America's Almost-Famous National Parks

Last year, 285 million people visited America's National Parks, with the headliners like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Sequoia grabbing much of the attention. But for folks on the East Coast, visiting these natural wonders of the American West may be more of a road trip than time and energy allow -- picture a Griswold-style ordeal in the Family Truckster.

But with 58 National Parks (among a total of 392 protected areas) to explore, there is a family adventure waiting to happen wherever you live. Invaluable for any foray into the parks is the National Parks Service website, where you can plan activities, make necessary reservations and learn about the area's history and attractions.

Acadia National Park, Maine

Like Yellowstone -- the first National Park, established in 1872 -- many parks were founded to preserve America's natural wonders. Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, is where rugged granite cliffs meet the Atlantic Ocean. Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak within 25 miles of the coast, offers stunning vistas of Frenchman's Bay and the outlying islands, which can be visited by boat.

Long home to a great variety of birds and sea creatures, including the occasional humpback whale, Acadia has also attracted the civilized human traveler for almost a hundred years. Visitors can enjoy a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, afternoon tea at the Jordan Pond House, and the panoramic views from the wrought-iron bridges financed by John D. Rockefeller in the early 1900s.

Arches National Park, Utah

In Moab, Utah, an entirely different sort of landscape waits to be discovered at Arches National Park. Millions of years of geological sculpting have formed over 2,000 arches and other unique rock formations, which give this high desert terrain an almost otherworldly appearance when twilight intensifies its colors. Arches has many geologic wonders to view, such as Delicate Arch, Balanced Rock, Devil's Garden and Double Arch. The three-hour guided hike of the Fiery Furnace is popular, so be sure to reserve ahead online. Fiery Furnace is hardly an exaggeration, as summer temperatures can exceed 100° F, yet usually drop about 30° at night.

North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

If you're in southern Utah, consider taking the much-less-traveled road to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, which receives only 10% of the park's five million visitors a year. Highway 67 from Jacob Lake to the North Rim is usually closed from mid-November to mid-May due to heavy snowfall, and the Utah side, as it is called (though the entire park is in Arizona), is a good five-hour drive from the South Rim. The North Rim is often left to the most intrepid of rim-to-rim canyon hikers, who brave the roughly one mile descent, trek 21 miles taking the narrow footbridge along the South Kaibab Trail across the Colorado River, and then tackle the one mile vertical climb, which usually means camping overnight in the canyon.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Among Arizona's 25 other national parks, Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson, is not so famous for its landscape, but for the forest of long-lived cacti that grow naturally only in the Sonoran Desert. The uplifted arms of the giant saguaro silhouetted against the sky have become as much a part of the West's legend as John Wayne himself.

Saguaro National Park is divided into two separate districts, the Tucson Mountain District on the west side of the city, and the Rincon Mountain District to the east. The park was established in 1933 to protect the famous stand of giant saguaros at the base of the Rincons, which seemed to be dying out. The average life span of a saguaro is about 150 years, though some may live 200 years or more. While many older specimens have been lost over the years, beginning in the 1970s, more new plants began sprouting up under "nurse trees." The park even conducts a saguaro census, counting the cacti and assessing their status every ten years, the latest count revealing a dynamic population of 1.6 million.

Home to over 1,100 species of plants, Saguaro National Park encompasses a variety of plant and animal habitats, including six types of rattlesnakes -- so watch your step.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

While our National Parks preserve so much native flora and fauna, threats remain. Dry Tortugas National Parkis an island preserve at the very end of the Florida Keys, 68 miles west of Key West. It is one of ten national parks in or around the Gulf of Mexico that is now bracing for the impact of the oil spill on its fragile ecosystems.

Dry Tortugas is comprised of a cluster of seven islands made up of sand and coral reefs that provide a nesting ground for a number of species of birds and marine animals. Loggerhead, green, hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles can still be found here, perhaps thanks to its inaccessibility -- the park can only be reached by boats or seaplanes leaving from Key West.

Discovered in 1513 by Ponce de León, the low-lying islands of Dry Tortugas have seen their share of shipping and shipwrecks, dating back to the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which went down in a hurricane in 1622. After acquiring the islands from Spain in 1821, the United States built two lighthouses here, one on Garden Key and one on Loggerhead Key, as well as the never-quite-completed Fort Jefferson.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi

In addition to preserving the natural world, quite a few of the Parks Service's protected areas are battlefields and other historic sites. While Gettysburg may be more famous, Civil War buffs understand the importance of the capture of Vicksburg, which split the Confederacy and gave the Union Army control over the Mississippi River. A visit to Vicksburg National Military Park, one of nine National Military Parks, will make clear why it took Union General Ulysses S. Grant 41 days to take this city -- located high on a bluff overlooking the river -- on July 4, 1863.

There is much to see along the 16-mile tour road at Vicksburg, including the battle lines that were accurately marked by Civil War veterans, over 1,340 monuments to the soldiers and their heroics, Vicksburg National Cemetery, and the restored USS Cairo, a Union gunboat sunk in 1862 and raised 102 years later.

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana

With six separate sites in and around New Orleans, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preservehonors the privateer who helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans, the decisive victory in the War of 1812.
Park Headquarters is located at 419 Decatur Street in New Orleans, upstairs from the French Quarter Visitor Center, and Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery is downriver in Chalmette.

The four other sites celebrate the spicy gumbo that is south Louisiana -- the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux, the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice, and the Barataria Preserve outside Marrero. Barataria's 20,000 acres of forest trails, swamp and bayou are alive with armadillos and otters, lurking gators and the calls of 300 species of birds. It's easy to see how Jean Lafitte kept his vast smuggling operation hidden from the law in these murky waters.

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

If history and hiking are not your thing, there's always Hot Springs National Parkat the north end of the Arkansas town named for this natural phenomenon. The underground springs reach an average temperature of 143°F, and can be experienced at the traditional Buckstaff Bath House or with all the trappings of a modern spa at Quapaw Baths & Spa.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Looking for more adventure? How about volcano-gazing in Hawaii or even Alaska? Hawaii Volcanoes National Parkon the Big Island encompasses Mauna Loa and Kilauea, two of the world's most active volcanoes. Numerous sections of the park are, in fact, closed now due to Kilauea's ongoing eruptions, but visitors may still be able to view lava flows. Check the website for updates, and of course, at the Kilauea Visitor Center upon arrival.

With seven distinct ecological life zones ranging from the seacoast to rain forest to the top of Mauna Loa at 13,677 feet, Hawai'i Volcanoes provides a sanctuary for scores of indigenous plants and animals found only in the Hawaiian Islands, including the nene, happy-face spiders and carnivorous caterpillars.

Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska

Black bear and salmon abound at Alaska's Katmai National Park & Preserve, across from Kodiak Island. Park Headquarters is in King Salmon, a 287-mile flight from Anchorage. Katmai was originally declared a national monument in 1918 to preserve the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a forty square mile crater up to 700 feet deep left by the 1912 eruption of Novarupta Volcano. Katmai's four other active volcanoes are Katmai, Mageik, Trident and Martin.

From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam, our National Parks preserve the beauty of this country for future generations; they truly are America's best idea.

All Photos Courtesy of National Park Service

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