Best National Parks for Alternative Fitness Activities

Hit the Trails! And the Lakes, Beaches and Dunes to Enhance Your Health

National Parks are like giant, outdoor fitness centers, just waiting for you to put them to use. And even though they don't boast racks of dumbbells or lines of treadmills, they provide a wealth of opportunities to get active and improve your health. Whether you're looking to take up a new hobby, like sandboarding, or you're hoping to stretch your legs and run the trails surrounded by some of Mother Nature's most incredible landscapes, all you have to do is use the Find Your Park website to locate the right park for you. 

Also, you may want to make special note of the National Park Service's annual free entrance days. While some National Parks offer free admission year-round, 124 of the most spectacular parks, including Yosemite, Great Sand Dunes, Everglades, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, and Zion, typically charge an entrance fee. These fees are waived during free entrance days, making them an ideal time to visit and explore. Dates change from year-to-year, but admission is typically waived on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the week surrounding Earth Day (typically christened "National Parks Week"), National Public Lands Day, and Veteran's Day. 

If you're looking for new ways to get out there and get active, consider these off-the-beaten-track fitness adventures. Even if you decide these activities aren't for you, don't let that stop you from getting creative about ​turning the great outdoors into your own personal gym

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Kayaking or Canoeing

Kayaking National Parks
Getty Images/Blend Images/Roberto Westbrook

Whether you're looking for a nice, easy paddle, or you want to brave white-capped rapids, the National Parks Service includes a multitude of lakes, rivers, and shores where you can set sail. Of course, with thousands of miles of waterways to choose from, your options are practically endless, but it's hard to pass up the awe-inspiring glacier backdrop of the Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. That said, its unpredictable weather and frigid waters aren't for beginners. If you want something a little more predictable and family-friendly, head to Florida's Biscayne National Park, featuring clear, warm water in a shallow tropical bay. Or, check out ​six more parks that are perfect for paddling

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Never heard of sandboarding? You're in for a treat. It's like snowboarding, but on sand dunes. The main difference between the two sports (other than the weather, of course) is most parks don't have lifts to help you get to the top of the dunes. That means you get double the workout as you must climb to the top of the hill before boarding to the bottom. Sandboarding is allowed at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, White Sands National Park, and Death Valley National Park. Just make sure you know each park's rules and guidelines about sandboarding, as the activity isn't allowed in all areas. 

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scuba.jpg
Georgette Douwma/Getty Images

Yes, it's even possible to enhance your fitness while exploring the deep waters of the nation's lakes, rivers, and oceans. While scuba diving may not be an overly strenuous workout, you still have to swim through the water's resistance, and in some cases, against a current—it definitely qualifies as moderate-intensity exercise.

Here's the thing, though: You can't just dive in anywhere. Scuba diving requires specialized equipment, licenses, and in many cases, park-approved outfitters who function as guides. Always check with the park service before you load up your boat to make sure you're following the rules. A few parks known for their diving include Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California ​and the National Park of American Samoa, but if you want to stay closer to home, you may be surprised at the diving available in lakes of landlocked states. 

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Enjoying the National Parks

There are more than 400 national parks and more than 84 million acres of protected national park land in the United States, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and Puerto Rico. In 2014, more than 292 million people visited the parks. And while many of the National Parks are well known, including Yellowstone, the Everglades, and the Grand Canyon, you may be surprised to find smaller, lesser-known parks in your area. Rather than take your family to a local playground, check out the nearby National Parks and appreciate the beauty of the protected land—just don't forget to double-check the free entrance dates so you can hit the trails without paying a penny.

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