National Parks: Guide To Outdoor Activities

With over 412 national parks to explore, 59 of which are unmistakable — there's every reason to get out and visit these majestic wonders.

HIKING

Hiking in the national parks can mean many things, from a stroll along the Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon to a strenuous multi-day trek across Yellowstone. No matter what your fitness level, you’ll find at least one hike that suits your needs.

SAFETY

For anything involving more than a short walk up to an observation point, you should always check with a ranger beforehand to learn about any special concerns you might encounter on your planned adventure. Trails might be closed or rerouted, bad weather may be expected, or park wildlife may be causing problems on your route. Check the trail map carefully and pay attention to elevation changes, which make a huge difference in the difficulty of a hike.

Before you go, be sure to tell someone where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone.

BEST HIKES

DELICATE ARCH TRAIL IN ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

This three-mile round-trip hike takes you to the parks most famous sight and an iconic image of the American West — Delicate Arch. Hike over open, sun-baked slick rocks marked with cairns, then along a 200-yard stretch of rock ledge just before you reach the arch.

If you’re visiting in the summer, plan to take your hike early, or late in the day and be sure to bring plenty of water. Daytime temperatures can reach upwards of 100 degrees and higher.

QUEENS GARDEN AND NAVAJO LOOP TRAIL IN BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

This hike joins parts of two loops to descend the canyon and into the strangely unique Bryce geology with hoodoos that shimmer in different shades of red in the early morning light. The sandstone spires tower above as you make your way back up through the Wall Street section of the Navajo Loop Trail.

GRINNELL GLACIER TRAIL IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK

View many of Glacier’s most iconic features — like big, clear, glacial valley lakes, alpine meadows filled with wildflowers and the possibility of seeing a grizzly en route to a glorious view from the maw of Grinnell (one of the park’s signature glaciers).

THE NARROWS TRAIL IN ZION NATIONAL PARK

Experience the thrill of walking in the Virgin River, glaring up at deep red-rock canyons, hanging gardens, and sandstone grottos. To see the Narrows you must walk and sometimes swim upstream through chilly water and over uneven, slippery rocks — but the experience is unforgettable. Even on a hot day the water is likely to be very cold, so plan to hike this trail during the summer months.

Before you head out, read our guide to make sure you are well-equipped.

ANGELS LANDING IN ZION NATIONAL PARK

Zion’s red-rock walls and sandstone canyons are stunning from any perspective, but none is more rewarding than the one from the top of Angels Landing. The first couple of miles are not so bad, until you come across 21 switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles. From there you climb up an exposed rock spine that requires the aid of built-in chains and suddenly it’s all at your feet. A 360-degree view of canyon walls, piñon-juniper forests and even the Virgin River.

WIDFORSS TRAIL IN GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Head to the less-crowded North Rim for this 10-mile round-trip hike that takes you along the canyon rim, through forests of aspen and Ponderosa pine, then out to Widforss Point. Here you'll get to enjoy incredible views of Haunted Canyon and its distinctive peaks, as well as a 10-mile stretch of the South Rim.

National Parks: Top Outdoor Activities
National Parks: Top Outdoor Activities

ROCK CLIMBING AND MOUNTAINEERING

Mountaineering can involve rigorous excursions into the mountains, usually with the goal of reaching a summit. Mountaineers often use rock climbing to reach their objectives, and the national parks are a prime location for both sports.

GETTING STARTED

To get started in rock climbing, you might want to take an introductory course at an indoor climbing wall. This will give you a basic understanding of the techniques and equipment in a safe and controlled environment. After that, you can head out with a guide to try your skills in the field.

Once you learn the basics and are ready to climb on your own; you’ll need a harness, a helmet, rock shoes (special sticky, tight-fitting shoes), a locking carabiner, and a belay device.

BEST CLIMBS

TOULUMNE MEADOWS IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

Yosemite Valley has El Capitan and Half Dome, but it’s hot and crowded enough in the summer to send more experienced climbers up to Toulumne Meadows.

ANGEL WINGS IN SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Climbers flock to the sheer south face of this 1,800-foot granite wall, which offers several stellar climbs. Across the park, the west face of Moro Rock, a 6,725-foot granite monolith, provides another 1,000 vertical feet of cracks and knobs.

SADDLE ROCKS IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

The most prominent formation in the Sheep Pass area of the park, Saddle Rocks sits high up on Ryan Mountain and can be seen from miles away. This area has several great crack and face routes, including the popular Walk on the Wild Side, a slabby three-pitch ascent up the east face.

PAINTED WALL IN BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK

A mecca for serious climbers, Painted Wall, on the north side of the canyon, is a jaw-dropping, 2,250-foot-high sheer cliff that’s strictly for experts only.

LONGS PEAK IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak towers above all other summits in Rocky Mountain National Park. The flat-topped monarch is seen from almost anywhere in the park. In the summertime, when conditions allow, thousands climb to Longs' summit via the Keyhole Route. It is a climb that crosses enormous sheer vertical rock faces, often with falling rocks, requiring scrambling, where a unroped fall would likely be fatal. The route has narrow ledges, loose rock, and steep cliffs.

National Parks: Top Outdoor Activities
National Parks: Top Outdoor Activities

RAFTING, KAYAKING, AND CANOEING

National parks also offer plenty of opportunity for aquatic adventures, from high-adrenaline trips through rapids to more relaxing outings over gentler waters.

PRACTICE FIRST

Unless you’re a real pro at rafting or kayaking, the average person is likely going to hit the river with a guide, who will teach you the basics. Navigable rapids are typically classified from I to V, with V being the roughest. If you’re interested in white water, and it's your first time, pick a trip on gentler waters (Class II or III). This will give you the chance to see some whitecaps without getting overwhelmed.

It's always advised that you dress for the temperature of the water, not the air (meaning you’ll have to take layers of clothes that you typically wouldn't need if you were staying on dry lands). Depending on where you are, you might want a few layers, with a sweatshirt or light jacket on top (fleece or another synthetic).

Be sure to apply plenty of water-resistant sunscreen. Make sure it's the kind that dries completely, if not you’ll be sliding all over the place and have more trouble staying in the raft.

BEST PLACES FOR PADDLING

COLORADO RIVER IN GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK

You can tackle the rapids and smoother waters of the Colorado on both professionally guided and self-guided river trips.

EAST SANTA CRUZ ISLAND IN CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK

You’ll love kayaking the waters here, with clear ocean waters and a spectacular shoreline with beautiful sea caves and cliffs to explore.

COLORADO AND GREEN RIVERS IN CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

The Colorado and Green Rivers thread through the park, meeting at a confluence before spilling down Cataract Canyon and creating a 14-mile stretch of world-class white water. Upstream, you can hit the flat waters of either river (most launch locations are north of the park boundaries) in a kayak or canoe.

MERCED RIVER IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

A popular summer destination (and a designated Wild and Scenic River), the Merced offers white-water adventures for rafts and kayaks.

SNAKE RIVER IN GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK

The well-named Snake River winds its way through the southeast corner of Yellowstone before spilling into Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park, offering opportunities for both shooting some mild rapids and floating (or paddling) over more tranquil waters.

National Parks: Top Outdoor Activities
National Parks: Top Outdoor Activities

CAMPING

A night in a tent under the stars is the highlight of many trips to a national park.

CAMPING TIPS

Ensuring a pleasant camping experience takes some preparation, like checking the weather forecast and your equipment before you go. Test out a new tent to find out if there are any issues with it prior to the trip and be sure you know how to set it up.

If you can reserve your tent site ahead of time, take a look at the campground map and try to choose a site that meets your needs,  like near a bathroom if you have small children or further away if you want more privacy. The best sites, like ones with lake views, are often taken up early, so try to reserve in advance.

BEST CAMPGROUNDS

NAMAKANIPAIO IN HAWAI'I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK

Marked by jagged black rocks and oozing molten lava, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boasts a notoriously rugged landscape. So it might come as a surprise just how cushy the camping experience can be here. In addition to 16 tent campsites tucked into a grassy eucalyptus grove, Namakanipaio Campground also offers ten A-frame cabins.

GARDEN KEY IN DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK

This campground located in the shadow of nineteenth-century Fort Jefferson is the definition of "primitive." These ten beach campsites offer uninterrupted access to the park’s famed coral reefs, with amazing snorkeling opportunities at South Swim Beach and among the ruins of the South Coaling Dock.

FRUITA IN CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

Here, there are cool, shady campsites near the orchards and the Freemont River.

GOLD BLUFFS BEACH IN REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK

Situated in nearby Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park on a stretch of rugged Pacific coastline, this campground has easy access to a beach and 70 miles of hiking and biking trails.

PIÑON FLATS IN GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK

Few campgrounds sit so squarely in the middle of a park’s main attractions. Piñon Flats commands impressive views of North America’s tallest sand dunes, towering up to 750 feet high on one side, and the snow-capped peaks of Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo range, with summits topping out above 14,000 feet, on the other.

MATHER IN GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK

These comfortable sites on the South Rim have all the comforts of home, including bathrooms, laundry, a cafeteria, and hot showers in nearby Grand Canyon Village.

MOREFIELD IN MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK

Shady, pleasant campsites are adjacent to Morefield Village, a café offering a daily all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast and free Wi-Fi, general store, and coin-operated laundry. They’ll even rent you a tent, complete with cots and lanterns.

TOULOMNE MEADOWS IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

Large, private sites in a spectacular subalpine campground just south of the Toulomne Meadows and River have easy access to hiking and climbing and lots of ranger programs around the campfire.

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About The Author

In 2015, Founder of TMDE Paul Martinez left a career in sales for a life of exploring. In just a matter of months he had visited over 10 countries, 30 cities, 10 states, countless national parks, taken thousands of photographs, and did a ton of soul-searching. His search uncovered a deep passion for exploration; which he now believes to be the essence of the human spirit, and led to the birth of The Modern Day Explorer. You can follow him on his personal journey by visiting his Instagram, and hopefully continue to support TMDE by following us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.