Our Favorite National Park Experiences

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There is something truly profound about seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time… or watching Old Faithful erupt… or seeing Half Dome lit up at sunset. We have spent the past 12 years exploring our country through the parks and had some truly exceptional moments. These are our favorite National Park experiences. 

While each of the 400+ units of the National Park Service has something unique to offer, some of the things you can do simply transcend from “Ooh, that’s something you need to do when you go!” to “That was life-changing and I will keep telling this story my entire life.”

We have had several of those moments in our travels and these are the ones we keep talking about years later.

(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

Visiting the Josie Morris Cabin

Dinosaur National Monument, Utah

Unlike some of the National Park experiences below, this doesn’t take a lot of effort to do or significant prior planning. Just head out the Cub Creek Road from the Quarry Visitor Center until the road ends. There, you will find the cabin.

The cabin is just a small homesteader’s cabin, built by hand along Cub Creek at the base of a box canyon. It’s not the building, but rather it’s the story of this amazing woman that inspires. 

Box Canyon
The Box Canyon near Josie Morris’ cabin

Josie Morris was a tough, independent woman who lived life on her own terms. She married five times, divorcing four times. After her last divorce, she didn’t have the money to buy a home, so she homesteaded. She lived and worked that land for 50 years as a rancher. 

In that time, she garnered a reputation as a tough, hard-working woman. She was also someone with a healthy disdain for rules and the law. She was a bootlegger during Prohibition and was accused twice of cattle rustling. 

Josie Morris Cabin
The Josie Morris Cabin

The independence and toughness of this woman is just one reason I love this story. I teach Morris’s story in my American Literature course when I cover the frontier stories following the Civil War. This is just one part of the epic nature of Dinosaur National Monument! 

Read more about our visit to Dinosaur National Monument.

Hike to Fort Bowie

Fort Bowie National Historic Site, Arizona

In most parks, the first thing you do is hit the visitor center and then go out to explore. Fort Bowie National Historic Site is just the opposite. In fact, you have to hike about 1.5 miles just to get to the visitor center!

What makes this particular National Park experience so significant is you are literally hiking through the history of this place as you go. During the hike, you will walk by the Apache Pass Butterfield Overland Stage Station and the Apache Spring.

The Fort Bowie Post Cemetery. Several of the graves are for Civil War veterans who fell to the Apache.
The Fort Bowie Post Cemetery. Several of the graves are for Civil War veterans who fell to the Apache.

The Apache Spring is one of the only reliable sources of freshwater for miles. As such, Apache Pass became an important part of the Southern Emigrant Trail and a hotspot for conflict with the Chiricahua Apache. 

It was here that Cochise, the famed Apache leader, was arrested and the resulting standoff led to the Battle of Apache Pass, which started an 11-year war with the Apache tribe. 

As you hike in, you will see all of these significant locations with exhibits explaining what happened. If you take the other trail back to the parking lot, turning the hike into a loop, it will take you to the spot where the Apaches fired down upon the Army. 

Be sure to take the return trail over the ridge at Fort Bowie to get some amazing views like this.
Be sure to take the return trail over the ridge at Fort Bowie to get some amazing views like this.

In all, this hike tells several tremendous stories of people determined to carve a living out of one of the most inhospitable places in the US and the struggle over the most important resources for miles: fresh water.

It’s an epic hike.

Read more about our visit to Fort Bowie National Historic Site and about our favorite hikes.

Remoteness of Isle Royale

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Isle Royale National Park is the least visited National Park in the lower 48 and I completely understand why. It’s located in the middle of Lake Superior. Just getting to the park is difficult and costly. If you don’t have your own boat or float plane, you are gonna need to take a ferry which takes three hours. 

But once you get there, it is immediately clear that the effort for this National Park experience was worth it! Even among the relative “busyness” of the Rock Harbor Lodge area, it is easy to just walk a few steps down the trail to find solitude. 

The rugged coast of Isle Royale National Park.
The rugged coast of Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale is the least visited of the designated National Parks outside of Alaska.

Just be careful when you head out for your solitude because the one thing you will find is plenty of moose and you never know when you will come around the bend and see a 1,000-pound animal staring at you.

While the lodge itself is fairly spartan, the real attraction is the balcony overlooking Lake Superior. The best part was sitting out, enjoying a beer and letting the sound of the lake just melt the worry and stress of life away. 

Moose near Rock Harbor Lodge at Isle Royale National Park.
Moose near Rock Harbor Lodge at Isle Royale National Park.

We only spent one night here but it was truly amazing. The quiet, the beauty and the ability to disconnect from the world make this one of the ultimate getaways. We are very much looking forward to a return visit. 

Read more about spending a night at Isle Royale National Park

Backcountry Camping in Big Bend

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Speaking of remote, I think this is the most remote we have ever been. We camped in the backcountry of Big Bend National Park in Texas and I don’t think there was another person for 10, maybe 20, miles of our campsite. 

We camped at the Solis 2 campsite just off River Road. Our campground was just a couple miles from the Rio Grande. It was the perfect place to enjoy solitude and the night skies of West Texas. Seriously, you are so far from any light sources, your night skies will be breathtaking.

Cooking Dinner
Grant cooking dinner in the shade of the truck at our campsite.

Getting here is a bit of a challenge. You need a high clearance vehicle and I recommend having four-wheel drive just in case. River Road is a 51-mile unimproved road connecting the east and west areas of the park. While we were out there, we saw some park volunteers looking for broken down vehicles. Out here, you have to be prepared to handle any problems you might run into. 

While driving River Road is a favorite of our National Park experiences in itself, the destination is just as rewarding. There’s just something so cool about sitting in a camp chair along the Rio Grande, watching Mexican horses graze and cross the river. There is something so liberating about being completely on your own. 

Morning on the Rio Grande
We got up early to check out sunrise along the Rio Grande from our campsite. This spot was also perfect for relaxing in the shade and just enjoy the river.

The remoteness of the backcountry in Big Bend National Park IS the experience.

Read more about Big Bend National Park here.

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Following our honeymoon, we had a couple of Alaskan Airlines credits that were going to expire. Living in Atlanta, flying Alaskan Airlines is not an easy thing to do. We had been to Yellowstone National Park before while we were dating but I had never been in the winter. Bonnie had when she was younger and said we really needed to go.

I wasn’t as gung ho about the trip. I had seen plenty of snow while in the Army and really didn’t want any part of it. So, she showed me some nature shows on what life is like in Yellowstone during the winter and I was sold. 

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park
Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park. In the winter, most of the park is only accessible via snow vehicles.

We signed up for an overnight tour that took us from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful and back. 

Wow! This is one of the best National Park experiences I can imagine!

Yellowstone changes so much in the winter and it boggled my mind. We stopped at various turnouts, saw frozen waterfalls and got to walk the boardwalk at one of the thermal areas. We even saw a bison standing in the thermal area enjoying the warm temperatures!

This bison is hanging out by a thermal feature to stay warm.
Bison in a thermal in Yellowstone National Park in the winter.

As in the summer, bison go wherever they want in the park and we ran into bison walking along the road a couple of times as we made our way through the park, which was a bit hair-raising!

A note of caution: we were able to really enjoy our experiences in the cold because we had good cold-weather gear. Having good synthetic or wool clothing will make all the difference in how much you enjoy sub-zero temperatures.

Read more about hiking in the winter.

Indeed, while we were walking the boardwalk, I could feel myself start to sweat. So, I took off my helmet and beanie to wipe the sweat out of my hair. By the time I got my hand to my head, my sweat had frozen! I never took my beanie off again!

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the winter

Winter in Yellowstone is truly breathtaking and the best way to see the parts of the park where the roads aren’t plowed is by snowmobile! We highly recommend it!

Canoeing Nine Mile Pond in the Everglades

Everglades National Park, Florida

This is one of the few ranger-led tours we have ever done and it was excellent! 

We met early one morning with a ranger and paddled out following the canoe trail with a park ranger in the lead. As we paddled among the mangroves and grass, we saw tons of wildlife. You realize very quickly that in spite of the water being very dark, it is actually quite clear. 

According to the ranger, these mangroves were blown into the midst of the Everglades by a hurricane and are not growing all that well due to the lack of saltwater.
According to the ranger, these mangroves were blown into the midst of the Everglades by a hurricane and are not growing all that well due to the lack of salt water.

We saw birds galore plus alligators at every turn. It is one thing to see an alligator from the boardwalk. It is another thing entirely to see a large bull alligator bellow for a mate while you are in a canoe! 

One of the stars of this particular tour is “Croczilla,” a massive 13-foot crocodile (yes, there are both crocodiles and alligators in the Everglades). Sadly, we did not see him while on the tour but we saw where he normally hangs out. 

The only thing creepier than hearing a gator growl at you while paddling by is watching large bull gator bellow for a mate.
The only thing creepier than hearing a gator growl at you while paddling by is watching large bull gator bellow for a mate.

You can paddle the canoe trail on your own but keep an eye out for the trail markers. They can be quite easy to miss in the mangroves. 

 Seriously, canoeing Nine Mile Pond was one of our truly epic National Park experiences. Just taking a moment to sit among the sawgrass and enjoy the quiet is one of the most rewarding parts of this trail.

Read more about Everglades National Park here.

Final Thoughts on Our Favorite National Park Experiences

Visiting our national parks has become a huge part of our lives. We are constantly planning our next trip to visit a park site. 

Grant and Bonnie hiking the trail to Fort Bowie NHS.
Heading into some snow/freezing rain on the 1.5-mile trail to Fort Bowie NHS.

After 12 years and more than 240 sites, these are the experiences we look back on most fondly. We know we have a long way to go and there is a lot more to see and do. But we also hope you can take these ideas as inspiration for your own travels and find your own amazing national park experiences. 

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. We can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.

We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.

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