The grandest party in the U.S. this year is THE go-to, do-not-miss-event for all of those people who love to travel, who love the great outdoors, history and even a wee bit of culture. It’s a 12-month celebration, no presents required and attendance requested at 409 destinations in the Western Hemisphere.
The U.S. National Park Service is about to turn 100 years old, yet she’s getting better and stronger with each passing day. "America’s best idea" is certainly one that passionate travelers from around the world have embraced since long before President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation introducing them on August 25, 1916.
A Tad Bit of History
Yellowstone National Park, signed into being by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, was not only the first national park in the U.S., but the first one in the world. What a concept - to set aside land and dedicate it "as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."
After Yellowstone came protection of the magnificent Sequoia forest, home to two of the world’s largest trees, a place that John Muir called "God’s First Temple." John Muir continued to lobby for what became Yosemite and Mount Rainier, with others to follow. By 1915 when Enos Mills finally convinced Congress that the splendor of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado needed protection, Congress must have assumed this craziness was not going away and thus created the National Park Service.
What to Know
The first thing to do is go to www.findyourpark.com or www.nps.gov and start reading about the great opportunities in our national parks. There’s an inordinate amount of information about each park, things to do, times to go and how it all works. If the website doesn’t work for you, pick up the phone and call. Park service people are the best in the world about answering questions.
The sad thing is that research shows a vast majority of the nearly 295 million people who visit our parks each year never get more than a ¼ of a mile off a trail. John Muir surely weeps.
Yellowstone alone has more than 1300 miles of trails; Shenandoah has more than 500 miles; Acadia has 120. You don’t have to be in great condition or sporting a classic pair of hiking boots. Many trails are paved and take to you places that Harry Karstens, the first superintendent of Denali, called "the great silent places." Put your sneakers on, your phone down, shut your mouth and let the spirit move you.
Many national parks have great lodges that are an experience in themselves – Volcano House in Volcanoes National Park, El Tovar at the Grand Canyon, the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone. Find links to these and more lodging options via the park website. Plan ahead or plan for the off-season to stay in these particular lodges.
From massive RVs in a fully-equipped campground to throwing a sleeping bag under a tree in the back country, camping in a national park brings you closer to Mother Nature. Some parks offer campsites and backcountry permits on a first-come basis; others allow reservations through www.recreation.gov.
Not Just the Great Outdoors
Of the 409 units of the National Park Service, only 59 are actual parks in the traditional sense of camping, hiking, wildlife and overdoses of Mother Nature. There are also designated national lakeshores, seashores, caves, prairies, rivers and trails.
The park service is also tasked with preserving and interpreting historic and cultural sites in the U.S. Think Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor and Flight 93 – all units of the NPS. Culturally, think about Mesa Verde in Colorado, Pipestone in Minnesota and Ala Kahakai in Hawaii. In addition to the 50 states, the park service also has a presence in Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Marianna Islands and the US Virgin Islands.
Free Days in the National Parks
More than 375 units of the NPS are absolutely free all of the time. And remember this - the admission you pay to enter one of the 127 national parks that charge a fee is some of the best money you’ll ever spend. However, note these 16 days in 2016 for free admission.
- January 18: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
- April 16 through 24: National Park Week
- August 25 through 28: National Park Service Birthday
- September 24: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
If you are active military or if you have a permanent disability, you get in free all of the time. Those over 62 can get an annual pass for just $10. The best bargain for serious park groupies is an annual National Park and Federal Recreation Lands Pass for $80.
What’s your favorite National Park?
Keep up with the latest travel news, stories and updates and sign up for our newsletter today!