If you’ve been here a while, you probably know that we’re pretty big U.S. National Park fans. They’re incredible and diverse spaces of beauty, reflection, and connection. There are more than enough things to do in national parks for any person or family. We also feel very thankful to the indigenous communities who protected them for so long and hope to work to restore some of their access and protections.
Although my husband’s family also visited national parks extensively when he was growing up, my family did almost not at all. So when we started exploring them, I really had no idea what to expect other than “hikes.” I also didn’t grow up having any clue what hiking actually entailed, and didn’t know if I’d enjoy it.
It turns out that I fell in love with hiking, but along the way, I realized there’s so many more activities to enjoy at national parks, too.
Perhaps accessibility limitations have you seeking other activities. Or maybe you’re traveling with young children or elderly relatives unaccustomed to more strenuous activity. Or maybe you just plain don’t like hiking. That’s all okay! And there’s plenty of things for you to enjoy in the US national park system, too.
Here are 25+ incredible activities to do in national parks aside from hiking!
Things To Do In National Parks (Other Than Hiking)
The Best National Park Scenic Drives
National Parks generally receive their designations because of some sort of natural beauty. And part of the mission of a national park is to make it accessible to the public to enjoy. While of course there are varying levels of accessibility and varying road access, most national parks have some driveable areas, typically with some beautiful vistas along the way. This means you can enjoy the national park scenery right from your car! Even parks that are largely underground (like those featuring caves) typically have beautiful landscapes above ground, too.
Biking in A National Park
Many national parks also allow biking. Some allow off-road biking, while others have well-maintained bike paths that are suitable even for young children and bike trailers. Some of our favorite parks with great paved bike trails that work with little ones (and are also accessible for large portions) include Grand Teton National Park, Olympic National Park, Everglades National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Visit Indigenous Communities & Demonstrations
A number of national parks have indigenous communities located within them or nearby. These lands were often forcibly taken by those communities, so supporting and advocating for them, especially financially, is important in restoring some of their land rights. Some of the national parks with indigenous communities offering meals, performances, handicrafts, and more, are Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, Olympic, Wind Cave, Zion, Saguaro, Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, Voyageurs, Haleakala, Hawaii Volcanoes, Everglades, Arches, and more.
Fishing in National Parks
Did you know that several national parks allow fishing within the boundaries? Fishing is a great, non-strenuous national park activity for all ages to enjoy. Some popular ones are Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Voyageurs, Glacier, and Biscayne.
Swimming – Favorite Activity in National Parks
Most national parks with water allow swimming – though you may not WANT to swim in all of them! For some, the water may be too cold in some places, or there might be certain algae or bacteria present. Always be sure to check current park conditions prior to swimming. Virgin Islands has to be our personal favorite for the gorgeous, clear warm waters!!
A great option for non-hiking national parks activities is boating! There are dozens of different boat options in different national parks. Some are located primarily in or on the water and a boat (or seaplane) is required to access them (or at least large parts of them). Some of these include Virgin Islands, Channel Islands, Dry Tortugas, Biscayne, and Isle Royale. Others offer ferry rides, lake tours, kayak and pedal boat rentals, private charters, airboats, river floating/rafting and more. Some favorite boat rides have included the ones above, along with Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, and Olympic.
Exploring the History of National Parks
History buffs will find plenty of things to love at national parks. Visitors centers often provide info on indigenous history, the history of the structures, history of the park’s designation, and more. The park websites are also great resources for learning more about the history of national parks!
Birding in National Parks
Another non-hiking national park activity is birding. Places like Channel Islands, Big Bend, and Dry Tortugas are remote and some of the very best birding locations in the country. Others like Acadia National Park and Everglades National Park are famous for specific, beautiful varieties that people come from all over the world to see.
Camping in National Parks
Most national parks allow some sort of camping, whether in a designated campground, for tent camping, RV camping, backcountry camping, etc. There are so many different options for different styles. It’s a great way to get out in and enjoy nature!
Not tons of national parks offer snorkeling opportunities, so be sure to take advantage of the opportunity if it comes your way! Snorkeling is one of the best things to do in Virgin Islands National Park, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas. Channel Islands allows you to explore the underwater landscape right from home!
Junior Ranger Booklets
One of our favorite kid activities in national parks is completing the Junior Ranger program. My kids love filling out the fun booklets and earning a badge or patch afterwards. And honestly, I usually learn just as much as they do! The Junior Ranger books are generally really well put together and super informative about the history, ecology, wildlife, and sites within the park. Many of them have started to include much more information about the indigenous history of the lands, which I really appreciate.
Adults are completely welcome to do them, too – which I highly recommend to learn more about the park!
National Park Photography & Art En Plein Air
Perhaps you prefer to sit and observe or create rather than get up and do. Relaxing, artistic activities at national parks exist too. After all, national parks provide perfect backdrops for that! Photography is one very popular pastime in many parks, but you may also want to consider bringing along a portable watercolor palette and some paper to create some beautiful art en plein air. Ansel Adams, for instance, was inspired to create complete complete sets of work on his time in Yosemite.
Wildlife Viewing – Kids Favorite Thing to Do in National Parks
This might be our kids #1 favorite thing to do in a national park – wildlife viewing! The best part is it’s so unique to whichever park you’re visiting. From large western animals to reptiles to insects and everything in between, there’s something to pique anyone’s interest.
Even if you don’t enjoy hiking, many parks have a few easy, accessible trails to go on a walk. This is a great opportunity to take in some special features of the park and get some fresh air.
Visit a Museum
Did you know that many national parks actually include a museum either within or near the visitors center? Some have beautiful exhibits on the cultural and ecological history of the area, including of local indigenous peoples. Others have specialty museums including art (like the Ansel Adams exhibit in Yosemite). Perfect for those who prefer exploring and learning indoors!
National parks often have terrific ranger programs throughout the day, and even at night. Some of these may involve hikes, while others may take you through caves, explain geological formations, explore forts and other structures, or even allow you to stargaze through fancy telescopes during dark sky programs.
Speaking of dark sky programs, stargazing is a favorite national park activity of ours. Light pollution is often very minimal, and there are several parks that are International Dark Sky Parks. (Great Basin, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Capitol Reef, Death Valley, Great Sand Dunes, and Petrified Forest are some of our favorites.)
Some parks actually offer motorized tours through the park boundaries to help you see some of the most beautiful areas and view wildlife. Everglades has a particularly terrific tram tour through Shark Valley!
Did you know you can actually go horseback riding within some national parks? Horseback riding is a great thing to do in Yellowstone, Acadia, and Rocky Mountain. They all provide fantastic opportunities to do this.
Many parks offer incredible climbing opportunities to both seasoned and new climbers. Some have specific areas intended for difficult climbing, and where you may even camp on the climb overnight. Others just have really fun boulders to climb for kids (Joshua Tree National Park is great for this activity). Whatever your climbing style, there’s definitely a national park that will be perfect for it.
If you want to go at a slower pace and are wondering what to do at national parks, perhaps sitting and enjoying food is a better option for you. National parks allow you to bring in your own food, so pack in a picnic and eat while enjoying fresh air and some stunning views. Just make sure to not leave anything behind (including trash and food scraps) and to practice appropriate wildlife safety while eating.
Soak in Hot Springs
Yes, relaxing in national parks is possible, too! Hot Springs National Park is, of course, named after its therapeutic warm waters. Several other parks include opportunities to soak in hot springs. Add soaking in hot springs to your list of things to do in Yellowstone National Park and Olympic National Park.
There are several cave specific National Park sites, of course – Mammoth Cafe, Wind Cave, and Carlsbad Caverns come to mind. But there are several others that include cave sites and tours, as well! Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park is a family favorite!
Snow & Sand Play
Lots of parks enjoy snowfall in the winter. A great wintertime national park activity is snow play! Whether you enjoy intense winter sports or just want to build snowpeople, there are lots of opportunities to play in the white stuff at our national parks.
If there’s not snow where you’re headed, there might be sand! A few parks are build entirely around sand, in fact. Both White Sands (in New Mexico) and Great Sand Dunes (in Colorado) celebrate their incredible dunes. Consider renting either a sled or a sand board for some extra fun.
If you’re not interested in bringing in a picnic to you national park visit, some of the bigger parks actually offer some finer dining opportunities! Glacier Hotel at Glacier National Park has gorgeous views of the lake and mountains while eating hot, locally sourced food. If you really want to go out, consider Yosemite’s Bracebridge Holiday Dinner, a fancy annual fine dining experience.
Tide pooling has to be one of our very favorite national park activities and we gravitate to it whenever it’s available within a national park (especially since that’s few and far between!). Redwood National Park & Olympic National Park have some of the best.
Fly in A Plane
A few national parks are so difficult to get to that they require either a fair-length ferry ride or a seaplane. So when considering what to do in national parks, a seaplane is a fun way to get to the Channel Islands, Dry Tortugas, or Isle Royale. You can also take a helicopter to the Stehekin area of North Cascades. If you visit Alaska, you’ll have to take a boat or plane to access 5 of the 8 national parks!
Yes, even shopping is available as a national park activity for those who don’t want to do hiking or like to be too far from civilization. Visitors centers gift shops are some of my favorite spots to pick up birthday and holiday gifts, especially for kids who love being outside (most of them). There are often terrific books (for children and adult), including often featuring local indigenous tribes. And my kids love the puzzles, exploring items, and more. Plus, a portion of the proceeds goes to support the national park!
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