Travel Destinations Rediscovering America’s National Parks
Published on Wed, 06/18/2014 - 1:00pm
If your idea of a perfect summer getaway involves the great outdoors, you’re not alone. More than 275 million people visit national parks every year to experience nature at its finest. The U.S. boasts 59 national parks that make unique natural features, wilderness, and indigenous wildlife accessible to the public. Countless travelers have hiked the scenic trails and driven along the beautiful wildlife loops. Where else but a national park would a wild burro stick its head into a RV window or a herd of bison back up traffic?
The parks not only provide a family-friendly environment with outdoor adventures and natural beauty, they are also economical. With low-cost entrance fees and camping opportunities, families can explore and discover without breaking the bank. While summer can equate crowds in some of the more popular national parks, here are four lesser-known destinations worth checking out.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Dakota
Majestic Badlands, untamed wildlife and rugged wilderness encompass the 70,416 acres of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. The park preserves an area of land that profoundly affected Roosevelt when he visited the Dakota Territory in 1883. The adventure he found in the rugged landscape led him to found the United States Forest Service, sign the National Monuments Act, and establish the first federal game preserve while he was in office.
The park has north and south units which are distinctly different from each other. In the south unit, travelers explore a 36-mile scenic loop drive through Badlands that were shaped by wind, rain, erosion, fire, and the Little Missouri River. The north unit features broad scenic views, deep gorges, dense forest areas, and wildlife. Travelers often view buffalo herds, prairie dog towns, wild horses, mule deer, and elk.
• Theodore Roosevelt’s historic cabin • Scenic drives • Backcountry hiking • Wildlife
Things to do nearby: Check out the Medora Musical, a high-energy, western-style musical show dedicated to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt.
Big Bend National Park Texas
Big Bend National Park features mountain, desert, and river environments. Within an hour’s drive, travelers can go from the banks of the Rio Grande to a mountain basin nearly a mile high. It encompasses the Chihuahuan Desert, has the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River as its southern boundary, and contains the Chisos mountain range. Travelers can either drive through or walk a short nature trail to enter the shady depths of Santa Elena Canyon.
The park is famous for its natural resources and remarkable geology. Ranges of typically eastern and western species of plants and animals come together to overlap here. The varied array of habitats support more than 1200 species of plants (including some 60 cacti species), 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish, 75 species of mammals, and 450 species of birds.
• Desert • Mountains and canyons • Fossils and cultural artifacts
Things to do nearby: Visit the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains, just two hours north of the park.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park Ohio
Not far from the Ohio cities of Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park provides an escape from urban life. Deep forests, rolling hills, wetlands, and the Cuyahoga River make up the park’s diverse beauty. Known for its recreational opportunities, the park offers 125 miles of hiking trails and has been designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the National Audubon Society. Bird watchers find the variety of habitats in the park ideal for observing more than 200 bird species throughout the year.
The park features the Towpath Trail which connects with many natural and historic sites including the route of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Built between 1825 and 1832, the canal provided a transportation route from Cleveland, on Lake Erie, to Portsmouth, on the Ohio River. Today, visitors can walk or ride along the same path that mules used to tow the canal boats loaded with goods and passengers. The trail also intersects with visitor centers throughout the park and features beautiful vantage points that highlight the forests and fields of the Cuyahoga River Valley.
• Hiking trails • Wildlife • Birding • Forest
Things to do nearby: Check out a collection of over 40,000 works at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Visit the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov for information on directions, hours, and fees.
Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky
South-central Kentucky is home to the world’s longest known cave system. Mammoth Cave National Park features more than 400 miles of explored caves including complex labyrinths and vast chambers. Mammoth Dome, which is 192 feet high, can be seen on the historic cave tour along with Native American artifacts such as slippers, gourds and cane torches that have remained preserved underground. The park also boasts two rivers and an extensive series of trails to explore above ground.
• Caves • Hiking trails • Sinkholes and springs
Open: Hours vary by season
Things to do nearby: Check out the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky.
Isle Royale National Park Michigan
Surrounded by Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park offers a rugged wilderness experience complete with second growth forests, refreshing lakes, and scenic shores far from any signs of civilization. The island contains a road-less backcountry that prohibits the use of all wheeled vehicles and devices (except wheelchairs). Visitors traveling to the island must arrive by boat or seaplane, with transportation services departing from Houghton, Mich., Copper Harbor, Mich., and Grand Portage, Minn.
Although more difficult to access than other national parks, Isle Royale makes up for the inconvenience with its tranquility and untouched signs from the past. The park consists of one large island surrounded by over 450 smaller islands. It covers more than 800 square miles and is home to only 18 species of mammal. Travelers can visit lighthouses that once guided ships safely to Isle Royale’s copper mining port and view several preserved shipwrecks along the island’s shore.
• Wilderness • Lighthouses • Shipwrecks • Hiking trails • Wildlife
Open: April 16 through November 1
Things to do nearby: Explore the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness near Grand Portage, Minn.
Camping Made Easy Six tips for camping in national parks
1 Reserve a campsite ahead of time by visiting www.recreation.gov or calling 877-444-6777.
2 If going the “first-come, first-served” route, arrive at the campsite early in the morning, before checkout, to find an open spot.
3 Bring cash—some campgrounds only have self-serve fee stations.
4 Check weather forecasts before heading out and pack accordingly.
Hot days: bring plenty of fluids, sunscreen, and shade structures to keep the family comfortable.
Cool nights: be prepared for cooler weather especially in higher elevations, and pack extra blankets and clothes.
5 Keep to the essentials when it comes to food. Some campsites require food to be stored in bear lockers. These are typically only 3 ft. wide by 3 ft. long and 4 ft. deep.
6 Get involved in the opportunities available to families within the national park. Special classes, ranger-led walks, and junior ranger programs all add an educational element to a vacation.
National Monuments The National Park Service protects and preserves 109 national monuments throughout the U.S. Reserved because of their historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest, the monuments provide educational day trips for families. Here are three national monuments worth checking out:
Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa
View hundreds of ancient Indian cultural mounds at this 2526-acre national monument. Effigy Moundbuilders, associated with the Late Woodland Period, constructed effigy mounds of earth in the shapes of animals such as birds, bear, deer, bison, and turtles. Often built for burial or ceremonial purposes, the mounds remain as symbols of the time and culture.
Quick Tip: There are no driving roadways. All access is by walking or hiking.
Entrance fee: None
Open: Year-round, except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and during extreme weather
George Washington Carver National Monument, Missouri
Known as the “plant doctor,” George Washington Carver is a well-known agricultural scientist, educator, and humanitarian. The monument features his nineteenth century farm and includes a one-mile, self-guiding loop that leads visitors into woodlands, across streams, and along a tallgrass prairie restoration area. It also features the Boy Carver statue, the 1881 Moses Carver house, and the Carver Family Cemetery.
Entrance fee: None
Open: Year-round, except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas
Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebraska
Towering 800 feet above the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff is rich with history and beautiful scenery. Evidence shows that westward emigrants of the nineteenth century often mentioned Scotts Bluff in diaries and journals as a natural marvel along the journey. The monument features 3000 acres to explore.
Quick tip: Plan to stay a minimum of two hours to fully enjoy the park.
Entrance fee: Individual hikers or bicyclists: $3, Motorcycle: $3, Private, non-commercial vehicle: $5, all valid for seven days
Open: Year-round, except for New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas