America’s Playgrounds: Ten Best National Recreation Areas

While Nation­al Parks might have the most noto­ri­ety, dif­fer­ent fed­er­al­ly des­ig­nat­ed recre­ation playscapes also beck­on adven­ture. From Flam­ing Gorges to Delaware Gaps, a great exam­ple of wild play­grounds often less vis­it­ed include the dif­fer­ent Nation­al Recre­ation Areas (NRA’s) found across the coun­try. The name is no mis­nomer either, and each of these stun­ning nat­ur­al places are filled with hik­ing trails, camp­grounds and every­thing you need to scratch an activ­i­ty itch. For few­er crowds and equal excite­ment, make this the year to vis­it some Nation­al Recre­ation Areas.

Delaware Water GapDelaware Water Gap Nation­al Recre­ation Area, New Jer­sey & Pennsylvania 
Encom­pass­ing both sides of the Delaware Riv­er between New Jer­sey and Penn­syl­va­nia, this recre­ation hotspot is named after a dis­tinc­tive notch on Kit­tatin­ny Ridge of the Blue Ridge Moun­tains. Along­side this scenic water-carved fea­ture, Delaware Gap NRA also com­pris­es over 70,000 acres of Appalachi­an moun­tain appeal includ­ing water­falls, his­toric places and hik­ing ter­rain. Swim­ming at the beach­es and hik­ing along the A.T. are pop­u­lar activ­i­ties at this east­ern recre­ation area, as are uti­liz­ing the scenic road­ways and launch­ing boats onto the river.

CurecantiCure­can­ti Nation­al Recre­ation Area, Colorado
On the Gun­ni­son Riv­er of West­ern Col­orado and sur­round­ing three mas­sive reser­voirs, Cure­can­ti NRA is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for boaters and anglers. At twen­ty miles long, Blue Mesa is the largest of the three reser­voirs and is often inhab­it­ed with motor­ized boats, water skis and fish­ing poles through­out the sum­mer. The oth­er two reser­voirs, Mor­row Point and Crys­tal, give access to hand-car­ried water­craft only, lend­ing to awe­some canoe and sea kayak adven­tures includ­ing a selec­tion of boat-in camp­sites are utilized.

Whitewater on the GauleyGauley Riv­er Nation­al Recre­ation Area, West Virginia 
A white­wa­ter pad­dlers par­adise come true, the Gauley Riv­er Nation­al Recre­ation Area of West Vir­ginia fea­tures 25 miles of rush­ing gorge ter­rain com­plete with near­ly 700 feet of ver­ti­cal drop and over 100 water fea­tures. When the Sum­mersville Dam is released every Sep­tem­ber, thou­sands of boaters flock to the Gauley and its V+ rapids, and numer­ous local out­fit­ters are hap­py to pro­vide a ride. For more West Vir­ginia riv­er run­ning, both the New and Blue­stone Nation­al Rivers are only a short shut­tle ride away.

Glen CanyonGlen Canyon Nation­al Recre­ation Area, Utah & Arizona 
North of Grand Canyon Nation­al Park on the Col­orado Riv­er in Ari­zona and Utah, Glen Canyon Nation­al Recre­ation Area encom­pass­es the largest man-made lake in the coun­try, Lake Pow­ell, as well as the Glen Canyon Dam. Boat­ing reigns supreme on this mas­sive reser­voir and recre­ation area, and shore­line camp­ing makes for easy overnight vis­its. The his­toric Lees Fer­ry can also be found with­in Glen Canyon, mak­ing for an inter­est­ing vis­it and launch­ing grounds for a Grand Canyon raft­ing trip.

Lake ChelanLake Chelan Nation­al Recre­ation Area, Washington
Part of the larg­er North Cas­cades Nation­al Park Com­plex, Lake Chelan NRA com­pris­es over 60,000 acres between the north­ern tip of Lake Chelan and the Cana­di­an bor­der. Home to the hide­away moun­tain com­mu­ni­ty of Ste­hekin, this recre­ation area is only acces­si­ble by foot, water­craft or sea­plane. The Pacif­ic Crest Trail makes its way to the Cana­di­an bor­der through Lake Chelan NRA, and through­out the area many oth­er upright hik­ing trails invite explo­ration. A rec­om­mend­ed approach, the Lady of the Lake boat ser­vice makes dai­ly fer­ries between Chelan and Stehekin.

Rattlesnake National Recreation AreaRat­tlesnake Nation­al Recre­ation Area, Montana
Oper­at­ed by the Unit­ed States For­est Ser­vice, the Rat­tlesnake NRA is with­in the Lolo Nation­al For­est and acces­si­ble from the uni­ver­si­ty town of Mis­soula with a fif­teen-minute dri­ve. Fea­tur­ing alpine lakes, 8,000-foot moun­tain sum­mits and a vari­ety of recre­ation options through­out the year, this adven­tur­ous envi­ron­ment is a tremen­dous activ­i­ty resource for the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty and vis­i­tors trav­el­ing from afar. For those look­ing to avoid the some­times crowd­ed con­di­tions of the Rat­tlesnake NRA, trails con­tin­ue from the area into the adja­cent and less-vis­it­ed Rat­tlesnake Wilder­ness Area.

Santa MonicaSan­ta Mon­i­ca Moun­tains Nation­al Recre­ation Area, California 
Forty miles west of Los Ange­les and incor­po­rat­ing beach­es in Mal­ibu, the San­ta Mon­i­ca Moun­tains NRA pro­vides an easy urban get­away into a lush envi­ron­ment. Unique­ly co-man­aged between fed­er­al, state and local agen­cies, this SoCal recre­ation area has some­thing for every lev­el of adven­ture. Beach­comb­ing, moun­tain tra­vers­ing and his­tor­i­cal spots like the Para­mount Ranch gar­nish a lot of atten­tion, and for a great leg stretch­er, the NRA’s Back­bone Trail extends across the ridge of the San­ta Mon­i­ca Moun­tains for over 65 miles.

Gateway National Recreation AreaGate­way Nation­al Recre­ation Area, New York & New Jersey 
Com­prised of three dif­fer­ent units between New York and New Jer­sey, Gate­way NRA pro­vides a real get­away from sur­round­ing urban envi­ron­ments. At the Jamaica Bay Unit of the NRA, with­in Brook­lyn and Queens, vis­i­tors can find piers, parks and pub­lic camp­ing to enjoy, as well as the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Fur­ther south, the Stat­en Island unit pro­vides retired mil­i­tary bar­racks and open fields for orga­nized sports. Across state lines in New Jer­sey, the Sandy Hook Unit fea­tures a 2,000-acre bar­ri­er beach­front filled with ocean activity.

Chattahoochee RiverChat­ta­hoochee Riv­er Nation­al Recre­ation Area, Georgia 
Way down yon­der on the Chat­ta­hoochee, activ­i­ties like float­ing, fish­ing and day hik­ing reign supreme. Twen­ty miles north of Atlanta, the NRA that sur­rounds this scenic stretch of riv­er is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for urban dwellers. All roads are open to bicy­cle trav­el with­in the park, and des­ig­nat­ed cycling-only trails add even more ter­rain to explore. The real appeal of this nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment comes from the water, though, and trout fish­ing or float­ing down the riv­er are two of the most com­mon activ­i­ties at the nation­al playground.

Flaming Gorge National Recreation AreaFlam­ing Gorge Nation­al Recre­ation Area, Utah
With­in the Ash­ley Nation­al For­est in north­east Utah near the Wyoming bor­der, Flam­ing Gorge NRA encom­pass­es a large reser­voir cre­at­ed by the impound­ment of the Green Riv­er. Water activ­i­ties includ­ing boat­ing, ski­ing, and fish­ing are pop­u­lar at this south­west hot spot–all which include a beau­ti­ful back­drop of the Uin­ta Moun­tains. A great place to pitch a tent through­out the year, Flam­ing Gorge fea­tures 43 camp­grounds with over 700 camp­sites avail­able with­in the mixed envi­ron­ment of moun­tains, water, and beauty.