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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

National Parks

Thank all the powers that be: we are entering vacation season. National parks are some of my favorite vacation destinations. Each is a unique showcase of America’s natural splendor. Of the 58 official national parks (national monuments, seashores, forests, etc. aside), I’ve only been to ten: Shenandoah, Grand Canyon, Hawaii Volcanoes, Death Valley, Redwoods, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, and Acadia. But, I’ve got big dreams of making it to all 58 before I die. Here are my top five favorites that I’ve been to, as well as the top five I’ve spent many hours dreaming of visiting.

Top Five Visited National Park
1. Glacier National Park, Montana

Activities: drive the famous Going-To-The-Sun Road, walk the beautiful Trail of the Cedars nature trail, hike to Hidden Lake from Logan Pass, watch for mountain goats, see the glaciers, and take the Saint Mary Lake boat tour.
Tips: there are very few roads in the park, so the best way to see it is by foot. This takes more advance planning then I can manage, but in the back country there are chalets you can rent that are spaced a good day’s hike apart. Reservations fill up fast, so book as far as a year in advance.

2. Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada

Activities: climb the Sand Dunes, walk out into Bad Water Basin at the lowest point in the USA, drive Artists Drive to see Artists Palette, hike Golden Canyon Trail at sunrise, and visit Natural Bridge.
Tips: this is one of the hottest and driest places in America, so bring a gallon of water per person per day. In summer the temperature are consistently above 100 degrees, making winter the most popular season to visit the park. Due to fire risks, many campsites do not have fire pits, so plan your meals accordingly. Hike the most popular trails at dawn to avoid crowds and heat exhaustion.

3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Activities: raft the Colorado River, hike the Bright Angel Trail, spend a night at Phantom Ranch, and fly over the canyon in a helicopter.
Tips: the park and many of its best features wouldn’t exist without the Colorado River. The best way to see and experience the Grand Canyon is to raft the river from Lees Ferry to past Lava Falls. If you’re tight on time or have young children, you can take a motorized boat. However, I recommend paddling. Most raft trips include side hikes to water falls, canyons, and archeological sites. If the weather’s good, sleep under the stars.

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Activities: drive up to Clingmans Dome and then walk to the observatory, see the historic buildings at Cades Cove, hike to one of the many waterfalls, drive one of the unpaved seasonal roads like Rich Mountain Road or Balsam Mountain Road.
Tips: visit the park in late spring after the roads have opened to see a vast array of wildflowers. If at any given outlook it's too misty to see much, just sit and wait awhile. When the clouds part you'll be treated to some of the most impressive views the Appalachian chain of mountains has to offer.

5. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana

Activities: see fantastic colors at West Thumb Geyser Basin, hike from Upper Falls to Lower Falls to Inspiration Point, swim at Firehole Falls, see Old Faithful erupt by moonlight, eat at Old Faithful Inn, and walk around the Upper Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Tips: summer is the best time to go to Yellowstone, but it can be very crowded. Get away from the roads to get some seclusion. If you're from sea level like me, keep the elevation in mind. Much of the park is a mile high causing temperatures to dip into the 40s on summer nights, and making hiking more difficult physically. Bears and buffalo abound, so store food carefully and consider investing in bear spray.

Top Five National Park To Visit
1. Yosemite National Park, California

Reasons: the granddaddy of National Parks made possible in part due to John Muir my idol, Ansel Adams' photography, climb Half Dome, driving Tioga Road, and hike to Brideveil Falls.

2. Denali National Park, Alaska

Reasons: it's in Alaska, see Mount McKinley, go on all three bus tours, camp at Wonder Lake, and take a mountaineering class.

3. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Reasons: visit Wizard Island, drive Rim Drive, hike to Watchman Peak, and take a boat tour of the lake.

4. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Reasons: accessible only by plane and boat, canoe into back country campgrounds, you can hear wolves at night, and hike to Rock Harbor Lighthouse.

5. Arches National Park, Utah

Reasons: surreal landscapes, see Delicate Arch, raft the rapids of Cataract Canyon, and hike Devils Garden.

So whether you plan a trip across the country or to your closest destination, consider taking a vacation at a national park this summer. For more information on national parks visit the National Park Service website. And, stay tuned for photos from my most recent trip to Shenandoah National Park during the annual National Parks Week.
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