Are you craving some fun in the sun, a thrilling outdoor experience or a chance to witness an incredible natural phenomenon? America’s public lands offer endless opportunities for fun and adventure!
We’ve compiled a list of a just a few of the best events on public lands throughout the year. From Salt Flat racing in Utah to manatee watching in Florida to casting a line in Georgia, there’s fun for the whole family. This list includes incredible adventures, but it’s only a sampling of the opportunities available on public lands.
Check out 22 amazing events and plan your next public lands adventure. The hardest part will be picking what to do first!
1. Rafting through Grand Canyon National Park. Whether you’re an experienced rafter or a novice, the Grand Canyon in Arizona is the perfect place for individual or group rafting trips. Rafting the Colorado River provides one-of-a-kind views of the Grand Canyon’s striking cliffs and wildlife. Those who aren’t faint of heart can run the rapids and hike the canyon all in one day. Options include trips stretching from 1 to 25 days, but remember to book in advance through a park river concessionaire. Or if you’ve previously acquired the river skills to coordinate and safely lead your own trip through technical, world-class rapids, you can apply through the noncommercial lottery for a launch date for self-guided trip.
2. Fireflies (or Lightning Bugs) at Great Smoky National Park in North Carolina. Did you know that some fireflies in the Great Smokies can flash in unison, creating eerie and beautiful pulses of light in the dark forest? These fireflies are the only species in America known to sync up their flashing patterns. The fireflies only mate for two weeks a year, so peak flashing occurs between late-May and mid-June. Because of the enormous popularity of these bioluminescent bugs, park goers who want to experience this wonder must enter a lottery for parking passes. Plan ahead if you want to see this amazing occurrence for yourself.
3. Hunting trip to a national wildlife refuge. National wildlife refuges offer up memorable hunting experiences around the country, stretching from Alaska to North Dakota and down to Florida. Before embarking on these adventures, remember to have proper licenses and equipment. Opportunities to hunt on national wildlife refuges abound in many states; make sure to use the National Wildlife Refuge’s Find Your Perfect Hunt tool to find the best hunt for you.
4. Speed racing at Bonneville Salt Flats. Fulfill your need for speed by watching racers attempt to break the land speed record of 622.407 mph during Speed Week. The Bonneville Salt Flats are the remnants of an ancient lake that covered a third of Utah over 10,000 years ago. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the salt flats attract thousands of visitors a year to see the massive expanse of flat, plantless land. These conditions are perfect for speed racing events that you just can’t miss: Speed Week in August, World of Speed in September and the World Finals in October.
5. Snorkeling at Virgin Islands National Park. With 40 percent of the park underwater, Virgin Islands National Park offers an incredible array of snorkeling opportunities -- mangrove shorelines, seagrass beds, fringing and patch reefs to name a few. Numerous commercial operators offer snorkeling trips in the park. Where to go depends on your own interests and swimming abilities. Wherever you decide to snorkel, avoid stepping on the coral or approaching hazardous marine life. To see more magnificent marine diversity in crystal clear water, check out snorkeling at National Park of American Samoa or Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico as well!
6. Super blooms at Death Valley National Park. Under perfect conditions, spectacular wildflower super blooms carpet the desert ground for a short period at California’s Death Valley. These seas of wildflowers are produced by three necessary factors: well-spaced rainfall, sufficient warmth from the sun and a lack of drying winds. These phenomenal displays don’t happen every year, but spring brings at least a modest bloom. Peak blooms for wildflowers throughout the park stretch from mid-February to mid-July, depending on elevation. If you get the chance to see this extraordinary phenomenon, remember to preserve the beauty for future visitors by not picking the flowers. Check out some of the other beautiful wildflowers can be seen across the nation’s public lands, stretching from Mount Rainier in Washington to Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.
7. Idaho off-roading on BLM-managed public lands. The rolling hills of Idaho’s St. Anthony Sand Dunes remind visitors of the sea’s waves. Almost 11,000 acres of shifting white quartz on the edge of the Snake River Plain contains huge sand dunes and miles of trails for endless adventure all managed by the Bureau of Land Management. One of these adventures involves racing down the popular Dead Horse Bowl’s 400-foot drop -- a favorite among off-road vehicles enthusiasts. When planning a trip to this natural playground, avoid summer months, as high temperatures can cause the dunes to reach over 100 degrees. Explore other off-highway vehicle locations.
8. Ice caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. During cold winters when the weather is just right, park goers at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore can tread across frozen Lake Superior to see incredible ice formations hanging from the ceilings of caves like nature’s chandeliers. These stalactite-filled caves make for a one-of-a-kind winter adventure. If you’re looking to visit the ice caves, plan ahead and call the park’s Ice Line to confirm that the ice is navigable. If the caves are open, dress warmly for the weather, wear shoes for at least a 2-mile hike and plan to pay $5 per person.
9. Bear watching at Katmai National Park and Preserve. More than 2,200 brown bears call Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve home. Visitors to the park enjoy incredible viewing opportunities from late June to September. If you’d like to see the bears, travel to food rich areas -- like Brooks Falls. Regardless of where you go, stay safe in bear country and give bears the space they need. If you can’t make it to Alaska, you can watch these amazing animals feed on salmon on the famous BearCam.
10. Bioluminescent plankton at San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge. During nighttime kayaking trips near the San Juan Islands in Washington, adventurers can see bioluminescent plankton generate light during an otherwise pitch black night. The San Juan Islands’ tides create nutrient-rich bodies of water where bioluminescent microorganisms, like plankton, thrive and produce their own light through a chemical reaction in their bodies. If you want to see this amazing phenomenon, plan your trip from mid-July to mid-September when the plankton shine the brightest. Bioluminescence can be seen on public lands around the country, including Puerto Mosquito National Natural Landmark in Puerto Rico and Salt River Bay National Historic Park in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
11. Biking Trails on BLM-managed land. Partnering with the MTB Project, public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management offer some of the best mountain bike trails in the country. Oregon's Mountain of the Rogue trail is a popular choice among riders because of its varying levels of difficulty and beautiful mountain backdrop. BLM maintains trails from the Pacific West all the way to the Mid-Atlantic, allowing people of all skill levels to find a great trail close to home. Whether you’re a novice or an expert, pull on your helmet and hit the trail for an epic adventure.
12. Bridge Day at New River Gorge National River. Does leaping 800 feet off a bridge while more than 80,000 spectators cheer you on sound like an interesting afternoon? If so, check out West Virginia’s Bridge Day, when thrill seekers jump with parachutes from the New River Gorge Bridge. The event is open to the public and includes great views, food and music. The third Saturday of October always commemorates Bridge Day in Fayette County, West Virginia, so mark your calendars!
13. Manatee watching at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. For a few months every year, manatees flood to the warm waters of Three Sisters Spring at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Lucky visitors snorkel only a few feet away from the manatees and watch them through crystal-clear water. The manatees often feed during visits, and these feeding habits earned manatees the nickname “sea cows.” The viewing area is open from November 15 to March 17, but is evaluated daily to ensure the safety of the manatees. Call ahead or check the wildlife refuge’s Facebook page to ensure that the viewing area is open, and be sure to review “Manatee Manners” before you visit.
14. Trail Ridge Road at Rocky Mountain National Park. Described as a “scenic wonder road of the world,” this auto route provides thrilling views, wildlife sightings and spectacular wildflower exhibitions -- all from the comfort of one’s car. Colorado’s Trail Ridge Road crosses 48 miles between Estes Park on the east side and Grand Lake on the west. Stretching up to 12,183 feet in elevation, this skyway has several road pullouts along the way, allowing visitors to be surrounded by the whole sweep of the Rockies. Public lands offer several other fantastic drives, including Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana and Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park in Maine.
15. Kids Fish for Fun at Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery. Give a child a fish and feed them for a day; teach a child to fish and foster a new hobby. Join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’s Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery in Warm Springs, Georgia, for Kids Fish for Fun -- an event created to teach kids the joy of fishing through friendly competition. Children ages 3-12 can participate, but all junior fishers must bring their own pole, stringer and bait. Interested fishers must fill out an application to let the thrills of fishing flourish. Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, in partnership with C.A.S.T. for Kids Foundation, has similar events throughout the year to make fishing accessible for disabled and disadvantaged kids.
16. Northern Lights above Denali National Park in Alaska. The Aurora Borealis occurs year-round, and Denali National Park and Preserve is one of the best places in the U.S. to see these amazing lights. Park visitors have optimal views of the lights from fall to early spring when the sky is dark enough. The Northern Lights occur when a massive burst of solar wind and magnetic fields interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere, creating this famed scientific wonder. Visitors who get to see the lights may witness this phenomenon in colors ranging from green, red, blue or even purple.
17. Festival of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Celebrate the migration of hundreds of sandhill cranes to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. This 30-year-old event draws professional and amateur birders from around the world to witness the noisy extravaganza of sandhill cranes and other bird species returning for winter. The annual festival takes place in November and includes hundreds of activities and programs.
18. Angels Landing in Zion National Park. Looking for a 360-degree view of Zion National Park in Utah that’s not for the faint-hearted? Look no further than Angels Landing! It’s a 5-mile round-trip hike that will take you across steep switchbacks and sheer drop-offs along a narrow rock fin. Hikers scramble up 1,500 feet of elevation, holding on to a chain fastened to the rocks. The brave are rewarded with breathtaking views. While this is among the most famous hikes in the world, it is a strenuous and exposed trail. Those afraid of heights can follow along virtually to learn more about the land’s history.
19. Star Party at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Looking to view star clusters, nebulas and Mars all in one night? Then head to Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan to attend one of the Lakeshore’s monthly star parties. Join park rangers and the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society as they guide you through explorations of the night sky. The Dunes are as old as the continental ice sheets and they provide fun for all ages. You can camp under the stars, hike over monumental dunes or swim along 35 miles of beachfront. Whatever activity you choose, don’t miss out on this lakeshore’s fantastic festival. Check out more awesome parks for stargazing.
20. Float trip down the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways. Families and friends alike love floating down historic Missouri Ozark rivers and watching the sun set over the trees. Many businesses provide canoe, raft and kayak options making these adventures great for families or large groups. Don’t be afraid to go later in the season -- or on weekdays -- because the river will be less crowded and more peaceful. No matter where you are, there’s a river trip for you.
21. Rock climbing at City of Rocks National Reserve. If you’re seeking an introduction to outdoor rock climbing, look no further than City of Rocks National Reserve’s Climbing Experience Program in Idaho. Equipment is provided, so climbers only need to bring climbing attire, water and sunscreen. If you’re an experienced climber, City of Rocks has over 600 routes ranging from relatively easy to truly challenging. Visitors are free to climb established routes but must receive a permit if they wish to place permanent anchors. Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Parks in California, and Diablo Canyon Recreation Area in New Mexico are just a few of the other public lands that are a mecca for rock climbers.
22. Independence Day Fireworks on the National Mall. You can’t celebrate the 4th of July without fireworks, and they don’t get any better than in the nation’s capital! Join thousands of people for the free Independence Day celebration on the National Mall, where the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and other impressive sites bring history alive. The party is an all-day event in D.C., with parades, concerts and more. The fireworks don’t start until 9:09 pm, but if you’re planning an all-day outing, make sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen to fight the heat.
With a diverse array of experiences, public lands provide abounding amounts of excitement. What are you waiting for? Get out and discover your own public lands adventure!