Saturday, July 16, 2011

Travel Notes: National Parks

I’ve never been opposed to national parks, but now I’m contemplating a small-scale obsession with them. Okay, that might be overstating it. Mainly I’m going to reference the map for any national park within a reasonable radius, for all future trips. I lived in Minnesota my first 18 years and never went to Voyageurs National Park? 

My parents’ goal for us was to see all 50 states by the time we graduated high school. We did the Continental ones, something I deeply appreciate about my youth. I have the same goal for my kids, but would also like to hit all 7 continents. After this trip, I’d like to include most of the United States National Parks as well. 

I was surprised by how many foreign languages I heard at the parks. At Yellowstone, there were certain periods where I heard hardly any English. People come from all over the world to see these sights; it seems silly of me not to experience them in my own country.

A few notes I have about visiting National Parks:

1. If you’re going to more than a few parks, there’s an annual pass for $80 that gets you into all parks. I wish I’d done that, although I thought the $25 entrance for Yellowstone/Grand Tetons for an entire week was still a steal. 

2. The moment you pass into a park, find the nearly Visitor’s Center and get their Junior Ranger packet for the kids. You can also pre-print them online for many parks, if you want to get an early start for the parks. You can learn a lot online at home before you go. My kids adored filling in their packets, finding out more information, and taking their oath at the end. And I learned a lot too! Did you know the sap of a Ponderosa Pine smells like butterscotch? Thank you, Jr. Ranger program!

3. Also ask at the Visitor Center about the Explorer Backpacks. Not all parks have them, but many do.

4. Many of the parks have a requirement to see a Ranger Program (free of charge), in order to get the Jr. Ranger badge. The newspaper at the Visitor’s Center has the times/locations for the programs, but you want to check them early to make sure you leave time for them. Even if they weren’t required, we really appreciated the programs. The Rangers are amazingly informed, and I learned a lot from them. 

5. Yellowstone had a Young Scientist program (only at the Old Faithful Visitor Center) for ages 5 and up. http://mms.nps.gov/yell/ofvec/ys/index.htm. You might check at other parks to see if they have similar programs. Eisenhower and Gettysburg, for example, have Junior Secret Service Agents. These vary widely among parks, but the Visitors Center will be able to answer which options there are for your children.

6. We bought the passports at the first national parks, and will use them for all we visit: http://www.nps.gov/history/heritageareas/INFO/passport.htm. You can find date cancellations at most parks (we found them near/in the gift shop), and you can buy special cancellation stickers for each park. 

7. Ask the rangers in the first visitor center for suggestions! They can efficiently outline the best places to see wildlife, picnic, let the kids run around, etc. The Rangers were an incredible help for answering questions, and were thrilled to teach the children. I’m a big fan of the Rangers. 

8. We found excellent food options at nearly every National Park we visited. Organic, sustainable, gluten free…the menus were progressive. The deli-style places were typical fare, but the sit-in dining spots were some of the best food options we’ve found on the trip. 

9. Steve’s suggestion: If you see a crowd of people pulled over in the parks where there are animals, make sure to stop too. =) That’s how we got to see one of the less-than-150 moose in Yellowstone. And, we spotted several bears that way too. The crowds never led us astray. 

10. There’s a park finder phone-app called “Oh, Ranger!” that you can download. It finds you parks along your route. 

If you have more hints on the National Parks, please send them my way!

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