Llamas, Sand-Sledding, and Afternoon Tea: The National Parks Like You’ve Never Experienced Them Before

 Getty


Veteran travelers of national parks may think they’ve done it all, but not so fast: There are 417 sites managed by the National Park Service, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy each of them. We talked to non-profits, NPS officials and our team of outdoors-loving editors to compile a short list of National Park activities and spots that are a bit off the beaten path, and just plain cool. 

Lookout Point Trail at Wind Cave National Park – Most people who go to Wind Cave don’t go beyond the national park’s namesake, but there’s plenty of exploring to do above ground. Lookout Point Trail offers views of the prairies in the Black Hills. If you’re looking go farther than the roughly two-mile hike, you can add on the more demanding trails Centennial and Highland Creek.

Kayaking to Sea Caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – Check out the sea caves at Apostle Islands from right on the water. Kayak to Devils Island, Swallow Point on the eastern part of Sand Island and the western part of the mainland. Just make sure you know what you’re doing before you leave Lake Superior’s shore.

Joshua Trees in Mojave National Preserve – The largest concentration of Joshua trees isn’t in Joshua Tree National Park. Instead, it’s close by in Mojave National Preserve. Drive to the Teutonia Peak Trailhead on Cima Road. On the trail, you’ll gain 700 feet in elevation and hike for 3.4 miles through the Joshua trees. At the peak, look out and see the Cima Dome, a granite rock that towers several hundred feet over the desert floor.

Hike with Llamas at Yellowstone National Park – Yes, you read that right. If you’re sick of carrying all your gear, take a llama along for the hike. A few outfitters are available set you up with llamas and guides for your trip. Ken Stepanik, owner of Llama Trips in Yellowstone, says it’s a great way for less experienced hikers to see the backcountry. Just make sure you follow these regulations.

Stargazing at Big Bend National Park – Some national parks can be enjoyed during all hours of the day. Big Bend National Park boasts the least light pollution of any national park in the contiguous United States. You can stargaze from any location in the park (that you’re legally allowed to be, of course), but the best areas are ones away from trees and campsites.

Sled in the Sand at White Sands National Monument – Plastic sleds don’t have to stay in storage in the summer. Dust them off, head to White Sands in New Mexico and slide down some sand dunes. If you don’t have your own saucer, you can buy one at the gift shop.

Alcove House at Bandelier National Monument – Climb the stone stairs and wooden ladders to reach the dome-like Alcove House, where more than 20 Ancestral Pueblo people lived. Be warned, the area will be closed for a period of time in September for ladder replacement.

Hike through the Rainforest at Olympic National Park – Take the South Fork Hoh River Trail through the rainforest in Washington. It’s an easy hike and only 4.2 miles, but you’ll feel like you’re in another part of the world.

Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park – Stopping for afternoon tea might be last on your “to do” list for a visit to Acadia National Park, but one trip to the Jordan Pond House will change your mind. It’s located right off the Park Loop Road and, at certain times of day, it can take a while to get a table. The wait is worth it, though, if only for the popovers, a doughy roll you can smear with butter and jam. After you eat, you can walk around Jordan Pond and go to the Bubble Rock Overlook.