They're big. They're beautiful. And they're some of the best travel bargains around. Make this the year you visit one of America's great National Parks.
By Ellen Parlapiano
Main attractions: Mammals big and small call this place home, and early summer is prime time to glimpse moms and offspring. Drive Trail Ridge Road, stopping to scan for moose in the Kawuneeche Valley and elk in open meadows and at higher elevations. Along the Tundra World Nature Trail, spot marmots and pikas (tiny rock rabbits) as well as breathtaking views of wildflowers and mountains. Back at ground level, take free ranger-led wildlife walks, see bighorn sheep at Horseshoe Park and Sheep Lakes or go geocaching with the Rocky Mountain Nature Association (rmna.org). Stay at park campgrounds or in the town of Estes Park (YMCA of the Rockies, ymcarockies.org).
Main attractions: Though not a National Park (it's a National Lakeshore!), this stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline has been called one of the most beautiful places in America. The main attraction: 400-foot sand dunes. Take a stab at the Dune Climb, with great views of Glen Lake, then try to keep up as the kids sprint down. Swim in the very brisk Lake Michigan or in the warmer, calmer North Bar Lake—a sandy path connects the two. Kayak on the Platte River (canoemichigan.com) and watch for great blue herons. Stay in nearby Empire, Glen Arbor or Glen Haven (sleepingbeardunes.com) or camp in the park.
Main attractions: The twisted spires of hoodoos—otherworldly rock formations—rise from Bryce Amphitheater. See them up close on an easy ranger-led Rim Walk; on the adventurous Navajo Trail, which runs through a slot canyon; or on a horse and mule trek (canyonrides.com). Explore surrounding forests on guided ATV tours (rubysinn.com); this is one of the best stargazing spots in the U.S., so stick around for an astronomy presentation. Stay inside the park at the Lodge at Bryce Canyon (brycecanyonforever.com) or in nearby towns (brycecanyoncountry.com).
Main attractions: Think snowcapped peaks, icy lakes and, of course, glaciers. Take it all in from spectacular-but-scary Going-to-the-Sun Road—the scenic highway winds along narrow curves and cliffs. Or let the pros do the driving: Hop free park shuttles or ride red jammer tour buses (extra fee; glacierparkinc.com). Historic wooden tour boats (glacierparkboats.com) go where cars and buses can't: Sail on pristine lakes, then anchor for a picnic and glacier hike. Stay inside or near the park (glacierparkinc.com).
Main attractions: Discover the world's longest cave system on ranger tours (buy tickets at visitor center). Travel 140 feet down to an old mine on the Historic Tour. On the Wild Cave Tour (ages 16+), hike, crouch and belly-slide through passageways and free-climb walls. Stay in the park at Mammoth Cave Hotel (mammothcavehotel.com) or in gateway town Cave City (cavecity.com).
Location: New Mexico
Main attractions: Let your imagination run wild amid this enormous cave's giant stalactites and stalagmites. Buy general admission tickets and guide yourselves down the 1.25-mile-long trail into the eerie Big Room, or reserve ranger-guided tours (fee; book at recreation.gov) for rooms like Kings Palace, Left Hand Tunnel and the thrilling Lower Cave. Stay in the surrounding towns of Carlsbad and White's City.
Main attractions: Climb into ancient cliff dwellings where Puebloans resided more than 700 years ago. Follow rangers up ladders into the 150-room Cliff Palace (the Twilight Tour has costumed guides) and the super-steep Balcony House (buy tickets at visitors center). On the self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House, descend on a ladder into a kiva, an underground ceremonial chamber. Hike Petroglyph Point Trail to a rock panel lined with tribal carvings, or conquer the more strenuous Knife Edge Trail toward Montezuma Valley Overlook—the place to view the sunset. Stay in Far View Lodge, the park's only hotel (visitmesaverde.com), or in nearby Cortez, Mancos or Durango.
Main attractions: Most of the park's landmarks are in the valley, including Yosemite Falls (one of the tallest in North America), glacier-carved Half Dome and El Capitan (rock climbers scale its walls). Drive an hour to the southern end and stroll under sky-high sequoias in Mariposa Grove, best known for the 1,500-year-old Grizzly Giant, one of the world's largest trees.
Epic adventures: Hike the wet and wild two-mile Mist Trail beneath rainbows, and ascend hundreds of granite steps to the top of thundering Vernal Falls—look down the 310-foot drop if you dare. (Allow five hours for the round trip and be sure to pack lunch and waterproof ponchos.) Or soak up Yosemite Valley's splendor from a raft by paddling down the lazy Merced River and stopping for a picnic and swim; rentals at Curry Village are $26 for adults and $16 for kids under 13.
Lodging options: In-park pick: Curry Village cabins are rustic (think camping without having to lug around the gear) and feature a pool and plenty of community spirit at the buffets and pizza deck, where kids love to congregate. Tent cabins with shared baths start at $112 per night; wooden cabins with shared baths start at $127; with private baths, $168 (yosemitepark.com). Outside: Near park gates on the Merced River is Yosemite View Lodge (summer rates start at $194; yosemite-motels.com). An hour south of the main sites, near Mariposa Grove, is the resort-style Tenaya Lodge, with a spa and five eateries. Rooms start at around $149 per night (tenayalodge.com).
Nearby stop: Pan for gold and ride a stagecoach at Columbia State Historic Park, one of California's best-preserved gold rush towns, 80 miles north of Yosemite Valley (free admission; columbiacalifornia.com).
More info: Park entrance, $20 per car (valid 7 days); yosemitepark.com.
Location: Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho
Hot spot: Geysers and wild buffalo are the draw at America's very first National Park.
Main attractions: Old Faithful shoots steaming water 135 feet high every 90 minutes and is the superstar of Upper Geyser Basin—the area with the largest concentration of geysers in the world. Take surrounding trails to more gushers, bubbling mud pots and colorful hot springs, like flower-shaped Morning Glory Pool; get a bird's-eye view of the awesome landscape from Observation Point. Yellowstone also has the most accessible wildlife sightings of any National Park. Bison and elk graze everywhere—you can often see them near Mammoth Hot Springs, nature's hot tub.
Epic adventures: Hike the rim of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone past waterfalls, or follow Uncle Tom's Trail down into the ravine. At Tower Roosevelt Corral make like a cowboy on the Old West Dinner Cookout and ride to the chuck wagon by horse or stagecoach (prices vary; 866-GEYSERLAND).
Lodging options: In-park pick: Old Faithful Inn is beloved for its beamed lobby, stone fireplace and geyser proximity (rooms with shared baths start at $96 per night, with private baths $126; 866-GEYSERLAND; yellowstonenationalparklodges.com). Outside: Near the western gate, homey Yellowstone Wildlife Cabins have fully equipped kitchens starting at $160 per night (406-646-7675; yellowstonewildlifecabins.com).
Nearby stop: To the south, visit Grand Teton National Park, included with Yellowstone admission (nps.gov/grte); raft down Snake River rapids with Jackson Hole Whitewater (from $65 adults, $55 ages 6 to 12; jhww.com).
More info: Park entrance, $25 per car (valid 7 days)
World wonder: This great gorge is 277 miles long and has 2-billion-year-old rocks.
Main attractions: Join the crowds at Mather Point on the South Rim for your first peek at the chasm—as the sunlight changes so do the colors. Tour Rim Trail by free shuttle; or bike along quiet Hermit Road for awesome views of the Colorado River snaking through the rocks; rentals available from Bright Angel at Canyon Visitor Information Plaza (1 hour $10, 4 hours $25; bikegrandcanyon.com). Go beneath the canyon's South Rim for free on a guided two-hour tour led by Junior Ranger Earth Adventures (reserve at the visitor center).
Epic adventures: Sightsee by mule. Three-hour excursions along South Rim cliffs are $117.40 per person, but you must reserve more than a year in advance. Spots are easier to secure on the quieter, less touristy North Rim, a four-hour drive away. One-hour rides are $40 per person, half-day treks, $75. (Book all mule trips at grandcanyonlodges.com.)
Lodging options: In-park picks: Built in 1905, historic El Tovar is just 20 feet from the South Rim's edge; rooms start at $178 per night (grandcanyonlodges.com). Grand Canyon Lodge has rustic cabins perched on the North Rim, starting at $121 per night (grandcanyonlodgenorth.com). Outside: Try Holiday Inn Express Grand Canyon Village South with pool and free breakfast; nightly rates start at $170 (888-HOLIDAY; hiexpress.com).
Nearby stop: In Page, Arizona, 2 1/2 hours north, follow Navajo guides through Antelope Canyon's spirals ($32 adults, $20 ages 8 to 12; antelopecanyon.com), or raft down the Colorado River ($79 adults, $69 kids 4 to 11; raftthecanyon.com).
More info: Park entrance, $25 per car (valid 7 days)
Sea view: This coastal park has a rugged, rocky shoreline dotted with lighthouses.
Main attractions: Travel around Mount Desert Island, where most of Acadia is situated, on Park Loop Road or free shuttles. Don't miss Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard, for blueberry picking and bay views. Bike carriage roads—like Witch Hole Loop—past ponds and waterfalls. (President Obama rode it with his family.) Rentals are from $22 (barharborbike.com). Refuel with popovers from Jordan Pond House.
Epic adventures: Take three amazing hikes from Sand Beach: Circle the water's edge on mile-long Great Head Trail; trek the longer Ocean Path past Thunder Hole, where the surf roars in; or navigate Beehive's narrow ledges high on the cliffs. On the Dive-In Theater Boat Cruise, a naturalist scubas with a video camera and collects critters while you watch on a big screen, then brings them on board for a closer look ($35 adults, $25 kids under 12; divered.com).
Lodging options: Accommodations exist only outside the park, but options include the luxurious waterfront Bar Harbor Inn & Spa, which is in a nearby charming New England fishing village. Rates start around $200 per night, including breakfast (barharborinn.com). The Acadia Cottages are on the tranquil west end of Mount Desert Island with kitchens, decks and fresh cookies. Two-room cottages start at $135 per night (acadia-cottages.com).
Nearby stop: Glimpse seals and humpbacks on a Bar Harbor Whale Watch ($58 adults, $28 kids 6 to 14; barharborwhales.com). Afterward, lunch at Thurston's Lobster Pound in Bernard, a local fave.
More info: Park entrance $20 per car (valid 7 days)
Location: Tennessee and North Carolina
Crowd favorite: One of America's most-visited National Parks is within a 10-hour drive for nearly one-third of the country.
Main attractions: Blue mist rises from these magnificent mountains. For jaw-dropping views, drive Newfound Gap Road (from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to Cherokee, North Carolina). Take a detour to Clingman's Dome, the park's 6,643-foot summit—on a clear day you can see 100 miles from the observation tower. Check out the amazingly well-preserved 19th-century barns, mills, churches and log cabins at Cade's Cove, a valley in the western corner. In Oconaluftee on the Carolina side, you can see how mountain people lived.
Epic adventures: Play the hog fiddle at free ranger programs that immerse families in Appalachian culture. Daredevils can motor up Bluff Mountain, Tennessee, on guided ATV rides ($44.95 adults, $34.95 kids 12 to 15; bluffmountainrentals.com). Fans of great heights can zipline through the trees for $39.95 (smokymountainziplines.com).
Lodging options: Since there's no in-park hotel, only a family camp in July (gsmit.org), best bets are in nearby Tennessee towns. Rent a mountain cabin with hot tub from Dollywood Vacations (1-bedrooms that sleep 4 start at $199 and include admission to Dollywood's Splash Country water adventure park during stay; dollywood.com/vacations). The Summit of Gatlinburg has mountaintop condos and indoor and outdoor pools (2 bedroom/2 baths from $119; gatlinburgsummit.com).
Nearby stop: Tour Tuckaleechee Caverns' underground caves and rivers in Townsend, Tennessee ($15 adults, $7 kids 5 to 11; tuckaleecheecaverns.com). Glimpse Cherokee culture at Oconaluftee Indian Village ($20 adults, $12 kids; cherokee-nc.com).
More info: Free
—If school schedules permit, visit during shoulder season—best months are September, October and May.
—National Parks will offer free entrance on September 24 and November 11-13. Go to nps.gov for more information.
—The America the Beautiful pass offers unlimited access to National Parks, forests and federal recreation lands for a year ($80 per car annually). The Senior Pass for ages 62 and up is $10 and good for a lifetime—so if a grandparent is traveling with you, his or her pass covers everyone in the car (nps.gov).
—Many in-park options are reserved 12 months in advance. If a lodging is booked up, check the town just outside the area. But periodically call in case of cancellations. Find last-minute camping at recreation.gov.
Cool Apps for Smart Phones and iPads
—Fotopedia National Parks A gorgeous pictorial guide. Fotopedia.com/ios/national_parks, $3
—National Park Traveler Tour 50 parks in this National Parks Conservation Association field guide. Nationalparkstraveler.com, free
—GeoRoamer Yellowstone Tour GPS-powered audio tours, with park experts narrating. Georoameryellowstone.com, $9
—Chimani Acadia & Chimani Yosemite Local experts guide you to favorite spots and there's a helpful "Where am I?" GPS function. Chimani.com, $5
—State Parks Locator Search interactive maps for parks near you. Mapmuse.com, $3
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.