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Note: All travel is subject to frequently changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state and local advisories before scheduling trips.

Seems everybody is rushing off to our National Parks this summer. Maybe it’s their inherent natural beauty or maybe being cooped up inside for so long  just has us all longing for wide open landscapes. Either way, there’s plenty to keep you busy in the parks, beyond the usual hiking, camping and picture taking. We’ve put together a list of the 100 most memorable National Parks experiences, some of which we’re sure you had no idea existed (we didn’t either!). Plus, don’t forget to mark your calendars for free entrance days at National Parks for 2020, including August 25.

RELATED:  20 things to pack for your next. road trip

Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park, Maine

Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park, Maine

1. That moment you watch the very first rays of sun kiss the United States on a bright fall morning from Cadillac Mountain. Acadia National Park, Maine

2. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in one of the oldest Polynesian cultures by living with a Samoan family in their unique Homestay program. American Samoa National Park, American Samoa

3. That moment you realize you can watch a live bluegrass band 333 feet underground at Cumberland Caverns. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Tennessee

4. The only moment you don’t mind your heavy-footed neighbors waking you up — when you camp with the great American Bison! Badlands National Park, South Dakota

5. The moment you finish your first triathlon and rejoice you weren’t eaten by any alligators along the way! Everglades National Park, Florida

6. Get your first real-life glimpse of Delicate Arch. Arches National Park, Utah

7. Take a dip in the natural hot springs water flowing through a 100-year-old bathhouse. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

8. That time you gave it your best “Dory” to communicate with humpback whales. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

9. The first shivering moment you step foot in an ice cave — and it’s in Wisconsin! Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin

10. The moment you experience the totality of complete darkness as a park ranger switches off the lights while you tour the world’s longest cave. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky


11. When you take your first full moon hike — no flashlights allowed! Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

12. The otherworldly experience you get when you scuba dive a giant kelp forest. Channel Islands National Park, California

13. The moment you find new appreciation for your four-story walkup as you scramble up a 32-foot ladder and crawl through a 12-foot long tunnel to explore the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

14. The moment you find yourself surrounded by a field of colorful wildflowers. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

15. The moment you try to find the right word to describe the particular shade of blue you see when you gaze at America’s deepest lake. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

16. That dazzling moment you find a Giant Green Anemone in a rocky tide pool. Olympic National Park, Washington

17. The first time you get to yell “Mush!” at some adorable sled dogs. Denali National Park, Alaska

18. The moment you get out of the gym to experience the thrill of real-life rock climbing. Joshua Tree National Park, California

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

19. The stomach-dropping moment you encounter your first class 5 rapid between the towering walls of the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

20. The first time you watch horses in the wild and suddenly remember why you used to beg your parents for one as a kid. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

21. The moment you see your first moose! Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

22. The first time you glimpse the glow of lava flowing at night. Hawai’I Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Great Sand Dunes Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

23. The moment you shout KOWABUNGA as you jump on your board and surf down a great sand dune. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

24. That time you go kayaking in a sea of icebergs and get close enough to a glacier to see the striking bands of piercing blue and black. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

25. Shiver your timbers the moment you snorkel through a shipwreck! Biscayne National Park, Florida

26. Or if pirates aren’t your thing, scuba dive the giant freighter shipwrecks of Lake Superior. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

27. The moment you hook a 50-pound King Salmon and reel it in right under the nose of a nearby brown bear on your first fly-fishing adventure. Katmai National Park, Alaska

Carlsbad Caverns, National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

28. When you first hear the quiet vibration that grows into a flurry of wings as you witness millions of bats swarming out from Carlsbad Caverns. (Picture it: about 5,000 bats per minute!) Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

29. Blink and you’ll miss the moment you zipline through the Great Smoky Mountains. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

30. The moment you take the final steps up a steep hike and stop to catch your breath at inspiration point. Channel Islands National Park, California

Great Teton, Wyoming

Great Teton, Wyoming

31. …and then do it again… Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming


Inspiration Point at Bryce Canyon National Park

Inspiration Point at Bryce Canyon National Park

32. And againBryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Inspiration Point at Yosemite National Park

Inspiration Point at Yosemite National Park

33. …and again! Yosemite National Park, California

34. The moment you roll down the windows, take a deep breath, and lean back to enjoy a leisurely 105 miles of Skyline Drive during your best road trip ever. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

35. The moment you get your feet wet in theEverglades (literally!) the first time you try slogging. Everglades National Park, Florida

36. The moment you discover your new favorite song: the symphony of nature. Olympic National Park, Washington

Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park, Montana

37. All the moments you’ll immortalize forever as you perfect your photography technique with nature’s greatest backdrops. Glacier National Park, Montana

38. The proud moment you earn your first Junior Ranger badge. All parks.

39. The moment you crush powder and yield to the local bison as you explore Yellowstone by snowmobile. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

40. The moment when you climb 1,1740 feet to reach McAfee Knob and take in stunning Blue Ridge Mountain views. Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Virginia

41. The moment you make your mother proud and resist the urge to eat the “watermelon snow.” Glacier National Park, Montana

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

42. The moment you touch down by seaplane outside a 19th century fort 70 miles west of Key West. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

43. The moment of discovery as you track down your first EarthCache site on the way to earning Acadia’s official EarthCache certificate. Acadia National Park, Maine

44. The wild feeling that creeps into your bones as you hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail around the rim of Crater Lake. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

45. The moment you encounter your first not-so-wooly mammoth. Waco Mammoth National Monument, Texas

46. The ahhhhhhh-inspiring moment you do your first sun salutation in a Yoga on the Edge course. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

New River Gorge, National River, West Virginia

New River Gorge, National River, West Virginia

47. The moment you complete the Centennial 100 mile hike challenge. New River Gorge National River, West Virginia

48. When you discover small pools full of tadpoles and fairy shrimp in the middle of the Utah desertArches National Park, Utah

49. For those who don’t do oceans, the moment you finally explore a reef — or at least 200-million-year-old fossils of one. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

50. Witness evolution in action in the “Galapagos of North America” as you stumble across 145 species of plants and animals unique to the Channel Islands. Channel Islands National Park, California

51. The victorious moment you lug a free 25-pound bag of pine nuts home and enjoy them on every salad you eat for the next year. Great Basin National Park, Nevada

52. The quiet moment you hear the low hums of the singing sand dunes. Death Valley National Park, California

53. That breathtaking moment you stare in awe at the original “purple mountains majesty.” Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

54. That thrilling moment you feel like a stunt driver as you traverse Canyonlands National Park in a jeep. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

55. The chills that wash over you as you fully appreciate how the Painted Desert got its name. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

56. The moment you rub your eyes and suddenly realize the desert oasis in front of you is real. Joshua Tree National Park, California

57. The quiet serenity you enjoy as you paraglide over the Jackson Hole valley with the dramatic Teton Range framing your view. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

58. The surreal feeling you get as you wander through the stark gray Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the site of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Katmai National Park, Alaska

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park, South Dakota | Flickr CC: tsaiproject

59. When you get your first fantastically clear glimpse of the Milky Way. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

60. The first time you kayak through a lagoon full of upside down jellyfish. Biscayne National Park, Florida

61. The feeling of wonder and vague understanding as you inspect ancient Native American petroglyphs. Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

62. The moment you suddenly feel optimistic about climate change when you hike to a glacier…in Nevada. Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Sequoia National Park, California

Sequoia National Park, California

63. The moment you realize you gather a crowd to hug a tree because it’s the most massive (by volume) tree in the world. Sequoia National Park, California

64. When you can’t help but become a birder as you find yourself delightfully discovering some of the 450 species of bird that migrate through Big Bend National Park. Big Bend National Park, Texas

65. The moment you stoop to try to pick up a brilliantly rainbow-colored log, only it doesn’t budge because it’s almost turned to solid quartz! Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

66. Every single time you get to proudly show off the gorgeous painting of Half Dome on your living room wall with your signature on it, thanks to a park-sponsored art class. Yosemite National Park, California

Hoh Rain Forest at the Olympic National Park, Washington

Hoh Rain Forest at the Olympic National Park, Washington

67. The enchanting moment you envelope yourself in curtains of lush green in one the largest temperate rainforests in the U.S. Olympic National Park, Washington

68. The moment you take “glamping” to a whole new level when you explore Voyagers National Park from the comfort of a houseboat. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

69. The out of this world feeling as you explore the volcanic lands astronauts used to train for missions to the moon. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho

70. The moment you witness a swarm of bright monarch butterflies descending over the sand dunes on their migratory journey to Mexico. Fire Island National Seashore, New York

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

71. That time you went to slide downpristine untouched white powder in shorts and a T-shirt. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

72. The scaly moment you hold an alligator in your own two hands. Everglades National Park, Florida

73. Catch a quiet moment of tranquility as you glide over the water trails under one of the tallest temperate forest canopies in the world. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

74. Wake up on top of the world with floor-to-ceiling 360 panoramic views when you rent a room in a converted fire lookout tower. North Cascades National Park, Washington

The Wave at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The Wave at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

75. The moment you win the lottery…and become one of the lucky 20 people per day authorized to hike out to The Wave. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

76. The moment you tell your gym climbing wall instructor about the time you decided to actually go ice-climbing inside a glacier! Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

77. Get intimate with incredible fall foliage colors as you explore the Great Smoky Mountains from the ground…or from the air via tramway or zipline. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

78. Have the most peaceful morning of your life as you awaken in a grove of old growth redwoods. Redwood National Park, California

79. The moment you experience your own “close encounter” after climbing to the top of Devil’s Tower. Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming

80. Feel like you’re crawling through your mother’s paperweight geode as you explore life-sized crystals in California’s Crystal Ice Cave. Lava Beds National Monument, California

81. Get a bit of desert deja vu as you kayak through the colorful sandstone cliffs and caves of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

82. When you glimpse an ocean of fog rolling in over Shenandoah Valley, leaving your view dotted with golden mountain peak islands. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park, Utah

83. The moment you step in your first dinosaur track. Zion National Park, Utah

84. The moment you bond with your dog as he hikes his first National Park trail! Many parks.

85. The epic moment you stand on top of the Lone Star State and add your name to the Guadalupe Peak register. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

86. The moment you discover the uniquely intricate designs nature carves in caves deep below the earth, from popcorn and dogtooth, to frostwork and boxwork. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Horsetail Falls Yosemite National Park

Horsetail Falls Yosemite National Park

87. The moment you pinch yourself to make sure you haven’t been hiking too long as you witness the incredible gold glow of Horsetail Falls. Yosemite National Park, California

88. The moment when an inquisitive turtle swims up beside you as you explore St. John’s underwater snorkeling trail. Virgin Islands National Park, US Virgin Islands

89. Unlike any cave you’ve ever seen, you’ll never forget the slick black walls of lava tubes which serve as lava highways during eruptions. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

90. That moment you get your wake-up call to rush out and see the Northern Lights. Denali NationalPark, Alaska

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

91. The new appreciation you’ll feel for electricity after you go on a twilight tour through Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

92. The incredible sense of accomplishment you get as you summit Mount Washington, the highest point on your Appalachian Trail journey. Appalachian National Scenic Trail, New Hampshire

93. The moment you crane your neck to see the springtime blooms at the top of a 40-foot Saguaro Cacti. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

94. The lucky moment you get to witness the 200-foot eruption of Yellowstone’s less predictable Grand Geyser. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Multnomah Falls at Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon

Multnomah Falls at Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon

95. The moment your Pinterest travel board doesn’t do justice when you catch your first glimpse of Multnomah Falls. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon

96. The moment you pinch yourself to confirm you haven’t been transported to the Island of Dr. Moreau when you discover fossils of a beardog or those of a miniature rhino. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska

97. The sense of vertigo as you look out from chasm viewpoint and the earth drops 2,000 feet below you. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

98. All the fantastic selfies you’ll take with the vibrant stacked faces on Alaska’s Totem Poles. Sitka National Historic Park, Alaska

Big Bend National Park South Rim Trail

Big Bend National Park South Rim Trail | Flickr CC: Adam Baker

99. When you stand at what feels like the edge of the world and stare out across Texas into Mexico, unsure of where one stops and the next begins. Big Bend National Park, Texas

100. The rewarding experience you get when you volunteer for your National Parks and giving back to this beautiful land. Available in all parks!

How many of these experiences have you tried? Any favorites from the list? Any to add? Let us know in the comments!

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Tagged: California, Family time, National Parks, Top 10 Lists

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Emily Howard

Emily Howard

Emily is a California-bred, Chicago-based travel, writing, and cooking enthusiast. When she’s not sampling the local street food on the road, she’s trying to re-invent it back at home. She also helps out around Orbitz as a Strategic Account Manager.
Emily Howard

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6 thoughts on “100 National Parks experiences you must try”

  1. This presentation is very inviting! Amazing to be reminded of the incredible beauty we have here in our own country- the pictures and the 100 notes of interest are spectacular!! So fun- so creative- cannot wait to experience your suggestions.

  2. I remember going to some of these place we went to about 14 of these great parks I didn’t know there was so many more we could have seen. But I have wonderful pictures and remember the beautiful place Also caves are really nice to see each one is so different you did a really nice job of showing the people what a beautiful world we live in. thank you for showing it to me.


    Here’re the remainder my comments on experiences about the first through 42nd of the list of activities and experiences to find in NPS units.

    01. Back in 1969, watching the sunrise in Arcadia NP was on my list of things to do on my last trip to Maine before I went west to start my PhD program at the University of Washington (AKA, UDUB). It was truly spectacular and is equal in my experience to watching the sunrise over the Pacific from the Marine Parade in Napier, New Zealand.

    04. Camping with the bison was especially an experience for us, because that’s where we slept the night my third day driving from DC to UDUB to start graduate school. Badlands was still a National Monument at the time and we found a wide place on the highway that we thought was a nominal rest area and wound up with a huge parade of wildlife through the area where we were parked. Very KEWL!

    07. Did you see CBS Sunday Morning today? They had a fairly lengthy story about Hot Springs NP, including that only one of the bathhouses is still providing baths. But, another former bathhouse has been converted to a brewery and sells its product right there on the spot. Warning for people who prefer their beer in cans, this is a craft brewery and they don’t do cans!

    09. The ice cave in Apostle Islands NL is truly a shivering experience. As a precaution, I wore long pants (blue jeans) and a sweatshirt . That was not sufficient. Were I to go there again, you can bet I’ll be wearing multiple layers and the outer one will be a parka covering up my Mountain Hardware fleece jacket and my sweatshirt. Under the jeans will be my LL Bean thermals!

    12. The kelp forest in the Channel Islands NP is at least equaled by the kelp forest offshore of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula which is hard to dive on because the water is so rough. Scuba divers are not often seen there!

    14. I first became aware of Mount Rainier’s wildflowers when I was about 9 yo and we went on a family trip for the day to Mount Rainier NP. And, except for the wildflowers in the southern California deserts (Joshua Tree NP, Mojave P, and Death Valley NP), Mount Rainier is tops in my mind. Its great advantage over the southern California deserts is that its flowers are there seasonally every year, not so much in SoCal where we’re dependent on fall and early winter storms to deliver water to the deserts. Fortunately, often enough we have an El Niño as we do this year!

    15. Crater Lake NP is the bluest lake you’ll ever see. The only way for water drops to get out of the lake is to evaporate. If you come to Crater Lake NP and the sky is not blue as you approach the road up to the Lake, I suggest taking a side trip to the Oregon Caves NM&P where inclement weather won’t wreck your visit. Whenever I go north on I-5 through Medford and Grants Pass, if the weather’s good, I take a lateral arabesque. Next time I do this it will be trip number 17 to the Lake.

    16. I did find a Giant Green Anemone in a tidal pool with a bunch of its brothers and sisters north of Kalaloch on the Olympic NP coast in Washington when I was about 10. We also found three glass floats that had broken loose from a fisherman’s net in the North Pacific.

    18. Near Joshua Tree NP, a very popular dark orange T-shirt is available. On the front, it says, “Go climb a rock!” in big white letters. And, several times, I’ve seen people climbing the rocks there and ALL of them are wearing one of those T-shirts. It’s definitely a fun sport and one of the first times I went to Joshua Tree, I climbed to the top of one of the smaller rocks, under supervision!

    19. When I got to go through the Grand Canyon on a float trip, the very most impressive thing was the class 5 rapids which I’d never experienced before. And, then we did it again. Altogether over 7 days we did a bunch of rapids so that I was largely soaked through for three days of the trip. However, I did capture a Phantom Ranch kerchief!

    21. Seeing a moose for the first time was spectacular, especially because it was a female with a baby. Later that day, we saw a male moose complete with a serious set of antlers.

    25. Snorkeling in Biscayne NP, even before it was designated a park, was spectacular, not just for the wrecks which were exceptionally cool, but for the fish we’d never seen before up in Puget Sound.

    27. You can also catch several different species of salmon, including Kings, in Puget Sound off San Juan Island NHP, as well as in a lot of other places. Being able to catch spectacular fish in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca was one of the highlights of growing up in the Puget Sound area.

    28. Hearing the big whoosh coming as gazillions of bats head for the exits of the caves at Carlsbad Caverns NP was one of the highlights of our touring that day. We were warned by the rangers and went outside ourselves to be able to take pictures of the bats heading out to catch their dinner of various kinds of bugs outside the Caverns. Totally awesome!

    29. Ziplining in Great Smoky Mountains NP is an experience not to be missed and we almost did! But, we were the very last people in line when they were about to close for the evening since the 4th of July parade was about to happen in Gatlinburg.

    31 and 33. Anyplace named Inspiration Point deserves a visit. The one in Grand Teton NP is well worth it and, in my view, comes in a very close second to Inspiration Point in Yosemite NP.

    34. Every fall from 1960 through 1965, my college buds and I went up to Shenandoah NP to check out the fall foliage. And, it gets the prize for being handy. During the latter part of the 1960s, I flew to Maine a number of times and had a chance to see the New England foliage from the air. It was good, but not as good as Shenandoah!

    35. Slogging through the Everglades NP was impressive for two reasons: the golden silk spiders all along the roads and the fact that the Park had hydroponic tomato fields within its boundaries (it turned out they were grandfathered in because they had been there long before the Everglades were designated a NP in the mid-1930s). I hadn’t gotten upclose and personal with any alligators at the point I first discovered the tomato fields, but I did that a few years later (see item 72).

    36. You’ll never know what quiet is until you’re standing in a rainforest such as Upper Hoh in Olympic NP and the things you’ll hear will amaze you. As I mentioned in item 67 I saw what a real temperate climate rainforest was like and also heard it at the same time.

    37. Altogether, on my first visit to Glacer NP, I took over 200 photographs and they are as varied as the scenery. It was astounding to me that I was able to visit places my Mom had visited with her Mom and three sisters back in the 1930s after all the sisters had graduated high school. When I showed her the photographs, she was amazed they were all in color because when they’d visited Glacier, they had only a B/W camera. So, prints of some of the color pictures replaced those very old B/W pictures.

    38. I earned my first Junior Ranger Badge at the Santa Monica Mountains NRA by answering the questions the rangers posed when they opened the Anthony Beilenson VC about 4 years ago. I earned my most recent one when the SaMo rangers participated in the recent NPS exhibit in Pasadena, CA, as part of the Tournament of Roses for 2015-16 and it’s stuck onto one of the support bars of my walker!

    41. Not a chance that I will NEVER eat “watermelon snow” or any other colored or flavored snow.



  4. Cumberland Caverns is actually not a part of Cumberland Gap Historical Park, it’s about 4 hours away in McMinnville, still a cool experience but not a National Park experience.

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