Day Trips to Visit National Parks

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, we offer some unexpected park excursions—most an easy day trip from a major city.

September 2016

If you didn’t notice this year’s 100th anniversary of the National Park Service—recently commemorated by a slew of travel magazines and a new centennial half-dollar—perhaps a trip to see what all the fuss is about is in order. And despite the name, only 58 of the 410 U.S. National Park Service (NPS) sites are parks. Many are historic landmarks, seashores, memorials and lakeshores—and many cities offer an easy drive to at least one, as our guide below suggests. For other ideas, check the NPS website.

Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Travel time: 40 minutes from New York City
A perfect place for kids and adults, Thomas Edison’s home and lab in West Orange, N.J., let you step back in time to the turn of the 20th century, when America’s greatest inventor was conjuring up the light bulb, the phonograph and early work on motion pictures, just to name a few. His Glenmont estate is a 29-room mansion and one of the largest museums in the NPS. Don’t miss his machinery and inventions, chemistry lab and the “Black Maria,” his movie production studio. The collection holds more than 300,000 items.

Channel Islands National Park

Travel time: 2 hours to Ventura Harbor from Los Angeles, then a 1-hour boat ride
One of the last truly undeveloped places in the U.S., this park consists of five islands, the unique home of 145 species of plants and animals. From bald eagles and sharks to sea stars and barnacles to the deer mouse and island fox, the fauna are recognized as distinct subspecies on each of their islands. You’ll see rare plants like Santa Rosa Island manzanita, island rush-rose and Santa Cruz Island lace pod, all in this wild series of islands where there are no phones, cars or services—it's the perfect spot for a forced unplug.

Congaree National Park

Travel time: 2 hours from Charleston, South Carolina
More than 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.5 miles of boardwalk meander through the 22,200-acre Congaree. Every wild, elegant and creepy image you have of the Deep South is here, from some of America’s biggest, old-growth hardwoods dripping with Spanish Moss to silent kayak or canoe rides through Cedar Creek; you might see a wild boar or two. You can even camp here, and naturalists lead evening tours into the forest by flashlight.

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Travel time: 2 hours from Taos, New Mexico; 4 hours from Denver
One of the wildest natural sites you may ever see in the United States, this massive series of sand dunes is the tallest in the country, stretching for more than 30 square miles. But the dunes are not all you can expect to see; eight completely different zones in this park range from aspen forests to frozen tundra to grasslands and wetlands. Plan a visit to camp during a full moon, and you can walk on the dunes without a flashlight, looking for wild nightlife including kangaroo rats, toads, bobcats and owls. Don’t miss sandboarding and sandsledding on the dunes (rentals are available in Alamosa).