Cramming a National Park visit into just one day can involve a stressful amount of guess-based planning and/or a dose of luck-infused spontaneity. But you can take charge with confidence if you read though this list of carefully curated day plans for ten beloved National Parks.
Big Bend, Texas
The best way to get lost in this park’s 1,250 empty square miles is to canoe through the narrow walls of Mariscal Canyon on the Rio Grande. Big Bend River Tours in Terlingua will set you up on a guided trip or an independent float (from $60). Back in Terlingua, the Starlight Theatre serves up boar strips and live entertainment most nights of the week.
Grand Teton, Wyoming
Maybe it’s the name that scares away the crowds, but Death Canyon, with its moose and fields of Indian paintbush, isn’t anything to be afraid of. Hike eight miles out and back to the junction of Static Peak Trail, or continue on for the full 16 miles round-trip to the 11,294-foot summit. Refuel in Jackson with a pulled-pork sandwich and a pint of See You in Helles at Snake River Brewing Company before heading to your cabin at Fireside Resort (from $199).
Congaree, South Carolina
Visitors can explore this little-known park by land or water. We like it wet: paddle Cedar Creek through swamp chestnut oaks and sweet gums. Bring bug spray—the mosquito populations can be formidable. Eighteen miles northwest in Columbia, enjoy regionally sourced shrimp and littleneck clams at Motor Supply Co. Bistro, then spring for a room downtown at the Inn at Claussen’s, a boutique hotel in an old bakery (from $139).
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
It’s not all underground. Mountain bikers have free rein on 25 miles of unpaved trails here, and the singletrack is sweet. Charge across a ridgetop on the Big Hollow Trail, then spelunk by lantern on a ranger-led evening Star Chamber tour. Camp at Houchins Ferry Campground on the Green River (from $12) and feast on arni youvetsi (braised lamb and orzo) and baklava at Anna’s Greek Restaurant and Bar in nearby Glasgow.
To explore this park’s enormous volcano by foot, hike four miles along Sliding Sands Trail, dropping 2,500 feet into the crater. Or do it on wheels: Haleakala Bike Company will shuttle you up to the crater’s lip for sunrise and outfit you with a mountain bike for the 23-mile, 6,000-foot descent ($135). Stay at Makawao at the Banyan Bed and Breakfast, a former plantation with pool and yoga studio (from $155), and stock up on cream puffs at the Komoda Store and Bakery.
Rocky Mountain, Colorado
Celebrate the park’s 100th birthday, which is a year ahead of the national parks centennial. Skip the crowds on Longs Peak and head up 11,586-foot Little Matterhorn, a 5.5-mile hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Back in Estes Park, soak in your own private streamside hot tub at the simple StoneBrook Resort (from $159), then try the elk medallions at Twin Owls Steakhouse.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
On the park’s less crowded North Rim, start at Cape Royal Road and hike two miles out on the Cape Final Trail to the canyon’s edge. Time your arrival for sunset. Take in the stars at the North Rim Campground (from $18), or rent a rustic cabin at the Grand Canyon Lodge, perched on Bright Angel Point ($116).
Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee
Lose the other ten million annual visitors and hike up 6,593-foot Mount Le Conte to spend a night at the legendary LeConte Lodge (from $136, by lottery). Or start your day with apple fritters at Carver’s Applehouse Restaurant near Cosby, Tennessee, then burn them off hiking five miles up 4,928-foot Mount Cammerer to an octagonal fire lookout built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
You’re here to relax. That said, warm up with a 13-mile Sunset Trail hike through pines and hardwoods on 1,209-foot Sugarloaf Mountain. Then head to historic Bathhouse Row for a soak at Quapaw Baths and Spa and a Hitchcock Spring Kölsch at the Superior Bathhouse brewery. Stay in nearby Lake Ouachita State Park, where you can swim and fish and bunk in a lakeshore cabin ($185).
Channel Islands, California
They don’t call them the Galápagos of North America for nothing. Charter a boat with Santa Barbara–based Truth Aquatics for a day of sea kayaking and diving on Santa Cruz—the biggest, most biologically diverse of the park’s five islands (from $100). Camping is allowed, or head eight miles west of Santa Barbara to the surf-chic Goodland hotel for fish tacos and craft cocktails (from $179).