American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
Staying Cool at America's National Parks
Summer is halfway over, but with seven weeks until Labor Day, there's still plenty of time to hit the road with your family. Not surprisingly, one of the most popular ways to explore America is by visiting one of the country's incredible national parks, and given that the National Park Service oversees 397 different areas – including national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, scenic rivers and trails, and recreation areas – you'll surely be able to find a locale that suits your interests.
If you've read this blog before, then you might already know how much I adore America's national parks system. Some of my previous posts have covered such unique places as Washington, D.C.'s memorial-filled National Mall, New York's iconic Statue of Liberty National Monument, Florida's Biscayne National Park, South Dakota's Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the Lone Star State's Big Bend National Park, and Virginia's Petersburg National Battlefield. At times, I've even focused on environmental issues related to the parks, such as dispensing “leave no trace” advice to ensure sustainable travel, contemplating the dangers posed to manatees in and around Everglades National Park, and offering some tips for encountering wild animals.
When asked, however, to determine my favorite national park – as has often been the case – I find it difficult to do so. How can I possibly choose, after all, between hiking amid the ancient trees of Sequoia National Park, gazing at the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon, exploring the underground wonders of Carlsbad Caverns, strolling along the desolate shores of Pictured Rocks, searching for alligators in the Everglades, or climbing Clingman's Dome in the Smokies? The simple answer is... I can't. My interests are just too varied, and I have yet to meet a natural landscape that I didn't like. In truth, I hope to experience every last one of America's national parks in my lifetime.
But I will say this: Given my extreme aversion to heat, there are certain parks that, for me, are much better suited for summertime travel. For instance, while I adore Southwestern parks like Joshua Tree, Petrified Forest, and Bryce Canyon, such arid locales are much more enticing during the spring, fall, and winter months. When temperatures soar, as they have this summer, I'm more eager to explore places with tall shady trees, inviting lakes, and cool underground caves. That said, for others hoping to avoid the heat, I highly recommend the following three parks (all of which, it must be said, I've recommended before):
Yosemite National Park
P.O. Box 577, Yosemite, CA 95389, 209/372-0200, 24 hours daily though hours and seasons vary for visitor centers and entrance stations, $20 vehicles, $10 individuals on foot, horseback, bicycle, and motorcycle
Nestled within California's High Sierra, east of the town of Merced, and considered one of the jewels of the national park system, Yosemite National Park is one of the first wilderness parks established in the United States. Founded in 1890, Yosemite encompasses nearly 1,200 square miles of dramatic valleys, enormous meadows, ancient forests, impressive rockfaces, and celebrated waterfalls – making it, not surprisingly, one of the most popular attractions in the country – for Americans and international visitors alike. Hikers and backpackers especially relish this park, which boasts hundreds of miles of scenic trails in Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy, Tuolumne Meadows, and other unique areas. Depending on when and where you visit, you might spy wildflowers, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, mule deer, black bears, and other native residents. Besides offering rock-climbing opportunities on Half Dome and El Capitan, scenic drives to see towering sequoias, such as “The Grizzly Giant,” and wintertime activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, Yosemite also welcomes bicyclists, anglers, birdwatchers, horseback riders, picnickers, photographers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
9922 Front Street, Empire, MI 49630, 231/326-5134, 24 hours daily though hours and seasons vary for visitor centers and historic structures, $10 vehicles, $5 individuals on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle
Like Yosemite, Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a year-round destination, but while plenty of cross-country skiers and snowshoers have been known to enjoy the snow-covered dunes during the winter months, the park is most popular in the mild summer months, when kids test their stamina on the strenuous Dune Climb (the top of which provides a lovely view of Glen Lake), swimmers enjoy the refreshing waters of South Bar Lake, and families can take advantage of free ranger programs, from guided biking tours to talks about shipwrecks, early farm life, and the night sky. This breathtaking place – which encompasses 35 miles of windswept coastline, several inland lakes, two offshore islands (North and South Manitou), and the largest freshwater dunes in the world – also offers a look at historic farms as well as preserved structures in Glen Haven, such as the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum. You can also enjoy a ride along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a seven-mile route that offers several observation points and picnic areas, and the park is ideal for hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, tubing, and camping. Even scuba divers will appreciate the park’s proximity to the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, which protects several shipwrecks and dock ruins.
Mammoth Cave National Park
P.O. Box 7, Mammoth Cave, KY 42259, 270/758-2180, hours vary daily depending on the season, free though fees apply for cave tours
While caves have always fascinated me, my favorite cave system in America is, by far, Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park. With over 365 miles of twisting passageways and airy chambers, it’s unbelievably the largest known cave system in the world – and during the hot summer months, it's a welcome respite from the aboveground world. After all, temperatures in the underground cave system rarely vary from the mid-50s. To experience it properly, you should take a variety of the tours on offer. For children, I recommend the Violet City Lantern Tour ($15 adults, $11 children, $7.50 seniors), a relatively easy hike illumined by old-fashioned lanterns and focusing on the history of the caves. My husband, Dan, and I especially favor the three-hour Introduction to Caving Tour ($23 adults, $18 children, $11.50 seniors), which enables a much smaller group of visitors to explore the caves in true spelunking fashion. Clad in jeans, boots, gloves, kneepads, and helmets with headlamps, participants will be able to squeeze through keyholes, pass walls of fragile gypsum, tiptoe along narrow canyon ledges, and crawl through spaces no more than a foot high; needless to say, those who hate getting dirty might not enjoy this particular tour. On the other hand, true spelunkers will appreciate the six-hour, adults-only Wild Cave Tour ($48 adults, $24 seniors), an intense underground trek that claustrophobes and nyctophobes might want to avoid. Of course, while the underground caves are the true highlight of Mammoth Cave, the park also offers aboveground delights such as shady forests, primitive campgrounds, horseback-riding trails, and access to excellent fishing on the Green and Nolin Rivers.
Besides getting the chance to experience some of America's most incredible forests, waterfalls, canyons, deserts, caves, beaches, monuments, and so forth, another wonderful aspect of embracing this country's marvelously diverse national parks system is that 264 of our 397 national park units, including the ever-popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park, are absolutely free to enter. Even better, those that do charge an entrance fee aren't terribly expensive, especially considering that the fee typically covers up to four adults – while children under 16 are usually free to enter. Of course, if you're planning a trip that includes multiple fee-charging parks, consider purchasing the America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. For $80 per year, this annual pass allows a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and up to three adults unlimited access to all national park units, national forests, BLM lands, and other federal recreation sites that charge an entrance fee; you can purchase it online, in person at a federal recreation site, or by calling 888/275-8747. Seniors can purchase a lifetime pass for $10, while disabled individuals can opt for a free lifetime pass. In addition, the annual pass is offered free of charge to all active-duty military personnel and their dependents. Given such an amazing deal, you have little excuse not to visit several parks this summer. Also, bear in mind that National Public Lands Day (Sept. 29) is one of several fee-free occasions granted by the National Park Service.
So, if you're still hoping to travel to one of America's national parks before the summer ends, be sure to take advantage of Moon's latest deal: For the next few weeks or so, Moon will be offering its Moon National Parks Sampler, a helpful eBook that provides an overview of some of North America's most iconic destinations. It is currently available for free at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. It is 99 cents if purchasing from the Apple iBookstore. Bursting with maps, photos, and suggested itineraries, it's truly a terrific companion for anyone looking to visit one of our amazing parks this summer – and beyond. Of course, you can also purchase one of several park-focused Moon travel guides, such as Moon Acadia National Park, Moon Blue Ridge & Smoky Mountains, Moon Glacier National Park, Moon Grand Canyon, Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, Moon Olympic Peninsula, Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton, Moon Yosemite, and Moon Zion & Bryce. Then, hit the road for awesome adventures and lifelong memories, and no matter which park you're headed to... Happy trails!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore / Text © 2012 Laura Martone