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You Don't Have to "Go Big or Go Home" in the National Parks

The national parks have adventures for every skill level; don't let a lack of experience keep you from finding your park!

By: Sarah Giek + Save to a List

The national parks give millions of Americans the chance to experience some of the most breathtaking views in our country. And the best part is, you don’t have to be an experienced hiker or an avid outdoorsman to participate. Your options for adventures in the national parks are not limited to “Go Big or Go Home,” so don’t let a lack of experience keep you from finding your park. The following adventures in my three favorite national parks are suitable for all skill levels and will allow you to experience the beauty of America’s Best Idea firsthand.

Glacier National Park

Perhaps one of the most popular hikes in Glacier National Park is the trail to Hidden Lake Overlook.  With minimal elevation gain, the easy 1.4 mile trail will take you through an open alpine meadow, where you can often see mountain goats grazing.  The trail ends at the picturesque Hidden Lake, with Bearhat Mountain towering behind.

On the east side of the park, the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail is an easy 2.3 mile loop that takes visitors around Swiftcurrent Lake.  Along the way you will enjoy views of the surrounding peaks of Lewis Range, and if you keep your eyes out, you might just spot a moose or a bear (be prepared with bear spray, just in case!).  When you’re done, stop at the restaurant at Many Glacier Hotel before renting a kayak and getting out on the water.  Kayak rentals are also available within the park at Lake McDonald and Two Medicine Lake.

If waterfalls are more your thing, you can make the 3 mile hike to see Saint Mary Falls and Virginia Falls.  This family-friendly trail begins at the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead on Going-to-the-Sun Road.  The parking area can get quite busy, so be sure to head out early or use the park shuttle.

In addition to these adventures, stopping along the many overlooks on Going-to-the-Sun Road is a worthy way to spend an afternoon.  It’s easily one of the most scenic drives through a national park that I have ever experienced.  Just make sure to allow plenty of time to make the drive.  Even without stopping, it will likely take you 2 hours to complete the 50 mile trip.

Mount Rainier National Park

The Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park is well-known for its wildflowers in late summer.  With several easy trail options, you can experience the blooms while also taking in the mountain views, glaciers, lakes, and waterfalls, all without too much effort.  Starting at the visitor center parking lot, a short half-mile trail heads east to Myrtle Falls.  The falls are tucked away, which will require descending a small section of stairs.  Be patient as you wait your turn for a photo opportunity of the cascading falls.  If you continue on the trail a short ways beyond the falls, you’ll get to experience even more wildflowers along with open views of Mount Rainier.

If you want panoramic views of the surrounding mountain ranges, but aren’t up for a long hike along the Skyline Trail, the shorter trip to Alta Vista should fit the bill.  Head west from the visitor center parking lot on the Skyline Trail, before turning right and making the short ascent up to the overlook.  On a clear day you can spot the peak of Mount Adams in the distance.

While in the Paradise area, make sure to stop by Reflection Lake.  This popular photography spot is a great way to begin or end your day.  And if you’re feeling up for a bit of a climb, the trail to Pinnacle Saddle on the other side of the road is short and well worth the 1000 feet of elevation gain.  In fact, you don’t even need to reach the saddle to get some of the best views of Mount Rainier.

Further east, the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park provides several short trail options with panoramic views of the Cascades, including the Sunrise Nature Trail and the Sourdough Ridge Trail.  But the network of trails in this area is so plentiful, you can really create your own adventure by making a route of your own; just be sure to stay on the marked trails to protect the fragile meadows.

Just south of Sunrise is Tipsoo Lake, which offers an opportunity to relax and get away from the crowds.  Have lunch along the shores before heading out on the Naches Peak Loop trail.  The 3.5 mile route provides amazing scenery – including meadows of wildflowers, a serene unnamed lake, and stunning views of Mount Rainier – all with minimal elevation gain.  This beautiful area is also a perfect location for watching the sunset.

Yosemite National Park

There are so many things to experience in Yosemite National Park, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Most people usually start in Yosemite Valley, and it’s easy to see why.  The short walk to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls gives visitors easy access to the tallest waterfall in the United States.  You can also take the easy walk through Sentinel and Cook’s Meadows, giving you a wider view of the falls in addition to providing access to Sentinel Bridge and the Yosemite Chapel, two popular landmarks in Yosemite.  

Another easily-accessible Yosemite Landmark is Mirror Lake, which you can reach by foot or by bike on a mostly-paved trail.  This popular swimming hole during the early summer months is also known for its frequently-photographed reflections of Half Dome and Mount Watkins that appear during the spring months when the water is high.    

Of course no trip to the valley is complete without a stop at Tunnel View, where you will find a panoramic view that includes Bridal Veil Falls, El Capitan, and Half Dome. If you prefer to escape the crowds and don’t mind a short hike, the trail to Artist Point will take you above the crowds and provide a similarly impressive view.  Though the trail starts quickly uphill, the remainder of the trail is relatively flat.  

If you’re neck starts getting sore from constantly looking up from the valley floor, drive up to Glacier Point Road for some top-down views.  You will, of course, want to stop at the road’s namesake, Glacier Point, to get the best views of Half Dome.  This spot gets crowded, but you’ll understand why when you get there.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can begin walking on the Panorama Trail, which is to the right of the viewing steps at Glacier Point.  If you continue on this trail for 2 miles, you will descend 1400 feet and find yourself looking at Illilouette Falls.  However, walking the trail for just a half mile will take you away from the crowds and give you expansive views of the mountains across the valley and Vernal and Nevada Falls.

Other must-do hikes that won’t wear you out on Glacier Point Road include Taft Point and Sentinel Dome.  Both trails are just over two miles with minimal elevation gain, and both viewpoints have breathtaking views of the valley below as well as the surrounding mountains.  Just use caution, especially if you’re traveling with children, as neither viewpoint comes with any type of substantial barrier between you and the dropoffs to the valley below.

Finally, for something completely different in Yosemite, head up to Tioga Road where the crowds will be significantly less substantial.  Just off the road you will find Tenaya Lake, a popular destination for swimming, kayaking, and picnics.  You will also see photographers capturing the beautiful reflections of the surrounding granite peaks and domes in the water.

Another popular stop along Tioga Road is Olmstead Point.  Although the trail is only a quarter-mile, you can get impressive views from the parking lot as well.  In addition to views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome, if you look closely you’ll find Tenaya Lake off in the distance to the East.

The national parks are the perfect introduction to the outdoors.  With so many options to choose from, you are sure to find an adventure for your skill level.  If a lack of experience has been holding you back, try starting in one of these parks.  It won't be long before you're hooked!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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