Visiting the Most Popular U.S. National Parks
By now you may have heard about the Every Kid in a Park Program providing 4th grade students free admission to United States National Parks for the 2015-2016 school year. This wonderful initiative also includes a carload of accompanying family and friends.
As a family, we have always loved visiting national parks and certainly have our favorites. If you are unfamiliar with the National Park Service, you can start your trip planning by checking out this list of the top 10 most visited national parks to get some destination ideas. The Top Ten List includes some of the most iconic sites in the U.S.
Many people associate national parks with camping overnight, and while I do enjoy camping and backpacking, I also appreciate a hotel’s creature comforts after spending a day outside hiking and exploring, especially when discovering the world around us with my kids.
If you are not fond of national park camping or find that the overnight rates at the national park lodges are too steep for a family with kids, the Hilton family of hotels has you covered. At five of the Top Ten 10 National Parks, there is a hotel in the Hilton family located within a 20-30 minute drive of the entrance.
I hope you’ll enjoy my recommendations for fun family hikes plus great hotels and restaurants close to these five most visited national parks.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular U.S. National Park, receiving over twice the number of visitors compared to the Grand Canyon at #2. In 2002, my husband and I climbed to the summit of Mount LeConte, and it was during that trip that my love for the Smoky Mountains began to bloom.
Straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, there are multiple entrances to the park, but we prefer the northwestern entrance near Gatlinburg because it is co-located with the park headquarters.
There are six different hotels in the Hilton family among the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge hotels located within 15 miles of the park entrance; however, our favorite is The Park Vista, a DoubleTree by Hilton hotel located on a hilltop overlooking Gatlinburg, TN. This location is wonderful because you are above the busyness of Gatlinburg, yet there is a hotel shuttle that will take you down to the parkway to shop, eat, or just see the sights. The pool area is also fantastic for kids with two great water slides, three pools, and a hot tub (all indoors). Our family found respite and endless laughter each evening in this aquatic treat for all ages.
On the day we hiked the Alum Cave Trail, my two oldest girls were ecstatic to come back to The Park Vista for a nice long splash in the multiple pools and get their fill of warm cookies. Speaking of cookies, the complementary warm chocolate chip cookies that DoubleTree is famous for always make for a great snack while hiking or out enjoying nature. Don’t forget to grab a few from the reception desk when heading out for the day! However, most importantly, the hotel is only a three-mile drive to the Smoky Mountains park entrance.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is #7 on the list and is serviced by a brand new hotel, Hampton Inn & Suites Springdale/Zion National Park. This beautiful hotel is located less than one mile from the entrance to Zion and has the famous red cliffs as its backdrop. Even with the close proximity to the park entrance, the hotel offers a free Springdale shuttle to the Zion National Park Visitor Center.
From the visitor center, you can catch the park’s free Zion shuttle to explore the park. Imagine that, exploring an entire national park without your car ever leaving the parking lot. You will also have the luxury of Hampton Inn’s free breakfast to power you up for the multitude of Zion National Park hikes.
Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks
Grand Teton National Park in western Wyoming is the #8 attraction on the list. The closest city to Grand Teton is historic Jackson. Located less than 10 miles from the Jackson Hole airport in downtown Jackson, there are two Hilton family hotels: Homewood Suites by Hilton Jackson and Hampton Inn Jackson Hole. Both of these locations are within walking distance to hundreds of Jackson Hole restaurants, shopping, and other Old West attractions that draw crowds to the beautiful town of Jackson.
My favorite brunch and dinner spot, Café Genevive, is only a half-mile walk from Homewood Suites by Hilton Jackson. This log-cabin restaurant serves up a mouth-watering Bison Burger and heavenly Quinoa and Arugula Salad for brunch and a delicious Pork Ramen Noodle Bowl for dinner that is made completely from scratch and shouldn’t be missed!
In addition to only being a 15-minute drive to the Grand Teton Visitor Center, both hotels are only a 75-minute drive to the southern entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone was our nation’s first national park and today is #4 in terms of popularity. Although a slightly longer drive up to the northwest corner of Wyoming, Yellowstone, is definitely worthy of a day trip to see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the famed geyser, Old Faithful.
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park was the first eastern national park that we visited as a family, and today is the 9th most visited. Home to Cadillac Mountain, the East Coast’s highest point, Acadia National Park offers countless hikes, wild animal sightings, and fun for visitors of all ages.
Bar Harbor is the closest city to Acadia and is home to another brand new hotel, Hampton Inn Bar Harbor which is located less than five miles from Acadia’s entrance. This seasonal hotel is open annually from May 1st to October 31st and overlooks the surrounding ocean and beautiful mountains, yet is still within walking distance of downtown Bar Harbor’s restaurants and shops.
The distance is just perfect to walk off those extra slices of the world’s most fabulous blueberry pie. While my favorite blueberry pie came from Perkin’s Pies (aka. “The Pie Lady”) on Rte. 3, the owners’ aprons were hung up in 2012 and “Lenny,” one of the owners, has since passed away. And despite there being no exact match to his pie, there is a local mama who bakes up a pretty righteous pie that might surpass his legendary scratch made pies.
Mary Musson, owner of IslandBound Treats, bakes and sells three flavors of delicious pies out of her home on 302 Main Street in Southwest Harbor and to local restaurants. With her home as her bakery, like “The Pie Lady,” Mary’s pies sell out quickly. Her blueberry pie and triple berry pie are to die for and my husband loves her strawberry-rhubarb.
If you happen to be traveling outside of May 1st to October 31st and can’t stay at Hampton Inn Bar Harbor, Hampton Inn Ellsworth/Bar Harbor offers year-round accommodations within 15 minutes of Acadia, affording you a great place to stay while visiting this national park any time of the year.
And if you visit Bar Harbor, please don’t forget to grab yourself a Boston Cream Pie Donut and a Blueberry Cream Donut at The Colonel’s in Northeast Harbor on your way in or out of town! They are both delicious!
Glacier National Park
Rounding out the Top Ten is Glacier National Park located in northwestern Montana. While a Glacier National Park map shows it to be one of the more isolated national parks, there are three hotels in the Hilton family located in Kalispell, only 30 miles from the park entrance. Homewood Suites by Hilton Kalispell, Hampton Inn Kalispell, and Hilton Garden Inn Kalispell all provide nice proximity to the restaurants and shopping of Kalispell but still make for a short drive to the over 700 miles of Glacier National Park hiking trails.
From Kalispell, you will access Glacier National Park from the west, which means that you really have no choice but to drive along some portion of Going-to-the-Sun-Road, and that’s an exceptionally good thing. Going-to-the-Sun-Road offers 50 of the most beautiful miles you will ever drive.
Realize that it will take you roughly an hour to drive from West Glacier up to Logan Pass, but along the way there are plenty of nice stops to view Lake McDonald, the feeder stream entering from the north and McDonald Falls. Farther up the road is Trail of Cedars which is almost universally accessible and a nice, 0.7-mile loop hike on a boardwalk.
Once you get to Logan Pass I would recommend two options (both if you can manage). With younger kids I would recommend Hidden Lake nature trail, a three-mile round trip hike with nice snow, water and animal sightings. For a more adventurous route, chose the Highline Trail. Even if you only do the first mile and turn around, it’s completely worth it.
While the Highline Trail is tough for those afraid of heights, the anxiety filled portion along the Garden Wall only lasts about three-tenths of a mile and there is now a hand cable to hold on to while hiking. My suggestion is to not let this part of the hike scare you from continuing on and soaking in the incredibly breathtaking views.
One thing to note is that the Logan Pass parking lot can fill up quickly; however, it is also accessible by the bus system. And if you’re like our family, someone always has to go to the bathroom, so don’t fret: there are restrooms at Logan Pass!
While in downtown Kalispell, I highly recommend grabbing lunch at Bonelli’s Bistro. Their fresh paninis and salads are superb and they have a fantastic gluten-free menu. (All menu items are also available as takeout for a delicious picnic while in Glacier National Park.)
Grown only in the wild, Montana’s huckleberries are plump little purple treasures that one must endure the elements and wild creatures of nature to find. Or, head 15 miles north of Kalispell to Whitefish and find Loula’s Cafe, tucked inside the bottom floor of a historic masonic temple. There you will find these uniquely addictive berries nestled into the most delicious pies. While the huckleberry-peach, mixed berry with hucks, and huckleberry-cherry pies are all sublime, I have a special place in my heart for the pure huckleberry pie. And their assortment of other fruit and cream pies won’t disappoint; coconut cream and apple praline are heavenly.
And lastly, while in the Kalispell region, don’t forget to buy some jars of local huckleberry jam to take home with you; I can’t put into words how heavenly it is slathered on toast or plopped a biscuit. This jam would even make an old flip flop taste good. Seriously.
Another Awesome Military Discount
For all Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen, the National Park Service offers a completely free annual pass for U.S. military personnel that may be used at over 2,000 Federal recreation sites. This National Park Pass also includes a carload of your friends and family. The only requirement is having a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID (Form 1173).
Either form of Military identification must be presented in person and the park rangers will provide you with the annual pass at the entrance of any national park or Federal recreation site. Please note that this benefit is only available for Active Duty service members.
You may also enjoy:
- The Fun and Educational U.S. National Parks Junior Ranger Program
- Family Adventure White Water Rafting in Tennessee
- Spelunking in Worley’s Cave in Tennessee
- Top 10 Things to do in Missoula, MT for Families
Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.
Amy grew up in Southern California but has lived all over the globe. Her latest move brought her to Panama City, Florida, where she lives with her…