Get ready to celebrate National Park Week 2019 from April 20 to 28! Parks across the country will host a variety of special programs and events. To kick off National Park Week, all entrance fees are waived on Saturday, April 20! There are also special days during the week to highlight the different ways you can enjoy your national parks.
Find your park here!
During National Park Week and all year long, it's a great idea to explore our national treasures.
There's so much to learn and so much to do. This list will help you get started whether you are interested in history, nature, active pursuits, the back country or urban adventures.
This is the day to #findyourpark!
Make family travel memories in the year ahead.
Here are five great family vacation destinations to consider:
The Grand Canyon National Park is celebrating a big birthday in 2019. So why not join the in the centennial celebration? Millions visit this wonder of the world each year to marvel at the mile-deep gorge, exploring by foot, on a mule, or capturing the vast beauty with a camera or the mind’s eye. Stay on the South Rim where year round access is possible and you’ll have access to ranger programs, dining options and stunning views. Explore other regions in northern Arizona for hiking, biking and a history lesson along Route 66. Take in the stunning beauty of Monument Valley, the Petrified National Forest and the picturesque red rocks of Sedona. Pose for a photo while standing on a corner in Winslow, ride horseback at a guest ranch or rent a houseboat on Lake Powell.
Niagara Falls, NY.
Hear it roar. And feel the mist. But, don’t worry. Ponchos are provided when you board the iconic tour boat, the Maid of the Mist, to feel the power of the historic falls. Formed some 12,000 years ago, Niagara Falls, straddling the US border with Canada, has long been a magnet for explorers and adventurers, as well as honeymooners travelers. By day, explore the area from multiple angles, via lush nature trails, a water-skimming jet boat or high-flying helicopter.
Inside the Niagara Falls State Park, visit the Observation Tower for a panoramic view of the three main falls - American, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe Falls. Each night, the park offers an illumination of the Falls, along with seasonal fireworks.
You’ll find lavish resorts in a bustling enclave or quiet getaways on tiny spits of sand, all just 50 miles off the coast of Florida. Choose your preferred sun-drenched environment from among 700 islands, embraced by crystal clear water and the world’s third largest barrier reef. Visions of snorkeling, diving, salt water fly fishing, ecotours, horseback riding, kayaking or just relaxing on soft sandy beaches will provide plenty to compel your family to plan a visit to this breathtaking archipelago. Contact: www.Bahamas.com.
The Volunteer state is within a day's drive of 65 percent of our nation's population. There, in Tennessee, you’ll find natural beauty, great music and vibrant communities ladled with a dose of Southern hospitality. Enjoy the 800-square mile wonderland that is the Great Smokey Mountain National Park for hiking, horseback riding, and fishing. Add a musical note to your trip with a stop by Graceland to see how the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley lived and worked.
Spend time in Music City USA, otherwise known as Nashville, to discover the rich origins of country music. Visit the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to learn how folk, gospel music and front-porch jamming evolved into the sounds we know today.
Nature-loving families may want to consider a hike on the John Muir Trail in the Cherokee National Forest. It’s a relatively crowd-free portion of the state that's said to look much the same as it did in Muir's day.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
A four-season playground for nature lovers, Michigan’s UP nudges up against three Great Lakes - Superior, Huron and Michigan. That said, water and beach activities are plentiful with kayaking, sailing and fishing as warm weather staples. Inland, visitors venture along rivers that feed the Great Lakes, explore old-growth forests and fly fish small streams.
From the Porcupine Mountains, just a few miles from the shores of Lake Superior and considered one of Michigan’s most wild landscapes, adventurers can hike from a summit to the shore in one day. During the winter months, snowmobiling, skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing are popular pursuits. Contact: www.Michigan.org
It’s easy to play favorites when it comes to Glacier National Park.
Massive peaks form the backbone of this vast pristine ecosystem, in Northern Montana. Along with her sister park across the border in Waterton Lakes, Canada, the two gems form the first international Peace Park, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1932.
The glacial carved terrain reveals a many-layered story of ancient seas, geologic faults and continuous uplifting. Today, receding glaciers, rivers, meadows and coniferous forests provide cover and sustenance for the wide variety of wildlife that give life to the park. Shimmering lakes and more than 700 miles of trails beckon visitors from around the world.
So, if you want a little extra quiet time with this favored child, make your way to Glacier country in the Spring or Fall. While you may have to appreciate some of her best attributes from afar, the peaceful nature of your visit will make it worth your while.
Hike and Bike The Going To The Sun Road
Most of Glacier National Park’s two million-plus annual visitors are eager to wind their way along the impressive, 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road. An engineering masterpiece, the rugged road, blasted from the steep mountainside in1933, is car-free for a short, but spectacular season. (Check the Glacier National Park site for exact dates)
For several glorious weeks, as the winter snows give way to the spring/summer melt, visitors can appreciate the iconic stretch of roadway on foot or from the seat of a bike.
Roll or stroll along the lower flats near Lake McDonald, appreciating the subalpine forest that rises near the water’s edge. As the season progresses, cyclists can ride the upper stretches, climbing all the way to Logan Pass at 6,683 feet without sharing the narrow roadway, or the views, with oncoming traffic.
Surrounded by snowcapped peaks against a bright blue sky, melting snowfields, and waterfalls tumbling into turquoise pools, you’ll experience Glacier’s wild interior in a way summer visitors cannot even imagine.
Bikers can also pedal a 14-mile (one way) stretch that begins at Apgar Village. Pedal out and back while enjoying views from the southern shore of Lake McDonald. This road is open to cars but traffic is minimal.
Strap on your hiking boots and check out one of many low elevation hikes in the Lake McDonald area as the Park transitions from a winter wonderland to the glories of Spring. Expect trickling streams giving way to flowing creeks and rivers and the slow reappearance of flowers, birds and baby animals.
Stop in to the Apgar Visitor Center to ask about day hikes, current trail conditions, and maps.
Note that the park’s resident wildlife are waking from a long winter’s nap, so it is important to be alert, aware and carry bear spray during your outing.
Bright colors provide a glorious contrast to Montana’s Big Sky as a busy summer gives way to the quieter days of Fall.
Hikers, bikers and road trippers can look for the colors to begin changing in mid-September on the west side of the park. On the east side, expect Mother Nature to begin the show toward the end of September and in to early October.
The grand finale happens as the larch trees, a deciduous conifer, transform the area into a golden paradise in the middle of October.
A road trip up the North Fork Road to the small town of Polebridge, (be sure to stop into the Polebridge Mercantile for baked goods and sandwiches). along the West side of the park, provides stunning views of the winding North Fork of the Flathead River and often snow-dusted peaks in the distance. From Polebridge, head into the Park for jaw-dropping views at Bowman Lake. The experience of standing within this remote area of the Park, surrounded by masses of vibrant color, towering peaks and waves lapping at your feet, will stay with you forever.
Fall is also a great time for wildlife watching. The eastern side of the Park offers some of the best opportunities to glimpse both grizzly and black bear as they prepare for the long winter. Mountain goats and big horn sheep are often present and migrating birds call from overhead.
A shoulder season visit to Glacier Country isn’t for everyone. The weather can turn on a dime. Restaurants are not bustling with vibrant activity and some services may not be available.
But for those eager to experience the spare, wild beauty of this extraordinary place on the planet, well, this is your time.
At the turn of the century, America's wild bison - which at one time numbered 60 million - had dwindled to about two dozen animals. Strong, sturdy and resilient, they’ve made a comeback, thanks to public and private conservation efforts,
On the range, in refuges and national parks, this symbol of our wildlife heritage is magnificent to observe.
Here are five places where you and your family members can snap a shot of this American icon – with a zoom lens:
Custer State Park, South Dakota.
Each year the public is invited to hear the thunder of hooves and photograph the moment as experienced riders roundup a herd of some 1,300 buffalo during the state’s Buffalo Round Up and Arts Festival. Considered a critical management tool in maintaining a healthy herd, the buffalo are corralled and then tested, branded and sorted. The event includes a pancake feed, Western and Native American entertainment and the chance to peruse the fine art and crafts offered by more than 150 vendors.
Yellowstone National Park, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
America’s first national park is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times.
Home to approximately 3,500 bison, many are the descendants of the few who survived near-extinction. Social animals that often form herds often directed by older females, they are most active during the day. Pay attention to ranger warnings and keep your distance as bison are agile, strong swimmers, and can run 35 miles per hour. Despite their burly build and weighing up to 2,000 lbs., hey can jump over objects about 5 feet high and have excellent hearing, vision, and sense of smell. You’ll likely spot them in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys. Also, be on the look out near Pelican Valley, the Lower Geyser Basin and in Gibbon Meadows. Contact: www.nps.gov/yell.
The National Bison Range, Mission Valley, Montana.
Established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, this historic Range sprawls across 18,000 acres and is one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the nation. Today, visitors witness a diverse ecosystem of grasslands, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine forests, riparian areas and ponds. In addition to herds of bison, the Range supports populations of Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep as well as coyotes, mountain lions, bears, bobcat and over 200 species of birds. Stop by the visitors center to learn about hiking, scenic drive, photography and fishing opportunities as well as f Information about current wildlife sightings and flowers in bloom,
Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, Jackson Hole, WY.
This guide-owned and operated organization provides year-round wildlife viewing and natural history interpretation to those interested in a close-up view of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild creatures in their natural habitat. Offering half day to multi-day safaris, as well as photo safaris, the experienced guides use their knowledge, passion and skills to locate bison as well as elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep and bears in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.
Terry Bison Ranch, Cheyenne, WY.
This family-friendly ranch offers bison viewing year round on a 27,000-acre spread that stretches into Colorado. A popular reunion spot, families can spread out into eightcabins, 17 bunkhouse rooms, as well as RV and tent sites. Home to nearly 3000 bison, the ranch also features train rides, horseback riding, a restaurant and a Trading Post.
A longtime backpacker, climber, and skier, author Michael Lanza, along with his nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, embarked on a year-long trip through our National Parks.
It was an ambitious adventure, designed to immerse them in the natural world and to learn more about the effects climate change was having on these important landscapes.
He chronicled the journey in his book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
Here, he shares five ways to encourage the next generation of outdoor adventurers.
1. Encourage outside play.
A slew of experts agree that regular, unstructured outside play is critical for a child’s healthy development.
To that end, “Kick them out of the house,” advises Lanza. “Kids today often want to play indoors where the electronics are. Insist they play outside—but also, give them the freedom to roam within boundaries appropriate for their ages. That way, they can explore and not get bored.”
It also helps to plan regular activity as a family: cross-country or downhill skiing, hiking on local trails, biking, even walking around your neighborhood or local community, Lanza advises.
2. Start slow.
When the time is right for adventure, take baby steps. “Begin with short hikes and gradually work up to longer outings,” advises Lanza, who gathered personal experience as a field editor with Backpacker magazine. “Evaluate your child’s readiness for something new based not just on its physical difficulty, but how well your child handled previous experiences that presented comparable stress.”
Lanza’s year–long trip included sea kayaking and wilderness camping in Glacier Bay, Alaska. He determined they were ready for such an outing because they had previously backpacked, rock climbed, floated and camped on a wilderness river, and cross-country skied through snowstorms.
“They had managed stressful situations well and understood the need to follow instructions and that trips have uncomfortable moments,” explained Lanza. “Despite how wet and raw it was, they loved Glacier Bay.”
Lanza believes in one important rule: no whining. “Tell your children they can talk about any situation they’re not happy with, but draw the line at complaining just to complain. Everyone will be happier.”
At the same time, he advises including them in the decision-making process, so they have a sense of control over their own fate, which, he says, goes a long way toward relieving stress, no matter what our age.
“Welcome their questions and address their concerns,” Lanza says. “Make sure they know that you won’t ask them to do anything they are not comfortable with, and that you will provide whatever help they need.”
According to Lanza, Grand Teton National Park, Yosemite, Zion, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain National Park all offer hiking and backpacking options that are ideal for beginners and families, with easy to moderately difficult days and simple logistics.
4. Be flexible.
Whether rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone or canoeing in the Everglades with his kids, Lanza made a point to be flexible.
Taking children on an outdoor adventure, especially younger ones, does not always go according to plan. Young kids want to throw rocks in a creek and play in the mud.
Lanza’s advice: “Let them. But, explain that there will be time for playing, but also a time for hiking.”
Meanwhile, parents should “focus on the journey rather than the destination,” advises Lanza. “And have Plan B at the ready.”
5. On the trail with teens.
No matter what kind of trip is planned, allowing a teenage son or daughter to invite a friend along is often a good strategy. It can be a little trickier when planning an outdoor adventure. “You want to make sure he or she is up to the challenges the trip may present,” explained Lanza. “It’s a good idea to talk with the parents ahead of time and perhaps plan a practice outing.”
Whether it’s a mountain climb or rafting a river, finding a shared goal that will challenge and excite your teen is a great way to open new doors within your relationship and to the natural world, offers Lanza.
Michael Lanza also offers outdoor adventure tips and strategies on his website The Big Outside.
To begin, the name — Death Valley National Park — doesn’t immediately conjure visions of a lively holiday. And you’ve heard: It’s the lowest, driest, hottest place on earth. All true. But here, in one of the world’s most dramatic desert landscapes — a place of shifting sand dunes, multi-hued rock formations, and hidden canyons — you’ll wake before dawn to watch the rugged mountains turn pink with the sunrise. Then, come nightfall, you’ll marvel at star-filled skies as the desert wind rustles the palms. And you’ll wonder why it took so long to find your way here.
Full of Life
Death Valley has earned its “dry” reputation thanks to an average annual precipitation of fewer than 2 inches. In fact, no rain fell at all in 1929 or 1953.
Yet, Death Valley is full of life. From autumn into spring, the weather is positively heavenly. The occasional winter rainstorm ushers in vast fields of wildflowers. And a remarkable range of creatures, both great and small, have either adapted to summer’s harsh conditions or find refuge in the area’s diverse habitats. Not merely barren desert, the park also encompasses spring-fed natural oases, pinyon-juniper woodlands and even pine forests. With so much to see and do, the intrepid explorer should determine a base camp. Just a stone’s throw from the national park visitor center, The Oasis at Death Valley, comprised of the historic Four Diamond Inn at Death Valley and The Ranch at Death Valley, provides a well-situated solution with unexpected luxury. It’s a true oasis-like setting, with modern accommodations, fine dining and spring-fed pools, a welcome contrast to a day spent exploring salt flats, mud hills and volcanic craters.
Many Death Valley National Park visitors venture to this remote region 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas to marvel at the stark desert beauty and escape into the beautiful silence of the park’s vast expanses. But given that it is the land of stark contrast, why not create your own itinerary with a nod to the exotic landscape?
Mix in a massage under the Oasis’s date palms with a summit of the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. And pair a soak in the Inn’s healing waters with a mountain bike ride out Skidoo Road. Follow a jeep tour to a ghost town and enjoy a glass of fine wine, sipped al fresco on the terrace, as the sun sets in the valley below. You get the idea.
Wondering where to begin?
After the 1848 discovery of gold in California, the valley experienced more than a century-long mining boom. Most pioneers set out on a quest for gold and silver but were met with a notable lack of success. The only long-term profitable ore to be found in the region was borax, which was transported out of Death Valley with the famous 20-mule teams.
Today visitors can explore the once bustling towns of Chloride City, Gold Point, Panamint City and Ballarat, among others. Peer into abandoned mines, and step inside the old saloons, post offices and abandoned houses and imagine what life must have been like for these hearty Westerners.
Tee it Up
Bring your A-game (and your camera) to the lowest golf course in the world, The Furnace Creek Golf Course at Death Valley, at 214 feet below sea level. The hazards here include coyotes that like to fetch golf balls (you are allowed a free drop) and the perplexing fact that balls don’t travel as far below sea level. Recent renovations on Death Valley’s 18-hole, par-70 course addressed water conservation and transitioned 15 acres of maintained turf to desert with low-water-use native plantings. But the improvements didn’t make the course any easier. So, should the top-rated links humble you, look forward to the smile-inducing, 19th-hole grill and bar, complete with a drive-through for golf carts.
Scout for Wildlife
Remarkably, more than 400 animal species are native to the park, including dozens of reptiles, 51 different mammals and even six kinds of fish. You never know what you’ll see, so keep your eyes open for roadrunners zooming across the highway and coyotes feeding on fallen fruit in the date palm groves of the Inn at Death Valley.
Most of the park’s animals are nocturnal, so venturing out at dawn or near sunset when animals are active is your best bet. The park’s scattered water sources, including Darwin Falls, draw a wide range of animals. Carry a small pair of wide-angle binoculars. When possible, choose a spot that offers a wide view and stay put.
Swim and Soak
Back at the Inn, built on the grounds of a natural spring in 1927, a million gallons of fresh glacial water flow out of the ground daily. The naturally heated Travertine Springwater, a comfortable 84 degrees year-round, fills swimming pools at the resort and at the nearby Ranch at Furnace Creek. Because the water is continually replaced with fresh spring water, there’s no need to chemically treat the pools.
Explore by Jeep
Rent a Jeep, load up, and learn about the local geological and mining history as you wind through Titus Canyon, a 27-mile-long gorge through the Grapevine Mountains. Expect door scraping narrows when you encounter rock walls — hundreds of feet tall and only 20 feet apart — before rising via ribbon-like switchbacks. Along the way you’ll see American Indian rock art and learn about the early miners, lured to the region by the prospect of riches.
Strap on Your Hiking Boots
Stop by the National Park Service visitors center to learn about hikes within the park, for any fitness level. We love the colorful Mosaic Canyon and Badwater Basin salt flats, the lowest place in North America. Other options include an easy (albeit sandy and rocky), 1-mile round-trip up a canyon to Natural Bridge, the largest of the park’s natural bridges. Consider a hike along the rim of a volcanic crater just over an hour northwest of your base camp. Six hundred feet deep and a half-mile across, Ubehebe Crater looks like something you might find on the moon. It formed around 2,100 years ago as magma flowing upward from deep within the earth met pockets of groundwater, setting off a powerful volcanic steam eruption.
Be sure to practice safe hiking (bring plenty of water) in this rugged terrain. Ranger-led hikes, such as the 7-mile Death Valley Paleontology Tour that leads to Pleistocene-era fossils, are also available in season.
Explore on Two Wheels
With hundreds of miles of both paved and dirt roads, road and mountain biking are popular within Death Valley National Park during the winter months. Visitors can bring their own or rent mountain bikes at the Inn or the Ranch. Either way, resort staff members can suggest tried-and-true scenic rides and safety tips.
Marvel at the Amazing Night Sky
With its desert-clear air and miles-from-anywhere location, the expansive night sky at Death Valley is ablaze with stars. Because it has some of the darkest night skies in the country, it is designated a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park, the highest level awarded. Don’t miss the ranger-led astronomy tours offered throughout winter.
It’s been said that Death Valley National Park is like a different planet. Apparently, George Lucas agreed. Rather than attempt to create a galaxy far, far away, he chose to film both “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” and “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” in the national park.
Explore the otherworldly terrain that helped to inspire these classic films when you head to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Desolation Canyon, Golden Canyon, Dante’s View and Artist’s Palette to stand where Luke Skywalker contemplated the Force in 1977.
Wonder at the Wildflowers
The wildflower bloom demonstrates the life that springs forth from late fall and winter rains in this 3.3 million-acre park. Each year’s display varies with the intensity of the bloom and the timing of the flowers’ appearance.
But it is not uncommon to see Desert Gold and Brown Eyed Evening Primrose or Notched Leaf Phacelia appear in mid-January or earlier. The full impact of the revitalization becomes most apparent between February and March but sometimes continues until June at higher elevations.
Change doesn’t come quickly in Death Valley National Park. Geological time remains the standard, human impacts are minimal, and the landscape is seemingly eternal. The coyotes continue to howl on the flats, yet a resounding silence prevails.
Once nourished by the vast, unexpected beauty and the startling contrasts, the change within will be yours to define.
If you go
The Oasis at Death Valley (formerly Furnace Creek Resort) sits in a lush oasis surrounded by the vast and arid desert of Death Valley National Park, California —just 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas and 275 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The resort includes two hotels: the historic Four Diamond Inn at Death Valley, with 66 newly refurbished rooms and 22 all-new casitas and the more family-oriented, 224-room Ranch at Death Valley. Learn more at oasisatdeathvalley.com or call 844-236-7916.
Warm up to the wonders of winter adventure. Here are five, high energy family travel ideas to consider:
1. Juneau, AK.
Visit this world-class winter destination and trade long lines and crowded restaurants for endless views and pristine solitude.
Pop on your skis and put things in perspective as you glide across Mendenhall Glacier Lake. With a massive glacier as your backdrop, your whole family will enjoy speeding across the flat terrain while taking in some of the most majestic scenery imaginable. Check out the groomed Nordic trails at Eaglecrest, a community-owned ski resort on Douglas Island just minutes from Juneau.
The most adventuresome families will find challenging terrain and untouched routes along with insider knowledge through experienced heli-skiing operators in the area.
2. Yellowstone National Park.
Discover the magic of our first National Park cloaked in her winter finery. New snowfall serves as the perfect backdrop for a Nordic adventure to a steaming backcountry geyser, a snowshoe around Old Faithful or wildlife viewing in the Lamar Valley. Venture to and from your overnight at the Snow Lodge via snow coach, stopping enroute to observe animals on the move, icy waterfall formations and the evening alpenglow on the mountains. Guided adventure and snowmobile tours are available.
3. Winter Park, CO.
Explore more than 60 miles of groomed trails on skate skis when you visit this family favorite in the Colorado Rockies. In addition to making the most of free skiing lessons offered by the Nordic Center at the YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch, expect good times ice skating, playing broomball, tubing, sledding, and creating arts and crafts. Get cozy for story time, with hot chocolate and s’mores by the fire. Contact: www.ymcarockies.org. www.visitGrandCounty.com ; www.Colorado.com.
4. McCall, ID.
Bring your favorite furry friends for a day of outdoor fun in this forested mountain town located two hours north of Boise. Dogs are welcome on Nordic trails in several locations throughout McCall, where views of Payette Lake are paired with fresh air and contagious enthusiasm for adventure. At Jug Mountain Ranch, discover the Lyle Nelson Nordic & Snowshoe Trail system, designed by the local Olympian. Skate ski tracks for all abilities send explorers through open meadows and pine scented forests. Fido will enjoy romping through the snow as you and the family navigate trails at the Tamarack Resort, where lessons and guided tours are also available.
5. Kingfield, ME.
Explore more than 80 miles of trails via cross-country skis or on snowshoes in the backcountry of western Maine. Enjoy your off-the-grid adventure by day and then relax in a comfortable hut over night where a warm bed and tasty meals await. Considered “boutique hostels”, the huts, run by a non-profit organization, feature state of the art green energy systems that generate and store their own power. Make tracks from hut-to-hut on your own or with a guide. Contact: www.mainehuts.org
A great read for kids to go with your winter adventures!
A week before we visited Yosemite National Park, Alex Honnold became the first person to free-climb the near-vertical 3,000-foot face of El Capitan. And just a day before we arrived, two other climbers — Leah Pappajohn and Jonathan Fleury — scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan without clothes.
And by “we” I mean, my 10-year-old-daughter and my sons, ages 12 and 15.
Great timing, huh?
Unfortunately, Honnold was long gone by the time we arrived at the foot of “El Cap.” Fortunately, Pappajohn and Fleury were. I didn’t know how I would have explained that one to the kids. (“But Dad, they’re still wearing ropes, right? So they’re not totally naked.”)
That’s Yosemite National Park in the summer. Always something to do, always something to see. I’m just reporting the bare facts.
For us, Yosemite meant taking in the iconic sights, but also wandering through the amazing sequoia groves with the help of an expert guide. If you’re thinking of coming to the park during peak season, you need to know about the “insider” way we avoided the crowds.
A visit with “El Cap”
I know what you’re thinking. Yosemite in June. But isn’t everyone there?
Yes, but it’s still an enormous park, which at 1,189 square miles is about the same size as the state of Rhode Island. An insider will know where to go to avoid the crowds, and that insider is a private guide from the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit that supports this national park.
Pete, our conservancy guide, knew the best spots to see the famed El Capitan, the shortcut to Bridalveil Falls, the perfect meadow to stop for a picnic. He even knew the best place to see the climbers scaling the north face. While a line of cars waited on the other side of the park, we used his insider knowledge to save time and see the best places.
The main attractions, of course, were “El Cap” and Half Dome, the two monoliths. If you’ve never been to the foot of these landmarks, let me tell you, there’s no way to adequately describe them. The only thing that comes close is a photo, and only famed photographer Ansel Adams captured what I would consider their essence — the shadows, the smooth granite face and the elegant shape that inspired countless tourists from around the world and a clothing line or two.
There’s a meadow in the Yosemite Valley, right off Northside Drive near the raging Merced River, where you can watch the brave climbers challenging “El Cap”. Bring a powerful pair of binoculars so you can see them inch their way up the vertical face. Not to be melodramatic, but my two youngest kids, who are known to be a little chatty, were stunned into silence. This was some rock.
Circling the sequoia grove
The rocks aren’t the only big things in Yosemite. There are also enormous, thousand-year-old sequoias, and the best place to see them is a secluded grove called Tuolumne Grove. It’s a 2½-mile hike down into the grove, but well worth it. Among the attractions: a dead sequoia you can walk through, a massive fire-red sequoia named Big Red, and a California redwood felled by lightning and hollowed on the inside that the kids can walk through.
Pete explained the fascinating history of these trees — how they used to be common in North America until climate change forced them to retreat to a few isolated pockets, how some of the trees are up to 2,000 years old, and how they create their own ecosystem that’s home to a variety of beetle, millipede and spider species.
Visitors to Yosemite probably know there are redwoods here, but if they don’t know about Tuolumne, it’s unlikely they’ll ever visit. This is one of the smaller and least-trafficked of the groves, yet it is also one of the most visually arresting. Standing next to one of these giants, you feel a lot like you do when you’re at the foot of Half Dome or “El Cap.” There’s an almost reverent attitude you see in the other visitors, even the kids. It’s as if they innately know that these trees are among the last of their kind and must be respected.
Impressed as I was with the silencing effect that Yosemite had on my otherwise boisterous kids, it couldn’t last. On the drive back to the Rush Creek Lodge, the conversation turned to an unanswerable question: Will the nude climbers ever return? Also, why weren’t they arrested for indecent exposure? (Apparently, there’s no law against it in the national parks. Who knew?) And just as suddenly as the quiet had descended on our group, it all evaporated into laughter.
Timing is everything.
If you go…
Where to stay
If you want to avoid the traffic and long waiting lists for a campground in the park, check out Rush Creek Lodge, a new hotel on the east end of the park. Go to their poolside barbecue for dinner, which is the best value this side of the national park.
Where to eat
If you’re heading into the park, pick up a few sandwiches at Rush Creek’s general store. For dinner, we found a respectable Mexican dinner at Cocina Michoacana in nearby Groveland.Cover your eyes, kids! I think I see two nudes ascending El Capitan!