7 Unique Ways to Experience National Parks
From a glass-domed train to downhill skiing, these are some of our favorite adventures in our national parks. Bonus: they get you off the beaten path, too.
Imagine seeing the vast expanses of Glacier National Park or the Grand Canyon from a different vantage point than everyone else. Instead of hiking the most popular trail, you’re traversing the park by dogsled or pedaling a fat-tire bike across the snow. Instead of driving the same scenic route as other cars, you’re floating or flying above it all in a hot-air balloon or helicopter. Here’s how to make that happen.
Travel by Train
Skip driving and hop aboard a train. This year the company Rocky Mountaineer will introduce a new route on a glass-domed train between Denver and Moab, Utah. The two-night journey will begin near Rocky Montain National Park and overnight at Glenwood Springs, Colorado, before arriving near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks (from $1,250). To see Glacier National Park, book a four-day getaway package (from $1,059) with Amtrak Vacations. You’ll disembark at Montana’s East Glacier Park station, then spend three nights at the historic Glacier Park Lodge, built by the Great Northern Railway. Vacations by Rail offers many trips to national parks, including a six-day rails-to-rim tour (from $1,325) that starts in Chicago and ends at the Grand Canyon, with lodging at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and Maswik Lodge.
Go by Dogsled
At Alaska’s Denali National Park, stay in a log cabin at EarthSong Lodge (from $189) and you can sign up for the lodge’s Denali Dog Sled Expeditions (from $140), the only approved dog-mushing operator within the park. You’ll travel across the snowy tundra toward the north face of 20,310-foot Denali. In Wyoming, Jackson Hole Continental Divide Dog Sled Adventures leads daylong dogsled tours (from $250) through Grand Teton National Park or for overnight stays at a backcountry yurt. Longtime Montana-based musher Jeff Ulsamer leads tours (from $150) on the edge of Glacier National Park, where a team of huskies race you down a path through Stillwater State Forest.
Downhill-Ski Inside a National Park
Plenty of national parks have backcountry terrain in the wintertime where you can earn your turns (though be sure to check for avalanche warnings), but did you know you can ride a chairlift inside three national parks in the U.S.? Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area (tickets from $45), located inside Washington’s Olympic National Park, isn’t huge—just two rope tows and a Poma lift—but the place gets an average 400 inches of snow each year. In California, Yosemite National Park’s Badger Pass Ski Area is closed this winter due to COVID-19, but normally the area operates five lifts (tickets from $30). You can also ski in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park at Vail Resorts’ Boston Mills and Brandywine ski areas, which are just five minutes apart (tickets from $49, advance reservations required).
Fly in a Hot-Air Balloon
You can float over Utah’s Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in a hot-air balloon with Canyonlands Ballooning (from $299). You’ll take off at sunrise from a launch pad just outside Moab. Grand Adventure (from $300), out of Winter Park, Colorado, flies hot-air balloons year-round into the skies above Rocky Mountain National Park for early-morning views of 14,259-foot Longs Peak.
Pedal a Bike
Mountain biking isn’t permitted in all national parks, so check access, trails, and conditions before you go off-road. In the wintertime, fat-tire bikes are allowed at select parks, including on ungroomed trails within Acadia National Park. Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, in Bar Harbor, Maine, has a small fleet of fat bikes for rent (from $40) during the snowy months. For guided trips, Teton Mountain Bike Tours leads half- or full-day guided winter fat-bike tours (from $280 for two people, including bike rental) into Grand Teton National Park.
Explore from Underground
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky offers year-round and seasonal guided tours (from $20) of its vast underground caverns for small groups. Not into dark, cramped spaces? You can also hike above-ground trails within the park, with signage indicating the natural history of the cave passages below your feet. At Great Basin National Park in Nevada, the limestone Lehman Caves can be toured with a guide (from $12). Book tours at both parks in advance to reserve a spot.
Get High in a Plane or Helicopter
For a splurge, luxury-tour operator TCS World Travel is offering a new winter trip of U.S. national parks by private charter plane (from $29,900 per person for ten days) for small groups of 4 to 12 people. You’ll jet to up to six national parks, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Bryce Canyon, staying at high-end properties and enjoying guided adventures that range from snowshoeing to wolf tracking along the way.