What sets the United States apart from other travel destinations?
How about 59 national parks (and 408 units overall) managed by the National Park Service, including historical sites, monuments and conservation areas? That adds up to over 84 million acres of protected lands and national treasures.
I’m a big fan of this country’s national parks. So much of the USA’s beauty is outdoors, and hiking is a favorite pastime of mine. I am a “regular” at Shenandoah National Park, and am fortunate enough to have hiked in many other national parks as well. Even if you’re not a hiker, there are still plenty of National Park sites that you can visit for free over the week. Like nature but not a fan of hiking? Try a tour of Jewel Cave National Monument. Big history buff? Hit up Fort Pulaski.
Make the Most of Your US National Park Visit
Talk to a Ranger
National park rangers spend all day every day in the parks. They know the best trails, the best places to spot wildlife, and the history, ecology, and geology of the area. I do a lot of research ahead of time, and usually know which trails I want to hike, but sometimes circumstances change and you need a Plan B quickly…rangers are the ultimate resource!
Rangers answer questions all the time – everything from information on forest fires to why certain parts of the park are gated (interesting, in Rocky Mountain National Park it’s to keep the elk out of certain areas, and people are welcome to head in!) and more. They also often have ranger programs, including lectures, campfire talks, and group hikes that can all be very informative.
Pack a Picnic Lunch
Some national parks have great tourist facilities, including snack bars and/or restaurants, while others have no infrastructure. In most cases, even when there are restaurants, the food isn’t very good and it can be overpriced. Instead, pack a picnic lunch, find a cozy overlook, and enjoy. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also have a great view to enjoy while you’re dining.
Time your dinner over sunset for one of the most romantic meals you could ever have. You’re already at one of the most beautiful places on earth; why would you leave to stare at the inside of a building? (Bonus Tip: If you tend to fall asleep on the picnic blanket because you’re so relaxed, make sure you’re wearing sunscreen!).
Find Some Solitude!
National parks, for good reason, have become very popular. At times, you may wonder if you accidentally made a wrong turn and found yourself in Disney Land! Off-peak visits are the easiest way to avoid these groups, such as heading mid-week instead of Saturday or heading in February instead of July.
If you’re stuck heading in the peak of travel, there are still ways to avoid crowds, though. Even on holiday weekends you can keep parts of the park to yourself. Early mornings and evenings are always less crowded, since day-trippers usually don’t arrive til 10 and depart by 4 or 5pm. Nights are often perfect for stargazing, due to the distance from city centers.
If you’re in the park of the middle of the day, don’t despair: the farther away you get from a parking lot, the less people you’ll be with. At Yosemite, there were hordes of people near the first sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove, but a mile down the trail there were less than a dozen tourists, and three miles down, it was just us and the deer. If none of these ideas sound amenable to you, just check out some of the less-visited national parks instead.
Don’t Expect to See the Entire Park in One Day
Most national parks are huge. Olympic National Park covers over 1440 square miles, for example! While you could see a few highlights in a single day if you started early and ended late, you’ll never see it all in one day. Wildlife comes and goes, there are hundreds of miles of trails, and dozens of scenic overlooks to enjoy, some of which you may want to stop at twice to see in the changing light.
Staying overnight, especially inside park boundaries if possible, can give you lots more time to enjoy the many facets of the park. That’s not to mention how different the parks are in each season, from roaring rivers and waterfalls in spring, wildflowers and fully accessible hikes over summer, great chances to see wildlife in fall, and dramatic landscapes in winter. Soak in what you can and plan to return.
If June 9 doesn’t work with your plans, other free entrance dates in 2012 are September 29 and November 10-12. Make your plans today!
Visit National Parks for Free
Not surprisingly, access to most of these crown jewels requires an admission fee. Small parks often charge $2-3 per person; bigger parks usually charge by carload ($15-30) but provide 7-day access so you can return throughout the week. That’s a small price to pay for the amount of adventure you’ll find, but free is even better!
September 26 is National Public Lands Day — one of the nine days per year that the National Park Service offers free admission to ALL parks. That makes it the perfect excuse to check somewhere out for the first time if you’re not sure you’ll like it or not. Can’t make it this weekend? Try again on November 11, Veteran’s Day, or be on the lookout for 2016 dates which will most likely include Martin Luther King Day in January, President’s Weekend in February, and National Park Week in April.
Still don’t have a date that works in your plans? You can buy the America the Beautiful Pass, which covers all admissions for a full year for just $80.
* * *
What is your favorite national park?
* * *
Read More on The Girl and Globe: