There's an Associated Press story about national parks that's been seeing a lot of play this week. It's the one that opens with the following sentence: "People can find good deals in the national parks this summer despite tight budgets, rising fees, and a huge backlog of maintenance work."
Boy, is that ever glossing over the woes afflicting the national park system. And then the story devolves into a kind of statistical analysis, pointing out the least-visited parks in the system, how many parks don't charge an entrance fee, and how many drew less than 500,000 visitors last year.
Of course, many of the parks that fit those descriptions are in Alaska, a state that not many folks in the Lower 48 are going to make it to, one's a swamp that few will want to trek into, and one is a chain of islands whose best claim to fame of late has been a dispute over whether part of it should be turned into a hunting refuge for the military.
There are indeed plenty of good deals in the national parks, but don't you find it just a wee bit interesting that the AP writer's list of where they exist didn't mention Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, icons where fees have gone up? And isn't it odd that he balances the higher entrance fees at Sequoia by mentioning a new visitor center "with exhibits in English and Spanish"??
And how did Mesa Verde get into this story? A daylong horseback ride for $195, or a ranger-led hike to Mug House or Oak House for $20? Multiply those fees by your typical family size and many will question whether they truly are "good deals."
Here's an abbreviated list of my own good national park deals, a list I stuck in National Parks of the West for Dummies:
1. Watch the sun rise. That part of a park vacation not only is still free, but incredibly gorgeous. At Acadia you can climb, or drive, to the top of Cadillac Mountain and, between October and March, be the first in the nation to see the sunrise. At Grand Teton National Park if you head out along the Teton Park Road before dawn and park at one of the pullouts, as dawn arrives you can watch as the sun's rays practically torch the Tetons' peaks and snowfields.
2. Hike a trail. Things don't get much cheaper than this, and if you choose the right trail, you can soothe your toes in a cool, babbling stream.
3. Watch the wildlife. Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Olympic and other national parks are truly open air zoos. At Yellowstone you can spot wolves, elk, bears, moose, bison and eagles, at the Grand Canyon along the South Rim you often can spy condors, and moose and elk are year-round residents in Grand Teton.
4. Camping. OK, this is getting a tad more expensive as site fees increase, but it's still cheaper than staying in a lodge. In general, for less than $20 a night, you can pitch your tent on a beach, in a meadow, within a grove of trees, or even in a sandstone alcove. And if you choose the right campground or backcountry location, you won't be overcome by boom boxes.
5. Teach your kids about nature. There's no need for hand-held computers or gaming devices in the national parks. You can easily entertain your kids by involving them in a contest of who can spot the most animals, name the most geysers or peaks. Or have them sketch a picture of the landscape. As I noted in my book, who knows what seeds these activities might plant in your kids? They might be inspired to pursue careers as park rangers, wildlife biologists, or nature writers.
6. Climb a mountain. Sadly, more and more schools these days are cutting back on physical education. And we wonder why obesity is a problem in this country. You can do your part to fight this by getting your kids involved in hiking up the many mountains that rise in our national parks. You don't have to sign on for an expedition up the Grand Teton or Mount Rainier, either, as there are many, many more achievable and just as rewarding summits.
7. Listen to a ranger. While budget cuts are sadly culling many interpretive programs in the parks, there still are quite a few you can take your kids to during the summer months. They range from campfire talks to nature hikes. And they're often free.
8. Dip a line. Fishing is a pastime that gives you plenty of time to relax and reflect. And as a bonus you might catch dinner.
9. Watch the sun set. One of the most gorgeous sunsets I ever saw was over the Horseshoe Canyon annex to Canyonlands National Park. It was breathtaking. Grand Teton also offers killer sunsets, thanks to the jagged relief of the Tetons, and at Olympic the sun setting below the Pacific is incredible.
10. Star gazing. Today's metropolitan areas, and even suburbia, are clouding out the night skies with their many lights. Thankfully, national parks still have relatively black skies, and when the stars come out, well, it doesn't get much better. On moonless nights you can still spot the Milky Way above many parks, and in some northern parks, such as Yellowstone, if the conditions are right the Northern Lights sometimes wobble across the sky in winter.
Do deals still exist in the parks? You bet. But let's not gloss over the realities that are coming home to roost in our national parks because of budget cuts and budgets that don't keep up with inflation.
Let's continue to point out such things as the cracking walls and floors at the visitor center at Dinosaur National Monument, the funding shortages that prevent law-enforcement rangers from battling poachers and pot growers, the millions of dollars worth of artifacts being stolen from our parks, and the many other woes that the Government Accountability Office noted back in April.
And let's demand that Congress address them.