Picking the Perfect National Park for Your Vacation
There are so many decisions that go into choosing a vacation destination. When it involves more than just you and your friend or significant other, it seems to get even more complicated. Short and even family vacations should not drive you to drink or pulling all your hair out. These are just a few tips to help you make your choice a little less stressful.
The first and easiest thing to ask yourself is what you and the people you will be going with like to do? Are you totally outdoor people, strictly indoor types, or a combination? Are all of you athletic or in good shape? Do you like hot weather, mild or cold seasons? Is sightseeing something you would like on your agenda or are you strictly an activity oriented type? Do you enjoy ruggedness or do you want more comfort? Do you like camping, fishing, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, bird watching, wildlife viewing, history, learning how some of the unique formations in the parks came to be there, snorkeling, swimming, scuba diving, sailing, boating, kayaking, whitewater rafting, photography, hunting, or just lazing around beautiful places?
The next thing to consider is how much do you have to spend and how much time will you have. There are so many national parks and monuments that are relatively close to people that it is not expensive to get yourself there. Some of the exciting wilderness areas in Alaska can be expensive to get to, but if you have the money and enjoy the great outdoors, it is certainly worth going for an incredible experience you will not soon forget.
That being said, it only remains to pick your destination. Bear in mind, that almost any area has inexpensive travel options and moves up from there to more expensive ones. Also, just because you’re going to a national park, does not mean you have to ‘rough it’. There are plenty of options for day hiking, climbing, fishing, water sports, etc. that do not involve sitting by a campfire enjoying the great outdoors if that is just not your style.
Camping is generally believed to be the cheapest type of a vacation after you make the initial investment of camping supplies. This can be a tidy sum, but remember that the equipment usually lasts for quite a few years. It is generally true that camping fees at the parks are cheaper than an average hotel room. And if you own an RV, you can camp in true comfort. Most campgrounds are situated in gorgeous surroundings and allow you easy access to the park’s highlights. There are very few parks that don’t have some kind of campgrounds. Also, when you camp, you usually cook your own food which also saves you money. And no, you don’t have to eat hotdogs all week unless that is what you love!
Now, if you live in the Midwest, there are plenty of park options within driving distances that take no more than twelve hours or less, depending where you live. Of course, you can always choose to fly anywhere, but some parks are a little distant from the nearest airport. Driving allows you the luxury of taking along everything you think you need for a comfortable stay.
My favorite pick for the Midwest is Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is hands down one of the best all-around parks for the family. It falls within the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. You can choose to rough it on the Appalachian Trail, camp out in a developed campground or wilderness, or stay in anywhere from luxurious suites to nice inexpensive hotels in nearby Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN. And, speaking of Pigeon Forge, you have Dollywood and all the innumerable attractions they offer in the area. On the North Carolina side you have more campgrounds, the city of Cherokee that has several Indian souvenirs and museums, whitewater rafting and fly fishing (the last two are actually offered in both states). The mountains are absolutely beautiful and make for great photo ops.
Another great choice is Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and State Park. They also have camping and wildlife viewing, especially bird watching. A unique shoreline allows for walking on the beach or swimming in Lake Michigan. They even have areas for you to bring your own horses and go horseback riding. For those of you that enjoy sightseeing and history, you can see the five World’s Fair houses from 1933 or attend the Gathering At Calumic in early May, where Eastern Woodland Indians and Western Great Lakes fur traders and Voyageurs reenact what life was like along the Calumet River from 1730-1830.
If you enjoy boating, there are several places in the Midwest, but the two northern ones are Voyageurs National Park and Isle Royale National Park. Voyageurs is in Minnesota and Isle Royale is off of the northern coast of Michigan in Lake Superior. Both offer great wilderness adventures as well as canoeing, kayaking, motor boating and fishing opportunities. Voyageurs is considered a water park meaning you have to take a boat over to the actual park, but it is a short journey. There are places to camp out or lodges to stay at that will help equip you, enabling you to boat around the waterways and find those great fishing spots or spy wildlife. Isle Royale is a long boat ride or a short “puddle jumper” flight. It has wilderness camping only, but also has a lodge for those who only enjoy day hiking and some comfort. There’s kayaking, fishing, backpacking, wildlife, with the longest running research program studying wolves and moose, scuba diving, and ship wrecks. It is truly a unique ecosystem to observe.
The Western US has much more to offer in national parks. The most famous is Yellowstone where you will see Old Faithful and lots of other geothermal marvels and one of the few places in the lower 48 to observe grizzly bears up close. You’ll also see bison roaming very close by so be careful. It is located on the border of Wyoming and Montana. There are numerous ranches and lodges to stay at or you can camp out in the park. There is also great fly fishing, kayaking, climbing and backpacking. Another biggie is Grand Canyon National Park. This one is in Arizona, again on the border of Arizona and Nevada, but also close to the southern Utah border. It is part of the Grand Staircase, an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that runs south from Bryce Canyon National Park, through Zion National Park (both in Utah) and ends at the Grand Canyon. There is camping, backpacking, day hiking, whitewater rafting, and plenty of photography opportunities.
Other great parks (although all of them are super places to visit) in the west, are Yosemite, Channel Islands, Redwood, Arches, Olympic, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, Crater Lake, Mt. Rainier, and Sequoia. All of these have great wide spread activities that will suit any vacationers’ needs and desires. Please check out our individual park pages for further information on each of these superb parks.
The Eastern United States also offer splendid options for vacationing. Acadia National Park in Maine has unsurpassed northern oceanside views and cliff climbing that you won’t find in other parks. There’s also fishing, island exploring, hiking and beautiful gardens to gaze upon. Further down the eastern side is Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The Appalachian Trail runs through the park for 101 miles giving you plenty of hiking and backpacking options. There’s also camping, fishing, bird watching and horseback riding.
In Florida, you will find three national parks and one preserve with the most famous being Everglades. Everglades is so much more then what you’ve seen on TV. The wildlife is phenomenal and makes it easy to get some great animal and bird shots. There’s also wilderness camping, (watch out for alligators!) canoeing, fishing, airboat rides, hiking, and rare as well as beautiful flora. Big Cypress National Preserve is right by Everglades and is very similar, but also offers cypress stands, mangrove forests, endangered species of wildlife like the peregrine falcon and the Florida panther. Activities include fishing, biking, canoeing, hiking, and hunting. Biscayne National Park is off of the eastern tip of southern Florida. As the world’s third-longest coral reef tract, there are snorkeling, scuba diving trips, sailing, swimming, fishing, canoeing and kayaking opportunities, making it a celebrated national park vacation for family vacations or outdoor adventure-seeking spring break crowds. Dry Tortugas National Park is a unique park preserving Fort Jefferson that was built during the Civil War but never finished, and the nesting places of terns and sea turtles. You will be able to enjoy Key West snorkeling, saltwater fishing, swimming, lighthouses, ship wreaks, hiking, beach camping, boating, scuba diving, bird watching, and underwater photography of some of the best coral reef and marine life areas down in Southern Florida.
Again, I want to stress that this has been just an overview of some of the impressive parks to be seen in our national parks system. I urge you to dig into our site and read some of the park pages for the areas you are interested in visiting to find the perfect place for you to enjoy a wonderful vacation full of memories and remarkable photographs. A lot of the research has already been done for you, so dive in! With the national parks, your choices are truly endless.
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