Which National Park Is Best for You?

Timber path through the meadow Yosemite National ParkYosemite, National Park, Cathedral Rocks, CaliforniaYosemite National Park, California
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Oconaluftee Valley Cherokee, North CarolinaGreat Smoky Mountains National Park, TennesseeJoshua Tree National Park, Jumbo Rocks, Yucca valley, Mohave Desert, California
Joshua Tree National Park, CaliforniaTrunk bay, St John island, US Virgin Islands, beach, CaribbeanTrunk Bay, St John U.S. Virgin Islands National Park
Big Bend National Park, TexasSanta Elena Canyon, Rio Grande river, Big Bend National Park, Texas, United StatesAppalachian mountains, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley, Little Stony Man Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, VirginiaIsla Royale National Park, MichiganSunrise, Chippewa Harbor, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Independence Hall National Historic Park, Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaIndependence Hall National Historic Park, Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaBlue Mesa, hiking trail, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park, ArizonaGrand Teton Mountain RangeView of Grand Teton Valley. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park, WyomingBlack Sand Basin, South Yellowstone National Park, WyomingKilaueas gas plume, Halemaumau Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Lava rock, Big Island, Hawaii Volcanoes National ParkGrand Canyon, ArizonaHorseshoe Bend, colorado river, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Otter Cliffs, Atlantic Ocean, Acadia National Park, MaineJordan Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine
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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK: BEST FOR RVING. While this park gives you the opportunity to hike in the footsteps of such environmental champions as John Muir, photographer Ansel Adams, and President Theodore Roosevelt, all of whom played a role in the early life of the park, it also happens to be one of the best parks for parking a decidedly modern convenience, the RV, thanks to several affordable RV-friendly campsites and, best of all, the dramatic sights right outside your window. When I first visited Yosemite, I thought I’d seen “beautiful” (after all, I’d been up and down the California coast and even explored the backwoods of Montana), but this park really encourages worn-out clichés. From iconic one-of-a-kind sights like Half Dome and El Capitan to lesser-known paths and meadows, not to mention vertigo-inducing cliffside waterfalls and the giant redwoods, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a view that doesn’t leave you at a loss for words here in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. For the brave and the sure-footed, the three-mile Mist Trail will take you up to 317-foot Vernal Falls with its promise of rainbows in the mist. Those same powerful falls mellow out significantly once they hit the valley floor, where you can enjoy floating in the Merced River in a rented raft. (But bear in mind that all that lovely water is snowmelt, and even on the warmest summer day it’s going to be below 60 degrees!) >>

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YOSEMITE (continued) Before your trip, read The Road Guide to Yosemite ($10, yosemiteconservancystore.com), by Master Interpretive Ranger Bob Roney, who joined the park in 1969. The book takes you down all 200-plus miles of the park’s roads, noting what you’re seeing out your window, where you should stop, and where to find the best hiking and photo ops. Yosemite’s Pines Campgrounds, in Yosemite Valley near Half Dome Village, are favorites of RV enthusiasts, especially the Lower Pines Campground, which can accommodate RVs up to 40 feet. Reserve a campsite up to five months in advance ($26 per night, recreation.gov), and be prepared for “boondocking,” with no electricity or water hookups. (Don’t worry: Each campsite has its own fire ring, picnic table, and food locker and is located near bathrooms with drinking water and flush toilets.) —Robert Firpo-Cappiello >>


YOSEMITE (continued) Yosemite is not only one of the most beautiful places in America, but after a day taking in all that gorgeous scenery, foodies will also love the world-class cuisine available. The Ahwahnee Dining Room. It’s hard to think of a more visually delicious space than the cathedral-like dining room at Yosemite’s grand Ahwahnee Hotel, with its 34-foot-tall beamed ceilings, sugar-pine trestles, and granite pillars. Chef Percy Whatley’s inventive menu, which highlights fresh California ingredients, pairs perfectly with a wine list that’s heavy on local varietals. Art lovers must make time for the Ansel Adams Gallery. Opened in an unassuming tent in the Yosemite Valley in 1902 by Harry Best, who would later become Ansel Adams’s father-in-law, the gallery is still family-run, now directed by Ansel’s grandson, Matthew. After checking out their collection of photographs by and of the great landscape master, sign up for a class or workshop in topics like fine art digital printing, winter light, and color landscapes. —Nicholas DeRenzo


GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK: BEST FOR CAMPING. Yes, you can enjoy America’s most popular national park (with more than 9 million annual visitors, more than twice as many of its closest competitors) for less than $20 per night. Boasting a location in Tennessee and North Carolina that draws road trippers from the Midwest, East Coast, and South, Great Smoky Mountains is a mecca for travelers who love camping, fishing, hiking, cycling, horseback riding, and, of course, scenic drives such as the justly popular (and occasionally mobbed) Cades Cove Loop Road, Newfound Gap Road, and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The park’s classic blue-hued mist gave the mountain range its name and awes park visitors year-round, though the wildflowers of spring and summer and the reds and golds of autumn can give the mist a run for its money. Wildlife viewing here includes the thriving elk population that was reintroduced more than 15 years ago and, most famously, black bears (always keep your distance or stay in your car, no matter how cute those bear cubs may be). With more than 2,000 miles of streams in the Smokies, the sounds of burbling water and the dramatic sight of waterfalls such as the 120-foot Mingo Falls (easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway) are usually nearby. >>

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GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS (continued) With 9 million annual visitors, getting alone time can be tricky. If solitude is important to you,rangers recommend that you visit before the summer hordes descend in mid-June or after they depart in mid-August, avoid the autumn foliage peak throughout October, hit the trails before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m., and discover beautiful lesser-known spots like Abrams Creek, Foothills Parkway, and Heintooga Ridge Road. The National Park Service maintains 10 “frontcountry” campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including sites at Abrams Creek and Cades Cove. Each campground offers nearby bathrooms with running water and flush toilets, and each campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. A consistent favorite and one of the park’s most highly rated campgrounds is Smokemont Campground, in Cherokee, North Carolina, with more than 140 campsites. But sites at Smokemont book up quickly; reserve now if you’re planning a trip soon to this year-round site (from $17 per night, recreation.gov). —Robert Firpo-Cappiello


JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK: BEST FOR A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE. With its extraterrestrial desert landscape and knack for attracting modern folklore, Joshua Tree National Park has a reputation for being a special place. Magical, even. The band U2 immortalized the southern California park in pop culture with their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. Characters on HBO’s Entourage journeyed there on a vision quest. Late singer-songwriter Gram Parsons of The Byrds was cremated at Cap Rock, per his request. Miley Cyrus took to the park to post an au naturel Instagram in response to rumors of her death. Those recent myths and legends, combined with 8,000 acres of alien terrain, have added to the park’s allure as a retreat for travelers in search of clarity, creative inspiration, and the answers to life’s bigger questions. My first experience at Joshua Tree was starkly different from the Hollywood version. There was no peyote, no thrumming guitar chords, no trippy talking coyote. But upon entering Joshua Tree’s gates, I understood what all the spiritual fuss was about. Standing, small, in the park, bearing witness to its massive heaps of boulders and spindly Seussian trees, everything cloaked in eerie, peaceful quiet, is so jarring that it demands reflection. It manifests differently for everyone. On my second visit, with my religious 80-year-old mother-in-law, as we marveled at a particularly large, teetering pile of granite, I saw her smile and quietly say to herself, “How can you look at this and say there is no God?” >>


JOSHUA TREE (continued) Whatever your notion of spirituality is, drive into the park and immerse yourself in what is (or isn’t) there. “Take your water and your snacks and your hat, and hit the trail, and find a rock and sit down,” says park outreach ranger George Land. “Our ears get so attuned to sound that the lack of sound can be a little disconcerting for the first five minutes. And then all of a sudden you settle into the silence, and the whole aura of the thing—and I don’t want to sound too mystical here, too New Age or far out—but it’s like a blanket that comfortably nestles over you… It’s restorative to the soul, and the mind, and the body.” And to me, that is what Joshua Tree is all about. Bono or no Bono. To bliss out further, in the area’s mineral pools, stay at Aqua Soleil Hotel & Mineral Water Spa in nearby Desert Hot Springs (from $75 per night, aquasoleilhotel.com). —Jamie Beckman


VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK: BEST FOR BEACH LOVERS. With its 225-yard underwater snorkeling trail, powdery white sand, and iconic coconut palms, Trunk Bay often appears on lists of the world’s most beautiful beaches—in fact, it even made it onto a U.S. postage stamp in 2008. But it’s only a tiny sliver of this sunny, sandy Caribbean national park, which occupies nearly 60 percent of the island of St. John. In addition to 7,529 terrestrial acres of rain forests, hiking trails, and waterfalls, the park dips underwater for another 5,650 acres of coral reefs. You can thank the Rockefellers for all this natural beauty: Conservationist Laurance Rockefeller bought 5,000 acres of the island and donated it to the federal government, leading to the park’s creation in 1956. It’s tempting to spend all your time sitting back in the sand—you’ll surely want to leave time for that, too—but the fun of Virgin Islands National Park lies in uncovering its hidden corners, and hiking is one of the best ways to cover the most ground. The Francis Bay boardwalk, for instance, leads to a salt pond filled with birds, such as mangrove cuckoos and Antillean crested hummingbirds. History lovers should stick to the Cinnamon Bay boardwalk, which passes through the ruins of the old sugar factory, or the Annaberg School Trail, which leads to the remains of one of the oldest public schools in the Caribbean. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, the most difficult hike in the park is along the steep and rocky Reef Bay Trail, which leads past ruined sugar plantations, with a small detour that rewards climbers with a chance to see ancient Taino petroglyphs. >>

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VIRGIN ISLANDS (continued) “My favorite beach is Waterlemon Cay,” says park ranger Laurel Brannick. “It is a mile hike, which is about 30 minutes, on an old Danish road. Once there, good swimmers can snorkel around the cay, where there is healthy coral, lots of fish, and usually sea turtles and rays.” There’s something purely Caribbean about the St. John Inn, in Cruz Bay, where the exteriors are painted in tropical teals, oranges, and greens. Inside, the digs are decidedly more subdued, with arched doorways, dark wood furnishings, and wicker accents—a modern take on a colonial estate (from $180 per night, stjohninn.com). —Nicholas DeRenzo

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BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK: BEST FOR RAFTING. Where the Rio Grande meanders past limestone cliffs and the warm West Texas breezes may help push you along your journey, Big Bend National Park is a beautiful place to float or paddle downriver. In contrast to some of its NPS cousins on these pages, Big Bend is one of the lesser-known and lesser-visited parks, and that’s part of its charm. But all that solitude requires some preparation: Pick up packable snacks, lunch, and a gallon of water per person per day before entering the park, then get maps and ask rangers about weather and conditions in the park at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center. Hike the Panther Trail (not as scary as its name) for overlooks of the park’s desert landscape, then head to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which takes visitors on a gorgeous drive with numerous opportunities to ogle overlooks, explore hiking trails, see dry waterfalls, lay eyes on historic ranches, and more. Sam Nall Ranch is an authentic homestead ranch with a windmill that still pumps out water, attracting the park’s birds. Sotol Vista Overlook affords a distant view of the Santa Elena Canyon, the park’s marquee attraction that you’ll eventually see up close. Kids will get a kick out of Mule Ears Overlook and the distant peaks that gave it its name. Santa Elena Overlook provides a great view into the canyon’s 1,500-foot-high walls, with one wall in Mexico and the other in the U.S. >>


BIG BEND (continued) Ready to float in Big Bend National Park? Big Bend River Tours in nearby Terlingua offers a variety of on-water and on-trail excursions (half-day tours $75 per person, bigbendrivertours.com). You’ll love floating down the gentle, shallow Rio Grande with the towering canyon walls on either side. In Chisos Basin, ask a ranger for directions to the Window, a rock formation that perfectly frames the western sky and often plays host to a spectacular sunset view. Stay at Chisos Mountains Lodge, which offers motel-style rooms, suites, and cottages in the Chisos Basin (from $139 per night, chisosmountainslodge.com). —Robert Firpo-Cappiello


SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK: BEST FOR ROAD TRIPPERS. Only 75 miles from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park feels worlds away from the nation’s capital. It’s a good place to slow down: The speed limit is only 35 mph on the park’s 105-mile Skyline Drive, which follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That means you’ll have three solid hours to take in the stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley out to the west and the Piedmont to the east. Think of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive as an interstate with many exits, including 75 scenic overlooks, many of which look out onto fields of wildflowers, which change colors with the seasons. These parking lots also lead to more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 of which are part of the Appalachian Trail. Many also lead to the park’s famed waterfalls. Note that it’ll be an easy trip reaching the waterfalls (all walks from Skyline Drive are downhill), but the return journey can be less forgiving, so you’ll want to do your homework before deciding which waterfall to chase. The tallest, the 93-foot Overall Run Falls (at mile marker 21.1) requires a 6.4-mile roundtrip hike with a 1,850-foot climb. The no less spectacular South River Falls (at mile marker 62.8), on the other hand, requires only a 2.6-mile round-trip hike with a climb of 850 feet. >>

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SHENANDOAH (continued) “My favorite stretch of Skyline Drive is between The Oaks Overlook (mile 59.1) and the Pocosin Fire Road (mile 59.5),” says park ranger Sally Hurlbert. “The road passes through a stretch of towering oak trees that arch over Skyline Drive creating a majestic tunnel as you pass underneath.” Skyland Resort sits at an elevation of 3,680 feet, on what is now the highest point along Skyline Drive, which might explain why its founder called the spot “beauty beyond description” (from $95 per person, goshenandoah.com). —Nicholas DeRenzo

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ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK: BEST FOR SEEING WILDLIFE. Chances are you’ve never heard of Isle Royale National Park, a remote archipelago in Lake Superior along the border between Michigan and Ontario. Reachable only by seaplane or boat and open only from mid-April through November, the park regularly sees fewer visitors in an entire year (usually under 16,000) than many blockbuster parks attract in a single day. The result? Without noisy fellow park-goers competing for all that space, you’ll have a much better shot of coming face-to-snout with the island’s undisturbed wildlife. The marquee animal attractions in this park are the moose, which swam to the island for the first time in the early 1900s, and timber wolves, which followed their prey by walking across an ice bridge. Wolf numbers are on the decline, due to inbreeding, with a recent count placing the population at just three—so the canids are much likelier to be heard than seen. Moose, on the other hand, can be spotted if you know where to look. A favorite hangout for the half-ton creatures is Hidden Lake, where a mineral lick in the marshy pond proves particularly irresistible to moosey palates. Explore the island’s coastline and inland waterways by kayak or canoe to spot river otters, foxes, loons, and beavers. >>

Courtesy Pure Michigan

ISLE ROYALE (continued) “Spring is a wonderful time to spot wildlife, because there are just buds on the trees so one can see farther,” says park ranger Nathan Hanks. “Much of the wildlife is giving birth or hatching their young during May and June.” Located on the island’s northeastern shore, Rock Harbor Lodge is the only hotel option in the park—apart from the rustic camper cabins in Windigo. Stop into the property’s dining room for fresh lake trout, or visit the dockside store for daily fishing licenses and tackle to try your hand at catching your own (from $231 per night, rockharborlodge.com). —Nicholas DeRenzo

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INDEPENDENCE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK: BEST FOR HISTORY BUFFS. You won’t find towering trees, mountains, or bears in the heart of Philadelphia. But you will find the epicenter of the American Revolution. Here, at Independence National Historical Park, on the grounds of what was the Pennsylvania state house, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. It was also the site of the Constitutional Convention that established our system of government. You and your kids will get goose bumps learning about these events and more on a free timed tour led by a passionate and knowledgeable park ranger. Pick up your tickets at the visitor’s center just across the street from the park, and while you’re there be sure to check out the free film, directed by John Huston, about the events that gave birth to the United States. >>


INDEPENDENCE (continued) Don’t waste precious time waiting in line to see the Liberty Bell up close; instead, sneak a peek (or snap a “bellfie”!) through one of the windows and then visit the nearby President’s House museum, devoted to the history and abolition of slavery. My family and I stayed at the Alexander Inn last summer and loved the central location for eating and exploring Philly’s art and history (from $119 per night, alexanderinn.com). —Robert Firpo-Cappiello


PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK is a surreal landscape of giant fallen trees that have turned to stone. You'll find more examples of this geological curiosity here in Arizona than anywhere else. You'll love hiking and taking in the bizarre clusters and colors, and you should set aside time to tour nearby Navajo and Hopi lands and the Fort Apache Historic Park. >>

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PETRIFIED FOREST (continued) The park's extraordinary formations are the main attraction here, but Petrified Forest is also a magnet for another kind of art lover: In 1948, Fred Harvey Company architect Mary Colter—one of the few female architects of the era—hired Hopi painter Fred Kabotie to decorate the dining areas in the National Historic Landmark Painted Desert Inn. Restored in 2004, the murals depict such Hopi customs as the buffalo dance, a ceremony in which tribesmen pray for successful hunts during the winter, and a sacred 230-mile walk to collect salt at the Zuni Salt Lake. Look for important tribal symbols like corn, rain, and eagles. —Nicholas DeRenzo


GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK teems with wildlife, lakes, and beautiful alpine landscapes. You'll want to spend a few days hiking its 200-plus miles of trails, floating the iconic, winding Snake River, and enjoying the songs of coyotes in the wild Wyoming night. >>

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GRAND TETON (continued) After a day on those winding Grand Teton trails, foodies should chow down at The Dining Room at Jenny Lake Lodge. Don’t be fooled by the kitschy Western motif. The five-course, prix-fixe dinner menu, which changes nightly, is among the peak culinary experiences in the entire national parks system, with a focus on fresh fish and wild game like elk, venison, and bison. —Nicholas DeRenzo

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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK was the very first national park, opened in 1872, and remains a favorite for its hot springs, Old Faithful geyser, and the gray wolves that were reintroduced and made a spectacular comeback here in the 1990s. >>

Kushnirov Avraham/Dreamstime

YELLOWSTONE (continued) Beyond Yellowstone's incredibly diverse wildlife and terrain (such as Black Sands Basin, above), foodies will love the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room. The signature dinner buffet at the Old Faithful Inn features down-home entrées like huckleberry barbecue chicken thighs, carved prime rib, and sautéed trout. The à la carte offerings skew a bit wilder, with dishes like smoked bison bratwurst, pheasant-chicken sausage, and bison-elk bolognese. —Nicholas DeRenzo

Minyun Zhou/Dreamstime

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK is home to Kilauea, with its amazing gas plume rising from Halemaumau Crater. Though Kilauea is only about 4,000 feet high, it is peerless in terms of its drama, having seriously blown its top as recently as the 1980s. >>


HAWAII VOLCANOES (continued) All that dramatic volcanic action at Hawaii Volcanoes has inspired some fantastic art in the park: Volcano Art Center. Located in the 1877 Volcano House Hotel, the Volcano Art Center is widely considered the premiere art gallery on the Big Island—a celebration of Hawaiian arts and crafts, both traditional and contemporary. The collection of native wood furnishings, ceramics, jewelry, paintings, and mixed media works would surely please Pele, the goddess of creativity, who is said to live just a few minutes up in the road in Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. —Nicholas DeRenzo


GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK is so vast and so shrouded in its own legend that visitors are often awed simply to find that it really is as amazing as they've heard. Of course, you've got to work for it, hitting a half-day or overnight mule trail down the canyon rim and to the Colorado River. >>


GRAND CANYON (continued) One way to drink in the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon without too much effort is to grab dinner at one of our favorite foodie finds, the El Tovar Dining Room. The grand stone and Oregon pine dining room at the South Rim’s iconic 1905 El Tovar Hotel has attracted the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Paul McCartney. The views out toward the canyon surely have something to do with its roster of famous diners, but perhaps equally as spectacular is the Southwestern-inspired menu, with standouts like beef and pork red chile tamale with adobo crema. —Nicholas DeRenzo

Minyun Zhou/Dreamstime

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK offers the mountains, the ocean, and pine-scented air all in one beautiful New England package. This park is for travelers who like their seaside a little rough around the edges, with cliffs, trails, and surprisingly empty beaches. >>

Jon Bilous/Dreamstime

ACADIA (continued) Sure you'll love Acadia's gentle beauty, ocean views, and mountains, but when you're hungry you'll find foodie heaven at Jordan Pond House. Overlooking the glacier-formed tarn (or mountain lake) Jordan Pond, this Acadia classic has been serving afternoon tea and fluffy popovers since the 1890s. Now, in addition to the popovers, served with local strawberry jam, you’ll find a seafood-rich menu filled with—what else!—lobster, which appears in a sherry-spiked stew, a niçoise salad, lobster-crab cakes, a quiche, and, of course, lobster rolls. —Nicholas DeRenzo

Paul Lemke/Dreamstime

We celebrate the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service with the best parks for every travel personality, including foodie, art lover, history buff, road tripper, beach-goer, and more! Check out the beautiful views, and insider tips on where to eat, play, and stay!

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