The pandemic is restricting travel for many people — but extra time stuck at home now could mean more extensive preparation for an epic park adventure when conditions are safe again.
These national park sites require more attention to logistics than most — but that extra effort could result in a truly special trip. Each park on this list offers a very different experience but will reward the patient future adventurer with something truly special.
1. Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks and Preserves, Alaska
If you want to see brown bears up close, there are few places as transformative as Brooks Falls at Katmai, where these animals — that regularly weigh half a ton or more each — famously gather each summer to feast on salmon before hibernating. This famous spectacle features the densest population of brown bears in the world, and bear viewing in Katmai or neighboring Lake Clark is the perfect centerpiece for planning a trip to Alaska. Getting to either park requires an expensive round-trip flight from Anchorage or a nearby small town such as Soldotna or Homer, however, so it is essential to think through what you most want to see in the area while you’re there.
According to NPCA Alaska Regional Director Jim Adams, Homer is a charming option for a home base. It is located about 140 miles across the Cook Inlet from Katmai and Lake Clark, with lodging, art galleries and good restaurants, as well as guides you can hire to take you to seasonal bear-viewing spots, including a number that are less crowded (with people) than Brooks Falls. Some guides even offer overnight glamping for extra time among the bears. Many people take day trips from Homer to Katmai, but it’s worth staying at least one night to explore the geologic feature the park was created to protect, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. A massive volcanic eruption in 1912 carved this dramatic 40-mile fissure in the earth with the force of its steam, inspiring the name. Those comfortable backpacking can camp in the valley, though visitors can also take a shuttle back and forth and find lodging at Brooks Falls — if you make a reservation well ahead of time (the lottery for summer 2022 reservations started yesterday). After your return flight from the park, you can spend time exploring the Kenai Peninsula, including Kenai Fjords National Park, where you can spend another day hiking to the massive Harding Icefield, take a quicker stroll to Exit Glacier or enjoy a boat ride to see calving glaciers, whales, seals, sea birds and otters.
2. Virgin Islands National Park, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
It can be difficult to find the right words for this exquisite tropical park, but one that people often use is “paradise.” With bright blue bays, lush forests, white-sand beaches, and historic relics and petroglyphs, this Caribbean retreat offers picturesque places to boat, snorkel, hike, learn and relax — and a chance to see rare turtles, coral reefs, tropical fish, octopuses and other species you can’t find in other parts of the country.
Hurricanes pose serious threats to the area (Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the region in 2017, and the community and park are still recovering from the devastation), and some businesses close completely during the month of September. Some may wish to avoid traveling during hurricane season from June through November, though according to NPCA Sun Coast Associate Director Caroline McLaughlin, the summer and especially fall can be lovely times to visit, with fewer tourists and good deals, if you are comfortable with some risk of disruption to your plans. Must-see attractions, such as Trunk Bay, Honeymoon Beach and Cinnamon Bay, can get crowded during the peak tourist season from December to March, so if you want more of the park to yourself, consider the shoulder season in April and May. Unless you’re visiting on a cruise ship, you’ll need to arrange travel to the Virgin Islands by air. The closest airport is on St. Thomas, where travelers can take a 40-minute taxi ride to the town of Red Hook, which offers hourly ferries to Cruz Bay on St. John (less frequent ferries also service the island from other areas). From there, visitors may want to rent a Jeep to get around — driving on the left — though McLaughlin emphasizes that some people may not want to navigate the area’s steep hills and narrow roads, and it’s not that expensive to arrange for a driver. A variety of amenities are located just outside the park in Cruz Bay, and options vary from large establishments to smaller lodgings with local flavor — book ahead of time to find the kind of experiences that suit your needs. And consider the many options for chartering boats for snorkeling and tours, renting kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, and exploring the rugged trails and historic sites, such as the Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins. McLaughlin recommends snorkeling in Maho Bay — her favorite spot for swimming with endangered sea turtles.
3. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
If your idea of a perfect island vacation is cool weather, fragrant pine forests, craggy rocks, the sound of loons and sandhill cranes, and a whole lot of solitude, this remote gem near the Canadian border should be on your list. At 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, the park is the largest natural island in Lake Superior and one of the largest lake islands in the world, with very few human-made structures and roads. Historic lighthouses and cabins dot the coasts of this designated wilderness, and the island’s picturesque ridges are streaked in the coppery colors of the park’s 600-plus lichen species.
The island closes completely in the winter, so travelers should plan visits between mid-April to late September, with no fear of encountering crowds during height of summer (except crowds of blackflies, which you should definitely bring repellent to avoid). Although it is possible to charter a plane, the most common and affordable way to travel is by ferry, available at ports around Lake Superior — although these options will be more limited in 2021, so plan carefully. Trips from Copper Harbor and Houghton take three to six hours each way, and the crossing can be choppy, so pack any medications you may need for seasickness. You can also bring your own boat, an ideal way to explore, if you fill out the proper permits in advance. One of the best activities on the island is backcountry camping, where you can enjoy the beauty of an untamed natural setting with moose, birds and foxes for company. If you prefer a bed, however, there is plenty to see in the shorter hikes and boat rides accessible from the small visitor area in Rock Harbor — but you’ll need to find lodging in advance, as rooms are extremely limited. Guided boat tours around the park can’t be purchased ahead of time, but do factor in time to explore the coast and smaller islands, which are part of the park’s character.
4. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
You won’t find high desert beauty this stark or night skies this starry on the main thoroughfare. Great Basin is the definition of off the beaten path — and worth the trouble to get to. Its isolated charm includes winding mountain hikes, a beautiful limestone cave, ancient bristlecone pine trees and some of the best stargazing in the country. Depending on your taste, you may want to plan a trip during a new moon, when the skies are at their darkest and the cosmos at its most visible; or you might want to plan for a full moon, when park rangers host popular monthly night hikes. The Perseid meteor shower in August and annual astronomy festival in September are also ideal times to visit.
According to NPCA Senior Director of Digital and Editorial Strategy Todd Christopher, who wrote a moving travelogue on Great Basin last year, to fully experience the park, you’ll need to go between June and October, when the upper reaches of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive aren’t closed from snow and ice. To get there, you must be prepared for a four-hour drive or longer over lonesome stretches of road from either of the closest major airports, which are in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. You’ll want to have plenty of food, water and gas, as well as a room or campsite booked well in advance, because options are few and far between. The park offers various campsites but no lodging. Baker, the closest town, with a population last counted at 68, has very limited choices. The next-closest town, Ely, has more options but is an hour away. Ely is also home to a historic railroad that partners with the park and offers a monthly nighttime “star train” tour with ranger talks that is worth checking out. And while tours of Lehman Caves don’t sell out as far in advance as other events, it’s worth grabbing tickets ahead of time, just in case.
5. Big Bend National Park, Texas
From the rocky canyons of the Rio Grande to the spectacular vistas of the Chisos Mountains, this stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert is rich with history and surprisingly varied terrain. Boaters will love paddling the wild and scenic river, birdwatchers will delight at the diversity of species that frequent the area, hikers will enjoy the many options for exploring the desert scenery, and everyone will love a dip in the hot springs. And that’s just during the day — after dark, Big Bend’s skies, like Great Basin’s, are some of the best in the country for stargazing.
Flights and car rentals out of El Paso are easy to arrange, but booking a room can be a challenge. There are campsites in and around the park, but very few lodging options aside from the Chisos Mountain Lodge, which fills up months in advance, especially during peak season from February to April. NPCA Travel Program Manager Jared Dial recommends traveling in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall — especially spring, when wildflowers and ocotillo bring bright colors to the landscape. He also recommends planning a paddling trip on the Rio Grande in advance if you enjoy boating — taking a kayak or canoe through the Santa Elena Canyon is an incredible experience, but requires either finding an outfitter (look for an environmentally responsible one) or securing a permit with the park ahead of time. Whenever you go, Dial also recommends hiking the Lost Mine Trail, with scenery he describes as “mind-blowing,” and visiting the border village of Boquillas Crossing with its rich history and culture. Be sure to also see the ghost town of Terlingua, tour its historic cemetery and mining ruins, and catch live music on the porch of the quirky Starlight Theater.
6. Channel Islands National Park, California
Accessible only by boat or seaplane, these five islands are sometimes called the “Galapagos of North America.” The park serves as critical habitat for a variety of vulnerable and recovering animals, large breeding colonies of birds, and a surprising array of marine wildlife, including sea lions, dolphins, whales and sea stars. According to Dial, it’s the scuba diving that really sets this park apart, as so much of its beauty is underwater. Diving is best done on Santa Barbara, Anacapa or eastern Santa Cruz Islands, or outside the park boundary on Santa Catalina Island. According to the Park Service, windy conditions make diving at Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands inappropriate for anyone not properly trained and equipped.
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Unless you are visiting the park by cruise ship, the easiest option for getting there is likely flying into Los Angeles and renting a car to get to Ventura Harbor, where boats service each of the islands. The hardest part may be deciding which islands to visit and for how long. Dial recommends Anacapa Island as a standout experience where you can see the famed Inspiration Point and hike to the historic Anacapa Island Light Station and where easy trails lead to spectacular views. On Santa Rosa Island, you can see an extremely rare stand of Torrey pine trees, if rare trees are your thing. He also recommends Santa Catalina Island, outside the park boundary, where you can see bison and pitch a tent in the remote Little Harbor Campground. Just remember that any overnight stay on the islands requires that you bring camping gear and all the food and water you’ll need. Wherever you go, keep an eye out for the park’s iconic fox — each island has a slightly different subspecies, and the Park Service spent years bringing them back from the brink of extinction after a variety of threats threw their food chain out of whack. Visitors can learn more about this fascinating and adorable canine at the park.
7. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Who plans a dream trip to North Dakota? Not many people. That’s why this park is for those who have had plenty of more typical vacations and now want something unexpected, with a healthy dose of Old West flavor — in a place that is definitely way out there. When people think of badlands, they often picture the pale sandstone formations of South Dakota, the centerpiece of Badlands National Park and a dramatic spectacle worth exploring. North Dakota’s badlands are a greener, lusher kind of beauty, alive with juniper and hardwood trees and rounded in softer, striated forms, in contrast with South Dakota’s jagged peaks. North Dakota’s eroded formations and their 65 million years of exposed history are surprisingly colorful with red, iron-rich rock known as scoria — a kind of natural brick formed when lightning strikes and prairie fires burn the area’s copious coal deposits. Herds of bison and wild horses roam the landscape, and prairie dogs squeak and chitter from countless colonies along the roads and trails. It’s a wonderful place to see wildlife and immerse yourself in a stunning landscape unlike any other.
The challenge with this park, as with many of the others, is simply getting to its far-flung location and having basic lodging arranged in advance, since nearby towns are small with few amenities, and the park offers only primitive campsites. The park is open year-round, but winters are cold and roads close in bad weather, so traveling in the warmer months provides more options. The closest major airport is in Bismarck, a two-hour drive from the park. The small town of Medora just outside the park’s south unit makes an ideal home base if you can find lodging that suits your needs. Dickinson, the nearest large town, offers more choices but is 35 miles away, which will add an extra hour-plus of driving to each round trip. Badlands National Park is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt, and if you have extra time, it’s worth considering a side trip to see it and the many other attractions in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, too.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's award-winning podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, writes and edits a wide variety of online content, and manages NPCA's style guide.