Last Updated July 16, 2021 7/16/2021

12 Best Excursions in U.S. National Parks (Plus The Best Lodges for Your Visit)

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Whether you’re looking for a challenging thrill, a nearly effort-free excursion or something in between, America’s national parks provide it all. Many host lodges that offer accommodation right inside the park along with opportunities to book right at reception. These national park and park lodges are renowned for their outdoor adventures, some of the most unforgettable you’ll find anywhere.

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Glacier Bay Lodge, Glacier Bay National Park - Gustavus, Alaska
Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay Lodge, Glacier Bay National Park - Gustavus, Alaska

Glacier Bay Lodge doesn’t just offer unforgettable outdoor activities, it offers life-changing experiences. The scenic beauty of Glacier Bay National Park is unrivalled, with dramatic mountain peaks and turquoise water in every direction, along with multiple glaciers and abundant wildlife. The daily Glacier Bay boat tour that departs from the lodge in Bartlett Cove during the summer will bring you out with National Park Service naturalists to discover it all.

This is your chance to get face-to-face with glaciers like Margerie — 250 feet high and nearly 21 miles long — while experiencing the incredible sights and sounds of iceberg calving. Along the way, some of the animals that can be spotted include everything from whales, sea lions, and sea otters to bald eagles, coastal brown bears and mountain goats. After your excursion, look forward to a tasty meal enjoyed with a spectacular view and comfortable accommodation at the lodge.

Bear School at Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park - Alaska
Brown bear, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Bear School at Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park - Alaska

Katmai National Park is one of America’s most remote national parks. It is home to the world’s largest population of coastal grizzlies and Brooks Camp is renowned for its bear viewing opportunities as one of the most accessible sites in the park. This unique place was designed to protect bears and people. It requires a brief “Bear School” orientation and safety talk at the visitor center that outlines park regulations. During the peak of the salmon migration in July, you’ll be able to watch bears fish for salmon all along the Brooks River, especially concentrated at Brooks Falls with multiple viewing platforms available. Lodging is available at Brooks Lodge from early June throughout mid-September. Be sure to book well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Far View Lodge, Mesa Verde National Park - Colorado
Ranger at Mesa Verde National Park

Far View Lodge, Mesa Verde National Park - Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park is a UNSECO World Heritage Site home to North America’s most well-preserved archeological sites. By staying at Far View Lodge, you’ll have easy access to hiking trails and the preserved dwellings, like the the 700-year-old Mesa Verde Cliff Palace. It’s a trip back in time that provides an in-depth look at the lives of the Puebloan people that inhabited the area for 600 years. Private tours can be customized to allow for climbing to the park’s highest point for a 360-degree view that looks out onto all of the four corner states (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico), as well as the chance to explore the remarkable archeological sites.

Many Glacier Hotel, Glacier National Park - Montana
Many Glaciers area of Glacier National Park, Montana

Many Glacier Hotel, Glacier National Park - Montana

In this stunning land of big lakes, guests of Glacier National Park in northern Montana can take advantage of boat tours, including Many Glacier that also offers accommodation at the Many Glacier Hotel. Cruises are taken on a historic wooden boat starting from the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, which is right below the hotel. You’ll travel to Lake Josephine where you can join a guided hike or take a self-guided hike before returning across both lakes back to the departure point. The mountain chalet-style hotel includes a lake beach, pool and an upscale restaurant.

Phantom Ranch at Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona
Mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and Phantom Ranch

Phantom Ranch at Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona

For those looking for a classic thrill in the Grand Canyon, guided rides can be taken on a mule, the time-honored way to explore, carrying guests since the late 1800s. It’s one of the most unique ways to see the park with overnight rides the most memorable. You’ll head deep inside the canyon to Phantom Ranch — which can only be accessed by mule, foot or raft — sitting at the bottom on the east side of Bright Angel Creek. The 1920s lodge is made up of rustic cabins and dorms, and also has a canteen serving breakfast, packed lunches and dinner.

Grande Denali Lodge, Denali National Park - Alaska
Moose in Denali National Park, Alaska

Grande Denali Lodge, Denali National Park - Alaska

Denali National Park is spread across more than six million acres with the landscape made up of mountains that include North America’s highest peak — Mount Denali, which soars into the skies above at 20,310 feet — along with sparkling lakes and iconic wildlife. It’s inhabited by black and grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, Dall’s sheep, moose, and many other animals. There are several tours that bring opportunities to see them, including the Tundrea Wilderness Tour, a classic excursion that provides an in-depth look at the park’s history with a certified driver-naturalist traveling up to 62 miles into the park while watching for wildlife and photographic opportunities. Tours can be arranged by hotels like Grande Denali Lodge on Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Crater Lake Lodge, Crater Lake National Park - Oregon
Crater Lake, Oregon

Crater Lake Lodge, Crater Lake National Park - Oregon

At Crater Lake National Park, boat tours will bring you across the deepest lake in the country at nearly 2,000 feet deep. The intense blue shade of the still waters is surreal, reflecting the mountain peaks and sheer cliffs that surrounded it like a massive mirror. A two-hour cruise brings one of the most stunning perspectives and the chance to visit landmarks like Wizard Island, Phantom Ship and more. The half-day tour includes a stop at Wizard Island with time for hiking or fishing too. At Crater Lake Lodge, overlooking the lake at Rim Village, you can book your tour while enjoying the ideal base for all park activities.

Yosemite National Park - California
Classic Yosemite Valley

Yosemite National Park - California

One of the most popular things to do in Yosemite, other than simply gazing out at the breathtaking scenery, is to climb to the top of El Capitan — the largest single clock of exposed granite in the world. The vertical challenge provides a huge thrill and can be enjoyed through Yosemite Mountaineering School, which offers the only authorized climbing guides in the park. There are multiple lodging options available, including Yosemite Valley Lodge near the base of Yosemite Falls.

Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado
Horsebacking riding in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado

During the summer, those who visit Rocky Mountain National Park can take advantage of one of two stables for horseback riding right in the park: Glacier Creek Stables and Moraine Park Stables. You’ll be able to explore the unparalleled beauty with high mountain peaks, lush meadows, steams, and alpine lakes while encountering all sorts of wildlife. Keep an eye out for everything from elk and moose to Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Estes Park is the gateway to the national park at its eastern entrance and offers a wide range of accommodation options like the iconic Stanley Hotel.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area - Page, Arizona
Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area - Page, Arizona

The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is focused around Glen Canyon, carved by the Colorado River, offering unparalleled opportunities for water-based recreation enjoyed with jaw-dropping scenic vistas and geologic wonders. One of the best ways to experience it is to join the half-day Horseshoe Bend Rafting Trip, available to all ages and abilities. You’ll float 15 miles down the river, stopping at some of the most impressive sites, including Petroglyph Beach with a fascinating archeological site. Lake Powell Resort offers rooms in the park that are close to the lake and the rafting departure point.

Snorkeling Biscayne National Park - Homestead, Florida
Credit: nps.gov
Biscayne National Park

Snorkeling Biscayne National Park - Homestead, Florida

Biscayne National Park features islands and a shoreline mangrove forest in the northern Florida Keys. It can only be accessed by boat, but your captain/guide, a staff member of the Biscayne National Park Institute, will tell you all about the interconnected habitats and history of the area on a sailboat snorkeling/dividing tour. The full day trips bring the chance to spot dolphins, rays, sea turtles, manatees and lots of colorful fish. Divers can even visit shipwrecks. You’ll start and end at the Biscayne National Park headquarters at Convoy Point in Homestead, which also offers a variety of accommodation options like the highly-rated and budget-friendly Courtyard by Marriott Miami Homestead.

Lake Quinault Tours at Lake Quinault Lodge, Olympic National Park - Washington
Merriman Falls near Lake Quinault Lodge, Olympic National Park, Washington

Lake Quinault Tours at Lake Quinault Lodge, Olympic National Park - Washington

Olympic National Park is incredibly lush, home to moss-draped trees, lakes, waterfalls, and even a rugged coastline with wild, driftwood-strewn beaches. At Lake Quinault Lodge, guests can take advantage of guided day boat tours on Lake Quinault, enjoying the sights from a water perspective while watching for wildlife. The one-of-a-kind Quinault Rainforest Tour is another great option, that will take you deep into the rainforest while learning about Quinault Indian Nation history, early expedition discoveries, and animals like black bears and bald eagles that inhabit the area.

The historic lodge itself sits right along the lake shoreline providing spectacular views and opportunities for other outdoor activities, with kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes available for rent.

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