The U.S. National Park Service turns 102 years old this year, and while I could easily give you 102 reasons to visit its 59 parks that draw 300 million visitors per year, let’s stick with 10 of the very best attractions to see at these natural wonderlands.
Mule rides have long been one of the most interesting – and certainly unique – ways of enjoying the Grand Canyon National Park. Trips come in varying lengths. Shorter tours stay atop the canyon while longer treks descend into the massive chasm. Age, height and weight restrictions apply.
Some like it hot. If you’re one of them, check out the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. This enormous 160-degree hot spring emits a cornucopia of colors courtesy of the heat-loving bacteria that live in its waters. It’s an incredible photo op, for sure, and it is only a 25-minute drive from the iconic geyser Old Faithful.
Like to hike? Then trek down the Devils Garden Trail in Utah’s Arches National Park. The path is jam-packed with incredible rock fins and arches, including Landscape Arch, which at nearly 300 feet long is the fifth-longest natural arch in the world.
Most people associate Colorado with top-notch skiing, but there are other ways to hit the slopes, too. Relive childhood memories – albeit in the sand, not snow – by sandboarding or sand sledding at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park is home to the largest dunes in North America, with many towering over 700 feet high.
Combine a national park trip with the Caribbean vacation you crave when you snorkel in Leinster Bay at Virgin Islands National Park. Of course, since 40 percent of the park is underwater, Leinster is far from the only place to swim with the colorful marine life off the coast of St. John.
See the stars illuminate one of the darkest night skies in the United States at Death Valley National Park, on the border of California and Nevada. When temperatures cool in the winter and spring, park rangers guide visitors across moonlit sand dunes and various stargazing events are held at night.
Action movie scenes come to life during aerial tours of Denali National Park in Alaska. Various companies offer helicopter or small airplane tours; depending on which you choose, you could spend 30 minutes on a glacier snapping frosty photos or having the most epic snowball fight ever.
Going-to-the-Sun Road offers one of the nation’s most awe-inspiring drives. The 50-mile route spans the width of Glacier National Park, in Montana, with mountains, waterfalls and valleys competing for your attention. It crosses the Continental Divide, too, at an elevation of more than 6,640 feet. The road is open seasonally when weather allows, so check the status before your visit.
Florida’s Everglades National Park is the largest tropical wilderness in the nation and home to some of the country’s rarest animals, including the American crocodile and the Florida panther. Look for wildlife on a boat tour to the Ten Thousand Islands or rent a canoe or kayak to experience the verdant wetlands up close.
Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky is home to the world’s longest known cave system. With more than 400 miles explored, the caves are open for group tours on lighted routes or dark routes where visitors light the way with wax-burning lanterns. “Wild” tours are available for those who like to get muddy and crawl through dusty tunnels.
Have you seen other National Parks sites? Comment below!
To start planning your National Parks trip, visit AAA.com/NationalParks.