With four different federal agencies overseeing 28 protected areas spanning more than 615 million acres, it’s no wonder most Americans stick to marquee destinations like national parks and familiar wilderness areas near home. That leaves so much to explore, which can be daunting if you don’t know where to start. We have you: just start at the top of this decision tree and click the hyperlinked indicators next to your answer to move on to the next question – or go old school and scroll down to the appropriate combination of letters and numbers. We guarantee that the recommendations you come across will be surprising and tailored to you.
What kind of experience do you want
Adventurous! Go to A1.
Take a rest. Go to B1.
A1: OK, how hard do you want to go?
Just a gentle sweat, thank you. Go to C1.
Go big or go home! Go to C2.
B1: Cool. See things or learn things?
Teach me your ways! Go to D1.
Please, I’m on vacation. Go to D2.
C1: How far do you think?
How close is the next bar? Go to E1.
Desperate for loneliness. Go to E2.
C2: On land or on water?
I was born with gills! Go to G1.
Landlubber here. Go to G2.
D1: All right. History buff or science nerd?
Knock me over, nature. Go to F1.
The older the better. Go to F2.
D2: Good. Plants or animals?
Give me the sweet, sweet chlorophyll. Go to H1.
I heed the call of the wild! Go to H2.
E1: How close is the next bar?
(Photo: Simone Anne / Stocksy)
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Tinicum, Philadelphia: Right next to Philly Airport is this 1,200 acre fishing and hunting ground.
Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, Puerto Rico: Paddle through a mangrove forest, snorkel in crystal clear waters, or throw a fly into a gem cove in this island paradise, just a short drive from the beach bars.
E2: Desperate for loneliness.
Noatak National Preserve, Alaska: Whether you swim on the Noatak River or hike the arctic tundra, you have the space to yourself – minus some caribou, moose and grizzlies.
Ozark National Forest, Arkansas: It’s easy to grab your own swimming hole in this 1.2 million hectare mountain forest with dozens of waterfalls.
F1: Knock me over, nature.
Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida: Pack a telescope and train your lens for at least one night in one of the darkest skies in the southeastern United States
Crater of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho: Keep an eye out for wandering pronghorns as you traverse the caves, lava flows, and cinder cones that cover this otherworldly volcanic landscape.
F2: The older the better.
(Photo: Kevin Russ / Stocksy)
National Historic Park of the Chaco Culture, New Mexico: Take a guided tour of the ancestral puebloan ruins at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, then lie down in the shade of ancient cliff dwellings.
Great Staircase – Escalante National Monument, Utah: See fossil-filled, multi-colored layers of rock stacked like prehistoric pancakes, tracing 275 million years of human and geological history.
G1: I was born with gills!
(Photo: Stephanie Zell / Getty)
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia: Consult a tide table and kayak across Cumberland Sound to pitch your tent in one of the five campsites dotted around this barrier island.
Gauley River National Recreation Area, West Virginia: Though beautiful any time of the year, the Gauley comes to life every fall when a series of dams produce a heart-pounding brew of world-class whitewater.
G2: Landlubber here.
(Photo: Logan Watts / Bikepacking.com)
City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho: Calling All Rock Climbers: Set off on more than 600 routes climbing weathered granite towers roughly 28 million years old located south of Pocatello near the Utah border.
McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Colorado and Utah:: Depart from the northern terminus of the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail, a classic bikepacking that runs from Fruita, Colorado to Moab, Utah.
H1: Give me the sweet, sweet chlorophyll.
Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas: You feel like you are packing multiple trips into one in this Unesco Biosphere Reserve, which includes nine different ecosystems, including lush cypress swamps.
Carrizo Plain National Monument, California: Wet winters create psychedelic spring wildflowers in the rolling meadows of these meadows in California’s Central Valley.
H2: I heed the call of the wild!
(Photo: Steven Gnam / Tandem)
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, New York: Forget the people watching in NYC – bird nerds should grab their binocs and look for the hundreds of species flocking to this bird outpost.
National Bison Range, Montana: Pack a camera when visiting this 112 year old grassland sanctuary that helped save its famous namesake – our national mammal – from extinction.
Main photo: Akela – From Alp to Alp / Stocksy