National parks announce fee free days for 2011

Over the past few years, it has become a tradition for the National Park Service to waive entry fees into the national parks several times a year. Those fee free days have become extremely popular with frugal travelers, who take advantage of the lack of an entry fee to enjoy some of the best natural wonders that America has to offer.

Earlier this month the Park Service announced their fee free days for 2011, giving us all a number of great opportunities to enjoy “America’s Best Idea” on the cheap. Several of those days, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday weekend, have already slipped by, but here are the remaining fee free days for the year.

• April 16-24 (National Park Week)

• June 21 (First day of summer)

• September 24 (Public Lands Day)

• November 11-13 (Veterans Day weekend)

In all, there are 14 days remaining in 2011 during which you can gain entry into more than 100 national parks for free. To see a complete list of which parks will be waiving their entry fee on those days click here.

Knowing the available dates well in advance allows us to plan ahead and select which parks we would most like to visit during the fee free days. For example, in April many of the parks are still on the cool side, but it is an excellent time to visit Big Bend in Texas, before it becomes too hot. The first day of summer seems the perfect excuse to drop into Denali, located in Alaska, while September is great for visiting Yellowstone. As for November, how about stopping by the Everglades for one last tropical escape before the winter snows start to fly across much of the country.

Whether they’re free or not, the national parks are fantastic destinations all year round. But it never hurts to get something for free!

Five great places to see Native American rock art

I often hear people saying the U.S. has a short history. Actually it’s as ancient as anywhere else. Before the Europeans took over this land there were hundreds of Native American cultures living here. Some have survived; others have disappeared. One of the most evocative reminders of their civilizations is the rock art of the American Southwest. Here are five good places to see some.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The stunning landscape of this park is the main draw, but hidden amidst the colorful mesas and canyons are numerous petroglyphs (carving in rock) and pictograms (paintings on rock). The best are in Horseshoe Canyon, where a large panel of ghostly painted figures have been variously interpreted as gods, ancestors or, by the scientifically challenged, aliens. They date to as far back as 2000 BC.

Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
One of the best sites for petroglyphs in all the Southwest is billed as the “world’s longest art gallery”. With about 10,000 images ranging in date from 950 AD to the 1800s, it is the biggest concentration of rock art ever found in the U.S. The remains of the homes of the Fremont people are clearly visible when hiking the canyon. The images include bison being stuck with spears, strange horned figures that may be shamen, and men on horseback dating to the historic period.

Saguaro National Park West, Arizona
The rock art here isn’t as grand as the other places on the list, but it’s far more accessible. Just a short drive from Tucson and only two hours from Phoenix, the park takes its name from the forest of giant saguaro cacti that grow here. There are two parks–one to the west and one to the east of town–and the one to the west has a rocky hill covered in carvings made by the Hohokam people. The most unusual is a strange spiral that may have been an early calendar. The Hohokam built large towns and extensive canal systems in southern Arizona until about 1450 AD. In fact, the modern cities of Phoenix and Tucson were founded by the Hohokam!


Petroglyph National Monument
Another easily accessible location, this national monument is right on the western edge of Albuquerque. You can see just how close from the above photo, courtesy Daniel Schwen. There are about 24,000 images here, mostly from prehistoric Pueblo peoples starting about 500 AD but also some made by Spanish settlers who saw all the pictures on the rocks and decided to add their own. Some are even the cattle brands of the early ranchers.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
We’ve talked about this amazing set of cliff dwellings before. Located in the heart of the Navajo Nation, prehistoric peoples built extensive villages here in the shadows of towering cliffs until their mysterious disappearance in the 14th century. As you wander the trails you’ll see petroglyphs of animals and people scattered about the rocks. If you have kids, playing “spot the picture” can be a fun way to keep them entertained. The jaw-dropping scenery will probably do that anyway. Note that the interpretive center is closed for remodeling until May 2011.

While desert scenes aren’t exactly the first thing you think of during the Christmas season, winter is a good time to explore these sites. The scorching sun takes a vacation, and in the higher altitude the desert can be downright cold!

Permits now required on Yosemite’s Half Dome everyday of the week

The National Park Service has announced that permits will now be required everyday of the week for the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite National Park during the 2011 summer season. The move is designed to prevent overcrowding on the trail that leads to the summit and is expected to make the steep hike safer for all involved.

Earlier this year, the park service announced that permits would be required on the weekends, but they found that that simply moved more of the crowd to weekdays. On average, about 400 people hike the trail on those weekdays, as opposed to about 800 on the weekends. With that in mind, the NPS capped the number of available permits to 400 per day.

To add another level of planning to the process, permits can not be obtained on site at the park. Instead, they’ll need to be purchased up to four months in advance through the National Parks Reservation System. The price of the permit is a mere $1.50, but you’ll now need to know exactly when you plan to make the hike and order your permit accordingly.

The “trail” to the summit of Half Dome can barely be called that. A set of cables run up the side of the rock face, which give hikers something to hold on to as they pull themselves up the granite slab, which has wooden beams spaced out along the way. On busy days, the lines can be slow and if someone slips, it is easy to take down others with them. The new permitting system will hopefully take away some of the crowding, and make the entire experience a safer and more rewarding one for all involved.

If you’re planning a trip to Yosemite in 2011, you’ll definitely want to ensure that you get your hands on a permit for Half Dome plenty early. It is one of the most popular things to do in the park, and definitely worth the trip.It would be a shame to go and not be allowed on the hike.

[Photo credit: Sjoplin via WikiMedia]

Arches National Park hosts one millionth vistor

Arches National Park reached a milestone last Saturday when Victoria Carlson of Santa Fe, New Mexico arrived at the entrance. Ms. Carlson found herself greeted with unusual fanfare by the park rangers at the gate, who were eager to welcome their one millionth visitor.

Located in eastern Utah, Arches National Park is home to more than 2000 natural sandstone archways, including the most famous of them all, Delicate Arch. While touring the spectacular landscape by car is fantastic, the park is also home to miles of trails, which deliver great hikes ranging in length from a couple of hours to a full day.

As an artist seeking inspiration, Carlson says that she has visited Arches on several occasions in the past. On November 20th she was returning once again to soak up even more of the natural beauty, which is so prominently on display there, when she helped the National Park Service reach this major milestone. In recognition of the one millionth visitor, Carlson was given an America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, a coffee table book about the park, and an Arches National Park t-shirt and ball cap.

Arches National Park was first established as a National Monument back in 1929 and remains an amazing destination for outdoor enthusiasts. In the past, it has averaged about 750,000 visitors per year, but like many U.S. national parks, it has continued to see increased traffic in recent years.

[Photo credit: Palacemusic via WikiMedia]

National parks free for Veterans Day

The National Park Service will host its final fee free day for 2010 this Thursday, November 11th, in honor of Veterans Day, allowing travelers to experience more than 100 parks that generally charge admission at no cost. For a complete list of those parks, grouped by state, click here.

A number of the parks will host special ceremonies or commemorative events to honor America’s veterans, including Valley Forge, the birthplace of America’s army, which will hold a moment of silence and a wreath laying-ceremony at 11AM near the National Memorial Arch. There will also be living history interpreters near the Muhlenberg Brigade huts throughout the day who will share insights and thoughts on the history of the place. Meanwhile, visitors to Morristown Historical National Park, located in New Jersey, can enjoy a new trail that is 27 miles in length and wanders through George Washington’s historic army encampment.

The Park Service’s fee free days have been quite a hit with travelers over the past couple of years, drawing visitors in by the thousands, and helping to set new attendance records across the system. It seems they’re planning on continuing the practice in 2011 as well, as they have already announced that entry to the parks will be free from April 16-24 to celebrate National Parks Week, and again on September 24 for Public Lands Day and November 11 for Veterans Day. More dates are expected to be announced soon.

Additionally, a number of the parks’ partners will also be offering special discounts, prizes, and other deals to visitors on Veterans Day. Click here to view a sampling of those special offers.

[Photo credit: National Park Service]