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Get Thee to a National Park

August 24, 2016

The National Park Service turns 100 on August 25, and that is but one of the many reasons that I am talking about national parks to everyone I know these days.  I wish I could say that I mandated national park visits in our annual travel plans, but the truth is that it has become an accidental tradition. Last year I was enamored with the idea of a true American road trip, going to a state I hadn’t visited before, and helping our kids to understand how awe-inspiring our country is.  That landed us in Jackson Hole, visiting Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Parks, followed by a drive to Moab to see Arches National Park.

This summer we visited the granddaddy of Texas national parks, Big Bend.  July is not the ideal time to visit Big Bend (temperatures can get to 120+ degrees near some parts of the Rio Grande river), but I decided that we could either be hot in Dallas, or we could be hot hiking in Big Bend.

At least that was my theory.

We learned a new level of heat while in Big Bend, but we also learned about national borders, the Paleozoic period, how nature forms the earth over thousands of years, why white-tailed deer are only in one part of the park (and how weird it is that they are there at all), how rivers can run dry, and what life was like when some bold pioneers tried to settle in the Big Bend area as our country pushed west.

We also visited Rocky Mountain National Park – home of the highest continuous auto road – as a sidecar trip to see family and friends in Colorado, and got the chance on a late afternoon hike to watch a family of deer eat dinner.  Even if you are not a huge outdoor enthusiast, there are many reasons to visit a national park. Here are my top 6:

1.       Most national parks are not near cities, so you will likely need to incorporate a road trip.  You learn a lot about your family (or friends) when locked in a car together.  And if you go it alone, there is no greater meditation time than driving silently through vast natural beauty.

2.       The story of America is woven into the national parks.  With so much criticism of our country, especially from its citizens, we really wanted our kids to know why people have come here for hundreds of years, the opportunities that they chased, the land that they both used and protected, and the work that others have contributed to advancing our country.

3.       There are no water slides, no TVs, no DVDs, no arcades, no $25 chicken nugget meals.  Life is definitely back to the basics at national parks, especially if you decide to stay in one of the cabins, campgrounds, or lodges in the park itself.

4.       Since life is scaled back, it tends to be less expensive.  The expense for three nights and all meals over three days was just about the same as one night at a “theme” hotel earlier this year.

5.       You will discover lots of “est” facts.  Before we drove on it, I didn’t know that Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is the highest paved road in the US.  Many parks have a “highest, longest, oldest” feature to them which you probably wouldn’t know unless you visit.

6.       Parking lots – especially those in Yellowstone – are full of license plates from all over the country and languages from all over the world. One of our spontaneous games at “Old Faithful” was trying to figure out all of the languages being spoken around us.  It is a good reminder that you are in a place that is awe-inspiring enough to bring in visitors from everywhere, and that there are many natural wonders in America.

The best reason for parents, of course, is to watch your kids discover the world.  After a full day of very hot Big Bend hiking, which elicited its share of moans, my son said, “Mom, do you know what I love about this trip?  Just realizing that you don’t really need a bunch of stuff to be happy.  If you can live in a pretty place like this, and have people around you that you love, you don’t need much else.”

I, of course, immediately started scouting our national parks for 2017.


For information on the national parks and the anniversary, go here:

The sites for each park are chock full of useful information specific to that park.  I also highly encourage that you look on traveler websites to get updates on what is going on at the park currently, as time of year will dictate many of the activities that you are able to do comfortably.  We have also discovered some beautiful drives to-and-from and between the parks using tips from other travelers, such as the winding and scenic drive between Jackson Hole (Grand Teton National Park) and Moab (Arches National Park) that we otherwise never would have discovered.

To #findyourpark, go here:

If you want to drive just under 14,500 miles and spend 2 months on the road, go here:

In honor of the anniversary, University of Penn researcher Dr. Randal Olson created a map for the shortest possible road trip while stopping at all 47 of national parks in the lower 48.

Safe travels!