Each summer when I was growing up, my parents would take me to some of America’s most notable national parks. Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Glacier… We would rent a car and go for two weeks, driving park to park in an effort to experience America’s best scenery, stopping to take photos or go for a hike along the way.
Of course, back then (especially during my precocious teenage years) I wasn’t as keen on spending my summer vacation this way; I would have rather been by the pool with a book in my hand.
Now, things are a bit different and I’ve come to fully appreciate just how special the National Parks truly are. I’ve made it a point to go back and revisit many of them, and last October I even hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
It was only fitting that this time I persuaded my parents to come with me.
If you’ve never been able to visit one of America’s iconic parks, or are on the fence about making a special trip, here are the top 10 reasons why you should get moving and visit one of the US National Parks.
1.) There’s a park for every interest
Much more than just unabashed wilderness, the National Parks occupy all kinds of different settings from urban (Philadelphia’s Independence Hall) to exotic (Hawaii’s Haleakala) to the unexpected (the Dry Tortugas). With 394 registered National Parks in the US, there is certainly something for everyone.
Did you know? A National Park can be found in 49 of the 50 states (poor Delaware!) and also in US territories such as the American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands.
2.) Lots of opportunities to get in for FREE
Out of the 394 US parks, over 100 of the most popular ones charge a fee to get in. In an effort to get make the parks accessible for all, the National Park Service (NPS) offers select days throughout the year where visitors can actually get into each and every one for free.
Coming up next week (April 16th through 24th) is the granddaddy of all NPS free entrance: it’s National Park Week! Activities and free admission abound at this week long celebration.
3.) See an abundance of wildlife
If you’re an animal lover, then there’s really no better place for prime wildlife viewing that at a National Park. Depending on which part of the country you are in, the protected serenity helps increase your chances of seeing some favorites like bald eagles, moose, coyote, bison and bears, just to name a few.
TIP: If you have a particular kind of animal you’d like to see, be sure to stop at the park’s visitor’s center. Park rangers are on hand and are happy to help point you in the right direction and give you some tips on how to stay safe as well. (Bear bells, anyone?)
4.) Taste a regional specialty
One of my most distinct memories of Montana’s Glacier National Park was the Huckleberry ice cream that I was able to try. Huckleberry! Though it was native to that region, as an East Coast girl I never knew such a glorious fruit actually existed.
Every National Park has regional foods and flavors that are brought into the food options held within the parks, and many of the larger parks also have well-known restaurants contained within the historic properties on site.
TIP: Call ahead to see if the popular full service restaurants accept reservations. Dining amongst such a beautifully natural setting is a desirable and unique experience, so reservations can book up far in advance.
5.) Enjoy exploring the great outdoors
Exploration is at the very core of the history of the National Parks. It all started with Teddy Roosevelt and that same sense of adventure continues to be a big draw for visitors. Every bend of the road encourages an opportunity to get out, breathe the fresh air and have a little adventure of your own!
The parks often offer countless hiking, biking and walking trails, so whether you prefer solitude, scenery or a more adrenaline-packed journey, there’s sure to be a day trip perfectly suited to your interests.
6.) Check something off your bucket list
Whether you have an actual written-down bucket list or just an internal idea of things you’d like to accomplish, it’s a sure bet that something you dream of doing takes place in a National Park.
Some popular National Park bucket list ideas include…
- White water rafting down the Colorado
- Snorkeling along an underwater trail in the Virgin Islands
- Hiking some (if not all) of the Appalachian Trail
- Participating in a Civil War reenactment in Gettysburg
- And, my personal favorite, hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon
TIP: Some of the more popular bucket-list worthy activities may have a bit of a waiting list, so be sure to plan ahead. Case in point, when we hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we had to reserve our cabin at Phantom Ranch 13 months in advance!
7.) See history preserved in time
Much more than just natural wonders, the NPS also preserves and protects many of America’s most important landmarks and historical areas.
The Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam, the USS Arizona and the Liberty Bell are all preserved by the NPS.
There are often experts on hand and detailed museums you can visit so you can get the full perspective about the significance of each historical monument or place.
8.) Stay at a historic lodge
Some of the more popular National Parks often have a flagship lodge where you can stay that puts you in the heart of the park’s action.
Like taking a walk back in time, much care is taken to ensure that these lodges are preserved to appear just as they did when they were built, some over a century ago.
TIP: If these lodges are a bit too far out of your price range… there are often cheaper properties nearby that are still historic and operated by the NPS.
9.) Take advantage of the perfect photo op
You don’t have to be Ansel Adams to capture the full grandeur of the National Parks and there’s certainly no shortage of photo ops in these especially magnificent places.
Truthfully, opportunities for amazing photos are around every bend of the trail, at every scenic overlook.
TIP: Don’t forget your camera when driving around the park… be on the lookout for a bunch of cars pulled off the road in unexpected places. More often than not, that indicates that some photo-worthy critter is nearby!
10.) Marvel at the absolute best of what America has to offer
At the end of the day, the main mission of the National Park Service is to “care for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.”
These parks exist because they are truly the best of the best… not only are they the most beautiful places in the country, these are the places that represent the heart and fundamental spirit that is at the core of America.
Tell us… What are your favorite National Parks? Do you have any special memories that you’d like to share?