There is something truly profound about seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time… or watching Old Faithful erupt… or seeing Half Dome lit up at sunset. We have spent the past 12 years exploring our country through the parks and had some truly exceptional moments. These are our favorite National Park experiences.
While each of the 400+ units of the National Park Service has something unique to offer, some of the things you can do simply transcend from “Ooh, that’s something you need to do when you go!” to “That was life-changing and I will keep telling this story my entire life.”
We have had several of those moments in our travels and these are the ones we keep talking about years later.
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Visiting the Josie Morris Cabin
Dinosaur National Monument, Utah
Unlike some of the National Park experiences below, this doesn’t take a lot of effort to do or significant prior planning. Just head out the Cub Creek Road from the Quarry Visitor Center until the road ends. There, you will find the cabin.
The cabin is just a small homesteader’s cabin, built by hand along Cub Creek at the base of a box canyon. It’s not the building, but rather it’s the story of this amazing woman that inspires.
Josie Morris was a tough, independent woman who lived life on her own terms. She married five times, divorcing four times. After her last divorce, she didn’t have the money to buy a home, so she homesteaded. She lived and worked that land for 50 years as a rancher.
In that time, she garnered a reputation as a tough, hard-working woman. She was also someone with a healthy disdain for rules and the law. She was a bootlegger during Prohibition and was accused twice of cattle rustling.
The independence and toughness of this woman is just one reason I love this story. I teach Morris’s story in my American Literature course when I cover the frontier stories following the Civil War. This is just one part of the epic nature of Dinosaur National Monument!
Hike to Fort Bowie
Fort Bowie National Historic Site, Arizona
In most parks, the first thing you do is hit the visitor center and then go out to explore. Fort Bowie National Historic Site is just the opposite. In fact, you have to hike about 1.5 miles just to get to the visitor center!
What makes this particular National Park experience so significant is you are literally hiking through the history of this place as you go. During the hike, you will walk by the Apache Pass Butterfield Overland Stage Station and the Apache Spring.
The Apache Spring is one of the only reliable sources of freshwater for miles. As such, Apache Pass became an important part of the Southern Emigrant Trail and a hotspot for conflict with the Chiricahua Apache.
It was here that Cochise, the famed Apache leader, was arrested and the resulting standoff led to the Battle of Apache Pass, which started an 11-year war with the Apache tribe.
As you hike in, you will see all of these significant locations with exhibits explaining what happened. If you take the other trail back to the parking lot, turning the hike into a loop, it will take you to the spot where the Apaches fired down upon the Army.
In all, this hike tells several tremendous stories of people determined to carve a living out of one of the most inhospitable places in the US and the struggle over the most important resources for miles: fresh water.
It’s an epic hike.
Remoteness of Isle Royale
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Isle Royale National Park is the least visited National Park in the lower 48 and I completely understand why. It’s located in the middle of Lake Superior. Just getting to the park is difficult and costly. If you don’t have your own boat or float plane, you are gonna need to take a ferry which takes three hours.
But once you get there, it is immediately clear that the effort for this National Park experience was worth it! Even among the relative “busyness” of the Rock Harbor Lodge area, it is easy to just walk a few steps down the trail to find solitude.
Just be careful when you head out for your solitude because the one thing you will find is plenty of moose and you never know when you will come around the bend and see a 1,000-pound animal staring at you.
While the lodge itself is fairly spartan, the real attraction is the balcony overlooking Lake Superior. The best part was sitting out, enjoying a beer and letting the sound of the lake just melt the worry and stress of life away.
We only spent one night here but it was truly amazing. The quiet, the beauty and the ability to disconnect from the world make this one of the ultimate getaways. We are very much looking forward to a return visit.
Backcountry Camping in Big Bend
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Speaking of remote, I think this is the most remote we have ever been. We camped in the backcountry of Big Bend National Park in Texas and I don’t think there was another person for 10, maybe 20, miles of our campsite.
We camped at the Solis 2 campsite just off River Road. Our campground was just a couple miles from the Rio Grande. It was the perfect place to enjoy solitude and the night skies of West Texas. Seriously, you are so far from any light sources, your night skies will be breathtaking.
Getting here is a bit of a challenge. You need a high clearance vehicle and I recommend having four-wheel drive just in case. River Road is a 51-mile unimproved road connecting the east and west areas of the park. While we were out there, we saw some park volunteers looking for broken down vehicles. Out here, you have to be prepared to handle any problems you might run into.
While driving River Road is a favorite of our National Park experiences in itself, the destination is just as rewarding. There’s just something so cool about sitting in a camp chair along the Rio Grande, watching Mexican horses graze and cross the river. There is something so liberating about being completely on your own.
The remoteness of the backcountry in Big Bend National Park IS the experience.
Snowmobiling in Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Following our honeymoon, we had a couple of Alaskan Airlines credits that were going to expire. Living in Atlanta, flying Alaskan Airlines is not an easy thing to do. We had been to Yellowstone National Park before while we were dating but I had never been in the winter. Bonnie had when she was younger and said we really needed to go.
I wasn’t as gung ho about the trip. I had seen plenty of snow while in the Army and really didn’t want any part of it. So, she showed me some nature shows on what life is like in Yellowstone during the winter and I was sold.
We signed up for an overnight tour that took us from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful and back.
Wow! This is one of the best National Park experiences I can imagine!
Yellowstone changes so much in the winter and it boggled my mind. We stopped at various turnouts, saw frozen waterfalls and got to walk the boardwalk at one of the thermal areas. We even saw a bison standing in the thermal area enjoying the warm temperatures!
As in the summer, bison go wherever they want in the park and we ran into bison walking along the road a couple of times as we made our way through the park, which was a bit hair-raising!
A note of caution: we were able to really enjoy our experiences in the cold because we had good cold-weather gear. Having good synthetic or wool clothing will make all the difference in how much you enjoy sub-zero temperatures.
Indeed, while we were walking the boardwalk, I could feel myself start to sweat. So, I took off my helmet and beanie to wipe the sweat out of my hair. By the time I got my hand to my head, my sweat had frozen! I never took my beanie off again!
Winter in Yellowstone is truly breathtaking and the best way to see the parts of the park where the roads aren’t plowed is by snowmobile! We highly recommend it!
Canoeing Nine Mile Pond in the Everglades
Everglades National Park, Florida
This is one of the few ranger-led tours we have ever done and it was excellent!
We met early one morning with a ranger and paddled out following the canoe trail with a park ranger in the lead. As we paddled among the mangroves and grass, we saw tons of wildlife. You realize very quickly that in spite of the water being very dark, it is actually quite clear.
We saw birds galore plus alligators at every turn. It is one thing to see an alligator from the boardwalk. It is another thing entirely to see a large bull alligator bellow for a mate while you are in a canoe!
One of the stars of this particular tour is “Croczilla,” a massive 13-foot crocodile (yes, there are both crocodiles and alligators in the Everglades). Sadly, we did not see him while on the tour but we saw where he normally hangs out.
You can paddle the canoe trail on your own but keep an eye out for the trail markers. They can be quite easy to miss in the mangroves.
Seriously, canoeing Nine Mile Pond was one of our truly epic National Park experiences. Just taking a moment to sit among the sawgrass and enjoy the quiet is one of the most rewarding parts of this trail.
Final Thoughts on Our Favorite National Park Experiences
Visiting our national parks has become a huge part of our lives. We are constantly planning our next trip to visit a park site.
After 12 years and more than 240 sites, these are the experiences we look back on most fondly. We know we have a long way to go and there is a lot more to see and do. But we also hope you can take these ideas as inspiration for your own travels and find your own amazing national park experiences.
We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
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We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
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If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
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We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
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We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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