Last year families discovered (or re-discovered) the joy of the road trip. Many weren’t interested in flying, and still others wanted to travel but preferred to have their method of travel under their own control. Being outdoors is also a great remedy to cabin fever, which is why a lot of people made a point of visiting national and state parks last year. That’s a trend, along with the road trip, that’s likely to continue for some time.
If you’re thinking of getting on the road and checking out some natural wonders, you’re lucky that there’s no shortage of places to visit. In fact, across the country there are over 400 of them, of all shapes, sizes, and views. And if you want a memory beyond the photo, make sure to stop in the gift shop of each park, where you’ll likely find a lot of cool things including mugs with icons and imagery that are representative of the park. To ensure your vacation is picture perfect, we’ve compiled tips for choosing and exploring your favorite national park.
Pick the Perfect Park
You’ve heard of Yosemite, Zion, and Yellowstone. But what about Wind Cave in South Dakota, Voyageurs in Minnesota, or Kobuk Valley in Arkansas? Crowds flock to the most popular national parks. But you may be able to avoid packed trails and roads by visiting a lesser-known park such as one of these.
Sandboard or sled down the tallest dunes in North America in this Colorado park and preserve 170 miles north of Santa Fe. Hike through aspen and conifer forests, and explore grasslands and wetlands on horseback. Swim and fish in alpine lakes, and scope out sandhill cranes on their spring or fall migration. Navigate the sand on a fat bike or borrow a dunes wheelchair. And if you visit during May or early June, bring your swimsuits so you can wade and play in shallow Medano Creek, which has a mysterious surge flow that creates ocean-like waves.
This urban park in Atlanta, Georgia, invites visitors to walk through the civil rights leader’s birthplace and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as co-pastor with his father. Also, tour the King Center, which includes Dr. and Coretta Scott King’s crypt and exhibits on both the couple and Mahatma Gandhi, King’s hero.
Visitors to this Michigan archipelago must travel across Lake Superior. There, you can kayak or canoe in a multitude of bays and coves; fish; and scuba dive down to several shipwrecks. Explore the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, and look for moose and wolves as you hike or backpack through birch, spruce, and aspen. Take a wheel-chair-accessible boat tour, and spend the night stargazing at one of the park’s numerous campgrounds.
Wander along 27 miles of historic motor roads on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, and stop to photograph bridges and boulders at sunrise. Explore 158 miles of hiking trails along rocky beaches and granite peaks. Bicycle 45 miles of carriage roads with crushed rock surfaces, or kayak and swim in lakes and ponds. Children will love exploring tidepools on the Bar Island Sandbar, while fans of snow sports may gravitate toward the skiing and snowboarding that Acadia offers during winter months.
Natural amphitheaters filled with rock spires called hoodoos are the star attractions of this park in southern Utah. Walk among them on a day hike, or travel by horseback. Visit during the annual geology or astronomy festivals, participate in the Christmas Bird Count, or snowshoe and hike during the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival. Stay in one of two campgrounds or the historic lodge.
This urban National Park in St. Louis, Missouri, offers historical structures, galleries, and tours. See the Old Courthouse where enslaved African American Dred Scott sued for his freedom, and visit the American history museum. Take a tram to the top of the arch, or fly over it in a helicopter. Conclude your visit with a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi.
Timing is Everything
At first glance, summer seems like the perfect time to visit a national park. The weather is usually warm and sunny enough for swimming, hiking, and camping, and kids have time off from school. But if you travel in June, July, and August, you may find yourself shoulder to shoulder with others on narrow nature trails.
If summer is an optimal time for your family to travel, consider a national park that offers respite from the heat. Explore the temperate rainforest of Olympic National Park in Washington, or check out the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina to access both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound.
Spring and fall tend to be less crowded than summer, and many experts regard September and October as a particularly good time to visit. This “shoulder season” between summer’s high attendance and winter’s low offers fewer crowds and discounted costs. The weather is often mild, and trees put on a spectacular show. Consider a trip to see the golden larches blanketing the slopes at Glacier National Park in Montana or the red oaks and multi-hued maples in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.
Worried about getting caught in an autumn rainstorm at your campground? Reserve a room in one of the many historic hotels or lodges in or outside our national parks. And don’t discount a winter visit. Snow against the red rocks at Arches National Park makes for stunning photographs. Denali National Park in Alaska offers guided snowshoe walks and dog sledding. And visitors to Northern California’s Lassen National Park can enjoy sledding hills and backcountry skiing.
Plan for Success
Savvy national park-goers know it’s best to plan a year in advance to score campsites or lodge rooms, and ensure you can enjoy your favorite sightseeing and recreational activities. Many parks offer free trip planning kits, which include maps, favorite road trips through the area, information on park entrances and nearby towns, wildlife-watching guides, and itineraries.
The National Park Service maintains a website for each park; many sites include links to the region’s history and culture, related scientific facts and discoveries, and ways to get involved in the park as a volunteer or artist in residence. Be aware that weather and road closures can affect your trip. Call the park’s office or check its website, and pay attention to the active alerts in the park you’re visiting to learn about any dangers and closures. Also, check for driving and parking restrictions. Some parks allow travel on particular roads only via shuttles.
Get a Mug!
And of course, while you’re enjoying the beauty that our national parks have to offer, be sure you grab a Deneen Pottery mug to commemorate your vacation! We have our nifty Mug Collector’s Guide to the National Parks that can direct you to the places throughout the parks that you can pick up a mug. We also have some parks mugs available on our Deneen Pottery Web Store if you prefer ordering a mug before you go or after you get home.
(Originally Posted on SayInsurance)