Recommending which national parks to visit in your Airstream is difficult, because the answer depends entirely on your personality and background. It’s like asking someone, “What should I name my baby?”
Lots of people just head for a big high-profile park like Yosemite or Great Smokies, or visit the parks that happen to be along their travel route.
If you’re lucky enough to have the time to explore America at leisure, you will begin to develop a sense of the type of parks that interest you most—and that’s crucial because trying to see all 400+ parks is the task of a lifetime. You will want to make the most of your time, especially when deciding whether to visit some of the more remote parks that are hundreds of miles off the beaten path.
The range of things you might find attractive in a national park is as diverse as this country. Let’s look at a few topics of interest, and see which major national parks fit the bill:
If you enjoy active sports like hiking, bicycling, rock climbing, or mountaineering, you’re in luck. Hiking is a featured activity in nearly every large national park, and in fact it’s hard to really explore most of the parks without at least walking a few trails.
Bicycling is possible in most large parks, even those that aren’t known for it, such as Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Great Smokies, Saguaro, Natchez Trace, and Everglades. One of the most popular parks for bicycling has to be Acadia National Park in Maine, where Rockefeller money helped create a network of bicycle and horse-only gravel trails that wind through the interior of the park.
Your interest might be in American history. The bulk of Colonial, Revolutionary, and industrial American history happened in the east, so it’s no surprise that most of the national parks are along the East Coast too. Major cities such as Boston, New York, Washington DC, and Philadelphia are loaded with such sites, but not many of them offer camping, so you’ll have to set up a base at a local campground and make day trips.
On the other hand, the bulk of Native American culture sites are in the west. If you are interested visiting ancient pueblos and cliff dwellings, aim for the Four Corners region (UT, CO, NM, AZ) to visit Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, Navajo, Petroglyph, and others. You’ll also find Native American culture and history interpreted in many other places as well, such as Pipestone National Monument (MN) and Nez Perce NHP (ID, MT, WA, OR).
If you like western expansion history (think Lewis & Clark, transcontinental railroad, and Louisiana Purchase), you’ve got your work cut out for you. Dozens of grand parks interpret this history and culture, especially in the west. Civil War history of course happens mostly in the east.
Perhaps all this history makes your eyes glaze over. You just want to enjoy great scenery. No problem, grab your camera and go almost anywhere. But be ready for photographic challenges, because some of the most impressive places (Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Olympic, Glacier, etc.) are hard to capture. Here’s a tip: take lots of “small” photos to capture details and flavors of the park, rather than trying to cram it all into a single shot.
Rustic architecture in particular is a feature of many parks that were developed in the era of the Civilian Conservation Corps (primarily in the 1930s). You’ll recognize it by the classic “parkitecture” style of buildings and signs that combine brown-painted wood and stonework. Some of the best parkitecture is found at Yosemite, Oregon Caves, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Mt Rainier, but nearly every park that was in existence during the 1930’s will show at least a little of the style.
If you like lighthouses you’ll especially like Cape Hatteras (North Carolina) and Oregon Dunes for their many different styles of lighthouses. Beaches? Try any park designated a “National Seashore,” and you can’t go wrong. You can even try sea kayaking at Isle Royale (MI), Channel Islands (CA), Sleeping Bear Dunes (MI), Dry Tortugas (FL), and Biscayne (FL), among other places.
If you’re the type that likes to explore by 4×4, go west again. In California you’ve got excellent off-road or rough-road trails at Mojave, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley. In Utah, try Arches, Hovenweep, and Canyonlands. In Texas, Big Bend has a network of backroads with tent-only campsite for long expeditions. In Colorado you’ll find 4×4 experiences at Great Sand Dunes, Dinosaur, and Rocky Mountain.
But perhaps all this seems like too much work. If you just want to relax and get far away from crowds, a few parks excel at providing solitude. In particular, try Big Bend (TX), Padre Island (TX), Death Valley, and Great Basin (NV). In this case you’ll want to avoid the really popular parks like Yellowstone, Great Smokies, and the south rim of Grand Canyon—or visit in the shoulder season after school starts.
America’s National Parks really can provide something for everyone. It’s the biggest smorgasbord on the planet, and all you have to do is hitch up your Airstream and start exploring.
—By Rich Luhr
In the next installment, we’ll talk about some of the practical considerations of camping in a National Park so you can start planning a trip soon.