This August 25th marks the 100-year-anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), which was born when President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act” to protect the then 35 national parks and monuments across the country. Ten decades later, the NPS has grown to include more than 400 of America's most beautiful natural wonders, spanning more than 84 million acres in 50 states. It's easy to #FindYourPark (the NPS's initiative to encourage people to get out and celebrate the centennial) on just a few tanks of gas. Pack the car, lace up your hiking boots and head for the hills to personally wish a national park near you a happy birthday. If you're up for traveling a bit further, here are eight great places to explore wilderness at its best.
Living in America and not visiting the Grand Canyon is like heading to Orlando, FL and avoiding Disney. It's crazy to think how many of us hop a plane to visit other magical destinations, like Peru's Machu Picchu, and leave spectacular places right in our own backyard, like the Grand Canyon, for dead last on the bucket list. This summer, change that by joining REI Adventures on the Arizona Ultimate Adventure – Grand Canyon & Beyond. This eight-day trip will take you to all the most iconic parts of the nearly 2,000-square-mile park, including the Bright Angle Trail and Lake Powell, in REI Signature camping style (read: gourmet meals and house-like tents outfitted with cots, floor coverings, lighting, and furniture).
>> $3,999 per person (REI member) based on double occupancy, including six nights camping in REI Signature Camps, one night in a hotel, guides, ground transportation, all meals, all group camping equipment and other gear (i.e., kayaks), park fees, and local taxes. Dates available: May through October (rei.com/adventures/trips/).
Among the pioneers who made American conservation a top priority is venture capitalist and environmentalist Laurance Rockefeller, the son of financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. In 1992, Rockefeller and his wife Mary donated their breathtaking private property, featuring a 19th century Federal-style brick mansion, in Woodstock to promote conservation and preserve a history of three quintessential American families. As part of the centennial, the 643-acre park nestled in the Green Mountains will be offering a series of eight hikes throughout the summer, including touring portions of the famed Appalachian Trail and the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Stay down the road at the luxurious, newly renovated Woodstock Inn & Resort—also established by Rockefeller—which will be providing shuttle services for guests who wish to participate in these hikes.
>> $280 midweek and $400 weekends per night (woodstockinn.com). Hikes will be scheduled 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 pm from June through October (nps.gov).
When it comes to national parks, you can't ignore the grand-daddy of the them all: Yellowstone National Park. Join Exodus Travels on a 12-day tour of the world's first national park (established in 1872), plus its two superstar neighbors the Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks. Beyond exploring geysers, hot springs, rocky spires, mighty canyons and wildlife like bears and wolves, you'll also get to discover a good chunk of the U.S. This extraordinary trip cuts through five states, including Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Washington, so if you haven't made it out west yet, consider this the ultimate introduction.
>>$3,095 per person, includes camping and hotels, most meals, all ground transportation, guides, and activities. Dates available: June through August (exodustravels.com).
Gain a newfound respect for trees when you step—and sleep—inside this magical 400,000+ acre redwood forest, home to some of the largest trees in the world, including the General Sherman, which stands at nearly 300 feet tall. This eight-day trekking adventure with Intrepid Travel will take you from LA through the country's second oldest national park, Sequoia, and the newer Kings Canyon (established in 1940 and another 400,000+ acres), and up to the Pacific Crest Trail—the same one Cheryl Strayed famously hiked in her book-turned-movie, Wild. From there, continue skyward, above the treeline, for the most stunning sunrise of your life on top of Mt. Whitney.
>>$3475 per person, includes hotel and camping, mule support to carry your gear, private vehicle, guides, trail permits, and park entrance fees. Dates available: September 2016 through 2017 (intrepidtravel.com).
If you're looking to get fancy, treat yourself to one of Utah's most prized possessions—Bryce Canyon, Moab, or Zion—in style. New this year, Montage Expeditions is offering guests of the super-luxe Montage Deer Valley three different and very unique all-inclusive day excursions. Explore by foot or bike some of the most iconic and well-photographed parts of each park, including 70-million-year-old sandstone formations in Bryce Canyon, Arches National Park and Canyonlands in Moab, or Angel's Landing, desert waterfalls, and slot canyons in Zion.
>>$1,000 to $2,000 per person in a group of 7 people ($7K to $8K total), includes private charter to the park from the Montage Deer Valley, guides, gear, ground transportation, lunch and snacks, park pass and more. Available all-year-round (montagehotels.com/deervalley/).
Finally, a quiet log cabin in the middle of nowhere to match your flannel shirt and full beard. You'll instantly want to call this rustic retreat of Creekwalk Inn in Cosby “home,” especially since the Great Smoky Mountains—America's most visited park, according to NationalParks.org—are only a 10-minute car ride away. When you're ready to leave your cozy, country-style room, an amazing playground of rolling green hills is right outside your door. With 800 miles of hiking trails spanning across 522,427 acres at your disposal, you'll never get bored. You could also bike, horseback ride, heck, chop some wood and build a fire should you be so inclined. Or just sit on an outdoor rocking chair with bourbon on the rocks and contemplate your new (albeit temporary) life in the wild.
>> $139 per night, discounted from $239 per night til about mid-May when you book through Secret Escapes (secretescapes.com).
Not all things in Death Valley are actually dead. In fact, at the end of April, this 140-mile-long landscape located just below sea level welcomed one of the most vibrant wildflower seasons in the last decade. Despite its morose name, Death Valley contains a surprising amount of life, including big horn sheep, mountain lions and a colorful array of butterfly species. Book a long-weekend at Furnace Creek, the historic, privately-owned, four-diamond, 66-room inn right inside the largest national park in the continental US. The Furnace Creek Inn offers a magnificent oasis in this extraordinary desert, complete with breezy palm trees and a natural spring-fed pool, plus the lowest golf course on earth at The Ranch at Furnace Creek (the more casual, family-friendly sister resort) just down the road.
>>$449 per night at the Inn (or $239 at The Ranch) with a minimum two-night stay, includes an “America the Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass” (worth $80). Farabee’s Jeep Rentals offers 20 percent off one-day jeep rentals and tours to guests (available til May 31). Best time to visit: October through May (furnacecreekresort.com; use promo code “FYP” at checkout).
After the Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains are the third most visited (4.2 million annually!) national park in the country—and there's good reason why. Among the most popular activities within the more than 265,000-acre park include world-class rock climbing (and cliff camping where you spend a night on a rock face hundreds of feet off the ground), mountaineering up one of Colorado's iconic 14ers like Long's Peak (towering at 14,259 feet), fly fishing with llama shlepping your stuff, and super scenic running trails that will beg you to keep going. Since there are no accommodations within the wilderness preserve, opt to make Estes Park, the quaint mountain town located 90 minutes outside Denver, your gateway to adventure.
>>$155 per night (2 people) at the McGregor Mountain Lodge (mcgregormountainlodge.com), or $300 per night for up to 6 people at Solitude Cabins, includes full kitchen (solitudecabins.com). Cliff camping with Kent Mountain Adventure Center is $800 per person, minimum 2 people (kmaconline.com). Overnight Llama Pack Trip with Kirks Flyshop is $250 per person, minimum 2 people, includes tents, sleeping bags, backpacks and food (kirksflyshop.com).
Cristina Goyanes is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.