5 great ways to explore national parks under your own power

Traveling through the national parks under your own power is its own rewardThere is no doubt that America’s national parks are popular tourist destinations. The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of visitors to the parks, and many of them have been setting attendance records as a result.

With the summer fast approaching, many of us are no doubt making plans for our vacations, with many electing to visit a national park once again this year. The vast majority of those visitors will never wander far from their car, but to get a true sense of what the parks have to offer, you really should ditch the vehicle and strike out under your own power. In doing so, you’ll get a much better sense of the landscapes around you, and have a better chance of connecting with nature too. Here are five ways that you can do just that.

Hike the Great Smoky Mountains
With more than 800 miles of trail in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there is a route for just about everyone. From short excursions and day hikes, to multi-day epics for the backpacker crowd, this is a park that is sure to please any outdoor enthusiast. With lush green forests, crystal clear streams, and breathtaking mountain tops, the Smoky Mountains have it all. But you can’t experience the best they have to offer from you car, so put on your hiking shoes and hit the trail. I recommend the 8-mile round-trip hike to Charlies Bunion, a popular mountain walk that is more than worth the effort.

Raft The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is truly one of the great natural wonders of the world. It is so vast in size and scope that you simply have to see it to truly understand just how large it really is. That size is magnified even further while you’re rafting the mighty Colorado River, with the mile-high walls of the Canyon looming far overhead. Visitors have a number of options when it comes to paddling the river, ranging from short half and full day excursions to multi-day options lasting as much as 25 days in length. The whitewater in the Grand Canyon will have your heart pounding in your chest, and once you’ve calmed down from the adrenaline rush, you can enjoy a gentle drift down the Colorado, with those amazing landscapes completely surrounding you.
Go Climbing In Yosemite
In addition to being one of the most beautiful places you will ever see, Yosemite also happens to be one of the great rock climbing destinations on the planet. Each year, climbers from all over the world descend on the park to test their skills on its legendary rock walls, some of which are so famous that they are well known by their unique names. There are routes available for all skill levels, including beginners, but obviously this is not an activity for everyone. For those not wanting to climb rock walls, I’d recommend the Half-Dome Summit Trail, which offers access to the top of one of Yosemite’s most famous landmarks along a route that includes cables to help you make your way. (Permit required!)

Kayak The North Woods in Voyageurs
Voyageurs National Park, located in the extreme northern border of Minnesota and Canada, is one of the best hidden gems in the entire National Park System. It is remote, pristine, and quiet, with some of the thickest forests you’ll find in the U.S. The best way to explore this park, no, the only way to explore this park, is from the seat of a kayak. Visitors can paddle through a series of interconnected waterways that wander past wilderness islands and shorelines with plenty of wildlife to view along the way. If you have more than a day, you may want to camp at one of the campsites that are only accessible by boat.

Cycle Through Acadia
With its spectacular mix of ocean views and mountain vistas, Acadia National Park, located in Maine, makes for a fantastic summertime destination. But to really see the park, you should leave your vehicle behind and hop on your bicycle instead. The 27-mile long Park Loop Road is an excellent ride for those who want to explore the park, but that route can get crowded with cars, especially in the summer. For more solitude, hit the Heart of Acadia loop trail, which is a 22-mile long road that is completely free of motor vehicles. The path is best suited for mountain bikes, but offers some of the best views in the park, including scenic overlooks that will take your breath away. You won’t be disappointed!

While these are perfect examples of national park adventures sans cars, nearly every park in the U.S. system has similar options. Need further incentive to explore the park under your own power this year? Consider this, the price of gas is expected to hit record levels this summer, which means you can save a little cash by leaving the car behind and exploring on foot, bike, or other means.

[Photos courtesy of the National Park Service]

Best spots for an autumn hike

With fall officially upon us, cooler weather has begun to set in, and the green leaves of summer have given way to the bright reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn. For many, this is the best time of the year to head out on a trail for a long hike and to take in this annual color show. Hear are some recommendations for the best places to witness nature’s color palette on display.

The Great Smokey Mountains National Park
The Great Smokey Mountains National Park is one of the most popular in the U.S., pulling in nearly 10 million visitors per year. But in the fall, the crowds begin to thin out, just in time for the leaves to start changing colors. With over 800 miles of trails to explore, there are no lack of great hikes in this park. Be sure to check out the higher elevation trails, such as Sugarland Mountain and Gregory Bald, which offer stunning views throughout October and into November. With sugar and red maples, hickory trees, and scarlet oaks, you’ll have plenty of eye candy to take in.

Allegheny National Forest
Located in northwest Pennsylvania, the Allegheny National Forest is a bit of a hidden gem and mostly unknown outside of the region, which generally translates to smaller crowds. Each fall the half million acres of oaks, poplars, and white ash trees show off a brilliant range of colors to those lucky enough to experience them. While there are miles of trails to choose from, perhaps the best of the best is the Hickory Creek Wilderness Trail, which is 11 miles in length, and cuts through the heart of the forest itself.
Pisgah National Forest
Leaf lovers in North Carolina have plenty to see when they hit the trail in Pisgah National Forest, found not far from Asheville. With the southern Appalachian Mountains as a backdrop, the forest becomes spectacularly colorful in late October, making all of the trails a good bet for a day hike. Take a stroll up Mt. Mitchell, which at 6089 feet in height, offers views that will take your breath away for more reason than one. But when you get to the top, the view is worth the effort.

Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon offers up spectacular scenery all year round, but come fall, the maple trees turn to gold and standout brilliantly against the stark cliff faces. The Gorge has a number of beautiful waterfalls as well, which add even more of allure of a hike through the area. Check out the Multnomah Falls loop trail, which is only about a mile and a half in length, but gains more than 600 feet of altitude along the way. The trail gives hikers a great view of the Gorge, and passes right by one of the most scenic waterfalls in the entire country.

Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula remains a great wilderness escape and one of the best places in the country to enjoy fall foliage. The Escarpment Trail in Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park is amongst the best hikes in the Midwest, and while it is just 4.3 miles in length, it provides spectacular views of the surrounding forest which ring the Lake of the Clouds. In the fall, the hills are ablaze with reds, oranges, and yellows that are just too good to miss.

There you have it. Just a sampling of some of the best fall hikes throughout the U.S. What’s your favorite fall hike? is there a hidden gem that you’d like to share? Leave a comment and tell us all about it!

National Parks host final free weekend of the summer

As we’ve mentioned a couple of times this summer, the National Park Service has designated several weekends as “fee free”, meaning we can get into any and all national parks and monuments without paying the usual entry fees. This weekend, August 15-16, is the final free weekend of the summer, and your last chance to take advantage of the government’s generosity.

There are a number of amazing parks spread throughout the U.S. and I’ve recommended five of them here and five more here. When writing those lists, I was looking at parks that were a bit off the beaten path, and less crowded in the summer months, when travelers flock to the top parks, resulting in traffic jams and less than ideal conditions. But as the dog days of summer begin to fade, it may be time to visit one of the more iconic parks. Here are five of the best.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
Perhaps the most famous and popular of all the national parks, Yellowstone is home to Old Faithful, the geyser that erupts at regular intervals of roughly 90 minutes or so. Yellowstone offers travelers plenty to do year round, with hiking, fishing, camping, and much more. There is spectacular wildlife to be seen as well, including elk, moose, bear, and wolves. But be warned, this popular park can get crowded quickly, and it can definitely impact your experience there.

The Great Smokey Mountain National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
The most visited of all the national parks, Great Smokey Mountain offers up access to the mountain range that is gives it its name, thanks to more than 800 miles of hiking trails and remote backcountry campsites.There are an estimated 1500 bears living within the park, along with plenty of deer and elk as well, and the plant life is equally diverse, with more than 1660 different kinds of wildflowers alone. The park is celebrating its 75 anniversary this year, with plenty of activities and attractions for everyone that visits.

Glacier National Park, Montana
For sheer beauty, it is difficult to beat Glacier National Park, which has 700 miles of hiking trails that wander through the snow capped Rocky Mountains and past crystal clear lakes. But the major attraction is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is 53 miles in length and takes visitors right through the heart of the park’s amazing wilderness, crossing the Continental Divide at Logan’s Pass along the way. But the road is only open from June through October, so go before it is closed for the winter.

Acadia National Park, Maine
Some of the best wilderness found on the East Coast falls within Acadia National Park, the oldest park east of the Mississippi River. Acadia offers adventures both in the mountains and on the sea, with plenty of hiking and biking trails through the wilderness and along the coastline. Campsites on Mount Desert Island are just minutes from the ocean, while Mount Penobscot offers a challenging and scenic climb. Visitors to Acadia truly do get amazing experiences from sea to summit.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
At more than a mile deep and 18 miles across, the Grand Canyon is as awe inspiring as any landscape on the planet, and no list of top parks in the U.S. would be complete without it. The hike down into the canyon and back is tough, but rewarding, and for many it is an experience of a lifetime. And if you want to visit the North Rim, which is more remote than the typical tourist trails, you’ll want to visit in the summer months, before the snows move in and close the road for the season. The Grand Canyon is the quintessential national park and a must see for anyone.

Honorable Mentions: Denali National Park, Alaksa, Yosemite National Park, California, and Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Enjoy the final free weekend of the summer!

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 75th anniversary in 2009

The only time my family on either side of my tree has had a reunion was when my dad’s side converged at Fontana Village near Fontana Dam for a week. In the midst of the Great Smoky Mountains, this was a gorgeous place to spend time.

The drive there was filled with winding roads and vistas. Next year marks the 75th anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Seventy-five years ago, from donations collected from the public and private sectors, the land in North Carolina and Tennessee that now boasts 800 miles of maintained trails, 1,500 black bears, plus elk and deer, became property for the public to enjoy.

If you can’t make it to the anniversary celebration, there are planned activities throughout the spring, summer and fall every year. This summer is filled with them. Here’s the link to the interactive calendar that highlights what is happening on specific days. I adore ranger programs. I’ve never seen a bad one.

To kick off the 75th anniversary, there is a nifty Web site that highlights the upcoming activities and the park history. The interactive timeline that dates back to pre-1900s is particularly cool. For example, did you know that Clarence Darrow visited here in 1925 when he was in the midst of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial?

Along with the park itself, the neighboring communities also have events planned to celebrate the beauty in their midst. Knoxville, Tennessee has several. From what I can tell, events will be added as the year goes on, so keep checking back.

If you have been to the Great Smoky National Park and want to add to the legacy, there’s a feature, “Smokies Family Album” where you can share your photos.

The big weekend Anniversary Weekend is June 13-15. 2009.