Tips and Tricks on Visiting 26 National Parks, Straight From Park Employees
To help travelers get the most of out their next visit to one of the sites, Travel + Leisure spoke to National Park Service representatives for the inside scoop on 26 locations. From the hidden gems you won’t want to miss, the best time of year to visit and the biggest mistakes to avoid, here are tips from park rangers, chiefs, and public affairs officers.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — Michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore's beaches and emerald forests are great to visit in the fall, according to chief of interpretation and visitor services Merrith Baughman. That's because the park's beaches are full of colorful fall leaves, temperatures are still warm enough for swimming, and the park is less crowded.
One hidden gem, Baughman said, is Port Oneida Rural Historic District, which is filled with turn-of-the-century farmhouses, beautiful views of Lake Michigan, and secluded beaches.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park — New Mexico
“Spring is fun because the desert is alive with blooming flowers and cacti — it’s gorgeous,” public affairs specialist Valerie Gohkle said of the scene.
One tip: Walk the Natural Entrance Trail to descend some 750 feet down Carlsbad Cavern. Gohkle says you’ll miss 50 percent of the cavern’s beauty if you take the elevator.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — Hawaii
Created by more than 70 million years of volcanic activity, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has more than 155 miles of hiking trails, including the popular Kilauea Iki Trail, a 4-mile hike that starts in a rainforest near the volcano’s summit area and takes you on a 500-foot descent to see the Mars-like terrain of the Kilauea Iki Crater.
As for views, nothing "compares to the jaw-dropping beauty of watching the sun rise over the Kilauea Caldera from the Jaggar Museum overlook, with the erupting lava lake glowing a mile and a half away, and the immense size of the caldera is revealed as the stars succumb to daylight,” Jessica Ferracane, a public affairs specialist at the park, said.
While this vantage point is the busiest location in the park come sunset, get there at 5 a.m., Ferracane said, and you’ll feel as though you have the entire volcano to yourself. You’ll want hiking boots, pants, and light rain gear when visiting the park since the crater’s summit can get chilly, according to Ferracane.
Olympic National Park — Washington
Washington’s Olympic National Park is more like three parks in one. The space is home to forests, 70 miles of coastline, and glacier-capped mountains.
Because the park has few roads that cross straight through, acting public information officer Penny Wagner said travelers should prepare for how long it takes to travel from one point in the park to another.
Among the 500 trails within Olympic National Park, the 3.2-mile-long Hurricane Hill Trail will bring you past views of Mt. Olympus, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and of Vancouver Island.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area — Arizona and Nevada
With mountains, canyons, valleys, and lakes, the weather around Lake Mead National Recreation Area can change abruptly.
If you’re planning to make use of the park’s swimming facilities in the summer, Christie Vanover, a public affairs specialist at the park, suggested wearing a life jacket, which you can get for free at stops like Boulder Beach and Cottonwood Cove, because sudden weather changes can lead to very strong winds.
One of Vanover’s favorite hidden gems is the Redstone Picnic Area because of red sandstones that make the area appear like a “scene straight out of Mars."
Acadia National Park — Maine
More than 3.3 million people head to Maine’s Acadia National Park each year to see the park's mountains.
The park is home to 45 miles of wide "carriage" roads created by John D. Rockefeller in the 1900s, which are used as snowshoe and skiing trails in the winter.
While visiting Acadia National Park, hike the Ocean Path, which public affairs specialist Christie Anastasia said is among the most popular because of its dreamy ocean views.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park — North Carolina and Tennessee
Shenandoah National Park — Virginia
Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park has flowing waterfalls, sweeping vistas, and more than 500 miles of hiking trails to explore.
One of the most popular hikes, according to Sally Hurlbert, a management specialist at the park, is to the top of Hawksbill Mountain. Between the two paths there, Hurlbert recommended a 2.9 mile-hike starting at Hawkbill Gap’s parking area that takes you up the Appalachian Trail and the Salamander Trail. When you reach the summit, you'll see Shenandoah Valley on one side and Piedmont on the other.
Saguaro National Park — Arizona
Visit Arizona’s Saguaro National Park in May or June to see cacti up to 50-feet tall bloom. If you can, community engagement coordinator and public information officer Cam Juárez, recommended seeing the cacti at night, when their flowers open (before closing in the morning).
Those looking to hike will want to visit between October and April, Juárez said, because summer can be exceedingly hot in the area. Visitors should avoid hiking after 9 a.m. in the summer because temperatures can still be higher than 98 degrees as early on as 7 a.m., Juárez added.
Assateague Island National Seashore — Maryland and Virginia
Assateague Island National Seashore is known for its Atlantic beaches and hiking trails that weave around salt marches, dunes, and forests.
Near the beaches, the island's bayside offers visitors a secluded paradise complete with kayaking, swimming, clamming, and crabbing in shallow warm bay waters, according to Liz Davis, chief of interpretation and education at the seashore.
Davis said to keep your eyes open from late September to early October because butterflies that migrate along the Atlantic pathway are often resting on the island.
Redwood National and State Parks — California
At Redwood National and State Parks, you’ll find yourself surrounded by the world’s tallest trees , which can reach more than 367 feet (or 35 stories) high.
While most travelers drive straight through the park, this is a big mistake to make, interpretive park ranger Shaina Niehans said, because the side roads are where you’ll find the best of the park. For example, the largest redwoods are found off Highway 101 on alternate scenic routes, according to Niehans.
Yellowstone National Park — Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming
Known as the world’s first national park, Yellowstone is home to volcanic hot springs and geysers like Old Faithful.
If you’re looking to visit the park for hiking and camping, you’ll want to head there in the summer. But it's also the park’s busiest season, according to chief office of strategic communications Jody Lyle, so a trip in the fall or spring is an option to enjoy hiking in cooler temperatures with fewer crowds.
Hot Springs National Park — Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park is, in combination with the surrounding city, known as “The American Spa” because of its thermal springs that became popular in the 1830s.
While you can’t bathe in the 143-degree-Fahrenheit springs directly, the park has bathhouses that utilize water from the area for another relaxing soak.
The park is often considered the “oldest area in the national park system," park ranger Josie Fernandez pointed out. Andrew Jackson set the hot springs aside in 1832, though the federal land wan't instilled as a national park until 1921.
Gateway National Recreation Area — New Jersey and New York
Gateway National Recreation Area spreads across New Jersey and several boroughs of New York, offering swimming, bird watching, boating, hiking, and camping in places like New Jersey's Sandy Hook and New York City's Jamaica Bay and Staten Island.
According to Daphne Yun, acting public affairs officer at the national recreation area, many visitors don’t realize the military history tied to the park. The park is home to two former Nike missile sites you’ll find at Fort Tilden, in Queens, and in Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
Mount Rainier National Park — Washington
Zion National Park — Utah
While there are plenty of hikes to choose from in Zion National Park, public information officer John B. Marciano recomended the Kayenta Trail, which is located within the Emerald Pools Trail. The Kayenta Trail hike takes you through the middle of a scenic canyon, where you’ll see the Virgin River and the three Emerald Pools, named for their green tint.
Zion is home to popular areas like the Narrows, its east side and areas like Kolob Canyon, with miles of hiking trails that weave through 2,000-foot-high cliffs, offer a quiet reprieve that Marciano said travelers won’t want to miss.
Grand Teton National Park — Wyoming
Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park is a hiker’s paradise with more than 220 miles of trails that weave around the park’s lakes. While assistant public affairs officer Andrew White said each hike offers mesmerizing views, the Paintbrush Canyon Trail, Death Canyon Trail and the Phelps Lake trail often have fewer visitors than the more popular Jenny Lake and Cascade Canyon trails.
Each time of the year has different draws, from wildflowers in June to skiing conditions in the winter, but White recommended travelers allow at least three days in the park to spend one day hiking, one day participating in water activities, and one day admiring the park’s wildlife.
Gettysburg National Military Park — Pennsylvania
Those looking for the full Gettysburg experience will want to check out Gettysburg National Military Park'sAnniversary of the Battle, according to Christopher Gwinn, chief of interpretation and education. Gwinn said that's when the park is filled with free hikes, walks, and discussions on the historic Civil War battle.
He also recommended visiting for at least two days to fully enjoy the more than 7,000 acres of historic landscapes, with the Cemetery Ridge Trail, which starts at the Museum and Visitor Center and takes you on a three-mile-loop to see some of the park’s most noted attractions, serving as his favorite hike.
Sequoia National Park—California
The best time to visitSequoia National Park's 3,000-year-old sequoias, Mount Whitney, and pristine glacial lakes is in the fall, because of the cooler weather before the snow hits, according to park ranger Farrah Keifer.
One of the most popular hikes is the Congress Trail, which weaves through Giant Sequoias and the President Tree (the third largest tree on Earth), Keifer said. Keifer also recommended the seven-mile Trail of the Sequoias as an off-the-beaten-path hike for those who want to with nature.
Yosemite National Park—California
While its waterfalls begin to rush earlier in the year, Yosemite can also be spectacular in the wintertime.
Grand Canyon National Park—Arizona
To avoid the most crowded times atGrand Canyon National Park, which saw more than 6 million visitors in 2017, you might want to visit during the winter, when hikes like the Bright Angel Trail and scenic drives are congestion free.
Sightseeing and hiking conditions are good on most winter days, and dramatic storm clouds and snow create scenes that fewer travelers get to see.
For travelers in search of an easy-to-hike option, public affairs officer Kirby-Lynn Shedlowski recommends the Shoshone Point Trail, a 2.1-mile-long hike that’s pet friendly, suitable for all ages and provides plenty of wildlife views. Just be sure to layer up, Shedlowski said. The inner canyon tends to be 15-20 degrees warmer than the rim so temperatures in the park will vary depending on your location.
Rocky Mountain National Park—Colorado
Fall can be one of the best times to visit the Rocky Mountain National Park, according to public affairs officer Kyle Patterson. During fall, elk descend from the high country and vegetation brings gold, orange and bronze hues to the area.
Death Valley National Park—California and Nevada
As America’s hottest, driest, and lowest national park, Death Valley is home to uncommon scenes like dry fields that often feature wildflowers in the spring. Although the flowers aren’t a guarantee, when they do bloom from February through April, they can leave the park covered in gold, purple, pink, and white flowers.
You’ll want to be sure to give yourself time to admire the park in both the early morning and the late afternoon, as this is when it’s at its most beautiful, according to management assistant Abby Wines.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area—California
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area gives you the chance to escape to the wild without having to leave city limits.
As for hiking, the Backbone Trail hike standing as the park’s most impressive, according to public affairs officer Kate Kuykendall. The 67-mile hike takes you along the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains, with her favorite section starting on the eastern side off of Sunset Boulevard at Will Rogers State Historic Park.
“Hike a few miles in and you can get expansive views of the Santa Monica Mountains and downtown Los Angeles at Inspiration Point,” she said.
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area—New Jersey and Pennsylvania
Those who enjoy fishing should head to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in the spring, when American Shad and brook trout start swimming in the area’s streams, according to public affairs specialist Kathleen Sandt.
While many come to see the park’s trails and paddle on the river, Sandt also recommended visiting the Millbrook Village, located on the New Jersey side of the park. The area is a re-created and restored historic village where you can see crafts and trades from the 1800s with guides adorned in period costumes.
Badlands National Park—South Dakota
Badlands National Park has one of one of the world’s richest fossil beds and one of the largest protected mixed grass prairies in the U.S.
The park has eight established hiking trails, of which Christine Czazasty, chief of interpretation and resource education at the park, recommends the Notch Trail, where you’ll find one of the best views in the park, and the Door Trail, which takes you through the Badlands wall of spires.
“Though it’s a short easy trail, it really drives home the reason they called it the Badlands; you are completely surrounded by the barren desolation of the treeless slopes, bisected by countless gullies carved by the driving rains,” Czazasty said of the hike.