Things to do in USA national parks

Our top activities in USA national parks

A walk in the park

It’s like Christmas every day for hikers in the USA’s national parks. With so many walking trails, you can keep coming back again and again for new gifts. There are always a couple of top favourites such as the Grand Canyon Rim Trail or the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion Park. However, there is a plethora of paths beyond the classics, such as the Amphitheatre Lake Trail in Grand Teton, or Seven Mile Hole Trail in Yellowstone. Many of the parks offer bus shuttles to trailheads too. Travel with a responsible tour operator and they’ll know all the best routes anyway, what times to hit them, and how long they will take.

There are several categories of hikes within the parks, usually easy, moderate and strenuous. Go to the National Parks main website, pick a park, go to Plan your Visit, and Things to do, and you will discover a secret world of hiking routes. You can also join ranger led tours which involve a short hike, but are never short on fascinating facts. Backpackers can get all the information they need on how to hit the backcountry trails, gaining an obligatory backcountry permit (usually free), details on where to camp and safety issues.

Celebrate the park's heritage

Wildlife and landscape are what pull people to the parks. However, many are sacred lands for American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. Seek out activities that support tribal heritage, such as Navajo tours in the Navajo National Monument. Sometimes you need to step just beyond the park borders to find places like the Havasupai near the Grand Canyon, or Ute Mountain Tribal Park near Mesa Verde National Park. If you are on a small group tour, this is the perfect thing to do when you have a free day.

Paddle and Saddle

Although many national parks have designated wilderness areas where only hiking is allowed, other areas are natural playgrounds. Some activities require a permit, although if you travel with a tour operator specialising in national parks, they can organise all of that for you. Such as rafting and wild camping along the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River or sea kayaking in Acadia National Park in Maine, giving you access to caverns and coves only accessible by water. Or, if you prefer dry land, take a horseback trek into the heart of Zion National Park or go dog sledding in Alaska’s Denali. In Yosemite you can cycle one of their paved bike trails (but not off-road) and finish your day with a dip in the Merced River.

Wildlife watching

There are bison in Yellowstone, moose in Alaska’s Denali National Park, grizzly bears in Glacier and bighorn sheep in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Some are scary, others are just stunning, but they are all wild. So you need to be aware of what’s out there, take precautions and enjoy. And always keep your distance if you spot a wild animal.
Photo credits: [A walk in the park: Rob Glover] [Ute mountain trail: Catherine Mack] [Wildlife watching: yellowstone national park] [cycle: Yellowstone National Park]
Written by Catherine Mack
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Photo credits: [Page banner: Mike van Dalen]
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