One of the reasons that we cherish America’s national parks so much is that they provide us a place to go play, outside, away from technology, away from work, and in some of the most unique and wonderful natural environments found anywhere in the world. Such places have inspired inventive creations that allow visitors to experience lands that are as old as time in unique and modern ways. While exploring all 59 of the U.S. national parks in 2016, we tried on for size some unusual adventures that got our endorphins pumping while giving us some of our favorite experiences of the year. Here are 13 of our favorites
1. Camping on a glacier in Wrangell St. Elias
On tundra/glacier backpacking trips in Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, hikers can tackle some of the most challenging terrain that exists in any of the national parks – scaling layers of rocky moraine covering glacier ice is no easy feat! After longs days of hiking aside expert outdoorsman from St. Elias Guides, you will set up camp each night in the Kennecott Glacier ecosystem, with nothing between you and your tired body but glacier from the last Ice Age and a tent and sleeping bag.
2. Sand boarding in the Great Sand Dunes
Gliding down massive sand dunes at the foot of the Rocky Mountains is nothing short of fantastic! It is a lot like sledding in the sense that you have a grin plastered on your face the entire time, as you coast across soft slopes of 35-million-year-old sand that covers a 30-square mile radius. Just wax your board, find your footing and take off and you will soon be experiencing the Great Sand Dunes in one of Colorado’s coolest national parks while laughing the whole way down.
3. Caving adventure at Mammoth Cave
Exploring underground is, as it should be, an otherworldly experience. At Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, you can enter the subterranean underworld in the world’s longest mapped cave system and get to know the nooks and crannies of our inner-Earth while guided by impassioned cave rangers. The park offers a Cave Adventure tour that brings modern explorers to their knees as they sliver their way through winding compartments decorated by rare cave formations.
4. Bouldering in Joshua Tree
The rock formations at Joshua tree National Park in California are remarkably tacky to the touch, making it one of the best places in the country to go rock climbing; and for those of us not wanting to get tangled up in the technical aspects of climbing, there is bouldering. Climbing and jumping across of rocks makes you feel like a kid again, it’s virtually free, and the experience can be found just a couple of hours driving from Los Angeles, where you are smack in the heart of the Mojave Desert with comical Joshua trees looking on from all around you.
5. House Boating in Voyageurs
Want to captain your own ship? Head to Voyageurs National Park near the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and arrange to rent a Houseboat with the Voyagaire. After a quick briefing, you will set out with a nautical map in hand to explore waterways that were once used as passage into the U.S. by French fur trappers, with modern luxuries including a 2-story water slide and a deck-top grill. Tie-up camping spots make it easy to stop to relax for a night next to a campfire where you can plan your next day of adventure along the natural American border with Canada.
6. Snorkeling an underwater trail in the Virgin Islands
Virgin Islands National Park is known for its incredible snorkeling. There, you can swim aside graceful sea turtles, sting rays, and tropical fish that are as colorful as the Caribbean seas where they are located off of the southeastern coast of America. One of the premiere spots in the park boundaries to enjoy a tropical paradise beach is at Trunk Bay, where there is an underwater snorkeling trail with markers guiding you to important spots within the oceanic coral eco-system.
7. Up-close bear viewing at Lake Clark
This is without a doubt one of the best places in the world to get up close and personal to coastal brown bears in their natural habitat. At the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge on the Cook Inlet in Lake Clark Alaska, you will team up with bear naturalists and field experts who have been observing the habitat for decades, season after season. Boars, sows, juveniles, and cubs will stride beside you on their way to feed off of salmon runs entering the Inlet as they do each summer, and while they are not habituated, they are uninterested in your presence. It is a remarkable and unique way to get up close to the king of the American wilderness on the last frontier.
8. Standup paddle through icebergs in the Kenai Fjords
In Bear Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska you can glide through icebergs on standup paddle boards (or in a sea kayak if you prefer) while harbor seals dip in front of your watercraft and nip at the rudders as they peer on with curiosity. To find your jumping off point, you will want to get with Liquid Adventures – the leader of trips in the area – to arrange a backpacking adventure that gives you a place to hang your hat after your day of paddling in a dream world concludes.
9. Hiking on Arctic sand dunes at Kobuk Valley
Kobuk Valley National Park is the least visited park in the system and is home to one of the rarest features on Earth: Arctic sand dunes. The dunes are completely unadulterated, nestled amid spruce forests and aside the Kobuk River, and if you fix your eyes on the ground you will see wildflowers, cool wind patterns in the sand, and jade deposits. One of the ancillary joys of this adventure is that there is nobody anywhere near other than those with whom you are traveling – once the bush plane drops you off, it’s just you and the dunes and the Alaskan wild! And it is really wild… unless you are an experienced backpacker familiar with Alaskan terrain and the Brooks Range, you will probably want to line up some area experts to join you on your trip – Alaska Alpine Adventures is the leading outfit in the area.
10. Bridge Jumping in American Samoa
If you want to do like the locals do while in American Samoa, head to the bridge connecting the Ofu and Olosega in the Manu’a Group of the Samoan Islands and free fall into the crystal clear Pacific waters. It might take you a moment to get up your nerve to step from the side of the bridge, it’s at least 25 feet up there, but you can count on anyone with you cheering you on. Once you hit the water a current pulls you easily to a sandy shore where you can kick back beneath a palm tree on a paradise beach.
11. Hiking across lava in Volcanoes
In Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawai’i, you are immersed in an active volcano system that erupts into the sea. After walking 4-5 miles from inside the park to the convergence, you will cross hardened lava with steam spouting from opened crevices all around you before making way to an overlook where you can view enormous bursts of steam rising into the Pacific skies (a result of the collision of extreme temperatures.) With the sound of waves drumming against the tropical coastlines, and with rainbows and magical sunset skies, you will experience Hawai’i in a way that some travelers miss in favor of tropical beach scenes that are kept close to the coastal hotels. This adventure, however, is unmistakably Hawaiian in the sense that you are looking on to the natural forces that allowed the islands to rise from the depths of the sea.
12. Canoe camping on a chickee in the Everglades
Canoeing into the mangrove trees in the freshwater area of Everglades National Park in Florida is a sure fire way to get lost in the very best way. Everglades is the first park to be established to protect fresh- and salt waters and the immense wildlife species that habituate there. One of the classic spots to camp out in the area is atop what is called a chickee – an elevated wooden dock that has served as a waypoint for couriers traveling through the region for hundreds of years. Beneath the dock at night you will hear wildlife thrashing beneath you – fish, maybe an alligator feeding on said fish – while the sounds of insect and birdlife sings in the trees.
13. Swamp walking in Congaree
If you visit Congaree National Park in South Carolina during offseason (north American winter) you will find yourself there during an enchanting time – particularly so if the forest of ancient cypress trees is flooding as it does annually. The environment at this time of year tees up a most unusual hike. Just strap on your muck boots and head off into a completely unique natural setting with nobody around for miles. If you walk quietly, you will start to hear the sounds of the wilderness opening up to you. It is one of the lesser known, but totally awesome, national parks in America; and this experience is even more unusual as there is a small window to experience it each year.