As the country and world begin to reopen, so too do our national parks. Getting some fresh air after being cooped up for months is invaluable, and the national parks are open to—and belong to—all of us, beckoning adventurers from around the world.
Here are a few of our favorite can’t-miss activities in five iconic national parks across the country.
Hike to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park
While many parkgoers choose to appreciate Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome from afar, a limited number of lucky hikers get to set foot on the rock face itself each day from late May to early October—the hike is protected by a permit system. Each March, would-be hikers sign up for the Half Dome permit lottery, hoping to be one of the chosen few who are allowed to summit.
The Half Dome Trail leads trekkers to the top of the dome on a 14- to 16-mile round-trip course, taking around 12 hours to complete. On the way up, the trail wends past gorgeous waterfalls, flattens out for a brief reprieve in Little Yosemite Valley, and then switchbacks up to the base of the dome.
The last quarter-mile of the hike spikes sharply upward, where braided metal cables needle up the spine of Half Dome, enabling hikers to make the final ascent without technical rock climbing equipment. It’s certainly not an excursion for the faint of heart, or the acrophobic.
Relax in secret hot springs in Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park, perched atop the Yellowstone Caldera, brims with more than 10,000 boiling mud pots, steam vents, colorful hot springs, and geysers that rocket through the air like uncorked champagne.
Although Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world, and more than half of the world’s total geothermal areas, they don’t add much in the way of aquatic recreation. It’s illegal to bathe in hot springs within the park’s boundaries.
However, there is one spot within the park you can freely soak (rangers allow swimming in bodies of water fed by runoff from hydrothermal features). Just across the Wyoming-Montana border, near the park’s northern entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs, the hydrothermal Boiling River meets the refreshingly cold waters of the Gardner River. This mix of temperatures is just right for a long soak to soothe weary muscles. Tucked in the northwest corner of the park, the hot springs feel a bit like a secret.
Haleakalā means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian. According to Hawaiian lore, the demigod Maui trapped the sun atop Haleakalā in order to make the day longer, creating the effect of a longer-than-usual sunrise.
A massive volcanic crater surrounded by a cinder desert landscape, Haleakalā is the highest point on Maui at 10,023 feet above sea level. The dormant volcano last blew its top roughly 500 years ago. With a lack of light or environmental pollution, it’s an ideal vantage point to witness the sun crest above the horizon. Tour outlets offer buses to the top, or reserve your own spot to drive to the top by visiting the park’s website.
Tour historic cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde
Located 60 miles southwest of Telluride, Mesa Verde is one of the most unusual national parks in the entire country—the sole park dedicated to the activity of humans. The park protects nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, built by the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived there for more than 700 years, from roughly 600 to 1300 CE. It’s the largest archaeological preserve in the United States.
The marvel is that these archaeological sites aren’t preserved under glass to be observed from a distance—visitors are encouraged to explore the sites on ranger-guided tours and learn firsthand how the Ancestral Pueblo people transitioned from semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers to a flourishing agrarian society.
See a black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains
One of the most exhilarating parts of venturing into the wilderness is the chance to see wildlife. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, you’d be hard-pressed to spend a long weekend and not catch a glimpse of one of the park’s most famous residents: the black bear. The Smokies are home to a population of nearly 1,500 of them.
Bears are best spotted at dawn and dusk, their most active hours. Hike to Laurel Falls, where you may catch a bear boulder-hopping in the riverbed beneath the 80-foot waterfall, or take a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail through old-growth forest, where you may spot them high up among the trees. Finish the day by catching the sunset atop Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet—you may spot a mama bear and her cubs just off the trail.
This article first appeared in the Summer/Fall 2019 Issue of Inspirato Magazine—it’s been heavily edited for length and to reflect current park openings during the COVID-19 pandemic.