Thanks to corporate concession contracting, most of the food in national parks is forgettable. If you’re looking for a decent meal, you’re almost always better off skipping the snack shack and looking outside the park. But gateway towns can be total tourist clusters too. To really know where to go, you need local knowledge— preferably from someone who gets that after summiting a 14’er you don’t want “a nice salad.”
After nearly ten years of bouncing from park to park with my husband, who is a National Park Ranger, there are few sites in the U.S. where I don’t know anyone rocking the green and gray uniform. Drawing on my husband’s network of ranger colleagues-turned-friends, I put together a collection of tips for great spots to grab a post-peak bite at 15 of the nation’s most popular parks:
Whoa Nellie Deli
22 Vista Point Rd, Lee Vining, California
Distance: 12 miles from the park’s east entrance
If you’re coming in or out of Yosemite from the Eastern side (i.e. via Mono Lake), do not miss this gas-station-adjacent spot. The sandwiches are good, but the menu has tons of great non-sandwich items. Must order: Wild buffalo meatloaf, which is made “cowboy style”—although the notion that cowboys finished their meatloaf with a port wine au jus is beyond me.
21 North Canyon Street, West Yellowstone, Montana
Distance: roughly one mile from the park's west entrance
Resort towns are not known for having good, cheap eats, but this place defies the odds. The bus keeps odd hours and it’s a paper plate affair; no fine dining here. Must order: The spicy shrimp and shrimp fajitas get rave reviews. Sure, shrimp aren’t really what you think of eating in Montana, but if you're here you’re probably ready for a break from all the elk burgers.
948 Zion Park Blvd, Springdale Utah
Distance: 1.2 miles
A great outdoor patio and outstanding food make this place a ranger favorite. There’s a list of almost a dozen different burgers, plus good Mexican options and sandwiches and salads too. The salsa at Oscar’s is especially fresh and good. If you’re a salsa fanatic, they’ll even bottle up a jar for you to take home. Must order: Pork chili verde burrito, smothered in green chilies (as are all good things in the Southwest).
Que Car BBQ
60076 State Route 20, Marblemount, Washington
There aren’t too many food options near North Cascades, so pull over when you see the little red train car with the “Que Car BBQ” sign. Sure, the Pacific Northwest isn’t known for its BBQ, but according to a former seasonal ranger at the park, the owner of this spot is an Austin native. Must order: The pulled pork sandwich, which is smoked using local northwest apple and maple wood.
21 Red Eagle Road, Saint Mary, Montana
Distance: roughly one mile
Hearty might be an understatement here—think meatloaf, chicken fried steak, and fare cooked in butter. Portions are huge and are offered family style or as individual entrees. Locals rave about the homemade soups, fresh bread and fresh huckleberry desserts. Must order: Huckleberry ice cream pie. It’s like everything that makes America great in one dessert.
37718 SR 706 E, Ashford, Washington
Distance: roughly one mile
Half the menu is Nepalese food and the other half is American. Both are great. Must order: the yak burger will make you feel ready to conquer whatever peak you have planned for the day.
Dornan’s Pizza Pasta Company
200 Moose Street, Moose, Wyoming
Distance: 3.9 miles
Technically Dornan’s is inside the park. However, with great pizza, beer, and kick-ass views, it belongs on the list. Service can occasionally be slow, but sitting and waiting with a cold beer and an awesome view doesn’t seem like a chore. Most order: If you’re a carnivore, go for the Thor Peak pizza. Named for the 12,000-foot summit, the pie is piled high with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, sausage, and caramelized onions.
Robert Is Here
19200 SW 344th Street, Homestead, Florida
Distance: 8 miles from the Homestead entrance
This overgrown fruit stand has life-altering tropical fruit milkshakes. The mango, chocolate-banana, and strawberry-key-lime are particularly welcome after tromping through the swamp on a sweaty South Florida day. Must order: Any of the different fruit milkshakes. Technically the stand offers fat-free and sugar-free smoothies but this is one time you really want to go for the real deal.
Arches & Canyonlands
352 North Main Street, Moab, Utah
Distance: 5 miles from Arches; 30 miles from Canyonlands
Moab has turned into a major tourist town, which means there’s good food but there’s also a lot of not-so-good food. This vegan and vegetarian-friendly spot is a local favorite, with great coffee. It’s a relatively small and busy cafe, so be prepared to wait. Must order: Huevos rancheros or the banana nut pancakes.
Palm Café & Motel
21130 Highway 101, Orrick, California
Distance: 4 miles
When I asked an online group of rangers to weigh in on park-side eats, a pie-off competition was soon proposed, and Palm Café came up. To be clear: This is a total greasy spoon diner. If that’s your thing, you’ll love it. Must order: Pie. Everything from the apple to the lemon meringue to the chocolate cream is homemade and delicious.
61715 29 Palms Hwy, Joshua Tree, California
Distance: 5.1 miles
This cafe has tons of vegan and vegetarian options, but, don’t worry, there’s plenty for meat eaters too (like awesome burgers). Crossroads Café is particularly slammed at breakfast time, especially on weekend mornings, so come prepared to wait. If you can’t get in for breakfast (or are busy climbing in the park before it gets hot), know that lunch is equally good. Must order: The “Soy-Rizo” hash is a dirtbag favorite.
116 South St, Front Royal, Virginia
Distance: 1.2 miles
I grew up near Shenandoah National Park and often begged my health-food-obsessed parents to stop here, but we never ever did. (I’ve since billed my years of therapy directly to them.) When I finally got to Spelunkers, it was everything I ever dreamed of. Great burgers, awesome fries, and a frozen custard flavor menu that changes daily. Pro tip: wear yourself out in the park so you can guiltlessly enjoy the frozen custard sundae. Must order: Frozen custard shake with any topping you want.
Great Smoky Mountains
Smoky Mountain Brewery
1004 Parkway, Suite 501 Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Distance: half a mile
This joint features locally brewed beer and standard gastropub fare. The real highlight, according to one ranger, is the karaoke that happens on various nights. (Check the schedule before you go.) Apparently it’s where locals come to try and get discovered as the next Dolly Parton. Must order: the brewery “ale” steak, which is marinated in one of the house ales.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Park
Fort George Brewery and Public House
1483 Duane St, Astoria, Oregon
Distance: 7.4 miles
Oregon’s craft brew scene apparently extends all the way to Astoria. Communal tables overlook the Columbia River and pizzas, seafood, and house-made sausages are perfect for soaking up all the beer you’ll likely end up drinking. Must order: Oyster shooters, which pair nearby Willapa Bay oysters with bright cocktail sauce.
El Morro National Monument & El Malpais National Monument
Ancient Way Café and Outpost
4018 Ice Caves Road, Ramah, New Mexico
Distance: 2 miles from El Morro National Monument and 66 miles from El Malpais
It seems unlikely that you would find great food in this remote spot, but somehow this organic café is thriving. They have great salads, sandwiches and soups, and you should save room for Ancient Way Café’s sweet chili pies because whoa. Must order: The buffalo green chili cheeseburger is basically everything great about the west captured between two buns.
Next Door Gastropub
113 W 1st St., Suite A, Port Angeles, Washington
Distance: 2 miles
The hangout spot for outdoorsy folks, with a diverse menu and Pacific Northwest-appropriate craft beer options. Try the garlic parmesan yam fries, or the Mount Townsend cheese curd poutine to start with, then choose from a ton of different grass fed burger options. Must order: The green curry seafood is stuffed with Pacific Northwest clams and cod—plus you can add Dungeness crab.