As the Park Service turns 100 (August 25!) celebrate by visiting one of its pristine natural wonders.
Will Cockrell 1 / 6
Long considered one of America’s “greatest ideas,” our national parks are the perfect marriage of conservation and recreation. They’re also—if you hit up the right ones at the right times—fun as hell to play in. As the Park Service turns 100 this summer (thanks, Woodrow Wilson!) celebrate by breaking loose in one of its iconic natural wonders.
In the heart of the central Sierras, Sequoia & Kings Canyon have classic Ansel Adams views and groves of giant redwoods. Basically, it looks a lot like Yosemite—striking granite outcroppings, Alpine lakes, dense old-growth forests (including the world’s largest tree), and bears—but with a fraction of the crowds. That’s probably because many of its best spots take a little work to get to.
RANGER INTEL: “Amphitheater Point has a view clear to the Coast Range on a clear day,” says supervisory ranger Matt Fagan.
TRAVEL TIP: Book a room located right in the parks, at either Wuksachi in Sequoia or the John Muir Lodge in Kings Canyon.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California
Marek Zuk: Alamy
While not technically a “national” park, the relatively youthful SMMNRA (it got its rec distinction 38 years ago) is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and represents its future. It’s an impressive stretch of surprisingly wild land smack in the middle of one of America’s biggest cities, managed by both local and federal conservation organizations. Stretching from the Pacific Ocean up and over the Santa Monica Mountains to the Hollywood sign, the SMMNRA offers Angelenos trail running, hiking, mountain biking, surfing, and even rock climbing in Malibu Canyon.
RANGER INTEL: “Cheeseboro Canyon near Agoura Hills is perfect for running,” says ranger Michael Liang. “It’s relatively flat, but there are steep spur trails coming off it, so you can add hill sprints. And even though it’s just a few minutes off the 101 freeway, you leave the city noises behind.”
TRAVEL TIP: Trailheads into the SMMNRA are as little as 30 minutes away from LAX—perfect for squeezing in a trail run on a travel day.
Every summer, America’s most iconic national park is inundated with nearly 4 million visitors. In winter, it’s like a magical hidden spot seen only by the most adventurous few. So even if you’ve been to Yellowstone before, book a January or February trip to take in snow-dusted buffalo and frozen waterfalls.
RANGER INTEL: “I love the drive from the north entrance to Cooke City, MT,” says division chief Linda Young. “The landscape is as wild as anywhere in the park, and from that road there are great short ski trails, like the two-miler up to Tower Falls.”
TRAVEL TIP: The only way into the heart of Yellowstone in winter is with a guided bus or snowmobile tour. Base yourself in ski mecca, Jackson Hole; the only winter accommodation inside the park is Old Faithful Lodge.
The only national park in the Northeast is this remote island outpost off the coast of Maine. Unlike other NPS parks, Acadia is actually a 50,000-acre patchwork of private land that’s been donated to the NPS over the past century. The result is a mix of rugged coastal wilderness and intimate traditional fishing towns such as Bass Harbor and Bar Harbor, where you can fuel up on lobster rolls andlocal beer.
RANGER INTEL: “Acadia is littered with short, steep hikes to the top of granite domes with incredible panoramic views of the island,” says park ranger John Kelly. “Cadillac Mountain is the centerpiece of Acadia, but Penobscot Mountain is a quieter loop.”
TRAVEL TIP: Bangor, ME, is closer, but Boston is easier to get to, and the drive from there up the coast is a classic road trip. Set your GPS for Atlantic Brewing Company in Bar Harbor.
Nearby Zion steals all the thunder, but Capitol Reef—named for its ubiquitous sandstone domes that look like capitol buildings—is more than a third larger, with a third as many visitors, which means you get all the same mind-bending red canyon walls and impossible natural arches—minus the annoying crowds. Cassidy Arch, named after Butch, defies gravity, and spectacular Capitol Gorge is less than a car’s width in some spots; both are easy day hikes.
RANGER INTEL: “Get off-road and drive up through Cathedral Valley for a true sense of the vastness of this park,” says superintendent Leah McGinnis. “It’s an all-day affair, but the switchbacks of the Burr Trail are worth it.”
TRAVEL TIP: Capitol Reef, about three hours from Salt Lake City, is a little harder to get to than Zion, but it sets you up better to visit quick-hit NPS monuments like Bryce Canyon and Arches. You’ll find hotels on the outskirts in tiny Torrey, population 178.