Looking To Gain A Little Structured Education On Your National Park Trip?

Get to the know the Grand Canyon better, or any other national park, but enrolling in a class or seminar with a field institute or association. NPS photo of the view from Mojave Point by Michael Quinn.

Can you tell by looking at a wildflower in Yellowstone National Park what the underlying geology is? Or, while hiking through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, can you identify a bird simply by its song? Do you want to get relatively up close to the elephant seals at Point Reyes National Seashore?

Our national parks are incredible learning centers. Many of us become overwhelmed by the beauty of a herd of bison grazing in Yellowstone's Hayden Valley, or the sheer physical power of waves crashing ashore in Olympic or Acadia national parks, or at the geologic history locked in the canyons of Yosemite, Zion, Canyonlands, and Grand Canyon national parks. Figure out how to carve a little more time out of your schedule, and you can leverage existing programs waiting for you that will not only add to that awe normally experienced just by looking at your surroundings in a park, but strengthen your understanding of what exactly it is you're looking at.

Across the National Park System there are a number of non-profit organizations that offer programs in the parks ranging from backpacking to photography and wilderness study and even women-only classes. Here's a look at a few of those organizations.

Educational National Park Vacations

Canyonlands Field Institute

What better place to study geology than Arches and Canyonlands national parks? This institute covers both parks with guided hikes, float trips on the Colorado River, summer camps for kids, and even family programs. Got an itch to become a white-water cowboy? There's a program for that that teaches pro-level courses in field medicine and river rescue. You can check out the full array of offerings at this page.

Grand Canyon Field Institute

Naturally, this organization offers classes that require floats through the Grand Canyon. But there's so much more to experience in the canyon! The field institute continually is searching for new programs. Among this year's new offerings are a Phantom Ranch Cultural and Natural History course for women; a wildflower art workshop; a botany class that not only will introduce you to what grows in the park, but also how you can grow high-altitude species; a geology backpacking trek into Bass Canyon, and; a photography class that takes you to other parks on the "Grand Staircase," Zion and Bryce Canyon, as well as the Grand Canyon.

For complete class listings, check out this page.

Great Smoky Mountains Institute

As with other park-affiliated associations, this institute works to connect people with nature in the parks. In Great Smoky, the institute offers spring and fall photo workshops, naturalist-guided day hikes, family camping weekends (the next one is February 12-14!), women-only backpacking trips, wilderness medicine workshops, and classes on birds (This one is full already, but check for cancellations), amphibians (after all, Great Smoky is the salamander capital of the world!), and ecology workshops specific to the southern Appalachians.

For additional options, check out this page.

North Cascades Institute

With the 684,000 acres of North Cascades National Park as its classroom, the institute offers an impressive array of programs ranging from natural history courses and connecting today's youth with nature to family getaway programs and classwork that will earn you a "Master of Education in Environmental Education and Certificate in Leadership and Nonprofit Administration." The institute also offers "Mountain School," which is a "nationally recognized environmental education program offered by North Cascades Institute in cooperation with North Cascades National Park. Mountain School students come to the North Cascades with their school class, teacher and chaperones to learn about the ecosystems, geology and natural and cultural history of the mountains." Check out this video to get a taste of the program.

For the complete rundown of programs, check out this site.

Point Reyes National Seashore Association

One of the most interesting half-day trips I've had in a national park in recent years was a kayak trip my wife and I took on Tomales Bay with the folks at Point Reyes Outdoors. We we put in at Nick's Cove and headed out towards White Gulch on the thin peninsula that juts into the Pacific and holds the Tule Elk Reserve on its grassy shoulders. En route we paddled by Hog Island and its little sister, Piglet. Once the home of settlers, the tiny islands have been given over to harbor seals, cormorants (both Brandt's and double-breasted), brown pelicans and other waterfowl, which we actually smelled, thanks to the prevailing winds, before we spotted them. The folks at the Point Reyes National Seashore Association expand on such trips by offering a meaty slate of programs ranging from birding and photographing the seashore to "whale watching and elephant seal spotting."

Rocky Mountain Nature Association

Snowshoeing and fly-tying. It's not every day that you think of pairing those two activities, but that's one of the programs this association offers in the stunning landscape of Rocky Mountain National Park. But that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Other classes range from studying minerals in the park and geocaching to identifying insects and boning up on animal tracks. It's early in the year, and the association hasn't yet posted its 2010 program calendar, so check back in a week or two to see if it's not up. In general, though, the association offers photography workshops, family and youth programs, cultural and natural history classes, backcountry travel skills, and art and writing classes.

Here's a link to the association's seminars: http://www.rmna.org/seminars_category.html

Yellowstone Association Institute

The Lamar Buffalo Ranch Field Campus in the Lamar Valley on the northern lip of Yellowstone National Park long has served as the institute's basecamp for educational seminars. While staying in cabins here (for $30 a night, with a bathhouse with private showers, and a common building with fully equipped kitchen and classrooms) you can focus on such topics as wilderness first aid, "Wolves in the 21st Century," writing, and photography. The institute also offers backpacking courses and even private group tours, courses in wildflower identification, even a class in which plants Native Americans would head to Yellowstone collect. Come May, the association will open an 80-acre campus just north of the park near Gardiner, Montana. The Yellowstone Overlook Field Campus will be open year-round exclusively for park visitors participating in Yellowstone Association Institute educational programs.

Learn more about the association's work in the park and course offerings at this page.

The Yosemite Association

What do you want to do in Yosemite National Park? Go birding, take a day hike, learn about the park's wildflowers? Or maybe get your entire family involved in a class, or hone your writing or art skills against the gorgeous granite backdrop the park offers. The association offers those classes and more. There are multi-day backpacking treks, landscape photography classes, and classes to help teacher's prepare lesson plans for their students. (Unfortunately, when this story was prepared the association's website was somewhat bare in terms of offerings for months down the road, so either check the website regularly or call Holly at (209) 379-2321, ext. 17, for more information.)

For a more extensive listing of institutes and field schools, check out this site.