Making the Most of Our National Parks

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America's National Parks are not just the great outdoors, they're the greatest outdoors. They are the wide open spaces and the wild places, where generations of Americans escape to marvel amid the Earth's most wonderful playground of caves, caverns and canyons; of dry desert hills that stretch as far as the eye can see and geysers and waterfalls that conquer the air with water; of mountains, volcanoes and glaciers that make men look like ants and historic sites that remind us that some men become giants.

With 388 national park sites to choose from, picking one should be easy. At the tip of your travel tongue may be Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but dig a little deeper and you will find many surprises. America's National Grand Canyon NPParks are more than just hiking trails into mountain valleys, campsites overlooking sweeping vistas and unparalleled chances to watch moose and elk run wild. Many are famous historical sites, battlefields and small parks with big-time scenery.

Whether you want a wild adventure or an historical quest, follow these helpful tips compiled by ASTA (American Society of Travel agents). Some of the most travel-wise people in the world, ASTA members know which parks to visit when, and they'll gladly show you how to keep your "pic-a-nic" basket away from the pesky bears.

Follow Your Sense of Adventure

Choosing the park that's right for you is as simple as choosing how you want to play, for the parks offer a nearly endless range of activities to explore and indulge.

In America's National Parks, you can scale an active volcano in Hawaii; raft over class V rapids through magnificent gorges and valleys at Gauley River NationalGlacier NP Recreation Area; cap off a day on Alcatraz Island back at your hotel with a spa treatment before hitting the streets of San Francisco; embrace history by tracing footprints at Antietam National Battlefield or watching oil droplets bubble to the surface of Pearl Harbor above the USS Arizona Memorial; shine a solitary beacon of light into the dark depths of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave; snorkel off the coast of Padre Island National Seashore; experience a mystifying sense of neighborly warmth around the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site; or conquer the ice age by hiking along Glacier National.

No matter which park you choose, you will find many options and many delights, so keep your mind open to the possibilities and your soul open to the experiences.



Redefining "Crowds"

Picking the park for you may depend on how well you like crowds, according to travel agents. Some National Parks reel in millions of visitors a year, though a crowded park is not like a crowded bus. There is plenty of room for everyone, and even the most crowded parks, like the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, have plenty of areas where your footprints will be the first ones of the day.

Most Visited National Parks - 2009
Name and location
# of visitors
1 Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn. 9,491,437
2 Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. 4,348,068
3 Yosemite National Park, Calif. 3,737,472
4 Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.-Mont.-Idaho 3,295,187
5 Olympic National Park, Wash. 3,276,459
6 Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo. 2,822,325
7 Zion National Park, Utah 2,735,402
8 Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio 2,589,288
9 Grand Teton National Park, Wyo. 2,580,081
10 Acadia National Park, Maine 2,227,698
Source: U.S. Department of Interior

Visitors may flock to the parks on the list above, but the good news is that others are relatively free of crowds, leaving more room for solitary adventure, quiet family outings and undisturbed wildlife. Travel agents suggest a few possibilities below to plan your next escape.

Nez Perce National Historical Park (Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana

These 38 sites in the valleys, prairies, mountains and plateaus of the inland northwest honor the history of the Nez Perce people as they mixed with explorers, fur traders, missionaries, settlers, soldiers, gold miners and farmers. Several sites feature interpretive trails, and visitors will often see golden eagles, marmots, black bears and mule deer.

Isle Royale (Michigan, Minnesota)

You'll escape crowds of people in these wild woods of the North, but encountering crowds of wolves, otters and moose is another thing. Roadless Isle Royale is a 45-mile long wilderness archipelago in the heart of Lake Superior, gloriously threaded with 165 miles of scenic hiking trails connecting historic lighthouses and shipwrecks, ancient copper mining sites and plenty of spots to observe wildlife.

Catoctin Mountain Park (Maryland)

You will not see the President on Catoctin Mountain, for his nearby, well-known retreat, Camp David, is closed to the public. But you will see plenty of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and woodpeckers among the beauty of this rolling forest. Camping and hiking dominate the minds of visitors here, with relaxation in resplendent nature the ultimate goal for presidents and common folk alike.

When to Go

Even though parks are open year round, travel agents suggest you check with each individual park to confirm that it will be open to the public. The summer and winter months are generally the most popular times, depending upon when the scenery excels. To avoid the crowds, gain better access to the viewing areas and enjoy more time in leisure pursuits, travel during the spring and fall, as the rising and falling foliage will add to the splendor of the landscape.

Peak periods also follow school schedules, so avoid winter break, spring break and the summer holidays. Visiting during the week will garner you much more open spaces than weekends. That said, traveling during peak times, like most of us are forced to do, should never deter you from visiting, for the parks are well worth the trip 365 days a year.

Where to Stay

Deciding how you will spend your nights in America's National Parks depends mostly on your individual needs and desires. Camping is the most popular option, whether in a tent, RV or in the backcountry. Most parks have cottages, cabins, lake houses or houseboats to rent. There are even hotels often located inside the park for those whose idea of roughing it is being forced to drink instant coffee instead of their usual blend from Starbucks.

Each park will have a different mix of options, so talk to your travel agent to see what's available. And as with any trip, book your accommodations as far in advance as possible. More people want to sleep in National Parks than the parks can accommodate, forcing park officials to ration campground sites and backcountry permits. The National Park Service has a reservation system that rewards those who know the rules and know when to call—a system travel agents know well.

Fun for the Whole Family? Children, Yes. Pets, No.
National Parks are perfect for kids. Most of the larger parks run Junior Ranger Programs, allowing kids to participate in fun activities while learning about the area's natural habitat and historic significance. Other parks offer nature walks and wildlife talks specifically geared towards children, to show them that nature has more to offer than video games.

While kids thrive in the wide-open expanse of National Parks, pets do not. Simply put, the wilderness is not pet-friendly. Some hiking trails prohibit all pets, while others demand that they remained leashed. Bears, wolves and mountain lions prey on small animals and will be attracted to your trail or tent if you bring little Fifi along.

General Tips

The first thing you should always do upon arriving is stop in at the Visitors Centers. Inside, the friendly park rangers will have the latest information about safety hazards, closures, weather and wildlife notices.

Always stay on the trails when walking and hiking to protect both you from the wilderness and the wilderness from you.Clean up after yourself. We all must do our part to preserve the parks, so that everyone can experience the wonders they have to offer for years to come. Get out of your car. Too many people drive through the parks, stepping out here and there for a quick view. To truly experience the park, get out and find a hiking trail.

Save on park fees by getting a pass. A National Park Pass costs $50 and is good at all parks for one year. This will allow you to pass through the entrance gates more quickly and motivate you to visit more parks throughout the year.

388 Ways to Say, "Wow"

The United States goes to great lengths to preserve the best of its natural and manmade heritage. With 388 National Parks to choose from, millions of Americans enjoy this privilege, while millions more are welcomed to explore.

Contact a trusted agent today to help you plan your visit to one or several of our wonderful National Parks. Travel agents can help you choose which park to visit, where to stay, and what you can do when you get there. And since most parks are unfortunately not in your neighborhood, travel agents can get you there with little cost and littler worries.

Click here to find a travel agent in your area and start enjoying the greatest outdoors.