After being cooped up for months, it seems everyone had the same idea this summer: get in the car and experience the natural beauty and grandeur of a national park! Many of these protected areas saw record attendance—all the more reason to plan a visit for the off-season. From stunning waterfalls and towering redwoods to mountain vistas and epic sand dunes, each of our picks have unique charms, and all are within an eight-hour drive of Orange County. It’s time to tick these iconic spots off your travel wish list!
✓Vistas ✓Wildlife ✓Majesty ✖Humidity
486 miles from Orange County
“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, 26th U.S. president
The Grand Canyon’s wonders are best enjoyed in the off-season, as spring and fall showcase sunny days that aren’t hot. Be prepared with plenty of water, no matter when you go, as this place is high (7,000 feet) and dry (less than 10 percent humidity much of the time). The beautiful vistas are endless, no matter what angle you choose to see the canyon or hike into it.
The shuttles are running here, so take advantage of them. Hike the rim trail and jump on the shuttle at any time. The on-and-off privileges make for a great option to see various lookouts. Ride all the way to Hermits Rest, a rock structure built in 1914 and made a historic landmark in 1987. Take in the enormous fireplace and the perfect setting of this shelter.
If you’re planning to hike, go early or late: Parking is tricky in the middle of the day near most of the main trailheads. Bright Angel trailhead will lure you in for a hike, and as you walk down, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous vistas. Just remember: You have to go back up. Only the most prepared and expert hikers should attempt to go to the bottom.
Drive east to check out various points, especially Moran Point, on your way to Desert View Watchtower. For a cultural break and mementos, check out Hopi House.
El Tovar Hotel opened in 1905 and is modeled after European chalets. The elegance and historic vibe extends throughout the property, and each of the 78 rooms is unique ($195 and up in the winter). Treat yourself here if you plan to stay within the park, since the price is only slightly more than a room in one of the other lodges. But you’ll have to book at least six months in advance. Alternatively, stay in Williams, a quaint town with an old-time feel, and take the train into the park.
No matter where you sleep, be sure to have a meal at El Tovar Dining Room. After a day of touring the park, the hearty lunch options will hit the spot. Dive into fettuccini Alfredo basil pesto ($15) or the traditional Navajo tacos ($17.50) served with handmade fry bread instead of tortillas. Save room for dessert as there are three to choose from daily, all made in-house. The savvy staff ensures your taste buds are prepared: Hosts stop and explain each one as you’re seated.