Spectacular settings, wild histories, eternal natural mysteries—our amazing national parks have it all. Why is it then that most national park tours don’t really jibe with their breathtaking backdrops? While a guided tour in any national park ought to meld seamlessly with its grand locale, the all-too-common assembly line approach to many of them feels anything but special.
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It doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve rounded up the top national park tour operators across the U.S. that are dedicated to providing authentic, engaging, crowd-free experiences. Sign up with these inspired guides and you’ll be exploring parks in an altogether wilder manner that does real justice to America’s Greatest Idea. Here are the best guided national parks tours from Congaree National Park to Grand Canyon, and beyond.
Best National Parks Tours
Trek to South Carolina’s only national park and you’ll be handsomely rewarded—especially if you see it from the water, as is the case with Palmetto Outdoor’s signature, three-hour, paddle-in-hand tour. The five-mile canoe tour puts in at the South Cedar Creek Canoe Landing, where your guide will provide intel on the mesmerizing Congaree Swamp system.
Winding through oxbows and the maze-like channels of the Tupelo Basin, you’ll be flanked by giant champion trees lining the shore. These are some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. Be on the lookout for “cypress knees,” a mysterious phenomenon where these leafy towers have knobby pieces around their trunks for unknown reasons. Time your trip for the fall and you’ll be treated to spectacular foliage in one of the largest remaining tracts of old growth hardwood forest in the Southeast.
[From $100 per person; palmettooutdoor.com]
If you find yourself in Southern Oregon—a good place to find yourself—enlist in one of Main Street’s daily seven-hour tours to Crater Lake National Park. Led by professional naturalists, your expedition to the Jewel of the Cascades touches on everything from the geological to the sublime.
The landscapes here are nothing short of surreal—courtesy of the eruption of Mt. Mazama 7,700 years ago, when the mountain collapsed and left a nearly 2,000-foot deep crater in its place. Some seven millennia of rain and snowmelt have filled the crater since then, resulting in one of the clearest bodies of water on the planet.
The park itself sprawls out over 183,224 acres of mountains, old growth forests, volcanic fumaroles, two waterfalls, and the lake—all over a range of elevations that provides diverse habitats for lots of animals. By the end of this tour, you’ll be a Crater Lake expert, and will vow to return for a longer stay.
[From $169 per person; ashland-tours.com]
The U.S. National Park Service’s Mammoth Cave National Park runs a host of first-rate tours in this underrated, underground locale—about 30 miles outside of Bowling Green, KY. Ranging in time from just over an hour to six hours, and in distance from 400 yards to 5.5 miles, these wallet-friendly, mild-to-wild tours offer something for everyone. Mammoth Cave National Park is a two-level park comprised of roughly 52,830 acres of reclaimed hardwood forest and meandering riverways. Beneath this sylvan splendor hides the longest known cave system on the planet.
A favorite tour for adrenaline-seekers is the three-hour Violet City Lantern Tour, a three-hour trek by lantern light up steep hills and over historic dirt trails (from $12.50 per person). Head deep into the park’s actual innards on the Wild Cave Tour, a physically grueling all-day outing that’ll send you crawling through extremely tight spaces and challenging inclines (from $33 per person). Prepare to emerge from spelunking with plenty of knowledge about the cave’s history and geology—along with a new appreciation for modern technology.
[From $4 per person; nps.gov]
Park visitors are in good, adventurous hands with Kensington Tours, which offers a slew of private, tailor-mide itineraries in several A-list parks throughout the American West. Trips run the gamut from a nine-day Yellowstone Fall Foliage trip (from $14,698) and five-day jaunt on a Wyoming Winter escape (from $6,805) to a seven-day journey through Sedona and the Grand Canyon (from $7,665) complete with Sedona hiking, optional hot air ballooning, kayaking on the Verde River, and a guided day tour of the Grand Canyon from Hermit’s Rest to the Desert View Watchtower.
The company offers several other bespoke agendas in Utah’s Mighty Five, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and more. Accommodations are included, while meals generally aren’t unless specified on the itinerary.
[From $6,494 per person for six days; kensingtontours.com]
Itikmalik River, here we come! Located in the remote Brooks Range, high above the Arctic Circle, your Alaskan backcountry trip of a lifetime awaits—in the form of a classic dog-sledding traipse past snow-capped mountains, migrating caribou, and (with any luck) bonus views of the aurora borealis in this vast, dark sky haven. Meals are included—and may even include vegan chocolate cake.
The outfitter’s Arctic camp is located just outside Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. You’ll be tent-camping, driving your own team of up to six dogs, and using outdoor latrine facilities. Given the endless acres of tundra up here, there’s a good chance your mushing odyssey will also include sightings of that famous Alaskan wildlife, from musk ox and Dall sheep to grizzlies and wolves.
[From $10,399 per person for seven days; arcticdogco.com]
Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park, deserves every ounce of its hype and three million annual visitors for the park’s unbeatable wildlife show alone. Those crowds are precisely why you should book either The Yellowstone Wildlife Safari or Yellowstone Walking Safari (both from $350) with this local, family-owned and operated safari company which specializes in treading off heavily trodden trails to quieter nooks of the park.
The company’s full-day tour caps group size at just eight guests, starting bright and early to maximize chances of spying the park’s famous creatures—including bison herds (excellent odds), grizzlies (tougher), and wolves (toughest). Either way, expect top-notch naturalist guides, use of spotting scopes and binoculars, and breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Multi-day safaris are also options. Want more? The company’s three-day winter wolves and wildlife safari in Yellowstone is a feast for all senses ($5,600, meals included).
[From $3,280 per person for two days; yellowstonesafari.com]
“Hiking in the canyon with the Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute (GCCFI) is an experience unlike any other,” says Mindy Riesenberg, Grand Canyon Conservancy Director of Marketing and Communications, and GCCFI hiking participant. “As the official partner of Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon Conservancy works together with the National Park Service in ways that the other tour operators in the canyon can’t.”
Unlike other outfitters here, the Conservancy runs tours which are officially designed and developed in partnership with Grand Canyon National Park. Park rangers, and sometimes even the park superintendent, may show up on your tour to offer further insights and discuss the nonproft’s greater preservational purposes in the world’s most famous cleft.
A slew of programs run by the Conservancy include day tours and multi-day rim-based tours, guided backpacking and hiking trips, river trips, and service-based trips. They even offer photography, art, writing, and yoga classes in this magnificent canyon setting.
The service’s rim-to-rim pilgrimages across the Grand Canyon (from $1,500 for five days) ranks high among the most classic multi-day hikes in America. Standouts include the North or South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails, Roaring Springs, Ribbon Falls, Phantom Ranch, and Plateau Point. Along the way, you’ll get schooled in rocks, an array of vegetation, and the rituals of indigenous tribes like the Zuni.
Backpacking tours range from 4-7 days and basecamp tours range from 2-4 days, with prices ranging from $900 to $1,500 per tour per person. You’ll be tent camping and will need to bring your own food and gear. Rentals can be arranged.
[From $580 per person; grandcanyon.org]
Forget window-gazing in those cookie cutter tour buses where people barely want to get out, save for a gift shop. This active-centric outfitter runs both one-day and multi-day tours nationwide—from California and the Southwest (where Wildland Trekking is based) to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska to the Rockies, Great Smoky Mountains, and the Northeast. The hiking and backpacking tours set you up with local guides, gear, stellar food, and inn or tent accommodations depending on tour style.
These days, we’ve got our sights set on the Great Smoky Mountains Paddle and Hike Tours (from $210 for a day-tour; three days from $985) and Acadia National Park Summits to Ocean Tour in Maine, where you stay at inns and amble through Spruce forests, scope out Mount Desert Island, take an ocean ferry to the Schoodic Peninsula, and more. Wildland Trekking’s White Mountains Hut Treks in New Hampshire are well worth adding to your list, whether you try the Zealand Falls and the Appalachian Trail (four days from $1,345) or the Northern Presidential Traverse (six days from $1,780). Check individual itineraries to see if you’ll be counting sheep in backcountry tents or hotels.
[From $950 for multi-day trips; wildlandtrekking.com]
You won’t find many crowds in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and all those hauntingly beautiful spots in between—where vast prairie collides with stark, desiccated canyons striated in otherworldly color. Signing up for a tour here will provide you with a whole new appreciation for this oft-overlooked swath of our country, from its utterly serene present to its complicated past.
Rock spires, steep valleys, and wildlife such as bighorn sheep and prairie dogs greet you in Badlands National Park. Timeless prairies and more overachieving geology hides up in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North and South Units, once home to the nation’s 26th president during a formative cowboy phase. Some meals are included, and lodging is at comfortable hotels. For off-the-beaten-path serenity seekers, these tours are as low key and unique as they sound.
[From $2,925 per person for nine days; trafalgar.com]
Hotel Jackson in Jackson Hole, WY, is plugged into some of the best tours in national park central. Post up here and your concierge will arrange small-group expeditions to the Grand Tetons or Yellowstone with door-to-door transportation, trail snacks, transportation, and the use of fanny packs and binoculars.
Our favorite offering here is the Grand Teton National Park full-day outing—a bona fide Western U.S. safari spotlighting the park’s dramatic wildlife and natural history. As you keep your eyes peeled for elk herds and bighorn sheep, moose and mule deer, gray wolves and grizzlies, you’ll also swing by cinematic landmarks like Mormon Row, Oxbow Bend, Signal Mountain, and picturesque Jenny Lake. Half-day trips in the park are also available, as are longer, tailored excursions up in neighboring Yellowstone.
To book, call Hotel Jackson at (307) 733-2200 or email [email protected]
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