In the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau wrote of the need for “little oases of wilderness in the desert of our civilization.” Although Yellowstone—the world’s first national park—wouldn’t be established for decades, the author could have hardly captured our need for America’s 59 national parks more vividly and succinctly. Somehow, it’s all too easy to forget the splendor in our own backyard. There’s no better time than summer to discover or reacquaint ourselves with these primordial landscapes strewn with geological wonders, from green-tufted valleys to rocky pinnacles. This guide reveals five, from California to Maine, in all of their glory.
Joshua Tree National Park
The desert is hot this time of year—but then again, the desert is supposed to be hot, and during the off-season, Joshua Tree (74485 National Park Dr., Twentynine Palms; 760-367-5500; seven-day pass, $25 a vehicle) doesn’t dissemble. In summer, you can spend the early mornings and evenings traversing its otherworldly grounds.
The park’s namesake tree sprouts from fields of sand like a piece of coral up from the ocean: a sculptural and surprising hub for other forms of life. You may find a ladder-backed woodpecker nesting in its trunk, a yucca moth fluttering around its blooms or a lizard crawling about its roots. Frequent pullovers make it easy to admire the trees on your way to one of the highest drive-to sites in the desert, Keys View, which overlooks Coachella Valley and Palm Springs. Or head to the Hidden Valley to walk among massive Jenga-like rocks. The one-mile nature loop snaking out from the picnic area is doable with kids.
In the afternoon, consider wandering the towns of Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, which cling to the park’s northern border. To blend in with the locals, you can outfit yourself in boho chic at Promised Land (55838 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Yucca Valley; 760-853-0252). Los Angeles transplant Anessa Woods (co-owner along with Paul Fogt) gives friendly advice to shoppers browsing the shop’s selection of vintage leather belts or Ferragamo booties. Continue down the road for more shops, or if you’re satisfied with your new duds, check out the area’s blossoming desert-influenced art scene. At Joshua Tree Art Gallery (61607-B Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree; 760-366-3636), you may find the work of Barbara Spiller, whose encaustic monoprints depict the desert floor. Down a slim dirt road, you’ll find trays, tires and trash that have been transformed into Dadaesque sculptures at the outdoor Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art (63030 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree; admission, free). And don’t miss the tiny, unmanned World Famous Crochet Museum (61855 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree; admission, free), open 24/7. Just big enough for two, this lime green curiosity is packed with crocheted oddities, from burritos to teacups.
Summer is peak stargazing season at Joshua Tree. On moonless nights you can spot the Milky Way and shimmering global clusters—thousands of stars pulled together by gravity into a spherical form. For a personalized tour, book with Coyote Telescope Tours (844-648-3759; tours, from $140 a group). Owner Darryl Hammonds leads expeditions to the northeastern border of the park, where there’s little light pollution, and points out newborn stars from the Swan Nebula.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Volcanic rocks crashed together 1.7 billion years ago to create the core of the humbling crests of the range that now forms Rocky Mountain National Park (1000 U.S. Hwy. 36, Estes Park; 970-586-1206; seven-day pass, $30 a vehicle). Here it’s all about heroic proportions: Visitors can walk the jagged Continental Divide and ascend to elevations that cool the landscape until it resembles the Alaskan Arctic.
Estes Park, celebrating its centennial in 2017, makes for a convenient base, and since shuttles usher travelers between the town and the park, you can leave the car behind for some activities. Consider grabbing a bite before you go. Made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls typically sell out by the time Cinnamon’s Bakery (920 W. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park; 970-480-1501; pastries for two, $6) closes at 10 a.m., while down the road, The Taffy Shop (121 W. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park; 970-586-4548) sells old-fashioned candy that you can carry with you for an energy boost on hikes.
Inside the park, dozens of waterfalls and alpine pools deck the mountains. Lily Lake offers a fishing pier and stroller access, making it a great pick for the whole family. The Trail Ridge Road, a scenic route that bisects the park, curves upward to more than 12,000 feet high, pushing past the tree line as ponderosa pines give way to alpine tundra. It’s the most elevated highway in the U.S., and temperatures at the top often dip 20 to 30 degrees below the temperature in Estes Park.
After a day of exploring, you’ll want to unwind. Triumphant mountaineers sitting on the patio can keep their gaze on the Rockies while sipping craft cocktails at Elkins Distilling Co. (1825 N. Lake Ave., Estes Park; 970-480-1848; drinks for two, from $15).
Shenandoah National Park
Tens of thousands of animals make their homes among the hollows and hollers of this southern stretch of Appalachia. Most travelers cross the park by way of Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. But no visit to Shenandoah (3655 U.S. Hwy. 211 E., Luray; 540-999-3500; seven-day pass, $25 a vehicle) is complete without pulling over for an unencumbered look at its more than 500 miles of trails. The park comes alive in summer, when yellow touch-me-nots bloom by its streams and trailside bluet flowers cheer on passersby.
Heading south, the path to Marys Rock begins at mile 31.6 of the drive. Travelers can sample the Appalachian Trail on their way to the rock’s summit, where the valley gracefully billows out below. A little farther down, you can stop at Thorofare Mountain Overlook for views of Old Rag Mountain and Hogback Mountain. President Herbert Hoover was so taken with Shenandoah’s scenery that he built Rapidan Camp (877-444-6777; admission, $10), his summer retreat, here. Anyone can hike to the grounds, but history buffs may want to call ahead to reserve a ranger-led tour of the property, which became a refuge for Hoover during the Depression.
If you’re staying around Harrisonburg, you can load up on sandwiches and snacks at Heritage Bakery & Café (212 S. Main St., Harrisonburg; 540-564-1200; lunch for two, $20*) before hitting the road. Or stop by afterward to reward yourself with gigantic molasses cookies and Italian macaroons.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee and North Carolina
America’s most visited national park is an extravagant version of its slightly northern counterpart, Shenandoah. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park (1420 Little River Rd., Gatlinburg, TN; 856-436-1200; admission, free), the Appalachians are wilder, grander and shrouded in mist. Fewer roads pass through the park, although with 848 miles of trails, there are plenty of options for experiencing its forests and wetlands.
More than two million people each year visit Cades Cove, a wide valley with ample wildlife on the Tennessee side of the park. The Cherokee lived here until Europeans built settlements, and three churches, several log cabins, a working mill and other 18th- and 19th-century structures from those villages still stand. Near the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the park as well as Tennessee. It’s a half-mile walk to the observation tower atop the mountain, and on clear days you can see out over hemlocks and hills for 100 miles. On the North Carolina side, travelers looking for shade and calm can hike the canopied Oconaluftee River Trail, which ends at a gathering of historic buildings.
Stay on theme with dinner at The Park Grill (1110 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN; 856-436-2300; dinner for two, $50). Servers dress as park rangers and carry plates loaded down with pecan chicken and slow-roasted ribs. Don’t leave the area without picking up a piece of Appalachia to call your own at Pigeon River Pottery (175 Old Mill Ave., Pigeon Forge, TN; 865-453-1104). Many of the handcrafted pieces are embellished with dogwood and other inspiration from the mountains.
Acadia National Park
New England’s only national park, Acadia (20 McFarland Hill Dr., Bar Harbor; 207-288-3338; seven-day pass, $25 a vehicle), extends across almost half of Maine’s Mount Desert Island. During the 1880s, the Vanderbilts, Astors and other prominent families established cottages here. Today, thanks to mostly private donations, many of the island’s 69,000 acres of forests, lakes and mountains are open to everyone.
Summer days in Acadia are long and popular, so try to catch the park’s iconic spots before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m., when the crowds lessen. You can use Acadia’s free shuttle bus, the Island Explorer (207-288-4573), to get around. In the early 1900s, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had 45 miles of carriage roads constructed in the park, and they’re now the main thoroughfares for hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
Rise early to watch dawn break from atop Cadillac Mountain, the tallest summit along the North Atlantic seaboard. If you take the Cadillac North Ridge Trail, it’s about an hour-and-a-half hike to the top, but plan on stops so you can snap photos of Eagle Lake to the west and Dorr Mountain to the east. Or, for less frequented treks, consider Bald Peak, Parkman Mountain or Norumbega instead. Paths along these three mountains cut through Acadia’s quiet gullies and evergreen thickets.
In the afternoon, a more-than-century-old tradition of tea on the lawn endures at Jordan Pond House (207-276-3316; afternoon tea for two, $40). Once you’ve had your fill of popovers smothered in Maine strawberry jam, you can make your way to the southwest corner of the park to bookend the day with another spectacular view. Built in 1858, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse is still active and has no public access, but that doesn’t deter visitors from circling at sunset, camera at the ready, for one more shot of an American touchstone.
RCI® affiliated resorts near the featured destinations:
A game room and arts-and-crafts program round out the kid-friendly activities at this retreat. 34576 Cathedral Canyon Dr., Cathedral City, CA
Member Review: “Extremely clean with top-notch staff.”
Opportunities to relax in the water abound at this resort with a lazy river, pool and five whirlpools. 42-151 Worldmark Way, Indio, CA
Member Review: Not yet rated
This resort is a short trip to town, where you can find entertainment and shopping. 97 Summit Dr., Newry, ME
Member Review: “Love the pool and hot tub area.”
Many units come equipped with a private hot tub and afford views of Mt. Chauncey. 96 Mountainside Dr., Granby, CO
Member Review: “Our condo was so spacious!”
Dine at two family-friendly restaurants on-site. 0047 E. Beaver Creek Blvd., Avon, CO
Member Review: “Lots to do in the area and beyond!”
An adventurer’s paradise, with golfing, fishing, skiing and hiking trails on-site. 1822 Resort Dr., McGaheysville, VA
Member Review: “Large and luxurious units!”
Shares amenities with Eagle Trace at Massanutten. 1822 Resort Dr., McGahesville, VA
Member Review: “Can’t beat the location.”
Pet-friendly units sleep up to eight and are equipped with a full-service kitchen. 2565 Orkney Grade, Mount Jackson, VA
Member Review: “Great views of the mountains.”
Enjoy horseback riding along the on-site trails. 200 Appleseed Ct., Clarkesville, GA
Member Review: “Peaceful and comfortable.”
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, kids can enjoy the outdoors with a playground, waterslides and paddleboats. 273 Carrie Cox Dr., Helen, GA
Member Review: “Walking distance to downtown.”
Suites include private balconies overlooking the Androscoggin River. 357 Mayville Rd., Bethel, ME
Member Review: “Great location close to White Mountain National Forest!”
Having trouble choosing which national park to visit? Many RCI® Travel Guided Vacations** itineraries feature stops at multiple scenic national parks and other iconic natural wonders, while also taking the hassle out of your vacation planning. Visit RCITravelGuidedVacations.com for more information.
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Other Vacation Options
Zen Mountain Bungalow
A midcentury modern vacation home in artsy Cathedral City, less than 10 miles from Palm Springs. 68435 Bahada Rd.; Cathedral City, CA; 866-921-2710; vacationpalmsprings.com; from $455 a night
This four-bedroom, four-bathroom gated guesthouse also offers a private pool. 342 W. Via Sol, Palm Springs, CA; 866-921-2710; vacationpalmsprings.com; from $898 a night
The Stanley Hotel
The Stanley Hotel was the inspiration for the setting of Stephen King’s The Shining and puts on nighttime ghost tours. 333 E. Wonderview Ave., Estes Park, CO; 970-577-4000; stanleyhotel.com; doubles from $270 a night
Built in 1830, the boutique property consists of 12 recently renovated rooms, many with their own kitchen. 2 S. Court St., Luray, VA; 540-742-7060; hotellaurance.com; doubles from $150 a night
Baskins Creek Condos by Wyndham Vacation Rentals
Within walking distance to downtown Gatlinburg, the resort features private balconies and mountain views. 215 Woliss Lane, Gatlinburg, TN; 877-237-9055; wyndhamvacationrentals.com; from $129 a night
Glades View Condos by Wyndham Vacation Rentals
A tranquil retreat set in a peaceful wooden area. 532 Gatlin Dr., Gatlinburg, TN; 877-237-9055; wyndhamvacationrentals.com; from $99 a night
Breakfast is included at this cozy inn overlooking the harbor. Specialties include lemon soufflé pancakes with warm berry sauce. 16 The Field, Bar Harbor, ME; 207-288-9552; ullikana.com; doubles from $245 a night
- *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- **RCI Travel Guided Vacations is administered by International Cruise & Excursion Gallery, Inc. d/b/a/ Our Vacation Center and/or ICE, a Delaware Corporation, with its principal place of business at 15501 N. Dial Blvd., Scottsdale, Arizona under contract with RCI, LLC. RCI disclaims all responsibility in connection with any third-party travel services.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Summer 2017