An Appetite for Nature: A Foodie’s Guide to America’s National Parks

July 21, 2016 2:16 pm Last Updated: July 25, 2016 4:15 pm

Exploring the national parks works up an appetite, that’s for sure. While you burn those calories, you can replenish them with the most delicious meals in and around the parks.

Take it from Ari Kissiloff, who has visited 328 national park sites—many while on vacation from his job as a professor at Ithaca College in upstate New York.

Larger parks with lodges have several dining options, he explained, including a grand hall for dining. “These have tended to be farm-to-table for decades, not because of the latest fad but by necessity, as reaching many of these places is difficult and they had to be self-sufficient and live off the land, and guests expected that,” he said in an email interview.

Last summer, he took a trip to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, which stood out for its incredible meals, like the locally caught, pan-seared trout at Skyland’s Pollock Dining Room and the braised eye-of-round pot roast served with local vegetables at Big Meadows Lodge’s Spottswood Dining Room.

Other highlights were the meals at Jordan Pond House in Maine’s Acadia National Park and Many Glacier Hotel in Montana’s Glacier National Park. “Also, I was almost the dinner to the bear we encountered on the trail around the lake there,” he added.

Not only dining establishments within parks but also many gateway cities and towns offer delicious options for foodies, from regional fare to local wines and beers. Below is a selection of national park sites sure to make a foodie happy.

Northeast

MAINE

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park is known for its granite peaks, woodlands, lakes, and ocean views. Inside the park, head to Jordan Pond House for its legendary tea and popovers, an afternoon tradition since the 1890s.

Outside the park, traditional lobster shacks beckon. Visitors can even watch the lobstermen unload their catch there, usually in the afternoons.

James Kaiser, author of the guidebook “Acadia: The Complete Guide,” says the area’s fresh seafood is “off the charts.” He recommends the shacks, where you can get lobster rolls, or even full lobster dinners with steamers (Maine clams), mussels, and corn on the cob.

Outside the park, Kaiser recommends The Burning Tree restaurant in Otter Creek, outside Bar Harbor, and Red Sky in Southwest Harbor, for their excellent seafood offerings.

Midwest

MICHIGAN

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore


Hiking through lush forest and sand dunes to the Lake Michigan shore (and back!) is sure to make you hungry and thirsty. Head to nearby Traverse City for its award-winning wines and talented local chefs. You’ll likely find a cherry specialty or two on the menu—Traverse City is America’s Cherry Capital. The Grand Traverse Pie Company—one of Mario Batali’s favorite spots—serves no less than 14 kinds of cherry pie.

Take wine tours of the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, reputed for their crisp and elegant wines.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial. (Courtesy of National Park Service)
The Mount Rushmore National Memorial. (Courtesy of National Park Service)

This year is a good time to gaze upon the 60-foot faces of four U.S. presidents carved into granite at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The iconic landmark, which took 14 years to build, is celebrating its 75th anniversary of completion in October. Join the celebration with your own taste of history: a scoop of Thomas Jefferson’s rich vanilla ice cream from the Memorial Ice Cream Shop, made from the Founding Father’s original 1780s recipe—credited as the first written ice cream recipe in the United States—at a small-town dairy.

West

COLORADO

Rocky Mountain National Park

Estes Park, Colorado, the basecamp for Rocky Mountain National Park, is an affordable alternative to higher priced resort towns. A change in liquor laws has allowed considerable growth for the beer, wine, and spirits scene. Recent additions to the scene include Lumpy Ridge Brewing Company, Rock Cut Brewing Company, The Barrel (a craft beer, wine, and spirits garden), and Elkins Distilling Company. The Stanley Hotel, which holds the state’s largest whiskey collection, recently celebrated its 1,000th whiskey label at its Cascades Whiskey Bar.

Half an hour from Rocky Mountain National Park, the city of Boulder has over 20 breweries and a strong farm-to-table dining scene, bolstered by the city’s location at the edge of a fertile valley.

For example, chef Eric Skokan created a 130-acre organic garden just outside the city to supply his restaurants, Black Cat Farm Table Bistro and Bramble & Hare. “Top Chef” Season Five winner Hosea Rosenberg helms his own East Boulder restaurant and butcher shop, Blackbelly Market, featuring livestock from Colorado farms and ranches.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park. (Colorado Tourism Office and Denise Chambers)
Mesa Verde National Park. (Colorado Tourism Office and Denise Chambers)

The Farm Bistro in the small city of Cortez, just outside Mesa Verde National Park, serves comforting dishes using local ingredients from Montezuma County. Among the specialties are the Mesa View Ranch Yak Burger, served on a housemade bun; the Relleno Pie, with roasted poblano chilies baked in a cheddar crust topped with cojito cheese and tortilla strips; and the Baseball Sirloin with Anise Cream—local grass-fed beef cooked in a cast iron skillet and served with mashed potatoes.

WYOMING

Grand Teton National Park

The city of Jackson, near Grand Teton National Park, offers top-notch dining. At The Rose, Michelin-starred chef René Stein serves up dishes inspired by the local produce, such as Yellowstone natural salt-cured king salmon with ice root spinach and Wyoming beef with cremini mushrooms.

The Handle Bar inside the Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole is a Michael Mina restaurant that offers elevated pub fare and elaborate cocktails. (Think elk-and-bison meatballs and the Jackson Mule cocktail with vodka, ginger beer, and huckleberry.) Nora’s Fish Creek Inn—just outside Jackson—is an old-school diner that won a James Beard America’s Classics award in 2012. Its signature dishes are huevos rancheros with green chili salsa and rainbow trout served with eggs and hash browns.

Yellowstone

While trekking through Yellowstone—which offers an array of dining options—make sure to try some wild game dishes like smoked bison bratwurst and pheasant-chicken sausage at the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room, a historic log cabin.

CALIFORNIA

Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park. (Courtesy of Wine Institute)
Redwood National Park. (Courtesy of Wine Institute)

Redwood National Park sits right in the middle of up-and-coming wine country in Mendocino County.

Mark Aselstine, owner of online wine club Uncorked Ventures, said via email: “Anyone wanting to see wine country in California, like how Napa probably looked 40-plus years ago, should check out Anderson Valley. It’s a bit of a trip to get to, but it’s also idyllic, with wineries along a central road, as well as cheap enough land that you’ll often find the winemakers and owners working the tasting rooms on weekends.”

According to winemakers in California, it might be the state’s best growing region for pinot noir, Aselstine noted. His favorite producers include Phillips Hill, Panthea, and Comptche Ridge.

A last tip from Aselstine: “If someone took a bit of an extra ride over to the coast, they’d find some of the best seafood in the state, including one of the few spots you can still dive for abalone.”

Yosemite National Park

Within the park, the Majestic Yosemite Dining Room offers dishes like Braised Berkshire Pork Osso Bucco, in the elegance of a chandelier-lit room with a 34-foot-high ceiling.

At Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant at the Chateau du Sureau country estate in Oakhurst, about 20 minutes from the south gate of Yosemite, chef Jonathon Perkins prepares dishes like Rosemary Basted Venison Loin and Charred Hawaiian Mahi Mahi.

In Groveland, a gateway city to Yosemite National Park, historic inns and dining options abound. Chef-owner Aaron Haas of Fork & Love offers inventing pairings, such as Vietnamese pho with German ingredients. Across the street, the Groveland Hotel has won many awards for its wine list. Next-door is Iron Door Saloon, the oldest drinking establishment in California; if you stop by, try Indigeny Reserve on tap, a locally made hard apple cider that’s hard to find outside of the area. Dori’s Tea Cottage offers a restful stop for lunch or tea. A regional bus service, YARTS, shuttles visitors from Groveland into Yosemite for $15, park entrance fee included.

In nearby Jamestown, the National Hotel, which was built in 1859, still has its original saloon. Back then, the inn accepted gold and gold dust as legal tender—and they still do today.

UTAH

The Mighty 5

Moab, Utah, is the gateway to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Before venturing into the parks, grab breakfast at the quirky Eklecticafe, which serves a menu featuring vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free options; or at the Love Muffin Cafe (opens at 6:30 a.m.), where you can enjoy a sunrise panini with sausage, pimento cheese, tomato, and onion.

Moab Brewery, near Canyonlands, finds its inspiration from the landscape of southern Utah. Their popular Dead Horse Ale gets its name from a scenic overlook near the park. Other favorites are the Red Rye IPA, Derailleur Red Ale, Moab Especial, Over the Top Hefeweizen, and the nitrogen-conditioned Raven Stout.

Close to Arches National Park is Castle Creek Winery, which produces more than 30 award-winning wines from locally produced grapes.

Near Capitol Reef National Park, Hell’s Backbone Grill sources about 12,000 pounds of produce from its no-harm farm. The farm uses sustainable practices—from companion planting to mowing courtesy of two rescue goats. The cuisine is regional: a mix of Western, Pueblo Indian, and Southwestern. On the menu you’ll find Cream of Jalapeño-Avocado Soup and a Black Bean and Green Chile Posole.

If you go to Bryce Canyon National Park, head to Stone Hearth Grille in Stone Canyon Inn to get your bison meatballs or wild mushroom tartare fix.

After hours wandering in Zion’s slot canyons, canyoneers who emerge into the sunlight worn and tired can head to Oscar’s Cafe in Springdale for a burger and beer. Really hungry hikers can pick out the one-pound Big A’s Double Burger. At the Whiptail Grill, also in Springdale, chow down on Spaghetti Squash Enchiladas, smothered in roasted tomatillo green chili sauce.

Northwest

ALASKA

Kenai Fjords National Park

Alaska is a land full of natural wonders—including incredibly fresh seafood. After a day of taking in glaciers and wildlife at Kenai Fjords National Park, stop by the Resurrection Roadhouse for some wild-caught Alaskan halibut or king crab legs served with saffron risotto.

Katmai National Park

The Saltry Restaurant near Katmai National Park boasts views of Kachemak Bay. (Courtesy of The Saltry Restaurant)
The Saltry Restaurant near Katmai National Park boasts views of Kachemak Bay. (Courtesy of The Saltry Restaurant)

For a scenic meal near Katmai National Park—known for its smoke-filled valleys—head to The Saltry Restaurant, where you can enjoy views of Kachemak Bay while noshing on oysters and fish from its waters.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park is a destination for mountaineering and other outdoor sports enthusiasts. You’ll need to fuel up at the Denali Alaska Salmon Bake, where the signature dishes include cedar-plank salmon baked with local gold birch syrup.

WASHINGTON

Olympic National Park

The Olympic Peninsula is filled with restaurants, farms, wineries, and cideries. The Hood Canal area is known for shellfish, while eateries specializing in local fare abound in Sequim. You can go on a self-guided culinary tour with the help of sample itineraries by Olympic Culinary Loop, a tourism organization.

Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington. (Courtesy of Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau)
Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington. (Courtesy of Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau)

The region also has a yearlong lineup of food festivals. In August, the small town of Joyce, Washington, celebrates the Joyce Daze Wild Blackberry Festival with homemade pies, pancakes, and other berry-filled treats.

For fresh Pacific Northwest seafood, head to the Kalaloch Lodge overlooking the coast, where you can dine on Dungeness crab cakes, house-smoked maple salmon, steamed clams, and local fish.

Mt. Rainier National Park

Get a taste of another alpine culture—the Himalayas—while you’re at Mt. Rainier National Park. Sherpa Lhakpa Gelu serves Himalayan dishes at Wildberry, such as thali (a platter with multiple dishes), momos (dumplings), and a traditional stew with Himalayan spices. He also holds the world record for the fastest ascent up Mt. Everest.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can forage, fish, or hunt for your own meal outside the park with chef Ky Loop at Kelly’s Mercantile. He’ll guide you along the way, and then prepare a lavish meal with whatever you’ve gathered.

South

KENTUCKY

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park has the longest known cave system in the world, with over 400 miles of caves and underground passageways. Emerge from your subterranean exploits to enjoy some homemade ice cream from Chaney’s Dairy Barn, with flavors like Mint Julep (mint with Guernsey chocolate flakes and Maker’s Mark bourbon), Peach (made with local peaches), and Big Red Rumble (white chocolate, red velvet cake, and fudge swirl).

SOUTH CAROLINA

Congaree National Park

For avid hikers, it’s both a blessing and a curse that South Carolina has such diverse cuisines. Near Congaree National Park, you’ll find Publico Kitchen & Tap, a fusion taco joint serving organic, local bites like agedashi tofu (deep-fried silken tofu), tuna poké, and pad thai chicken tacos.

When in the South, one must have barbecue. Southern Belly BBQ offers oak smoke slow-roasted meats in different sandwich and sauce combinations.

Meanwhile, chef Mike Davis at Terra serves up inventive takes on Southern classics, like the Lamb Mac and Cheese with poblano peppers, fontina, and goat cheese.

Don’t forget dessert at Sweet Cream Co., an artisanal ice cream shop that serves fun flavors like buttermilk with blackberry preserves, lime cardamom, and fig-orange-pistachio.

VIRGINIA

Shenandoah National Park

The view from Old Rag Mountain,  a popular hike in Shenandoah National Park. (Courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation)
The view from Old Rag Mountain, a popular hike in Shenandoah National Park. (Courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation)

After a day of traversing Shenandoah National Park’s 500 miles of trails, refuel at Big Meadows Lodge’s Spottswood Dining Room with seasonal mountain cuisine specialities, including Yankee Pot Roast, Rainbow Trout, and Rabbit Sheppard’s Pie. Or head over to Skyland’s Pollock Dining Room for the A.T. (Appalachian Trail) NY Strip Steak, with herb butter, caramelized local onions and mushrooms, and garlic mashed potatoes. For dessert, try the famed Mile-High Blackberry Ice Cream Pie.

TENNESSEE

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

While exploring the Great Smoky Mountains, stay at Blackberry Farm, a 4,200-acre estate that houses a luxury resort, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant, a fully operating farm, and a brewery. The farm provides most of the produce for the Appalachian-inspired cuisine it serves, including heirloom crops and cheeses made from its sheep.

In Gatlinburg, the gateway town, you can find specialty dishes like moonshine-marinated chicken at The Park Grill, fried apple pies at Carver’s Apple Orchard, and glorious stacks of pancakes at Pancake Pantry (wild blueberry, sweet potato, Smoky Mountain buckwheat).

And in the nearby town of Pigeon Forge, the Old Mill offers a taste of artisanal, old-school baking. The gristmill has been operating since 1830 and grinds grains and corn for its two on-site restaurants. The pecan pie is a must-try.

TEXAS

Big Bend National Park

Take in Big Bend National Park’s diverse landscapes—from the Chihuahuan Desert to the Chisos Mountains to the Rio Grande—and then head to the Gage Hotel for some fine Texan fare. Try the White Buffalo Bar’s award-winning White Buffalo Burger, with sautéed mushrooms and onions, Colby-Jack cheese, and chipotle aioli, or sit down at the 12 Gage Restaurant for Texan-inspired dishes with a gourmet twist, like the Beef Tenderloin Filet, with Gruyère mashed potatoes and sauce bordelaise, or the Pasture Raised Spring Lamb Chop, with green onion panisse, tamarind-rum glaze, and fava bean “guac.”

NEW MEXICO

El Malpais National Monument

New Mexico is a treasure trove of rich history and local eats. For a taste of authentic Acoma (a Native American tribe) cuisine, try the Red Chile Beef Posole and Traditional Oven Bread at Yaak’a Cafe, 45 miles west of El Malpais National Monument’s cinder cones and lava caves.

Petroglyph National Monument

Near Albuquerque, visit the Petroglyph National Monument, where you can marvel at designs carved into volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. Enjoy a seasonal meal from the nearby Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm—headed by executive chef Jonathan Perno, a frequent James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef.

Islands

VIRGIN ISLANDS

Virgin Islands National Park

Park goers enjoy the scenery inside Virgin Islands National Park. (Courtesy of Virgin Islands Department of Tourism)
Park goers enjoy the scenery inside Virgin Islands National Park. (Courtesy of Virgin Islands Department of Tourism)

The Virgin Islands National Park, most of which lies on the island of St. John, offers breathtaking views of the Caribbean waters. While there, sample Caribbean staples like oxtail soup and roti at De Coal Pot, or pates (fried pastries filled with spicy meat or fish) at Hercules Pate Delight. For dinner, head to Ocean 362 inside the Gallows Point Resort, where chef Shaun Brian incorporates local ingredients in his tasting menu, like foraged St. John sea salt and sea purslane (coastal plant).

HAWAII

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

The coast at the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. (Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority)
The coast at the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. (Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority)

After exploring the stunning landscapes inside Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, head to Volcano House, where you’ll get to enjoy more amazing views of the park while dining on creative Hawaiian dishes like Hilo Coffee-Rubbed Lamb with macadamia nuts and poha berry demi-glace; Pan-Seared Kona Kampachi fish with lobster seaweed salad, Wailea hearts of palm gratin, and young ginger-mirin butter sauce.

AMERICAN SAMOA

National Park of American Samoa

A school of tang fish in the Caribbean waters. (Courtesy of National Park Service)
A school of tang fish in the Caribbean waters. (Courtesy of National Park Service)

While you’re in the South Pacific, you’ll want to try the daily catch. At Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, a beachfront restaurant in the village of Alega, you can choose from a selection of fresh-caught fish, seared and served with local greens and steamed breadfruit (a tropical fruit) cooked in coconut cream. If you’re traveling with a group, book in advance an “umu” feast, a traditional Samoan meal consisting of fish, meat, and local grains steamed in an umu, a cooking pit that uses hot river rocks.