Outdoors

The Best National Park Gateway Towns


The places outside the boundaries are as joyous as the wild lands themselves.

EDITED BY SAM ALVIANI, ZACH DUNDAS, JENNIFER JUSTUS AND BRIAN KEVIN

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Cowboy Bar in Jackson, WY | Karsten Winegeart

Updated

4 Jun 2024

Reading Time

15 Minutes

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JOSHUA TREE

JOSHUA TREE, CALIFORNIA

The town that shares the park’s name is known for its art scene and funky spirit: see Shari Elf ’s Art Queen trash-art gallery, the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, and the World Famous Crochet Museum. Big Josh, a 20-foot Muffler Man statue, looms over The Station, a converted 1949 service stop selling knickknacks. November’s the best time to hit the park, says Tyler Gilson, a fourth-generation Joshua Tree resident and buyer at Nomad Ventures, the spot to gear up. After a day on the trails or crags, heat-wilted adventurers revive with beer and tacos at the charmingly ramshackle Joshua Tree Saloon.

CAMP: Big rig–friendly TwentyNine Palms RV Resort has full hookups at all 168 sites and a big old pool. Joshua Tree RV & Campground, meanwhile offers sites right in town (good Wi-Fi throughout). It's next door to AutoCamp Joshua Tree, a chill paradise of Airstream suites and mod cabins.

RV TIP: Avoid the park’s backcountry roads in a motorhome or while pulling a trailer. A gravel-ready bike is a great option if you're not traveling with a high-clearance car or truck (ATVs and dirt bikes are verboten).

SEE ALSO: The clean lines of midcentury modernism look good in the desert, and Palm Springs is full of architectural treasures, starting with its visitor center, a converted gas station.

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Camping in Joshua Tree. | Ethan Dow
JACKSON, WYOMING

GRAND TETON AND YELLOWSTONE

Ski bums and granola munchers mingle with hedge-fund managers and Fortune 500 execs, surrounded by oh-so-much breathtaking public land (Bridger-Teton National Forest is 10 times the size of Grand Teton). Downtown, the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is a Wyoming classic (seats are saddles). Venture to Fiesta for casual Tlaxcala fare, imported by Jackson’s sizable Hispanic community, or Beard-nominated Teton Thai at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Snake River Brewing Company is in its 30th year of being the town’s living room. “It was odd to me at first that people who’ve lived here just a few years consider themselves local,” says Broc Seipp, who runs the brewery’s marketing and events. “But now I get it—it’s a place that makes you feel like a local almost immediately.”

CAMP: The Virginian RV Park shares amenities with a boutique-y motor lodge of the same name, including a townie-beloved saloon (“The Virg”) and a huge, enclosed courtyard with pool, hot tubs and fire pits.

RV TIP: Navigating the narrow, busy streets around Town Square can be a drag in any vehicle. Park at the Home Ranch Welcome Center on the way into town and ask about the designated large-vehicle route.

SEE ALSO: It means regular trips over Tetons, but little Driggs, on the Idaho side of the range, reflects Jackson’s crunchy-bougie-cowboy energy with a fraction of the traffic. Rise Coffee House has your caffeine and chitchat, Tatanka Tavern your pizza and beer.

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Hiking in the Tetons | Brian Chorski/Kintzing
ZION

SPRINGDALE, UTAH

The thing about the wild beauty of Zion Canyon is that it doesn’t stop at the national park boundary. In fact, all of Springdale, outside the park’s southern border, lies within the canyon, so there are startlingly gorgeous views all over town. Zion Park Boulevard is lined with galleries like David J. West Gallery, full of epic landscape photography, and shops like Zion Rock & Gem, the spot for specimens of red-banded Utah wonderstone. Oscar’s Cafe has chili verde tamales and a lively patio. Come evening, O.C. Tanner Amphitheater, surrounded by sandstone cliffs, is an appropriately dramatic venue for a concert.

CAMP: Zion Canyon Campground is the closest to the park’s south entrance, within walking distance of both South and Watchman campgrounds, inside the park. Lots of leafy shade trees draw folks to WillowWind RV Park in nearby Hurricane.

RV TIP: Have your vehicle measured at the entrance station if you’re planning to drive through the park’s Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. If it’s taller than 11'4" or wider than 7'10", you’ll need to enter during staffed hours, with a $15 permit.

SEE ALSO: Kanab, a sprawly little outpost on the Arizona state line, does double duty as a gateway to Zion and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

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Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. | Robert Penaloza
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The Zion Park Motel in Springdale. | Brian Chorski/Kintzing
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS

GATLINBURG, TENNESSEE

Kitsch is Gatlinburg’s defining feature: Embrace it! A museum of salt and pepper shakers with 20,000 pairs of all shapes and sizes? Yes, please. Mini-golf and candy shops galore? Well, sure! A busy island of souvenir shops and theme parks amid lush pine forests, Gatlinburg is hard to beat for access, sitting right on the park’s northern boundary. Start with pancakes at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp. After a day in the mountains, says Greg Eidam, head distiller at the always-hopping Sugarlands Distilling Company, wind down with a sampling tour of Gatlinburg’s breweries, wineries and distilleries. Smoky Mountain Brewery, he says, “has the best burgers and pizza in town.”

CAMP: The Little Pigeon River surrounds Greenbrier Campground, where most of the 120 sites are on the water (or a few steps away). Perks: a half-mile from the park entrance, has its own swimming hole.

RV TIP: If you’re driving or pulling a large rig, skip the park’s more harrowing throughways, like Rich Mountain Road, Balsam Mountain Road and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

SEE ALSO: South of the park, quieter Cherokee, North Carolina, is a draw for the Museum of the Cherokee People and Qualla Arts And Crafts Mutual, the oldest Native American craft cooperative, full of exquisite basketry, pottery and textiles.

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Gatlinburg Sky Bridge.
YOSEMITE, SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS

BISHOP, CALIFORNIA

“Bishop is a classic desert-rat town,” says Lacey Greene, a state biologist who studies bighorn sheep in the Eastern Sierra. “Not necessarily a place one might be drawn to visit except it also happens to be the center of the universe.” The universe encompasses three parks—Yosemite’s Tioga Pass entrance road is about an hour-ish north—but also the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest east of town, fishing spots along the Owens River, and the Buttermilks, huge boulders that attract an international cadre of climbers. Many an excursion starts at Sage to Summit, a gear shop with affordable rentals and tons of mountain knowledge. Many a hiker totes jerky from century-old Mahogany Smoked Meats. The Craggin’ Classic climbing fest in autumn is the best time to get a sense of Bishop’s big, gnarly heart.

CAMP: Anglers will dig the front-door river access of all 80-plus sites at Brown’s Owens River Campground (everybody else will marvel at the mountain view).

RV TIP: Travel centers are sparse in the Eastern Sierra, but Bishop’s Paiute Palace Gas Station has easy access, dedicated RV parking and propane refills.

SEE ALSO: On Yosemite's busier western side, Mariposa is a Gold Rush town with a Main Street full of Old West false-fronts. RV campsites sit right outside the cool California State Mining and Mineral Museum (and a 14-pound nugget inside!).

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Bouldering in the Buttermilks. | Jeremy Francis/Alamy
GRAND CANYON

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA

A 90-minute drive from the park’s south entrance, Flagstaff is a cowboy-meets-college town split by Route 66. “We’re a crossroads of scientists and researchers, outdoors enthusiasts and all of the Native cultures,” says Kimberly Spurr, archaeology director at the Museum Of Northern Arizona, which offers an immersive primer on local landscapes, ecosystems and cultures. Hit Mountain Sports Flagstaff for gear and Pizzicletta for wood-fired pies. The louche cocktail lounge at the landmark 1920s Hotel Monte Vista has a long shelf of whiskeys (also karaoke). U.S. 180 is the more scenic of the two main routes to the park, with Chapel of the Holy Dove, a tiny, conical roadside sanctuary, well placed to express reverence for land.

CAMP: The sleek clubhouse bistro at Village Camp Flagstaff has floor-to-ceiling windows and mountain views. At J & H RV Park, the family vibes are strong: think Sunday potlucks, pet sitting. On the outskirts of Winslow, less than an hour from Flagstaff, Meteor Crater RV Park overlooks where a space rock hit Earth 50,000 years back.

RV TIP: If far-flung disaster strikes, Off Grid RV Service makes repair calls throughout the canyon country (plenty of customers, says owner Lee Walker, give locations in GPS coordinates).

SEE ALSO: Some 30 miles west of Flagstaff, Williams bills itself as “Gateway to Grand Canyon.” There’s train service to the park and pool tables awaiting your return at the World Famous Sultana Bar, established 1912.

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Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. | Chon Kit Leong/Alamy
ROCKY MOUNTAIN

ESTES PARK, COLORADO

Postcard Rockies grandeur in any direction you look and all of 10 minutes from the park’s main east entrance at Beaver Meadows. (Skip traffic with a free shuttle to the park-and-ride there, where shuttles deeper into the park await.) Local institutions include The Donut Haus, which opens early if you’re getting an alpine start, and Macdonald Book Shop, housed in the same log cabin space since 1928. Come October, don’t miss the bugling contest and “Wallowing Hole” beer tent at Elk Fest. You don’t need to be a guest to tour the grand 1909 Stanley Hotel—you know it from The Shining.

CAMP: Town-run East Portal Campground, best suited for smaller rigs, has a trailhead into the park, a fishing pond and a secluded vibe. Just outside the Beaver Meadows entrance, Elk Meadow Lodge & RV Resort has 169 full-service sites and an outdoor pool.

RV TIP: Trail Ridge Road, known as the “Highway to the Sky,” is an RV-friendly bucket-lister of an alpine drive, subject to the park’s timed-entry permit system.

SEE ALSO: On the park’s sleepier western side, Grand Lake, population 400ish, overlooks Colorado’s biggest natural lake, and boutiques and galleries line its downtown boardwalk.

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The Stanley Hotel, depicted in The Shining. | Padraig o'Flannery
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Downtown Estes Park. | Fatemeh Hashemi
OLYMPIC

PORT TOWNSEND, WASHINGTON

Noted for its Victorian architecture and maritime traditions, Port Townsend lends some village-by-the-sea charm to the upper-right corner of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s an hour’s drive to the park’s northern visitor center but a base camp for closer adventures too: trailheads in Fort Worden State Park and Olympic National Forest, kayaking excursions with sea otters and orcas in Port Townsend Bay, whale-watching tours with Puget Sound Express. Don’t leave without eating seafood: Sirens Pub serves a mean, saffron-scented cioppino (with clams, oysters, and salmon), while Sea J’s Cafe has a transcendent fish and chips.

CAMP: Waterfront Port Hudson Marina & RV Park is a stroll away from both the historic lighthouse at Point Wilson and the shops and restaurants of downtown Port Townsend. The Beach Campground at Fort Worden State Historical Park has spectacular sunsets and views of Admiralty Inlet, Whidbey Island and the North Cascades.

RV TIP: Trailers and motorhomes can ride Washington State Ferries, but fees vary by length, and a permit may be required for oversized rigs. Arrange an advanced reservation to know what you’re getting into (it’s sometimes more economical to drive around Puget Sound).

SEE ALSO: The streets of Port Angeles were elevated in the early 1900s, for fear of flooding, so Olympic’s largest gateway town has both storefronts and tunnels to explore.

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Point Wilson lighthouse at sunset in Fort Worden State Park. | Spring Images/Alamy
ACADIA

BAR HARBOR, MAINE

Mount Desert Island’s genteel seaside hub packs out during peak season but maintains its coziness and Gilded Age charms—see the stately “cottages” lining the pleasantly tame Shore Path. The town’s name comes from Bar Island, which you can walk to at low tide for a panorama of the bay and its spruce-and-granite Porcupine Islands. To paddle among the latter—or climb cliffs in the park—hit up Cadillac Mountain Sports for guide recs and gear. Havana Parrilla is the outdoor tapas bar of your dreams, while Fogtown is the spot for end-of-day brews and ciders. “For four months, the place churns with tourists from all over the world, but it’s a small town at heart,” says Maria Simpson, a poet and teacher at the local elementary. “It’s still a place where kids cool down by jumping off the pier and a lost dog will bring out an army to scour the island.”

CAMP: No RVs over 20 feet at family-run Mount Desert Campground, but its wooded and waterfront sites are the best on MDI. Canoe and kayak rentals, cones at the camp store, half a mile of Somes Sound shoreline.

RV TIP: RVs and trailers are prohibited on the auto road up Cadillac Mountain, the Atlantic Coast’s high point. Hike up with Rising Sun Adventure Tours instead.

SEE ALSO: On MDI’s quieter western side, Southwest Harbor still feels like an old Maine fishing town. Haddock sandwiches the size of your head at Peter Trout’s Tavern.

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Bar Harbor Lobster Pound. | Toa Heftiba
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Lobster boats off Mount Desert Island.
GLACIER

WHITEFISH, MONTANA

Glacier is ringed by lovely but low-key working-class towns... and then there’s Whitefish. Northwest Montana’s most polished crossroads owes much of its shine to Whitefish Mountain. The ski hill known for colossal, wild views has imbued the pocket-sized downtown with all-season-resort energy. (Proximity to the park helps too, of course: the West Glacier entrance is 26 miles away—practically nothing by Montana standards.) Two places to tap into the fancier side of things: M. Studio (arguably the most cutting-edge womenswear in the state) and The Bungalow (gorgeous flowers and gifts). If that’s not quite the Montana you had in mind, the Bulldog Saloon provides a pleasingly gruff antidote. Whitefish Outfitters helps unlock the park with hiking, biking and driving tours.

CAMP: Are we in Switzerland here? Whitefish Lake State Park has a plush lakeside setting very near the town’s famed network of hiking and biking trails. West Glacier RV Park is within an ambitious rock-toss of classic Glacier sights such as Lake McDonald, Apgar and the Trail of the Cedars.

RV TIP: The exact regs require careful reading on our old friend nps.gov, but trips along the landmark Going-to-the-Sun Road will often require a vehicle reservation this summer—and there are size restrictions too: 21' long, 8' wide, 10' high.

SEE ALSO: Kalispell is the “urban” hub of the northern Flathead Valley and a pleasant stopover. Brix Bottleshop is one of Montana’s wisest wine and beer suppliers.

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Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. | Hans Isaacson

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