I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time – it’s National Parks month on Quirky Travel Guy! Every article this month will be about the national parks system, one of my favorite things about travel in America. I’ll still include all the usual features, including Photo Teasers and Quirky Attractions – they’ll just have an NP focus.
To kick things off, I’m sharing memories from own journeys through 10 national parks. I would love to hear about your own national park experiences as well, so when you’re done reading, leave a comment with your best stories!
Climbing in the Smoky Mountains
One of my first stops during my 2009 summer van journey was the Great Smoky Mountains, America’s most-visited national park. There are no huge peaks in the Smokies, but a friend and I set out for a hike to one of the park’s highest spots. As we approached the summit, a sign appeared noting that the top of the Two Chimneys Trail was closed for “maintenance.” Bummer!
Fortunately, there was another way to the top, but it required shimmying up some treacherous rocks. The rocks were steep and flat, providing very little opportunity to gain traction. The effort did not feel entirely safe, but since several other hikers were making the climb, I went for it and managed to scramble to the top.
Seeing glaciers calve in Kenai Fjords
Watching glaciers break away into the sea was quite a sight. Though the sad effects of climate change on melting glaciers remained in the back of my mind, it was still incredibly impressive to witness nature at work when tons of ice broke off from a glacier and crashed into the sea on a killer whale-watching cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska.
Driving above 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park
Most 12,000-foot peaks don’t have roads going to the top, but the highest points in Rocky Mountain National Park are exceptions to this rule. For a few months during summer, when the snow has melted, drivers can zoom past the “Be prepared for rapidly changing conditions ahead” warning signs and head to a tundra landscape full of marmots. The wind up there is fierce, but the views are tremendous.
Encountering grizzly bears in Yellowstone
After years of hearing friends tell their bear stories, I finally got one of my own with my visit to Yellowstone National Park. While hiking Mount Washburn, I ran into a grizzly right on the trail. Ok, it was about 100 yards away, but it was walking towards me and I was hiking alone and without bear spray, so the danger factor was high. I enjoyed the bear for a bit and then began backing down the trail. Grizzie the Bear was just the first of four bear sightings I made in the park.
Experiencing the freaky underworld of Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns might be the quirkiest national park. It was creepy but fun to stand in a limestone cavern 750 feet beneath the earth, surrounded by bizarre ancient mineral formations known as stalagmites and stalactites. And the constant underground temperature of 56 degrees was a nice break from the desert heat.
Camping with coyotes in 101 degree weather in Death Valley
On a trip through Death Valley with my friend Jason, we settled down for the evening at Furnace Creek Campground. Even at dusk, the temperature was 101 degrees, though a nice breeze made the weather tolerable. I tried to sleep on a hard metal picnic table, but before long I started to worry about snakes and scorpions. The final straw was the howling of several coyotes that sounded like they were right around the corner, which forced me back into the van for the night.
Getting up close with alligators in the Everglades
Forget those tram rides and airboat trips. The way to see alligators in the Everglades is to visit the Anhinga Trail. While walking on the trail, I saw a few gators in the water and several more sitting on the shore, literally five feet from where I was standing on the boardwalk. The gators remained perfectly still but were intimidating nonetheless.
Backcountry camping follies in Denali
We headed to Denali National Park in Alaska, and though our efforts at backcountry camping were one fail after another, they ultimately led to some great memories. The first fail came on the part of United Airlines, which lost our luggage and all our camping gear, forcing us to buy cheapo replacement supplies. We selected the wrong backcountry unit, ending up on a high-elevation hilly section rather than the perfectly flat unit right next door that would have been ideal. And it got so cold that the zipper on our tent was frozen shut in the morning. Despite the difficulties, the experience was a great lesson in perseverance!
An exhausting hike into the Grand Canyon
A mid-morning hike on the North Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon was brutal, especially since I’m not a hardcore hiker. The trek was mostly straight up, so it required frequent rest breaks, and I failed to bring enough water, a common rookie mistake. But after surviving this experience, I feel like a seasoned pro. Someday I want to go back and hike the entire length of the trail from rim to rim.
Camping with bison in the Badlands
During a South Dakota adventure with my friend Kat, we spent a night in the Badlands, checking out bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and bison. Though our Badlands tent site wasn’t in the backcountry, it might as well have been, since it was in a very remote campground and we could see bison all around on the rolling hills surrounding the site. A short hike around the campground became an excrement exercise as we tried to avoid stepping on bison dung with each step.
Now it’s your turn! Do you have a favorite national memory or two? Share your stories by leaving a comment.