Guide to Adventure Activities in National Parks

The following list represents the most popular adventure activities offered in national parks with tips on where you can do each one

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service are the 61 headliner national parks, including Arches, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 419 National Park Service sites across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s kick it up a notch (or two) and check out more adventurous activities you can enjoy in sites administered by the National Park Service and pair them up with superb parks for the experience.

Related: Least-Visited National Park Service Sites and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

The Narrows at Zion National Park (Utah)

It’s hard to find a national park that doesn’t have some good hiking opportunities, but The Narrows at Zion National Park take adventurous hiking to a new level. Why is it so memorable?

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First of all, you’re hiking through a cold, shallow river, the Virgin. (There might be times of the year, such as early spring, when the trail is closed because of high water. And always check the weather forecast—flash floods are a real danger here.) And then you’re hiking through canyon walls that can be up to 1,000 feet high but only 20 to 30 feet wide in spots. Definitely chilling and thrilling.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Lassen Volcanic National Park (California)

The name of the park says it all—volcanic!

Related: Why America Needs More National Parks

Bicycling

Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky Unit) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Canyonlands is famous for its mountain biking terrain, particularly for the 100-mile White Rim Road at Island in the Sky. This road loops around and below the Island in the Sky mesa top and provides expansive views of the surrounding area. Bicycle trips usually take three to four days.

Canyonlands National Park (Needles Unit) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Hill Road at Needles is one of the most technical roads in Utah. You’ll experience steep grades, loose rock, and stair-step drops.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: New River Gorge National River (West Virginia)

The beautiful landscapes and the variety of difficult to less challenging bike routes make the New River Gorge among the most popular destinations for mountain biking trips in the eastern U.S.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horseback riding

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee and North Carolina):

Guided horseback rides are available at four concession horseback riding stables in the park from mid-March through late November. Or bring your own to explore 550 miles of hiking trails open to horses. Five drive-in horse camps provide ready access to backcountry horse trails in the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)

If it’s named after our rough ‘n’ tumble 26th president, you know it has to be an adventure. Find out why the Badlands are so good for riders.

Related: National Park Programs that Enhance Your Visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock climbing

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

Best known for its cacti where two distinctive desert types meet, Joshua Tree is also a superb place to do some rock climbing. The park offers challenges for all ability levels with more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps to choose from. It is truly a world-class climbing destination.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are learning to climb or are looking to expand your climbing skills, a guided day or class could be of interest to you. When hiring a climbing guide, make sure that they are permitted to work in Joshua Tree National Park.

Related: National Park Facts: The Biggest, Smallest, Oldest, Newest, Most Visited, and More…

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (California)

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are great places to climb. One can enjoy an endless variety of climbs from easy to extremely challenging-without the crowds and pressure of more famous climbing areas. Outstanding routes in the parks include the Obelisk and Grand Sentinel. Most climbs require at least a day’s hike in.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop

Discover more on a Texas-sized Outdoor Adventure

The diverse regions and terrain of Texas are nature made for sampling a wide variety of outdoor experiences

Outdoor recreation options in Texas are as big and wide as the state, thanks to a mind-boggling mix of landscapes. There are desert, rugged mountains, and wind-sculpted sand dunes in the far west; beaches, marshes, piney woods, and swamps in the east; and prairies, plains, plateaus, and rolling hills in between. Texas also has at least 3,000 caves and sinkholes, some of which, such as the Caverns of Sonora west of San Antonio, are open for tours.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Add abundant sunshine and temperate weather conditions into the equation and Texas is a year-round destination for outdoor adventure. So, whether you want to embrace your inner cowboy at Bandara, the “Cowboy Capital of the World”, or try something new like camping in the sand dunes, Texas has you covered. Here’s a quick look at some of my favorite Texas destinations where you can explore and relax outdoors.

Scenic State Parks

The 95 Texas State Parks protect invaluable natural resources and offer an array of outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, horseback riding, and no-license fishing. Most parks charge a nominal entrance fee, well worth the price for access to the state’s natural wonders.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life seldom seen almost anywhere else in Texas. This little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water including the San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bounded by the waters of St. Charles, Copano, and Aransas bays, 314-acre Goose Island State Park is a coastal delight. Visitors engage in a variety of activities including camping, birding, fishing, boating, water sports, picnicking, hiking, photography, geocaching, and wildlife observation. A leisurely 1-mile hiking trail is available. Goose Island State Park is also known for the Big Tree—an enormous 1,000-year-old coastal live oak that has survived prairie fires, Civil War battles, and hurricanes.

The Big Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goliad State Park is a chance for a history lesson if you choose. The main attraction here is the Spanish colonial-era mission which dates back to the 1700s. But Goliad is also a hot spot for camping, kayaking, canoes, and river activities.

Goliad State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Round as a giant Easter egg, Enchanted Rock sits half-buried in the hills north of Fredericksburg. It’s a half-mile hike to the top but an unforgettable experience. The massive pink granite dome rises 425 feet above the base elevation of the park. Its high point is 1,825 feet above sea level and the entire dome covers 640 acres. Climbing the Rock is like climbing the stairs of a 30- to a 40-story building.

Listen to Onion Creek flowing over limestone ledges and splashing into pools. Follow trails winding through the Hill Country woods. Explore the remains of an early Texas homestead and a very old rock shelter. All of this lies within Austin’s city limits at McKinney Falls State Park. You can camp, hike, mountain or road bike, geocache, go bouldering, and picnic. You can also fish and swim in Onion Creek. Onion Creek can flood after rainfall.

McKinney Falls State Falls © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Urban Green Spaces

Nature is woven into the fabric of Texas’ biggest cities. Land conservation, public-private partnerships, and eco-friendly urban planning have created easy-access green spaces inside the city limits of places like Houston, San Antonio, and Austin.

Lady Johnson Bird Park neat Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 12-acre park in the heart of downtown Houston, Discovery Green has a lake, water gardens, tree-shaded walks, grassy areas, and 100-year-old oak trees. Try out the new jogging trail that surrounds the park or splash around The Model Boat Pond.

In San Antonio, Emilie and Albert Friedrich Wilderness Park feature 600 acres of undeveloped Hill Country terrain with over 10 miles of paved and unpaved trails. Try the park’s rugged Vista Loop for clear-day vistas of the downtown skyline.

Lady Bird Wildlife Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Austin regularly ranks among the greenest urban areas in the U.S. The city, which manages more than 300 parks, is also home to McKinney Falls State Park, a limestone-and-waterfall wonderland. 284-acre Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is the state botanic garden and arboretum of Texas. The center is home to the most diverse collection of native plants in the state with more than 800 species represented from many of the major eco-regions of Texas.

Connecting many of Austin’s green spaces is a network of natural greenways including South Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt. The roughly eight-mile-long greenbelt is a popular jumping-off point for outdoor adventures like bouldering, biking, hiking, rock climbing, and soaking in an old-fashioned Texas swimming hole.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas-style Bike Trails

Biking in Texas is whatever you want it to be. The state’s wildly diverse topography means there are plenty of options for leisurely pedaling, adrenaline-pumping mountain biking, and everything in between. For a uniquely Texan experience, tackle the mountain biking trails at Flat Rock Ranch, a Hill Country cattle ranch-mountain biking venue 5 miles northeast of Comfort (50 miles northwest of San Antonio). Ease into the action on the meandering Green Loop before tackling challenging uphill climbs, steep descents, and big-thrill enduro runs (a type of mountain bike racing where only the downhill is timed).

Franklin Mountains State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas State Parks offer an unparalleled world of fun for bicyclists of all stripes. From the massive Franklin Mountains in El Paso to the wildlife-rich Copper Breaks, the scenery and terrain in Texas’ State Parks offer something for everyone —whether you’re a self-proclaimed “mountain bike maniac” or simply looking for a way to enjoy the great outdoors. The parks offer many opportunities to choose from—including road rides near some parks, rails-to-trails conversions where you can travel for miles along former railroad beds, and off-road experiences.

Driving Park Road 1C between Bastrop and Buescher state parks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bicycling in the Hill Country is a Lone Star treat. This challenging-yet-scenic ride through the shady Lost Pines of Central Texas is featured as part of the MS 150 benefit (first Saturday in May), a fundraising ride sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society that runs from Houston to Austin. The 12.5-mile stretch of Park Road 1C between these Bastrop and Buescher state parks offers a taste of what road riding has to offer and serious roadies can be combined with other area rides for longer routes. The road is open to vehicle traffic.

Fulton Mansion State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Historic Sites

Hike, pedal, or paddle through Texas history at a state historic site. Rising above the Aransas Bay and surrounded by stately live oaks, Fulton Mansion State Historic Site is located in Rockport-Fulton. The house must have appeared incredible in 1877 as it does today with its mansard roof and ornate trim. Interior gaslighting, flush-toilets and other refinements were progressive and luxurious elements for this period of Texas history.

Ruins of the Kreische brewery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1849, German immigrant Heinrich Ludwig Kreische purchased 172 acres of land including the Dawson/Mier tomb, now known as Monument Hill. In the 1860s, he utilized the spring water from the ravine below his house and started one of the first commercial breweries in Texas. Walk the ruins of this once bustling brewery and envision how Fayette County citizens would enjoy a pint of Kreische’s Bluff Beer.

National Museum of the Pacific War © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Museum of the Pacific War is the only institution in the continental U.S. dedicated to telling the story of the Pacific Theater in World War II. The six-acre campus in the heart of Fredericksburg includes exhibits and memorial areas. Artifacts from the war, both large and small, shape the exhibits which feature ships and planes, weapons, helmets, and uniforms of those who served.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.

Going far ahead of the road I have begun.

So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;

it has inner light, even from a distance.

—signage at Lady Bird Wildflower Center

The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Birding has become a popular activity during the pandemic because it is easy to socially distance from birds

People find their way to birding for all different reasons. But this past year, interest in the hobby exploded rivaling maybe only sourdough bread baking in the pandemic-stricken hearts of Americans and Canadians. Chances are you know someone who, pre-2020, had never given birds a second thought; now they rattle off the differences between towhees and finches, get starry-eyed about roseate spoonbills, and spend weekends stalking the elusive Kirtland’s Warbler.

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A means of escape from pandemic routine, birding offered a reprieve from heavy thoughts and anxieties with time spent outdoors simply observing, say, an epic tug-of-war between a robin and a worm (RIP worm). And for many, it became a sport, metered by the number of birds on one’s life list.

To keep track of their conquests, birders favor lists, like the basic “life list” of birds they’ve personally identified. Each bird listed is associated with a place and a time and a memory! Some of the birds are like ‘oh yeah, that was that trip!

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are yard lists, year lists, state lists, even national park lists. With almost 10,000 species in the world to encounter, there’s always more to be spotted. Run out of birds to identify in your neighborhood? Drive a couple of hundred miles and it’s a whole new demographic, a new lens through which to observe your surroundings. Pack up the RV and drive across America and it could very well be the crux of your travels.

I remember the first green jay (see photo above) and great kiskadee (see photo below) I saw (and photographed) was in South Texas. It was this moment of “WOW! Oh my gosh! What amazing colors!”

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not only can birdwatching take you out of your head (and out of doors) it can add depth to an RV trip. But it can be intimidating to know where to start. I’ve gathered some useful tips to help you on your journey to becoming a birder. But be warned: after that first one, you might need to catch them all.

To get started, just look out the window. Unless what you seek is, like, a greater flamingo, you don’t need to go somewhere exotic to see interesting birds. Some of my life birds have been sighted at home or out the window of my motorhome when I’m not expecting to see them. 

Clay-colored thrasher (robin) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want the birds to come to you? Get a bird feeder whether at home or for your RV. It’s a great way to get to know the birds around you—wherever you might be. You can also try different types of bird feeders such as platform feeders, birdseed socks, suet feeders, window feeders (attached with suction cups), fruit feeders, and tube feeders.

Whimbrel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What kind of bird feeder should you get? Unfortunately, there isn’t any ‘feeder X’ that will work for all birds in all situations so there’s an important question that we need to ask ourselves before choosing one. That question is: What kind of birds do I want to attract? The reason that this question is so important is that different birds eat different types of foods in different ways. Without getting too specific here, we can break this down into three broad categories:

  • Seed eaters
  • Fruit eaters
  • Insect eaters
Golden-fronted woodpecker at feeder © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember, the more bird feeders you have out the more birds you can attract so don’t limit yourself to just one. Enjoy your feathered visitors!

When you’re ready to venture further afield, seek out parks and other green spaces. A pro-tip for the adventurous: water treatment plants and sewage ponds are very rich in life and organisms. Waterfowl and waders will come because they’re a really reliable source of water. Big, open, ponds of water!

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose some binoculars. You don’t need any gear to get into birding—just your eyes and ears. But as your interest grows and you start desiring a clearer view you may want to invest in a pair of binoculars. Try out several models as each person’s hands are different. It’s all personal preference. When you test them, feel for the focal knob and make sure it’s easy to reach. 

Many birders prefer something in the 7-power or 8-power range for their wide field of view. Choose a pair with adjustable cups and diopters (which compensate for the space differences between the eyes) especially if you wear glasses. But don’t worry about spending too much. There are definitely usable binoculars that will make your birding experience great in every price range.

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pick an app, or physical field guide—or both. Say the name Sibley to any bird enthusiast and not only will they know who you’re talking about, but they’ll also probably have one or more of his books. David Sibley’s illustrated field guides are the go-to references to help you identify species within the continental US and Canada. (The birders are also very excited about his latest, What It’s Like to Be a Bird.)

Royal terns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An app like Merlin Bird ID from the Cornell Lab (free) can give you customized information based on your specific location. ID a bird from a photo or a short description and it provides you with photo guides, maps, and sounds—an advantage over a physical field guide.

And here’s where all those birding lists come in. For layman users, the free eBird app lets you create and store your own lists—a powerful conservation tool as it provides scientists at the Cornell Ornithology Lab with useful location data. You can also utilize their map database to check out what other users are spotting and where.

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Practice, practice, practice! If your goal is to identify birds, there’s only one way to get good at it: practice. Go on bird walks, compare what you see to similar birds in your guide, and take note of the five ID categories: size, shape, color, sound, and behavior.

It’s a pretty good bet that you know the ins and outs of what birders do: They wander across fields, along shorelines, and through woods, peering through an optical device, and—increasingly—tapping away on their phones to record sightings.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So don’t bird photographers do pretty much the same thing?  Except, of course, their “optical device”, is a camera, often with a long lens? Surprisingly, while both activities occur in the same sorts of places and both involve birds they are quite different and not entirely compatible with each other. As I’ve discovered, birders can be downright hostile to photographers wanting to capture the perfect image.

Yellow-crowned night herons © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The differences stem from the different objectives of the participants. Birders typically are interested in hearing and seeing birds, getting as good a look as possible, and moving on down the trail to look for the next bird. Bird photographers, by contrast, typically want to capture a definitive photograph of an individual bird as a representative of its species.  If it’s an Altamira oriole, say, I want a photo that captures the essence of what it means to be that species, and I like to hone in closer than birders much to their distain.

Or just sit back and observe. If you don’t feel like pulling out the field guide or hitting the trails, it’s okay to just sit back and watch, too.

Plain Chachalacas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds are funny. Some more than others resemble their dinosaur ancestors (think: Chachalacas or wild turkey). Some will snatch your sandwich. Some have spectacular colors that don’t look like they should occur in nature and some just want to blend into the trees and be left alone (I can relate). Some build nests in precarious locations that seem, frankly, irrational. They’re just fun to observe. They are cute, they are round, and they are colorful. They do fascinating things. Every time you watch them you’re like ‘what are you doing?’”

Ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus