The United States maintains more than 6,000 federally-protected sites, spanning over 1 million square miles and totaling roughly 27 percent of the U.S.’s entire land area. Attracting millions of visitors worldwide, the U.S. National Park System offers tourists incredible variety, from the lush Everglades, to windswept Death Valley, to the grandaddy of national parks, the Grand Canyon.
Traveling to each, individually and together, can cost a fortune, so if you’re planning a road-trip, you can save a ton with a national parks pass, or consider showing up on one of the many free-admission days. For those still wondering where, when, and how to visit, here is our guide on planning a trip to the country’s top six national parks in 2014.
Grand Canyon National Park
At 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and one mile deep, the Grand Canyon attracts 5 million visitors annually. This year marks the first anniversary of the 10-mile newly-renovated Bright Angel Trail, which extends from the South Rim to the bottom of the canyon. If an epic hike down doesn’t seem appealing, Arizona Public Service Company also recently donated $1 million to spruce up the park’s other hiking trails, which are fit for everyone from children to experienced hikers. While the South Rim’s open year-round, the Canyon’s North Rim operates from May 15 to October 15. Entrance to the park costs $25 per vehicle, or $12 per person, but the park runs special free-admission offers throughout the year.
When to Visit: Go during the Grand Canyon Star Party, from June 21-28. Armed with telescopes, amateur astronomers teach stargazers about the cosmos, pointing out planets, galaxies, and nebulae.
Widely considered the first national park in the world, Yellowstone’s 300 geysers, 10,000 hot springs, and infamous magma chambers offer a unique glimpse into the Earth circa two million years ago. Every year, the park welcomes visitors who are itching to see Old Faithful, or the park’s other springs up close. Scientists have recently noted an increase in the park’s helium output, indicated by significantly more bubbles and spurts in the geysers. Upon arrival at the park, visitors pay a $25 per vehicle, or $12 per person. This fee guarantees each visitor a 7-day entrance permit for both Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park, so you can see two parks for the price of one.
When to Visit: October brings fewer crowds, and lodging prices typically dip lower. Better than lower rates, though, the Rocky Mountain autumn brings crisp fall air and dry trekking, unlike the muddy trails of spring, or hot hikes of summer.
From spectacular geological formations to world-class hiking, Yosemite National Park makes California’s most well-preserved habitat accessible for all. For 2014, Yosemite Conservatory has announced more than 50 outdoor adventures, as well as the opening of Mariposa Grove, which includes the restoration of the giant sequoia and wetland habitat. Post-restoration, you’ll be able to view 500 mature, giant sequoia trees, which are considered to be among the oldest, rarest, and largest living organisms in the world. Unlike many national parks, Yosemite stays open 24/7, all year long. Entrance is $20 per car; otherwise, it’s $10 per person for visitors arriving on foot. Interestingly, park rangers have recently noticed a massive reduction in the number of bears eating leftover scraps from the park’s garbage cans.
When to Visit: On August 17-18, Yosemite hosts Tuolumne Poetry Festival. This year, poets Mark Doty, Jane Hirshfield, and David Mas Masumoto take the stage. For those searching for a more interactive experience, Yosemite’s Earth Day celebrations (April 19 and 22) provide a roster of activities suitable for kids and adults, including the Earth Day Bike Ride.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
From Rocky Top to Dollywood, the Smokies feature budget-friendly entertainment for travelers of all ilks, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park remains the most visited national park in the United States, reeling in a whopping 9 million outdoorsmen each year. Soon, both rugged and refined will join forces in the recently-approved $4.3 million Smoky Mountain museum, which will house more than 800,000 historical artifacts and archival park records. Still, those seeking adventure can hike the moderately strenuous, 5.5-mile climb on Alum Cave Trail to the top of Mount Leconte. Those craving less adventure, and more southern hospitality, can stroll through the cute town of Pigeon Forge for shopping and a a beverage at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Although the park is always free, overnight camping in the Smokies can cost between $14 and $23 per night.
When to Visit: Summer months in Tennessee are hot and muggy, so spring is the time to visit. With flowers blooming, from April 15-19, the park hosts a Wildflower Pilgrimage ($50 for a day pass or $75 for two or more days, free for children under 12) that offers 146 different hikes and presentations to uncover the area’s flora and fauna.
Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rockies may be a skier’s paradise and a cabin-dweller’s dream, but, for nature enthusiasts, Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect spot for a week of back-to-nature camping. This year marks the beginning of a three-year bird tracking project that will allow the public to follow migration patterns of osprey from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds. Cool, right? Two of the documented birds have already traveled more than 1,300 miles from northern Colorado to the East Coast of Mexico! In addition to bird tracking, Rocky Mountain National Park announced that, in July, it will open up Old Fall River Road to automobile traffic. Formerly navigated by the Arapaho tribe as a migration route over the Continental Divide, this prehistoric road, currently a hiking trail, known as the “Dog Tail,” ascends five-miles through glacial carved geology to Chasm Falls. The park operates all year long and 24-hours a day, and winter’s a perfect opportunity for free snowshoeing. Entry costs $20 per vehicle and $10 per person, but, of course, there are numerous admission-free days throughout the year.
When to Visit: On September 4th, 2014, Rocky Mountain National Park begins its centennial celebrations. Although centennial plans haven’t been disclosed, the park aims to help visitors rediscover and reconnect with the wilderness.