14 Unusual Things to Do in America's National Parks

It's not all hiking, fishing, and camping at America's national parks. Check out these unusual, but entertaining activities available in the nation's protected landscapes.

Sun, Sand, and Boiling Rivers. Wait. What?

unique national park attractions

Before you settle for another session of binge-watching your favorite program, consider heading out to one of America's beautifully preserved national parks. Whether you go solo or travel with a group, there are activities for everyone that can range from the standards, like swimming and hiking, to the most unusual things to do in America's national parks, like climbing a waterfall of ice or snorkeling among shipwrecks.

Regardless of the time of year or weather, always be sure to check with the park service before visiting to ensure that the park is open to the public and that the activities you are interested in are available. Otherwise, you may be loading everyone back into the car only to return home disappointed.

Wikimedia Commons via KenThomas.us


White Sands National Park

Forget playing in the waves, tubing, and wakeboarding, White Sands National Park gives you the opportunity bring a sandboard or sled to be used on the massive sand dunes. Boards are available to rent just outside the park, or you can bring your own, or pick up one from the souvenir shop. For your first time sledding the dune, take it slow and don't underestimate the speed you can pick up going down these dunes. Hike up a smaller slope and slide down to get accustomed to the sport before trying a larger sand dune. Keep in mind sand isn't as forgiving as snow and it is common for people to come out of this experience with a few scrapes if they aren't careful.

Wikimedia Commons via Murray Foubister

Kayak Through Caves

Channel Islands National Park Kayaking

Kayaking down a river or across a quiet lake can be exciting, serene, or a mixture of both, but kayaking through the caves of the Channel Islands just outside L.A. is simply awe-inspiring. You can start your excursion with a ferry ride to the islands where you get the opportunity to do a little dolphin- and whale-watching before jumping into the real reason you are there.

Tour companies will take you into the partially submerged sea caves in a group, or you can venture out on your own. However, even experienced kayakers should be prepared for unique hazards caused by the confines of the caves. If you or your fellow travelers are less experienced kayakers, it’s better to go with the tour group. Don't worry, the tours last longer than three hours so everyone gets a chance to lead the exploration through the caves and there is ample opportunity for pictures and breaks between paddling.

Wikimedia Commons via Joyful Graphics

Go Dog Sledding

Denali National Park Dogsledding

If the sun isn't your thing, or you are looking to go somewhere a little less traveled than the sandy beaches of the southern shores, Denali National Park may have what you are looking for. To see Denali in its best light go in the winter, but be sure to dress warmly for the Alaskan climate. Denali Dogsled Expeditions offers dog sled tours that allow you to take the reins of the sled, learn to mush a team of huskies, and you might even get to spend time with the annual litter of puppies if you go at the right time of year. For the truly adventurous, you can take the dog sled on overnight tours, staying in cabins throughout the park when the sun goes down. This is one experience that just can't be replicated without the northern snow.

Related: 10 National Parks That Look More Stunning in the Snow

Wikimedia Commons via NPS Photo

Climb an Ice Waterfall

Munising Falls Frozen Waterfall Hiking

For most Americans, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan is a little closer to home than the Alaskan wilderness, but this park has its share of winter activities to get you out of the house. One such event is climbing the frozen waterfall at Munising Falls. To be clear, this isn't climbing the rocks beside the waterfall to reach the top. You will be climbing the actual ice of the waterfall. Climbing a vertical sheet of ice is a daunting proposition for most, but keep in mind that if you take proper precautions, use the correct equipment, and hire a qualified guide you can expect the experience to be thrilling, breathtaking, and safe. Novice climbers can always opt for easier challenges to get a feel for ice climbing without diving into a situation that they don't feel prepared to take on.

flickr.com via Eric

Venture into Cliff Dwellings

Mesa Verde National Park Ruins

National parks aren't just for wandering through the wilderness or admiring the stark beauty of the natural landscapes. At Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, you can explore ancient Puebloan ruins to get a sense of an early civilization and the fascinating, cliff-dwelling culture of the Ancestral Pueblo people. On your own, you can stand at countless amazing viewpoints and take a look into the cliffs. Or, if you book a tour with a park ranger, you get the opportunity to climb a 32-foot ladder straight up a cliff face before scrambling into the mid-sized cliff dwelling, known as Balcony House and stand where people stood generations ago. There are also other cliff dwellings to explore, such as Cliff Palace, Long House, and Step House.

flickr.com via Doug Kerr

Explore Tidepools

Cabrillo National Monument Tidepool

Cabrillo National Monument in California gives you the opportunity to see what life looks like under the crashing waves of the ocean. When the tide rolls out to sea, it reveals the fragile, tide pool ecosystem for all to see and explore. Make it a family outing and show the kids anemones, octopi, and starfish living in their natural habitat. Just keep in mind that the plant and animal life here is delicate, so be careful about where you walk and what you touch. A great way to explore the tide pools is with a ranger-guided walk which is available during most low tides. Before going, check a tide chart so you know when low tide will occur.

flickr.com via Bjorn

See a Military Fort

Dry Tortugas National Park Fort

Head 70 miles west from Key West, Florida, on a boat or seaplane to find Dry Tortugas National Park. The park is mostly ocean, encompassing 100 square miles, but one percent of this location is dry land in the form of seven islands. Fort Jefferson, a 19th-century military fort, occupies the second largest island, Garden Key. The enormous fort was never attacked during its years of action, but during the Civil War, the harbor was used by Union warships to blockade Southern shipping. It also served as a prison for Union deserters, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg.

flickr.com via Richard Lopez

Snorkeling Among Shipwrecks

Biscayne National Park shipwreck

Florida is home to another entertaining national park known as Biscayne National Park, where you can scuba dive or snorkel in the waters off the coast following the Maritime Heritage Trail. The underwater trail takes you through six different shipwreck sites from the 1800s to the 1960s and the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, which was built in 1878. The Arratoon Apcar, Mandalay, the sixth wreck of an unknown 19th-century vessel, and waters beneath the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse are the best choices for snorkeling, due to the shallower waters in which they lie. The Erl King, Alicia, and Lugano wrecks are better left to those with scuba certification and equipment.

flickr.com via NPCA Photos

See and Climb the Largest Trees on Earth

General Sherman Tree

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park in California is home to the biggest tree in the world, known as General Sherman. The trunk has a circumference of 36 feet at its base and stands 275 feet tall. Walking along the Big Trees Trail transports you to a land of giants as the massive sequoias tower over you. If a walk through monster trees isn't enough to excite you, head to Redwood National and State Parks with Pelorus, a specialist experiential travel operator. There you will be trained and harnessed so that you can climb incredible California redwoods that can reach up to 300 feet in height.

Related: 20 American Treasures to See Now—Before They Disappear

flickr.com via Fabio Achilli

Scuba Dive Through a Kelp Forest

Channel Islands National Park

Back in the Channel Islands National Park in California, you can do more than just kayaking through the sea caves if you have the proper equipment. Those who are scuba certified can explore the enormous underwater kelp forest that is home to a myriad of aquatic lifeforms, including Garibaldi fish, spiny lobsters, and sea otters. If you don’t have a scuba certification, but want to experience these waters, consider renting snorkeling equipment and exploring the expanses of kelp forest that are a bit closer to the surface. You can even get guided scuba and snorkeling tours around the Channel Islands with the Channel Islands Adventure Company.

flickr.com via David Wan

Homestay in American Samoa

National Park of American Samoa

The idea of a national park makes most people think of a natural habit within the traditional borders of their country. However, the National Park of American Samoa is located 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii on the island of American Samoa, where the local population offers a unique homestay experience to adventurous tourists. A homestay is where you live with a local family. This means living in a traditional home known as a fale, eating traditional foods with the family, and helping with daily activities, including cooking, cutting and drying leaves, weaving mats, and other day-to-day tasks of the American Samoan culture.

Related: 20 Spectacular Lodgings in America's National Parks

flickr.com via U.S. Department of the Interior

Stand-Up Paddle-Boarding

Glacier National Park paddle boarding

After a stay in American Samoa or dog sledding through Denali, something a little less extreme may be called for, while still remaining within the realm of the unusual. Stand-up paddle-boarding is growing in popularity, and you can enjoy it in many different national parks. Still, Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park is one of the best locations for its serenity, beauty, and accessibility to the water. Don’t worry about whether you have ever been on a stand-up paddle board before; the wide board provides ample space to get your footing, and if you fall, the only cost is the refreshing water. You can rent a paddle board or bring your own and enjoy the stunning sunset over the lake.

flickr.com via GlacierNPS

Drive Along the Going-To-The-Sun Road

Going-To-The-Sun Road

Before heading home from Glacier National Park, spare two hours to drive the iconic Sun Road and take in the outstanding natural sights from the comfort of your vehicle. Going-To-The-Sun Road, or Sun Road as it is abbreviated by park workers, is a two-lane highway that leads straight through the park, even crossing the Continental Divide at 6,656-foot high Logan Pass. This drive will take you past glacial lakes, cedar forests, and alpine tundra, among other terrains, and you can even download an audio tour to listen to while you drive. However, not all vehicles can drive the Sun Road. Check the park’s webpage for exact vehicle regulations before setting out. Also, keep in mind that peak seasons can extend the length of time it takes to drive the Sun Road due to increased traffic.

flickr.com via GlacierNPS

Swim in A Boiling River

Boiling River Yellowstone National Park

Swimming in boiling water seems like a poor choice for those looking to live another day, but the Boiling River in Yellowstone National Park is one aquatic undertaking that you should consider. Commonly, you can’t swim or soak in the lakes and rivers of Yellowstone because of their frigid waters and the risk of hypothermia. However, naturally occurring hot springs can bring the water to a boiling temperature. There is an area where the hot water of the Boiling River and the fast-moving current of the Gardner River meet and combine, near the Mammoth Hot Springs. There you can swim during designated hours in the bubbling pool then return to the hot springs for a leisurely soak. Before heading to the river, stop by the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center to get directions and rules to ensure your safety.

flickr.com via Wesley Fryer

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