats are awesome. The 17-foot craft have a more dynamic response to the river's currents than a rubber raft does, which is why only guides work the oars. "No matter how good you are in a dory, once in a while you're going to get the big ride," says Buecheler, who has been running the canyon for 33 years. "There's a palpable sense of adventure on every run." The other bonus is that the boats cover the stretch's 277 miles much faster than rafts do, leaving more time to explore mind-blowing side hikes like the source of Thunder River, where a gushing stream springs whole from a cave on the side of a limestone cliff (from $5,344). Can't spare two weeks? Plumb the canyon on foot. Book a rustic cabin for two nights at Phantom Ranch, a shady oasis at the confluence of the mighty Colorado and Bright Angel Creek. Spend the second day gawking at the majestic rock walls and day-hiking to spots like Ribbon Falls, all while gathering your strength for the 4,380-foot climb back to the rim ($149).
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