WORDS BY Sam Alviani

Colin + Meg

Visiting national parks is a classic rite of passage. Big skies, sweeping forests and staggering canyons will astonish all ages in the moment. Time in wild places pays off for a lifetime. 


THE CLASSIC Lamar Valley

“America’s Serengeti” is best experienced at first light, about a half-hour before sunrise. So set an early alarm, dodge any complaints and hightail it to the wide grassy meadows and sagebrush plains, where you’re likely to see enormous herds of bison—plus elk, bears, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, foxes and coyotes. BYO binoculars or spotting scope (many outfitters rent both). Pro tip: The road from Gardiner to Cooke City is the only one in Yellowstone open year-round, and winter is one of the best times for watching wildlife—especially wild wolves. 


The road north of Old Faithful traces Yellowstone’s geothermal heartland: a greatest-hits lineup of geysers and hot springs, with options for short detours to geothermal sites branching off the main loop. Particularly noteworthy is the cluster around Great Fountain Geyser, 11 miles up the road from Old Faithful: like that famed gusher, Great Fountain keeps a roughly predictable timetable, blasting forth every nine to 15 hours—a delight for kids and adults alike—often continuing over an hour. 


The steaming, electric blue cauldron of Grand Prismatic Spring is a notable park draw—but the best vantage point is actually the bird’s-eye view from a 1.2-mile there-and-back that looks down at the full expanse of neon wonder. Start at the Fairy Falls Trailhead—the name alone compels!—and go up, up, up. A picnic lunch at the summit while the mist burns off would be hard to beat; gather provisions from the Old Faithful branch of Yellowstone General Store.        


Fishing Bridge, the only in-park campground to offer full-hookups, has 310 spots for hard-sided units only, while Headwaters Campground and RV Park offers in-wilderness sites for those willing to compromise electric comforts. Don’t forget the bear spray.

To explore the history, science and sights of Yellowstone Country, check out Wildsam's field guide to Yellowstone National Park—great stories of mystery and marvel to keep time on the road lively.


Yellowstone National Park | Nathan Anderson

Great Smoky Mountains


Rife with pioneer history and verdant trails. Driving the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop, visitors will see sturdy homesteads and sweet country churches, many made from American chestnut logs. Set out early to minimize road traffic, and take note: Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May to October, the road is closed to cars. Get the limbs loose on the busy, wildflower-lined trail to Abrams Falls, which parallels a rushing stream.   


Fontana Lake is Western North Carolina’s largest, surrounded by the majesty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Walk the Fontana Dam—as tall as a 50-story skyscraper, the highest concrete dam east of the Rockies—where it cuts across a scenic stretch of the Little Tennessee River and crosses paths with passing Appalachian Trail hikers. Rugged and pristine, Cheoah Lake sits right below the dam, bordering the park and Forest Service land. Rainbow, brown and brook trout—and a bevy of prime fishing opportunities for big and little anglers—abound. 

THE HIDDEN GEM Heintooga Overlook

In the high country between Maggie Valley and Cherokee, a one-lane road courses along an old rail bed into the heart of the Smokies. To access this serene wonderland by car, take the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Balsam Mountain Campground turnoff, and follow the pavement for several miles. Park half a mile past the campground and walk around the crest of Balsam Mountain on the Flat Creek Trail to the 5,535-foot Heintooga Overlook for a panoramic view of rolling mountain ridges.       


The Little Pigeon River surrounds Greenbrier Campground—just a half-mile from the park entrance—where most of the 120 pull-through and back-in hookup sites are on the water. Bonus points for Flint Rock, the in-camp swimming hole.

To learn more wonders of the Purple High Country, get Wildsam's field guide to Great Smoky National Park.


near Redwoods National Park

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

THE CLASSIC Avenue of the Giants

The 32-mile route through the big, big trees will no doubt inspire childlike awe in the whole family: lined by titan, ancient redwoods, peppered with trailheads leading to otherworldly stands, the “Drive-Through” tree and the millennia-old Immortal Tree. The deep forest of the trail through Founder’s Grove—along with Rockefeller Forest, an expanse of some of the most mammoth old-growth redwoods on the planet—are superior spots for marveling, leg-stretching and play. On warmer days, the South Fork of the Eel River beckons for an afternoon dip. 

Trivia: Was the first RV actually a redwood?

In 1917, singer and naturalist Charles Kellogg crafted the “Travel Log '' from a fallen redwood and mounted it on a truck, driving it across the country four times. It’s now on view at the visitor center.


You'll head south and west to bask in the Pacific surf rhythms at Shelter Cove, a plush spread with both full hook-ups and dry-camping spots on the so-called Lost Coast.


Redwoods only grow natively in California. | Dan Kuras/Tiny Atlas/Kintzing


THE HIDDEN GEM The Schoodic Peninsula

The Schoodic is the only stretch of Acadia National Park on the Maine mainland—only five miles from Mount Desert Island, the park’s core, as the crow flies, but a longer journey by car on Route 1 to Winter Harbor and the Schoodic Loop Road. The ride rewards the pursuit of the unbeaten path with an unmarked trail to Raven’s Nest, a rocky coastline of dramatic cliff drops, crystalline waters and gorgeous, uncluttered views—plus a quiet pocket beach at the bottom for swimming, exploring.    

RV Campground

The Schoodic Woods Campground offers 78 spots with electric hook-ups.

For more gems in the Dawnland, get Wildsam's field guide to the Maine Coast.



Thickets of bald cypress and an understory of swamp fern, orchid and buttonbush make for an ethereal Floridian landscape, merging into the Everglades. River otters, wading birds and, of course, the American alligator, are common sightings from ranger-led tours and boardwalk strolls.