With the EU countries closed to Americans and cruises canceled, many travelers are rescheduling holidays and reimagining their summer bucket list. For those looking for places to visit locally in the United States, plenty of bucket list adventures and destinations await. So fill up the tank and load on the car and vacation domestically this summer and head to what filmmaker Ken Burns coined “America’s Best Idea”—the US National Parks system.
When initially planning my epic cross country road trip 25 years ago, I made sure to then purchase an “Eagle Pass” for access to all the parks. With this pass, we explored over a dozen spots. Unfortunately, all are not completely open during these times, but the National Park website will enable you to understand what is available. As for recommendations, here are a few of my favorites from the iconic to a few lesser-known. But please know all US National Parks are worth a visit!
The Granddaddy of all US National Parks, visiting Yellowstone is a no-brainer. The park—essentially the same size as Connecticut—stretches into three western states, mainly Wyoming. It showcases a remarkable landscape filled with geysers, thermal basins, and its own (Yellowstone) Grand Canyon complete with waterfall. The park is also home to some of the best wildlife viewing in North America. One iconic favorite remains the roaming herds of bison.
As some of the first protected lands in America, it remains extremely popular for any summer bucket list. Camping is an option, but you will need to make reservations to secure a campsite. And since it is really far for a weekend adventure you can combine any adventure here with the chance to visit Grand Teton National Park too. The alpine views and hiking trails make that park so worth it. You can camp there, but sometimes visitors prefer the nearby likable town of Jackson, Wyoming.
Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
The most iconic landscape in America may very well be the Grand Canyon. Standing at the overlook at any rim leaves people in awe. Yeah, I can confirm it is awesome. It is a moment people don’t often forget, I know I haven’t forgotten my day in the park and it was 25 years ago.
Summer can be a challenging time to visit this park because of the hotter temperatures and heat advisories that make any hike even more challenging. Trust me, novice hikers must beware of attempting to do too much in one day. I clearly remember starting our hike too late in the day and almost being caught in the canyon, exhausted, after dark.
This park is a manageable drive from Las Vegas, but when in Arizona, there are many other National Park sites to explore from Native American historic sites as well as other parks. Saguaro National Park has very limited restrictions now compared to other parks. It makes sense to visit some of the less popular parks too.
The National Parks of Utah
You can’t mention US National Parks without talking about “Bea-Utah-Ful” and the beauty that awaits the travelers who head to Utah. In fact, every National Park calendar I’ve owned dedicates at least one month to the likes of Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands or Zion. After a visit, you’ll easily see why.
Inside these parks, the views of the red rocks, arches, canyons, natural bridges, and hoodoos (irregular columns of rock formations) reset our perspective. Plus, with the near promise of clear skies, visitors can expect starry filled nights. However, picking which one(s) may be a challenge. But the adventure-filled city of Moab, Utah resides between Canyonlands and Arches and also provides easy access to many dinosaur tracks and fossils too.
Acadia National Park (Maine)
For those on the east coast and not planning an epic road trip to the west, why not head up to the Bar Harbor area of Maine for more than lobster. Just outside the popular Maine summer coastal town, travelers can visit Acadia National Park. Note that currently, only partial trails are open with some campsites available no earlier than August 1st. But summer doesn’t really arrive in Maine until August anyway (it’s still chilly if you ask me).
Regardless of how long you stay, one popular spot in the park is the Thunderhole with the chance to see and hear the water blow through the hole. For reference, Acadia is a feasible drive from Boston.
Great Smoky Mountains (Tennesee and North Carolina Border)
One of the most visited parks resides between Tennessee and North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offers free access to visitors, along with plenty of hiking trails and stunning vistas. Plus it includes sections of the famous Appalachian Trail too!
It is a great beginner park for us in the southeast. The hike to Clingmans Dome (currently open) allows you to ascend to one of the highest points on the map east of the Mississippi River. The short moderate hike ends with the reward of a 360-degree manmade overlook. I can confirm it is worth it. The park is within a day drive of Charlotte or Chattanooga and also close enough to visit the charming town of Asheville, North Carolina.
To Sum it Up
These are just a few National Parks inside the lower 48 states to add to your summer bucket list. There are 61 US National Parks and over 400+ National Park sites including recreational areas, historic homes, monuments, and more. Yes, there is plenty to see! Plus, health experts say your risk of catching the Coronavirus is much lower outdoors than indoors. Just make sure you research your adventure as restrictions are often changing in these times.