National parks are among the best group tour destinations in the United States. While visiting the parks, though, travelers will want to visit the cities in the area that act as gateways to the parks and offer dining, outdoor activities, cultural events and more.
The types of activities available to groups visiting national parks vary vastly, from hot springs and water activities to leaf peeping and stargazing, with options in town to compliment the trip. Here are a handful of our favorite national parks and the cities that make the trip a hit for groups.
With the 520,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park as its backdrop, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, has sweeping views from two of its most popular attractions: the 407-foot observation tower, the Space Needle; and the Sky Lift, a 2.1-mile aerial cable car that goes from downtown to Ober Gatlinburg, the city’s amusement park and ski resort.
The park has 150 hiking trails, many with wildflowers, wildlife and waterfalls. Viewing is prime, as the park is one of a handful of International Biosphere Reserves around the world. Biking enthusiasts will love the Gatlinburg Trail, a 3.8-mile round-trip trail that starts near a stoplight downtown. Several scenic drives traverse 800 miles, whether it’s to see flora in the spring, changing fall colors or snowy winter white. Groups can enjoy a picnic along the four-mile trail leading to Ramsey Cascades, the tallest falls in the Smokies.
Downtown Gatlinburg is chock full of activities for groups, such as visiting one of the town’s many moonshine distilleries, craft breweries and wineries. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies has sharks, tropical fish and penguins in an award-winning facility. The city also is a hub of traditional Appalachian crafts, from hand-stitched quilts to handmade baskets and brooms, pottery and musical instruments.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
The Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks are two of the most visited in the world, known, of course, for their scenic vistas, their wildlife viewing and geothermal features such as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser. Outdoor enthusiasts won’t have to look far to find rafting, horseback riding, fishing and hiking opportunities, and nearby Jackson Hole is known as a skier’s paradise — Snow King and Jackson Hole Resorts are conveniently located in town.
“A must-do for visitors is the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram,” said Elisabeth Rohrbach, director of membership at the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. “It can hold up to 100 people and ascends 4,000 feet in 10 minutes.” There is a seasonal ropes course and a roller coaster at the resort, too.
Astrotourism, aka stargazing, is a popular pastime, and nonprofit Wyoming Stargazing offers groups complimentary private group viewings and guided tours. The Center for the Arts offers an incredible range of dance, music and spoken-word performances. On Sunday nights, locals and tourists alike will want to head to the Stagecoach Bar for what locals refer to as “church” in nearby Wilson, Wyoming. A live band plays country music while people two-step — an event that’s taken place there for 40 years.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs, in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, is the only town in the country that’s inside a national park, and it’s known for its eponymous thermal springs.
“We have 47 hot springs in the area that are at 143 degrees, with eight bathhouses dating from the 19th and 20th centuries along Bathhouse Row’s historic district,” said Cora Easterday, group travel and visitor services liaison at Visit Hot Springs. The baths at the Buckstaff, Quapaw and Arlington motels are modernized and offer spa treatments.
The park’s biking trails have been ranked by the International Mountain Biking Association on its Epics list. The four lakes in the park are among the cleanest in the country and are popular fishing destinations.
Hot Springs was the original home of baseball’s spring training camp and was popular with players like Babe Ruth. The town’s museum and visitors center are in the former Fordyce Bathhouse, and many people bring water bottles to the area’s many water jugging stations to reap the benefits of drinking mineral water. One of the bathhouses has even been converted into a brewery: The Superior Bathhouse Brewery uses the thermal water to brew its beer.
Also in town, Garvan Woodland Gardens is a 210-acre botanical garden in a beautiful forest setting. It includes a nature preserve along Lake Hamilton and several curated themed gardens with regional flora, like magnolias, camellias and azaleas. Docent-led tours are available within the gardens. A large water and theme park, Magic Springs, is a popular attraction.
Known for scenic Trail Ridge Road and Long’s Peak, one of the Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners” — peaks higher than 14,000 feet — Rocky Mountain National Park features popular hiking trails to sites such as Bear Lake and Emerald Lake. Visitors frequent nearby Estes Park, home to the Stanley Hotel — where Stephen King got inspired for “The Shining” — and elk herds strolling through town.
Groups will enjoy a visit to the nearby city of Boulder, a “hippie” college town whose fame was cemented in the 1970s sitcom “Mork and Mindy.” The hourlong trip down the Peak to Peak National Scenic Byway, which winds through Boulder Canyon, is the best way to arrive. Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides, the official concessionaire of Rocky Mountain National Park, offers customizable experiences for groups to enjoy Colorado’s beautiful wilderness, from hiking and biking to fishing and zip lining.
“Boulder’s pedestrian mall along Pearl Street is a great way to get a feel for Boulder,” said Kim Farin, director of marketing at the Boulder Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “It’s an intimate historic district lined with trendy modern shops, sophisticated dining, lots of street performers and great people-watching.”
Colorado is known for its craft beer scene — it’s been called the Napa of beer — and Boulder boasts 25 breweries. It’s home to the Dushanbe Tea House, an authentic restaurant transported from Tajikistan; tea lovers will also enjoy the popular tour at Celestial Seasonings, the largest tea factory in the country. The Dairy Arts Center offers cinema, dance, theater and music.
Bar Harbor, Maine
In Maine, Acadia National Park is one of the most picturesque parks in the country, with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. Boat excursions featuring whale watching, ranger-led tours that highlight nature and wildlife in the park, and lobster and seal watching tours are all popular activities for visitors. There are guided hiking and kayaking tours, too.
“Bar Harbor has a wonderful self-guided walking tour,” said Alf Anderson, director of membership and sales at the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “The Bar Harbor Historical Society has placards along the walk describing the historical events in town and celebrating the rusticators, who really developed the town’s tourism. It’s a sort of museum in the streets.” Similar tours can be made through the picturesque village on bikes or Segways, and those can be led by a tour guide or self-guided.
The Abbe Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, offers a glimpse of the history and culture of the area’s Native Americans, and the Acadia Workshop Center offers art workshops like plein-air painting to tourists. Many of Bar Harbor’s restaurants and shops are unique and family owned, offering a true slice of local life.