10 Unique Ways to Experience National Parks

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The National Park System was established in 1916 and since then has grown to include 61 different plots of protected land equaling more than 85 million acres. These parks are some of the best displays of nature and wildlife in the country. While it’s easy enough to drive through many of them, there are plenty of ways to kick it up a notch and have a more intimate and adventurous experience.

Snorkeling in Dry Tortugas

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Dry Tortugas National Park near Key West in Florida is a marine sanctuary full of crystal-clear waters and an abundance of tropical fish, coral, and other aquatic wonders. Whether you’re an expert or a beginner, snorkeling in its shallow waters is an experience much more rewarding than can be had from the seat of a car. The park provides complimentary snorkel gear including fins and a mask for visitors to take full advantage of the marine beauty.

Rafting in the Grand Canyon

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The mighty Colorado River is one of the most iconic waterways of the West, flowing through Grand Canyon National Park on its way down from the Rocky Mountains. For the adventurous traveler, it offers an incomparable vantage point of the deep canyon it helped create. Choose from one of the many river tour companies offering trips that range in length from three to 18 days and see a new side of one of America’s most famous natural landmarks.

Orienteering in Catoctin

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If you love the rush of proving your survival skills, Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland is an excellent spot to try your hand at orienteering. Though not a National Park, it is maintained by the National Park Service and provides ample opportunities to get out and explore. Navigate the unfamiliar terrain using your map and compass instead of following clearly-marked trails or roads. Catoctin has two public courses available for both beginner and expert level navigators and offers ranger-led classes for those looking to learn the skill.

Horseback Riding in Yellowstone

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Yellowstone National Park is one of the best locations to experience the Wild West in the days before European settlement. And what better way to transport yourself back in time than with a horseback ride through the winding hills? Go for only a couple of hours or stay in the backcountry for a few days. Climb on your steed and let the tour guide you from the park into the national forest lands past the borders for a truly unique experience.

Spelunking in Mammoth Cave

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Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is home to the world’s longest cave system with more than 400 miles of mapped passageways. With so many caves to explore, there are tours provided by the park service to suit all levels of adventurers. Feel like a real explorer in a cave illuminated only by your lantern or go beginner spelunking in a part of the cave with electric lighting and less strenuous footpaths.

Rock Climbing in Pinnacles

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Pinnacles National Park near the Bay Area of California is a climber’s delight — though it may be a little more than what traditional climbers expect. This natural landscape showcases what happens when volcanoes and earthquakes collide, and the end result is pretty spectacular. Filled with craggy spires and cliffs, this national park is perfect for climbers looking for variety. Get in touch with the terrain by taking a rock climbing course and learn just how unique Pinnacles is compared to the typical granite rocks that most climbers are used to.

Hot Air Ballooning in Arches

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The red rocks and spires of Arches National Park in Moab, Utah are a familiar sight in photographs behind campers and hikers. The park is well known for its climbing, hiking, and biking opportunities, but why not see a different side of it? Gaze down at the arches from a hot air balloon ride and see what it would feel like to be a bird of the desert, soaring over the red spires and appreciating them from a new point of view.

Stargazing in Death Valley

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Known as the holder of the record for North America's highest temperature ever, Death Valley is not the hot and barren wasteland it's often made out to be. Stretching across 3.4 million acres, 90% of which is complete undeveloped wilderness, this park is the perfect place to watch the heavens. The park comes alive at night, when temperatures cool and negligible light pollution disrupts the view. Plus, the park is a designated Gold International Dark Sky Park, making it a favorite for anyone hoping to watch meteor showers or just appreciate unobstructed views of the Milky Way. Simple binoculars are all you need to participate in stargazing at this park.  

Sandboarding in the Great Sand Dunes

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There aren’t many places in the world with enough sand to allow surfing, but this Colorado gem is one of them. The Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado can be explored in many ways, but sandboarding is arguably the most unique. Head out from the visitor center in whatever direction you wish, hike up a dune, and then sandboard your way down. Once you get warmed up on the smaller dunes, head to the Star Dune between April and October to slide down the nearly 750-foot formation.

Surfing in Kenai Fjords

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The state of Alaska is teeming with national parks and natural beauty, and Kenai Fjords National Park is no exception. A location known for its arctic marine life and freezing waters, it may be surprising to hear that it’s also a surfing destination. The spot where the Gulf of Alaska meets Bear Glacier Lagoon enjoys excellent surf conditions, though traveling here is not for a novice. Get an up-close look at Kenai from the water and enjoy prime surfing without the crowds of more tropical locations.

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