That we have! In 2009 alone, the National Park Service says more than 285 million Americans and international travelers visited the park system. What many people don't realize is how broad a range of activities and experiences are there for the annual millions to enjoy. The National Park System is actually made up of nearly 400 different locations spread across 84 million acres. There are park locations in every state except Delaware. Many of these are not the grand wildlife centers that usually get most of the attention. Historical locations are also included, one of the most notable being Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia. But the parks and historic preserves, large and small, all have similarities. They're all staffed by those Park Rangers in familiar green and grey uniforms, and they're all pretty affordable ways for your family to accent a great vacation. Many of these places can be an end destination by themselves.
If you and your kids are into history, think about starting close to home. Philadelphia has great hotel deals, and a fun mini-vacation for the kids might be a one or two night stay in Center City so they can experience the city's treasures like a tourist. Take the Philly Flash and enjoy all the sights, from Independence Hall to less obvious spots like Franklin's Court (the site of Ben Franklin's home), Carpenter's Hall, Thomas Jefferson's House, the Betsy Ross House, and Franklin's Grave. During the day, enjoy the historical performers and Park Ranger interpretations (which the Rangers research and write themselves). At night, take in a Lights of Liberty tour. My wife was a Park Ranger at Independence Park around the time we were first married, and she often lamented how few Philadelphians ever bothered to visit sites like the Liberty Bell, treasures in our own back yard.
Similarly, both Boston and Washington, D.C., are loaded with Park Service historic sites, from the monuments on the Mall in D.C., and George Washington's Mount Vernon, to Bean Town's Bunker Hill and Old North Church, along with nearby Concord and Lexington, where the first skirmishes of the Revolutionary War were fought. Most sites are easily accessible, but If you're planning to tour the White House, though, be sure to ask your local Congressperson's office to arrange tickets well in advance. With the exception of some rare open tour dates for the gardens and ellipse, interior White House tours usually have no walk-up slots available.
Battlefields also abound in the park service location list. Gettysburg and Antietam (in western Maryland) are among those with the most appeal locally.
But admittedly, the biggest bang for your buck, when it comes to kids, is not where the guns blaze, but where the wildlife graze. I've been fortunate to visit most of our nation's greatest natural National Parks, most with my kids in tow. Here are my top picks.
The One To See
The number one National Park not to miss is Yellowstone in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Actually, you get two parks for the price of one here, because Grand Teton National Park is right next door, to Yellowstone's south. In this grandest of National Park settings, you and your children will not only see some of the nation's most dramatic mountains, and most spectacular gorges, geysers and waterfalls, it is impossible not to see wildlife here (one of the biggest thrills for kids). While Yellowstone and Grand Teton encompass millions of acres and access roads only cover perhaps a tenth of the ground, summer visitors will find that many of the roads take you directly into areas where the buffalo roam and the elk are at play. We usually plan on four to five days whenever we go here, and on every visit, we've seen bison, pronghorns, elk and eagles. We have also seen moose, black bears, wild rainbow trout, prairie dogs, coyote, wolves and more chipmunks that we could count. We've been to the Yellowstone and Teton Parks four times, and yet on the last visit, we discovered roads and paths that we had not seen before. We also saw our first grizzly bear. Yellowstone is so big, it almost always yields new discoveries each time you visit. Plus, the animals roam freely, so you never know when or where you're going to see them. On more than one occasion, we were unexpectedly delayed by a herd of elk or buffalo that had taken over a road. Bison have walked within three feet of our car. One morning, we awoke to watch several of these mammoth animals carousing around the parking lot of our in-park hotel.
Some basic tips: stay clear of wild animals. While close-up opportunities abound from inside the car, and exiting the vehicle may be desirable to get a better look at animals, remember that you're guests in their world, and some (bear and bison, in particular) can be dangerous. Explain this to the kids in advance, and make sure everybody keeps their distance. In fact, in the material you're given at the park entrance, there's usually information on how many people have been gored by buffalo that year! When driving through the park, take it slow. You'll spot more animals that way. The best time for sightings is early in the morning and late in the evening, so you might want to plan on a couple of early and late nature drives. During the middle of the day, there are plenty of hikes to geysers and waterfalls.
Where To Stay
I'd consider staying in two different locations while in the parks. Definitely explore park service hotel properties, especially the Old Faithful Inn, the largest structure in the world made of logs. It's a great hotel and not as expensive as it could be. Other properties are located near Roosevelt Lake, which puts you closer to different areas of the park. There are plenty of other cheaper, more rustic options. But book early, because the rooms fill-up. Another option is Jackson Hole, Wyoming, south of Grand Teton Park, which has tons of hotel rooms and a "gunfight" each evening on the corner of town square. On our last visit, we stayed in a B&B near Teton, the first time we had ever spent an overnight in this area. We were rewarded, because it turns out, this is the area where the moose generally hang out. We saw about five of them. When motoring through the park, keep an eye out for people with small binoculars on tripods at the side of the road. More often than not, they've spotted something, and they're usually happy to let you take a peek. We saw wolves in this way the last time out, as well as the grizzly (which, thankfully, was on far the side of a mountain, and not nearly as close as it appeared through the view finder!). One dinner option (pricey, but memorable) is a wagon train ride through the park that takes you past coyotes and buffalo skulls to a camp where you're entertained and fed by cowboys.
Other wonderful parks include Yosemite, near the California-Nevada border, with its sheer cliffs and tumbling waterfalls, most of which are taller than Philadelphia's highest buildings. If you can afford it, the Ahwahnee Hotel is grand and historic, located on the floor of the canyon. It's about twice as expensive as the Old Faithful Inn, unfortunately, but a great location. From the hotel, you can book Ranger-guided motor tours of the park. Later, you can drive your own car up to some incredible look-out points above the canyon. Allow two days for this park, and try to go earlier in the summer. By August, many of the towering waterfalls are either dried-up, or down to a trickle.
While in central California, you may also want to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which are more or less on the way to San Francisco. You can spend part of one day in each. I'd do Sequoia, if I only had time for one, since it's not as far off the beaten path. Some of the tallest and widest trees on the face of the earth dwell in the groves here, which call to mind a cathedral made of trees. On the coast, about an hour north of San Francisco, the Muir Woods are home to the world's tallest trees, the California Redwoods. The kids enjoyed this spot so much, they asked to go back a second time. We happily obliged. Two hours will do it, here. Then, you can head south and cross the Golden Gate Bridge into S.F., one of the prettiest approaches to a city anywhere in the world.
The Grand Canyon is, as the name implies, BIG. But unless you're planning on taking the donkey ride down to Shadow Ranch on the canyon floor, you probably don't need to allow for more than a half day here. There is a nice hotel on the south rim, in case this is an overnight stop (but again, book early). Other parks within a day of the canyon are Bryce Canyon (home to some of the weirdest, orange rock formations you'll see anywhere), and Zion, where a hike takes you and your kids as far as you care to go along a narrow canyon trail beside a stream teeming with tadpoles. Monument Valley is also in this general area, which is the location where they filmed just about every famous western from the old days (as well as a scene in Forrest Gump, too---you'll recognize it!).
Mount Rushmore and the Badlands are located near each other in South Dakota. There is also a National Grasslands here which provided me with one of the most peaceful half-hours of my life, with only the blue sky, tan soil and the endless wind winding through the green and golden grasses to occupy my thoughts. The wind set the grass in constant motion all around me, and muted every other sound. In the Badlands, you'll find neat rock cliffs, and a small row of rustic cabins run by local Native Americans. There are also pronghorns and buffalo here, and an evening Park Ranger walk that takes you along some Buffalo trails.
In Montana, white bighorn sheep roam the rocks of Glacier National Park, and you also have a better than average chance of seeing grizzlies here, as they are more prevalent than in more southerly parks. A couple of days will do it here, for most families. Banff (a Canadian National Park) is not far north of Glacier, along with the city of Calgary. I've never been, but both locations are apparently stunning.
Rocky Mountain National Park is on the way to Yellowstone, if you fly in and out of Denver. It also has mountain goats and many wonderful overlooks. But look out for that "mountain sickness" that comes from getting out of the car at high elevations and trying to move around too much in the thin air. Bad headaches are the main symptom. Plan a few hours to make your way through the park, which allows you to pass from one end to the other on your way west.
I Saw It In The Movies
Devils Tower in Wyoming is a little out of the way, but lots of fun for fans of the film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". You won't find any evidence of spaceship landings, but you may spot Native American climbers placing feathers high on the monolith's vertical walls, as part of a cultural tradition. There's a nice hike that goes around the base of the site. This is a few hours stop-over.
If you make it out to Seattle, one of the most majestic stand-alone dormant volcanoes is Mt. Rainier, at least when it's not wrapped in clouds. This is a one-day affair. There's a visitor's center, but the main draw is the mountain which has many scenic vistas. I have to say, though, that Mt. Hood in Oregon is similar, but a little more accessible. There's a path to great glacier overlook, and a ski lift that operates year-round on the opposite face. In fact, it's so accessible, Mt. Hood no doubt served as the model for "Mt. Useful" in one famous Simpson's episode.
Closer to the east coast, Mammoth Cave in central Kentucky is an aptly named super-cavern that includes some enormous underground vaults. There are also coal mine tours nearby, in case you haven't gotten enough underground experience in the cave. Allow a few hours.
In Florida, the Everglades lie near the mainland's southern tip. Alligators and other wildlife abound. I hope to get to this for the first time in 2011.
In Maine, Acadia National Park is an enormous seaside wildlife and nature preserve with tons of forest trails and hikes, along with beautiful overlooks of the Atlantic and sea lanes dotted with lobster traps. You can easily spend a few days here, including a visit to scenic Bar Harbor. Whale watching tours are available at certain times of the year.
You could write a book about all the Park Service's wonderful locations (and in fact, many people have). But these are a few of my favorite locations. The bottom line: National parks are very inexpensive (they charge one admission price for the entire carload), and your ticket is usually good for as long as a week. It can often be used toward admission at other locations, too. And despite the economy, the government remains pretty committed to keeping on top of the upkeep on these places, as well as providing rangers to interpret the history and the natural significance for you. Some of our best family memories have been made while on the road in the county's National Parks.
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