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Jesse Weber | 04.29.2019

Nearly every national park has its gateway town. That's the community close to the park entrance where you can fuel up, gear up, and rest up for your outdoor adventures. The best towns are more than just a supply stop, though—they have their own unique activities and culture that you shouldn't miss if you visit.

It's no coincidence that the country's best national parks also have great gateway towns. Here's a list of our favorite towns next to top national parks in the United States, and a bit about what you can do in each.

Ocean kayaking near Port Angeles, Washington. Tyler Yates.

Port Angeles, Washington - Olympic National Park

Just outside the northern boundary of Olympic National Park is Port Angeles, a harbor town nestled between the forest and the sea. This is your stop for laid-back lodging, delicious seafood, and a little bit of nightlife. The outdoors have plenty to offer, as well. You can go sea kayaking right outside town in Port Angeles Harbor, or along wilder coastline in Freshwater Bay. Take a short hike at Peabody Creek, or visit pods of seals in the beautiful wildlife refuge at Dungeness Bay.

Ice climbing near Lee Vining, California. Rini Sugianto.

Lee Vining, California - Yosemite National Park

Outside Yosemite National Park's east entrance is the tiny town of Lee Vining. Despite its size, this former mining outpost has a lot going on. There's gear shops, coffee shops, retro diners, and a history museum featuring the quirky Upside Down House. All this is smack in between the Eastern Slope of the Sierra and the saltwater expanse of Mono Lake, with its otherworldly tufa tower formations. Outdoor activities include walking among the tufas at Navy Beach, hiking on the Panum Crater volcano, camping at Gull Lake, and ice climbing in the winter. Lee Vining Canyon is well known for some of the best ice routes in California.

Hiking in Palm Canyon and the Victor Trail Loop in the Palm Desert. Halvor Tweto.

Palm Desert, California - Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is one of California's most popular natural destinations, but the string of cities in the valley to the south holds its own array of attractions. Palm Desert and its neighbors are famous for music among the younger crowd (think Coachella) and golf courses among the older. The outdoor scene is way bigger than festivals and fairways, however. Towering over the valley is Mount San Jacinto, home to one of the nation's toughest hiking trails—Cactus to Clouds. Easier hikes abound at the outskirts of town, like Palm Canyon and Painted Canyon. Also nearby is the birder's paradise and ecological oddity of the Salton Sea.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument within about an hour of Flagstaff, Arizona. Jesse Weber.

Flagstaff, Arizona - Grand Canyon National Park

There aren't many towns close to the Grand Canyon in Arizona's remote northwest corner. Flagstaff is more than an hour away, but definitely worth visiting for its lively downtown scene and high mountain setting. Peruse shops and breweries on Historic Route 66 or hit the trails in the hills and surrounding canyons. You can hike to Arizona's highest point atop Humphreys Peak or ski it in the winter. Go rock climbing on Mount Elden, mountain biking at Schultz Creek, or visit one of three nearby national monuments—Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater, and Wupatki.

The Babylon Arch Trail near Hurricane, Utah. Kyle Jenkins.

Hurricane, Utah - Zion National Park

Not far from Zion National Park is the often overlooked town of Hurricane. Stop there to find cozy cafes, family-run restaurants, friendly gear shops, and even yoga classes to add variety to your road trip. Then there is, of course, the incredible outdoors. Hike to a desert river on the Babylon Arch Trail, camp under the stars at Sand Cove, swim and paddle at Sand Hollow State Park, and ride world-class mountain bike trails at Hurricane Cliffs or Gooseberry Mesa.

Hungry Horse Reservoir near Glacier National Park and Whitefish, Montana. Julia Smit.

Whitefish, Montana - Glacier National Park

The resort town of Whitefish is a familiar destination in its own right for skiing in winter and boating on the lake in summer, but it also happens to be at the doorstep to Glacier National Park and a wealth of lesser-known outdoors in northwestern Montana. Once you've seen the national park, find other adventures like hiking Mount Aeneas, floating the Middle Fork Flathead River, or camping at Hungry Horse Reservoir.

Camping at Gros Ventre beneath the Tetons near Jackson, Wyoming. Denis LeBlanc.

Jackson, Wyoming - Grand Teton National Park

Located right outside Grand Teton National Park, and not too far from Yellowstone, Jackson is a mecca for skiing and well known for resort lodging and dining. There is plenty more to do in this hip town, though, including year-round mountain, lake, and river adventures as well as budget-friendly accommodations. If you're there outside of ski season, try rafting the Snake River, hiking to Ski Lake, or camping at Gros Ventre Campground.

Gem Lake and Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park, Colorado. Tyson Gillard.

Estes Park, Colorado - Rocky Mountain National Park

As both a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and a popular summer getaway of its own, Estes Park is unmistakably touristy, but it's also the happy home to a thriving community. Locals pride themselves on a scenic, friendly town with unbeatable access to the outdoors. In town, visit one of many restaurants, breweries, gear shops, and art stores, or the historic Stanley Hotel. Just outside of town are family-friendly hikes like Lily LakeBridal Veil Falls, and Gem Lake. Rock climbers will love the natural playgrounds of Lumpy Ridge, Jurassic Park, and Chaos Canyon above Lake Haiyaha.

Laurel Falls at full strength in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Brandon Cook.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee - Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the country, but a great deal of its visitors drive through the US-321 entrance just to get to Gatlinburg. Whether as a quick stop for a souvenir or a week-long getaway in the foothills, Gatlinburg has a lot to offer. It has the only ski resort in Tennessee, a large aquarium that you wouldn't expect so far inland, and a thriving folk art scene with abundant galleries and workshops. There are, of course, the Smoky Mountains right out the backdoor. Nearby destinations include Laurel Falls, Rainbow Falls, Mount LeConte, Ramsey Cascades, and the ghost town of Elkmont.

Rugged coastline in Acadia National Park along Newport Cove, near Bar Harbor, Maine. Daniel Sherman.

Bar Harbor, Maine - Acadia National Park

Bar Harbor looks like the quintessential Northeast coastal town, with seaside cottages on green lawns, restaurant patios on narrow streets, and of course an abundance of delicious seafood on the menus. What really sets it apart, however, is its setting on Mount Desert Island next to Acadia National Park. Just outside of town is the famous highpoint of Cadillac Mountain, as well as the exhilarating ascent of Champlain Mountain via The Precipice Trail. Along Bar Harbor's own Shore Path, you can poke around rocky tide pools and view forested islands, one of which you can walk to on a sandbar that appears at low tide.


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