The US National Park Service will turn 100 this year, which reminds us that you don’t need to travel abroad to feel like you’re in a completely different place — all you need to do is make a trip to one of the extraordinary parks right here in America. Camping beginners can experience their first time snoozing among blooming cacti or explore rainbow colored geyser springs in parks chock full of absolutely AMAZING things to see and do. Scroll on for 11 parks that prove snapping up the annual park pass is one of the best thing you can do this year.
1. Saguaro, Arizona: Find Saguaro National Park an hour from the Mexican border and on the edge of Tucson, Arizona. Nestled in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, this incredible park is broken into two key parts: the Tucson Mountain District and Rincon Mountain District. Do your research on both when planning your trip, ‘cause it will make the difference between landing among tons of cacti or on sky island with wildlife like bears and cougars. If you get lucky with the latter, you might even have a shot at seeing the rare coati!
2. Badlands, South Dakota: This amazing place is home to the biggest undisturbed grass prairie in the country. Badlands National Park is also a rare geological ecosystem with soil deposits and fossils that prove ancient animals like the saber-tooth tiger once lived there. Get a glimpse of the dramatically shifting views as you make your way through the park with stops at the Big Badlands Overlook and the Prairie Wind Overlook, and give your glutes a good workout by taking the steps on the Notch Trail or walking the Boardwalk to the Windows.
3. Arches National Park, Utah: More than 2,000 natural stone arches make Arches National Park a special place in Utah. Travelers from around the world come to see the rare colored formations and brilliant sunsets that light up the sky each night. Hikers and rock climbers will love the endless options for exploring, while more low-key visitors are sure to love the camping (don’t miss Devil’s Garden!), photo ops and ranger-led nature walks. Bring a bike or car to see as much of the 18-mile scenic road as you can or to journey to the nearby Canyonlands National Park or Dead Horse Point State Park. If you don’t want to stay inside one of the national parks, plan to book a hotel or Airbnb in Moab — it’s just four miles away and has tasty restaurants and some seriously cool shops.
4. Lassen Volcanic, California: Find four types of volcanoes at the dynamic Lassen Volcanic National Park in northeastern California. The literal hotspot has the largest plug dome in the world, where lava bubbles at the top. See springs and mud pots at Bumpass Hell, Boil’s Spring Lake or Devil’s Kitchen inside the park. The notable thermal places have water that’s already close to boiling! Equally gorgeous, the landscape below the peak has an incredible mix of plants and trees, and is said to be preserved almost as it was before being settled hundred of years ago.
5. Joshua Tree, California: Perched above the Coachella Valley, Joshua Tree National Park is one of California’s most photographed natural destinations. Not only is the park home to an astonishing number of endangered Joshua trees, but it’s also famous for its unique rock formations and desert views. Plan to visit Joshua Tree during the spring if you want to see some of the state’s prettiest desert flowers in bloom. Autumn is also a perfect time for horseback riding, hiking and stargazing without summer’s extreme heat. If you have extra time during your trip, take advantage of the park’s super close proximity to Palm Springs — with just an hour’s drive, you can find yourself poolside at one of the hippest hotels in Southern California.
6. Acadia, Maine: Super close to Bar Harbor, one of Maine’s most beloved tiny towns, Acadia National Park tops travel guides for the Vacation State. Before making your way to Mt. Desert island, dine on the country’s most famous lobster and take advantage of the opportunity to go whale watching on the Atlantic Ocean. When visiting Acadia, set aside time to hike, kayak and canoe. Late September is an awesome time to visit, as New England’s fall foliage fills the sky with brightly colored red, orange and yellow leaves.
7. Yellowstone, Wyoming: The world’s first national park, Yellowstone is everything that wilderness dreams are made of and more. Watch the bison roam freely, relax under a clear sky full of stars in Big Sky Country and make your way to one of the 300 geysers, which includes the Grand Prismatic Spring. This insane natural wonder looks like an enormous, rainbow-filled pool in the ground! The massive park is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware — combined! — and spans three states, covering parts of Montana and Idaho too.
8. Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska: More than six million acres make up the Denali National Park and Preserve, which is home to America’s tallest mountain, Mount McKinley. The 20,310 foot-tall peak is just one of many spectacular things to see inside, alongside Denali’s wildlife population, which has grizzly bears, caribou, moose and wolves. The snowy park also has adorable sled dogs! The super cool Artist in Residence Program at Denali counts more than 60 composers, writers and artists as participants. Scope out their work inside the park or in one of the dedicated gallery spaces.
9. Great Sand Dunes, Colorado: You probably imagine the Rocky Mountains when you think about Colorado, but did you know that the Centennial state is also home to the United States’ largest sand dunes? See them for yourself at Great Sand Dunes National Park, where you can go sand boarding and sledding (it’s a real thing!) or “fat biking,” or opt to spend a weekend splashing, swimming and floating in Medano Creek. Though June temperatures are said to be some of Southern Colorado’s best, a warm winter day can be an equally enjoyable time to see the dunes. If you can, check the weather before you plan your trip — a windy visit WILL result in a totally sandblasted experience!
10. Mount Rainier, Washington: We couldn’t leave a park with glaciers off of the list. Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, found southeast of Seattle, has 25 of them (along with the famous volcano) as its attention-catching centerpiece. Paradise, an area on the south slope of Mount Rainier, is world-famous too. The National Park says it’s “the snowiest place earth where snow is measured regularly.” If snow-capped peaks aren’t your thing, plan to visit the park when the weather is warmer. You’ll see tons of flowers and fauna along the trailheads, which range from easy to advanced for walking, running and hiking. The waterfalls are breathtaking too, and flow more freely during summer months when temperatures average in the low 60s.
11. Biscayne Bay, Florida: 35 miles of bay make up this protected lagoon with views of the Miami skyline. The brilliantly colored Atlantic waters of Biscayne Bay National Park boast fantastic islands and coral reefs, along with the amazing opportunity for visitors to experience sea life up close and personal. Boating and snorkeling are popular activities for travelers, who also flock to Biscayne Bay National Park for its unique, 10,000-year-old human history. So whether you’d like to learn about the pineapple farms, pirates and shipwrecks, or prefer to park it on the beach with a piña colada, Biscayne Bay is the perfect place to enjoy the most southeastern part of the United States.
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(Photos via Getty)