Growing up I wasn’t familiar with national parks, until a few years ago my husband (boyfriend at the time) took me on a road trip with another friend of ours. We visited several national parks and that’s when my love affair began. Since then, we’ve been to 19 parks and monuments, with new ones always on our calendar.
I always want to encourage others to see amazing places, so here are five reasons why you need to make a trip to a national park:
1. There’s probably a national park near you.
Granted, most of them are on the western half of the United States, but here in Knoxville, I’m 45 minutes away from the most visited national park in America, the Great Smoky Mountains. If you’re in Nashville, you’re less than an hour and a half away from Mammoth Cave National Park. If you’re up north, you can visit Acadia in Maine, or Pictured Rocks in Michigan (which is technically a national lakeshore, not park, but still part of the National Park system!). There are several others across the northeast and southeast, but even if you live in a state without one, you’re never more than a day’s drive away from a national park!
2. Annual Passes pay for themselves.
You can buy an annual pass for $80. This pass lets you into all 59 national parks, plus the dozens of national monuments, lakeshores, parkways, memorials, etc. $80 may sound like a lot, but some of the really popular national parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone charge $25 per vehicle. This pass easily pays for itself with 4-5 visits. It’s a good incentive to take a trip out west and visit some of the great locations. Even more, if you’re military, your annual pass is free. Seniors age 62 or older can buy a LIFETIME pass for $10! TEN DOLLARS. Never have I been so jealous of senior citizens.
3. There’s a national park for everyone.
One of the things I love about national parks is that there’s so much to do! So much hiking, camping, rafting, climbing! Many parks take up hundreds of square miles, with the biggest ones all in Alaska. You can find trails with dozens of miles that would take you several days to hike or trails as short as a quarter mile. Love the desert? Head to Joshua Tree or Saguaro National Park. Love mountains, forests, and beaches? Visit Olympic! For lodging, national parks usually offer campsites for as low as $15/night, but most will also let you pitch a tent almost anywhere you want and camp for free. Some parks rent out cabins and some have full-on lodges! You just can’t go wrong.
4. The visitor centers are really fun.
Okay hear me out. The visitor centers are one of my favorite parts of a national park. They’re a great way to learn about the park before you go in. They usually have an exhibit room and/or a theatre room with a film about the park where you can learn about the history, topography, and wildlife. The rangers are always there to help us figure out which trails are best (and in one case, to tell us that the trail we wanted to hike was currently closed because of a wildfire!). Sometimes there’s food or ice cream, and we love looking through the gift shop.
5. You need to see America!
I know this sounds obvious, but America is CRAZY cool. I’ve been in places and thought, “Where am I? This is not the United States. This is some alien planet”. America has its problems, but the National Park Service is not one of them. We did a pretty good job with finding amazing places in our country and protecting them by making it a national park – places like Arches National Park with over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, or places like Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park where it’s just 200 square miles of pure salt and nothing else.
Take a break from your yearly Disney trip or your yearly beach trip. Try some national parks instead.
A few favorites…
If you’d like to keep up with our adventures, check out my Instagram! (@rachel.fugate)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I take for granted how close I live to the Smoky Mountains. It’s the number one most visited national park in America! Bonus – there’s no entrance fee!
Located right outside of Tucson, AZ. Saguaros are the cacti you picture when you think of old western movies. There are two sides – a west side and an east side. We hiked a couple miles on the west side. Bring lots of water and don’t go in the middle of the day! We went in January and it was still hot.
Arches is a great park with lots of hikes and things to see. We decided to hike the Delicate Arch trail at 6am to watch the sunrise from the top. And with it being January and only 20 degrees, we were the only ones there! I highly recommend it. The only downside was a lot of the trail was covered in ice and we may or may not have fallen a couple times.
One of my favorites! Zion is located on the edge of a cute little town called Springdale. Zion is extremely popular, and the parking lot usually fills up by 10am, so you have to park in Springdale and ride a shuttle into the park. Zion is the only national park I’ve been to where visitors are not allowed to drive in – you are shuttled into the park on a very cramped bus and you get off at whatever stop you want to see. (edit: Brad said there is another entrance that you can drive into, but it’s still not possible to drive yourself to every stop.)
We visited Zion on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, so the crowds were insane. At one point there was a 45 minute wait for the shuttle so we just decided to walk to the next stop. We spent our time in Zion walking the Narrows, an upstream hike in a narrow canyon. The water was about 50 degrees so after a bit I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. If you’re really serious about hiking 16 miles upstream in cold water, you can rent gear right outside the park.
Death Valley got its name from a group of pioneers who were sure that they would die there. It’s incredibly hot, but so unique. There’s also a ghost town right outside that you can visit!
We bought ice cream at a gift store here – bad idea.
Olympic is by far my favorite. It has everything – beaches, rainforests, and mountains. You need at least a full weekend to explore it all. We started our trip by hiking Hurricane Ridge, staying in a cabin on La Push beach, exploring the coast, and then spending a day in the rainforest. The pacific northwest is magic.
Rachel Fugate: Married, dog-mom, natural redhead, lover of all things food, and wanna-be travel Instagramer. My husband says the three best words to describe me are considerate, reasonable, and calm. (He also said beautiful! What a guy.)