Park It

By Chandra Orr

February 6, 2009 6 min read

PARK IT

Plan ahead and book early for these national wonders

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

With nearly 400 sites scattered across the country, the National Park System caters to almost every crowd.

From camping, hiking and fishing to caving and cross-country skiing, there are parks to please every interest. You'll find trails for biking, snowmobiling and ATVing alongside pristine lakes and rivers for canoeing, rafting, kayaking and swimming.

Stay at a rugged, rustic campsite or book a comfortable cabin with nearby hot showers. Plan a high-paced hike to the summit of Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains or take a leisurely road tour to see Yosemite's stunning waterfalls.

"State and national parks encompass some of the most stunning and diverse scenery available to outdoor enthusiasts with a wide variety of outdoor activities to choose from," said Brian Lane, author of the award-winning "Hikernut's Grand Canyon Companion: A Guide to Hiking and Backpacking the Most Popular Trails Into the Canyon" ($10, A Sense of Nature).

Don't know where to start? Opt for one of the more popular national parks -- they're popular for a reason.

"They provide the most grandeur, as well as offering a diverse choice of activities while being very different from each other," Lane said.

The top five national parks include:

* The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which spans Tennessee and North Carolina, is the most visited of all the national parks. Rolling mountains, a Southern Appalachian mountain culture, diverse wildlife and more than 800 miles of trails -- including more than 70 miles of the Appalachian trail -- make this a backpacker's paradise.

* The Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona needs no introduction. One of the world's great natural wonders, the canyon is an awe-inspiring 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and a mile deep. Be sure to visit the Yavapai Observation Station, which offers insight into the canyon's rich geologic history and an expansive view of the canyon.

* Yosemite National Park in California is home to some of the nation's oldest trees, the giant sequoias. It's also home to stunning waterfalls, grand meadows and deep valleys, and nearly 95 percent of the park is designated Wilderness, a distinction granted by Congress.

* Yellowstone National Park, which winds through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, is America's first national park. Best known for its stunning geysers and hot springs -- including Old Faithful -- it's also home to a wide variety of wildlife you won't see in your own backyard, including grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk.

* Olympic National Park in Washington offers three stunning ecosystems in one sanctuary. Experience temperate rainforest valleys, glacier-capped peaks and Pacific Ocean beaches. While you're there, be sure to see Mount Olympus. At 7,980 feet, it's the highest peak in the park and has the third largest glacial system in the contiguous U.S.

To get the most out of your trip, do your homework and book early. You'd be surprised at just how fast the campgrounds and lodging fill up at the national parks.

Reservations for lodging at the Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon, for example, open 13 months in advance and sell out within hours, according to Lane. Backcountry permits for camping are issued five months in advance and most of the popular campsites are filled within hours for the busy summer and fall seasons.

"For me, part of the experience is the research and trip planning," Lane said. "A little preparation will go a long way in providing you and your family the perfect vacation."

Jeff Alt, author of "A Walk for Sunshine: A 2,160 Mile Expedition for Charity on the Appalachian Trail" ($16, Dreams Shared Publications), offered his top tips for research done right:

* CHECK THE WEB: Each national park has its own website accessible through the National Park System portal at nps.gov. There you'll find basic information on lodging, trails, recreation opportunities, necessary permits and passes, the park's operating hours and the best time to visit. You'll also find information on the history, culture and wildlife of the area, as well as the top sights to see during your stay.

* REQUEST MORE INFO: In addition to what you'll find on the web, many national parks sell detailed maps and trail guides. It's worth the cost: Such guides offer an in-depth look at the area's recreational opportunities, indigenous wildlife and cultural history. Sign up for the park's newsletter if they have one, and browse you local bookstore for detailed travel guides about the area.

* CHECK IN TOWN: Don't limit your information gathering to the park itself. Research nearby towns and contact the local visitor's bureau or chamber of commerce for a list of restaurants, outfitters, alternate lodging options and rainy weather entertainment.

* CHECK BACK OFTEN: As your wilderness excursion nears closer, check the park's website for up-to-date trail information, weather conditions and park updates. Should a portion of the park close for any reason -- such as for wildfires in Yosemite -- you'll find all the information you need to rearrange or reschedule your vacation plans.

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