A century after their creation, we've got a lot of reasons to love the national parks—100 by our count.
They have preserved some 84 million acres of forest, mountain, prairie, canyon, coastline, and tundra. They offer peaceful sanctuaries for reflection and rejuvenation, and give our kids playgrounds way cooler than concrete.
But mostly, they're the best places in the country to get your wild on. To set out on an empty trail. To launch your SUP across a glacial lake. To disappear into an endless range of rock and ice. For this we say, hats off—and packs on—to the next 100 years of adventure.
1. Nothing Inspires Us More
"Surrounded by thousand-foot peaks on both sides, you feel like you're at the gates of some unearthly place," says photographer Chris Burkard.
Though he'd planned to spend only two nights at a hut in southeast Denali National Park last October, bad weather forced him to extend his stay to four. "These were gnarly storms," says Burkard, of San Luis Obispo, California, who was in Denali to explore the Ruth Glacier on skis and snowshoes. Then the skies cleared, offering a view by bush plane of black granite moraines forming streaks along the glacier's tongue.
2. Alaska Is Essentially One Big Park—And It's Our Very Best
The 49th state has 54 million acres of national parklands, thanks in large part to the Carter administration. But so much green goodness can be overwhelming, so we enlisted the help of...
3. You Can Drink Them
Plenty of breweries are able to boast of their enviable proximity to national parks. (Coors, for instance, is located 30 miles downstream from Rocky Mountain National Park.) But only Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery in Arkansas can say that its beer is made directly from one.
4. The threat level on the mosquito meter at the Congaree visitor center ranges from All Clear to War Zone.
5. Their Glory Is Available on Demand
Every year in May, husky puppies emerge from their doghouse in Denali National Park's historic kennel. Thousands of people watch—but few are actually there.
6. Fossilized wood from Petrified Forest is so cursed, according to lore, that you can visit a "conscience pile," where rangers dump samples returned by spooked and repentant thieves.
"The park system is either going to keep declining as its advocates get older and whiter, or it’s going to strengthen as they get older and whiter and younger and browner."
8. Pinnacles, voted into existence by Congress in 2012, is proof that we can still add to the system.
9-11. They Have Their Own Gruesome Book Series
In 1995, Roberts Rinehart published Death in Yellowstone, a story collection of true tales of demise within the park’s boundaries.
12. Sandstone looks great at sunrise. Get up in the wee hours of the morning to capture that perfect tourist-free Instagram in Arches. (Left)
13. There's an Oasis in One of the Harshest Places on Earth
Death Valley is known for parched terrain and sneaker-melting summer heat, with temperatures topping out at over 120 degrees. But Furnace Creek Inn makes the harsh desert feel welcoming.
14. In Capitol Reef, visitors can harvest fruit from orchards planted by Mormon settlers in the 1880s.
15. You'll Need a Stout Setup to Land the Monsters Lurking in Olympic
16. It's possible to tag the Texas high point in Guadalupe Mountains and see seminal works of minimalist sculpture two hours down the road at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa on the same day.
17. After a hike in Cuyahoga Valley, you can shower off in Blue Hen Falls.
18. Mount Rainier's namesake peak is among the stoutest alpine challenges in the lower 48—less than half the 10,025 climbers who attempted it last year summitted.
19-26. You Can Go Way, Way Beyond the Scenic Loop
We sent a cadre of Outside staffers on a mission: to find fresh ways to explore the parks. The result? These eight ambitious—and sometimes questionable—adventures.
- Run the Grasslands in Theodore Roosevelt
- SUP Montana's Crystal-Clear Lakes in Glacier
- Float Your Honey Down the Rio Grande in Big Bend
- Ski to Secret Spots in Yellowstone
- Sail to Empty Beaches in the Virgin Islands
- Paddle Like a Fur Trader in Voyageurs
- Ride Huge Peaks in Rocky Mountain
- Cast for a Really Big One in the Everglades
27. Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge Redefines the Hotel Shuttle
The four-hour boat journey here from Seward, Alaska, doubles as a wilderness safari, with opportunities to spot orcas and pods of porpoises. The reward for the journey is solitude.
28. The wolves of Isle Royale are dwindling but resilient.
29. Rangers lead tours through Mesa Verde's massive Pueblo Indian cliff structures, built around the time of the Magna Carta. (Right)
30. Pioneer: Kerry Gallivan
“Mobile devices are a tidal wave that’s about to hit the park experience. To be blunt, if we don’t get this right, we’re talking about the death of the park system.”
31. Car-free days on Crater Lake's Rim Drive—September 17 and 24 in 2016—let cyclists enjoy a spectacular 33-mile ride without dodging traffic.
32. They're Even More Amazing from Above
There are more than 200,000 sightseeing flights—including helicopters and small planes—over the parks every year. And while the views are spectacular, the noise isn’t.
33. The barrier islands and coral reefs of Biscayne don't have an oil refinery or any Miami Beach-style development, as proposed in the sixties before the park was established.
34. Cragging Yosemite Is the Park's Most Adrenaline-Inducing Legacy
35-40. You Can Make It as Hard as You Like
The parks are home to some of the toughest, most rewarding fitness test pieces out there. Here's the beta on six of our favorites.
- Do the Teton Grand Traverse
- Run the Grand Canyon
- Ride Haleakala
- Climb White Rastafarian
- Through-Hike the John Muir Trail
- Bike-Pack the White Rim Trail
41. They Are Training Grounds for Risky Rescues
In 2008, Brandon Latham was teaching rescue techniques to Sherpas at the Khumbu Climbing Center about a dozen miles from Everest Base Camp. Then he had an idea: Why not train Nepali instructors alongside National Park Service rangers?
42. The endless views of stunningly blasted buttes at Badlands. (Below)
43. You know it's spring in Shenandoah when you start bumping into AT through-hikers.
44. We Love a Good Soak
But some are too hot to handle
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Temperature: Naturally averages 143 degrees—soaking pools are closer to 100.
Best Option: Buckstaff Bath House, in operation since 1912.
How It Feels: Warm and relaxing.
Lassen Volcanic, California
Best Option: None. Lassen’s springs are strictly forbidden.
How It Feels: According to one scofflaw, “Like I put my leg in a flame.”
45. Most People Disappear When the Snow Arrives
"We realized we could have a crazy adventure in our own backyard and see pristine wilderness that very few people have seen in the wintertime," says Jackson, Wyoming, photograhper Taylor Glenn. After Glenn and wildlife biologist Taylor Phillips brainstormed travel ideas, the two decided to try a 32-mile cross-country ski tour from Old Faithful to Yellowstone's Bechler Ranger Station last February. In addition to crossings like the Ferris Fork, the six-day journey involved dragging a sled through deep, unpacked snow, fully loaded. "It was a battle," Glenn says, "but it was worth it."
46. Now Your Ten-Year-Old Gets in Free
A new initiative gives complimentary national park access to every fourth-grader in America. Can a class field trip turn kids into lifetime fans of the outdoors? Mike Kessler hops on the yellow bus—and endures high-decibel Bieber sing-alongs—to find out.
47. In Saguaro, visitors can see an actual coyote chasing an actual roadrunner through the cactus. (Below)
48. Even the Private Sector Wants Them to Thrive
And it's coughing up the cash to make that happen.
49-52. You Can Hang Them on Your Wall
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Works Projects Administration commissioned iconic posters of 14 national parks. You can’t afford the originals, but a new generation of artists have been inspired by the classics.
53. North Cascades has a climbable mini K2: Mount Shuksan.
54. You Don't Have to Be Dr. Evil to Stay in a Volcano Lair
You just have to find the hotel nestled in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
55. The bristlecone pines of Great Basin are some of the oldest living things on earth—they commonly endure for thousands of years.
56-58. They Look Great on Screen
The national parks are ideal camera fodder: they’re inherently dramatic and gorgeous in any light. These three series stand out, whether you want an absorbing narrative, sumptuous visuals, or a little of both.
59. Three subspecies of Urocyon littoralis, a tiny (and extremely cute) fox, live only within Channel Islands. (Below)
60. You Can Get Away from It All on Weekends in Acadia
61. We wish we could keep this Colorado park in a jar. (Below)
62. The difficulty of Bryce Canyon's Fairyland Loop means hard-earned solitude through the hoodoo-filled amphitheater.
63. Seeing Them All Isn't as Hard as You Think
Early last year, Darius P. Nabors and Trevor Kemp decided to embark on the best road trip ever: all 59 national parks in 59 weeks. We caught up with them midtrip to get their most valuable crowd-ditching, trail- and river-running, wonder-inducing intel.
64. Pioneer: Alex Warneke
“The Park Service realizes that things can’t carry on as they have been if we are to connect with the upcoming generation."
65. They Don't Need Your Misty-Eyed Reverence
John Muir rhapsodizing about Yosemite is one thing, but Ian Frazier has had it with people calling their favorite outdoor spots “cathedrals,” “shrines,” and “sacred spaces.” The false piety detracts from the real task at hand: seeing these places as they actually are.
66-86. They're Monumental!
Yes, we’re crazy about our 59 National Parks. but the Park Service manages 351 other worthy properties, so follow our road map, pack a beach towel, and ditch the masses.
87. The Majestic Yosemite Will Always Be the Ahwahnee to Us
A recent trademark dispute prompted a change of the hotel’s name to the Majestic Yosemite, but all the stuff that made it legendary is still here.
88. When one of the giant trees in Sequoia fell across a road in 1937, the Park Service transformed it into the Tunnel Log. Snap a picture of your drive through it for some classic parks kitsch. (Below)
89. The cascading cliffs and swiming holes of Oheo Gulch in Haleakala.
90. Pioneer: Alyssa Ravasio
“Before I started Hipcamp, I’d spent so many hours online trying to find and book a campground that I nearly gave up. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was.”
91. No Amount of Traffic or Instagrammers or Drunks Can Take the Magic Out of (Semi-)Wilderness
In which Wells Tower braves the rain, smog, and peak-weekend hordes of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to give his three-month-old son a first taste of nature’s sweetness.
92. Pioneer: Reed Schneider
“A lot of kids don’t understand that national parks are places where you can go camping and fishing and travel where nobody ever drives a car. Programs like NatureBridge allow them to see that the parks are their world."
93. You Can Cruise Redwood (Or Other Newly-Opened Choice Trails)
94. The ridiculously hard hikes to the bottom of Black Canyon of the Gunnison mean you'll have the fishing all to yourself. (Below)
95. The two-hour ferry back to Key West from Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas serves margaritas.
96-98. Our Underground Parks Might Be Our Wildest
Wind Cave, South Dakota: Boasts more passageways per cubic mile than any other cave in the world.
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: The world's largest—more than 400 miles have been explored.
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico: There's a subterranean snack bar—enough said.
99. Some Parks Are Empty. And We Mean Empty.
The rarely visited national park of American Samoa is home to tropical beaches, pristine coral reefs, some untapped surf, and not much else. Matt Skenazy went exploring and found a few good waves and a lot of mysterious South Seas mojo.