There's nothing like taking a great family road trip, and our country's national parks offer a variety of locations across the United States for perfect summer vacations.
It's the centennial year of America's National Park Service, founded to protect our country's greatest natural treasures, so AskPatty is featuring 12 great national parks during July.
It was August 25, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the "Organic Act," to create the National Park Service as a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior. This act made the NPS responsible for protecting the 35 national parks and monuments then managed by the department, as well as those yet to be established. According to the National Park Service, "The founding of Yellowstone National Park began a worldwide national park movement. Today more than 100 nations contain some 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves."
Today more than 20,000 NPS employees care for America's 400+ national parks and work with communities across the nation to help preserve local history and create close-to-home recreational opportunities. As a testament to their value, a record-breaking 307.2 million people visited America's national parks in 2015.
To encourage Americans to explore our country's natural beauty, rich history, and culture, the National Park Service has waived entrance fees on 16 days in 2016. Six fee free days still remain this year, so if you want to save some money, plan ahead and visit your favorite national park on one of following dates:
August 25–28: National Park Service Birthday
September 24: National Public Lands Day
November 11: Veterans Day
Dedicated in 1916 to become the first eastern national park, Acadia National Park in Maine is built on land donated by early 20th century visionaries. Most of the park is on Mount Desert Island, a patchwork of parkland, private property, and seaside villages. Sea and mountain meet at this park, which is home to the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast as well as coastal landscapes. Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park have remained in the center of Native American Wabanaki traditional homelands for thousands of years. Today, visitors come to Acadia's sacred landscape to hike granite peaks, bike historic carriage roads, or relax and view the scenery, plants, birds and animals.
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The red rock wonderland of Arches National Park offers a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures unlike any other in the world, with its 2,000 natural stone arches, hundreds of soaring pinnacles, and sandstone formations with massive fins and giant balanced rocks. Devils Garden Campground requires advanced reservations from March to October, but there are lots of other options in the Moab area, which is especially popular for off-road adventures. View petroglyphs left by prehistoric visitors about 10,000 years ago at the end of an Ice Age or visit the incredible Courthouse Wash Panel, a series of large pictographs which may have been painted by archaic indians over a long period of time, from 1000 to 4000 years ago.
Follow @ArchesNPS on Twitter.
Comprised of five in a chain of eight southern California islands near Los Angeles, Channel Islands National Park is home to a wide variety of nationally and internationally significant natural and cultural resources. Established as a national park in 1980, the Channel Islands are home to over 2,000 plant and animal species, of which 145 are found nowhere else in the world. Surrounded by a mile of coastline, the islands offer access to marine life ranging from microscopic plankton to the endangered blue whale, the largest animal to live on earth. The park consists of 249,354 acres, half of which are under the ocean, and include the islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. Even though the islands seem tantalizingly close to the densely populated, southern California coast, isolation over thousands of years has created unique animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth and helped preserve a place where visitors can experience coastal southern California as it once was; in fact, archeological and cultural resources span a period of more than 10,000 years. The Channel Islands are ideal for quiet, uninterrupted time with family and friends with wonderful places to hike, camp, snorkel, kayak, birdwatch, take photographs, sketch, or just relax to the soothing sounds of the natural world.
Follow @CHISNPS on Twitter.
Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses six million acres of wild land, bisected by just one long ribbon of road, most of which is only open to buses in the sumer season. Also, each September the park hosts a four-day event called "Road Lottery," during which winners of a lottery drawing are given a chance to purchase a single, day-long permit, allowing them to drive as much of the Denali Park Road as weather allows. Travelers along Denali Park Road can see the relatively low-elevation taiga forest give way to high alpine tundra and snowy mountains, culminating in Denali, North America's tallest peak, standing at 20,310 feet tall. Denali is the only national park with a kennel of working sled dogs, while large and small wild animals roam un-fenced lands, living as they have for ages.
Follow @DenaliNPS on Twitter.
Called the "Crown of the Continent," Glacier National Park covers more than a million acres in Montana and attracted 2.4 million people in 2015 to visit its pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, and spectacular lakes. The park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, which connects the east and west sides through the middle of the park, is considered by many to be one of the world's most spectacular drives, while more than 700 miles of trails make it a hiker's paradise for adventurous visitors seeking wilderness and solitude. Campers can choose from plenty of options, with more than a dozen campgrounds and more than a thousand campsites to choose from.
Follow @GlacierNPS on Twitter.
According to National Geographic, 5.5 million people visited the Grand Canyon National Park in 2015 to witness the wonders of one of the largest canyons on Earth. A mile deep and up to 18 miles wide at spots, the Grand Canyon is so vast that even from the best vantage point only a fraction of its 277 miles can be seen. (Unfortunately, during my own summer vacation visit to the Grand Canyon, I was unable to see much of anything because there was rain and it was full of clouds. I like to think I was lucky to have such a surreal and unusual experience: While there are thousands of photos documenting the canyon’s colorful beauty, the cloud-filled vistas I saw that day were also unusually dramatic.) The Grand Canyon offers a variety of lodging and camping opportunities, with free shuttles to scenic locations around the South rim, as well as commercial and noncommercial river trips along the Colorado River. Bighorn Sheep are abundant.
Follow @GrandCanyonNPS on Twitter.
The number one most visited national park in America, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws more than ten million visitors each year. Its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture are what make it such a popular destination for visitors from around the world. Most visitors see the park from a mountain-skimming scenic highway; many take to the more than 800 miles of hiking trails. Encompassing more than 800 square miles dominated by plant-covered, gently contoured mountains that formed perhaps 200 to 300 million years ago across North Carolina and Tennessee, no other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park's amazing diversity of plants and animals. More than 19,000 species have been documented in the park and scientists believe an additional 80,000-100,000 species may live here. Black bears are also among the most common wildlife to be observed here -- but be sure to keep a safe distance!
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Marked by jagged black rocks and oozing molten lava, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boasts a notoriously rugged landscape. Established in 1916, the park displays the results of 70 million years of volcanism, migration, and evolution -- processes that thrust a bare land from the sea and clothed it with complex and unique ecosystems and a distinct human culture. Diverse environments range from sea level to the summit of the earth's most massive volcano, Mauna Loa at 13,677 feet, while Kilauea -- the world's most active volcano -- gives visitors views of dramatic volcanic landscapes while scientists learn about the birth of the Hawaiian Islands. Drive the "Chain of Craters" road on your own, or take the guided Crater Rim Drive Tour. If you're more adventurous, more than half of the park is designated wilderness and provides many unusual hiking and camping opportunities.
Follow @Volcanoes_NPS on Twitter.
Honored in song by John Denver in 1975, Rocky Mountain National Park’s 415 square miles encompass and protect spectacular mountain environments. The third most visited national park in 2015, Rocky Mountain National Park contains 150 lakes, 300 miles of hiking trails, and 450 miles of streams. Landscapes on either side of the Continental Divide feature alpine lakes, forested valleys, and a wide range of plants and animals. Its ecosystems range from montane, alpine and sub-alpine tundra, to wetlands and Aspen and Ponderosa pine forests.
Follow @RockyNPS on Twitter.
On March 1, 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," and placed it "under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior." The world's very first national park remains the showpiece of the National Park Service, and was visited by 4.1 million people in 2015. The vast reserve -- which covers 2.2 million acres in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana -- offers alpine lakes and thermal hotsprings, craggy peaks, explosive geysers, and deep forests. Its wealth of wild animals include bison, bears, sheep, moose, and wolves. Yogi Bear and his pal BooBoo immortalized the park in animation, as "Jellystone" park was their favorite location for stealing "Picanic baskets."
Follow @YellowstoneNPS on Twitter.
More than four million visitors visit Yosemite National Park each year, most of them spending time in the picturesque Yosemite Valley. This mile-wide, 7-mile-long canyon was cut by a river and then widened and deepened by glacial action. First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, visitors can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more. Lodging options range from simple tent cabins at more than 13 campgrounds to deluxe rooms at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly The Ahwahnee). Backpacking is available in both winter and spring, and hiking the John Muir Trail or Pacific Crest Trail are popular activities as well.
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Located in southwestern Utah, Zion National Park encompasses some of the most scenic canyon country in the United States, with massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky. Rising in Utah’s high plateau country, the Virgin River carves its way through Zion Canyon to the desert below. Zion's first people tracked mammoth, giant sloth, and camel almost 12,000 years ago; today, the park’s striking vertical topography -- rock towers, sandstone canyons, and sharp cliffs -- attracts about 3.6 million visitors each year. Zion National Park has three campgrounds, and several other private campgrounds are a short drive from the park.
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