U.S. national parks were popular destinations in 2009

2009 was a banner year for America’s National Park System, which remained popular with travelers, both foreign and domestic, despite the sluggish economy. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently announced that the parks experienced 10 million more visitors last year than they did in 2008, which represented a 3.9 percent increase.

The Park Service says that more 285 million people payed a visit to one of the parks or monuments that are under their care in 2009, which made it the fifth busiest year in the history of the system. The record for most visits ever was set back in 1987 when 287.2 million people spent time in the national parks.

The news of the upswing in visitors is seen as a good thing on a number of different levels. It meant that Americans and foreign visitors were still viewing the national parks as quality destinations despite challenging economic conditions around the globe. It was also seen as a good sign for Americans becoming more active, with many travelers hiking the trails and enjoying other outdoor activities.

The list of the top ten most visited parks remains generally the same year in and year out. In 2009 that list, along with the number of visitors, was as follows:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 9,491,437 visitors
Grand Canyon National Park, 4,348,068
Yosemite National Park, 3,737,472
Yellowstone National Park, 3,295,187
Olympic National Park, 3,276,459
Rocky Mountain National Park, 2,822,325
Zion National Park, 2,735,402
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 2,589,288
Grand Teton National Park, 2,580,081
Acadia National Park, 2,227,698

Hopefully this is a trend that will continue. The parks have been called “America’s best idea”, and visiting any one of the top destinations will only reinforce that. So? What is your favorite national park, and which ones are you planning on visiting this year?

Walking with the angels at Zion National Park

If you’re afraid of heights, you’ve got to do this hike.

First, check out this amazing photograph. See that little strip of black in the upper right? That’s a two-lane highway. Dizzy? Good. Head on over to Zion National Park in Utah and go on the Angel’s Landing hike.

Zion is my personal favorite among the national parks, even beating out the breathtaking but rather touristy Grand Canyon. Readers over at Tripadvisor voted Zion number one of the Top Ten National Parks.

Take a look at this gallery and you’ll see why. Zion is nestled within a network of towering canyon walls of Navajo Sandstone that turn an infinite number of shades of red, brown, and gold as the sun rises and sets. Their shadows and the streams and rivers at the bottom create lush valley floors with a variety of wildflowers and animal life. The main visitor area has most creature comforts, with a luxury hotel and campgrounds with fantastic views. From there you can head off into a maze of side canyons and hike to your heart’s content. It’s one of the best places in the country to go cayoneering.

The most popular and nerve-wracking hike is Angel’s Landing. It starts not far from the main visitor area and climbs a ridge up, up, up, growing ever narrower until sheer cliffs fall away on either side of a thin sliver of rock. Don’t worry, there’s a chain to hold onto in case you get unsteady. In fact, with the rock being pretty slippery even when dry, it’s a good idea to hang onto the chain in any case. There have been a number of fatalities on this hike, but if you’re careful you will be in no danger.

I’m scared of heights. When I was in college I took up rock climbing to get rid of my fear, but weekends spent scaling the cliffs of the Catalina Mountains near Tucson didn’t cure me. All they did was make me able to control my fear. Now I can go up to any height with steady hands and a sure step, while inside I’m screeching like a schoolgirl. My inner schoolgirl was screeching pretty loud on this hike! But what a reward at the end. When you reach the top you’re 1,208 ft. (368 m) above Zion Canyon with the river making a hairpin turn below you. You feel like you’re literally on top of the world and the clean breeze blowing a bit too hard against you fills your lungs and makes you feel truly alive. Nothing like acrophobia to add a little extra zing to a hike!

More sedate hikes into the remote side canyons will be rewarded with quiet trails as well as glimpses of rare animal life like Golden Eagles and cougars. Steams cascade down little waterfalls and you’ll find lush, peaceful grottoes sheltered from the desert sun. These side canyons are good places to go bird watching and there are even some decent rock climbing routes in case you still want to prove you’re not afraid of a sickeningly long space of air beneath you.

Zion National Park is an easy road trip from Southern California and much of the Southwest, but even if you’re living in Maine it’s worth the drive to see one of the country’s truly great National Parks.


Top 10 national parks, thanks to TripAdvisor

More than 3,000 TripAdvisor readers in the United States have selected the top 10 national parks. Big shock: nine out of 10 are out west. Only Maine made it onto the list. But, let’s face it – if you want big, impressive national parks, you have leave the East Coast.

These readers are definitely interested in the national park scene. More than 70 percent plan to visit one this year, up from 62 percent in 2008. And, searches on TripAdvisor for “national park” and “national parks” are up 21 percent for the first five months of 2009 (relative to the same period last year).

So, what are the top spots?

  1. Zion National Park, Utah
  2. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
  3. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
  4. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
  5. Redwood National and State Parks, California
  6. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada
  7. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
  8. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
  9. Yosemite National Park, California
  10. Acadia National Park, Maine

“As Americans look for inexpensive travel ideas this summer, many are seeking out the amazing natural beauty that lies in our country’s own back yard,” said Michele Perry, vice president of global communications for TripAdvisor. “National Parks can offer travelers an active, affordable and often awe-inspiring escape outdoors.”

Canyoneering in Southern Utah

Canyoneering is a common word used to describe an outdoor activity that is rising in popularity. It generally involves exploring remote slot canyons, found in a variety of locations around the world. These narrow, twisting, rock corridors are often mazes, requiring navigational skills to successfully negotiate. Along the way, hikers may be requiried to scramble, rock climb, swim, or even abseil their way over and around any number of obstacles.

One of the premiere places to explore the activity in the U.S. is in the deserts of southern Utah, as writer Tony Perrottet recently discovered while writing this story for the New York Times. He traveled to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument where he discovered three very remote slot canyons where the trails were unmarked, water was scarce, and there wasn’t another person in sight.

Perrottet was following in the footsteps of adventuer Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh, who would eventually found the Explorers Club, but as a teenager, Dellenbaugh and a few friends, mapped the first route through the iconic canyons of southern Utah, making all kinds of discoveries along the way.

Some of the other top spots in the U.S. to go cayoneering include Zion National Park and the San Rafael Swell, both are also in Utah. Arizona, New Mexico, and California aslo have a number of great places as well. On an international level, cayoneering is popular on nearly every continent, with great routes in Australia, New Zealand, eastern Europe, and any number of other places. For more information, checkout the American Cayoneering Assocation.