With 58 national parks to choose from, picking the park that’s the best match for your interests can be a challenge. We’ve taken 10 popular park activities and matched them to the best park for that activity, so the next time you’re wondering which one is best for you, you’ll know where to go.
For Hiking: For overall number of trails and variety of experiences, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must for the hiker. The park has 150 official trails -- some to waterfalls, others through old-growth forests, and several with endless views. The four-mile round-trip Porters Creek hike past abandoned farmsteads is one of our favorites.
For Paddling: The national park system offers countless opportunities to paddle your way along scenic waterways, but few come close to the splendor of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Its 3.3 million acres feature dramatic blue-hued glaciers and abundant wildlife, including humpback whales, orcas, seals, eagles, and brown bears. Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks, the park concessionaire, provides guided and unguided opportunities out of Bartlett Cove.
For Camping: Acadia National Park has it all: pine-covered campsites, sweeping views of the ocean, and plenty of outdoor activities -- including hiking, biking, climbing, and more. Choose from one of three campgrounds. Blackwoods Campground, located five miles from the picturesque town of Bar Harbor, is the largest with 275 sites while Seawall Campground is smaller and more secluded. Schoodic Woods Campground, scheduled to open September 2015, is the park’s newest option.
For History: Technically, Gettysburg isn’t one of the 58 national park mentioned above, since it’s a national military park -- but when it comes to history, it can’t be beat. Here, you can explore the battlefield that changed the course of the Civil War on your own or with a licensed battlefield guide (from $65). On weekends, spring through fall, volunteer living history organizations offer free programs that provide additional insight into the conflict.
For Romance: The National Park System has an entire campaign, I Heart Parks, devoted to its most romantic destinations, but Virgin Islands National Park gets our vote. Its more than 7,000 acres cover 75 percent of St. John Island and include 5,600 acres of offshore aquatic habitat. Hike, snorkel, sail, kayak, paddleboard, or just relax on the sandy beach with a fruity drink and your significant other.
For Wildlife: Yellowstone National Park is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, plus 300 species of birds, four species of amphibians, and six species of reptiles. Watch for grizzly bears, wolves, bighorn sheep, bison, elk, mountain goats, and mule deer. (Just remember to keep a safe distance -- every year, park visitors are injured by wildlife when they get too close.)
For Photography: Some of the nation’s most iconic scenery can be found in our national parks, but Grand Canyon National Park -- at one mile deep, 18 miles wide, and 277 miles long -- offers endless photographic opportunities. Plus, you can spend the day in one spot on the rim and see the scene before you fluidly change as light plays on the canyon walls.
For Stargazing: Far from the light pollution of civilization, Bryce Canyon National Park offers a sky so dark that you can see 7,500 stars on a moonless night. Participate in one of the park’s astronomy programs during the week of a new moon for best viewing, or, for a total immersion experience, attend the park’s Annual Astronomy Festival that includes four days of stellar activities.
For Birding: One of the main reasons Everglades National Park was set aside was to protect the birds that inhabit its 1.5 million acres. The park has nine designated bird watching spots, but its Anhinga Trail is among the most famous bird walks in the world. Bring your binoculars to glimpse species ranging from the reclusive American Bittern to the more common Flamingo.