The outdoor classrooms of the national parks offer opportunities for learning on the go.

By Nina Lohman Cilek

Imagine classrooms without desks, dry-erase boards, textbooks or computers. Envision an environment where lessons in science, history, social studies and nature come to life.

Natural classrooms are spread throughout the country in hundreds of National Park Service (NPS) sites. The national parks offer hands-on learning opportunities that can enhance lesson plans and encourage students to appreciate the country’s natural wonders.

“The National Park Service is the world’s greatest university with 401 branch campuses,” said John Jarvis, NPS director.

With at least one site in each state, coupled with the NPS commitment to staffing education rangers at each location, national parks are a growing resource for teachers. In 2013 the parks hosted over 55,000 educational programs for nearly 2½ million students. Whether visiting a park nearby or traveling across the country, a trip to a national park ensures unique interdisciplinary experiences of science, nature, history, recreation and fun.

Each national park has its own field trip guides and curriculum materials available online. Guided group tours can be arranged through the park service to highlight specific environmental or historical sites, experiences and educational opportunities.

“National parks are dynamic classrooms where students interact with real places, landscapes, historic structures and other tangible resources that help them understand meanings, concepts, themes and stories,” said Kathy Kupper, NPS spokesperson.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
Photo: National Park Service

Glacier National Park encompasses over a million acres and includes parts of two mountain ranges, over 130 lakes, more than 1,000 different species of plants and hundreds of species of animals. Of the estimated 150 glaciers that existed in the park in the mid-19th century, less than 20 percent of the active glaciers still remain. Scientific research estimates that the glaciers could disappear altogether in the next decade.

With over 700 miles of trails to navigate, it’s helpful to explore Glacier National Park under the guidance of a trained park ranger. Throughout the spring and fall, the Native Plant Restoration Program provides field trips that encourage students to work with plant restoration staff to grow native plants and re-vegetate impacted areas. In Fire Ecology, rangers guide students through a 3-mile hike complete with scavenger hunts, examining tree rings for fire scars and demonstrations of fire behavior.

Gateway to the park: The earliest human inhabitants of the Flathead Valley were the native peoples who arrived some 10,000 years ago when the glaciers receded. Learn more about this history of the Flathead Valley in Kalispell, Montana, at the Museum at Central School. Take in a rodeo or take the reins for horseback and wagon rides at the Majestic Valley Arena.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Since 1993, Grand Canyon National Park has offered guided hiking and backpacking classes and tours of the famous 277-river-mile long, 18-mile wide and 1-mile deep canyon. Throughout the spring and fall, the park’s education branch offers 2½- and 5-hour curriculum-based field trips designed to guide students through the geology, ecology and human history of the canyon. The South Rim is open year-round and is the most accessible portion of the park.

Gateway to Grand Canyon: Encourage students to enjoy the nightlife — of the sky. Flagstaff, Arizona, is the nation’s first International Dark Sky City, a designation that captures the city’s advantage for stargazing. The Lowell Observatory offers private student programs, year-round access to customized tours and use of the telescopes. The U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Center provides free, guided tours of exhibits explaining geologic mapping and history of the United States.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Colorado is known for snowboarding. But it’s also known for sandboarding, and a trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park provides an ideal mix of playful fun and participatory learning. The tallest dunes in North America were formed an estimated 440,000 years ago through the lifting and breaking apart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Sand left behind from receding lakes blows in opposing directions thus forming the high vertical dunes.

Student groups traveling to the Great Sand Dunes National Park can explore the scientific and geological history of the area at 8,200 feet. Enhance the learning experience and create one-of-a-kind memories by taking to the slopes — or the dunes — by sandboarding and sand sledding.

Gateway to Great Sand Dunes: Not far from the tallest dunes are some of the nation’s greatest athletes. The Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, offers guided tours of the facilities throughout the year. Each hourlong tour includes a video presentation and a walking tour of the complex. Custom designed tours of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center offer educators in-depth art awareness in many areas, including history, foreign languages and architecture.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation’s most visited national park, straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. Formed some 200-300 million years ago, the Great Smokies rise more than 5,000 feet for over 36 miles, an environmental change that is not missed by the area’s wide range of plants, animals and invertebrates. With virtually no development within its 800 square miles, this park is best utilized as a day-use location. Groups traveling from the North Carolina side of the park can access The Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, one branch of a growing network of 32 research-learning centers in national parks.

Gateway to the Smokies: Three Tennessee cities serve as gateways to the Smokies. With a Main Street lined with independent amusement rides, go-karts and mini-golf, Pigeon Forge offers a variety of student activities. Home to Dollywood theme park and WonderWorks amusement park, Pigeon Forge offers abundant entertainment and educational attractions guaranteed to please any group. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a hit in Gatlinburg, and Sevierville offers Rainforest Adventures and ziplining.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

Cape Hatteras National Seashore  Photo: National Park Service
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Photo: National Park Service

Shaped by the natural forces of water, wind and storms, the islands of Cape Hatteras are ever changing. The nation’s first national seashore was established to preserve the narrow, low-lying landforms known as Barrier Islands off North Carolina’s coast. Popular tours bring students inside Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in North America, or to the remote Ocracoke Island, which is accessible only by boat.

Gateway to Cape Hatteras: Nearby Fayetteville, North Carolina, is home to the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex, which boasts three historic resources in one location. The museum galleries parlay the history of North Carolina from Native American times to the early 20th century. The complex also includes the remains of the Fayetteville Arsenal, which was burned during the Civil War by U.S. General William T. Sherman, and the 1897 Edgar Allen Poe House, which interprets life at the turn of the 20th century.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

For 5,000 years, humans have left their marks on the 800,000 acres that comprise Joshua Tree National Park. Ranger-led educational programs retrace the steps of the Pinto culture and the generations of cattlemen, miners and homesteaders that have shaped this cultural and historical landscape. Don’t miss the park’s namesake, the Joshua Tree, which extensively populates the western half of the park. The unusual, twisted, spiky tree looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Gateway to Joshua Tree: Contrast the desert with the city during a trip to Palm Springs, California. Self-guided and educator-led tours are available at the Living Desert, a unique zoo and botanical garden focused on desert preservation and education. The Palm Springs Air Museum gives visitors a chance to learn about and interact with one of the world’s largest collection of flyable World War II aircraft.

In honor of the U.S. National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016, Group Tour Media has compiled a list of the most visited parks. Find out which of the 401 parks made the list.