Your Next Whisky Destination: America’s National Parks

There are few better ways to earn a fine dram or a cold cocktail than riding a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon or scrambling over boulders to the summit of Grand Teton. Fortunately, America’s national parks offer surprisingly forward-thinking alcohol policies and sophisticated dining and drinking experiences. Many of the historic lodges offer modern cocktail creations and interesting whiskies that would be at home in any major city. Best of all, they’re a bargain: the national parks are a federally owned public service and mandate reasonable food and drink costs, so you’ll find luxury resort selections at small-town prices. Beyond the in-park lodges, you’re generally welcome to pack a whisky into the wilderness. There are 59 national parks in the U.S. and these are just a few of our favorites, so grab your boots and go track down some whisky in the wild.

Yellowstone: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho

The first Western explorers who visited Yellowstone described it as a land of fire and brimstone where the ground itself boiled, but most dismissed their tales as myth or madness. It’s hard to blame them; nestled atop an active supervolcano, Yellowstone is like nowhere else in the world, home to half of the Earth’s geysers and an extraordinary array of other geologic features, not to mention a host of black and grizzly bears, gray wolves, elk, and bison living in an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Best Time to Go: Open year-round, but May through early October is best for most activities, as many facilities close in the off-season.

Don’t miss: Make time for Old Faithful, one of the world’s most punctual geological features; carefully circumambulate the Grand Prismatic Spring, a brilliantly colored and deathly dangerous hot spring; see the steep cliffs and waterfalls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; go on an Old West cookout; say hello to some buffalo; hike through the largest remaining wilderness in the northern temperate zone.

Sleep Here: The Old Faithful Inn, the largest log structure in the world, or the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, both National Historic Landmarks.

Sip This: Order a Mountain Manhattan ($15), a Perfect Manhattan made with Wyoming Whiskey and sweet and dry vermouths, in the Bear Pit Lounge at the Old Faithful Inn before taking a short walk to the world’s most famous geyser—Old Faithful even has an official Twitter feed with updates on timing.

For a less volcanic experience, trek to the historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in North America. Try the Rye Old-Fashioned ($13), made with Highwood Rye Malt from Trailhead Spirits in Billings, Montana or slurp down a Moose Drool Brown Ale ($4.50) from Big Sky Brewing in Missoula, Montana while listening to the string quartet (five nights a week in the summer season). Ready for sticker shock of the best kind? Dalmore is just $8.50; Balvenie Doublewood, $9.25.

A Huckleberry Smash at the Many Glacier Hotel. (Photo by Xanterra Parks & Resorts)

In winter, the remote Old Faithful Snow Lodge, deep in the park’s interior, is accessible only by snowcoach, but once you get there you can strap on your cross-country skis and head for the geyser basin to marvel at herds of bison. At the end of a long day, relax in front of a fireplace in the Firehole Lounge with a Huckleberry Hot Chocolate ($6.50), made with Willie’s Huckleberry cream liqueur (from Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Montana) and hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. Then head to the Obsidian Dining Room for bison short ribs ($28.50), a game sausage sampler ($10.95), or smoked salmon wontons ($10.95). Close out your evening with one of around 20 local spirits, including Montana 1889 whiskey ($7.50) from Bozeman Spirits or Colter’s Run bourbon ($7.50) from Grand Teton Distillery.

Glacier: Northwest Montana

Nicknamed the “Crown of the Continent,” Glacier National Park straddles the Continental Divide and is home to the headwaters of rivers that meander to the Pacific, Hudson Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. The pristine, wild mountain ecosystem hearkens back to the Ice Age and offers some of the best backcountry hiking and camping experiences in the National Park System. Make your plans now—according to the National Park Service, the park’s glaciers, once numbering over a hundred, may disappear entirely by 2030.

Best Time to Go: Late May to early September when all facilities are open.

Don’t miss: Navigate the hairpin turns of the historic Going-to-the-Sun Road (buried under up to 80 feet of snow in winter); hike across more than 700 miles of trails to some of the park’s two dozen surviving glaciers; go fly-fishing for trout and pike; canoe to a riverside campsite. And while you can’t play golf here, you may see some stunning lynx.

Sleep Here: The historic Many Glacier Hotel, built out of timber in 1914-15.

Sip This: The Huckleberry Smash ($11) at the Many Glacier Hotel, a classic Whiskey Smash with a double local twist: it’s made with local huckleberries (along with fresh lemon, mint leaves, and simple syrup) and North Fork whiskey, made just outside the park at Glacier Distilling. Explore a Montana craft whiskey like Five Drops bourbon ($10.24) from Wildrye Distilling in Bozeman or Sudden Wisdom rye ($10.24) from Montgomery Spirits in Missoula while taking in views of the crystal-clear Swiftcurrent Lake, with alpine mountains to your left and the iconic pyramid-shaped Grinnell Point rising above the lake. At any moment, you could see a moose and her calves, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, or even a black or grizzly bear. Then bring your cocktail out on the porch and watch the sun go down—you have to leave the food inside, but drinks are fair game. After all, bears don’t like whiskey.

Hawai‘i Volcanoes: Island of Hawaii, Hawaii

This is one of the few places on Earth where you can get up close and personal with not one, but two active volcanoes—Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on Earth, and K¯ılauea, which has been erupting continuously since 1983. Ranging from sea level all the way up to Mauna Loa’s 13,000-foot volcanic summit, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park encompasses everything from stormy sea cliffs to a tropical rainforest to exposed lava fields.

Best Time to Go: Year-round. Closures occur occasionally due to volcanic activity.

Don’t miss: Drive the Chain of Craters Road past numerous lava flows, craters, and the largest field of ancient petroglyphs in the state, ending at sea level near the dramatic H¯olei Sea Arch. Stop along the way to walk the Devastation Trail to the site of K¯ılauea’s 1959 eruption. Hike or bike the Crater Rim Trail around K¯ılauea’s caldera or descend through the rain forest to the K¯ılauea Iki Crater, a real-life lava lake.

Sleep Here: Volcano House, perched on K¯ılauea’s caldera rim, predates Hawaiian statehood by the better part of a century.

Sip This: Order a K¯ılauea Fashioned ($9; made with Maker’s 46 bourbon, ginger elixir, and lehua honey) in Uncle George’s Lounge at Volcano House and watch the glow of the volcano from the balcony. Pair the volcano’s smoke and fire with a peated malt like Bowmore 12 year old ($14) or Highland Park 12 year old ($14), plus some Big Island Thai chicken wings ($11.50) and a volcano market salad ($12).

Yosemite: California

Yellowstone was the first national park, but it was Yosemite that inspired them all. First protected as a state park in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln, six years before Yellowstone became a national park, and a favorite haunt of legendary naturalist John Muir, Yosemite encompasses some of the most dramatic and rugged parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, from the famous granite domes surrounding Yosemite Valley to the wilderness high country along Tioga Road. Yosemite is also home to some of the most luxurious accommodations and dining in the park system.

Best Time to Go: Open year-round, but best in May through October or around the holiday seasons.

Don’t miss: Snap a photograph at the Tunnel View, your first sight of Yosemite Valley; stroll to the base of Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America and twice the height of the Empire State Building; hike the forbidding Cable Route to the top of Half Dome; free-climb El Capitan, or admire those who can; trek to one of several groves of giant sequoia; backpack through the wilderness and camp at High Sierra Camps; drive into the high country and kayak the glacial Tenaya Lake, then watch for wildlife in the majestic sub-alpine Tuolumne Meadows.

Sleep Here: The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel) in Yosemite Valley.

Sip This:
Leave your cargo shorts and fanny pack behind and sport your finest at dinner in the Majestic Yosemite, where the grand dining room features 34-foot ceilings, expansive windows, and chandeliers hanging beneath exposed pine beams. Start with The Underwood ($14), made with Glenmorangie, Luxardo Sangue Morlacco cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth, and orange juice, or the Bourbon Baked Apple ($15.50), made with Knob Creek bourbon, apple juice, spiced simple syrup, lemon juice, and topped with ginger beer. Then have a roasted rack of lamb provençal ($41) or grilled sterling white sturgeon ($32). After dinner, head to the hotel bar for a Macallan 18 year old, Booker’s, or even Louis XIII de Rémy Martin Cognac; not a bad selection for deep in the wilderness. Then head outside for some stargazing before bed. Fall and winter visitors can attend the Grand Grape Celebration, a five-course dinner hosted by famous California winemakers, or the Bracebridge Dinner, a black tie-recommended English-style Christmas ball.

The Many Glacier Lodge in Glacier National Park. (Photo by Ben Herndon / Tandem Stock)

Grand Teton: Northwest Wyoming

Located just ten miles south of Yellowstone National Park and right outside the renowned ski resorts of Jackson Hole, Grand Teton is an easy addition to other trips to the area. But its rugged mountain beauty, unspoiled wilderness, and world-class watersports and winter activities all make Grand Teton a compelling destination in its own right.

Best Time to Go: May through early October for most activities; winter for skiing.

Don’t miss: Learn from your elders by visiting 2.7 billion year old rocks; go climbing or hiking in the Teton Range; practice your fly-casting in the Snake River; go windsurfing on Jackson Lake; take a group horseback riding adventure, or even bring your own horse; explore the park on snowshoes or cross-country skis in the winter.

Sleep Here: The Jackson Lake Lodge resort hotel, developed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

Sip This: Watch herds of elk and moose from the porch on the Blue Heron Lounge while enjoying a Moran Moose ($14), made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, house-made huckleberry sour mix, and soda, served over ice, or a Western version of the Rusty Nail: The Nail in the Campfire ($14), consisting of High West Campfire, Drambuie, and a lemon twist. Relish modern Rocky Mountain cuisine like the bourbon sweet corn-Idaho smoked trout chowder ($8), Durham Ranch bison tartare ($16), or a braised lamb shank with almond-mint couscous ($23), or go more upscale and enjoy luxury fine dining at the Mural Room with its sweeping panoramic views of the Teton Range. Wrap up your evening with a glass of Stranahan’s single malt ($21.75), Wyoming Whiskey ($15.25), or Colter’s Run bourbon ($13.75) as the sun sets over the mountains. Or go traditional with a dram of Talisker 10 year old ($18) or Dalwhinnie 15 year old ($17).

Grand Canyon: Northwest Arizona

You probably don’t need Whisky Advocate to tell you why to go to the Grand Canyon, but just in case: the desert canyon of the Colorado River is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and over a mile deep. Famed for its color, its stunning views, and most of all its sheer scale, humanity has been gaping in wonder at the Grand Canyon for centuries.

Best Time to Go: Spring, summer, or fall. Some of the park facilities on the canyon’s South Rim close in winter, as does the entire North Rim.

Don’t miss: Get a better view by chartering a helicopter, available locally or from Las Vegas (starting at around $300); walk the Rim Trail to the jaw-dropping vista at Hermit’s Rest; ascend the Desert View Watchtower; hop in the saddle for a three-hour mule ride around part of the canyon rim; go on a half-day rafting trip (around $100), or a whitewater rafting adventure that can last anywhere from 3 to 25 days.

Sleep Here: El Tovar Hotel or Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim, or the Phantom Ranch on the valley floor.

A Bourbon Baked Apple cocktail at Majestic Yosemite. (Photo by Alanna Hale)

Sip This: If you thought getting a reservation at the French Laundry was tough, just try getting to Phantom Ranch—located on the valley floor, the ranch is accessible only by mule or a seven-and-a half to ten-mile hike from the Canyon rim that descends more than a full vertical mile. The journey is not for the faint of heart. But if you’re up for it, you’ll be well rewarded with a canteen-style feast—a steak dinner ($44.72) or Hiker’s Stew ($27.45). Wash it down with a Lumber Yard IPA ($6) from Lumber Yard Brewing Co. in Flagstaff. Stay at the Ranch if you won the ticket lottery, or go backcountry camping (permits required) at the Canyon bottom instead. You can even bring a bottle of your favorite whisky with you and drink it with friends on the shore of the Colorado River—but you’re going to have to haul the empty bottle, and yourselves, back out.

If roughing it on the Canyon floor isn’t your style, go the luxury route instead. Sit on the veranda at the historic El Tovar Hotel and look out over the rim of the Grand Canyon, just 40 feet away, while sipping an Oban 14 ($11.25), Hardy XO Cognac ($18.40), or Johnnie Walker Blue ($25 an ounce). Winter guests can warm up with a Barn Burner ($8.40), consisting of bourbon, cinnamon schnapps, and hot chocolate.

Death Valley: Eastern California

Until space tourism becomes a reality, Death Valley National Park is the closest you can get to an uninhabited alien world. The austere and forbidding landscape of the hottest, driest, and lowest park in the country ventures deeply into the unfamiliar. The largest park outside of Alaska is home to salt flats, borax mines, and, quite literally, the hottest place on Earth.

Best Time to Go: Late fall and winter for cooler temperatures, late March or early April to see the brief spring wildflowers.

Don’t miss: Explore the ethereal salt flats at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level and the lowest point in North America; keep your eyes on the “sailing stones” of Racetrack Playa, which mysteriously move on their own; visit Harmony Borax Works, once home to the famous borax-hauling 20-mule teams. Tread carefully through the Devil’s Golf Course, a field of viciously serrated rock salt where ‘only the devil could play golf.’ Then hit the links yourself at Furnace Creek Ranch Golf Course, 214 feet below sea level and one of Golf Digest’s 50 Toughest Courses—not least because a temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit, logged nearby in 1913, remains the hottest temperature ever recorded on the Earth’s surface. Summertime temperatures regularly reach 125 degrees.

Sleep Here: The Oasis at Death Valley, formerly the Furnace Creek Resort, or the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel.

Sip This: Right in the heart of Death Valley, the small waystation of Stovepipe Wells is home to a hotel, a general store, a saloon, and not much else. After all, Stovepipe Wells is in the middle of a vast, flat, and nearly empty desert expanse. Luckily for you, the Badwater Saloon takes its Old West motif seriously and is the perfect watering hole for hot and weary campers and cowpokes. Knock back a glass of Blanton’s ($12) or Baker’s bourbon ($11.50), Laphroaig 10 year old ($13), or one of 20 craft beers on tap before heading back out into the desert.

More From Travel