Our country’s national parks
by CHRISTINE RICHARD
The National Park System preserves approximately 83.6 million acres of U.S. land, so families can have the all-American summer vacation (think Griswolds). Here are some highlights of our park system.
In Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, the first park in the system, encompasses more than 2 million acres with geological wonders such as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone River and Mammoth Hot Springs.
Why? Bubbling earth experiences. There are plenty of geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles. More than 75 percent of the world’s geysers, including the largest, Steamboat, are here. Then there’s Old Faithful, reliably erupting every 35 to 120 minutes.
Experiences. Be on big-critter lookout. This is grizzly-bear, wolf, elk and bighorn-sheep territory. Grand Teton is nearby, and the Teton Vista Rendezvous tour will take you to two parks in one day. Go trout fishing. Note that within the park, you must abide by a catch-and-release program for native species such as the cutthroat trout. Get away from the masses and take a pack trip on horseback through the wilderness. Several outfitters are licensed to operate in the park.
Where to stay. Old Faithful Inn, built in 1904 with wings added in the ’10s and ’20s, is a log hotel adjacent to Old Faithful geyser; The Roosevelt Lodge Cabins are near President Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite campsite. A large corral operation offers horseback trail rides, stagecoach adventures and an Old West cookout.
Visitors. 2.9 million per year.
Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico contains more than 100 known caves, including Lechuguilla Cave – the nation’s deepest limestone cave at 1,567 feet and the fourth-longest. Self-guided cave tours are the Big Room and Natural Entrance routes; each are a mile.
Why? To look below the earth’s surface.
Experiences. The Spider Cave tour is for belly-crawlers only. Required are soft knee pads, gloves and a love of enclosed spaces. Carlsbad Caverns also has 16 living bat species. Thousands of bats spill forth from these caves at dusk; prime months are August and September. The park is part of the Chihuahuan Desert: Above ground, hike the trails.
Where to stay. There’s no lodging within the park. A Best Western is adjacent to the national park in White’s City. In Carlsbad, there are a couple of bed-and-breakfasts.
Visitors. 416,000 per year.
Glacier National Park in Montana consistently rates as one of the most pristine national parks by travelers. One million acres of forests, alpine meadows and lakes are preserved. Mountains, remote wilderness and bears are the natural attractions. There are 700 miles of maintained trails; more than 70 species of mammals roam around; and approximately 350 of its structures are on the National Register of Historic Sites.
Why? The breathtaking beauty of this park on the Continental Divide, and to spot a grizzly.
Experiences. Drive the engineering feat of Going-to-the-Sun road, a cliff-hugging, across-the-mountain route that was completed in 1932. This is not RV material, and it’s for serious cyclists only. Ride a horse on one of the many miles of trails that follow routes first used by trappers in the early 1800s. Just across the border is Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. The historic M.V. International, in service since 1927, takes two-hour cruises from Waterton to Glacier.
Where to stay. Louis Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, promoted the area as the “American Alps.” As such, lodging was built in the Swiss chalet style. The Many Glacier Hotel is legendary, built in 1914 and overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake. Sperry and Granite Park chalets are back-country historic cabins used seasonally by hikers. Kitchen windows are covered with “bearproofing” grates of long wood strips that have large nails exposed to discourage the grizzlies. FYI: Since the park opened, there have been 10 grizzly-bear-related fatalities; five of these people were lone hikers/campers.
Visitors. 2 million per year.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, is the most-visited park in the system, attracting 9 million back-to-nature types each year. Five forest types dominate the Great Smoky Mountains, having more than 130 species of trees and 4,000 plant species. A hike from mountain base to peak is the same as traveling 1,250 miles north, as far as variety and scenery changes.
Why? This incredible diversity, and the cultural history of the Cherokees and early mountain pioneers.
Experiences. Hike to one of the many waterfalls; only Meigs Falls is visible from the road. Many pioneers settled in this land. Cades Cove preserves a 19th-century grist mill, homes and churches. But on a hike through the forest, you may come across lesser-known crumbling ruins. Also, there are many scenic drives such as Newfound Gap Road. Then there’s the Blue Ridge Parkway, where you might just get a look at the smoky blue fog that curls off the mountains.
Where to stay. LeConte Lodge is the only accommodation in the park and is only accessible by hiking one of five trails. The shortest and steepest will take about four hours. The hotel gets its fresh supplies by llama pack train. If you’re not up for the walk, stay in one of the nearby communities, such as Gatlinburg.
Visitors. 9 million per year.
Information, www.nps.gov. •