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Aug 24 2016
by Emily Adeline Perry

A Comprehensive Guide To Exploring The National Parks Near Your School

By Emily Adeline Perry - Aug 24 2016
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Moving to a new place is always scary; you oftentimes don’t know anyone or what the atmosphere of the area is.

One of the best ways to explore your area is by checking out the National Parks around you. Did you know there are over 400 sites owned and maintained by the US National Parks Service? National Park Sites can have one of many classifications which include the 58 large National Parks, as well as National Historical Parks, National Battlefields, National Military Parks, National Recreation Areas, National Monuments, National Scenic Routes (or Trails), and so many more!

Exploring parks is such a great way to bond with new friends, too. There's honestly nothing better than telling stories around a campfire, or reaching the peak of a mountain with some new friends. 

The best part about national parks? Most of them don't charge an admission fee. That's right - FREE (the favorite word of all college students). 

The exception to this *free* rule is the larger parks out west, which will charge an entry fee that is based on your vehicle size and number of passengers. BUT, if you plan on going to just 3 of these parks in a calendar year, it's better to buy a National Park Pass, which waives entry fees and discounts a lot of park services (i.e. campsite reservation).

In addition, the week of the National Park Centennial ( aka NATIONAL PARK WEEK ) all parks are free to enter and explore!! Check HERE for all free days in the NPS System

Here's my list of favorite parks by state that would be good for day / weekend trips ( and a couple ones from Canada just for kicks )

You can always find more parks if you go to nps.gov/state/YOUR STATE'S ABBREVIATION

Have fun exploring!!

1. Alabama

Little River Canyon

This site preserves the culture and geographic beauty of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. This park is found in Northwest AL. 

Selma to Montgomery

Start this trip at the Visitor's Center in Selma where rangers provide a historical exhibit and information about the Historical Trial and Martin Luther King's work toward the achievement of equal rights. The trail ends in Montgomery, AL, where another visitor's center is planned to open soon on the campus of Alabama State University. 

2. Alaska

Now, these parks might not be accessible unless you go to school in Alaska, but they are all worth checking out. The NPS controls 54.6 million acres of land in Alaska, so I doubt you'd ever run out of places to explore. Fun fact: 65% of National Park land can be found in Alaska.

3. Arizona

Grand Canyon

Perhaps one of the most recognizable parks of the NPS, Grand Canyon National Park offers hikes, views, and white water rafting if that's what floats your boat! This park is easily accessible for anyone in Southern California and Northern AZ, and would serve as a great 3-day weekend destination if you don't know what to do on Labor Day!

Petrified Forrest

This park lies right on the I-40 Corridor, so it's accessible to virtually anyone in the Southwest. It's a super pet-friendly park if that's your thing, and it is one of the best backcountry destinations for stargazing. 

4. Arkansas

Hot Springs 

This park is actually the smallest national park, but it has a good amount of trails for a day trip. It's just three hours from  Memphis, TN, and easily accessible to anyone in AK, along with anyone along the I-30 Corridor!

5. California

Joshua Tree
Death Valley
Channel Islands

Going to school in SO Cal? Maybe USC, UCLA, or Point Loma. Well - You have so much at your disposal! These parks offer a variety of things to do. You can Ocean Kayak at Channel Islands, hike at Joshua Tree, and then stay hydrated at Death Valley!

Redwoods National & State Parks
Muir Woods

Up in Northern California? Well - there is so much for you, too! If you're willing to drive a little ways, you can see some of the greatest feats of nature AND see where the idea for the National Parks service was born in the mind of conservationist John Muir. Muir Woods National Monument hugs the coastline, too, if beaches are your thing. 

6. Colorado

It's no surprise Colorado is littered with National Park Sites - from Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Red Rocks Amphitheatre (on the National Registry of Historic Places). These sites and places are a must if you're in school out west - especially Denver, which boasts proximity to Rocky Mtn. National Park.  

Colorado is also home to some other pretty awesome parks and landmarks, like Garden of the Gods. 

7. Connecticut

If you're a student in CT, leaving the state might be your best bet - checking out NPS sites in nearby New York, Mass, or Vermont. If you want to stay in state, though, you can check out Weir Farm National Historic Site, which centers around art and its connection to nature. 

8. Delaware

First State National Historical Park

This park is fairly new - so new that it doesn't even have a proper Visitor's Center yet. But, it is super cool to see the old buildings in the super cute town of New Castle, DE. I stopped at this park on a road trip along the I-95 Corridor and it was only about 20 minutes off my route!

If you want more, there's a park maintained by the city within walking distance along the river which is really nice for picnic lunch!

9. Florida

Miami

Florida contains a trio of wonderful parks in the greater Miami Area. Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park are perfect for those of you who love to drive, snorkel, or hang out with Alligators. 

National Seashores

There are other accessible parks if you're not near Miami, and my favorite of those would have to be Gulf Islands National Seashore and Canaveral National Seashore. These preserves serve to protect wildlife and the environment - rangers aim to keep these seashores clean and accessible to the public. 

10. Georgia

Chickamauga & Chattanooga

Located right off I-24 over the Tennessee state line, this park's main draws are Civil War History and miles of great running and biking roads. 

Fort Pulaski

If you are going to school in Southern Georgia, make sure to check out the city of Savannah and this National monument

11. Hawaii

If you're lucky enough to get a chance to venture out to Hawaii, make sure to check out the volcanic landscape parks offered here. Both Haleakalā National Park and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boast wonderful views, hikes, and experiences for anyone who enters. 

12. Idaho

City of Rocks National Preserve

This park appeals to anyone with an adventurous spirit. The large rock formations serve to inspire rock climbers, but the miles of trails offer something for everyone. There are also campgrounds in the park, and it allows hunting. 

13. Illinois

Illinois is somewhat lacking in parks, but if you're willing to travel, there are some gems pretty close in nearby states!

If you're looking to stay in IL, though, you're looking at either Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site or Pullman National Monument. 

14. Indiana

Indiana Dunes

This 15,000-acre lakeshore park will certainly satisfy your every need - with beautiful beaches and over 50 miles of hiking trails!

15. Iowa

Lewis & Clark

This National Historic Trail runs through the better part of the Midwest and Western United States. This trail can be followed by foot, boat, bicycle, or vehicle, so it offers a little something for everyone!

16. Kansas

Tallgrass Prarie

Most of the NPS Sites in Kansas are Historic Trails, but if you're looking for a park proper, be sure to check out Tallgrass Prarie National Preserve, which preserves the remaining 4% of this prairie ecosystem. 

17. Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park

Accessible to people from all of KY, as well as Southern OH and Middle TN, Mammoth Cave National Park is the perfect day trip for you! They offer tours all day that explore different parts of the caves. Admission to the park is free, and tours are affordable. 

18. Louisiana

New Orleans Jazz

Going to school in, or near, NOLA? Well - you're in luck! The NPS has restored the Old U.S. Mint into a visitor's center that will enlighten you on the history of Jazz in the area, as well as provide information on current Jazz performances!

19. Maine

Acadia

This park might be out of the way for most people, as it's on MDI, but it is absolutely worth the journey! The park offers a great place for Ocean Kayaking, as well as great views if you hike up a few of the mountains on the island. Wait for low tide and walk across the sand bar that will lead you to "Bar Island" for a great time!

Katahdin Woods and Waters

If you're in Northern Maine - make sure to stop by our nation's NEWEST NATIONAL MONUMENT. Created on 24 August 2016 - just a day before the National Park Centennial, this park preserves the land surrounding the northern terminus of the AT along with the ecosystem found in rural northern Maine. 

20. Maryland

If you're a student in MD, your best bet for some NPS action will be venturing to either the DC area, or checking out one of Maryland's many National Battlefield Parks. 

21. Massachusetts

Boston Harbor Islands

With Boston being a city littered with college students, it's no surprise students are always in need of something to do. Escaping the city is just as easy as venturing into the harbor and taking a ferry to any one of the neighboring islands that are a part of Boston Harbor Islands National recreation Area

22. Michigan

Isle Royale

Situated on an island in the middle of Lake Superior, Isle Royale provides the perfect opportunity for lake kayaking and other water sports. Just a little ways south, on the Michigan coastline, lies Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which is wonderful in the winter for skiing and ice climbing when the lake freezes over. 

23. Minnesota

Voyagers

Located just under 5 hours from the Minneapolis / St. Paul are, this park is wonderful for a getaway during any season. Once the water has thawed, the park offers lots of opportunity for activities on water in addition to wooded hiking areas. During winter, the park offers a great opportunity for anyone who enjoys cross-country skiing. 

24. Mississippi

Natchez

Looking for a fun road trip destination for the weekend? Look no further. Natchez Trace Parkway runs 300+ miles from the outskirts of Nashville, TN to Natchez, Mississippi. There is a trail that follows the scenic road as well as places to stop along the way!

25. Missouri

The Arch

It might sound corny, but the STL Arch is super cool! Especially if you're new to the St. Louis area, you should totally check it out. Take some new friends and bond in the tiny elevator pods!

26. Montana

Glacier 

This park is in Northwestern Montana and caters to all types of visitors. It's parkway, "Going-to-the-Sun," boasts wonderful views and photo-ops. In addition, the park offers tons of ranger-guided programs, as well as independent hiking, backpacking, boating, and biking. The park also caters to photographers, with a special part of their website dedicated to helping you find that perfect photo-op!

27. Nebraska

Like much of the midwest and plains regions, Nebraska is slightly lacking in National Parks. There are plenty of NPS sites in NE, but are mainly restricted to long-distance trails and memorials. 

28. Nevada

Lake Mead

This National Recreation Area is teeming with things to do - take a hike around the lake, or go swimming with some friends. Make sure to stop by the Ranger Station, too, to see if there are any special activities going on in the park!

Death Valley

One of the dryest, lowest, and hottest places on earth lies on the border between Nevada and California, with the majority of the park being on the NV side. Go see this wonderful place in person, and if there is enough rain in a year, make sure to go and see the flowers that bloom here!

29. New Hampshire

Going to college in NH? Check out the descriptions for Maine, Vermont, or Mass if you're in need of some suggestions. NH has two NPS sites, the Appalachian Trail and Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, located along the VT border. 


30. New Jersey 

New York City

Many of the landmarks and sites that we think of as being in NYC are actually on the New Jersey side of the harbor. Ellis Island is actually part of NJ, along with other parts of what's generally called "National Parks of New York Harbor."

The Delaware Water Gap

This National Recreation area is shared between DE, PA, and NJ as it covers the large basin known as the Delaware Water Gap that is 1000 ft. deep. This park offers wonderful chances for hikers to get acquainted with a well-nourished part of nature that boasts many wonderful qualities. 

31. New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns

This National Park is home to an estimated 119 caves. The caverns were left behind by sulfuric acid will surely satisfy any need to get out and explore!

White Sands

This National Monument is famous for its completely white gypsum sand and the opportunity it offers to escape the world for a day while you play around in an adult sandbox. 

32. New York

Women's Rights

Ever learn about Seneca Falls, NY in history class? Here, you can see the places where the idea that women are equal and deserve equal rights was entertained. 

33. North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains

This National Park runs the border between TN and NC in the Appalachian Mountains. On the NC side is a great campground called Balsam Mountain; if you stay here, make sure to dress warm, as the campground is at about 5000 feet and it gets cold - even in July.

(see the TN entry for more information!)

34. North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt

This dual location park (both in ND) provides a glimpse into the rugged landscape that helped inspire TR, and other conservationists, to establish National Parks and eventually create the National Park Service.

The northern part of the park is located just 15 miles from the southern portion, and the locations boast plains with Bison and the chance to connect to nature. 

35. Ohio

Cuyahoga

This National Park is fairly new - just a few years younger than Congaree in SC and Pinnacles in CA. This park boasts a wonderful hike to their famous Brandywine Falls, along with some really great biking and walking paths. This park is less than an hour south of Cleveland, OH, and is worth checking out. 

36. Oklahoma

Much like other parts of the midwest and plains region, most of the NPS locations here are historic trails and national monuments. There is one National Recreation area that you can check out HERE.

37. Oregon

Crater Lake

This lake is the deepest in the United States and was created by the eruption and collapse of a volcano. The water is pure, due to it being fed by rain and snowmelt. This park is perfect for everyone, from artists to photographers to the average sightseer. If you're looking for a challenge, grab your snowshoes and backpack around the lake!

38. Pennsylvania

PA boasts an amazing 29 National Park Sites. You can look through the full list and descriptions here, but be prepared. You can find anything in PA, from Gettysburg to Edgar Allan Poe.  

39. Rhode Island

Happen to be driving through RI, or going to URI or Brown? Venture a little further out onto the coast in Newport and see the Touro Synagogue National Historic Site which has been called the "most historically significant Jewish buildings in America." 

40. South Carolina

Congaree

Students at The University of South Carolina have the perfect opportunity to explore one of the NPS's newest national parks. Congaree is located entirely on a swampy floodplain, but has boardwalks for seeing the lands. There is also the Congaree River which is great to canoe down!

41. South Dakota

Badlands

This park is located in Southwestern, SD - just south of Mt. Rushmore National Monument. The park serves to preserve one of the most rich fossil beds in the world with over 224,000 acres of land. This park offers wonderful hiking trails, backpacking opportunities, and even provides telescopes if you want to catch a glimpse of the night sky completely free of light pollution. 

42. Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains

This park saddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina and provides a great chance to get close to nature. If you like biking, ride the eleven-mile loop through Cades Cove. If you like the backcountry, there are a lot of opportunities for long-distance hiking - even a section of the AT runs through GSMNP. If you're just looking for a chance to just hang out, there are great places to raft down rivers and creeks. 

43. Texas

Big Bend

Guadalupe Mountains

These two parks are located fairly close together along the Rio Grande in the southwestern corner of Texas. They both offer great ways to escape the city and enjoy a few days in the wilderness. Make sure to take plenty of water, as the Texas heat can get pretty gnarly. 

If you're exploring in Big Bend, make sure to take your passport so you can cross over to the Mexico side of the park. 

44. Utah

Zion
Canyonlands
Arches
Capitol Reef
Bryce Canyon

And that's just the Large Parks! Utah offers so many wonderful opportunities to explore and get out into the world! Many of these parks center around rock formations, which you can climb, bike, hike, or run around. Most of these parks are located in the southeastern corner of Utah, so don't pass them by if you're ever in AZ, NM, or CO!

Check out the NPS profile of Utah for more information on the parks, as well as the list of National Monuments that you can also explore!

45.Vermont

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller

This park is dedicated to those that first entertained the idea of preserving forests and landscapes for future generations in VT. Located in Woodstock Vermont, the park is so quaint and worth the little time it takes to get there. You can tour the home, look at the few small museum exhibits on the property, and hike the 4-mile loop trail that takes you back to an exquisite pond. 

46. Virginia

Shenandoah

This park is great for anyone in VA! When the park was created, it was actually designed to be accessible to most people on the eastern seaboard in one day's drive. This park is 105 miles long from North to South, so it's safe to say you can find something to do! If you're looking for something a little on the challenging side, Old Rag is a must! If you're just looking for a fun hike to a nice spot, try Mary's Rock. (pro tip: park and start from Meadow Spring)

47. Washington

Mount Rainier
North Cascades
Olympic

The National Parks located in Washington are some of the most beautiful in the country. Centered around mountains, these parks are perfect if you're a mountaineer or are looking to get into some serious hiking. 

All of these parks are accessible for students in the PNW - so don't graduate without checking them out!

48. West Virginia

Bluestone

Need an escape? Check out Bluestone National Scenic River, where you can Kayak the day away and swim as much as your heart desires. 

49. Wisconsin 

St. Croix 

This National Scenic Riverway (much like Bluestone in WV) preserves around 200 miles of riverway. All you need is a boat and a paddle and you are good to go! 

50. Wyoming 

Grand Teton

This park preserves some 200+ miles of trail, pristine rivers and lakes, as well as the Teton Mountain Range. Escape the hustle and bustle and come out to the quiet side of the Mountains, where nature and humans can coexist ( just don't leave food out, because it is bear country ). 

Yellowstone

The FIRST National Park in the United States still is one of the most recognizable of them all. Sitting atop the most active underground volcano, this park boasts mountains to hike on, accessible boardwalks that will take you by the geothermal activity, and, of course, Old Faithful and other geysers. 

Devil's Tower

This incredible natural wonder was the US's first National Monument. If you're a climber, make sure to bring your gear, because the groves in the tower are a challenge that's just waiting to be overcome by the next climber. 

51. Washington DC

National Mall & Memorial Parks

If you go to one of the multitude of schools in the DC area, make sure to take advantage of the plethora of museums and monuments in the area. It's especially nice if you can go during the Cherry Blossom Festival, or at night when there are no tourists and all the monument grounds are empty. 

BONUS: Canada

PEI National Park

This one is PERFECT for fall break, because the tourist season will have died down and the beaches will be free for you to explore! The island is pretty accessible by day's drive to all of New England. The island boasts Red Sand Beaches, as well as white sand. If you remember reading or watching the Anne of Green Gables series, you can even see the house that inspired L.M. Montgomery to write the beloved books. 

Niagara Falls

If you're in Upstate NY or northern PA, Niagara Falls is just a short drive away. If you have a passport, go ahead and cross the border because views from the Canadian side are superior & free (other than parking!)

Lead Image Credit: Emily Perry


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Emily Adeline Perry - Rhodes College

Emily is a Russian Studies major at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. She loves film, literature, and the US National Park Service. Emily has been writing for Fresh U since June of 2014 and has served as both a web editor and a social media editor. Outside of Fresh U, she volunteers with the YMCA Center for Civic Engagement and is involved with her sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi.

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