I will never forget the first time I went to a National Park. I was five years old sitting in the front of the family station wagon with my parents, while my sister and brother slept in back. We slowly climbed the dark serpentine road out of Fresno. I could smell the trees, but I couldn’t see much in the headlights. When we finally reached the summit and entered Wawona Tunnel, I started to get excited. As we emerged monumental Yosemite Valley was revealed shimmering in the glow of a full moon on a warm windless summer’s night. I could not believe my eyes. It seemed like heaven. The next few days were filled with events that I still remember vividly, not the least of which was being brave enough to sleep outside under the stars only to wet the bed when a black bear ripped open the ice box next to me. Tighten your saddle strap and hold on because here comes a small sampling of my lifetime of National Park favorites.
Visit two awesome parks in one trip, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, by staying in-between at Togwotee Mountain Lodge. Avoid the summer crowds at Grand Teton’s Park Headquarters, by heading east on nearby Antelope Flats Road to see bison and antelope with the Grand Teton as a backdrop. Take a boat trip on beautiful Lake Jenny and then hike a moderate hill to breathtaking Hidden Falls. Visit in winter to hit the slopes at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in the Teton Range and then snowmobile up-close and personal with Yellowstone’s wildlife. These animals aren’t stupid, they walk on the road rather than through deep snow!
Two park properties not enough? Visit Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante, Cedar Breaks, Vermillion Cliffs, Pipe Springs, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area aka Lake Powell all easy day trips from the small historic town of Kanab, Utah, famous for Western films starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and many others. This is the heart of the so called “Grand Circle” of national parks. Glen Canyon is also home to Rainbow Bridge National Monument – one of the world’s largest natural arches. Mule trips are a great way to see Bryce, especially in the heat of summer. Alstrom Point at sunset offers spectacular views of Lake Powell and the road passes through the Grand Staircase, although I recommend taking an off-road vehicle.
A “must-see” in the region are the narrow sandstone “slot canyons” that range from flat and easy like famous Antelope Slot Canyon to high adventure requiring climbing gear and dry suits like those in and around Zion. I recommend taking a guided tour, since these canyons can be dangerous. Hit the canyons early midday since this is when the sun is overhead and shines directly into the slots. For the trip of a lifetime, take a guided week-long motorized raft trip through the Grand Canyon.
Denali National Park is a grand all-ages adventure. In addition to wildlife, there are vast landscapes of incredible beauty and the highest peak on the continent. For the adventurous, there is also whitewater rafting and helicopter glacier tours. Tip: only park buses are allowed deep into the park and the first bus each day often sees the most wildlife. The downside is it leaves at 5 a.m.! Reserve before your trip since tours sell-out weeks in advance.
For scenery and marine life, a boat trip to the Kenai Fjords National Park from Seward, Alaska is hard to beat. On my last trip, we saw a calving glacier as well as humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, puffins, Dall porpoise, seals, and much more.
On the East Coast visit Cape Cod National Seashore where you can see whales from shore, but take a whale watching tour to get up-close. Enjoy the vistas of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, where deer are seen daily at the historic Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Lodge or take an energetic hike to fun natural rock waterslides. Visit in October, for stunning fall colors and to see Black Bears out eating acorns to fatten up for winter. This is also a great place to see stunning fall colors. Nearby, you can experience American history by visiting comparitively small Washington D.C. featuring 36 national park properties and there are another 34 national park properties within day-trip distance.
In the South, dive the reefs in Biscayne National Park within sight of Miami or less than an hour’s drive away take an airboat ride to see alligators in Everglades National Park. Forget cruising through the Carribean, stay and experience it by visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. It includes 60% of St. John Island, swim with sea turtles in Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, walk on the same beach as Christopher Columbus at Salt River Bay, be transported back to the European 18th Century at Christiansted National Historic Site and learn about America’s first freed slaves, but don’t miss Buck Island Reef National Monument one of my favorite places on the planet… Take the full-day tour! On your flight home, layover to see San Juan National Historic Site and UNESCO World Heritage Site in Puerto Rico that includes the distinctive Spanish fortresses of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristobal, Fort San Juan de la Cruz, and much more.
Already have an Orlando theme park vacation planned? A 45-minute drive away is Canaveral National Seashore on the Space Coast, where you can also visit the awesome rockets of Kennedy Space Center! Add a night and visit the beautiful fortress at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida. Catch the cannon firing demonstration during the day, but return for the beautiful views at night. I also suggest a ghost tour of St. Augustine.
A little farther north is Fort Pulaski near Tybee Island, Georgia outside of Savannah. It ended castle-like fortifications forever after newly developed riffled canons quickly breached the walls during a Civil War battle. The wildlife is great too; alligators sunning themselves moatside, Bald Eagles scanning for fish from the fortress walls, and even the occasional manatee.
In the West, see fascinating ancient cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans and enjoy “100-mile views” at Mesa Verde National Park where mule deer are everywhere at dawn and dusk. Mesa Verde is near the Four Corners and is also in the “Grand Circle” with Aztec Ruins and Chaco Canyon nearby.
The top 10% of visited parks receive 60% of the visitors, while the bottom 10% receive less than .1% of visitors. So, avoid crowds and try the road less traveled like Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, think Yellowstone without Old Faithful but with mountain scenery. Then, hit nearby Redwood National Park to see the tallest trees in the world including majestic Roosevelt Elk, Fern Canyon that you’ll recognize from the film Jurassic Park, and beautiful seascapes.
In Central California, look for California Condors at Pinnacles National Park or explore the Channel Islands for a true “Island of the Blue Dolphin” experience. Washington’s Olympic National Park offers hundreds of waterfalls as well as dramatic mountain scenery on Hurricane Ridge. Much farther west, Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i is a moving experience. Bike tours down the Haleakala National Park volcano cone are popular, but I suggest a fascinating lava tube tour.
If you’re still set on a big name national park, try it in the off-season to avoid the crowds. For example, Yosemite in winter is fantastic with lots to do including skiing and ranger guided snowshoeing at Badger Pass and in the valley cross country skiing, ice skating, and themed dinners in historic lodges.
The National Park System is often referred to as “America’s Best Idea” and now you know some of my favorites. Centennial year aside, national park visitor numbers have been declining since 1987 while the overall U.S. population has increased by more than 30%! This means a much larger percentage of America’s youth have yet to visit a National Park.
For me, our national parks are still heaven on earth. So, whether you’re an old pro or a first timer, get out there and enjoy an experience of a lifetime… and take the kids! If you end up wetting yourself like me, I promise not to tell.