National parks are some of the great natural wonders of the United States. Did you know that you and your family can see many of these amazing parks for the perfect price tag of $0.00? Free? Yes, free! Almost 300 national parks are free every day of the year. The parks that do have an entrance fee offer several free entrance days throughout the year. (And, thanks to the Every Kid in a Park initiative, fourth grade students can get an annual pass that is good for free admission for them and their families to national parks, forests, monuments, and other federal lands from September 1, 2015 through August 31, 2016!)
So, where should you go? Here are six of my personal favorite national parks:
Grand Canyon National Park: Pictures really can’t do justice to the colossal majesty of this place. I did a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon in a single day (yes, that’s possible, but not recommended unless you’re trained and equipped for it). The Canyon is amazing. I would love to go back and see it at a slightly slower pace. If you go hiking, be prepared. And remember that, in the Grand Canyon, what hikes down must hike back up!
Travel tip: Start at the visitor center on the South Rim of the canyon, which is open year-round. From there, you can hop on and off free shuttles to see various overlooks and get a variety of amazing views of the mile-deep canyon. The North Rim is much more remote and is only open from mid-May to mid-October.
Yellowstone National Park: Beautiful and sometimes unbelievable. Geysers, rainbow-colored hot springs, boiling mud pots, steaming rivers, wildlife…Yellowstone is amazing. It has its own Grand Canyon (although it’s yellow instead of red), which includes a huge waterfall. Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in the park because of its ease of access and reliable eruption schedule, but there are many, many, many more to see. In fact, Yellowstone is home to half of the world’s geysers! The bulk of visitors come during the summer months, but visiting Yellowstone in the winter adds a different level of beauty.
Travel tip: Get up before sunrise and head over to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. (My friends refer to this as the “pajama drive,” and they do it every time they go to Yellowstone.) On the way over, you’ll see steam on the river as the warm water meets the cool morning air. You can watch the sun rise over the canyon in solitude and even climb down a relatively steep set of stairs into the canyon to get a better vantage point of the waterfall.
Common sense warning: Yellowstone is full of wildlife: bison, moose, bears, wolves, and more. Be respectful and give them a wide berth! They are wild animals, and they don’t like people getting too close. If you see an animal, steer clear of it (no matter how close to the trail or boardwalk it may be). And don’t turn your back on an animal to take a selfie with it, for crying out loud! Don’t be fooled by the apparent gentle nature of the bison; they can and do charge and gore people who get too close. They are huge and can run 35 miles per hour — translation: you piss off a bison, and you lose.
Grand Teton National Park: The Tetons are a stunning backdrop — the peaks jut up sharply and make for beautiful landscapes and gorgeous sunsets. It’s also very close to Yellowstone, so it’s easy to visit them both in one trip. Drive through the park for scenic views at every turn. Jenny Lake, at the foot of the mountains, is still and pristine; you can take a scenic boat tour across it, hike up to the waterfalls above it, or even go scuba diving in it and check out its underwater forest!
Travel tip: Visit the Jackson Lake Lodge for dinner and marvel at the view of the sun setting over the Tetons.
(Video by the Great Sand Dunes National Park Service)
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Imagine driving through southern Colorado, in the middle of nowhere. You can see the Sangre de Christo mountains to the west, which are pretty, but it seems pretty bare for an awfully long time. Then you turn down a road, come up over a hill….and you suddenly see huge sand dunes the likes of which you would expect to see in the middle of the African desert. A strange but true story.
Travel tip: Rent a sandboard or sand sled at the Oasis Store just outside of the park and slide on down the dunes! Also, if you go in the spring, there is a stream that runs near the base of the dunes and turns things into a little oasis and attracts some cool critters.
Joshua Tree National Park: This really is one of the most otherworldly places I’ve ever been. The landscape is almost alien, but so amazing. Great to drive through as a short day trip.
Travel tip: Beware the “teddy bear” cholla cactus. It looks super-cool, but they call it the “jumping cactus” for a reason. Don’t touch it!
Rocky Mountain National Park: The Rocky Mountains in all their glory. Forests, lakes, wildlife…everything you want in a national park. A drive up Trail Ridge Road, which goes up to 12,000 feet in elevation, will reward you with beautiful scenery and stunning views. (The trail is only open seasonally. Lots of snow means no winter access.)
Travel tip: Mid-September to mid-October is elk mating season, and the male elk battle it out for the favor of the ladies — including making amazing bugling noises. There are elk everywhere — you can’t miss them.
Common sense warning (again): Do not approach the elk. They are big, wild animals with huge antlers, and, especially when they’re all worked up for rutting season, will not hesitate to charge you if you hone in on their territory. And they run faster than you do. Stay back and enjoy the scenery. If you want those cool close-up pictures, stick with a zoom lens.
There are so many more places to see and things to do! Whether it’s a Saturday afternoon at a local historical site or a two-week family vacation to Yosemite, there are tons of options. Don’t wait — get out and go play!
Curious where else you can go or what’s close to home? Check out this list on the National Park Service’s website: http://www.nationalparks.org/explore-parks/find-park. If you’re up for a family adventure, this is a great opportunity!