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Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, Washington, D.C., Wyoming

5 Surprising Things You Can Do in the U.S. National Parks

By: Katrina Woznicki

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  • States:
    California
    Colorado
    Kentucky
    Maine
    Maryland
    Virginia
    Washington
    Washington, D.C.
    Wyoming

The USA is home to nearly 340,000 square kilometers of national parkland, where you can see the world's largest trees, walk through the world's longest cave system, and experience volcanoes, glaciers, sand dunes and dinosaur fossils.

Magnificent in both beauty and diversity, U.S. national parks provide a range of experiences that don't require being an avid outdoors lover or even hauling a backpack. "(The) national parks protect some of the most beautiful, unique and cherished landscapes on the planet," says Michael Lanza, author of "Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks" and founder of the family travel blog The Big Outside. "The parks succeed at preserving huge expanses of wilderness while still keeping iconic places easily accessible to anyone without having to hike miles of rugged trails." While hiking and camping are common ways to experience these spaces, here are five activities you probably didn’t know you could do in the USA’s national parks.

Sandboard

The rolling sand dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado, less than a four-hour drive from Denver, are the tallest dunes in North America and ideal for sandboarding or sand sledding. You can rent sandboards and sand sleds in Alamosa, a small town about 55 kilometers southwest of the park. Fall and spring are great times to sandboard. If you’re planning a visit in the summer, make sure to visit the dunes either early morning or evening because the sand can reach about 66 degrees Celsius at midday.

Go Underground

The USA encompasses many spectacular scenes, one of which lies deep below the earth’s surface in Kentucky. About 140 kilometers south of Louisville in Mammoth Cave National Park, you can explore the longest known cave system in the world – more than 640 kilometers of the underground labyrinth has been explored, and who knows how much is still left undiscovered. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is filled with limestone ridges and a honeycomb of beautiful and spooky caverns. There are guided tours available for a wide range of physical abilities and ages.

Beautiful caverns in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky

Beautiful caverns in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky
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Run With Wild Horses

Nearly 60 kilometers of Atlantic coastline shared between the states of Maryland and Virginia offer a rare opportunity to play alongside the wildlife. On Assateague Island National Seashore, you can relax on the beach while wild horses gallop through the waves. Just make sure you enjoy the horses’ company from a distance and do not feed them. The island is about 16 kilometers south of Ocean City, Maryland, and is open year-round. If you plan on spending the night, campsite reservations are recommended. Camping gear and beach toys are sold at nearby retailers. There are also hotels and home rentals if camping isn’t your thing.

Wild horses roaming Assateague Island National Seashore

Wild horses roaming Assateague Island National Seashore
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Tee Up

If you prefer birdies and eagles to horses, national parks on the USA's East and West coasts feature golf courses. At the East Potomac Golf Course, one 18-hole course and two nine-hole courses offer striking views of some of the best-known landmarks of Washington, D.C., including the National Mall and Memorial Parks’ Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. In California, the Wawona Golf Course in Yosemite National Park offers a more rustic view. Surrounded by meadows, tall pines and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this nine-hole organic course is open daily from June through November.

Dress Up for Dinner

At Acadia National Park in Maine, the Jordan Pond House serves up a taste of the sea, while The Creekside at Kalaloch Lodge in Washington state’s Olympic National Park specializes in farm-to-table fare. For those who seek a rustic, historic dining experience, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, offers a picnic-style Old West Dinner Cookout. Ride out to Yancy's Hole in a covered wagon for some "cowboy grub," including steak, Roosevelt baked beans, cornbread, potato salad, coleslaw and fruit crisp.

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