Did you know that today is the 97th birthday of the National Park Service? To celebrate, all 397 national parks, battlefields, and historical monuments are offering free admission. And though I likely won’t be taking advantage of that opportunity, I decided to celebrate by recalling some of my favorite experiences at some of my favorite national parks.
- YELLOWSTONE: It’s America’s first national park and perhaps still the most famous. Highlights of my visit there included a stop at the north entrance where Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the arch inscribed “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” Also Old Faithful and all the other geysers. Best of all were the animals—pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, bears (both grizzly and black) and, of course, buffalo. Especially the big boy who parked himself beside our minivan for an entire afternoon.
- GRAND TETONS: The thrill here was spotting two moose relaxing beside a stream near the hiking trail to Cascade Canyon. And two other moose in the parking lot when we stopped afterwards at a mini-mart for drinks and snacks.
- YOSEMITE: There’s nothing to compare to settling in at Glacier Point to watch the countless colors of sunset reflect off the bare rocks all around you. Unless it’s watching the sky go black and the stars pop out and the headlamps of the rock climbers on the sheer face of Half-Dome begin to glow.
- SEQUOIA-KINGS CANYON: I was sure that Hale Tharpe’s summer cabin, built in 1875 entirely inside a downed sequoia, was the best park of this park until I spent the night beside a double waterfall with a canopy of giant three-thousand-year-old trees above my head.
- ROCKY MOUNTAIN: The highlight of this trip was a stop at the Alpine Visitors Center, which overlooks the Continental Divide two miles above sea level.
- GRAND CANYON: Though the Bright Angel mule ride and most of the hikes are too scary for someone with a fear of heights (me, for instance), there’s nothing quite like enjoying a happy hour glass of wine from a safe canyon overlook. Awesome.
- MAMMOTH CAVE: Well worth the short drive from middle Tennessee, it’s fun to take any of the cave tours and crunch down on a Wint-O-Green Life Saver as soon as the guide turns out the lights. Triboluminescence will make sparks fly in your mouth. Cross my heart.
- GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS: I saved the best for last. There are a million reasons to love our very own national park. But if I had to choose just one, it would be the hike to Ramsey Cascades. The trail runs almost entirely beside the river, passes through old-growth forest and ends at a gorgeous waterfall. The best thing about “The People’s Park”? Because it was purchased largely from private citizens in Tennessee and North Carolina instead of being carved from federal land, there’s no entry fee. Not today, not ever. Now that’s something extra special to celebrate.
(August 25, 2013)