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President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people.” If you plan to explore “your” parks—there are 401 of them—be sure to take a look at the National Park Service’s website for a list of free-entrance days, when admission fees are waived for everyone. And then check out our picks for seven essential national park experiences.

 

1. Take a scenic drive along Blue Ridge ParkwayVirginia and North Carolina

Blue Ridge Parkway. Credit Mary Anne Baker at Flickr Creative Commons. Blue Ridge Parkway. Credit Mary Anne Baker at Flickr Creative Commons.

This road trip is about the journey, not the destination. The slow speed limits urge you to take in the views along this 469-mile-long stretch through the Appalachian Highlands. Autumn is the ideal time to see the leaves in all their red, orange and gold glory, but the scenic overlooks are worth a stop anytime of the year.

2. Go snowshoeing through Bryce Canyon National ParkUtah

Bryce Canyon. Credit Andy Grant of Flickr Creative Commons. Bryce Canyon. Credit Andy Grant of Flickr Creative Commons.

Summer may be the season for all-American camping trips, but this is one national park that’s even more enchanting when the temperature drops. During the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival over Presidents Day Weekend in February, guided morning and moonlit snowshoe hikes make it easy for newbies to enjoy the recreation while staying safe.

3. Ride a mule in Grand Canyon National ParkArizona

Grand Canyon mule ride. Photo credit: Michael Quinn. Grand Canyon mule ride. Photo credit: Michael Quinn.

When it comes to hiking the Grand Canyon, perhaps your heart says yes but your feet are less enthusiastic. Solution: a mule tour. The animal does the work so you can enjoy the viewwithout losing your footing. Trips range from a kid-friendly, hour-long ride around the South Rim to overnight excursions down to the Colorado River, which sell out months in advance.

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4. Immortalize your ancestors at Ellis IslandNew York

Ellis Island Wall of Honor - credit LibertyEllisFoundation_dot_org

For $150, anyone can add a name to the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. Located at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum overlooking Lower Manhattan, the wall’s stainless steel panels bear the names of more than 700,000 newcomers who started their American dream at the island.

5. Take an airboat tour of Everglades National ParkFlorida

Everglades National Park. Photo credit Dalia Colón.

Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and Busch Gardens have plenty of roller coasters. But Florida’s original thrill ride is a screaming-loud airboat tour through one of the most fascinating ecosystems on earth.

6. Spot wildlife in Yellowstone National ParkWyoming (and parts of Montana and Idaho)

Lamar Valley at Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Brian Gratwicke at FlickrCreative Commons. Lamar Valley at Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Brian Gratwicke at Flickr Creative Commons.

Take a driving tour or book a guided excursion through Lamar Valley, a habitat for wolves, buffalo, eagles and other wildlife you’ve probably only seen on TV. Bring binoculars and your “good camera,” and drive slowly to soak up the view.

7. Attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony at Presidents Park – Washington, DC

2007 Tree Lighting. Photo credit NPS.dot.gov.

This is more than just a flick of the switch. The pomp and circumstance of this American tradition date back nearly a century. Today, the festivities include an appearance by the president and first lady, celebrity performances and a cameo by Santa and Mrs. Claus. The 2014 ticket lottery for would-be attendees has closed,   but you can watch the ceremony on TV and submit your name for next year’s drawing.

Tagged: Destinations, Florida, National Parks

Dalia Colon

Dalia Colon

Dalia is a multimedia journalist in Tampa and the Smart Travel Insider for VISIT FLORIDA. Follow her on Twitter @daliacolon.