The trick to a meaningful U.S. National Park visit? See the main attractions, but spend most of your time beneath the well-trodden surface. Instead of being distracted by busloads of tourists, you'll be captivated by each park's inspiring heart. Here are eight American National Park excursions that will steer you away from the general public and maybe give you a life-changing experience.
Days needed: 5
The U.S Geological Survey estimates that this Park's namesake glaciers will exist only in memory by 2030. All the more reason to see them now, but don't just show up—have your visit raise money for organizations dedicated to fighting glacier-melting climate change. The non-profit Climate Ride ($100 registration, minimum $2,800 in fundraising) hosts a yearly four-day hiking trip/fundraiser in August that's set up for in-shape beginners. Daily hikes take you to the most scenic parts of the park—Grinnell Glacier, Going-to-the-Sun-Road, Logan Pass, Lake McDonald, and Two Medicine Valley—with guides who are well versed in glacial climatology. By night you sleep in pre-set up tents in front of country campsites and enjoy food from a Climate Ride chef. On day five, you're rewarded for your hiking and good deeds with a day off your feet—a rafting journey down the Flathead River to the Park's west entrance.
Days needed: 1-6
You can hike, raft, ride a mule, fly over, or just enjoy the Grand Canyon's scenic overlooks, but the best way to get to the heart of this colossal place is to learn about the Canyon's role as a major sacred site to Native Americans. Get your facts firsthand from your Hopi guide on NDN2rs' day-long site seeing and art shopping drive on Grand Canyon View Road (from $350). Have more time? Try their 6-day Ancient Ways of the Hopi tour (from $2,795)—you only spend one day in the Grand Canyon (arrive earlier if you want to see more), but the rest of the trip is spent in the small, ancestral villages of the surrounding Hopi Mesa and ends in the overlooked gem of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, home to thousand-year-old cliff dwellings that match the Coliseum in size—not to mention some of the best stargazing in the U.S.
Days needed: 4
Great Smoky Mountain National Park has one of the world's best-preserved deciduous forests, the oldest mountains in the U.S., and more than twice the number of tourists than any other National Park. Thing is, they're mostly driving the 384 miles of scenic asphalt that bisect the wilds. To see more, ditch the car. REI's 4-day Great Smokey Mountains Adventure (from $1,199) is built for first-timers and supplies you with all the camping gear you need (minus a backpack, boots, and sleeping bag, which you can rent) and guides you along the classic Boogerman Trail, which is full of pioneer and Cherokee history, and to parts of the Appalachian trail that most day hikers never hit. You'll also go zip-lining and rafting on the Nantahala River. But, at night, you'll bunk in one of REI's new signature camps (launched in 2015)—posh fully-furnished, glamping campsites with cushy tents, cozy cots, and cooking areas capable of serving up fine fare you'd never expect to eat in the backcountry. At camp you can experience the serenity of the ancient woods at night: the gentle sounds of owl calls and the crackle of a campfire.
Days needed: 8-14
The world's largest population of coastal grizzlies live in Katmai National Park. To get a glimpse, all you have to do is cruise by, but if you want to spend some quality time near these enormous creatures—plus nab some jaw-dropping photos—it's worth venturing here with a seasoned wildlife photographer. Nat Hab runs two small group photo workshops to Katmai (no more than 12 people) with vet bear photographers Brad Josephs or Justin Gibson. There's an eight-day journey (from $8,995) where you'll spend four days visiting Katmai from a small, eight-passenger ship parked off the coast, plus spend a few days experiencing bear-filled Kodiak Island. There's also a more exhaustive 14-day wildlife adventure (from $11,595) with three days in Katmai's Brooks Lodge, plus four days deep in Denali National Park at the North Face Lodge, two days on a private boat in Kenai Fjords National Park, as well as a train ride through the Alaska backcountry. You can bring your long lens, but you'll get so close to the animals you probably won't even use it.
Days needed: 3-7
Unusual geothermal formations might be the reason Yellowstone became the world's first National Park, founded in 1872. But these days it's just as much about the wolves, which were reintroduced to the Park in 1995 after a 60-year absence. Ever since, Jackson, WY-based Teton Science and their team of biologists-cum-guides have been leading small wolf-spotting expeditions into the Park. Armed with professional-grade scopes and binoculars, vans with pop-tops, and insider radio connections to the Park's daily wolf monitors, visitors will catch a much better glimpse of these elusive critters than if they tried on their own. Die hards should check out their seven-day Winter Wolves of Yellowstone trip (from $3,300), which is when wolves are most easily spotted (and the park least crowded). The three-day spring and fall excursions (from $1,450) may yield less wolves but you will see a lot of other wildlife like bears and elk. And you'll still be able to snap photos of the mainstays—Teton will make sure you swing by Old Faithful, Mammoth Springs, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Days needed: 3-5
About 80 percent of visitors to Yosemite never venture further than the Yosemite Valley, which only makes up one percent of this enormous 1,190-square-mile park. And usually, they stay for only one day. That may be okay for Instagram, but not so much for the soul. To really grasp the wonderment that made naturalist John Muir Yosemite's chief advocate (and to beat the crowds), go a little further down the trail with Incredible Adventures—an eco-tour company based in San Francisco. They’re one of the few outfitters to hold a permit with the National Parks Service that allows them to give guided, interpretive hikes. The three-day Yosemite Escape Camping trip (from $429, gear included) gets you highlights like El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridealveil Falls, and Yosemite Valley, but you'll go deeper into the sprawling meadows of the rarely seen high country and the Sequoia forest. If you've already seen the Park's main points, Just Roughin' It also has a guiding permit and leads extended treks into Yosemite's backcountry (gear included)—Red Peak Pass (from $1,075) is a 51-mile, five-day day backpacking loop into the most rugged reaches of Yosemite's High Sierra.
Days needed: 1
Visitors to Zion will be awestruck by two things: first, the incredible magnitude of the Park's gorgeous rock formations, canyons, and plant life, and second by the crowds of people coming to admire it all—especially on the popular Narrows and Angel's Landing hikes. It can get a little circus-like, so follow the locals who know that the real gems of this park are her hidden slot canyons. Zion Rock Guides takes the uninitiated—even the out of shape—on four-hour trips to slot canyons not on the tourist trail, where you'll rappel as much as 80 feet down to the bottom (from $115). If you're looking for something more challenging, ask them about the Subway, a full-day hiking, swimming, canyoneering combo that requires permits well in advance, so the trail is never crowded.
Days needed: 2-6
Canyonlands is a postcard-perfect image of the wild American frontier—a 527 square mile playground of colorful canyons, mesas, rivers, natural arches, and wide-open vistas. As one of the last mapped sections of the lower 48 and the largest of Utah's National Parks, it was not built to be seen in a day. Go deep with OARS, who spend six days camping and rafting class III-IV rapids on the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon with renowned geology and astronomy expert, Lars Haarr (from $1,499). Float through The Maze District (of 127 Hours fame), check out thousand-year-old petroglyphs and Native American ruins, hike trails that aren't found on the parks' free map, conquer the rapids, and spend your nights unwinding while gazing up at the Milky Way (with explanation!). For a shorter, drier stay, Navtec Expeditions (from $595) runs two-and four-day overnight camping trips into The Maze, but you'll have to bring your own camping gear or rent.