In the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau wrote of the need for “little oases of wilderness in the desert of our civilization.” Although Yellowstone—the world’s first national park—wouldn’t be established for decades, the author could have hardly captured our need for America’s 59 national parks more vividly and succinctly. Somehow, it’s all too easy to forget the splendor in our own backyard. There’s no better time than summer to discover or reacquaint ourselves with these primordial landscapes strewn with geological wonders, from green-tufted valleys to rocky pinnacles. This guide reveals five, from California to Maine, in all of their glory.
Joshua Tree National Park
The desert is hot this time of year—but then again, the desert is supposed to be hot, and during the off-season, Joshua Tree (74485 National Park Dr., Twentynine Palms; 760-367-5500; seven-day pass, $25 a vehicle) doesn’t dissemble. In summer, you can spend the early mornings and evenings traversing its otherworldly grounds.
The park’s namesake tree sprouts from fields of sand like a piece of coral up from the ocean: a sculptural and surprising hub for other forms of life. You may find a ladder-backed woodpecker nesting in its trunk, a yucca moth fluttering around its blooms or a lizard crawling about its roots. Frequent pullovers make it easy to admire the trees on your way to one of the highest drive-to sites in the desert, Keys View, which overlooks Coachella Valley and Palm Springs. Or head to the Hidden Valley to walk among massive Jenga-like rocks. The one-mile nature loop snaking out from the picnic area is doable with kids.
In the afternoon, consider wandering the towns of Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, which cling to the park’s northern border. To blend in with the locals, you can outfit yourself in boho chic at Promised Land (55838 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Yucca Valley; 760-853-0252). Los Angeles transplant Anessa Woods (co-owner along with Paul Fogt) gives friendly advice to shoppers browsing the shop’s selection of vintage leather belts or Ferragamo booties. Continue down the road for more shops, or if you’re satisfied with your new duds, check out the area’s blossoming desert-influenced art scene. At Joshua Tree Art Gallery (61607-B Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree; 760-366-3636), you may find the work of Barbara Spiller, whose encaustic monoprints depict the desert floor. Down a slim dirt road, you’ll find trays, tires and trash that have been transformed into Dadaesque sculptures at the outdoor Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art (63030 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree; admission, free). And don’t miss the tiny, unmanned World Famous Crochet Museum (61855 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree; admission, free), open 24/7. Just big enough for two, this lime green curiosity is packed with crocheted oddities, from burritos to teacups.
Summer is peak stargazing season at Joshua Tree. On moonless nights you can spot the Milky Way and shimmering global clusters—thousands of stars pulled together by gravity into a spherical form. For a personalized tour, book with Coyote Telescope Tours (844-648-3759; tours, from $140 a group). Owner Darryl Hammonds leads expeditions to the northeastern border of the park, where there’s little light pollution, and points out newborn stars from the Swan Nebula.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Volcanic rocks crashed together 1.7 billion years ago to create the core of the humbling crests of the range that now forms Rocky Mountain National Park (1000 U.S. Hwy. 36, Estes Park; 970-586-1206; seven-day pass, $30 a vehicle). Here it’s all about heroic proportions: Visitors can walk the jagged Continental Divide and ascend to elevations that cool the landscape until it resembles the Alaskan Arctic.
Estes Park, celebrating its centennial in 2017, makes for a convenient base, and since shuttles usher travelers between the town and the park, you can leave the car behind for some activities. Consider grabbing a bite before you go. Made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls typically sell out by the time Cinnamon’s Bakery (920 W. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park; 970-480-1501; pastries for two, $6) closes at 10 a.m., while down the road, The Taffy Shop (121 W. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park; 970-586-4548) sells old-fashioned candy that you can carry with you for an energy boost on hikes.
Inside the park, dozens of waterfalls and alpine pools deck the mountains. Lily Lake offers a fishing pier and stroller access, making it a great pick for the whole family. The Trail Ridge Road, a scenic route that bisects the park, curves upward to more than 12,000 feet high, pushing past the tree line as ponderosa pines give way to alpine tundra. It’s the most elevated highway in the U.S., and temperatures at the top often dip 20 to 30 degrees below the temperature in Estes Park.
After a day of exploring, you’ll want to unwind. Triumphant mountaineers sitting on the patio can keep their gaze on the Rockies while sipping craft cocktails at Elkins Distilling Co. (1825 N. Lake Ave., Estes Park; 970-480-1848; drinks for two, from $15).
Shenandoah National Park
Tens of thousands of animals make their homes among the hollows and hollers of this southern stretch of Appalachia. Most travelers cross the park by way of Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. But no visit to Shenandoah (3655 U.S. Hwy. 211 E., Luray; 540-999-3500; seven-day pass, $25 a vehicle) is complete without pulling over for an unencumbered look at its more than 500 miles of trails. The park comes alive in summer, when yellow touch-me-nots bloom by its streams and trailside bluet flowers cheer on passersby.
Heading south, the path to Marys Rock begins at mile 31.6 of the drive. Travelers can sample the Appalachian Trail on their way to the rock’s summit, where the valley gracefully billows out below. A little farther down, you can stop at Thorofare Mountain Overlook for views of Old Rag Mountain and Hogback Mountain. President Herbert Hoover was so taken with Shenandoah’s scenery that he built Rapidan Camp (877-444-6777; admission, $10), his summer retreat, here. Anyone can hike to the grounds, but history buffs may want to call ahead to reserve a ranger-led tour of the property, which became a refuge for Hoover during the Depression.
If you’re staying around Harrisonburg, you can load up on sandwiches and snacks at Heritage Bakery & Café (212 S. Main St., Harrisonburg; 540-564-1200; lunch for two, $20*) before hitting the road. Or stop by afterward to reward yourself with gigantic molasses cookies and Italian macaroons.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee and North Carolina
America’s most visited national park is an extravagant version of its slightly northern counterpart, Shenandoah. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park (1420 Little River Rd., Gatlinburg, TN; 856-436-1200; admission, free), the Appalachians are wilder, grander and shrouded in mist. Fewer roads pass through the park, although with 848 miles of trails, there are plenty of options for experiencing its forests and wetlands.
More than two million people each year visit Cades Cove, a wide valley with ample wildlife on the Tennessee side of the park. The Cherokee lived here until Europeans built settlements, and three churches, several log cabins, a working mill and other 18th- and 19th-century structures from those villages still stand. Near the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the park as well as Tennessee. It’s a half-mile walk to the observation tower atop the mountain, and on clear days you can see out over hemlocks and hills for 100 miles. On the North Carolina side, travelers looking for shade and calm can hike the canopied Oconaluftee River Trail, which ends at a gathering of historic buildings.
Stay on theme with dinner at The Park Grill (1110 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN; 856-436-2300; dinner for two, $50). Servers dress as park rangers and carry plates loaded down with pecan chicken and slow-roasted ribs. Don’t leave the area without picking up a piece of Appalachia to call your own at Pigeon River Pottery (175 Old Mill Ave., Pigeon Forge, TN; 865-453-1104). Many of the handcrafted pieces are embellished with dogwood and other inspiration from the mountains.
Acadia National Park
New England’s only national park, Acadia (20 McFarland Hill Dr., Bar Harbor; 207-288-3388; seven-day pass, $25 a vehicle), extends across almost half of Maine’s Mount Desert Island. During the 1880s, the Vanderbilts, Astors and other prominent families established cottages here. Today, thanks to mostly private donations, many of the island’s 69,000 acres of forests, lakes and mountains are open to everyone.
Summer days in Acadia are long and popular, so try to catch the park’s iconic spots before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m., when the crowds lessen. You can use Acadia’s free shuttle bus, the Island Explorer (207-667-5796), to get around. In the early 1900s, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had 45 miles of carriage roads constructed in the park, and they’re now the main thoroughfares for hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
Rise early to watch dawn break from atop Cadillac Mountain, the tallest summit along the North Atlantic seaboard. If you take the Cadillac North Ridge Trail, it’s about an hour-and-a-half hike to the top, but plan on stops so you can snap photos of Eagle Lake to the west and Dorr Mountain to the east. Or, for less frequented treks, consider Bald Peak, Parkman Mountain or Norumbega instead. Paths along these three mountains cut through Acadia’s quiet gullies and evergreen thickets.
In the afternoon, a more-than-century-old tradition of tea on the lawn endures at Jordan Pond House (207-276-3316; afternoon tea for two, $40). Once you’ve had your fill of popovers smothered in Maine strawberry jam, you can make your way to the southwest corner of the park to bookend the day with another spectacular view. Built in 1858, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse (207-244-9753) is still active and has no public access, but that doesn’t deter visitors from circling at sunset, camera at the ready, for one more shot of an American touchstone.
*Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.