5 National Park Sites to See Over Labor Day

Yosemite National Park 1024
Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more. (Image credit: National Park Service)

Looking for a last-minute Labor Day getaway? Visiting one of the nation's great natural wonders, monuments or historic sites doesn't have to be as involved as an epic pilgrimage to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Here are a few places operated under the National Park Service that may beckon over the long weekend.

1. Yosemite National Park, Calif.

If you've always wanted to see Yosemite's granite monoliths, giant sequoias and waterfalls without the crowds, now might be the time to go. Rangers have closed off entry to the northwestern corner of Yosemite as fire crews battle the Rim Fire that's been raging along the edge of the park in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. But much of the Rhode Island-sized wilderness remains open and smoke-free.

Officials have shut down part of Highway 120, typically the main path to Yosemite from the San Francisco Bay Area, but visitors who can put up with the detours will likely find fewer throngs of tourists and day-trippers than usual in the park this weekend. According to local news station KFSN-TV, it's expected that 3,000 cars a day will pass through the gates this holiday instead of the nearly 5,000 that tend to turn out over Labor Day weekend. [Yellowstone and Yosemite: Two of the World's Oldest National Parks]

2. Shenandoah National Park, Va.

Just a two-and-a-half hour drive southwest of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park can offer a quiet and scenic respite from the Beltway for a daytrip or a weekend camping excursion. Motorists can take in spectacular views by meandering along Skyline Drive over the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, while 500 miles (800 kilometers) of hiking trails, including the Appalachian Trail, deliver visitors to waterfalls and wooded hollows. Even if reservations at all the campgrounds are full, most of Shenandoah is open to backcountry camping with a free permit.

3. Steamtown National Historic Site, Pa.

Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa., attracts railfans year round, but Labor Day weekend is an especially good time to relive the era when locomotives reigned. Railfest 2013 will take place on Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.) the site of the former Scranton yards. In addition to the regular museum displays and exhibits, visitors will be able to see old-school steam locomotives, diesel trains and passenger cars.

The weekend celebration also promises opportunities to experience a cramped and noisy caboose and pump a man-powered handcar that track workers would have used a century ago. There will even be round-trip rides on historic diesel locomotives to Moscow, Pa., which boasts restored, century-old passenger and freight stations.

4. Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif.

This sanctuary, just an hour's drive north of San Francisco, has much more than amazing beaches; it's a great place to take in wildlife, too. Point Reyes National Seashore boasts nearly 490 different species of birds and a breeding colony of elephant seals can be spotted from an overlook near Chimney Rock. There are also around 400 tule elk roaming free in a preserve inside the park — and it's currently mating season.

On Sunday, the 32nd Annual Sand Sculpture Contest at Drakes Beach will award prizes in several different categories, including sculptures that use the most recycled plastic. The nearby visitor center houses displays about the marine environment and 16th-century maritime exploration (many researchers think Sir Francis Drake landed at Point Reyes in 1579.).

5. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, Ga.

The nation just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed more than 250,000 protesters in the capital and called for an end to racial discrimination. Visitors to Atlanta can see where the civil rights leader got his start.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site provides tours of King's birth home on a first come, first served basis. (The NPS recommends arriving early to get a spot.) A current exhibit in the visitor center's D.R.E.A.M. Gallery features historic images from a LIFE Magazine photographer who captured the civil rights movement, from Birmingham to Brooklyn.

Editor's note: Before planning a trip, check with the National Park Service for road closures, cancellations and event updates: http://www.nps.gov/

Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.