As we emerge from our apartments and houses and step out of our quarantine bubbles and pods there is no better time to pack the car and head out for a bit of R&R with Mother Nature.
The National Park System features 419 national park sites across the United States. Founded in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service, the federal bureau in the Department of the Interior has expanded across over 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories. Key details and local information can be found about each national park site on www.nps.gov.
The National Park Service is committed to telling all Americans’ stories, and in addition to their own rich history many of the parks have their own unique LGBTQIA+ heritage and history. Building on last year’s list, we went through the expansive number of stunning and notable parks and chose a mix of parks along with the expansive Lewis and Clark Trail for you to spend those vacation and personal days. Why are you still sitting there? Head outdoors.
Denali National Park – Alaska
Located deep in the heart of Alaska, Denali National Park sprawls out across six million acres of forest, glacial lakes, mountains, and frozen tundra. The park attracts upward of 400,000 visitors annually who get an up-close peek at Denali, North America’s tallest mountain formerly known as Mount McKinley. There is only one road into Denali National Park, and all activities can be planned and organized near the road. It’s strongly recommended to plan your adventure by bus in the summer, though private vehicles can drive through the first fifteen miles of the road, up until Savage River. The Natural History Tour is an excellent introduction to the park if you’re short on time. Longer tours include the Tundra Wilderness or Kantishna Experience Tours. If you’re looking to get out and hike, or even camp in the park the Transit or Camper Bus allow passengers to disembark and either day hike or backpack for longer trips. Some of the best hikes in Denali include Mount Healey Overlook Trail, which is quite steep but well worth the trip. Horseshoe Lake Trail is a quick and easy hour-long hike, whereas the Triple Lakes Trail is a picturesque 18.5-mile back trail that takes roughly ten hours to complete. Visitors to Denali can catch a glimpse of roughly 169 species of birds, over 1,500 species of plants, and not too close (and hopefully not personal) sighting of the “big five” of the park: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears. Make sure you read up on wildlife safety information so you can stay safe if you encounter one of the locals in “Grizzly Country.”
Dinosaur National Monument – Colorado
Many subscribe to different theories as to why dinosaurs became extinct, but outside of a traditional museum few can get up close and personal with dinosaur remains. Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument boasts thousands of dinosaur fossils throughout over 210,000 acres of land. Make a reservation for the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall, where approximately 1,500 dinosaur bones are on display. Have a close look at the remains of all your favorites: Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Diplodocus, among others. Is there a little one in your group? Check out Junior Ranger programs or talks in the exhibition hall and around the park. Find key spots throughout the exhibit where you can reach out and touch 149-million-year-old dinosaur fossils. Get out and hike around the landscape, there are miles upon miles of trails and cross-country opportunities including the Fossil Discovery Trail, Sound of Silence Trail, and the remote Island Park Trail. Be sure to check out the petroglyph and pictograph sites in the park, left by the Fremont people who lived in the area roughly 1,000 years ago. While it may be tempting to leave your own mark in the park please resist the urge. Make memories, take pictures, but leave no visible trace of your visit. Allow the dinosaurs and Fremont pictographs to remain the stars of the park.
Dry Tortugas National Park – Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park, located west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, is made up of seven islands and protected coral reefs. The 100-square mile park is primarily open water with seven small islands. Garden Key, one of these islands, is home to the impressive Fort Jefferson, one of the country’s largest 19th century forts. Campers are only allowed to set up their tents on Garden Key and enjoy sweet dreams with warm tropical breezes, starry nights, and swaying palm trees on the horizon. Sun seekers flock to Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas National Park, considered one of the best beaches in the Florida Keys. Shallow waters lure novice and experienced snorkelers alike while divers explore popular sites like the Windjammer Wreck, Texas Rock, and even snorkeling the moat wall at night (night diving, anyone?). The park is only accessible by seaplane or boat, yet over 60,000 visitors come every year, so plan ahead.
Fire Island National Seashore – New York
Fire Island, home to Cherry Grove, the Pines, and the infamous “meat rack” is an extraordinary 26-mile stretch of ocean and bay shoreline, lush dunes, maritime forests, and 17 residential communities. Long before colonial settlers took over the area, Native Americans hunted and fished in the gorgeous stretch just off the coast of Long Island. The seashore encompasses 19,579 acres including several bay islands, sand flats, and wetlands and roughly 15,000 submerged acres in the Great South Bay or Atlantic Ocean. Fire Island’s Sunken Forest, a maritime holly forest, is known as a “globally rare” occurrence that dates back some 300 years. The Sunken Forest Preserve donated the property to Fire Island National Seashore in 1964. Tours leaving from Sailors Haven Visitor Center are offered for visitors from May through October. After a long day at the beach, be sure to head to Cherry’s on the Bay, Low Tea at the Blue Whale, or mask up and dance the night away at the Sip N’ Twirl.
Gateway National Recreation Area – New York & New Jersey
Sandy Hook, New Jersey boasts a popular clothing optional beach that lures New Yorkers of every shape and size each season. The great park, Gateway National Recreation Area spans across 27,000 acres including Sandy Hook, Jamaica Bay, and parts of Staten Island. The area offers green spaces, beaches, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and lots of history. Over 9.2 million visitors come to the area to relax throughout the year, making it the fourth most visited National Park Service unit in the country. Massive historic military facilities like Fort Tilden, Fort Hancock, and Fort Wadsworth rise out of the sand and make for a unique and Instagrammable landscape, while the Sandy Hook lighthouse (the oldest operating lighthouse in the U.S.) has stood proudly in its location since 1764. On the New York side of Gateway National Recreation Area, carloads of boys and bears flock to Jacob Riis park for picnics, mischief, and fun in the sun. Alice Austen, one of America’s earliest and most prolific female photographers lived most of her life with her partner Gertrude in “Clear Comfort”, located about six blocks north of Fort Wadsworth.
Great Basin National Park – Nevada
Located about four and a half hours from the bright lights of Las Vegas, Great Basin National park is a beautiful landscape full of surprising diversity including several coves of Bristlecone pines. What’s so special about Bristlecone pines? They’re ancient. No, really! These pines, shaped by the rain, snow, and wind, are considered the oldest non-clonal species on the planet. The Great Basin Bristlecone pines are a rare species found only in California, Nevada, and Utah. Trees aside, Great Basin National Park boasts the impressive 13,063-foot summit of Wheeler Peak, Lehman Caves (did someone say spelunking?), camping, and free ranger led astronomy programs every Saturday from May through September. If you’re interested in exploring the tours be sure to book in advance, as cave tours regularly sell out. This season only the Parachute Shield Tour will be offered. The $12 tour takes about an hour and guests embark on a half mile adventure underground.
Joshua Tree – California
Joshua Tree National Park, nestled in the California desert, is the closest National Park to Los Angeles and San Diego. Known for its distinct Joshua trees, native to the Mojave Desert, the park extends across roughly 800,000 acres, making it bigger than the state of Rhode Island! The Joshua Tree, U2’s fifth studio album (and one of the world’s best-selling albums), was inspired by not only the area but the band’s interest and “great romance” with the United States. Be sure to add this album to your playlist for your visit. A few million people flock to the park each year and there are several visitor centers in and around the park: Oasis Visitor Center, Joshua Tree Visitor Center, Cottonwood Visitor Center, and Black Rock Nature Center. Be sure to get a glimpse of Giant Rock, a large seven-story giant free-standing boulder near Landers, and check out Hidden Valley, the Keys View area for Coachella Valley views, and don’t miss the Jumbo Rocks!
Lewis and Clark Trail – IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, MO, MT, NE, ND, OH, OR, PA, SD, WA, WV
Lewis and Clark’s journey west started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and extended through sixteen states and 4,900 miles west to the mouth of the Columbia River, near present day Astoria, Oregon. The trail is part of the National Park Service with a small visitors center in Omaha, Nebraska. Each state along the trail offers visitor centers, museums, and unique insight into the historic journey. Lewis served under Clark during the Northwest Campaigns in the 1790s and from 1803 to 1806 the pair (rumored to be lovers) made their way westward with the Corps of Discovery to cross the Continental Divide of the Americas to the Pacific Coast. Notable stops on the trip include The Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural & Educational Center, dedicated to honoring and providing education about Sacajawea and her role in Lewis and Clark’s expedition. The Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, in Hartford, Illinois, offers a museum dedicated to the planning and journey of the two explorers and their Corps of Discovery. Experience Lewis and Clark like never before in five exhibit rooms, the film At Journey’s Edge, and a 55-foot full scale “cutaway” keelboat. More relevant sites include Nez Perce National Historical Park, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington; Fort Massac State Park, Illinois, Beaverhead National Park, Montana; Clark’s Lookout State Park, Montana; Two Rivers Heritage Museum, Washington; and the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, Oregon and Washington. If you intend on making the sixteen-state journey camping throughout your trip is the best way to take in the true Lewis and Clark experience.
Last modified: July 20, 2021