10 Best National Parks in America for a Picnic (Slideshow)
April 21, 2016
Which of the 59 US National Parks are best for picnicking? We pack the 10 best options into one article
Acadia National Park, Maine
There are so many good reasons to picnic at Maine’s Acadia National Park that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, the terrain is quite diverse. Want a mountain view? Acadia boasts Cadillac Mountain, the tallest on the Atlantic coast. How about woodlands? Acadia’s 47,000 acres has you covered. Lakes? Yep, almost 30. And don’t forget about the beaches either. Set up shop anywhere, or opt for one of six designated picnic areas with tables (over 155) and fireplaces. And to top off all these reasons, 2016 is also the 100-year anniversary of the park.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Two things make Carlsbad Caverns National Park a great place for a picnic. First, the only other dining options in the New Mexico park are the Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company and the underground rest area, which generally only offer sandwiches, salads, or snacks — so BYO-ing food is a much better idea. And second, the caverns are awesome. Of course, you can’t actually picnic in the cavern itself (in fact, you can’t drink anything other than plain, unflavored water anywhere underground other than the rest area), but there are picnic tables at the east end of the visitor center, and also at Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area. The latter offers beautiful views of the surrounding area, so don’t let the frightening moniker deter you — it’s simply what they named the place in between Rattlesnake Canyon and Slaughter Canyon Cave, just north of Murderer’s Rock (OK, I made that last one up).
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
With just under 33,000 acres, Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the eighth-smallest National Park in America (fifth-smallest in the continental U.S.), but still contains a surprisingly large number of picnic areas. Cuyahoga has almost 30 locations that work for picnics, with 170 tables, 75 grills, and restrooms at all but a handful of spots. Nine even have running water available, and two can be reserved for a fee ($110 on weekends and holidays, $80 on weekdays). Additionally, Summit Metro Parks and Cleveland Metroparks manage numerous picnic areas just outside the boundary of CVNP, so if you can’t find a satisfying place to have a meal with a view, your eyes are probably closed.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina
Although Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to a dozen designated picnic areas, only four are open year-round. However, with the pleasant Tennessee/North Carolina weather, by mid-April almost all are open. Each area offers a ton of individual sites, and six even have pavilions. The pavilions have added fees attached (anywhere from $10 to $75), but they can be reserved up to a year in advance online, and can seat 55-150 people. Added bonus: The Barn at Blackberry Farm (No. 77 on our list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America 2016) is located just outside the park’s northwestern border, so be sure to check that out after departing.
Rocky Mountains National Park, Colorado
If you think Rocky Mountains National Park’s 266,000 acres have a lot of room for picnicking, you’d absolutely be correct. Between the east and west side of this Colorado park (it’s split north-to-south by the Continental Divide) there are more than two-dozen areas with 200 tables, 84 fire grates (and permitted use of portable grills at most sites), and restrooms at most locations. Only a handful of areas are open year-round, but once the weather gets nice, the options are seemingly endless.
Sequoia National Park, California
In addition to having some of the tallest trees in the country, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States (Mount Whitney, 14,505 feet), a stunning segment of the Sierra Nevada, over 240 caves, and a granite dome, California’s Sequoia National Park also has a lot of great, unique areas for camping and picnicking. Most have tables, several have grills and bathrooms, but all of them provide spectacular views of the surrounding trees and mountains, and one is even located on the edge of a lush meadow. There are seasonal closings for about half, so it’s best to check the park’s website or call for specific info.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Winters can get chilly in the Virginia mountains, but Shenandoah National Park still keeps four of its eight picnic area open year-round, and the others don’t close until November or December. The restrooms might not be operational in the colder months, but visitors can still access the picnic tables and grills, and of course enjoy the wonderful views around the 199,000-acre park. Be sure to stop at The Inn at Little Washington if you head north after leaving the park — it ranked as number 20 on our list of the 101 best restaurants in America 2016.
Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska
If we were to pick only one National Park in Alaska for a picnic (and we did), it would have to be Wrangell-St. Elias. The 8.3-million-acre park is the largest in the United States and provides plenty of breathtaking views, including that of the 18,008-foot Mount Saint Elias, glaciers (like Hubbard, Malaspina, and Nabesna), and numerous volcanoes. For the most part, June, July, and August are the best (and possibly only) months where the weather is picnic-appropriate, so plan a trip during that time and set up shop wherever seems quiet, comfortable, and scenic.
As far as acreage goes, Yellowstone National Park (2.2 million acres) is the eighth-largest park in the United States. However, six of the top seven are in Alaska (which is a bit far for most people, and still a few months away from picnic weather) and the other one is Death Valley — the lowest, driest, and often hottest place in the country. As the next largest park, Yellowstone (which is located in Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho) boasts over 300 tables, 40 fire grates (the park also allows camp stoves — liquid or gas — and self-contained charcoal grills), and 46 restrooms for 52 designated picnic areas. You might need to wait a few weeks for decent weather, but when it arrives, grab a spot in one of a dozen Yellowstone Lake-adjacent areas or one near Old Faithful for fantastic views. Insider Tip: If you desire a location with a potable water source, opt for the Madison picnic area.
Yosemite National Park, California
California’s Yosemite National Park has over 761,000 acres of land and over a dozen designated picnic areas near the famous Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls — North America’s tallest waterfall. You can also grab some shade under a giant sequoia in one of three groves. Almost every picnic area has tables and restrooms, and half of them have grills. All are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and are open from dawn to dusk.