America’s natural wonders were chosen to be national parks to preserve their majestic beauty. Yet, if you venture to famous places like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite in the summer, “forever wild” might seem like “forever congested.” If you can somehow avoid the height of summer and visit the country’s finest scenery in the spring, fall or winter, you’ll be seeing these scenic spots the way John Muir did, practically alone in your own private playground. Even if you have to face the crowds at peak season, you can still take a good hike to get away from the masses. Don’t let the popularity of the parks dissuade you from seeing America at its finest.
There’s a reason renowned photographer Ansel Adams made Yosemite his most famous subject. It’s hard not be mesmerized by Yosemite’s striking and varied landscape, from the granite cliffs and domes, including the legendary El Cap, a rite of passage for the top rock climbers in the world, to the colorful wildflowers that fill Tuolumne Meadows and the rushing rapids of the Merced River. Kids will never forget the opportunity to stand next to 200-foot high sequoia in Mariposa Grove, shadowed by these immense trees and their shaggy orange bark. For a good day hike, try Upper Yosemite Falls. Remember that Yosemite is a four-season getaway. While the roads are crowded in summer, come December, Yosemite is a tranquil winter wonderland. Snowshoe to the sequoias, cross-country ski on groomed track to 7,000-foot high Glacier Point, ice skate under the cliffs of Half Dome, and go downhill skiing at one of the oldest ski areas in California, Badger Pass.
Most families make the mistake of driving to Grand Canyon, take a peek down at the mile-deep canyon and then leave. To truly appreciate the Grand Canyon%252C you need to spend some time walking into that big hole. For starters, try the 1.5-mile South Kaibab Trail down to Cedar Ridge, which rewards you with exquisite views of the inner canyon as you smell the sweet pinyon pine. Or, for something completely different, try the mule ride down the Bright Angel Trail. Summer temps can be hot, especially by the Colorado River, which is significantly warmer than the rim. If you can delay your trip until September and October, temperatures dip to a comfortable high of 65 to 75 degrees. An added bonus is that these are the drier months.
Like the Grand Canyon, Utah’s Bryce Canyon is one of the few National Parks that you look down in awe, instead of up at mountains and cliffs. Here, the highlight is the hundreds of hoodoos, colorful standing pinnacles that line the Bryce amphitheater. Inspiration Point is a good name for the peach, apricot, tan, white and red rocks that stand at attention like people on a parade route. To get a closer look, stroll down the Queen’s Garden Route, a dusty stone path loaded with those “Hoodoo Dudes” Summer is actually a good time to hit Bryce. Unlike other areas of southern Utah that are sweltering in July and August, Bryce’s elevation of 8,000 to 9,000 feet keeps the park relatively cool. If you want to take the family on a remote hike, try the 4.5-mile long Sheep Creek/Swamp Canyon Loop in Bryce’s backcountry.
Located in southeastern Utah near the Colorado border Arches is one of the smallest and most inviting of all the national parks. It’s also one of the most breathtakingly beautiful. Walk the sandy trails and you’ll find astounding stone arches and rock formations more spectacular than the last. The park notes that they have more than 1,500 arches in all. Families with small kids should take the easy walk to Sand Dune Arch as a warm-up, where a large sand pit under the arch is the ideal natural sandbox. Then try the 1.6-mile (round-trip) hike to the long sliver of arch called Landscape. The Delicate Arch Trail is for older kids only, on a somewhat steep and slippery route that is favored by long lizards. Arches is near Moab, one of the nation’s best mountain biking hubs, if you want to do some riding outside of the park.
You don’t have to worry about leaving the crowds behind at this national park. With more than 350 miles of trail, all you have to do is hike a mile in from the road and you’ll be savoring the carpet of trees. With a mind-boggling 71 peaks topping 12,000 feet, Rocky Mountain National Park also has more than enough space to accommodate all those bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, moose and fuzzy marmots that call this parcel of paradise home. You can find many of the big animals at a mineral lick near Sheep Lake at Horseshoe Park. Afterwards, hike down the Old Ute Trail for good vistas of the 14,255-foot flat summit of Longs Peak. Another good day hike for the family is on the Colorado River Trail, a perfect blend of water, trees and mountains. Elk mating season goes from mid-September to early October. If you can get here during those few weeks, you’re in for a treat.
On the Wyoming/Montana Border, Yellowstone is the country’s first and arguably finest National Park. One day, you’re watching Old Faithful, a towering geyser, erupt. The next day you’re going eyeball to eyeball with buffalo, elk and moose. Make sure you get out of the car and off the popular loop road. Better to spend your day in the Hayden Valley, a favorite wildlife hangout far away from the road. If you like to fish, you can throw out your line for trout in some of the clearest waters you’ll ever see. The National Geographic Society recently unveiled a map created by locals that highlights historical, environmental and cultural points of interest in the region. It’s ideally suited for families. In addition to Old Faithful, you’ll find a historic dude ranch specializing in horseback riding and fly-fishing excursions, canoe rentals and a favorite local hot springs.
“I would never have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” Theodore Roosevelt once remarked while reflecting on the influences of his life. The prospect of big game hunting had initially lured Roosevelt to the Badlands in September 1883. Yet, when he arrived, the last large herds of bison were gone, having been decimated by hide hunters and disease. Today, the mighty bison once again roam the Great Plains. And Roosevelt would be happy to know that the National Park that bears his name in southwestern North Dakota is home to one of the largest herds. Some 400 of these 2,000-pound creatures roam the North and South Units of the park amidst a maze of buttes and canyons. Other wildlife includes wild horses, elk and those cute prairie dogs that pop out of their holes like bread in a toaster. One of the most popular ways to traverse the South Unit of the park is the way Roosevelt traveled, on horseback, or canoe a stretch of the 17-mile Little Missouri River.
If you really want to leave civilization behind (no televisions, computers, cell phones or laptops) and bond with your family in a primitive setting, then you should check out Voyageurs. Set in northern Minnesota, near the Canadian border, Voyageurs is a paddling paradise, where you can canoe for days on four immense lakes, rarely seeing another human. In its place are moose, beavers and bald eagles. Many people camp, bringing their tents and food inside their canoes. There are many outfitters renting canoes and equipment in the nearby town of International Falls. Or venture out with one of the many guides in the region.
Hemmed in by mountains on either side and bisected by a river, Shenandoah National Park is an idyllic mix of water, valley and peaks. The 105-mile-long Skyline Drive rides atop the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and leads to many of the Park’s noted hikes. Try the White Oak Canyon Trail, a 5-mile trek that snakes through high hemlocks into a deep gorge that’s home to six waterfalls. Or head down in the valley to paddle past farmland and forested slopes on the Shenandoah River. Fall is even more popular than summer at Shenandoah. Head there in the spring, however, and the weather’s a bit cooler, the wildflowers are starting to bloom, and it’s much more peaceful. If you crave solitude, try one of the more challenging day hikes in the park, Little Devil’s Staircase, known for its lost-in-the-woods appeal.
With the highest mountains on the Atlantic coast north of Brazil, slicing fjords, deserted offshore islands and 41 miles of rugged shoreline, it’s easy to understand how Acadia became the sole National Park in the northeast. Acadia’s dense forests and small rambling peaks are located primarily on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. Bike on the carriage paths, hard-packed gravel trails, around the shores of Eagle Lake, under tall firs and over century-old stone bridges. A hike to the summit of 1,532-foot Cadillac Mountain rewards you with views across the Atlantic and the lobstermen picking up their catch. Head to Acadia during fall foliage and the maples on Mt. Desert Island turn red, orange and yellow. An added bonus is that the black flies and mosquitoes are a distant memory. The best foliage is found on the North and South Bubble trails, off the Park Loop, and the Amphitheater Loop, a carriage path trail close to the town of Northeast Harbor. After a day outdoors, everyone rewards themselves at a Maine clambake, including lobster, steamers, corn on the cob and a cup of New England clam chowder.
Written by Stephen Jermanok
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