From sea to shining sea, the celebration of National Parks Week kicks off Saturday. Sitting in a recliner watching the game on the weekend may be the American way, but enjoying the country's natural and historical sights in our own backyard is our birthright. And, with 364 parks to choose from, there's sure to be something for everyone – even the most intrepid channel surfer. So, get up and go!
Places like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon are obvious choices, and unarguably fascinating, but there are many lesser known parks to discover. From mountainous sand dunes to underground caves, here are five national park experiences that tend to fly under the radar.
Hike the tallest sand dunes in North America
There are sand dunes in Colorado? At Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve the dunefield stretches 30 square miles. Activities abound at the park, but on the dunes themselves there's hiking, sledding, sandboarding and skiing to name a few. Special sand wheelchairs are even available so everyone can enjoy the dunes. During seasons that saw high rain or snowfall, Medano Creek can be high enough to create a beach at the base of the dunes.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Visitor Center, 11999 Highway 150, Mosca, CO; 719-378-6399
Live the historic life on the C&O Canal
From 1850 to the early 1900s, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal ran parallel to the Potomac River for 184.5 miles, linking Washington, D.C. and Cumberland, Maryland. Today visitors can enjoy the park by going for a stroll or bike ride along the canal's towpath among other activities. Or, they can spend the night in an historic lockhouse (home of a canal lock operator.) Currently, five lockhouses are available to be rented, each capturing a different era in the canal's history. Some have all the amenities like stoves, showers and central AC/heat. Others offer a slightly more historically accurate experience without electricity, heat or running water. Visit the C&O Canal Trust to find out how to book a stay.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, 1850 Dual Highway, Suite 100,Hagerstown, MD; 301-739-4200
Visit the site of a leper colony
At Kalaupapa National Historical Park, learn the famous story of Father Damien and the leprosy patients he helped care for. Between 1866 and 1969, those suffering from leprosy – now known as Hansen's disease – were sent to live in isolation on the Kalaupapa peninsula of the island of Molokai. Historically, isolation was the only way to try and prevent the spread of Hansen's disease, for which there is now treatment. In fact, several surviving patients still reside in the Kalaupapa Settlement, sharing their memories and experiences. Be aware that access to Kalaupapa is restricted and visitors must make arrangements with the Hawaii Department of Health (808-567-6924) or Damien Tours (808-567-6171) to be allowed access.
Kalaupapa National Park, Kalaupapa, Hawaii; 808-567-6802
Explore the world's longest known cave system
"Mammoth" is certainly a fitting name for Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. The world's longest known cave system, its underground chambers extend 390 miles. A number of cave tours are available throughout the year, on a rotating basis by season. Intrepid young explorers should check out the Introduction to Caving tour, which teaches rules and techniques of cave exploration in some of the lesser visited areas. The more stalwart can strap on kneepads and headlamps and try the Wild Cave Tour. Above ground, there's boating, canoeing, kayaking, swimming and fishing on 30 miles of river that meander through the park.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky; 270-758-2180
Go scuba diving inside an inland volcano
Oregon's Crater Lake was formed 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama violently erupted forming a caldera, or collapsed volcano. Over time, snow and rain caused the caldera to fill in, forming a deep, blue lake – one of the 10 deepest in the world. The park is open year-round, with activities like fishing, scuba diving, hiking and bicycling, but the path to the lake's shores is only accessible from July through October. In the colder months – which can see up to 44 feet of snow – cross country skiing, snowshoe and snowmobile trails are available.
Crater Lake National Park, Crater Lake, Oregon; 541-594-3000