The 10 Best National Parks for Retirees
A staggering number of national parks are scattered throughout America—58 in all, even more when you count military parks and national monuments. A popular vacation choice for young couples and families, national parks can also be the perfect destination for retirees, primarily because of the striking natural beauty of these protected areas, but also because anyone over 62 can visit all of them for free, for the rest of their lives, by buying a $10 National Parks Service Senior Pass.
National parks receive 300 million visits annually (translation: they can get crowded), but retirees have the benefit of a flexible schedule, meaning they can visit the park during off-peak months to beat the crowds. Over half a million senior passes are sold each year to retirees who want to explore both the big-name parks as well as the smaller, more obscure (but still stunning) sites. To help narrow down the choices, we asked David Barna, the chief spokesman of the National Park Service from 1995 to 2013 (now a fellow retiree), for the 10 best parks for retirees to hit, senior pass in hand.
Yellowstone National Park (in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho), Grand Canyon National Park (in Arizona), and Yosemite National Park (in California)
Timing is everything when traveling to the marquee national parks, and summer is high season, meaning you're competing with thousands of people for views, the animals are as far away from the crowds as possible, and hiking trails may feel more like a freeway than a serene escape into nature. The fix? Travel to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks during the “shoulder seasons” of early spring (before Memorial Day) and late fall (after Labor Day) to escape the crowds and enjoy these pristine landmarks as they were meant to be experienced.
Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska
Though Denali is the more famous park in Alaska, Kenai Fjords in south-central Alaska, near the town of Seward, can be just as impressive. The site of one of the four major ice caps in the U.S., the land of glacier lakes and valleys is home to tens of thousands of breeding birds, in addition to sea lions, sea otters, and seals.
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado
The grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, with peaks towering over 14,000 feet, is accessible by Trail Ridge Road, which crosses the Continental Divide. Go in fall, when the elk are out in big numbers for the annual mating season.
National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C.
Though this urban park is a photo-ready landmark year-round, go in the spring to see the cherry blossoms in pale-pink bloom around the Tidal Basin. (The trees typically bloom for most of April, but make sure your trip doesn’t coincide with the National Cherry Blossom Festival weekend, when the area is overrun with tourists). Visit the newer Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the World War II National Memorial, as well as classics like the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and the Washington Monument.
Acadia National Park in Maine
Take in the rugged coastal area of Mount Desert Island, the picturesque Schoodic Peninsula on the mainland, and the spectacular cliffs of Isle au Haut. Go in autumn for easy access to camping spots and some of the most vibrant fall foliage in the country.
Zion National Park in Utah
The canyon-and-mesa landscape here makes for photos that your grandkids will actually want to see. The variations in elevation provide habitats for extremely diverse plant communities; if you go in the spring, you can spot colorful wildflowers, like bright-yellow desert marigolds or crimson slickrock paintbrush, standing out against the sandstone.
Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania
A park that will please history buffs as much as nature lovers, Gettysburg is famous for the major Civil War battle that took place on its grounds in 1863. History struck again when it became the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address later that year.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in Florida
Another must-see stop for amateur historians is this southern park, the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S. It dates back to 1672, when it was built by the Spanish to protect their first permanent settlement in the New World.