Outdoor Activities in the National Parks
Hiking in the national parks can mean many things, from a leisurely hour-long stroll along the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to a half-day scramble over ancient ruins at Mesa Verde to a multiday trek across Yellowstone. No matter what your fitness level, you’ll find at least one hike that meets your needs.
Staying safe while hiking should be your number-one concern. While the vast majority of park visitors head off on hikes and return unscathed, there is a handful each year that get hurt. If your hike involves anything more strenuous than a short walk from the car to an observation area, check with a ranger to learn the special concerns for 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 (a steep 1-mile-long trail is much tougher to negotiate than a flat 2- or even 3-mile trail). And before you go, be sure to tell someone where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone (if everyone in your group will be taking the hike, that someone should be a park ranger).
Delicate Arch Trail, Arches National Park. This 3-mile round-trip hike takes you to the park’s most famous sight and an iconic image of the American West: Delicate Arch. Hike over open, sun-baked slickrock 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, as daytime temperatures can reach 100 degrees or higher.
Highline Trail, Glacier National Park. The Garden Wall section of this popular trail takes you from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet. On the way, it passes over mostly open terrain, much of it just above the tree line, where you’re likely to see lots of wildlife—bighorn sheep, mountain goats, ptarmigan, and even grizzly bears—along with mountain vistas. It’s a challenging hike, with a few narrow sections only 3 to 5 feet wide.
This is the only trail in the park that’s closed for the winter; be sure to check with the ranger station for current trail conditions.
The Narrows Trail, Zion National Park. Experience the thrill of walking in the Virgin River, peering up at millennia-old rock canyons, hanging gardens, and sandstone grottoes. To see the Narrows you must wade—and occasionally swim—upstream through chilly water and over uneven, slippery rocks, but the views are breathtaking. Unless you’ve got a wet suit, plan to hike in the summer months, and even if you’re hiking on a hot day, the water is likely to be very cold.
Before you head out, check the latest weather report at the Visitor Center, as flash floods aren’t uncommon.
Panorama Trail, Yosemite National Park. If you’re looking for eye-popping scenery and a heart-pounding hike, it doesn’t get better than this. This 8-mile (one-way) trek is a doable, if strenuous, day trip, and delivers views of Yosemite Valley, several waterfalls, and the incomparable Half Dome. Take the hiker’s bus ($25 one-way for adults) from Yosemite Lodge to the trailhead at Glacier Point and hike back down.
Widforss Trail, 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, with incredible views of Haunted Canyon and its distinctive peaks, as well as a 10-mile stretch of the South Rim.
Rock Climbing and Mountaineering
Mountaineering can involve heavy traveling in the mountains, usually with the aim of reaching a summit. Mountaineers often employ rock climbing to reach their objectives, and the national parks are prime venues for both sports.
To get started in rock climbing, experts suggest taking an introductory course at an indoor climbing wall, which 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 on the real thing. A good guide will choose climbs that don't have a lot of exposure, so that you’ll have time to get used to the sensation of climbing and being off the ground.
If you work with an instructor or go out with experienced friends, you'll only need a few items. Once you learn the basics and are ready to climb on your own, you'll need to invest in a lot more equipment. But getting started is easy and not terribly expensive. You’ll need a harness, a helmet, rock shoes (special sticky, tight-fitting shoes), a locking carabiner, and a belay device.
Angel Wings, 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.
Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park. At 14,255 feet, this is the tallest of Colorado's fourteeners. Take the Keyhole Route to the top for classic mountaineering challenges (steep cliffs, narrow ledges, and loose rocks) as well as spectacular views. The round-trip 7.5-mile trek takes between 10 to 15 hours, and late-afternoon thunderstorms are fairly common, so you should head out early (rangers recommend a pre-sunrise start).
Mount Olympus, Olympic National Park. This 7,980-foot peak offers all the good parts of mountaineering (crossing snowfields and crevasses, ridges and moraine fields) without the expense of leaving the continental U.S. (or subalpine elevation).
Painted Wall, 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.
Saddle Rocks, 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. The 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.
Toulumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Valley has El Capitan and Half Dome, but it’s hot (and crowded) enough in the summer to send savvy climbers up to Toulumne Meadows, a spectacular subalpine playground studded with granite domes and cliffs, with multipitch face, knob, crack, and slab climbing routes for all levels.
Rafting, Kayaking, and Canoeing
The national parks offer plenty of opportunity for aquatic adventures, from high-adrenaline trips through rapids (via raft or kayak) to more relaxing outings over gentler waters.
Getting Your Feet Wet
Unless you’re a real pro at rafting or kayaking, with your own equipment and loads of experience under your belt, you’re most 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 this is your first time, pick a trip on gentler waters (Class II or III). This will give you the chance to see some whitecaps without overwhelming you. This is also a good strategy if you’re traveling with kids who may be frightened on more intense rapids.
Experts advise dressing for the temperature of the water, not the air (meaning you’ll be bringing clothes that you wouldn’t need if you were staying on dry land). Depending on where you are, you might want a few layers, with a sweatshirt or light jacket on top (fleece or another synthetic). Don’t wear cotton or jeans: once they get wet, they stay wet (and will leave you chilled). Wear old tennis shoes, water shoes, or sandals that strap securely to your feet (not flip-flops). If you’re wearing glasses or sunglasses, be sure you’ve got a "Croakie" or leash to keep them attached to you. The same goes for your hat (if yours doesn’t have a chin strap, you can use a cord to tie it to your life jacket).
Be sure to apply plenty of water-resistant sunscreen. If yours is not the kind that dries completely, skip the backs of your legs: If your skin is slippery, you’ll be sliding all over the place and have more trouble staying in the raft.
Best Places for Paddling
Colorado and Green Rivers, 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.
Colorado River, 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, Channel Islands National Park. You’ll find your sea kayaking nirvana here, with clear ocean waters and a spectacular shoreline with beautiful sea caves and cliffs to explore.
Kaweah River, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. The middle fork of this river offers challenging Class IV rapids for expert kayakers.
Merced River, 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, 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.
A night in a tent under the stars is the highlight of many trips to a national park.
Ensuring a pleasant camping experience takes some preparation. Check the weather forecast—and your equipment—before you go. Test out a new tent to find out if there are any problems to contend with, like a faulty zipper, 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—nearer to a bathroom if you have small children, farther away if you want more privacy. The best sites, like ones with lake views, are often snapped up early, so try to reserve in advance.
Fruita, Capitol Reef National Park. Here, there are cool, shady campsites near the orchards and the Freemont River.
Gold Bluffs Beach, 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.
Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park. At Manzanita Lake, there are lots of ranger programs, plus fishing, swimming, and a boat launch. The camp store has food, hot showers, and a laundromat.
Mather, 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, Mesa Verde National Park. Shady, pleasant campsites are adjacent to Morefield Village, a minicity with 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.
Sheep Creek, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. This campground is nestled in the canyon near the middle fork of the Kings River, with groceries, showers, and other amenities about ¼ mile away, at Cedar Grove Village.
South Rim, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This conveniently located, fully loaded campground is open year-round.
Toulomne Meadows, 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.
Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park. Perched at 10,000 feet on Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, the campground has spectacular views and a short commute to popular trailheads.