The US national parks have been a part of America’s backyard for over a century. With America’s first national park opening in 1872, the National Park Service was officially founded in 1916. While nature was previously viewed as a resource for food and shelter, it became about preservation and enjoyment in the early 20th century. With so many parks to discover, what’s on your national park bucket list?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- National Park Bucket List Activities for Families or Kids
- National Park Bucket List Activities for Couples
- National Park Bucket List Activities for Adults
Today, there are 63 national parks across the nation, and they’re chosen for their natural beauty, geography, and recreational opportunities. Perfect for any travel bucket list, it would take years to explore the best the National Park System has to offer. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best: “There is nothing so American as our national parks.”
Whether you’re building your first bucket list or you’re preparing for a road trip, here is your ultimate national park bucket list. Complete with activities, sites, and hikes for all ages, now is the time to start exploring.
National Park Bucket List Activities for Families or Kids
One of the best ways to explore the national park system is as a family. Perfect for young kids and adults alike, these national park bucket list ideas will inspire new memories.
1. Become a Junior Ranger
First, each national park has what’s called a Junior Ranger program. This lets kids earn badges for doing various activities. Some parks have additional programs, like the Young Scientists program at Yellowstone National Park.
2. Kayak in the Everglades National Park, FL
The best way to see the Everglades National Park in Florida is by kayak. Get up close and personal to Florida’s diverse wildlife, including gators, turtles, snakes, and more. Just don’t get too close!
3. Sled down a sand dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO
Sure, you’ve heard of sledding in the snow, but what about sledding in the sand? At Grand Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, you can rent a sled or sandboard to shred the dunes. Each board is covered in a special sand wax that gives you optimal speeds.
4. Take a train ride
Another family national park bucket list activity is to take a train. There are many trains that go through the National Park Service, and this makes it easy to sit back and soak up the sights. Some of the best trains are Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad in California.
5. Trek through caves in Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
For the ultimate adventure bucket list, head underground. Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is home to a kids-only tour that gives young ones the freedom to explore some of the smaller caves safely.
6. Go horseback riding in Glacier National Park, MN
Want to see Montana in a whole new way? This gorgeous state is best observed from Glacier National Park. Experience backcountry wilderness trails with a horseback riding tour, perfect for kids of all ages.
7. Hunt for sea life at the Olympic National Park, WA
To explore the nation's sea life, check out the Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The tide pools along Kalaloch’s Beach 4 and Mora’s Hole in the Wall help kids identify common types of sea life from shore.
8. Take a stroll at Acadia National Park, MN
Finally, for an easy stroll that’s perfect for any level of hiker, visit Acadia National Park in Maine. Home to some of the most relaxing views in the US, this is old-fashioned leisure at its absolute best.
National Park Bucket List Activities for Couples
Couples can also enjoy the best of nature thanks to the National Park Service. These romantic picks help you grow closer to that special someone, no matter how long you’ve been together.
9. Take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon
Though not for the faint of heart, a helicopter ride is one of the best ways to explore the beauty of the Grand Canyon. A tour by helicopter ensures you get the perfect view of Mather Point on the South Rim, minus the typical crowds.
10. Climb Mount Rainier, Mount Rainier National Park, WA
Mount Rainier towers 14,000 ft above sea level, making it one of the highest peaks in the US. If you’re a true adventure-seeker, climbing Mount Rainier is the ultimate bucket list hike. If you’re not up for such a strenuous physical challenge, try one of the Mount Rainier National Park hiking trails.
11. Take a cruise through Glacier Bay National Park, AL
For a chilly adventure, take a magical cruise through the waters of Alaska to see its natural beauty up close. Many Alaskan cruises go through Glacier Bay National Park, and you can see this beautiful landscape by water.
12. Attend a concert in New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, LA
If your love marches to the beat of its own drum, you must attend a local concert at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. This park comes to life during special events, and you can experience the spellbinding charm of the French Quarter paired with nature.
13. Take a soak at Hot Springs National Park, AR
Known across the country for its spring water, this spa destination has been frequented by the rich and famous throughout history. Take a romantic soak with your lover at this famous retreat. Better yet, sip some of the famous water at Happy Hollow Spring for good luck.
14. Hike to Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, UT
One of the most famous views across the globe, there’s beauty to be found in this isolated Utah desert. Though it takes a strenuous three-mile hike, it’s worth working for this view.
15. Explore Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park, FL
For a tropical oasis that feels like it belongs on another planet, you can’t skip Dry Tortugas National Park. Located in the stunning Florida Keys, this fort was once used as a prison during the Civil War.
16. Spot the fireflies in Congaree National Park, SC
If you’re in South Carolina between May and June, you can’t miss the Fireflies Festival at Congaree National Park. Home to millions of fireflies that light the sky during the late-night hours, this is a gorgeous work of art.
National Park Bucket List Activities for Adults
There’s so much to explore in the national parks, but not all of it is fit for younger kids. These picks below are sure to capture the attention of mature adventure seekers and the young at heart.
17. Scuba dive amongst shipwrecks at Isle Royale National Park, MI
You don’t have to travel to the Caribbean to explore exotic shipwrecks. If you have a diving license, you can explore the frigid depths in Isle Royale National Park to see 10 notable shipwrecks up close.
18. Spot the Big Five at Denali National Park, AL
Another chilly escape is to Denali National Park in Alaska. While here, make sure you spot the Big Five wildlife: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and wolves. The best time to spot these up close is during the summer months.
19. Snorkel at the Virgin Islands National Park
Located in the Caribbean, as much as 40% of the Virgin Islands National Park is actually underwater. Explore the crystal clear water and reefs with a snorkeling tour of Cinnamon Bay Beach.
20. Drive amongst the redwoods at Redwood National Park, CA
Experience an ancient forest up close with a scenic drive through the Redwood National Park. With 240-ft tall trees, you might just start to feel like the world is bigger than you think.
21. Explore the Pueblo’s History at Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Step back in time at Mesa Verde National Park by seeing these elaborate dwellings up close. Long House is one of the largest cave dwellings in Mesa Verde, and these were once home to the Pueblo in 600 AD.
22. Watch the sunset in Haleakala National Park, HI
Of course, no national park list would be complete without mentioning the wonders of Hawaii. Featuring more endangered species than any other national park, you have to venture up to the top of the peak of Haleakala, also known as the “House of the Sun.”
23. Visit a new planet in Death Valley National Park, NV
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to step onto an undiscovered planet, Death Valley National Park helps you imagine. This park is home to the Badwater Basin salt flat, the largest salt flat in the country. The sprawling landscape appears to go on forever, creating an otherworldly vision.
24. Hike the Half Dome at Yosemite National Park, CA
Last but not least, Yosemite is the first national park in the system, and the best way to experience it is through the Half Dome. This 8,800 ft. mountain offers one of the best viewpoints in the state of California.
Explore America’s Diverse Geography
One of the most diverse nations in the world, there is so much to discover in the United States without needing a passport. If you’re wondering how to make a travel bucket list, this list is a great starting point. What parts of the country call to you? Do you wish to dive deep below the ocean’s surface or rise high above sea level on a towering mountain? You could spend a lifetime exploring it all.
If there’s one thing we can learn from the National Park Service, it’s that the world is a wide place. The more we explore, the more we realize beyond our own experience. What will you explore next?
- “National Park Service.” History. History.com.