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Explore Nature’s Majesty

Jun 01, 2017 08:09AM ● Published by Pamela Hammonds

When planning your next family vacation, instead of searching for swimming pools and rollercoasters to entertain your troop, think road trips and camping, hiking and picnicking. Visiting one or two of America’s 400-plus national parks can give your family a much-needed respite from run-of-the-mill summer destinations.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

One of the largest national parks in Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve occupies a vast area—3.3 million acres to be exact—of southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. The national park is located 65 miles northwest of Juneau in the small town of Gustavus. Since the town is only accessible by plane or boat, you can catch a flight, take the ferry or charter a boat to reach the park.

Home to the park headquarters, the visitor center, a lodge and restaurant, and a campground, Bartlett Cove is 10 miles from Gustavus. The cove, which lies within Glacier Bay Park, is the starting point for forest and riverside trails. On land, Glacier Bay boasts a large bear population, both brown and black. But it’s not the bears to watch out for. Although moose are captivating creatures to observe, it’s best to keep a safe distance from this massive land-lover as well.

While hiking and offshore sightseeing is limited to the Bartlett Cove area, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what you can see and do. Marine waters make up almost one-fifth of the park, which is home to the endangered humpback whale, orcas, threatened Stellar sea lions and sea otters. Most of the park’s activities are water-centered. Kayaking, river rafting, fishing, whale watching and glacier viewing are all popular.

Tourist season runs from late May through early September, peaking in July. Although open the rest of the year, the park’s visitor services are extremely limited—meaning you are on your own. If you love a rainy day, you’re in luck; the park’s forecast generally calls for an abundance of the wet stuff. Waterproof boots, rain gear, gloves and a warm coat may mean heavier luggage, but after spending a day or so in 50 to 60 degree “summer” temperatures, your body will thank you—and so will your dry feet. NPS.gov/glba 

Saguaro National Park

Although considered one park, Saguaro National Park in Arizona is actually split into two districts, each on either side of the city of Tucson, in the middle of the Sonoran desert. Home to the world’s largest cacti—the giant saguaro—Tucson sits between the two districts of Saguaro National Park, the Tucson Mountain District on the west and the Rincon Mountain District on the east. Thirty miles separates the two parts, and while each side may have cacti in common, when you set out to explore each district you’ll discover just how unique they are.

On the west, the Tucson Mountain District features large stands of saguaro cactus, creating a forest of the enormous cacti. While in this district, you’ll want to visit the Signal Hill Picnic Area to view hundreds of ancient petroglyphs. On the east, the high altitudes of the Rincon Mountains make for great hiking and biking trails. Just be sure to stay away from the bears and cougars, which call this area home. In this district you’ll want to take a scenic car or bike ride around the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, which offers breathtaking views of the Rincon Mountains.

The iconic symbol of the American southwest—the Saguaro—begins to bloom in late April with the fruits ripening in June and July. If you’re planning a trip this summer, it’s best to go early; August is monsoon season in the Sonoran desert. NPS.gov/sagu

Yosemite National Park

One of the largest and oldest national parks in the United States, Yosemite National Park covers nearly 750,000 acres of land in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. Open 24 hours per day 365 days per year, the park is more than just campgrounds and hiking trails. While there are roughly 800 miles of trails, the park is also a mecca for rock climbers. Lessons and guided tours for beginner to advanced climbers are offered.

Waterfalls are some of Yosemite National Park’s biggest attractions. Thousands of cascades speckle the sides of mountains and granite formations. Of them, Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest (it features nearly a half-mile drop) in North America and ranks as fifth highest in the world.

As national parks go, Yosemite is an experience. You can certainly rough it at one of 13 campgrounds or stay at a AAA four-diamond hotel. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel not only offers luxury accommodations, but fine dining as well. If you prefer picnicking to cheese plates and wine lists, you can choose from a variety of dining options throughout the park, which are open from sunup to sundown. NPS.gov/yose

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