4 National Park Adventures

You don't have to spend big bucks to go on an active vacation--these U.S. National Parks offer heart-pounding thrills close to home.

Yosemite National Park, California

"No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock seems to glow with life," said naturalist and the "father of conservation" John Muir. Ansel Adams was so enchanted by this nearly 1,200-square-mile park he returned every year for nearly seven decades to photograph Yosemite's main attractions: Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, one of the world's tallest waterfalls, and the 3,000-foot-high El Capitan. You could spend weeks hiking and backpacking through this park full of waterfalls, forests, mountains and towering tree groves.

Don't miss: Hiking Half Dome, which towers some 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley. The 14- to 16-mile round-trip hike is not for those afraid of heights: The last 400 feet of the trail includes a series of cables hikers must use to get to the top.

Get a thrill: Take the six-day O.A.R.S. adventure trip "Wild & Scenic Tuolumne Hiker," which includes two days of white water rafting on Class III and IV rapids on the Tuolumne River, just outside the park, and three days of hiking in Yosemite to destinations including a giant sequoia grove, with some of the tallest trees in the world, the glacier-carved Tuolumne Meadows and Half Dome.

Ellen McCabe, a 55-year-old multisport athlete from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, went on the trip in July. She says the adrenaline rush of plunging through rapids aptly named "Nemesis," "Hell's Kitchen" and "Thread the Needle" was thrilling, and she loved the spontaneous activities like climbing from the campsite to jump off a rock into the river and cool off.

Info: To learn more about Yosemite National Park, visit nps.gov/yose. O.A.R.S. offers rafting and multisport trips in and around Yosemite, as well as to numerous other destinations in the U.S. and abroad. For more info, call (209) 736-4677 or visit oars.com.

Camp at Tuolumne Meadows.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia, I spent many weekends hiking in Shenandoah National Park. (In fact, my first backcountry adventure occurred here when I was eight years old and my dad and I took a "shortcut" off a trail and got lost.) With more than 500 miles of hiking trails--some 100 of that along the famous Appalachian Trail--it'd take me a lifetime to explore it all. Shenandoah National Park attracts the most crowds in the fall, when the trees put on a traffic-stopping display of red, orange and yellow foliage.

Don't miss: My family loves to hike the steep, switchback 8-mile trail up Old Rag Mountain--be prepared for a scramble up a rocky pathway near the top. All the hard work is rewarded with sweeping valley views from the flat, granite summit. On the way home, take some time to cruise along the scenic Skyline Drive, which offers dramatic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is often called one of the most beautiful drives in the eastern U.S.

Get a thrill: Learn to rock climb and get a bird's eye view of Shenandoah Valley. Shenandoah Mountain Guides offers daylong lessons in rock-climbing and rappelling for beginners to intermediates. The group also offers guided backpacking trips into the park as well as multi-sport adventures.

Info: For more info about the park, visit nps.gov/shen. To book a trip with Shenandoah Mountain Guides, visit teamlinkinc.com or call (866) 455-8672.

Camp at Shenandoah River State Park.

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