Winter, as we've noted, is a great time for planning national park visits. Here are some suggestions that should help, whether your interests are mainstream or nontraditional.
Be sure to have a look at the Traveler National Park Checklists, which offer a wealth of information to assist you in making your park selections and planning your visits.
MAKE YOUR CAMERA AND BINOCULARS EARN THEIR KEEP THIS SUMMER
Although at least 60% of the 392 units in the National Park System are cultural/historical in nature, the great majority of people think of the national parks in terms of scenic delights. That being the case, let's get underway with recommendations for park visits that will make you very happy that you brought along your camera or camcorder.
Follow the Crowds
As millions of Americans can attest from personal experience, you can't go wrong choosing Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Denali National Park & Preserve if what you're looking for is awesome scenery and photo ops galore.
Yellowstone National Park's vast wilderness, 10,000 geothermal features, charismatic wildlife, and scenic delights such as Yellowstone Lake and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, are accessible via a lengthy double-loop road system, with facilities and services geared to very high summer visitation. At Yosemite National Park, the town-like amenities packed into the Yosemite Valley visitor hub, matched to an efficient transport system, enable huge numbers of visitors to conveniently enjoy scenic masterpieces like Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Falls. A similar situation exists at Grand Canyon National Park, where the multitude gathered on the South Rim to gaze in awe at the mighty chasm are served by an amenities-rich urban complex and high capacity transport system that moves the crowds with clockwork precision. In Denali National Park & Preserve, the Connecticut-sized wilderness gem situated between Anchorage and Fairbanks, a shuttle bus system operating on the park's single road carries many thousands of visitors each summer deep into the boreal forest and tundra, offering views of caribou, Dall sheep, moose, grizzlies, wolves -- and if the weather cooperates, North America's highest peak, Mt. McKinley.
Look in the Quieter Corners
Georgia's Cumberland Island National Seashore, Arizona's Chiricahua National Monument, South Carolina's Congaree National Park, and North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park are four less-visited parks that offer special rewards to those willing to look further afield than the "usual parks."
If you take the ferry to Cumberland Island National Seashore, you can have lots of that pretty barrier island's forest, beaches, and tidal marshes pretty much all to yourself, which is great if you like to photograph alligators, shorebirds, the occasional wild pony, and other scenic delights. Chiricahua National Monument, which lies at the intersection of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts (and where the Rockies meet the Sierra Madre) is a photographer's dream because of its gorgeous scenery and almost astonishing biological diversity. Congaree National Park ("Redwoods East") challenges camera-wielding tourists. The bald cypress trees and loblolly pines are too big and tall to frame in a single photograph! At remote and hauntingly beautiful Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you'll find yourself hard pressed to keep up with the opportunities to photograph bison, elk, pronghorns, mulies, white-tails, prairie dogs, wild horses, longhorn steers (yes longhorns), and other photogenic creatures.
IS THIS A FAMILY AFFAIR?
If you'll be visiting the parks with children, NPS units with high-quality attractions for people of all ages deserve special consideration. There are plenty of those, we're happy to say. The ones listed here have special attractions that might suit you particularly well.
Follow the Crowds
Maine's Acadia National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (TN/NC), Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, and Ellis Island National Monument (NY/NJ) are magnets for parents traveling with children, and for good reason.
Acadia National Park, one of the best "windshield touring" parks you'll ever see, offers tidal pools to explore, glorious vehicle-free carriage paths to pedal down, cool forested trails to get youngsters comfortable with hiking, and even swimming in the Atlantic -- if the kids don't mind icy water. (Take the kids to the Jordan Pond House for jam-slathered popovers after a hike.) Your children will love Great Smoky Mountains National Park, since it has an abundance of things that kids love, including running water, forested nooks and crannies, and and creepy-crawly things like salamanders. Cape Cod National Seashore, which is synonymous with family vacationing on the southern New England coast, offers sun-surf-sand, lobster and clam bakes, kayaking in Cape Cod Bay, whale-watching out of Provincetown, and miniature golf when you need a break from the beach. Visiting Ellis Island and touring the Main Building and its museum offers an emotionally powerful and bonding way for you and your kids to explore your roots if yours is one of the tens of millions of American families whose ancestors entered America by way of the famed immigrant processing center located in New York harbor near the Statue of Liberty.
Look in the Quieter Corners
Are you looking for family-friendly National Park System places that offer opportunities for slower-paced exploration in quieter, less crowded surroundings? If so, be sure to consider the virtues of Washington's Olympic National Park, Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park, Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, and Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
At Olympic National Park, you can pitch your tent within sight of the pounding surf, or rent a cabin, and the Pacific Ocean and its beaches will be a constant presence to delight all of the beachcombers in your family. (At Olympic's Hoh Rain Forest, an otherwordly emerald realm for young and old, watch your children's eyes grow wide when they spot their first banana slug!) Whether your kids are under 10, tweens, or teens, Mammoth Cave National Park will keep them entertained. (OK, so this park is not exactly off the beaten path, but what is quieter than a cave?) Youngsters 8-12 can gain an introduction to caving, and an appreciation for caves, in the park's Trog Tour, while you and your more ambitious teens (and precocious tweens) can spend most of the day underground on the Wild Cave Tour.. For something really different, take the kids to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve and see what a kick they get out of wading in the creek, frolicking on the dunes, and trying to be the first to spot an antelope. Don't forget to consider Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The kids will be hard pressed to decide which they like best -- the concessionaire boat tour along the Lake Superior shoreline, the Miners Castle visit, or the shaded trails, pretty waterfalls, and cool grottoes of the forest.
ARE YOU INTO SWEAT AND ADRENALINE?
Most people who visit our national parks are drawn to less strenuous activities, such as auto-tours and sightseeing, ranger talks, and strolls along short loop trails. Some go for the gusto, however, choosing parks for the backpacking, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and other active recreational opportunities they offer. If you are one of the latter, you'll want to consider these options.
Follow the Crowds
California's Yosemite National Park, West Virginia's New River Gorge National River, Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, and Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park are "can't miss" choices for adventure recreation, but you'll need to get your reservations taken care of early if you're going at at peak times, and timing is critical if you want to avoid the biggest crowds (or, in the case of Bridge Day at New River Gorge, seek them out).
Yosemite National Park is marvelous for backpacking, and since it is also the honored cradle of American climbing and one of the world's best climbing venues, you can add sparkle to your resume by making a pilgrimage to Camp Four and then sampling Yosemite's superb big wall, cragging, and bouldering challenges. (Check with the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service for both instruction and gear.) New River Gorge National River is a relative newcomer among adventure sports meccas. However, over the past three decades its has gained renown for its exciting whitewater rafting, climbing on towering cliffs, and BASE-jumping on Bridge Day. Grand Teton National Park, certainly one of the most gorgeous mountain parks on the planet, offers excellent backpacking, climbing, and mountaineering. (If climbing is your thing, visit Exum Mountain Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.) Grand Canyon National Park offers great hiking and lots of solitude to go with the spectacular views you can enjoy below the rim on the South Kaibab, North Kaibab, or Bright Angel Trails. If a Colorado River trip is what you want, you'll need to plan way ahead.
Look in the Quieter Corners
If you prefer wilderness or deep backcountry where you can experience solitude and nature unadorned, you might want to consider Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (eastern TN/KY), Dinosaur National Monument (CO/UT), and Michigan's Isle Royale National Park. Remoteness, scanty publicity, and other factors have combined to make these places less common choices for adventure recreation.
Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, a huge park situated several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, offers some of the most scenic backpacking and splendid solitude to be had anywhere in the National Park System. Grizzlies, chilly rains, tricky stream crossings, and other hazards make it a rugged test that's not for beginners. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is within a day's drive of many population centers of the eastern U.S., but its sprawling size and rugged character provide plenty of elbow room and solitude for whitewater rafting, climbing, caving, and backcountry hiking. Dinosaur National Monument offers prime rafting and backcountry hiking in a lonely landscape of craggy hills, soaring cliffs, deep canyons, and roaring whitewater. Just getting to lightly-visited Isle Royale National Park out in the great inland sea that is Lake Superior can be an adventure if the waves kick up for your concessionaire boat trip. Once you get there, you'll have all the solitude you could want for your wilderness backpacking experience in a park famous for its moose and wolves, woods, cold lakes, exposed bedrock, and rocky shorelines.
SUMMER IS NOT THE ONLY SEASON
Even at the more popular parks, you're apt to find less crowded conditions in the "shoulder seasons" of spring and fall, with bonus attractions in the form of milder weather, spring flowers, great birding, or colorful fall foliage thrown in for good measure. Winter recreation is coming on strong, too, as more and more people discover the special delights of such winter pursuits as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, ice fishing, and even snowmobiling, skijoring, and dogsledding in some parks. If winter escape is what you want, the parks located in places with sissy winters (or none at all) beckon with warmth and sunshine.
Follow the Crowds
When you investigate the shoulder season or winter options in the Park System, don't forget Utah's Arches National Park, California's Death Valley National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway (VA/NC), and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Every year, millions of people vote with their feet to take advantage of the spring, fall, or winter recreation opportunities that these fine parks offer.
Although Arches National Park offers gorgeous scenery, the world's greatest collection of rock arches, and some great hiking, it can be blazingly hot in summer. Think about making Arches a spring- or fall-break destination so you can enjoy more accommodating weather and smaller crowds. Death Valley National Park is a "must see" for your life list, but as with Arches, this is not a national park to head to in summer if you're averse to temperatures that climb to triple digits and stay there for days on end. If you can chart your Death Valley trip before Easter or after Columbus Day, you'll enjoy comfortable temperatures in a highly unusual landscape of desert, canyons, sand dunes, and landforms that lie as much as 11,049 feet above sea level and 282 feet below. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a great shoulder season destination because it has an abundance of flowering trees and shrubs in the spring as well as blazing foliage in the October "leaf peeping" season. Be sure to get your lodging reservations in early. The pride of the Big Island, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, features the world's most active volcano and an abundance of scenic and otherworldly attractions, many of them in automobile-convenient locations. The tropical climate makes this a great place to get away from mainland winter blahs, but with visitation running well in excess of 100,000 during winter months, it isn't a place to get away from other people.
Look in the Quieter Corners
Virgin Islands National Park, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas, and Big Bend National Park in west Texas all possess outstanding attractions in combination with low media visibility. While you can enjoy all of these parks at any time of year, summer is generally not the best time to pick. We think that South Florida's Everglades National Park is a very good "non-summer" choice, too. Though it gets plenty of publicity, this is a park whose winter charms greatly exceed its summer ones.
A visit to Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean will introduce you to sugar-sand beaches lined with palms and washed by warm turquoise waters that are home to delightful creatures such as huge sea turtles and colorful tropical fish. While you'll probably want to avoid this park during the hurricane season, it's perfect for an early spring, late fall, or winter getaway. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas delights spring visitors with a carpet of prairie flowers, and impresses fall visitors with grass grown higher than they've ever seen before. You'd probably find summer too hot and drab there, and winter too cold and windy. Big Bend National Park is another low-profile park that gets too darn hot for summer comfort, except at the highest elevations. Go there in the cooler months, though, and you'll come back raving about Big Bend and its hiking, biking, Rio Grande rafting, birding, stargazing, and other delights. Everglades National Park is yet another park that can be uncomfortable in summer, but delightfully entertaining in the cooler months. If your visit is timed for December - April, you'll miss the insect pests and hurricane threats, but catch the pleasant weather and fine wildlife viewing of the dry season when the migratory birds are on hand and nesting waterbirds and other watchable wildlife is clustered at the gator holes and ponds.
PUT A CAPITAL "H" IN YOUR HISTORY LESSONS
By early 2009, the National Park System had 80 national historic sites, 42 national historical parks, 27 national memorials, 24 national battlefields or military parks, and one international historic site. (This is not to mention a number of history-themed national parks and national monuments or the many nature-based parks that have important cultural/historical sites and structures within their borders.) Visiting the cultural/historical NPS units is a wonderfully apt way to learn about America's past.
Follow the Crowds
Mesa Verde National Park, Colonial National Historical Park, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and Lowell National Historical Park are four cultural/historical parks whose facilities and programs are well attuned to the demands of high-volume visitation -- the kind where cars and tour buses roll in, lines form, and people troop through.
Mesa Verde National Park on the Colorado Plateau in southwestern Colorado protects hundreds of cliff dwellings and thousands of other archaeological sites associated with the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi). It's likely that visiting cliff dwellings like Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Spruce Tree House will leave you with a sense of wonder and mystery like nothing you've ever experienced. Coastal Virginia's Colonial National Historical Park, which encompasses Jamestown, the Yorktown battlefield, and the Colonial parkway that links these two major historical sites with Colonial Williamsburg, is an iconic park preserving the places where English colonial rule began, flourished, and ended. Situated between Washington DC and Richmond, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park preserves something very different in the Virginia landscape -- four major battlefields of the Civil War that nearly tore America asunder, but ended up welding it together instead. At Lowell National Historical Park, which is situated in Boston's recreational day-tripper zone, park visitors can see at first hand the mills, canals, and other infrastructure components of the textile manufacturing complex that grew at this Fall Line location in the early- to mid-1800s and ushered in America's age of large-scale industrial production.
Look in the Quieter Corners
If you like smaller crowds, fewer parking hassles, more personal attention from the park staff, and related benefits, consider adding New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Women's Rights National Historical Park, and Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site to your park-shopping list this year.
Once the world's richest whaling port, New Bedford, Massachusetts,is where Herman Melville gained inspiration for Moby Dick and where the Underground Railroad moved slaves through to freedom. Today the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park encompasses a 13-block downtown area to tell these and other stories. Be sure to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which is reputed to be the world's best on this topic. Chaco Canyon at New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park was a major center of Ancestral Puebloan culture between AD 850 and 1250. Today you can travel a 9-mile paved loop road that leads you to five major Chacoan sites, including the renowned Pueblo Bonito. Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York, preserves the site of America's first Women's Rights Convention (July 1848) as well as historic structures associated with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other giants of the early women's right movement. Last, but not least on our list is Montana's Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. Once the headquarters of a 10 million-acre cattle empire, this site is now a working cattle ranch preserving vestiges of the historic ranching era and commemorating the role of the cattleman, the hard-working cowboy, the spirited cow pony, vast herds of cattle, and wide open spaces that shaped the character of the Old West.
Well, there you have it, nearly 40 National Park System units that we commend to your attention as you think and dream about national parks that you might like to visit this year. If you'd like to see the whole list of National Park System options, consult the National Park Index or any of the many fine regional, thematic, or system-wide national park guides and interpretive books that can be purchased at bookstores or ordered online.
Traveler sponsor KC Publications, the foremost publisher of national park interpretive materials (and an old-line company of 45 years standing), would be glad to help you with national park reference materials of many sorts. Tell 'em we sent you.