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If an epic road trip is the first thing that comes to mind when you envision visiting one of America’s national parks, you’re not alone. But did you know a cross-country adventure by car isn’t the only way to experience some of the U.S.’ most stunning natural oases? In fact, frequent cruisers and first-timers alike will be happy to find that a handful of parks are easy to reach by cruise ship — whether as part of the cruise route or as an added excursion. 

Here are five ways travelers can hit the open water and add a touch of natural wonder to their next applicable cruise expedition. 

In Alaska

Travelers cruising The Last Frontier will have ample opportunity to visit two popular parks — Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve and Denali National Park & Preserve.

Glacier Bay National Park and Reserve
Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Only accessible by plane, boat or ship, Glacier Bay National Park consists of 5,129 square miles of mountainous landscape, and, as the name suggests, an impressive display of glaciers.

As one of Alaska’s most famous attractions, the park welcomes nearly 700,000 sailors each year and travelers can expect to spend their days exploring dreamy fjord-like waterways and watching massive chunks of crystalline snow plunge into the icy depths below. Interestingly, many cruise vessels never dock in Glacier Bay. Instead, a National Park Ranger will board the ship to provide ship-wide commentary as visitors observe the massive formations from the comfort of the boat’s dock.

Denali National Park & Preserve
Denali National Park & Preserve

For the chance to explore The Land of the Midnight Sun on solid ground, travelers won’t want to miss a visit to the incredible Denali National Park. While this park covers an impressive 7,408 square miles, cruise-goers are likely to focus much of their attention on its namesake, Denali, the highest mountain peak in all of North America at 20,320 feet tall. Cruise itineraries often spend several days in this region and Denali is an ideal spot to observe Alaska’s Big Five animals — grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, moose and wolves.

In Hawaii

With cheery tropical temps and breathtaking landscapes, the Hawaiian Islands are a bucket list destination for many. Travelers planning a cruise to the Islands of Aloha will be happy to find they can explore two fabulous national parks during their visit — Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and Haleakalā National Park

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Just a hop, skip and a jump from the port of call in Hilo, cruisers who dock on the Big Island are in for an unforgettable experience when they visit Hawai’i Volcanoes. Home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes — Kilauea and Mauna Loa —, visitors to this incredible park can enjoy an up-close-and-personal look at ancient fissures, craters, vents and even active lava flows. Also nearby are some of Hawaii’s famous black sand beaches, the aftermath of molten-hot lava crashing into the salty sea.

Haleakalā National Park
Haleakalā National Park

Over on the island of Maui, cruisers might mistake the Mars-like terrain of Haleakalā National Park for a galaxy far, far away. However, the dusty, otherworldly sediment is what remains of the inactive Haleakalā Volcano. Colorful and rugged, this unique park acts as a great backdrop for observing flora and fauna in addition to offering stunning views of the surrounding islands and landscapes.

In Maine

The perfect retreat for travelers seeking rest, relaxation and a killer lobster bake, a “New England and Canada” voyage is worthy of any cruiser’s consideration. And, along this route, many ships include a stop in Bar Harbor, Maine’s gateway to Acadia National Park.  

Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park

According to the National Park Service, Acadia welcomes nearly four million visitors each year making it one of the top 10 most-visited national parks in the entire country. And with 60 miles of coastline, 33 miles of scenic driving roads, 45 miles of carriage roads (stone roadways and bridges that date back to the early to mid-1900s) and over 150 miles of hiking trails, this lush getaway offers no shortage of things to do and see. For first-time visitors, many cruisers recommend exploring popular roads and sights like Schooner Head Overlook, Park Loop Road, High Seas Estate and the 1,530-foot-tall Cadillac Mountain.  

In the U.S. Virgin Islands

While often overshadowed by nearby St. Thomas when it comes to popular cruise destinations, St. John is certainly a worthwhile stop for park-loving travelers who sail to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The smallest of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands at just 20 square miles, nearly two-thirds of tiny St. John is covered by Virgin Islands National Park. And with protected white sand beaches, fabulous hiking trails and historic ruins, that’s good news for travelers.

Trunk Bay, Virgin Islands National Park
Trunk Bay, Virgin Islands National Park

Vacationers who find their ship docking in St. Thomas need not fret. Many cruise lines offer some variation of a St. John beach excursion that takes travelers to Virgin Island National Park’s Trunk Bay for a day of tropical adventures. On the island, watersports like swimming, snorkeling, windsurfing, kayaking and scuba diving are big hits. Travelers can also explore lush hiking trails (more than 20 to be exact) including Reef Bay Trail, Cinnamon Bay Natural Loop and Johnny Horn Trail.

Jenna Buege | About the Author

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