The important part of visiting any national park is the park itself. But what we soon found out, as we visited one after the other last year, is that the whole experience matters. Local communities surrounding the parks are often supported solely by tourism, and they have caught on to the fact that park visitors need to sleep, eat, and recreate in town after roughing it all day in the parks.
We have put together a list of our all-time favorite park “gateway” cities — those surrounding communities that support the needs of park visitors — and a few highlights from each. But as we were thinking about those places we love so much, our list was far too long for one post. So we will be continuing with Part II on a future day.
Here’s our top 10, simply in the order we visited them:
#1-5 (today’s post)
- Moab, Utah // Arches NP & Canyonlands NP
- Bar Harbor, Maine // Acadia NP
- Ventura, California // Channel Islands NP
- Visalia, California // Sequoia & Kings Canyon NPs
- Port Angeles, Washington // Olympic NP
#6-10: to be revealed in our next post!
**We were treated to hotel rooms, food, and tours through several of these cities’ Visitor Bureaus. Even though those beds were super comfy, our reviews are strictly our own opinions. We will let you know when we received something for free!**
Moab, Utah ~ Arches National Park & Canyonlands National Park
For a Utah adventure that has a healthy balance of outdoorsy and townsy (my kind of adventure), Moab is the perfect place to be. We spent a little over a week in this area, resting & relaxing a bit, visiting Canyonlands and Arches, and catching up with a high school friend who happened to be on vacation there. The city is made for tourists, but it is not overly cheesy (lookin at you, Gatlinburg!) and has ample coffee shops (we caught up on blog things at Red Rock Cafe & it was great!), restaurants, a Safeway, outdoor gear shops, and other 21st century conveniences. For pro-level free campers, there is also a TON of free BLM land around Moab.
Bar Harbor, Maine ~ Acadia National Park
Bar Harbor is an adorable, sort-of-but-not-too-touristy small coastal town of about 5,000 people. It’s the closest access point to Acadia, so it’s a great place to grab a bite to eat or spend some time at night in between national park adventures. We grabbed lobster rolls at Thirsty Whale (we weren’t overly impressed for what it cost, but still worth it to try), then spent an afternoon perusing the shops. There were several cute gift boutiques that were right up my alley. In the evening, we went to Reel Pizza and, for just $5 tickets, saw The Martian. We were full, but the food options at this two-show theater were seriously cheap and delicious-looking. Next time we’ll bring two appetites, for sure.
Ventura, California ~ Channel Islands National Park
We happened upon Ventura through a new friend (hi, Debbie!) we met while in Death Valley. After we returned on our ferry (which runs in and out of Ventura), she invited us to explore this awesome Californian gem, and we were so glad we took the time. We ate a delicious lunch (fish tacos and burritos) at Spencer Makenzie’s and were introduced at the Visitor’s Bureau (@VisitVentura). Then we were generously treated to gelato at Palermo and a view of the city from Grant’s Park. Ventura is larger than most national park gateway cities (about 110,000 population), but it was nice to have more amenities after coming off of no-service-land in Channel Islands.
Visalia, California ~ Sequoia National Park
The day we spent in Visalia, California was our perfect rest day: we ate lunch with Christina from the Visitor’s Bureau at Pita Kabob (amazing), strolled around downtown, grabbed bakery cookies from Max’s (delicious), and checked in to the local Wyndham for some serious relaxing (and, let’s be honest, finally showering). The @VisitVisalia team treated us for the day, so we got to explore Visalia unlike the stingy travelers we usually are. Visalia is not the closest city to Sequoia National Park, but they really do provide the best launching-off point and best quality access to the park. At their Visitor’s Bureau, they have several brochures and itineraries that are helpful especially to visitors trying to see the parks efficiently.
Port Angeles, Washington ~ Olympic National Park
Now, I said these weren’t in any particular order, but that’s not really true. If we had to pick our FAVORITE, favorite gateway city experience, it would be in Olympic National Park, when we spent some time in Port Angeles. Port Angeles is a city of about 20,000. Big enough to have a Starbucks, but not big enough to have three. That’s the way I like it. 🙂 We actually got in contact with the Visitor’s Bureau here too, and we were treated to a hotel room at the Red Lion and a plane tour around Olympic National Park & the city, to show off everything it has to offer. If we weren’t given these things, I think our sentiments about Port Angeles would be exactly the same. Visiting here was one of our favorite non-park experiences of the year.
Our experiences were all great, but we would definitely suggest eating at the Next Door gastropub. I had a delicious PB&J burger. We also loved walking around downtown and along the bike trail at twilight. The sunset from our hotel room at Red Lion was incredible! To top it all off, we joined three other women who serve the community in a small bush plane flight with Rite Bros around the city and Olympic National Park. We couldn’t stop snapping pictures.
To us, the gateway city leading into a national park will never totally make or break an experience. But a good burger and fries, a local brewery, an ice cream cone, and lots of friendly locals enhanced our time in and around the national parks.
What do you think, did we miss any? What have been your favorite gateway cities?
We’ll be back soon with Part II and #6-10!