T+L's Editors Share Their Favorite National Parks Experiences

Everglade national park
Photo: Getty Images

The editors of Travel + Leisure have already brought you our bucket list trips and trips that changed our lives. Now, to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, we bring you a sampling of our favorite experiences at the places the agency oversees. These range from our oldest and most classic parks—Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains—to lesser-known national monuments like White Sands in New Mexico and Devils Tower in Wyoming. We tell you which trails to hike, the drives and helicopter rides that offer special views, and more. The world is so full of extraordinary places to visit, it’s easy to forget sometimes that many of them are right here in our backyard. Read on and start dreaming about which park you’ll visit next. For more stories celebrating the centennial of the national parks, head here. »

01 of 16

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yellowstone national park
Getty Images

Yellowstone packs so many landscapes and experiences into one park. Intensely colorful hot springs, raging waterfalls, vast plains, geysers of varying levels of fame… and the chance to take a simultaneously steamy and chilly dip in the Boiling River. There’s also the wildlife, of course. On the first day of my trip to Yellowstone a few summers ago, a park ranger alerted us to be extra-cautious while driving in case we ran into a “bear-jam”— a traffic jam caused by park visitors stopping to watch the wildlife. The more elusive the species, the bigger the jam. We didn’t see bears, but we “bear-jammed” for moose and elk and, my personal favorite, bison. The bison cause traffic jams not just by being visible from the road, but by meandering, without a care in the world, directly into your path. It’s their land. They do not care that they might be interfering with your schedule. They do not care that you’re trying to reach Grand Prismatic by nightfall. They do not care if you miss the next Old Faithful eruption. They lumber past, giving you what feels like a very deliberate side-eye, and you happily cede your schedule to their will. —Skye Senterfeit, associate photo editor

02 of 16

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Getty Images

The American Southwest is full of otherworldly places, but White Sands National Monument, a massive field of pale sand dunes in southern New Mexico, is about as good as it gets for austere, alien majesty. Wander long enough through the endless hillocks of gypsum crystals, and you will start to feel like you’re in an altered state (though hopefully not because you’re dehydrated; be sure to bring lots of water). It’s easy to imagine one of the sandworms from Dune bursting up from below, or a UFO from nearby Roswell drifting across the shimmering sky. —Jesse Ashlock, features director

03 of 16

Virgin Islands National Park, St. John

Saint John Island, Virgin Islands
Getty Images

The national park on St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, features some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. A quick drive north from the town of Cruz Bay will lead you right into the park. Along North Shore Road you’ll find multiple beaches, each more spectacular than the next. The most stunning one I saw was at Cinnamon Bay Campground. You can rent kayaks there and go out exploring. Make sure to bring snorkel gear. I also recommend hiking up into the hills on the numerous trails throughout the park, where you’ll find interesting ruins and petroglyphs. Head back to Cruz Bay for dinner and drinks. Many of the best restaurants are right across from the town's main beach, where you can wander off for a nighttime stroll. —Adam Bookbinder, creative director

04 of 16

Sutro Baths, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

Sutro Baths, Golden Gate Park
Getty Images

Sitting in the northwest corner of San Francisco are the beautiful and eerie ruins of the Sutro Baths. Built in 1894, this public bathhouse saw its popularity decline during the Great Depression before most of the structure burned down in 1966. Although the site itself is not maintained, visitors are free to roam, climb, and explore the concrete ruins, all while enjoying views of the Pacific Ocean against the Marin Headlands. Be sure to check out the sea cave just to the north of the ruins and the great hiking trails in the surrounding area. —Katie Fish, fashion assistant

05 of 16

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah
Getty Images

This 105-mile road through Shenandoah National Park is made for cruising. The route is leisurely (the speed limit is 35), undulating, and, most of the year, best enjoyed with the windows rolled down. Use the mileposts to find points of interest along the way, like hikes and waterfalls, and plan to stop at some of the 75 overlooks that dot the route between Front Royal and Waynesboro. You’re in Virginia Piedmont country, and the wildflowers, which bloom from early April until late October, never disappoint. The area is full of natural attractions like Luray Caverns, perfect for a short break. But you don’t have to keep all the activity to daylight hours—the area is famous for its night skies, and Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Lodge hold free stargazing workshops from spring through fall. —Corina Quinn, digital travel editor

06 of 16

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park
Getty Images

I went to a high school in northern California that prided itself on offering outdoor experiences to its students. Once, I spent a week hiking through Joshua Tree with my classmates. For the five or so days we were out in the desert, we carried all of our own food, water, and gear. I was not the most outdoorsy kid at the time—am still not—but either out of ignorance or subtle peer pressure, I signed up for this trip. I still remember that my friend M. and I were too weak to carry the weight of our water supply; that I got a sunburn on half of my face when we walked down a craggy ravine in the middle of the afternoon (half of it was shaded); and that I was surprised at how miraculous it was that you could wash your bowl with dirt. I also developed a crush on a boy by the end of the trip, merely because of his physical prowess in the wild. What stays with me in a more profound way borders on cliché: the beauty of the sky at night, the shifting temperatures of the desert, the cool mornings as the sun rose, the camaraderie we felt together in the middle of nowhere, howling like coyotes at the moon, and the strange beauty of the Joshua tree, with its scraggly limbs and ghostly figure. —Thessaly La Force, senior editor

07 of 16

Haleakala National Park, Hawaii

Sunrise at Haleakala
Getty Images

My parents fell in love with Hawaii, and we visited a handful of times during my childhood. We drove, biked, and hiked our way up and around Haleakala. Here, you can enjoy beautiful coastal roads and jungles, as well as dramatic views from the volcano’s summit. I think visiting this beautiful, protected landscape was where I first developed a passion for travel and exploration. —Melanie Lieberman, assistant digital editor

08 of 16

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains
Getty Images

I grew up in North Carolina, and pilgrimages to the western parts of the state were a regular part of my summers. I have a particular soft spot for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some of my favorite memories are set against that backdrop: hiking through the backcountry, watersliding down massive river rocks, collecting nettles to make tea over a campfire, plunging into freezing cold mountain creeks after a long day on the trail. Since there’s plenty else to experience in western North Carolina—whitewater rafting on the Nantahala, beautiful crafts at Penland, the culinary and creative scenes of Asheville—it’s worth carving out time for an extended trip. —Lila Battis, associate editor

09 of 16

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Grand Teton National park
Getty Images

One winter, my husband and I stayed at the gorgeous Amangani, a luxurious retreat perched high on a hillside in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We aren't big skiers—we were really just there to après-ski and soak in the gorgeousness of the Teton Mountains. One (early) morning, we took a 4 x 4 excursion with an Aman guide to Grand Teton National Park, where we saw three wolves playing in a snow-covered meadow at 6:30 a.m. Our guide freaked out—wolves are skittish creatures—and couldn't believe his eyes. Needless to say, we couldn't, either. —Jacqueline Gifford, special projects editor

10 of 16

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon
Getty Images

The view from the top of the Grand Canyon is stunning, no doubt. But the view from the bottom, walking along the 20-plus-mile trail that winds through this sedimentary layer cake, is even more unforgettable. We did it as a three-day backpacking trip (lucking into campground permits the morning before our hike), but you can also stay in the lodging on the canyon floor if you reserve a few months in advance. Tip: hike from north to south—the north rim is about 1,000 feet higher in elevation. Your leg muscles will thank you. —Richelle Szypulski, editorial operations assistant

11 of 16

Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park
Getty Images

If you visit Glacier National Park, don't overlook Camas Road, which runs from Apgar Village to North Flork Flathead River. It's less traveled and has a grand, windswept beauty (part of which shows post-fire regrowth) that's somewhat different from other parts of the park. —Kathy Roberson, copy and research chief

12 of 16

Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Devil's tower monument
Getty Images

This is such a cool spot that I visited with my mom when we went tornado-chasing in Wyoming. It's a geological wonder that has a lot of Native American folklore associated with it, and it’s also a climber’s ultimate challenge. There are great hiking trails for the less adventurous, too. —Jordi Lippe-McGraw, contributing digital news reporter

13 of 16

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park
Getty Images

Driving through Badlands National Park is an otherworldly experience—it’s one of the most jaw-dropping, wondrous places I’ve visited. The land is sprawling—layers of ancient earth piled and stacked into these rugged formations that feel like another planet. Such contrast lives in this park—beautiful fields of tall grass and wildflowers brush up against the red dirt rocks. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot bighorn sheep grazing in the fields. Bonus: it’s an easy day trip from quirky Rapid City, South Dakota, and conveniently a (roughly) two-hour drive to the Crazy Horse memorial in the Black Hills National Forest. —Ellie Storck, digital editorial assistant

14 of 16

Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia national park
Getty Images

I've visited Acadia, on Mount Desert Island on the central Maine coast, as a child, as a teen, and as an adult, and each time I go back I am surprised by it. I always remember that I love it there, but when I get to visit in person, the colors, shapes, and textures blow me away as if I've never seen them before. The experiences can range from a relaxed, quiet sit on a rock in a stream near Jordan Pond House to a top-of-the-world moment on Cadillac Mountain, from giddy excitement anticipating waves exploding at Thunder Hole to the best-meal-ever feeling of eating lobster on a dock with a double rainbow framing the scene. —Laura Teusink, managing editor

15 of 16

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Getty Images

This park on the Big Island, which encompasses two volcanoes, is absolutely massive. When my family and I visited, we had limited time—plus, no way could my grandmother and young cousins handle the hiking and camping. Thankfully, there’s an easy way to see the whole park quickly: by helicopter. We booked a day with Paradise Helicopters and first got an incredible overview of the island, from black-sand beaches to coffee plantations to the lush coastline, before heading over the park, where we flew through narrow valleys and over staggering waterfalls, then hovered above the puddles of blazing red lava around Kilauea Volcano. —Stephanie Wu, senior editor

16 of 16

Everglades National Park, Florida

Everglade national park
Getty Images

I grew up in Miami, not far from the Everglades—one of our country's most overlooked national parks. The swamp has a mysterious allure: you never know when a crocodile will raise his beady eyes above the surface or when an eagle will soar overhead. Behind all that stillness are vast wildlife populations waiting to be discovered. And where else can you have a safari experience by day and incredible local seafood in a global capital by night? Nikki Ekstein, travel news editor

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles