Things to do in U.S. National Parks: hike, camp…sandboard. You weren’t expecting that last one were you? It’s true. You can sandboard in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. (Photo: Getty Images)
The United States is home to nearly 132,000 square miles of national parkland, where you can see the world’s largest trees, walk through the world’s longest cave system, and experience volcanoes, glaciers, sand dunes and dinosaur fossils. Magnificent in both beauty and diversity, the U.S. National Parks provide a wide range of experiences that don’t require being an avid outdoors lover or even hauling a backpack.
“[The] National Parks protect some of the most beautiful, unique and cherished landscapes on the planet,” says Michael Lanza, author of ‘Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks” and founder of the family travel blog The Big Outside. “The parks succeed at preserving huge expanses of wilderness while still keeping iconic places easily accessible to anyone without having to hike miles of rugged trails.”
But while hiking and camping are common ways to experience these spaces, here are five activities you probably didn’t know you could do in U.S. National Parks.
The rolling sand dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado (less than a four-hour drive from Denver) are the tallest dunes in North America and ideal for sandboarding or sand sledding.
You can rent sandboards and sand sleds in Alamosa, a small town about 34 miles southwest of the park.
Fall and spring are great times to sandboard, or if you’re planning a visit in the summer, make sure to visit the dunes either early morning or evening if since sands can reach about 150 degrees at midday.
The U.S. encompasses many spectacular scenes, one of which lies deep below the earth’s surface in Kentucky.
About 86 miles south of Louisville in Mammoth Cave National Park, you can explore the longest known cave system in the world — nearly 400 miles of the underground labyrinth has been explored, and who knows how much is still left undiscovered. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is filled with limestone ridges and a honeycomb of beautiful and spooky caverns. There are guided tours available for a wide range of physical abilities and ages.
Run With Wild Horses
Some 40 miles of Atlantic coastline shared between the states of Maryland and Virginia offer a rare opportunity to play alongside the wildlife. On Assateague Island National Seashore, you can relax on the beach while wild horses gallop through the waves. Just make sure you enjoy the horses’ company from a distance and do not feed them.
The island is about 16 kilometers south of Ocean City, Maryland, and is open year-round. If you plan on spending the night, campsite reservations are recommended. Camping gear and beach toys are sold at nearby retailers. There are also hotels and home rentals if camping isn’t your thing.
If you prefer birdies and eagles to horses, National Parks on the USA’s East and West coasts feature golf courses. The East Potomac Golf Course boasts one 18-hole course and two 9-hole courses that offer striking views of some of the best-known landmarks of Washington, D.C., including the National Mall and Memorial Parks’ Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial.
In California, the Wawona Golf Course in Yosemite National Park offers a more rustic view. Surrounded by meadows, tall pines and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this nine-hole organic course is open daily from June through November.
Dress Up for Dinner
Not every meal consumed in National Parks is prepared over a campfire. A number of parks offer upscale dining. In Acadia National Park in Maine, the Jordan Pond House serves up a taste of the sea, while The Creekside at Kalaloch Lodge in Washington state’s Olympic National Park specializes in farm-to-table fare.
For those who seek a rustic, historic dining experience, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, offers a picnic-style Old West Dinner Cookout. Ride out to Yancy’s Hole in a covered wagon for some “cowboy grub” including steak, Roosevelt baked beans, cornbread, potato salad, coleslaw and fruit crisp.
This article was published as a part of a partnership with Visit the USA, inspiring travelers to explore America’s boundless possibilities.