By now you know it’s the National Parks Service’s 100th anniversary this year. Here, we recommend the most amazing experiences for true Noble Nomads.
NIGHT DIVE A FORT IN DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK [Florida Keys, FL]
Formidably rising out of the crystal-clear waters 70 miles west of Key West and only accessible by plane or boat, you’ll find Fort Jefferson, one of the nation’s largest nineteenth-century forts, on Garden Key. It’s the setting for one of the best national park adventures you can imagine under the surface: snorkeling or diving the moat wall at night. Sure, you can snorkel or dive it during daylight, but at night, it’s a whole different landscape. A strong dive light will capture the creatures venturing out from the coral playground built up over years on the underwater bricks. You’ll find octopus, decorator crabs, squid, and basket starfish, as well as anchor chains and cement barrels, relics of the fort’s eclectic history.
GO ON AMERICAN SAFARI IN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK [Teton Village, WY]
Home to the largest concentration of mammals in the Lower 48, it’s no wonder Yellowstone has been described as the Serengeti of North America. Visitors can spot wolves, bison, bears, elk, moose, mountain lions, Canada lynx, bighorn sheep, swans, and Sandhill cranes, not to mention amphibians, reptiles, and fish. In a place overflowing with wildlife, perhaps a multiday round of Wildlife Bingo is the perfect counterpart to your American safari experience. Just remember: The animals are great to look at and check off on your bingo card, but do everyone a favor and stay in the car or on the trails.
WALK THE GANGPLANK IN ZION NATIONAL PARK [Utah]
Mention epic national park adventures in Zion, and outdoorsy types will immediately shout, “The Narrows!” Yes, canyoneering among the ever-tighter red sandstone slot canyons is something to put on your list, but we like a different Zion hike. Angel’s Landing starts as a pretty pedestrian two-and-a-half-mile walk out of Zion’s valley floor, but after a series of switchbacks, is transformed into something definitely not for those scared of heights. The final half-mile leg includes a series of chains bolted into the sandstone by which you’ll hold on (perhaps a bit white-knuckled) as you slowly make your way along a natural gangplank. On either side, vertical sandstone walls fall to the valley floor 1,500 feet below – keep an ear out and you may even hear hardcore rock climbers making their way up these walls on multiday ascents. You, on the other hand, have only a little bit more to go before celebrating at the landing, the final spit of rock jutting out into the center of this amazing geological phenomenon. Check out the NPS’s Angel’s Landing eHike to learn more.
ROCK CLIMB IN ACADIA NATIONAL PARK [Mount Desert, ME]
The masses stick to the staple sites off the Park Loop Road and Cadillac Mountain when visiting Acadia National Park. We recommend a more vertical perspective of this amazing national park in Downeast Maine. Choose any one of the 80 rock climbing routes on Otter Cliffs, and you’ll start the same way: rappelling straight down toward the crashing waves of the ocean below. Luckily, there are plenty of guides to belay you down safely – this is an adventure you can do, whether you’re completely new to rock climbing or a seasoned pro. Climb your way back up the pink granite to the top of the cliffs where you can congratulate yourself on the climb while taking in the spectacular view of the rugged Maine coastline and islands at your feet.
SNOWSHOE UNDER A FULL MOON IN BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK [Bryce Canyon, UT]
The air is crisp and pure, the summer crowds are long gone, and, in contrast to the brilliant white snow, the canyons glow like embers in a fire below the wide, blue sky – there’s no doubt that Bryce Canyon in the winter is spectacular. Exploring the landscape in quiet solitude on snowshoes is a striking experience, but those who want a once-in-a-lifetime national park adventure can grab a spot on one of the ranger-guided full moon snowshoe hikes offered by the National Park Service from November to March. If you’d prefer a self-guided excursion, equipment can be rented from Ruby’s Inn, just outside of the park in Bryce Canyon City.
“BACKCOUNTRY SURF” IN OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK [Clallum Bay, WA]
La Push has been said to be the best and burliest surf break in the Pacific Northwest, and plenty will argue that First or Third Beach are the spots to hit in Olympic National Park. But for those looking for a surfing national park adventure slightly more involved than rolling up on the beach by car, we suggest backcountry surfing at Shi Shi, which also happens to be one of the closest surf breaks to Seattle. First, drive along the rugged coast on Highway 112, over winding roads through dense forest. Then, hike two miles over wooden bridges that rise above mud too deep to walk through and down a 150-foot bluff that dumps you out on the promised land: Shi Shi Beach. We’ll be honest, what you’ll find is not some empty, barreling six-foot point break; it’s simply beach break after beach break. Pick the one that looks best to you and appreciate the waves you’ve truly earned.
TRAVEL BACK IN TIME IN CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK [Ventura, CA]
If we said there’s a national park that offers time travel just off the coast of Southern California, would you believe us? While Channel Islands National Park can’t technically send you back in time, it’s the closest thing you may ever experience. No cars, phones, stores, or services exist on the islands, providing guests a glimpse into what our nation’s national parks may have looked like when they were created a hundred years ago. The only residents you’ll find are the single park ranger on each island, a handful of intrepid campers, and plenty of furry natives ranging from the island fox to the harvest mouse to the spotted skunk – all of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Some of the best sea kayaking in California can be found around Scorpion Beach on East Santa Cruz Island, pocked with sea caves and cliffs and offering easy beach access. Because of varying weather and currents, the park urges novice and intermediate kayakers to make arrangements for a guided trip with a park-authorized guide/outfitter.