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A Year Of Exploring Our National Parks


There's never enough time to meet all the people and see all the places that make the National Park System the envy of the world, but over the past 12 months, the Traveler has "explored" quite a few parks, and we list those stories here to help you plan your next national park adventure.

Father Damien is remembered with a monument at Kalaupapa National Historical Park/Danny Bernstein

Protecting Molokai’s Sad History At Kalaupapa National Historical Park

By Danny Bernstein

When I reach Staff Row, a long street that could be in any small town in the United States, I feel that something is not quite right. Originally, the neighborhood was designed for doctors and other high-level administrative staff, and the homes are still occupied. The village looks like a 1940-1950s suburb with its wooden houses, picket fences, and Christmas decorations. A young couple just pulled up on bikes, probably on their lunch hour. However, something is missing. It's almost eerie until I figure it out. No tricycles, no swings, no strollers on the porch. There are no children here.

Welcoming Spring For Three Glorious Days In Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By Kurt Repanshek

There is no finer place for backpacking and hiking in the East than Great Smoky. Within its 522,000 acres are some 800 miles of trails, enough for you to get lost for a weekend or longer. You can walk into history by heading for a backwoods cabin, or walk along the roof of the park via the 70 miles of Appalachian National Scenic Trail that passes through Great Smoky. Waiting for your boots are trails that link backcountry campsites, waterfalls, creeks for fishing, and endless miles of gorgeous scenery.

A massive mural covers the exterior walls of the park's visitor center/Lee Dalton

Musings From Chamizal National Memorial

By Lee Dalton

Besides being a monument to cooperation, the park today is a quiet place of respite in a very busy city. Everything about it reflects two dynamic cultures. Every display and every publication contains matching, side-by-side text in Spanish and in English. The first two park staffers I encountered, both volunteers, were Hispanic, and for this Englishman, their accents were hard to understand. But there was no mistaking their enthusiasm for the place.

Musings From Fort Davis National Historic Site

By Lee Dalton

Wandering into the restored enlisted barracks, I find volunteer Richard Martin waiting to tell stories of men who slept in bunks here. Again, thanks to Army records, he shares details of their lives that help bring the fort back to life. He tells of one soldier who somehow wound up in Alcatraz and another who fell ill with dysentery and slowly died in the post hospital. He tells of letters written, arguments over card games that put men in the guardhouse, and paints a fascinating portrait of lives of real Buffalo Soldiers.

Cumberland Island's beaches that face the Atlantic arguably are some of the best on the East Coast/David and Kay Scott

Exploring The Parks: A Day At Cumberland Island National Seashore

By David and Kay Scott

A ranger at the St. Marys NPS visitor center rightly described Cumberland Island as a two-day park. Visitors can choose a daylong narrated tour that covers much of the island’s history and offers access to a mansion tour and visitation to the northern end of the island. This part of the island is the location of the small church where John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married. 

Exploring The Parks: Quitobaquito Springs At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

By Kurt Repanshek

In far south Arizona, so far south that you could cross into Mexico if you wanted, there's an oasis in this prickly Sonoran Desert landscape that has been drawing thirsty travelers for centuries. Protected by Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Quitobaquito Springs has many stories to tell.

Sandy Solitude On Memorial Day

By Robert Pahre

From my campsite at 9,240 feet, I could look down on the dunes and see the weather. There was blue sky over part of the valley, cumulus clouds over another. There was also a worrisome line of dark clouds moving right to left. As I watched where that storm was headed, a sudden gust came from behind me, blowing very cold air down the mountain. It began to hail. The hail stopped as quickly as it had arrived, after only three or four minutes. Warm air came up the mountain, and the dark clouds moved off. Suddenly, the air was still. I was surrounded by quaking aspens, none of whose leaves were moving at all.

The stately Many Glacier Hotel, overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake, is a perfect place to call it a night after a day in the park/Rebecca Latson

3 Days In Heaven

By Rebecca Latson

When I was 9, I rode in the backseat of my father’s Datsun Roadster, my parents having wrapped a quilt around me, as we drove — top down — into the park and over Going-to-the-Sun Road one last time before we moved out of Montana. Of all the memories I have of the Treasure State, this single memory of Glacier is the one I recall with the most clarity. Such is the pull of this national park.

Exploring The Parks: Valles Caldera National Preserve

By John Miles

Returning in mid-May, we were among a limited few granted a permit to drive the “backcountry vehicle route,” which gave us access to the Valle San Antonio near the north boundary of the preserve. The Park Service was experimenting with how many vehicles the route could handle without crowding the experience. Coyotes hunted seemingly undisturbed by our presence, raptors abounded, and mountain bluebirds flitted everywhere. Scenery was magnificent despite extensive wildfire burns on the cerros (mountains) flanking the route.

A barred owl searches for prey on a perch in the Hoh Rain Forest/Scott Johnson

Exploring The Parks: Spring In The Forests Of Olympic National Park

By Scott Johnson

In less than a mile, a wooden shelter built by the CCC signified that the falls were near. While a rustic footbridge that looks to be from the same era leads to a viewpoint, this is the place to stop and breathe in the scene. In one direction, the river appears through the trees, then splits into four channels as it plummets 40 feet down the side of a cliff into a narrow cauldron, spraying you with mist. The river roars below you and disappears into a box canyon. We marveled with another couple about what it must have been like to build the iconic footbridge we were standing on.

A Short Introduction To Cedar Breaks National Monument

By Kurt Repanshek

Though it's only about a two-hour drive through the countryside from Zion National Park to Cedar Breaks National Monument in southern Utah, relatively few folks know about the monument. This short video primer provides an introduction. While more than 4 million people visited Zion in 2016, fewer than 900,000 made the short drive over to Cedar Breaks. As a result, fewer crowds to negotiate as you explore the national monument.

Climbing the Inferno Cone is a main activity at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve / Lee Dalton

Musings From Craters Of The Moon National Monument And Preserve

By Lee Dalton

If I have any advice for anyone, it’s this: Do your homework and then go planning to spend some time hiking, climbing, looking, listening, and just enjoying. One day — or a few hours — won’t do justice to this weird and wild place. People who discover that it’s not all jumbles of black rock can find some real treats.

Exploring Kejimkujik National Park Seaside

By Erika Zambello

My family of five sat in those chairs and on surrounding rocks for a long time, surveying the scenery. In modern American life, many families become spread out across the country. Though my parents and sister live in Maine, my brother spends most of the year in California, and I live full-time in the Florida Panhandle. Moments where we are all under the same roof used to be common, but now are both rare and wonderful.

Organ Pipe Cactus offers some of the wildest cactus gardens you'll find in North America/Patrick Cone

Organ Pipe Cactus: A Sonoran Desert Treasure

By Kurt Repanshek

Standing there, surrounded by whip-like ocotillo stalks, barrel cactus, and saguaros, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument landscape in southern Arizona embraced us with its serenity and beauty. But this land can be intimidating, threatening, and even deadly, not only for those on foot seeking a new life or those criminals running drugs, but also for visitors whose vehicles have run out of gas, or broken down, under the blazing afternoon sun.

A Monumental Road Trip In Northern Arizona

By NPT Staff

The stories within these monuments — Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater Volcano, Wupatki, and Montezuma Castle — overlap, but a long weekend tour will provide you with a deeper understanding of some of the cultural and geologic mysteries of the Southwest. Designated by four different presidents, the monuments embrace a landscape dotted with well-sheltered cliff dwellings and shaped by volcanoes, while nearby you can view a meteor crater from 50,000 years ago.

Paddling Into The Past On Rainy Lake At Voyageurs National Park

By Eric Grunwald

We made quick time on the calm waters of Black Bay and before we know it, we were at the dock marking the site of Rainy Lake City. Today, the city is no more than the grassy trace of an old city street. Though there are two buildings on the site, these buildings do not date from Rainy Lake City, but from a later time in northern Minnesota history. As we docked the canoe and headed into the forest, there seemed to be more going on in Rainy Lake City than met the eye.

The “fire hose” of molten rock pouring out of a cliff at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park will leave you spellbound/Rebecca Latson

Exploring Paradise In Three Days

By Rebecca Latson

Think about it for a moment: As you cross the flat plain from one side to the other, you are walking on what used to be a lake of glowing, roiling lava! You’ll pass an active steam vent and the huge cinder-andspatter cone Pu’u Pua’i (gushing hill). The reddish-brown coloration at the base of the cone was the main vent from which the lava erupted. Guiding you across the lava lake will be several ahu; the ones near the end of the lava plain are taller than I am (I’m 5’2”)!

A Walk Through Walnut Canyon National Monument

By Kurt Repanshek

While this national monument might simply be a quick stop for travelers heading to Petrified Forest National Park or Grand Canyon National Park, it deserves a visit unencumbered by a tight timeframe.

From the top of Cable Mountain you can look down onto Angels Landing/Lee Dalton

Wanderings From Cable Mountain In Zion National Park

By Lee Dalton

While Zion is incredibly crowded these days, East Rim trails are still quiet and nearly unpopulated. I met a total of 12 others on the trail. Two men from Hungary came to join me as I sat at the headframe to eat lunch. One of them told me that this was his 15th trip to Zion. The younger man has been here six times. Then came a couple from Britain. A couple from Florida joined us next. I had a great time telling them the old stories of Cable Mountain. I just wasn’t wearing a ranger hat this time.

Afoot Through History In The Waterpocket Fold

By Frederick Swanson

Unlike at Fruita, the southernmost part of Capitol Reef (which was designated a national park in 1971) is not particularly known for its history. But as we explored further into this remote section, we came across scattered reminders of human use that date back many centuries. Scenery and adventure drew us to this out-of-the-way place, but as we witnessed more of its past, our appreciation of it grew. It’s a quest I’d recommend to anyone with some time to explore our Western parks.

It’s tough to keep your eyes on the trail in front of you with the sweeping vistas of the High Sierra surrounding you/Rita Beamish

The Siren Song Of The JMT

By Rita Beamish

“You hiked the whole John Muir Trail last year. Why did you want to come back to the same place?” For a second, the question threw me. Wasn’t it obvious that this 211-mile Sierra gauntlet was paradise on earth? Could anyone resist the spell of its shimmery streams tumbling in and out of icy, see-to-the-bottom lakes, or the bursts of wildflowers poking through boulders beneath sawtooth peaks? Or the coyote posing Pride-Rock style to silently watch me ply the trail? Even the leg-melting climbs redeemed themselves with relentlessly exhilarating vistas and rocky drama, not to mention the promise of downhill cruises to green meadows and rushing whitewater, which sent an echoing crescendo across the granite slopes.

The Most Remote Outhouse In The Lower 48

By Robert Pahre

At this point, some of you are probably wondering what makes this location so special to so many backpackers.  Despite its charms, it’s not about the outhouse. Instead, it’s the distance. Near the ranger station lies the most remote spot in the Lower 48 states, defined as the place most distant from any road.  That spot is about 25 miles from any road as the raven flies, and that remoteness is why the ranger station is on the bucket lists.

Musings From Cabrillo National Monument

By Lee Dalton

Today’s visitors to Cabrillo are met by a smorgasbord of things to see, do, and learn. I got there fairly early on a Monday morning, and the first person I encountered was a Spanish Conquistador toting a long gun and wearing a very uncomfortable looking iron helmet. Gary Reilly is just one of large flock of volunteers who spend time portraying some of the kinds of people who might have been with Juan Cabrillo. He’s a musketeer carrying a 58 caliber arquebus. As I stood talking with Gary, a bunch of 5th graders came tumbling along the sidewalk from the parking lot. The ranger who was supposed to meet them wasn’t ready yet, so Gary jumped in and told the kids and me a wonderful tale that had the kids (and me, too) spellbound.

Borax wagons at Harmony harken to a different era at Death Valley/Lee Dalton

Musings From Death Valley National Park

By Lee Dalton

It sure gets dark early when the sun sets at 4:30. But that opens up all sorts of possibilities. A campfire. Wandering out into the night in search of familiar stars. Just sitting alone and watching your campfire’s flames dancing. Listening. Listening to voices of people you’ll never meet and sharing for awhile their laughter.

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