Summertime: What National Parks Are On Your "Must Visit" List?

The Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson died on May 10, 1863, eight days after being shot by his own men, can be found at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

One-hundred-and-forty-five years had passed since Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was mortally wounded by "friendly fire" in the woods at Chancellorsville, and yet it might have been yesterday.

Standing in those woods just a few weeks ago, it wasn't difficult to envision what transpired on that May 2 night back in 1863. Thick forest still hangs over the waning vestige of the Old Mountain Road where the general was riding, beyond the front lines, when members of the 18th North Carolina mistook him and his aides for a Union incursion and fired a volley that cut him down.

Nearby are two stone monuments that mark where the general was initially tended to by Captain Richard Wilbourn and General A.P. Hill. The first, a simple quartz boulder, was placed sometime between 1876 and 1883 by former Confederate soldiers -- including two members of his staff -- to honor their fallen leader. A larger, granite monument was placed a short walk away in 1888 by the Stonewall Jackson Monument Association.

These sites today are part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, a sprawling park in northern Virginia that also contains the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, a small white-washed frame building where the general died from pneumonia on May 10, 1863; the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where more than 15,000 Union soldiers are buried; the Innis House, which stands along the old Sunken Road that Rebel troops used as a shield while firing upon advancing Union troops; the house still bears bullet holes from the siege, and; a handful of other Civil War sites richly steeped in history.

A week earlier I found myself in New Bedford, Massachusetts, at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, staring at the pew in the Seaman's Bethel where novelist Herman Melville in December of 1840 attended services in the Whaleman's Chapel before heading to sea just after the new year on a whaler. That experience, and those he collected during 18 months at sea, were the genesis for Moby Dick.

Between New Bedford and Fredericksburg I managed a few days at Cape Cod National Seashore, where, ahead of the summer crowds, I enjoyed warm temperatures, clear skies, scant humidity, and a game of Frisbee at Newcomb Hollow Beach as the surf rolled ashore. A few hundred yards south the remains of a 19th-century schooner still were visible, months after a winter storm spit them up from the Atlantic.

There also was time for fried scallops, raw oysters, steamed clams and a beer or two at the ocean-front Beachcomber Restaurant just down the road at Cahoon Hollow Beach, also part of the national seashore.

A short drive north took me to Provincetown and Race Point Beach, where the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station stands, a silent memorial to the gritty men and women who played an invaluable role in rescuing crew and passengers from ships that wrecked along the coast.

One week, three units of the National Park System, three very different experiences. Is this a great system or what? There's a richness of place, natural history, and cultural history in the park system that can't easily be found anywhere else. And it's ours to savor.

So where in the system might you be heading to this summer?

Paddling Parks

Later this year I've got five days of paddling penciled in at Yellowstone National Park. While most Yellowstone visitors are drawn to the geothermal wonders and landscapes dotted with wildlife, Lewis, Shoshone and Yellowstone lakes offer incredible paddling opportunities. These watery realms lead you away from summer crowds and into wonderfully pristine wilderness. Choose Shoshone Lake as your destination and you can enjoy the Shoshone Geyser Basin.

Other parks that offer great paddling include Acadia National Park (sea kayaking, canoeing); Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (sea kayaking), Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores (sea kayaking), Glacier National Park (canoeing and kayaking), Amistad National Recreation Area (canoeing and kayaking), Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, and the Gauley River National Recreation Area (rafting, river kayaking).

And, of course, can't forget Voyageurs National Park or Isle Royale National Park.

Backpacking

There are so many parks that offer incredible backpacking that it'd be hard to say this list would do the myriad possibilities justice, but here's a shotgun look: North Cascades National Park with its rugged wilderness; Kings Canyon National Park, where you can follow the Pacific Crest Trail; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with its section of the Appalachian Trail; Grand Teton National Park, with the Teton Crest Trail that is so colorful when the wildlflowers are in bloom; Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, where you can retrace the thousands of steps taken by prospectors up the Chilkoot Trail; Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, where you can come to understand why Dick Proenneke found this place so magical; Mount Rainier National Park, where you can circumnavigate the park's namesake volcano on the Wonderland Trail, and; Zion National Park, where the Zion Narrows Trail is just 16 miles long but entails hiking at times through water that could require you to hold your pack overhead.

Beach-combing
Is there anything quite as relaxing as a stroll down a beach, listening to the rolling surf and seabirds and keeping an eye out for interesting creatures or items that have been washed ashore? Olympic National Park offers more beach wilderness -- 73 wonderful miles -- than any other national park or seashore in the Lower 48. You can go for an afternoon stroll at Rialto Beach with its sea stacks, or head for the Ozette Loop that leads you on an overnight excursion.

The Cape Cod, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout and Gulf Islands national seashores offer more beachfront to explore.

Cultural History

The richness of American history is well-preserved across the National Park System. A sampler might include Independence Hall National Historical Park, where the Founding Fathers' vision of a new country coalesced; San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which tracks the history of Franciscan and Spanish missionaries; Fort Laramie National Historic Site, which started out in 1834 as a trading post for fur trappers before becoming a military outpost and stop along the Oregon Trail; Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, which preserves and interprets the stories and places of our nation's home front response to World War II, or; Mesa Verde National Park, which is impressive and curious cliff dwellings.

And that's just a small sampler of what the National Park System offers. So where might you be headed this year?

Comments

I noticed that the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreation Area was conspicuosly absent from the "Beachcombing" section of your article.

Good thing, because a vast majority of it is closed to even pedestrian access, due the the Audobon Society, the Defenders of Widlife, and the Southern Environmental Law Center suing the NPS over ORV access. This is not a good year for beachcombing in that part of the country.

Hopefully, a bill now in Congress will change all that before the Congressional Session ends in late September, and this wonderful area can be added to your list next summer.

You did the right thing, Kurt, by leaving it off the list. Vistitors would be very disappointed with the access available in 2008.

Dapster, read a little more closely. CAHA was mentioned. Just not in detail.

And yet on the backpacking area, you omit the perennial favorite of Glacier National Park. If it not the top park named for backpacking by the pundits such as Backpacker magazine, it will always be in the top five. While I enjoyed North Cascades (especially for its solitude such as when we ran into four bears without another person around in a 15 mile radius), it does not have the same type of scenery and trails as Glacier. Generally, the other parks you mention are with respect to one particular trail within the park. Glacier has a wide variety of trails to choose from straddling the Continental Divide.

Glacier Boy, you're dead-on concerning Glacier's possibilities. Again, this list wasn't intended to be an all-inclusive "A-list" of what's available in the park system.

Too, one of the conflicts writers deal with is talking about their favorite haunts -- places that have been overlooked by others, and so remain as close to pristine as possible, become overrun.

Kurt,

You are correct. My bad. One of those "saw it a soon as I clicked send" kinda things.

My apologies. It's a very passionate topic for me, as you can probably tell, and I was apparently temporarily blinded by said passion. Happens to all of us at some time, I guess.

dapster

Not to worry, Dapster. Here at the Traveler we allow each commenter one mulligan....

All of them are on my "Must Visit" list, well those from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean anyway.
Will be in ONP for a week to ten days here soon, then it will be MRNP the following week then
NCNP for a while.
That is about as far into the future I dare go :-]

Ticking a few off my lifelist during a colossal car-camping trip this August. We're hitting Theodore Roosevelt, North Cascades, Olympic, Mt. Rainier, Yellowstone, and Badlands. (I notice everyone here uses codes, so I suppose I should say "THRO, NOCA, OLYM, MORA, YELL, and BADL") Being the odd chap I am, I think I'm looking forward to Roosevelt the most. And I'll have to find time at some point for my home park, and one of my favorites, Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Next year it's either Big Bend or Acadia. I'm an ecology geek and I've never been to a desert, so BIBE is looking good. Last year it was Congaree, a pleasant surprise and one of the best NPS experiences I've ever had. Sigh...so many parks, so few years - and dollars!

Kirby, I'm not surprised that you enjoyed Congaree National Park. It's one of the best kept secrets east of the Mississippi. I'm a bit biased, I must admit. It's my home park, and I was part of the small (but tenacious) grassroots campaign that saved that magnificent river bottom hardwood forest from being turned into coffee tables and pallets. My one remaining big wish for that place is that a viable population of ivory-billed woodpeckers will be reestablished there some day.

Well, Bob, it would be nice if you could see your last wish to fruition through the same tenacity that got the park established. Unfortunately, I think only prayers and sacrifices to the Avian gods are going to help at this point. The realist in me knows it can't happen, but the romantic still wants to believe they're out there - a couple dozen pairs waiting for a comeback. I think there's room in ecology for the occasional romantic notion.

As for Congaree, one of my favorite things was the attitude of the rangers at the VC. They reminded me of the folks at Sleeping Bear, but even more proud of their park and genuinely excited to interact with visitors. One of them started talking about the park's establishment like he was discussing his newborn baby. Then, when he heard we were headed to Carolina Sandhills NWR next, he told me about his history there and we talked about longleaf pines and red-cockaded woodpeckers for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, my wife mentioned to another ranger we would be canoeing Cedar Creek the next morning, and instantly there were maps spread all over the counter while the ranger talked about the route and where she'd heard there were new portages. Now, I'm sure the lack of visitors had something to do with it, but I've never been taken care of to that degree in Acadia, Everglades, or any of the western parks. It seems like I often run into rangers that view me as a necessary evil. I think that's completely forgivable, having seen what the rangers at Yosemite and Acadia and Grand Canyon have to deal with from many of the visitors. But it certainly makes experiences like Sleeping Bear and Congaree more than memorable.

We got a jump on our summer travel early this year, and so far our family has been to Devil's Tower, Mt. Rushmore, Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands, and Rocky Mtn. National Park, and my daughter visited Pearl Harbor. Our favorite, though, was spending an old fashioned 4th of July at Ft. Laramie National Historic Site. They had games for kids and adults going on all day, plus all the historic reenactors, plus the ice cold bottled sasparilla...it was a day to remember! I'm glad to see that one made it on your list--it really is a fascinating look into our pioneering past, but often gets overlooked. :)