A look at one motorhomer’s list of the most beloved parks in the United States, in celebration of the National Park Service centennial this month.
By Jim Brightly, F358406
On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service (NPS) will be 100 years old. But don’t let it confuse you. Yellowstone National Park, the oldest national park, turned 144 last March. We had parks before we had a National Park Service.
Theodore Roosevelt, often called the “conservationist president,” helped establish 230 million acres of public lands while in office. However, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act in August 1916, which created the National Park Service as a new federal bureau of the Department of the Interior. At the time, the NPS oversaw 35 parks.
Today the National Park Service protects, promotes, and regulates the use of national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and even the White House. NPS lands are located in every state, as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
There are 411 NPS properties to date, but only 59 of them are actually national parks. The Lower 48 has 47 national parks; at least one is likely within easy driving distance of every FMCA member’s home port.
Most national parks offer RV sites. In the older parks, however, many of the sites were built when RVs were much smaller than they are today, and they may not meet the needs of modern motorhomes. In other words, call ahead for reservations and information.
I have visited about half the national parks in the Lower 48 at least once. If you haven’t, I suggest you add some to your travel list. And if you feel adventuresome, you might add some of the eight located in Alaska.
Of my top 10, no two are in the same state, although there are a few in adjacent states, such as Arizona, California, Oregon, New Mexico, and Utah. I’ve listed these in alphabetical order for convenience only — not because of their importance, size, or age.
Acadia National Park, Maine
This park also celebrates its 100th birthday in 2016. Acadia covers much of Mount Desert Island and is easily accessed via State Route 3. It encompasses Cadillac Mountain, the tallest point on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. It also features seashores, forests, multiple lakes, and myriad hiking trails. Several commercial campgrounds are on Mount Desert Island, plus the park has some of its own RV sites in various locations. Grab your hiking boots, fishing pole, and net and hit the road for New England: www.nps.gov/acad; (207) 288-3338.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
More than 119 caves have been discovered at Carlsbad, one of two underground national parks on this list. Plenty of parking is available, even for coaches with towed cars. You can walk down and back up via the Natural Entrance, or get on the elevator and make things easy. Regardless, wear safe and sturdy shoes, as you will be on your feet for a while. The Big Room is almost 4,000 feet long. Depending on when you visit, you could be fortunate to see hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats leave the caverns in the evening for their dinner. Info: www.nps.gov/cave; (575) 785-2232.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
I’ll never forget my first view of Crater Lake as I topped the caldera’s edge and began the descent to Rim Drive. It was absolutely outstanding! You’ll definitely want to take advantage of Rim Drive and perhaps enjoy lunch at one of the many picnic parking areas overlooking the lake. A fun fact: All the water in Crater Lake — famous for its clarity and vivid blue color — comes from rain and snow. And it is the deepest lake in the United States. One campground is within the park, and several others are available in the area. Because of its altitude, Crater Lake is not a year-round destination. Info: www.nps.gov/crla; (541) 594-3000.
Everglades National Park, Florida
The Everglades are much more pleasant in the dry season between December and April, although the park is open year-round. (Your motorhome’s air conditioner should be in tip-top shape if you visit in the summer.) During the dry season, tours of all kinds are offered: airboats, flatboats, buses, etc. On the tours you’ll see manatees, alligators, crocodiles, and any number of different bird species. Although a couple of campgrounds are in the park, you might want to visit in your towable. Info: www.nps.gov/ever; (305) 242-7700.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier is the “Crown of the Continent” for several reasons: its raw, stark beauty; its remoteness; and its exciting Going-To-The-Sun Road. Within the park’s boundaries are 131 named lakes, 25 glaciers, and a plethora of hiking trails. After your boat ride across Lake McDonald, you may want to enjoy a fine meal at Lake McDonald Lodge, one of the historic hotels inside the park. No hookups are available at campgrounds within the park; however, several commercial campgrounds are located near the entrances. You’ll need a towed vehicle to drive on Going-To-The-Sun Road — or ride in the park’s free, comfy shuttle. Info: www.nps.gov/glac; (406) 888-7800.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Ah, the Grand Canyon, listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and affectionately called the “Big Ditch” by Arizonans. It sees nearly 5 million visitors each year. The 277-mile-long, 18-mile-wide (at its widest) canyon is the result of millions of years of erosion from the Colorado River. The canyon’s South Rim is a year-round destination. The canyon’s North Rim and facilities are closed during the winter (open May 15 to October 15), and it is more difficult to visit than the South Rim. But, please don’t miss it! Depending on where you see it, the North Rim will transport you back in time to give you a sense of the original canyon when its edge was still untouched by humans. And, don’t allow Grand Canyon National Park’s popularity deter you. It has plenty of space, plenty of roads, and plenty of views. Info: www.nps.gov/grca; (928) 638-7888.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave receives just a half-million visitors a year, but I bet it echoes back at least that many oohs and ahhs each day from tourists! Mammoth Cave offers recreation above and below the earth’s surface just off of Interstate 65. The aboveground attractions include Nolin River Lake, Green River, 70 miles of hiking trails, and springs and sinkholes aplenty. (Be careful!) Below ground are more than 400 miles of explored passages. The world’s largest cave system has stalagmites, stalactites, fans, columns, and wildlife (bats, cave shrimp, cave fish, salamanders, etc.). Info: www.nps.gov/maca; (270) 758-2180.
Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
What can I say about the granddaddy of all U.S. national parks that hasn’t already been said? Not much! It’s the country’s oldest national park (established in 1872). It’s the most geothermally active park in the Lower 48. It has the most famous geyser in the world (Old Faithful). It has the best wildlife viewing of any park, and although “bear jams” (stopping traffic to watch bears) are no longer allowed, bison jams are. I’ve visited Yellowstone so many times I’ve lost count, with my first visit in 1968. On our last visit we not only saw the usual wildlife — bears, moose, bison, rock chucks (yellow-bellied marmots), and all kinds of birds — we also spotted a male black wolf (and were told that’s very rare). Here’s a word of warning, though: Yellowstone has narrow, highly crowned roads and tiny campsites that were designed in the 1930s. Go, visit, but drive a towed car if you can, and camp carefully. Info: www.nps.gov/yell; (307) 344-7381.
Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite, which made photographer Ansel Adams famous, is a standout icon among all the other major stars in the national park system. It’s 126 years old this year. When I first visited Yosemite in 1957, evening “firefalls” (a visual spectacle of glowing embers pushed over the edge of Glacier Point) and bears rummaging through the trash dump were part of the evening entertainment. Today Half Dome and El Capitan still rise directly from the glacier-carved Yosemite Valley. America’s tallest waterfall — Yosemite Falls — can be seen from almost anywhere in the valley. By the way, if you’re entering the valley via Tioga Pass, use your gears to maintain your speed on the very long descent. If you rely on your service brakes alone, you probably won’t have any brakes left at the bottom of the downgrade. Info: www.nps.gov/yose; (209) 372-0200.
Zion National Park, Utah
I do not have room to cover all five of Utah’s national parks, so I chose Zion because it offers mini versions of the other four national parks. Its walk-through sandstone slot canyons are beyond belief, like those at Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands; its arches awe you, like those at Arches; and its mesas and countless rock towers inspire you, just like those at Capitol Reef.
When we camped in Zion in 1968, our RV’s rear bumper actually was suspended above the Virgin River. Today two campgrounds are along the edge of the river, and one of them, Watchman, has electrical hookups. You will need reservations. Big-rig commercial campgrounds are located near the east and west park entrances. These days, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is open to tourists only on free shuttle buses from March 12 to the end of November. Check the park fees and learn how to avoid the crowds at this popular spot by visiting www.nps.gov/zion; (435) 772-3256.
Each national park has unique attractions, offers unusual scenery, and protects countless treasures within its boundaries for current and future generations to enjoy. Celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial and visit at least one park near you.
Entry Pass Info
Lifetime Passes. The Interagency Senior Pass has replaced the Golden Age Passport, which was discontinued but is still valid throughout the holder’s lifetime. Golden Age Passport holders can upgrade to an Interagency Senior Pass for free; others may purchase the Interagency Senior Pass for $10.
The Interagency Access Pass for the permanently disabled has replaced the Golden Access Passport, which also was discontinued but is still valid throughout the holder’s lifetime. Golden Access Passport holders can upgrade to an Interagency Access Pass for free; others also may obtain the Interagency Access Pass for free.
Annual Passes. The Interagency Annual Pass is available for $80. If you are under age 62 and are visiting several national parks and NPS sites, this may be a good option. It is valid for 12 months from the purchase date.
The Interagency Military Annual Pass is free for active-duty military personnel and their dependents. (Identification is required.)
For more pass information, please visit your nearest NPS site, or see www.nps.gov.