Reader Participation Day: Help Us Name the Best Adventures In the National Park System, Lower 48 Edition

Climbing the Grand Teton, which often entails a night spent in the camp on the mountain's Lower Saddle, is one of the best adventures in the National Park System in the Lower 48. NPS photo.

What are the best adventures in the National Park System in the Lower 48? For sure, three weeks floating the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park has to be one, and climbing the Grand Teton in its namesake park is another. But then what?

To help start this list, here are five great adventures in no specific order:

1. Colorado River trip, Grand Canyon National Park

2. Climbing the Grand Teton, Grand Teton National Park

3. Climbing El Capitan, Yosemite National Park

4. End-to-end on the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian National Scenic Trail

5. Wild cave tour, Mammoth Cave National Park

What else, travelers? Are there 50 great adventures? 100?


Hiking up to Vernal Falls in Yosemite Nt.Pk.

Trekking up to Sperry Chalet in Glacier NP and then day hiking it out to Sperry Glacier gets my vote!

Mule ride into Grand Canyon, Mist Trail at Yosemite and biking the carriage trails at Acadia are three great family adventures.

Accidentally taking the NSA Employees Only exit off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Believe me - an experience you'll not soon forget!

Hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park.

Hiking rim-to-rim across the Grand Canyon, Wall Street in Bryce, wild cave tour at Oregon Caves, Petroglyph trail at Mesa Verde.....

For those who want a great adventure, but are not up to strenous, I love the Glacier Park Lake McDonald's Booze Cruise. Every evening, there is a boat tour on Lake McDonald without a tour guide and an ongoing commentary. You go on board, pick a beverage from their small selection bar, listen to lovely music and soak up the scenery and the sunset. The best happy hour I have ever spent.

Kayaking in Channel Islands NP, windsurfing at Padre Island National Seashore, and rock climbing in Joshua Tree NP

Hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park

Finding oneself nose to nose with a buffalo at Yellowstone.

Any trail on Isle Royale NP or a horsepack trip up Lamar River in Yellowstone which we just did last month awesome!!

Summiting Longs Peak 14 Or any 14er except evans for that matter
Zion Full Length of Narrows of the Virgin in one day
Appalachian trail Any or all of it.
Grand Canyon Camping at Crazy Jug Or Rim to Rim Mules( I could go on)
Yosemite Falls When the park flooding is low enough to open

you need to hike to angels landing or at least scouts lookout

There are many that could fit into this category; but, the one that stands out the most is the overnight mule trip into the Grand Canyon, having enough time before dinner to take a short hike before dinner, and spending the night at Phantom Ranch.

Is there some reason that you limited this to the lower 48?

Why just the Lower 48? Alaska and Hawaii deserve a category of their own, don't you think?;-)

I had planned a hike down the cliffs at Kalaupapa NHP in Hawaii but my business trip was cancelled at the last minute. It's still on my to-do list and I'm sure it will make the Alaska-Hawaii version of this exercise.

Camping on an island in the BWWCA - Boundary Waters Wildnerness Camping - in Northern Minnesota going out of Grand Marais off the Gunflint Trail. Even better is camping off Cache Bay in Canada.

Great choice, Catherine. But, alas, BWWCA is not in the National Park System....though perhaps it should be!

How about the Subway in Zion?


Or hiking down Tenaya Canyon in Yosemite?


Canoeing the Green River through Canyonlands National Park. It's my all time number one vacation.

Hiking the Panorama Trail in Yosemite

Ok, on a serious note, I'd put snorkeling at Dry Tortugas NP, around Fort Jefferson and amidst the surrounding reefs, barrier islands, and shipwrecks. Really makes you have second thoughts about your position on the food chain.

4-wheeling on the north rim of Grand Canyon out to Point Sublime. Snowshoeing at Crater Lake. Early morning walk up to Mount Rushmore. Nothing like having a little of those great places all to yourself.

Hiking in the rain forest in Olympic National Park - awesome!!!

Lots of great nominees here. I tried to come up with some other not-yet-mentioned adventures that are either at some less-famous Parks or are less-obvious adventures than, say, climbing Mt. Rainier or climbing Mt. McKinley in Sequoia NP:
- white-water rafting in Gauley National Recreation Area on an autumn dam-release day
- standing on the "front lines" at re-enactment weekend at Cedar Creek & Bell Grove NHP (where you can fell the cannon shots rattle your bones)
- bicycling the C&O Canal NHP towpath from Cumberland to Georgetown
- climbing the big dune barefoot and by moonlight at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
- driving the "Apache Trail" (Arizona - 88) to Tonto National Monument for the Upper Cliff Dwelling Tour
- Rock Harbor to Windigo through-hike at Isle Royale National Park
- touring the East Coast's largest ghost town (and braving the East Coast's fiercest mosquitoes) at Portsmouth Village in Cape Lookout National Seashore (perhaps the only location in the National Park System that requires a ferry trip just to get to the ferry that takes you there)

Great topic, Kurt; lots of fine suggestions! I especially like the examples from the areas east of the Rockies that I'm not familiar with. Amoung those previously mentioned, my western favorites are the Green River paddle, the Zion slots, and anywhere off the tourist trails in Grand Canyon.

Here's a few of the best adventures in our Northwest parks:

Mount Rainier's summit is not for everyone, but if that sort of thing appeals, avoid the south side conga-line and try the longer Emmons route via Camp Schurman, where only one-third as many permits are issued. Any fit, patient backpacker might get more pleasure encircling 'The Mountain' on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail. Mouthwatering photos at:

Olympic National Park has amazing variety, but a unique adventure is following the longest roadless stretches of the west coast remaining in the lower 48:
If traversing day after day along alpine ridges twenty miles from the nearest road sounds like fun, check out this general overview of Olympic's high routes:

Most of the Cascades, a range strangely named for it's lowest point, are notoriously crumbly, as are the Olympics. The best rock climbing in Washington is in lightly visited North Cascades National Park. Think Teton relief and steepness with jungle approaches and serious glaciers:
If that's too tame, try it in February:

Here's one that's not so strenuous -- watching Grand Geyser in Yellowstone. I've sat and waited for it for four hours before and never regretted a moment.

Oh - and snorkeling the underwater nature trail at Buck Island Reef National Monument in the Virgin Islands. When a memory sticks with you for 30 years, it's a good one.

A few experiences come immediately to mind:

(1) Signing out for and hiking the 1 mile ledge trail behind Curry Village to the top of Glacier Point.

(2) Hiking to the top of an unnamed peak on the ridge above Fletcher Lake in Yosemite National Park to see Mt. McClure and the Lyell glacier through the saddle between Parsons' Peak and Amelia Earhart Peak and then look down to see ice on Ireland Lake.

(3) Hiking to Cascade Pass in North Cascades National Park

(4) Hiking to the top of Lady Mountain in Zion National Park when the trail to the top was still open to the public. Other hikes in Zion include the East and West Rim Trails, the Subway, and the Kolob Arch.

(5) Experiencing Carlsbad Caverns for ourselves by visiting the Natural Entrance in the dead of winter.

(6) Hiking to the top of Guadalupe Mountain while winter camping at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

(7) Star gazing with telescopes and binoculars while staying out all night at Discovery Point at Crater Lake National Park.

(8) Hiking quickly from Yosemite Valley to the top of Half Dome during the summer of 1970 with the intent to take photos of Yosemite Valley by night (using my first tripod, purchased from Best Studios) and then returning by the light of a full moon, with no need to use a flash light. There were no crowds on the cables at that time.

Some that have not been mention:
1) Rock climbing on El Capitan at Yosemite
2) Canoeing in Conagree NP
3) BASE Jumping from The New River Gorge Bridge during Bridge Day
4) Wind Surfing at Cape Hatteras
5) Kayaking in Apostle Islands
6) Snow shoeing or cross county sking in Yellowstone
7) 4X4 driving in Canyonlands NP

You know, everything is relative. For my wife and I, two seniors from FLORIDA, driving in and out of Mesa Verde is all the adventure we need. Same goes for driving the Rim Road in the Colorado NM. I also agree with Meg, watching Grand or Great Fountain Geysers put on their show is exhilarating .

Some of my favorite hikes: Mist Trail at Yosemite, Delicate Arch at Arches and Hidden Lake at Glacier. However, my favorite national park memory is walking around Biscuit Basin at Yellowstone after an October snow. My husband and I were the only people in sight; steam was rising up through the snow and there was a small herd of elk nearby. Virtually the only sound was that of the bull elk bugling to the females. It was as if we had stepped back in time. Beautiful!

Best adventures don't have to be big tours for the experienced wilderness expert:
One of my best moments in a National Park was my first sunrise in a desert environment ever. It was a morning in early May in the Jumbo Rocks area of Joshua Tree NP (back then as Joshua Tree NM). The night before, with the milky way and all the other stars as bright as it can only be seen in a desert, was great. The morning was spectacular. As long as the sun was below the horizon the indirect light was blue and the air was dry and clear. The morning light coming over the horizon with the silhouettes of the bizarre Joshua Trees was magic. Then the direct sun light slowly set the red rounded rocks on fire.

But they can be:
I'd like to do the "wilderness waterway" in Everglades National Park by canoe sometimes. Or a canoe trip in Voyageurs NP.

Hiking into Bumpass Hell (thermal basin at Lassen Volcanic NP) by moonlight under the full moon last month. Seemed like I was the only person in the entire park. Eerie and wonderful, an experience I won't forget.