National Park Gateway Towns
From coast to coast, National Parks shine as America's great treasures, displaying the natural and diverse beauty of the country. Some are more familiar than others – Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon immediately come to mind – while others are home to lesser-known features like active volcanoes, shifting sand dunes, the largest trees on Earth, tropical island archipelagos and so much more. Each park is unique unto itself, with sublime elements and ecosystems that are imperative for conservation.
But while many people are well-aware of how much these parks have to offer, too few consider the charms of their surrounding gateway towns. From California to the Keys, Wyoming to just-above-the-border Texas, a bevy of cities and towns welcome travelers to access the country’s spectacular parks, while offering up plenty to allure travelers on their own.
Gateway towns can make or break a National Park trip, so we’ve compiled some of our favorite national parks and the amazing gateway towns to visit near them.
National Park to Visit: Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is one of the most visited National Parks in America, attracting almost 6 million tourists per year. Even if you've been before, 2019 is a particularly grand time to make the trip. This year marks the park's 100-year anniversary, and it's celebrating with an exhibit of archival materials, plus special performances, lectures, parades and camp-outs.
Best Grand Canyon Gateway Town: Flagstaff, Arizona
The Grand Canyon is flanked by numerous gateway towns due to its monolithic size. Our favorite is Flagstaff, Arizona, a haven for outdoor adventure and craft brews, located about 80 miles away from the canyon’s highly trafficked south rim entrance.
Of note is the Historic Downtown & Railroad District, filled with mom-and-pop shops, restaurants, museums and hotels housed in turn-of-the-century buildings. Looking for some refreshment after a long day hiking the canyon? The town is known for inventive Southwest grill infusions, and its crisp brews at Beaver Street Brewery and Dark Sky Brewing Company never disappoint.
The latter brewery is so-named because Flagstaff was the world’s first International Dark Sky City, and there is no better place for getting starry-eyed than at Lowell Observatory. Visitors can opt for astronomical viewing through one of Lowell’s powerful telescopes at night, or visit during the day for hands-on science exhibits and walking tours.
National Park to Visit: Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is a popular National Park for local Southern Californians in particular to explore. It boasts a unique desert ecosystem — a combination of the Mojave and Colorado deserts — plus those eye-catching eponymous trees.
Oh, and it's a top spot for checking out unique bird and amphibian species, too.
Best Joshua Tree Gateway Town: Palm Springs, California
To enjoy days of hiking amid Joshua Tree's splendor, make Palm Springs, about an hour's drive away, your jumping-off point.
A mecca of mid-century modern style, the city has maintained the swagger that once made it popular with the Rat Pack. You can embrace the town's Old Hollywood glamour with a tour of the Movie Colony, a small district that once was an escape from L.A. for many of the rich and famous.
For accommodations, stay at The Ace Hotel & Swim Club, an eco-conscious property that blends desert decor and bohemian style with quirky amenities such as record players and vinyls. Looking for something on the upper end of upscale? The Parker Palm Springs is a dreamy, Jonathan Adler-designed oasis that emulates the spiritual mysticism of the late 1960s with desert modernism.
Chances are, the National Park will give you your great-outdoors fix. But if you're looking for another way to enjoy the California sunshine, consider teeing up at one of the city's many superlative golf courses.
National Park to Visit: Great Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most-visited, comprising miles of endless forest and ridges. An incredible 11 million people come here annually; the best time to go is in the fall, when the foliage changes color to dazzling effect.
Best Great Smoky Mountains Gateway Town: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
The Smokies’ location between North Carolina and Tennessee allows it numerous gateway towns, but Gatlinburg is by far the best.
Perched alongside the edge of the mountains, Gatlinburg boasts many attractions centered on the park, including the 400-foot Space Needle, which shows off stunning views of the surrounding forests. Get up close and personal with the mountains by staying in one of the cabins near Gatlinburg, located right off the hiking trails.
A trip to Tennessee is not complete without barbecue, and Gatlinburg gives other towns in the state — looking at you, Nashville — a run for their money. Delauder’s BBQ, a mom-and-pop shop with sweet tea and a smoky brisket, is rated #1 in town on TripAdvisor.
All this, plus the weather is as pleasant as it comes. The cool layer of fog above the mountains keeps temperatures low and guarantees that the high will never be above 80 degrees.
National Park to Visit: Sequoia
Dramatic, leviathan, gargantuan — all of these words aptly describe the sequoia trees at this National Park, some of the largest living beings in the world. These stunners live up to 3,000 years and grow up to 375 feet tall, and even have flame-resistant bark.
Seeing such ancient giants is a bucket-list experience if there ever was one.
Best Sequoia Gateway Town: Visalia, California
Visalia, just about 45 minutes away, is Sequoia's primary gateway town, and touts its own natural wonders: it's flanked by Sierra Nevada, the tallest mountain range in the U.S.
Appropriately, many of the best activities here are outdoor adventures like whitewater rafting, horseback riding and biking. But there’s plenty for culture hounds and history buffs to love, too. A trolley through downtown Visalia makes pit stops at the city’s art galleries and California mission buildings, and the historic Fox Theater hosts live-music performances and classic-film showings.
Visalia is the heart of the most productive agricultural region in the nation, so enjoying the locally-grown produce in many of the town’s farm-to-table restaurants is a must.
National Park to Visit: Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde National Park is famous for its hundreds of Pueblo cliff dwellings, Native American archaeological wonders that are now honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The largest, the aptly named Cliff Palace, is believed to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America. If that isn't worth checking out, we don't know what is.
Best Mesa Verde Gateway Town: Durango, Colorado
In this southwest quadrant of Colorado, the air may be thin but the desire for adventure is palpable. Nowhere is this more evident than in Durango, Mesa Verde’s main gateway town, a little less than an hour away.
Even just the name Durango evokes something wild and Western. Once a mining town, Durango now offers a plethora of high-paced adventures typical to the Rockies, including rafting, hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Locomotive lovers will find the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to be first-class. The train ride begins at the Durango Depot and takes travelers through canyons and forests on the same tracks that miners and pioneers used in the era of the Old West. Travelers in the summer can sample locally-made wineries on the Wine & Rails train ride for a boozy day rolling through the beauty of Colorado.
National Park to Visit: Acadia
Acadia National Park is a coastal recreational refuge that spans 48,000 acres and numerous islands, the major ones being Mount Desert Island and Isle Au Haut. Wildlife roams by land (bears, moose) and sea (whales, seabirds), and is not to be missed.
The park also boasts extraordinary Native American history, having been home to the Algonquian nations for at least 12,000 years.
Best Acadia Gateway Town: Bar Harbor, Maine
Acadia’s idyllic islands can be accessed through Bar Harbor, a quaint resort on the north side of the park.
Bar Harbor was initially a hideaway for the mega-rich (think Vanderbilts and Astors) before undergoing a transformation into the tiny resort town it is today. Easily traversed in a day, it offers stunning scenery and quintessential New England activities like whale watching.
Downtown Bar Harbor typifies charming Maine culture, with romantic B&Bs, souvenirs, kitschy art and a year-round Christmas store. Enjoy the town’s fresh-caught seafood, lobster rolls especially, and sip on delightful seasonal draughts from Atlantic Brewing Company.
Summer is the best time to visit this gateway town, offering the never-too-hot weather that New England is known for. Just make sure to avoid the equally well-known windy winters.
National Park to Visit: Big Bend
Big Bend is extremely isolated, and proudly so, with remarkable quiet and untouched landscapes to show for it. Birders in particular love heading to this mountain-flanked oasis that hundreds of species call home.
Best Big Bend Gateway Town: Marfa, Texas
Not easily accessible — the town’s slogan is “tough to get here” — the gateway town of Marfa is very worth the drive. With a population of less than 2,000 and a single stoplight, travelers can easily explore this hipster haven in one afternoon, before making the 1.5-hour trek to Big Bend.
Renowned for its creative scene, Marfa hosts art festivals year-round that attract international talent. Visiting on an off-weekend? Check out the town’s numerous galleries and sculptures, including a fake Prada store installation that’s gained global renown.
Paranormal thrill-seekers should look for the Marfa Mystery Lights, a strange phenomenon that has been fascinating visitors for decades, just after sunset a few dozen times a year. Pulsating orbs of light will float along the horizon over the dark endless stretch of desert around town. No scientists or UFO hunters have been able to figure out just exactly what causes this alien occurrence.
National Park to Visit: Mount Rainier
The star of this park is, of course, that glorious mountain, rising 14,410 feet above sea level and serving as one of the Pacific Northwest’s most photographable backdrops.
The mountain’s environs make for exceptional exploration as well, encompassing 25 glaciers, river valleys and imposing old-growth forests.
Best Mount Rainier Gateway Town: Seattle, Washington
Seattle is within two-hours striking distance of not only Mount Rainier, but the National Parks of North Cascades and Olympic as well. It’s possible there is no better city in America for national-park lovers to decamp to.
Head to the metropolis in the summer, when the Pacific Northwest turns an incredibly lush green thanks in part to a year-round barrage of rain. If that isn’t enticing enough, then let Seattle’s myriad exciting activities and trendy culture convince you.
Drinking a delicious (albeit overpriced) cup of joe is a must in the birthplace of Starbucks, but make the effort to try some local roasts at Elm Coffee Roasters and Slate Coffee, too. You can also enjoy more Seattle varieties at Pike Place Market, a major tourist hub worthy of the hype, with eclectic vendors that offer an insane variety of foods and crafts.
Fantasy geeks and culture vultures find common ground at the Museum of Pop Culture, the brainchild of a Microsoft co-founder — a background that lends to the museum’s futuristic design. Current exhibits include “Marvel: Universe of Superheroes” and “Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic.”
National Park to Visit: Grand Teton
Adventurers flock to this park, where the Teton Range mountains and alpine lakes provide the setting for hiking, kayaking, canoeing, rafting and more.
The park is named after Grand Teton, the tallest peak in the range, which at 13,775 feet is truly grand.
Best Grand Teton Gateway Town: Jackson, Wyoming
A stone’s throw from not only Grand Teton but also Yellowstone National Park, Jackson is pure Rocky Mountains ruggedness, complete with crisp mountain air and real-life cowboys.
Situated in a verdant valley, Jackson has some of the best wildlife-watching in America. Without leaving your doorstep, you can spot elk, bison and bald eagles. Take a gondola up the mountainside, and enjoy birds-eye views of black bears and moose herds.
Sojourn in Jackson at one of the town’s major ski resorts, like Jackson Hole or Snow King. Odds are, if you’re looking to explore Grand Teton or Yellowstone you will be visiting in the warmer months, but fret not — these resorts offer summertime group activities such as aerial adventure courses and rodeo events.
National Park to Visit: Haleakala
Thousands of tourists head every day to the volcanic peaks of Haleakala.
Weather permitting, take in a glorious Hawaii sunrise or sunset, with a thin line of clouds hanging low over the mountains, and strokes of orange, pinks and reds painting the sky.
The park is also home to several endemic species, including the ahinahina (Haleakala silversword), the opeapea (Hawaiian hoary bat) and the Haleakala flightless moth.
Best Haleakala Gateway Destination: Central Maui
Haleakala is located on Maui and accessible from all points of the island.
As this is one of the biggest islands in the U.S., there are a number of options for visitors. But if you’re looking for a memorable off-the-beaten-path experience, we recommend a stay in Central Maui, away from the beach resorts.
Wailuku is a eclectic village that stands at the threshold of Iao Valley State Park, surrounded by lush tropical flora and littered with charming wooden storefronts that have been passed down from generations of local Hawaiian families. Head down to the coast for some lounging or a sailing adventure — just make sure to schedule this for the morning, because the tradewinds pick up in the afternoon and can put a damper on your excursion plans.
National Park to Visit: Arches
Arches National Park is — you guessed it — named after its natural rock-arch formations, of which there are more than 2,000. Perhaps the most well-known (it’s found on Utah license plates) is Delicate Arch, jutting more than 60 feet out of an orange bluff.
A number of hikes are offered to explore the different monuments.
Best Arches Gateway Town: Moab, Utah
Moab’s proximity to Arches (minutes away) makes the Utah town a true canyoneering capital.
Situated in a valley of red rocks, desert dust and sandstone, the town fully embraces the outdoors, and the lodging reflects this — one of the top-rated experiences is glamping. Enjoy clear views of the heavens without sacrificing the amenities we love so much (i.e., running water and a private bathroom) at Moab Under Canvas, a fun opportunity for city folk to attempt a country life. You’ll swap stories and s’mores at night around bonfires with fellow glampers before retiring back to your teepee.
Besides its biking, hiking, canyoneering and other available outdoor activities, Moab boasts a food scene that's an attraction in and of itself. Moab’s palate ranges from international dishes to American classics; taste some Southwest flavors at the classic 1950s-styled Moab Diner, perfect for a hearty meal after a day in the dust.
National Park to Visit: Cuyahoga
Cuyahgoa is a smaller park in the grand scheme of the system — “only” 33,000 acres — but it is full of nature trails, great for both summer and winter activities. It’s also home to some of the country’s most gorgeous waterfalls, including Towering Brandywine Falls, aptly named for its 65-foot descent.
Best Cuyahoga Gateway Town: Cleveland, Ohio
There is more to Cleveland than just the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — Cuyahoga Valley National Park is right outside of town, making this Ohio’s only National Park gateway city.
In recent years, Cleveland has made an effort to be more environmentally-friendly and reverse the effects of pollution on the Cuyahoga River. At the same time, it's enjoyed a remarkable renaissance, and is today booming with kitschy neighborhoods, exciting culinary innovations and of course, good music.
One of Cleveland’s most fascinating features are the glass-topped, block-long shopping malls that were once 1900s retails hubs and have since been restored to their former glory. A top pick is The Arcade, featuring brass detailing and Victorian-esque street lamps.
National Park to Visit: Zion
When you’re standing in Zion National Park, it instinctively evokes otherworldly feelings, thanks to its towering sandstone cliffs in brushes of pink, reds and orange that graze the clear blue skies.
It is no wonder that Zion has been called home by humans for 10,000 years; it is also because of this that you might run into the occasional archaeologist or two on your National Park visit.
Best Zion Gateway Town: St. George, Utah
St. George is the best gateway to the park, a quick drive to Zion and within four hours of four other National Parks. The city brands itself as “Utah’s Florida,” which, though a little off geographically considering it is nowhere near an ocean, does ring true with its large number of golf courses and slower, steadier pace.
Tuacahn Center is an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by sandstone structures, à la Red Rocks in Colorado, with a rotating selection of plays and concerts — and killer acoustics, of course.
Offroading is easy here, so hop onto an ATV for a guided (bumpy) ride through rocky desert landscapes, guaranteed to provide awe-inspiring views.
National Park to Visit: Gateway Arch
A physical manifestation of St. Louis’ role as the “gateway to the West,” Gateway Arch is the newest National Park — a decision met with much eyebrow-raising from park enthusiasts. Spanning only 192 acres, this National Park has exhibits dedicated to Jefferson, Dred Scott (the park encompasses the courthouse where the famous trial took place), Native Americans and the pioneer people.
Though it's quite different in scope from other National Parks, its historical pedigree makes it well worth checking out.
Best Gateway Arch Gateway Town: St. Louis, Missouri
Talk about easy access: the Gateway Arch is located within St. Louis, a city with much more to recommend it than its newly minted National Park.
The metropolis is home to a burgeoning tourism scene, a renaissance on the Mississippi marked by culinary creativity and an influx of craft breweries — not including the massive Anheuser Busch factory also located in town.
Those looking to imbibe after a day spent at Gateway Arch can check out Planter’s House, an intimate candlelit bar housed in a former St. Louis landmark hotel; Retreat Gastropub, where bartenders pour incredible inventions like beeswax-infused tequila; and the Gin Room, with over 100 gins for every visitor’s unique palate.
National Park to Visit: Dry Tortugas
Remote Dry Tortugas encompasses coral reefs teeming with exotic sea life and seven smaller islands begging to be explored.
History-buffs will love Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the United States, constructed between 1846 and 1875.
Best Dry Tortugas Gateway Town: Key West, Florida
Visitors to the Dry Tortugas must embark and return from Key West, about a two-hour boat or 40-minute seaplane ride away.
This proximity is a key reason to visit Key West, but hardly the only one; the pastel-colored island city has history and culture to spare.
The “southernmost point in the U.S.” statue probably comes to mind as a must-see in town. Other activities to indulge in include snorkeling, sailing and biking through quaint Old Town, where tree-lined streets contain historic finds like Ernest Hemingway’s former home.
When the sun goes down, take part in the city’s perennial happy hour, alongside friendly locals who are fortunate enough to enjoy the warm weather and sea breeze all year long. And make sure to immerse yourself in Key West’s LGBTQ+ scene for a refreshing dose of the island’s progressive culture; this is a place where lively drag shows are easy to find, and rainbow flags adorn many shop windows.