6 Surprising Activities You Can Do in U.S. National Parks

6 Surprising Activities You Can Do in U.S. National Parks

Written by Scott Shetler on

Scott Shetler is a freelance writer who enjoys offbeat destinations, national parks, urban adventures, cultural experiences, and everything in between. Follow his travels on Instagram @quirkytravelguy and his blog, Quirky Travel Guy.

6 Surprising Activities You Can Do in U.S. National Parks

Visiting national parks during the off-season opens up a world of new activities that you may not have known existed.

Did you know you could ice climb in Death Valley? Or snowmobile in Yellowstone? Or take part in a park cleanup effort in Yosemite?

America's national parks hold many surprises for those willing to seek them out. Those searching for a different park experience should try some of these lesser-known off-season activities in popular parks.

Mountain biking at the Grand Canyon

Casual visitors to the Grand Canyon may not be aware that one of the Southwest's most highly rated mountain bike trails can be found near the North Rim. Though technically located just outside the national park in Kaibab National Forest, the winding 18-mile (29 km) Rainbow Rim Trail offers picturesque views directly into the Canyon itself. Most years, cyclists can avoid the summer tourist crowds by riding the trail as late as mid-October before the snow arrives.

Ice climbing in Death Valley

One of the strangest moments of my visit to Death Valley National Park was standing in 100+ degree F (38 degree C) temperatures in Badwater Basin while seeing snow on nearby Telescope Peak. Reaching the 11,043-foot (3.4 km) summit can be a simple day trip during the summer. But when snow and ice take over, the 14-mile (22.5 km) round-trip trek becomes an ice climbing adventure recommended for experienced winter hikers. Bring an ice axe and crampons, and be sure to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the gravel roads to the trailhead.

Volunteering in Yosemite

Each autumn, more than a thousand volunteers participate in the multiple-day Yosemite Facelift event. They camp in tents at night while spending the daylight hours scouring the parking lots, hiking trails, and rock climbing routes for garbage and debris left behind by visitors.

The effort removes more than 12,000 pounds of trash from the iconic California park each year, and gives its participants a great sense of accomplishment. Interested in helping? Each May, the park begins accepting applications through its website for this September event.

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone

Despite receiving an average of 150 inches (381 cm) of snow annually, Yellowstone National Park remains open year-round. Between November and March when nearly all park roads close, your only chance to see Old Faithful and other park highlights is via snowmobile or snow coach.

Several authorized concessionaires offer snowmobile rentals for adventurous visitors who want to see how the land of grizzly bears and hot springs looks while coated in a blanket of snow. Any adult with a valid driver's license can rent a snowmobile in Yellowstone.

Triathlon in the Everglades

For a strenuous physical challenge, try the Tamiami Trail Triathlon in the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve. This triathlon isn't an actual race, but a series of activities that the National Park Service encourages visitors to do on their own.

The course includes a 15-mile (24 km) biking loop, three miles (4.8 km) of hiking, and 3.5 miles (5.6 km) of canoeing or kayaking. That final leg is a great way to experience the Everglades environment, as the kayak route to Sandfly Island passes through manatee and dolphin territory. Stash your stuff in a water-repellant daypack, and consider the shoulder seasons of spring and fall to avoid the summer heat.

Whale-watching from shore at Olympic National Park

Seeing whales often requires taking a whale-watching cruise, but if you visit Washington's Olympic National Park at the right time (typically April and November), you may see large pods of California gray whales migrating along the Pacific coast.

Sightings are possible during other times of year as well. I went to Olympic in August and was fortunate to see more than 10 gray whales over a three-day span near Kalaloch Campground. Even though only their tails and flippers were visible, it was a magical experience to witness the 45-foot-long (13.7 m) giants so close to shore.

While Eagle Creek is here to provide tips and insights on travel, we cannot accept any responsibility for any potential consequences arising from the use of this information. Always conduct your own research and use your best judgment.

Related Links (to Eagle Creek blog posts):

What to Pack When Heading to a National Park

Why You Should Visit U.S. National Parks in the Offseason

America's 6 Best Winter Hiking Trails