Make the most of your upcoming national park visits with these unforgettable adventures
Our yearlong celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday here on the pages of MotorHome magazine may be coming to an end, but we’re not quite done yet. The final installment of our monthly “Find Your Adventure” series wraps up with a handful of the most diverse adventures – from mild to wild – we could find, all waiting for you in the 400-plus units watched over by the National Park Service.
Everyone knows this country’s national parks are true American treasures. What most people fail to realize, however, is that there’s more to them than just stunning scenery and watchable wildlife.
If you’ve been following along with our “Find Your Adventure” series, we think by now you’ve realized just how many remarkable – and often truly once-in-a-lifetime – adventures our national parks have to offer. Flip back through this year’s issues of MotorHome and we think you’ll understand what we mean.
Better still, read on and we’ll introduce you to a list of exceptional experiences that can only be had in America’s national parks:
The Adventure: Paddling
What It Is: Whether you choose to navigate the ocean off the rocky coastline of Maine’s Acadia National Park in a sea kayak or explore the more placid waters of its inland ponds and lakes by canoe, you’re in for the paddling trip of a lifetime.
Why It’s Cool: Combines a relaxed pace and postcard-worthy views with the freedom to go places where traditional motorboats can’t.
Need To Know: Local outfitters in the towns of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert can supply rental boats and equipment and teach you the paddling skills you’ll need. Many also offer group tours led by an experienced guide.
Acadia National Park | 207-288-3338 | www.nps.gov/acad
The Adventure: Caving
What It Is: Mammoth Cave National Park’s Wild Cave Tour in Kentucky is six hours of scrambling up and down rock falls, crawling on your belly and squeezing through what will seem at first like impossibly tight spaces – all designed to give you a taste of what the sport of caving is really all about.
Why It’s Cool: You’ll see part of this vast underground world most visitors will never experience, and do things they can scarcely imagine, both of which come with serious bragging rights.
Need To Know: Not everyone is cut out for the rigors of caving. You should be in decent physical condition, have a pair of sturdy lace-up hiking boots with good tread, and lack any fear of heights or confined spaces. If you’re unsure on those last two points, it might be wise to ask beforehand if there’s an opportunity to bail out mid-tour should you feel uncomfortable.
Mammoth Cave National Park | 270-758-2180 | www.nps.gov/maca
The Adventure: Beachcombing
What It Is: North Carolina’s Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras National Seashores offer a unique combination of long, empty stretches of pristine sand and strong offshore currents to provide some of the nation’s best beachcombing.
Why It’s Cool: If Mother Nature is an artist, the seashells that turn up on the beaches here are near the top of her list of masterworks.
Need To Know: Always check with the park whether gathering (and/or keeping) shells is allowed; some may allow you to collect them, but prohibit you from removing them from the park. Get an early start, and remember that the best pickings are usually found near low tide and right after a storm. If none of the above opportunities present themselves and the beach looks picked over, try sifting through piles of sea grass that’s washed up on the shore as it often hides some amazing finds.
Cape Lookout National Seashore | 252-728-2250 | www.nps.gov/calo
Cape Hatteras National Seashore | 252-475-9000 | www.nps.gov/caha
The Adventure: Mountain Biking
What It Is: If there’s such a thing as a mecca for mountain bikers, it would have to be Moab, Utah. Countless legendary trails surround the town, but none are more famous – or more challenging – that the 100-mile dirt track known as the White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park’s Island In The Sky district.
Why It’s Cool: In a word: Views, views and more views as you circumnavigate the base of Island In The Sky mesa.
Need To Know: The White Rim Road is 100 miles long, so don’t go in to this thinking it’s a simple day ride. The safest and most enjoyable way to do this trip is over the course of several days, with an outfitter who will provide a four-wheel-drive support vehicle that can carry food, water, sleeping gear and everything else you’ll need, not to mention obtaining the necessary permits for backcountry travel and overnight camping.
Canyonlands National Park | 435-719-2313 | www.nps.gov/cany
The Adventure: Canyoneering
What It Is: On the surface, the deserts of the American Southwest look utterly unremarkable. Look a little closer in places like Utah’s Zion National Park, however, and you’ll find that many of them are shot through with narrow, winding slot canyons just begging to be explored. Which is where the relatively new sport of canyoneering – think of it as a combination of hiking, rock climbing/rappelling and occasionally even swimming – comes in.
Why It’s Cool: In short, it’s a way to experience a hidden world of mysteriously beautiful slot canyons that have been carved by rushing water into elaborate natural sculptures.
Need To Know: Unless you’re proficient in everything from technical climbing to backcountry navigation, this is not a sport to just go out and try on your own. Rather, go with an experienced outfitter and guide who’ll provide all the equipment and instruction you’ll need.
Zion National Park | 435-772-3256 | www.nps.gov/zion
The Adventure: Mountain Climbing
What It Is: The Grand Tetons are one of the world’s most dramatically beautiful mountain ranges. So it stands to reason that summiting any of the peaks in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park would be the adventure of a lifetime.
Why It’s Cool: You’ll have to decide for yourself which is cooler: the feeling of accomplishment you’ll get from having reached the summit or the view from the top.
Need To Know: Park concessionaire Exum Mountain Guides (307-733-2297, www.exumguides.com) will teach you everything you need to know to safely make the ascent. If you like the idea of mountain climbing, but aren’t sure you’re ready to tackle a technical ascent, Exum has options for you too. They even have programs geared toward families and kids.
Grand Teton National Park | 307-739-3300 | www.nps.gov/grte
The Adventure: Mule Riding
What It Is: An overnight trip down to the Grand Canyon National Park’s Phantom Ranch aboard the same type of sure-footed mules that have been ferrying adventurous visitors from the South Rim into the depths of the canyon for more than a century.
Why It’s Cool: Hello, you’re going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and back while enjoying the jaw-dropping views along the way, all without breaking a sweat.
Need To Know: Reservations are made through Xanterra (888-297-2757, www.xanterra.com; or www.grandcanyonlodges.com). Mule riders must be at least 4 feet, 7 inches in height, cannot weigh more than 200 pounds (a 225-pound limit applies to the shorter, three-hour Canyon Vista tour), must be in good physical condition and must speak fluent English. Unfortunately, pregnant women and those afraid of heights or large animals need not apply.
Grand Canyon National Park | 928-638-7888 | www.nps.gov/grca
The Adventure: Snorkeling
What It Is: Nearly all of 270 square-mile Biscayne National Park, located just south of Miami, is underwater. Which would seem to be a hindrance to visitation if it weren’t for the regularly scheduled snorkeling trips that provide a window on the Florida Reef, one of the largest in the world, and its more than 40 shipwrecks.
Why It’s Cool: What’s not to like about the sensation of leisurely floating through an environment that resembles an endless saltwater aquarium?
Need To Know: The park’s main facility is the visitor center at Convoy Point, located 9 miles east of the city of Homestead. Snorkeling trips leave from the visitor center based on the prevailing winds; contact Island Dreamer Sailing (561-281-2689, www.biscaynenationalparksailing.com) for more information. Commercial snorkeling trips leave from Miami daily. If you’ve never snorkeled before – especially if you have kids – it may be a good idea to pick up your rental gear (mask, snorkel, fins) a day early and practice snorkeling from the beach before you board the boat to head out to the reefs.
Biscayne National Park | 305-230-1144 | www.nps.gov/bisc
The Adventure: Hang Gliding
What It Is: There’s a reason Wilbur and Orville Wright returned to the Kill Devil Hills on North Carolina’s Outer Banks from 1900 to 1903: Wind, and plenty of it. The breezy conditions along Cape Hatteras National Seashore persist, making this a great place to learn the fundamentals of human flight for yourself, or to take a tandem hang-glider flight with a professional instructor.
Why It’s Cool: The experience of flying like a bird – even if the distance covered is only measured in feet – is a thrill that won’t soon be forgotten. That goes double for tandem flights with an instructor who can have you soaring up to 2,000 feet above the sand. Cooler still is a flight aboard a reproduction of one of the Wright Brothers’ unpowered 1902 gliders.
Need To Know: Three-hour hang-gliding lessons include an hour of ground school and up to five flights of up to 100 feet at 5 to 15 feet off the ground, and require you to be fit enough to hike back up the dunes after your flight (your instructor carries the kite). Kitty Hawk Kites (877-359-8447, www.kittyhawk.com) runs the largest hang-gliding school in the world, and provides instruction and all required gear.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore | 252-475-9000 | www.nps.gov/caha
The Adventure: Stargazing
What It Is: When we talk about seeing stars, we mean the real deal, not the Hollywood variety. One of the best places to do that is at southern Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument, the first place in the U.S. to be recognized as an International Dark Sky Park. Here, you’ll have a chance to view as many as 15,000 stars, a superabundant stellar light show bright enough to cast shadows on a moonless night.
Why It’s Cool: Until you visit a Dark Sky Park, you’ll never realize how much of the night sky you’re missing at home.
Need To Know: Park rangers at Natural Bridges put on astronomy programs several times per week from May through September. If your visit doesn’t coincide with one of those programs, not to worry. Simply roll out a blanket, lay back and look up. Either way, remember that it can take at least 15 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness, and that looking at any bright light source – even a cellphone screen – means you have to start the process all over again. Finally, don’t forget to dress warmly, as temperatures can drop quickly after the sun goes down.
Natural Bridges National Monument | 435-692-1234, ext. 16 | www.nps.gov/nabr