5 National Park Adventures to Experience This Year

February 21, 2020

America’s first national park opened to the public in 1872 under President Ulysses S. Grant. At that time, a period of unprecedented westward expansion meant that more Americans than ever were setting off into our country’s vast wilderness— and threatening to permanently alter these precious ecosystems. Impassioned conservationists championed the idea of a national park system to protect our most remarkable landscapes before it was too late, and thus, in 1916, the modern National Park Service was born.

More than a century later, in 2018, a total of 318 million visitors set foot inside a park operated by the National Park Service. The national parks are open to—and belong to—all of us, beckoning adventurers from around the world.

Even as the parks attract record-setting numbers of visitors, there are plenty of corners to explore, pockets where you can still feel like the first-ever explorer of a captivating landscape. That’s the eternal promise of the national park system, which documentarian Ken Burns once dubbed “America’s Best Idea.”

I’ve always been a fervent fan of our national parks, dating back to my childhood when my parents would take the family on weeks-long road trips, trying to visit as many parks as possible in one cross-country swoop. As an adult, I’ve come to cherish our public lands even more as wild, sacred spaces that represent the best version of our collective humanity—one in which we act as gentle stewards and respectful observers who leave no trace. There’s always an adventure to be had in our national parks. Here are a few of my favorites.

5 National Park Adventures to Experience This Year Haleakalā National Park

See the Sunrise in Haleakalā National Park

One of the last places on United States soil to witness the sunrise each morning takes place in Haleakalā National Park on Maui. It’s worth the wait. A massive volcanic crater (which last blew its top 500 years ago), Haleakalā is the highest point on Maui at 10,023 feet above sea level. It’s surrounded by a cinder desert landscape that makes the island’s sugar-sand beaches and swaying palm trees feel like a distant memory. With a lack of light or environmental pollution, it’s an ideal vantage point to witness the sun crest above the horizon.

That’s just what I did on a work trip one September day last fall with my colleagues, when our alarms sounded at 2:30 a.m. for a bleary wake-up call and we shuffled onto a tour bus for the 90-minute winding drive to the summit.

We joined a small group of onlookers gathered in anticipation, facing out toward the inky blackness. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could make out the outlines of the vast crater that loomed before me; everyone adopted hushed, reverent tones. The sunrise happened so gradually that it was almost imperceptible: the faintest hint of red warming up on the horizon. The show had begun, and the crowd fell silent.

Haleakalā means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian. According to Hawaiian lore, the demigod Maui trapped the sun atop Haleakalā in order to make the day longer. It was certainly the longest sunrise I’ve ever witnessed, with time seeming to slow down enough to witness the orb lift higher in the sky inch by inch.

Sunsets on Maui are grand and spectacular, painted across the sky with neon pinks and purples in a way that makes them impossible to ignore. The island’s sunrises have a more dignified beauty, a quieter subtlety that rewards the patient viewer.

Relax in a Secret Hot Spring in Yellowstone National Park

Inside Yellowstone National Park, there’s always something threatening to boil over. Perched atop a volcanic caldera, the park bubbles with more than 10,000 boiling mud pots, hissing steam vents, colorful hot springs, and geysers that rocket through the air like uncorked champagne. These smoking geothermal features—and the telltale sulfuric smell they carry—only enhance the park’s otherworldly atmosphere.

Although Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world, they don’t add much in the way of aquatic recreation. It’s illegal to bathe in hot springs within the park’s boundaries, and for good reason: In certain spots, water can reach temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, I discovered there is one spot within the park where you can freely soak (rangers allow swimming in bodies of water fed by runoff from hydrothermal features). Just across the Wyoming-Montana border, near the park’s northern entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs, the hydrothermal Boiling River meets the refreshingly cold waters of the Gardner River. This mix of temperatures is just right for a long soak to soothe weary muscles.

Tucked in the northwest corner of the park, the hot springs felt a little bit like a secret. We trekked down a rocky, half-mile trail from the parking lot to reach the river, grateful for sturdy water shoes. The hot springs area was cordoned off from the cool river by an improvised rock barrier, cobbled together over time by previous visitors.

As we floated alongside a dozen other bathers, my husband and I chatted with a colorful cast of rotating characters, including an oil executive who owned a ranch in nearby Jackson Hole and a friendly pair of free-spirited European backpackers making their way across the States. The occasional brave teen leapt over the rocky barrier into the freezing waters of the Gardner River, shrieking. As daylight waned and the air temperature dropped, we found ourselves enveloped in rising steam, a subtle reminder of the powerful forces at work below Yellowstone.

Hike to the Top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

When you’re inside Yosemite National Park, Half Dome—the towering granite monolith that rises nearly 5,000 feet above the valley floor—is unavoidable. It’s everywhere: plastered on souvenir T-shirts, emblazoned on mugs in the campground general store, and lurking in the background of all your scenic valley photos. In the late 1870s, early settler Josiah Whitney proclaimed that Half Dome was “perfectly inaccessible.” It didn’t take long for hikers to prove him wrong.

Today, while many parkgoers choose to appreciate Half Dome from afar, roughly 300 lucky hikers get to set foot on the rock face itself each day from late May to early October. That’s because the hike to the top of Half Dome is protected by a permit system. Each March, would-be hikers sign up for the Half Dome permit lottery, hoping to be one of the chosen few who are allowed to summit.

One summer holiday weekend a few years ago— after scoring permits in the lottery—my hiking party set out in the pre-dawn hours, sporting headlamps to light the way. The Half Dome Trail leads trekkers to the top of the dome on a 14- to 16-mile round-trip course, taking around 12 hours to complete. On the way up, the trail wends past gorgeous waterfalls (Vernal and Nevada Falls), flattens out for a brief reprieve in Little Yosemite Valley, and then switchbacks up to the base of the dome.

The length of the hike isn’t what makes it such an adventure. The final pitch is what hikers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Yosemite for. The last quarter-mile of the hike spikes sharply upward, where braided metal cables—drilled into the rock by park rangers in 1919—needle up the spine of Half Dome, enabling hikers to make the final ascent without technical rock climbing equipment.

It’s not an excursion for the faint of heart, or the acrophobic. Staring up at the steep cables rising in front of me, I had a moment of wanting to sit this part out. It seemed too treacherous. I sought opinions from some of the hikers who just stepped off the cables; one woman smiled and said cheerily, “Tough, but doable!”

So up we went. It took us roughly 30 minutes to navigate the cables to the top, using our upper bodies to pull ourselves up each gravity-defying step. The cables aren’t a one-way street; hikers going both directions squeeze past one another within the 36-inch corridor. I clung to one side, willing myself not to focus on the downhill slope just inches beyond.

At the top, the view of the valley was surreal, and the sense of shared accomplishment palpable. Hikers toasted to their good fortune with fizzy beers, melting trail mix, and in my case, a surprise marriage proposal. I said yes— but requested the ring remain inside its velvet box until we made it safely back down the cables.

See a Black Bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the most exhilarating parts of venturing into the wilderness is the chance to see wildlife. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, you’d be hard-pressed to spend a long weekend and not catch a glimpse of one of the park’s most famous residents: the black bear. When my husband and I visited during a long spring weekend, we were on a mission to see as many of the species Ursus americanus as we could. We’d come to the right place: The park is home to a population of nearly 1,500 black bears.

As we rode bicycles on an 11-mile loop around Cades Cove on our first morning, we breezed past historic settlers’ cabins, old churches, and a photogenic gristmill. That’s when we spotted our first of the weekend—a mother and her two cubs about a football field away, marching through a meadow and paying us no mind. On a dusk hike to Laurel Falls later that day, we spotted a black bear boulder-hopping in the riverbed beneath the 80-foot waterfall, and yet another munching on leaves high up in a tree.

5 National Park Adventures to Experience This Year Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Up at dawn for a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail through old-growth forest, we spotted another black bear high up in the treetops, watching our car curiously. We had quickly learned that in the Great Smoky Mountains, if you want to see a bear, look up.

The best bear sighting was our last one. We planned to take in the sunset atop Clingman’s Dome—the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet. As we strode up the half-mile paved path leading to the observation tower, we heard a rustling in the bushes off the trail. Careful to keep our distance, we watched quietly as a mother and her two small cubs noshed on grasses. Seeing the black bear family up close was a pinch-me moment and a reminder of just how special these national parks are.

Tour Historic Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park

Located 60 miles southwest of Telluride, Mesa Verde is one of the most unusual national parks in the entire country, the sole park dedicated to the activity of humans. A crown jewel in the Four Corners area, the park protects nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, built by the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived there for more than 700 years, from roughly 600 to 1300 CE. It’s the largest archaeological preserve in the United States.

The cliff dwellings are a relic from another era, constructed ingeniously with sandstone, mortar, and wooden beams beneath the overhangs of grassy mesas. The marvel is that these archaeological sites aren’t preserved under glass to be observed from a distance—visitors are encouraged to explore the sites on ranger-guided tours and learn firsthand how the Ancestral Pueblo people transitioned from semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers to a flourishing agrarian society.

The tours sell out fast—and can only be purchased in person up to two days prior—so I was thrilled to nab a spot for the two largest cliff dwelling tours one busy summer holiday weekend.

Cliff Palace is the perfect place to start. It’s the park’s largest dwelling, a veritable apartment complex with 150 rooms sprawling across four stories and 23 kivas (subterranean rooms used for meetings and religious ceremonies). The small tour group set out from the Cliff Palace Overlook on a short dusty trail that sloped downward toward the mesa. Throughout the tour, we climbed 100 vertical feet on a series of five rickety wooden ladders. It’s easy to imagine the once-bustling scene: men, women, and children scampering up to the top of the mesa to tend to their crops

But it’s the Balcony House tour that offers the biggest adventure in the park. The tour starts with a climb up a 32-foot wooden ladder that prompted the children in the group to squeal with delight and a few parents to murmur nervously. Later, we dropped to our hands and knees to crawl through a 12-foot-long, 18-inch-wide tunnel between homes. In order to exit, we clambered up a 60-foot open rock face, where grooves have been worn into the stone to form a natural staircase. Though it’s often overshadowed by the larger parks nearby (Rocky Mountain, Zion, and Grand Canyon, to name a few), Mesa Verde is well worth the stop.