Visiting Our National Parks
Jeremy Cronon (10 Months, 45 National Parks, 11 Rules) just published a very useful set of rules for visiting America’s national parks. I agree with all eleven rules. Since we’ve just completed a three week trip that featured four of the country’s forty-seven parks, I thought I’d add a few rules of my own and comment on a few of Mr. Cronon’s. In my experience the most important rule is to have a great traveling companion. The national parks are a shared experience, and I’m lucky to have a wonderful and understanding partner for my adventures.
Drive the Speed Limit: In the past twenty years, I’ve gone from the driver looking for the chance to overtake the slow-pokes in a national park to the driver looking for the nearest pullout to let all the cars overtake me. Often I find wildlife by driving very slowly.
Use Paper Maps: Before every trip I get a set of road maps from AAA and study the maps offered by the National Park Service. It’s far better than Google Maps or other digital services for locating by-ways, avoiding the interstate, and making interesting detours.
See a Sunrise and Sunset in Every Park: This is the best way to slow down when visiting a national park, because the entire process of sunrise or sunset takes about 45 minutes. You stay in one place and experience it. The 25 minutes after sunrise or sunset provides soft light, which is amazing for viewing and photos. Sunrise is the best because you can have most of the park to yourself.
Silton Corollary: Stay as close to the park as possible, even if it means staying where the lodging is more spartan and the food selections are limited. It’s hard enough to get up at 4:30 to witness sunrise without having to drive 40 or 50 miles to reach a good spot to see the day begin or end.
Avoid Interstates: It’s not always possible, but the secondary roads often go through national forests or state parks.
Silton Corollary: Drive on dirt roads. Sage Brush Road in Badlands is where the animals hide. County Road 11 near Medora leads to Teddy Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch site in North Dakota.
Meet Someone Every Day: In the course of our travels, a geologist we met in the Old Faithful Geyser basin (not this trip) told us about a trail that led to the most amazing view of Grand Prismatic Spring. On this trip, the owner and bartender at a brewery in Cody gave us a great breakfast recommendation. Park rangers and volunteers are always full of information and stories.
Go Where Tourists Go. And Where They Don’t Go: We’ve been to Yellowstone many times, but we always want to see the Falls of the Yellowstone. However, thanks to a chat with the bartender at Grant Village, we hiked to a small lake just south of the falls. Along the way we saw elk and bison and very few people. Even in Yellowstone, it only takes about 50 yards on a trail to lose the crowds.
Silton Corollary: Drive and/or hike the some of the same routes multiple times. In Theodore Roosevelt I drove the loop road five times over three days. Each time we saw something different and the perspective changes when you drive the road clockwise and then counter clockwise.
Silton Corollary: Start early in the day. Between seven and ten in the morning, even the most popular park attractions aren’t too crowded.
Spontaneity: We always travel with a complete set of hotel reservations. We don’t want to create any stress about finding a room at the end of a day. However, we don’t have a set plan for any given day of our trip. Weather, local tips, or achy knees often figure into the plans for a given day.
I’d add two more rules to Mr. Cronon’s list:
Include National Monuments, National Forests, and State Parks on your trips. The National Parks don’t have a monopoly on beauty, culture, or history.
Take One Camera Lens: I used to juggle a bunch of camera equipment. It’s a distraction. One flexible lens won’t capture everything, but it will capture enough. In addition, smartphones are pretty good.
I doubt that we’ll visit all the national parks. Some are too remote. Moreover, we want to visit many parks again.
All photos from Badlands National Parl