At just over 3 miles, Mary’s Rock is a short hike but yet manages to provides a good work out, offers expansive views from the summit, and is very pet-friendly.
The trailhead is at the end of the Meadow Spring parking area which is fairly large with flush toilets and portable water. Although I opt for the short route, there are lots of options to make this a longer hike via the Appalachian Trail – from the Jewell Hollow Overlook (6 miles) or Buck Hollow Overlook (9 miles).
The beginning of the hike is a steady and moderately steep climb on the blue-blazed trail. The uphill becomes more gradual but doesn’t really let up until the summit. This last time I hiked Mary’s Rock with two friends (pre-COVID), I was definitely struggling with the first half mile which is a steady climb. At the junction of the Appalachian Trail, turn right to take the AT then take the Mary’s Rock Lookout Trail on your left for the last bit to the summit. The large area of rock outcroppings at the summit usually allows enough space to spread out from other hikers, have lunch and take in the views.
Park Pass. The entrance fee is
Heavy Traffic. Parking is more readily available either early in the morning or later in the day (after 2PM) on weekends.
Heavy Pet Traffic. Furry adventure pals love this hike, so make sure to have a leash handy.
Steady Climb. The first half of the hike is a steady climb (nearly 1,000 feet of elevation gain in about a mile)
Parking Lot (GPS Coordinates: 38.6383692, -78.3136365) short distance from Thornton Gap entrance & Skyline Drive.
Drinkable water and flush toilets are available in the parking lot.
Is there a place more treasured within the U.S. National Park system than Yosemite National Park? This country’s modern understanding of conservation of public lands begins with the Yosemite’s designation as a National Park.
While the idea of Yosemite has great importance, the Park itself offers unimaginable beauty that can only be experienced in person! From the famous waterfalls, protruding cliffs, miles and miles of tranquil meadows, alpine beauty, giant and unique mountains, Yosemite has a lot of natural wonders.
I’ve been lucky to visit the Park twice so far and there is still so much to see and experience here!
Offering a variety of hikes that are fit for all abilities and levels of challenge, hiking in Yosemite National Park is a matter of picking your adventure. Generally, the park can be divided into four big areas with each offering a unique experience whether you’re on foot, vehicle or climbing.
Yosemite Valley: The most iconic part of the park is filled with valleys and unbelievable views of huge and plunging waterfalls (e.g., Yosemite Falls), towering granite walls (e.g., El Capitan) famous for offering some of the hardest climbs in the world, and views of impressive mountains (e.g., Half Dome). This is also where trailheads to some of the most popular hikes are located (e.g., John Muir Trail, Mist Trail, etc.). Although this part of Yosemite is open year around, the full range of services is only available seasonally. When visiting the Yosemite Valley don’t forget to make a stop at the famous tunnel view for a mind-blowing glimpse of the three iconic wonders of Yosemite framed into one view.
Glacier Point Area: Nearly a 45-minute drive away from Yosemite Valley, this area offers some breathtaking views of Yosemite. From Glacier Point visitors can see unencumbered views of Half Dome or catch a breathtaking sunset at Taft Point. This area is full of Instagram worthy spots, but closed for the winter and can open fairly late into spring.
Tuolumne Meadows Area: Most notable for meadows filled with incredible wildflowers in late spring and early summer, this area offers pristine alpine lakes, picturesque views of the Cathedral Range and a glimpse into the Sierra Mountains. There are day hikes and backpacking adventures galore to be had in Tuolumne Meadows but it is only accessible seasonally via the Tioga Pass Road, the highest mountain pass in the west coast.
Hetch Hetchy Area: This is one of the most remote and least crowded parts of Yosemite. The granite valleys, streams and creeks can feel like it’s own reward. For those taking on a multi-day trip in to this area, there is a camping area dedicated to backpackers.
– Mist Trail
– Yosemite Falls
– Taft Point
– Soda Springs & Parson’s Lodge
– Clouds Rest (Backpacking)
– Half Dome (Day Hike/Backpacking)
– John Muir Trail (Multi-Day Backpacking)
There are several airports within driving distance to Yosemite National Park. The YARTS shuttle is available for transportation between the airport and the park. Reservations are required and the price of the ticket includes the entrance fee to Yosemite.
The loop road that encircles Yosemite Valley sees heavy congestion during summer months, so park officials encourage visitors to use the free Yosemite shuttle service when traveling within the Park. If you’re planning to spend most of your time in Yosemite Valley, you can get away with not having a car.
There are a plethora of large and small airports to choose for your travels to Yosemite.
As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee for Yosemite National Park.
– Cars/Other Vehicles, $35; Motorcycles, $30; & Bicycle/Walk-In, $20/per person (seven day pass)
– Annual Yosemite Pass (unlimited visits to Yosemite): $70
– Annual National Park Pass (unlimited entrance to any public lands operated by NPS): $80
From deluxe rooms to open air sleeping areas, there are nine different type of lodges inside Yosemite. Reservations for each of these open 366 days in advance of the date of arrival and are managed by Yosemite Hospitality.
There are 13 campgrounds within Yosemite and eight of them require reservations during peak season and the remaining five are first-come, first-served. These campgrounds fill up early in the day. The water source for three of the campgrounds is a nearby creek, so regular restrooms are not available either.
Group sites are available at Wawona, Hodgdon Meadow, Bridalveil Creek, and Tuolumne Meadows campgrounds. Horse sites are available at Hodgon Meadow, Bridalveil Creek and Tuolumne Meadows but reservations are available by phone only (209.375.9535).
High Sierra Camps: Yosemite offers a unique hiking experience for the 50 mile loop in the most beautiful terrain of Yosemite’s high country. Each camp is located 5 to 10 miles apart and offers basic accommodations along with breakfast and dinner. Reservations are awarded on a lottery basis and open in October for the upcoming summer season.
Backcountry Camping: There are many backcountry campgrounds in Yosemite including Little Yosemite Valley, for hikers that want to break up their Half Dome trek. Reservations for these sites are managed through Yosemite’s wilderness permit system.
Private Rentals & Gateway Towns:
There are several types of private rentals within the park boundary in Yosemite West, Foresta and Wawona. There are a range of towns and small cities surrounding Yosemite in every direction of the Park with varying degrees of services.
– Yosemite National Park Website
– YARTS Airport Shuttle
– Curated Day Hike List
– Hiker Reviews
– Wilderness/Backcountry Permits
– Half Dome Permits
– John Muir Trail Permits
– High Sierra Camps & Other Park Lodging
– Private Rentals (Yosemite West, Foresta, and Wawona)
– Gateway Towns Guide
The Ahwahnechee inhabited the lands now known as Yosemite Valley for centuries and the Central Sierra Miowok (Me-Wuk) in the area near Tuolumne Meadows. These two tribes and several others were trading partners along a major trading route over Mono Pass.
In the mid 19-century a rush of white settlers started encroaching on Ahwahnechee land in search of gold. The tensions between the two groups resulted in the year-long Mariposa Wars, which ended when a government-funded militia pursuing Ahwahnechee fighters entered Yosemite Valley, burned the villages, and marched the people to a reservation in Fresno, California. Several years later, a small group of Ahwahnechee successfully petitioned the U.S. government to return to Yosemite Valley. (Source: Outside Magazine)
For the Central Sierra Me-Wuk, gold mining caused irreparable damage to the land and environment which made their way of life untenable in the Tuolumne Meadows. They were also hard hit by diseases the settlers brought with them and the government made several attempts to forcibly remove and annihilate the surviving Me-Wuk. As a result of the culmination of all three threats, the Me-Wuk fled their homeland for more isolated areas. (Source: The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians)
Yosemite became a battleground between conservation-minded and business-minded settlers after the native communities were forcibly removed from their lands. John Muir emerged as a fierce advocate for the “people-free” public land movement, which in part was driven by his racist perception of native people and became a strategy to unjustly and forcibly indigenous communities from their lands. After Yosemite was officially designated a National Park in 1890, the National Park Service led several evictions campaigns to remove the few remaining families from within the boundaries of Yosemite. In 1969, Yosemite staff evicted the last Ahwahnechee people living in the park and razed their homes. (Source: Outside Magazine)
Although the Ahwahnechee integrated with other native communities in the region, the Central Sierra Me-Wuk still live in the area and advocate for land rights within Yosemite. In 2019, after decades of advocacy Yosemite National Park signed a 30-year agreement with the American Indian Council of Mariposa County to build and use a wahhoga (village) inside Yosemite although no one will live there.
Tucked at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range which rise up to over 13,000 feet in Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park, home to sand dunes rising up to 750 feet, is truly a unique and exotic wilderness wonder. Created as a the result of wind and rain eroding the mountain ranges surrounding the dunes, and wind patterns dropping the sand in the valley over a millennia resulted in the natural creation of the dunes.
This was the last stop on my whirlwind national parks of the west road trip, and what an excellent note to end five weeks of adventure! After going backwards on my sand sled accidentally and having an epic crash, I didn’t have much stamina or psychological will to keep climbing the sand, but it was a fun, strange and out of this world experience that I probably will always consider to be the highlight of my trip.
If you plan your trips with a long checklist of things to see, you can probably cross off a few items from your visit to Great Sand Dunes. In addition to the large dunes, the park offers creeks to play in, grass meadows to spot wildlife, wetlands to explore, aspen forests to walk in, alpine lakes to take a swim in, and tundra to explore.
If you’re interested in exploring the array of landscapes at Great Sand Dunes, having a four-wheel drive will give you the best experience. Roads such as the Medano Pass Road cannot be traversed in a two-wheel drive or even a small sport utility vehicle.
Hiking: There are five dunes in the park that stand over 700 feet tall. There are no trails to guide your way on the dunes and most hiking apps don’t show the changes in dunes. Moving vertically on sand is not a walk in the park, especially when the starting elevation is 8,000 feet (the elevation of the park) so be prepared to exert your body. In the late afternoons and evenings, wind gusts pick up adding to the effort you’ll have to expend! In the summer, sand temperatures can get up to 150 degrees in the middle of the day, so make sure to wear shoes that cover your feet (and not Chaco sandals as I did!).
Although many visitors come to hike and play in the sand dunes, there is a world of hiking opportunities beyond the dunes. There are several alpine trails that start at 10,000 feet of elevation and can gain another 2,000 feet and provide unparalleled views of the dunes. There are trails that take you to serene alpine lakes. And other trails that offer peaceful walk among giant trees. Whatever your hiking pleasure, it is guaranteed, Sand Dunes National Park can meet it.
– High Dune
– Star Dune
– Mount Herard
– Sand Creek Lakes (three lakes)
– Zapata Falls (located 12 miles outside the park)
Backpacking: There are several backcountry campsites available. Visitors can camp along the sand dunes at non-designated sites. There are only 20 permits/sites allowed each night. There are also seven designated campgrounds along the Sand Ramp Trail – a trail that allows hikers to experience the varying landscapes of Sand Dunes.
Sandboarding and Sand Sledding: One of the most unique and fun adventures that I’ve had in a national park was sand sledding at Great Sand Dunes. The park permits sandboarding and sledding anywhere on the dunefield as long as it is away from fragile vegetation. Proper gear specifically designed for the sand is required and make sure to go out only in dry conditions (if the sand is wet, sledding will be really hard). The park website has helpful guidelines on proper technique and a list of equipment that works in the sand.
Although the park does not rent sand sleds, there are several outfitters close to the park that they do. Oasis Store is located just 4 miles outside the park on the road that leads to the park entrance. I grabbed my board on the way and it was an easy, quick process. They do not provide training, so make sure to watch some videos and read the advice on the park website.
While it might be tempting to take on the tallest dunes, practice on the smaller ones close to the main parking area. The sand at the base is softer and the gentler runouts can slow you down. After sledding through a few dunes, I decided to try on a higher dune that had a razor thin ledge. Because I didn’t properly center the board, I went backwards and tumbled down to the base. I wasn’t hurt badly – a sore shoulder – but there was sand in every conceivable part of my body! And if I had been on a higher dune, I could’ve injured myself.
Fat Biking: Although mechanized vehicle use is limited in the wilderness areas of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, bikes with wide tires are permitted on the Medano Pass Primitive Road. This road is only accessible by 4WD vehicles and fat bikes, but both vehicles and bikes have to share a single lane road. No permits are needed to bike or camp in the Medano Campground.
Star Gazing: As a certified dark sky park, the unfettered view of the sky from a camp spot in the dunes is beyond imagination and other worldly. Make sure to plan your visit on a moonless night to get the full impact of the starry night. Camping in the dunes requires a permit that can be obtained at the visitor center. Permits are awarded each night at the visitor center on a first come, first-served basis. Only 20 permits are awarded each night, weather permitting. The only rules of camping in the dunes is to hike out beyond the day use area (about 1.5-2 miles into the park).
Great Sand Dunes National Park is a remotely located and visitors must drive into the park. There are several unpaved roads that require 4WD that provide access to the park. To avoid traveling down these roads unintentionally in vehicles not equipped for them, Great Sand Dunes warns visitors to not rely on GPS to route them to the park. They advise using maps to navigate yourself. Highway 150 from the south and County Road 6 from the west are the only two paved highways that provide access to Great Sand Dunes.
Airports: There is a small airport in Alamosa, Colorado (38 miles) but service is very limited. There are three major airlines that will get you in the vicinity but will require varying amounts of driving.
– Colorado Springs, Colorado (165 miles)
– Albuquerque, New Mexico (237 miles)
– Denver, Colorado (250 miles)
Entrance Fees: As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee for Great Sand Dunes National Park.
– Cars/Other Vehicles, $25; Motorcycles, $20; & Bicycle/Walk-In, $15/per person (seven day pass)
– Annual Great Sand Dunes Pass (unlimited visits to Great Sand Dunes): $50
– Annual National Park Pass (unlimited entrance to any public lands operated by NPS): $80
There are no lodging options and one campground, Pinon Flats, inside Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Camping: Pinon Flats Campground is open seasonally (April – Oct) and reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. Each individual campsite is $20/night and the cost of group sites vary by size. RVs are allowed in the individual site area but not in the group site area.
Gateway Towns: Given the lack of accommodation inside the park and the remote location of the park, planning your stay in a community surrounding the park in advance is important. The park lists four hotels/motels within 45 minutes on its site. The closest communities are small and offer only a view options. Alamosa, Colorado (38 miles) is the town that offers the most lodging options.
– Mosca (23 miles), Rustic Rook Reosrt
– Fort Garland (31 miles), Mountain View Inn & The Lodge Motel
– Alamosa (38 miles)
– Monte Vista (43 miles)
– San Luis (45 miles), San Luis Inn
– Moffat (45 miles), Willow Spring B&B
Although lodging is limited, Great Sand Dunes National Park is surrounded by land managed by the National Forest Service and offers dispersed camping and a range of commercial campgrounds. During my visit, I drove from Mesa Verde and it started to fairly late and I was able to pull into a national forest campground only 30 minutes outside the park.
– Oasis Campground, immediately outside the park and open seasonally (April – October)
– Zapata Falls Campground, open year round and primitive
– Sand Dunes Swimming Pool & Campground, commercial camping
– Rio Grande National Forest, 33 campgrounds and cabin rentals
– San Isabel National Forest, campgrounds and cabin rentals
Each national park has it’s own beauty, specialness and some even have iconic status, but Grand Canyon National Park stands above them all. It is one of the most well-known parks and over 6 million people visit this wonderous place on any given year.
Of course the beauty of this 6,093 foot gorge carved by the Colorado River over a millennia and gives rise to the stratified canyon walls that blend in red, green and blue, is a wonder to see and experience. That is why it’s one of the seven wonders of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a jewel of the national park system. This wonderous area continues to be sacred to several native communities and Havasupai still live on the land.
Whether it’s a stroll along the South Rim (the popular part of the park) or a below rim hiking/river adventure, Grand Canyon is an exciting place to see and explore.
There are two major parts to the park, the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon and Havasupai which is in the Grand Canyon but is separately administered by the Havasupai Tribe.
Hiking: Grand Canyon offers world-famous hiking opportunities that range from casual to endurance challenges. My only hiking experience at the Grand Canyon was the backpacking trip from the North Rim to the South Rim. To climb down one rim to the canyon floor and climb up the other rim was a unique experience that allowed me to feel the grandeur of the Grand Canyon.
While hiking to some of the most beautiful sights in the world is rewarding, hiking in Grand Canyon requires preparation because the steep terrain and extreme temperatures can make any hike in the park challenging. Regardless of the season be sure to carry plenty of water and food, carry layers of clothing, and be prepared for drastic change in temperature (canyon floor often is drastically warmer than the rim) and severe thunder storms to pop up from nowhere.
– Bright Angel Trail (South Rim)
– Rim Trail (South Rim)
– South Kaibab Trail (South Rim)
– Tonto Trail (South Rim)
– North Kaibab Trail (North Rim
– Transept Trail (North Rim)
– Cape Final Trail (North Rim)
– Rim to Rim Hike (Backpacking, permit required)
Mule Trips: Many national parks offer horseback riding trips, but the Grand Canyon offers mule trip to the canyon floor. The trips leave from the South and North Rims.
Mule rides on the South Rim can be combined with an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch. Reservations are awarded through a lottery and submissions are accepted beginning the 15th of month prior to stay month (e.g., if you want to stay at the Ranch on the June 20, you’d enter the lottery submission on May 15th or later). The Ranch offers basic accommodations but meals are are included in the stay. Backpackers can also reserve a meal in advance. The cost of mule rides is approximately $150/per person. There are requirements and restrictions for the mule trips.
North Rim mule rides operate only seasonally and are shorter, day trips that cost $50-100/per person depending on the trail. The North Rim mule trips also have requirements and restrictions.
River Rides: The Colorado River which runs through the canyon floor is not only an iconic sight but is well known for iconic wilderness whitewater adventures (so unique that it has it’s own rating system). Visitors can obtains a permit through the weighted lottery to operate their private boats or reserve a spot on a commercially-guided trip.
There are several transportation options to visit Grand Canyon National Park, including flying, driving and taking the Amtrak. The park offers a free shuttle to get around points at the South Rim of the park.
Airports: There are three major airports in varying distance to Grand Canyon National Park. The Grand Canyon National Park airport is only seven miles from the South Rim but only offers limited service from Las Vegas.
Train: Amtrak offers service to the Flagstaff station and bus services connect visitors to the park. The Grand Canyon Railway also provides daily service from Williams, Arizona.
Other Options: There are several bus lines and shuttle services that provide transportation to the South Rim from the major cities near Grand Canyon (e.g., Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Las Vegas). For backpackers or visitors looking for transportation between the North and South Rims, the Trans-Canyon Shuttle runs once a day during peak season (May – October) and on a limited schedule in late October. Each way is $90/per person.
Entrance Fees: As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee for Grand Canyon National Park.
There are several lodging options at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon which are open year round and one lodge in the North Rim that operates seasonally. Phantom Ranch is the only lodging option in the canyon floor and reservations are awarded through a lottery. Lodging inside the park are extremely popular and reservations should be made as far ahead as possible.
Campgrounds: There are four established campgrounds in Grand Canyon National Park, with two of them accepting reservations for campsites. Reservations open six month in advance and book fairly quickly.
Gateway Towns: There are several communities that offer a range of accommodations close to the South and North Rims of the park. Given its popularity, an array of options are available in towns closest to the South Rim.
– Tusayan, Arizona (7 miles)
– Flagstaff, Arizona (80 miles)
– Red Lake, Arizona (43 miles)
– Valle, Arizona (30 miles)
– Williams, Arizona (60 miles)
– Kanab, Utah (84 miles)
– Fredonia, Arizona (77 miles)
When I close my eyes and imagine a mountains, the rugged mountain range of the Grand Teton National Park is what comes to mind. The beauty and majesty of the snowy peaks of Tetons is not an exaggeration. Although small in land mass compared to other national parks, especially Grand Teton’s neighbor, Yellowstone, this park offers an array of beauty to explore.
Many of my stops were marred by the raging wildfires of 2018. As a result, I only had a chance to get glimpses of the Teton range. Even so, they mesmerized me and it gave me a chance to focus on other beautiful aspects of the park. As with many of the parks I visited on my road trip, my only regret was that I didn’t plan to spend more time exploring this beautiful and famous place.
From hiking, boating and mountaineering, Grand Teton National Park is truly an adventurers paradise but if adventure is not what you’re up for, the park also offers many opportunities to sit by a serene body of water and relax.
Hiking: At first glance, Grand Teton National Park may seem like an intimidating place to hike, but the over two hundred miles of trails offer trails for all levels of experiences and abilities. They also give glimpses into the stunning landscape of the park from lush valley floors, mountain meadows, alpine lakes and of course the famed Teton mountain range.
– Hermitage Point Loop
– Hidden Falls
– Lake Solitude
– Schwabacher Landing
– Cascade & Paintbrush Canyons (Backpacking Hike)
Climbing: It should not be surprising that climbing is one of the most popular activities in Grand Teton. Permits are not required for climbing but overnights trips will need a backcountry camping permit.
Water Adventures: Whether it’s fishing, boating, or swimming, there is a lake at Grand Teton that will fit your needs.
Scenic Drives: Driving through one of the many scenic drives is another way to enjoy the Teton Range. There are many turnouts to take in the views, watch wildlife, and take those iconic photographs. Road in Grand Teton are open spring through fall.
There are several options for getting to Grand Teton from driving, flying and using a shuttle service from one of the larger cities that border the park.
Airports: Two major airports and one regional airport serve Grand Teton National Park.
– Jackson Hole Airport (5 miles)
– Idaho Falls Airport (95 miles)
– Salt Lake City Airport (286 miles)
Shuttle Service: Two shuttle services provide transportation to and from Jackson Hole but you will need a car to explore Grand Teton National Park from there.
– Salt Lake Express Shuttle Service
– Jackson Hole Alltrans Shuttle Service
Entrance Fees: As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee for Grand Teton National Park.
There are a range of lodging options inside Grand Teton National park including hotels, cabins, and campgrounds.
Hotels: There are seven hotels ranging in style and types of accommodations within the park.
Camping: There are seven campgrounds within Grand Teton National Park and it is a great way to immerse yourself into the natural grandeur of the park. In addition to established campgrounds, there are also plenty of opportunities for backcountry camping (requires a backcountry permit). Most established campgrounds in Grand Teton have pay showers and laundry facilities.
Gateway Towns: There are several towns/cities close to Grand Teton National Park. Jackson Hole, Wyoming is the closest and largest city and offers a wide range of accommodations. It is also conveniently located near the Jackson Hole Airport. All campsites require reservations and open in January for the entire season.
If camping is your jam and the campsites at Grand Teton fill up, there are plenty of national forests and other dispersed camping areas outside the park. When I visited, I was hoping to find a hotel near Moran. Because it was peak season and the wildfires were raging, it was hard to find a hotel and it was getting dark so I found a campsite rather easily off the road.
Acadia National Park has been on my list of must travel places for as long as I can remember. As an East Coaster, I’ve always appreciated that a national park jewel existed on this coast too! I will admit the more popular parks in the west coast have always called to me, perhaps because Acadia felt like an adventure I can take on anytime because it was close to home.
And I’m glad I saved my visit to Acadia for a special occasion. After months of being locked in my house because of COVID-related shelter-at-home orders and because it was the responsible thing to do, as cases started to wane in the early fall, I felt comfortable taking a trip within a day’s driving distance. Maine had the lowest COVID infection rate in the early fall and implemented strict travel requirements and enforcement (e.g., I had to show proof of a negative COVID test taken 72 hours prior to entering the state to hotel/Airbnb operators), so I was confident the trip would keep me and others safe.
Located on the coast of Maine, Acadia not only offers breath-taking landscapes marked by thick pine forests, rugged coastlines, and granite peaks but also an abundance of wildlife (moose, bears, whales, and so much more!). Hiking a mountain to see views of the ocean is a unique experience unto itself.
Acadia offers visitors of all hiking experience and abilities something to take on and enjoy (this is true of all National Parks but I felt this one was particularly so)! There are over 125 miles of hiking trails over a range of environments (forests, ponds, and mountains) and 45 miles of carriage roads that are open for walking and biking.
Several of the sea to summit hikes often scaling cliffs through bolted metal ladders are exciting and adventurous! I really enjoyed the challenge of the Precipice and Beehive Trails. These trails were steep with many vertical ascents along narrow, exposed trails. Planning to hike in Acadia is also fun because many trail connect with others making for interesting loop and lollipop hikes that you can put together.
– Beehive Trail
– Precipice Trail
– Jordan Pond
– Ocean Path
– Cadillac Mountain
Visitors can fly, drive or take the park-run shuttle, the Island Explorer to access Acadia National Park.
Airports: There are several airports close to Acadia.
– Bar Harbor-Hancock County Regional Airport (8 miles)
– Bangor International Airport (46 miles)
– Portland Jetport (175 miles)
– Logan International Airport in Boston (274 miles) is largest commercial airport
Acadia Shuttle: When the Island Explorer Shuttle is running (in peak season), visitors can get away with not having a personal vehicle. In fact, Park Loop Road, the main road that runs through the popular areas of Acadia National Park can get congested. In October 2020, Acadia started testing a vehicle registration process to reduce congestion inside the park. The shuttle also provides transportation into the park from gateway towns outside the park as well as the Bar Harbor-Hancock County Regional Airport.
Entrance Fees: As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee for Acadia National Park.
– Cars/Other Vehicles, $30; Motorcycles, $25; & Bicycle/Walk-In, $15/per person (seven day pass)
– Annual Yellowstone Pass (unlimited visits to Acadia): $55
– Annual National Park Pass (unlimited entrance to any public lands operated by NPS): $80
There are hotels within Acadia National Park, but there are four campgrounds that are open seasonally (May through October). There are a range of lodging and other accommodations outside the park as well!
Camping: Reservations for campsites open three months in advance and there are no first come, first-served sites.
– Blackwoods (East side of Mt. Desert Island and close to the major attractions)
– Seawall (West side of Mt. Desert Island and less crowded that Blackwoods)
– Duck Harbor Campground (Isle au Haut and accessible by boat only)
– Schoodic Woods (Schoodic Peninsula)
Gateway Towns: There are several towns and cities surrounding Acadia National Park. Bar Harbor is the largest and most well known and often considered synonymously with Acadia.
– Bar Harbor (9 miles)
– Southwest Harbor (10 miles)
– Tremont Harbor (13 miles)
– Trenton (9 miles)
I knew Death Valley National Park had the lowest point in the country and that it was really hot, which both seemed intriguing and enough for me to add it as a quick stop on my whirlwind road through national parks in the west. However, I was not prepared for the wide-ranging geography and dramatic landscapes of Death Valley! Once I was in the park, I wished I’d done more research on all that Death Valley had to offer.
At nearly 3.4 million acres of wilderness comprising of sand dunes, salt flats, naturally-occurring bursts of color on sand, and canyons, Death Valley is one of the largest national parks as well as the hottest, driest and lowest. To say it’s a land of extremes would be an understatement, but the extremes bring to the forefront a kind of natural beauty not be found in any other national park!
Death Valley offers plenty of adventure options – birdwatching (yes, there is an abundance of life), driving to popular features, off-road driving excursions into less explored parts, backpacking, hiking, horseback riding, mountain-biking, and star-gazing.
If there’s one thing I got right about my assumptions about Death Valley, it was the heat! Really, Death Valley is crazy, crazy hot. I visited in early fall and temperatures were close to 120 degrees. I walked around the Badwater Basin area (at 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point in North America) in the middle of the day without any water and definitely felt the beginnings of heat exhaustion. So take the temperature seriously!
There are plenty of hiking and backpacking opportunities inside Death Valley. Although my mantra for the outdoors is to not be afraid of making mistakes because that’s the only way to learn, undertaking any type of hike in Death Valley (even a short 1-mile trek), takes careful planning, being in tune with your body and listening to it. This inhospitable environment can become life-threatening and dangerous if you don’t follow the basics – avoid hiking in the summer (or at least the hottest part of the day), carry plenty of water, and be sure to bring protection from the sun (e.g., sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses) no matter the season (yes, even those of us with lots of melanin)!
While it’s important to heed the caution, it shouldn’t be a deterrent from adventuring in Death Valley, especially for those new to hiking! Trust your gut. Follow common sense. You’ll be fine!
– Badlands Loop
– Badwater Basin
– Darwin Falls
– Mesquite Dunes
Nervous about jumping into a hike at Death Valley? No problem. There are over 1,00 miles of roads within Death Valley National Park. There’s also a plethora of off-road adventures if you have a four-wheel drive. Many of the popular viewpoints are accessible by car and are just a short walk from the road.
Recommended Stopping Points:
– Artist’s Drive
– Dante’s View
– Devil’s Golf Course
– Zabriskie Point
If seeing unfettered views of a star-filled sky is your jam, Death Valley is the place to be. Certified by the International Dark-Sky Association to be one of the darkest night skies in the United States, Death Valley offers a wide range of opportunities to explore the sky at night on your own or through one of the frequent ranger led nigh-sky programming. Wherever you decide to explore the night sky, be sure to bring plenty of light, maps and have a sense of direction to find your way back! And water, of course.
Recommended Stargazing Spots:
– Mesquite Sand Dunes
– Harmony Borax Works Site
– Badwater Basin
The easiest way to get to Death Valley National Park is by car and visitors will definitely need their own transportation to explore the Park.
Airports: The only major airport near Death Valley is McCarren International in Las Vegas, Nevada (126 miles).
Driving: California Highway 190 is the main road into Death Valley National Park.
Entrance Fees: As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee for Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley offers several lodging options. Given it’s size and distance between places, visitors should choose lodging options that are closest to the area where they’ll be spending most of their time in the park.
Hotels: There are four hotels within the boundary of Death Valley National Park. They are open all year round and accept reservations.
– Stovepipe Wells Village
– Oasis at Death Valley, Inn (Furnace Creek Area)
– Oasis at Death Valley, Ranch (Furnace Creek Area)
– Panamint Springs Resort
Camping: There are 9 campgrounds inside Death Valley National Park. Because of the extreme heat in the summer, many accommodations are closed in the park. Campgrounds that operate in the summer are first-come, first served. Even in peak season (October through April), only the Furnace Creek Campground accepts reservations.
– Furnace Creek Campground, open year round and accepts reservations October through April
– Sunset Campground, open seasonally
– Texas Springs, open seasonally
Stovepipe Wells Village (25 miles to Furnace Creek Area)
– Stovepipe Wells Campground, open seasonally
– Mesquite Spring Campground, open year round
– Emigrant Campground, open year round and tent only
Wildrose Area (55-65 miles to Furnace Creek Area)
– Wildrose Campground, open year round
-Thorndike Campground, open seasonally
– Mahogany Flat Campground, open seasonally
Gateway Towns: The area that surrounds Death Valley can feel desolate, but there are a few small communities within driving distance with Pahrump offering the most options.
East of the Park
– Beatty, Nevada (20 miles)
– Pahrump, Nevada (80 miles)
– Shoshone, California – campgrounds & RV parks only (78 miles)
West of the Park
– Lone Pine, California (95 miles)
The vivid and dazzling blue lake that is the core attraction of Crater National Park is one of the most mesmerizing places I’ve visited. The only National Park in Oregon, Crater National Park offers a range of adventures from hiking, star gazing, boat tours, fishing to scavenger hunts. While most National Parks are quiet in the winter, Crater National Park offers a wide range of winter activities as well.
Born out of the violent volcanic eruption that collapsed the peak of Mount Mazma, Crater Lake is one of the most pristine lakes in the world and the deepest lake in the United States. Crater Lake is one of the snowiest places in the U.S. and along with rain are the only sources of water. The depth of the lake and the lack of inlets which allows the lake to remain free of sediment and mineral deposit gives it the intense blue color.
There’s much more than the lake to explore at Crater Lake National park including ninety miles of trails, 170,000 acres of old growth trees and unobstructed opportunity for star gazing at night. The Pacific Crest Trail also traverses through the Park, so there’s plenty of hiking here!
Although visitors can drive the rim with endless overlooks, hiking up to a one of the numerous peaks along the caldera’s rims is the best way to experience panoramic views of the lake. Because of the prevalence of clouds, Crater Lake is often invisible. The Park provides webcams that provides information on lake views that visitors can use to plan their hikes.
I only had a day and a half to explore Crater Lake National Park. I chose to hike to the highest point in the park, the summit of Mount Scott at 8,929 feet. Although the hike is short (5 miles), there is enough steepness to make it challenging. Unfortunately the famous clouds of the lake and haze from nearby wildfires, made it impossible to see much, it still made for a beautiful hike.
– Cleetwood Cove
– Garfield Peak
– Mount Scott
– Union Peak
RIM ROAD DRIVE:
The 33-mile Rim Road follows the edge of the caldera and offers more than 30 scenic pullouts that provides every imaginable vantage point of Crater Lake. Some of the interesting points to stop are Videa Falls, Pumice Castle Overlook, and Discovery Point. Driving along and stopping at all the interesting stopping points can be a day activity in and of itself.
BOAT TOURS & FISHING:
Boat tours are the only way to travel around the lake. The two-hour tours depart every 30 minutes until mid-afternoon and offers views of the Phantom Ship (the oldest exposed sailboat-shaped rock formation), Devil’s Backbone, waterfalls, and snowbanks.
The other boat tour option is the half-day (three hours) or full-day (six hours) trip to Wizard Island. Visitors can hike the steep trail to the summit of Wizard Island for an unparalleled panoramic view of Crater Lake, swim, and fish for Kokanee Salmon or Rainbow Trout. The tour will also provides views of the Phantom Ship, Pumice Castle (a fortress-like crater wall), wildflowers, and brightly colored lichens.
Crater Lake is one of the snowiest places in the U.S., which makes it an ideal place for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing along the caldera.
Garfield Peak and Watchman both are the best known off-trail winter adventure areas for snowshoers and skiers alike. Two of the highpoints along the rim, snowshoers can find an easy route to the summit of Garfield Peak along the moderately sloping meadows on the east side of the peak and to the top of Watchman from the West Rim Road upper parking lot.
Crater Lake National Park is accessible via train and airplane, but driving is the easiest way to reach the Park.
Airport: The closest airport to Crater Lake is Rogue-Valley Medford Airport in Medford, Oregon (75 miles to west entrance). Several commercial airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, and United) service the airport.
Amtrak: Amtrak provides daily service to Klamath Falls (63 miles to south entrance). From July to September, there is a shuttle from the Amtrak station to Rim Village in the Park. However, visitors will need a car to get around much of the Crater Lake National Park.
Entrance Fees: As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee for Crater Lake National Park.
– Cars/Other Vehicles, $30; Motorcycles, $35; & Bicycle/Walk-In, $15/per person (seven day pass)
– Annual Yellowstone Pass (unlimited visits to Crater Lake): $55
– Annual National Park Pass (unlimited entrance to any public lands operated by NPS): $80
Lodging inside Crater Lake National Park is limited. The hotels have limited capacity and only one full campground. To stay inside the Park, be sure to make reservations early.
Hotels: There are two hotel options, Crater Lake Lodge in the Rim Village and the Cabins at Mazma Village (7 miles from the Rim Village). Both are open seasonally and accept reservations 365 days in advance.
Camping: There are two campgrounds, Mazma and Lost Creek, which are open only in the summer.
– Mazma has 214 sites for tents and RVs (first-come, first served in June; reservations in July – September)
– Lost Creek has 16 tent only sites (first-come, first-served only)
– Backcountry camping is available by permit
Gateway Towns: Crater Lake National Park is surrounded by several towns with a range of lodging options.
North Entrance: Crater Lake National Park’s north entrance (open seasonally) is closest to Eugene, Oregon (250 miles). A large city offering a wide range of lodging and entertainment options.
Northwest Entrance: Roseburg, Oregon (87 miles) is closest to the northwest entrance (open seasonally) of the Park. A small town but offers a range of outdoor activity options and lodging for a visit to Crater Lake.
South Entrance: Klamath Falls, Oregon (45 miles) is closest to the south entrance (open year-round). Although smaller than Medford, Klamath Falls offers a range of lodging and entertainment options.
West Entrance: Medford, Oregon, the fourth largest metro area in Oregon, is the closest town (75 miles) to the west entrance (open year-round) of Crater National Park. It offers a wide range of lodging, restaurant and winery options.
Mesa Verde National Park is a rich archeological site that contains well-preserved dwellings of the Ancient Pueblo people dating back to 7500 B.C. Despite the barren look of the landscape many native communities from the Paleo-Indians to the Ute thrived in this land.
Unlike other National Parks, Mesa Verde was established with the explicit purpose to preserve and interpret the archeological heritage of the ancient inhabitants, the Ancient Pueblo people, of the land. Unfortunately, the preservation effort came at a high cost to the Ute who lived on the land when the U.S. government usurped it through unfair and manipulated treaties. Today, Mesa Verde continues to be an area dedicated to preservation and has a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
CLIFF DWELLING TOURS: Mesa Verde’s main attraction is the over 5,000 ancient artifacts, including over 600 cliff dwellings. Visitors can walk inside three of these cliff dwellings (Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House) through one of the ranger-guided tours, which require tickets ($5/per person). Tickets are sold in-person only and sell fast so be sure to get to the park early! During my road trip, I got to the Park around 10AM and grabbed one of the few remaining tickets for a late in the day tour of the Balcony House. This popular tour is famous for the 32-foot ladder that visitors have to climb and the 12-foot tunnel they have to crawl through.
MESA TOP LOOP DRIVE: Visitors can experience a self-guided tour of the other sites including surface-level dwellings via the three loop roads off the main park road. One of the highlights of my visit was the Mesa Top Loop, a six-mile drive that took me to the famous Square Tower House, Sun Point Overlook and the Sun Temple.
Driving the roads in Mesa Verde is an attraction unto itself. There are beautiful and expansive views of the landscape with many overlooks to enjoy the ancient human and natural history of the area. Unfortunately, I saw very little of Mesa Verde’s most recent inhabitants, the Ute people.
Because the roads are winding, they are also a favorite spot for bicyclists, so make pay close attention to them on those corners.
HIKING: There are nine hiking trails but given the archaeological sensitivity of this area backcountry hiking and camping are not permitted within the park boundary. The day hike trails range from half a mile to eight miles. I hiked the Point Lookout Trail, 2.2 mile switch-backed trail to the top of the mesa. From the lookout area, there are amazing views of the Montezuma and Mancos valleys. On a clear day, you can also see the mountain ranges in Utah and the Rockies!
Airports: American and United Airlines provide service to Durango La Plata County airport, which is the closest (50 miles) commercial airport to Mesa Verde National Park. Other major airports in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Salt Lake City, Utah are over several hundred miles away.
Visitors need a car to get around because Mesa Verde does not provide a shuttle service.
Entrance Fee: As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee to Mesa Verde National Park. A seven day pass for cars/other vehicles is $30 and $25 for motorcycles. Visitors can also walk or bike into the park for $15/per person. There are annual pass options as well – $55 for unlimited entrance to Mesa Verde for one year or $80 for unlimited entrance to any National Park or any other public lands operated by the National Park Service. The entrance fees are lower during off peak season.
Hotel: The Far View Lodge is the only hotel inside Mesa Verde and is open seasonally (May – September). The rooms are simple but each room comes with Wi-Fi and a private balcony that offers panoramic views of the Park.
Camping: Morefield Campground is the only camping option within the park. There are over 250 sites including 15 RV hook up sites. The campground is rarely full and open year round but services are only available seasonally. If hiking in Mesa Verde is on your list, many of the trailheads are located near the campground.
Gateway Towns: There are several hotels and other lodging options in Cortez, Colorado (less than 10 miles) outside of Mesa Verde. Durango, Colorado (50 miles) offers a wider range of options.
For centuries native communities from the earliest known Paleo-Indians and Ancestral Puebloans to the most recent Utes lived and flourished in the lands that is currently Mesa Verde National Park. The Ute still consider many artifacts including the elaborate shelters their earliest ancestors created sacred.
As European gold prospectors and American settler colonialists encroached on western land, the Ute signed a series of treaties with the U.S. government. Although the first treaty in 1849 established land boundaries between the two nations, between 1863 and 1874, the U.S. government through executive orders and other means fraudulently confiscated land that belonged to the Ute. In 1874, the Ute signed another treaty they believed granted only mining rights to settlers in some areas of Ute land but retain overall control of the 4 million acres of land. However, translators misrepresented the terms of the treat which did not stipulate the above terms and the Ute were forced to relinquish much of their land.
By the 1890’s the U.S. government opened the strip of Ute land to homesteading, which led them to lose even more land including what is currently Mesa Verde National Park. Teddy Roosevelt established Mesa Verde a National Park in 1906 to ironically preserve the ancient sites. (Source: Southern Ute History)
Today, the Ute continue to advocate for the right to land, water, and hunting/fishing in this ancestrally important area.
Located immediately outside of the city and the Mount Vernon Trail, Roosevelt Island, a tribute to President Teddy Roosevelt, is a gem among the local outdoor spaces in the D.C. area.
Parking for the island is right off the GW Parkway and the entrance is on the right at the end of the parking lot (Mount Vernon Trail will be to the left). At the entrance to the island, I saw a larger group of people heading to the right so I decided to walk the loop counter clockwise. And it was a good decision. After a recent snowstorm there was were some huge puddles of mud to wade through and it gave the mud a chance to dry off before I got back in the car.
The nearly two-mile walk is serene and peaceful. The first quarter is a wooded path and then the long stretch of boardwalk over the swamps begins. While you can see the iconic landmarks of D.C. through trees, it also feels secluded with an air of mystery all around. As is my habit during COVID times, I get to popular trails close to the city late in the afternoon (around 3 PM) and saw the big crowds finishing their walk and crisscrossed smaller groups of people walking the loop clockwise. All of this gave me a chance to to maintain social distancing guidelines.
This kid- and pet-friendly hike ends (if you’re going counter clockwise) in a sculpture garden that is a tribute to President Teddy Roosevelt and has a unique beauty of its own. On a warm and non-pandemic day, this could be a beautiful place to enjoy lunch and read a book or cap off the beautiful walk with a picnic.
If you make it out to Roosevelt Island and found this blog post helpful in planning your trip, make sure to let me know!