For most, a national park vacation entails booking a room in a lodge or reserving a spot in a campground, arriving at the park and checking in, and then spending a number of days hiking, paddling, or traveling the park to view various sites, whether they focus on waterfalls, geysers, deep forests, museums, or cultural focal points. Here are some alternatives to that approach, some pricey, some not so.
* Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest park in the system, a behemoth that spans nearly 20,600 square miles in the Alaskan outback. Of that total, 14,185 square miles are preserved as official wilderness. The folks at St. Elias Alpine Guides can help you explore that rugged landscape by foot and sea kayak. Among their varied trips is a 12-day adventure that includes four days of hiking around Iceberg Lake and four days of sea kayaking on Prince William Sound, a paddle that allows you to see calving glaciers as well as marine life. Depending on your resolve, you can also add hiking atop a glacier or ice climbing to your itinerary. This trip really takes you off the beaten path, as you're shuttled via bush plane to Iceberg Lake in a remote valley of the Chugach Mountains. $3,995 per person. Reservations and information: 888-933-5427
* There's more than a little water in the National Park System, which makes for great adventures. You can sea kayak in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks during the course of a five-day trek with O.A.R.S. During the trip you'll visit Old Faithful, enjoy a unique view of some of Yellowstone's thermal features by paddling towards the West Thumb Geyser Basin and viewing Lakeshore Geyser, which can erupt to 25 feet, and paddling Jackson Lake in Grand Teton. Also part of the package are day hikes and camping. The company also offers a special photography trip. 5 Day multi-sport trip: $1389 adult / $1261 youth; 6 Day trip: $1539 adult / $1385 youth. Reservations and information: 800-346-6277 or 1-209-736-467.
* Want time away from the male of the species? Consider a "women's only" adventure ($1,895) in and around Grand Teton and Yellowstone with Canyon Calling, Adventures for Women. This multi-sport trek counts hiking, biking, paddling, rafting, a horse ride, and even a chairlift ride to the top of the Tetons at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Throughout the week you might find yourself kayaking on Jackson Lake or geyser gazing in Yellowstone. Reservations and information: 928-282-0916.
* Travel to Isle Royale National Park, one of the least-visited parks in the Lower 48 (thanks to its remote location), to explore the island and its surrounding Lake Superior waters by kayak. The park is home to moose, wolves, loons, beaver, fox, and other small mammals and birdlife. The Kayak Eco-tour offered by the folks at Rock Harbor Lodge offers wildlife viewing, a visit to the Peterson wolf research station, and, among other things, a look at what's billed as the largest moose skull collection in the world. This trek ($1,506/single, $2,690/couple) includes transportation, meals, kayaks and accessories, maps, permits and fees and ecologist/kayak guide, and four nights' lodging at Rock Harbor. Reservations and information: Winter, 866-644-2003, Summer, 906-337-4993
* Rafting the Colorado through Grand Canyon National Park can be the stuff of legend. It's always a lot of fun. Now you can take the entire family down the Colorado River on a trip where everyone pays the kids' rates. Offered by Wilderness River Adventures, these three-and-a-half-day to 12-day trips immerse everyone in the geology, lore, and natural beauty of the canyon...and the river. Savings can range upwards of $900 per person. Reservations or information: 1-800-992-8022
* Unless you're a veteran backpacker, heading away from the front country of a national park can be intimidating, particularly if you're heading into an area roamed by wolves, grizzly bears, and wolverines. To ease any concerns, consider a custom backpacking trek through Glacier National Park with the folks at Glacier Guides, Inc. They can fashion anything from a one to ten day ($170/per person per day) trek for groups of at least four. Billed as family friendly up to "moderate" in difficulty, these trips "are for those of you who have special requests such as less mileage or more layover days, or if you just don't want to have anyone other than family and/or friends on the trip." Reservations or information: 406-387-5555 or 800-521-7238
* Like to cycle? Think you're in shape? Bicycle Adventures' Glacier-Banff-Jasper tour will measure your mettle on the pedals. Starting out from Whitefish, Montana, this eight-day trek puts you in the saddle for 55 miles a day, on average. You ascend the Continental Divide via Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road and then head north to Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta before heading west to Banff National Park. Book by December 31 and you'll pay the 2009 rate of $3,198. (Having gone on one of this company's tours, the Canadian Gulf Islands, I can attest that everything is first-class.) Reservations and information: 800-443-6060 or 360-786-0989
* Relatively few folks make it all the way to Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. In 2008, just 272,190 souls were counted in the park. If you're going, you might as well go in style with a stay at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge You can lounge with a book at your cabin or take advantage of a number of activities available through the lodge's staff. These range from guided hiking and guided sea kayaking for close-up views of Pederson Glacier to traveling by skiff for a deeper exploration of the lagoon or perhaps nearby Aialik Bay. Of course, in this setting fishing is also an option (for an added cost). At last check the all-inclusive pricing started at $595 per adult / $525 per child (age 7-11) for a one-night stay. Reservations and information: 800-334-8730 or 907-783-2928.
* Don't think all the adventures are in the West. Stay at Barbara Adolphi's The House on Water Street, a B&B housed in a 107-year-old farmhouse in Sperryville, Virginia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and she can line you up to go "cascading" in some of the waterfalls in Shenandoah National Park. "It’s hard to beat rappelling down through the spray of an icy waterfall down through a rocky gorge on a hot summer day… only to land a plunge pool of crystal clear, but still icy cold, water… and then keep on moving downstream just to do it all over again," she says on her web site. "Join our guides late May thru September on one of the several canyons whose waterfall routes we have pioneered. All required gear is provided (helmets, wetsuit ropes, harness, hardware)." Barbara also can arrange guided backpacking in the park or climbing on the shoulders of Old Rag. Prices range from $100 per person per day for hiking in Shenandoah on up to $175 per person for canyoneering. At day's end, return to the farmhouse to clean up and enjoy the evening recounting the adventure with family and friends. Reservations and information: 540-987-9706.
* Go island hopping by sea kayak in the waters surrounding Acadia National Park. At least two outfitters offer these adventures. Both Coastal Kayaking Tours and National Park Sea Kayak Tours ply the waters around Mount Desert Island. Coastal (207-288-9605 or 800-526-8615) offers three-day camping trips ($399/person) to give you a taste of coastal Maine. "You'll spend your days paddling the pristine waters of Maine's loveliest bays, with nights spent camping on beautiful uninhabited islands. All you need to bring is your taste for adventure; we provide all camping equipment, meals, guide service, logistical support and island access," says the company. Over at National Park Sea Kayak (1-800-347-0940), their three-day, two-night trips ($425/person) paddle around the islands of Acadia and the Deer Isle Archipelago. "Paddle 'day one' exploring coves, ledges and islands in search of wildlife. Plenty of time for photography, rests on the shore/islands, and just relaxing and listening to the rugged Maine Coast. Camp on a remote island and enjoy dinner on the shore, and sunset..." says the company. "'Day 2' brings you more opportunities to explore clean, cool Maine air while viewing the shoreline and paddling with the wind at your back."