It may seem like leaving your house this summer may be ill-advised, but there’s only so much Netflix you can watch before losing your mind. Luckily, you don’t need a huge budget or a week off from work to take an amazing vacation – there’s a national park not too far from you, allowing you the opportunity to get outdoors (spending time in nature has shown to have lasting benefits such as lessening stress and improving mental health) and get amazing content for your social media feeds.
The Instagram accounts for the National Park Service, National Park Foundation, and U.S. Department of the Interior are stocked with stunning inspiration for any possible trip you might want to take. And recently, as a guest of the National Park Foundation, I had the opportunity to bike, hike and float down a river in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, enjoy a “night sky” activity and see some historic national battlefields – accompanied by rangers, who had plenty of expert advice on making the most out of your trip, no matter how long your trip or with whom you travel.
If you’re still resisting the thought of breaking a sweat in the great outdoors, rest assured that there are a number of unique (and affordable!) parks that don’t require too much physical effort and still afford you the opportunity to try something new this summer.
Pick Your Park
The National Park Foundation’s Find Your Park/Encuentra Tu Parque campaign makes it easy to find a park where you can hike, climb, fish or anything else you (and your travel companions) would like to get into.
“[The campaign] starts a conversation with ‘what are you interested in?’ and helps people connect those interests with parks across the country, starting with places in their own backyard,” Alanna Sobel, senior manager of communications at the National Park Foundation, tells PEOPLE. “From arts and culture to living history, to picnicking, to scenic drives, to biking and canoeing, the universe of national park experiences is incredibly diverse.”
Once you visit their website, you can choose from a list of activities — such as bird watching and flyfishing — and find which parks are nearest to you.
What to Bring
Once you pick a national park to visit, it’s important to know what things you’ll need to bring to make the most out of your stay.
If you’re thinking of doing something adventurous like hiking or biking, it’s important to stay hydrated and bring bottles of water or a Gatorade, and snacks like granola bars and peanuts in case you (or more likely, the “are we there yet” camp in the backseat) get hungry.
Being outdoors for hours at a time also means you’ll need protection from the sun, so pack high-SPF sunscreen and UV-protective hats, and bring insect repellant and long-sleeved clothing to be prepared for bugs.
The National Park Service also recommends making a packing list of things you may need according to the activities you have planned (proper boots for hiking, life jackets for kayaking) and then testing your equipment before arriving so you know if anything won’t work for you before you get there.
Best Time of Year to Visit
Of course, finding out the best time of year to visit all depends on where you’re going.
With kids being out of school, summer offers many families the best chance to take some time off to travel. But if you can hold off a bit, Lonely Planet suggests waiting for what they consider to be the best month to hit the national park circuit: October.
Why? According to the travel guide, October is the best time of year for a few reasons, including cooler weather, fewer crowds and lower costs, as lodging rates tend to be reduced in order to attract more people.
Parks For the Family and Education
If you’re up for a family road trip, there are many places around the country that will be great for the kids, and won’t give you too much of a headache trying to keep up with them. A bonus? Many of these parks are literally a walk through history.
Take Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro, Tennessee — which was the spot where Union and Confederate soldiers clashed on New Year’s Eve 1862.
If you find time at the end of the year, Park Ranger Jim Lewis says the best time to come is during the winter, since that’s when the battle was fought.
“When things brown out we mow or burn the fields so it looks like a harvested cropland,” Lewis tells PEOPLE. “The leaves come off the trees. When you’re able to see the battlefield, you’re really seeing it.”
There is also the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in LaRue County, Kentucky, where you can walk along the same hill where the 16th president lived as a boy and learn a bit about his childhood.
“It’s just a neat story and not all Park Service stories are easy to tell,” Jay Grass, a superintendent at the park, tells PEOPLE. “Some are very difficult stories of the American experience, and so I feel really lucky to be a part of this story because it’s so positive.”
For great lodging choices and organized tours, there is Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, where you can mountain bike through miles of trails, kayak through the Green River (and possibly see an eagle) and explore a massive cave system filled with its own history, such as the story of Floyd Collins, who became a living tourist attraction after he became stuck by a boulder while exploring the caves in 1925.
Parks to Visit if You’re Going By Yourself
While more may be merrier, sometimes going on a solo adventure can be just as fun. If you’re looking to get closer to nature on your own, the National Park Foundation recommends three parks that will be the ultimate destination for you.
If you’re in the eastern side of the country, New River Gorge National River in West Virginia features some great opportunities to dive into whitewater rafting and kayaking, no matter what you’re skill level may be. The area around the river also is a great place for camping, bird watching and biking.
For those on the western side, Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park allowed for scenic driving routes through its many valleys. Its terrain is good for short day hikes or long backpacking trips. (Just watch out for the bears.)
Just below Wyoming in Colorado is the Great Sand Dunes National Park, another place great for camping and biking. But what for those astronomers out there, the park is also low on light pollution, giving skywatchers perfect nights to view the stars.