7 of My Favorite National Parks

This Saturday (April 18,2015) marks the start of National Park Week. It is kicked off with free admittance to many of the national park areas. I’ve picked out Padre Island National Sea Shore as what I want to use my free weekend to see this year. Have you picked out the national park that you want to visit?

There are so many great National Parks that picking a few to list is hard. I have enjoyed so many of them through the years from the famous Grand Canyon and Yellowstone to the much lesser known Natchez Trace. Some of our National Parks are Parkways; some are heavily forested, some are filled with prairie grasses while others have things like geysers or mountains.

Here are 7 of my favorite National Parks and Parkways.

Natchez Trace Parkway

The Natchez Trace Parkway runs from just south of Nashville Tennessee to Natchez Mississippi and runs through three states, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. Parts are labeled as the Old Natchez Trace. These are areas that were footpaths that people walked. Men would ride boats down the Mississippi and sell them then walk back home. Slaves were sold and walked the trail. Native Americans used the trail.


Original Natchez Trace Section

A lady and children were using this as a swimming hole

A lady and children were using this as a swimming hole

There are no longer any services on the Natchez Trace Parkway so you must leave the parkway to find restaurants and gas. There are 3 campgrounds on the Trace though and they are free to use for up to 2 weeks at a time. The three campgrounds are Meriwether Lewis in the North, Jeff Busby in the center and Rocky Springs in the south. There are other campgrounds off the trail also.

There is a small waterfall that one can scramble down to, a swimming hole by the side of the road, a small mountain one can walk up and the burial site of Meriwether Lewis is also there. If that isn’t enough one can get of the Natchez Trace in Tupelo and see where Elvis started to grew up.

Blue Ridge Parkway

What can I say about the Blue Ridge Parkway that hasn’t already been said? The fog can be horrendous; the views when the fog is cleared are amazing. After one has gone as far south as one can on Skyline Drive you run into the Blue Ridge Parkway as it connects Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. It is 469 miles of amazing views, challenging curves and absolutely breathtaking beauty.

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway one morning.

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway one morning.

One can go hiking on Mount Pisgah, hike part of the Appalachian Trail or go on any number of the hikes scattered throughout the Parkway. The book Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway: The Ultimate Travel Guide To America’s Most Popular Scenic Roadway (Regional Hiking Series)  is one of my favorites to gain information from. When one is tired of hiking, there is also motorcycle touring, bicycling along the Parkway is challenging as the elevation changes from 600 to 6000 feet.

There are nine rustic campgrounds (no hookups) and the only campground on the Blue Ridge Parkway itself that has showers available is Mt. Pisgah. There are campgrounds with hookups available (and hotels) just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Death Valley

Death Valley, which is in a part of both California and Nevada is an interesting combination of high and low terrain. Parts of Death Valley are below sea level (Furnace Creek Campground is 196’ below sea level) while the surrounding high mountains are often snow and ice covered up in the higher elevations. At first this park seemed desolate to me. It was only after I was there for a while that I realized there were things to see. Badwater Basin is 282’ below sea level.

Close to 1 million people visit Death Valley in a year now. It wasn’t that crowded when I was there last. For some reason I find Death Valley with its extremes in temperature and elevation an intriguing mix. In the summer it can be 120* although 116* is the average.

There are 9 campgrounds, some are open only parts of the year, one is a tent only campground and there are RV hookups at Furnace Creek. Hiking in Death Valley can be dangerous unless one is fully prepared.

There is a wilderness podcast that can tell you more about the area.

White Mountain National Forest

White Mountain National Forest is in New Hampshire and Maine is 6 separate wilderness areas that are joined together and are surprisingly diverse. It’s just a beautiful area and a beautiful ride with a mountain stream to wade in and enjoy. If you are headed to the White Mountains to camp and hike, there are still avalanche dangers this year around Pemigewasset.

The White Mountain National Forest is home to the scenic Kancamagus Highway. Scenic almost seems not appreciative enough of the views and because of this the White Mountains can be a great place to ride a motorcycle. I enjoy riding up Bear Notch Pass. Bear Notch Pass is a side road of the Kancamagus highway. Look out for the moose though.

When hiking through the White Mountain National Forest there are all kinds of building ruins from when people used to live on this land a hundred years ago. There are dams, roads, cellars and partially standing ruins along with several well maintained historical sites.


Pipestone National Monument

The Pipestone National Monument is in Minnesota and is where the red pipestone is quarried for native prayer pipes.

In 1937 Pipestone became a national monument. The quarrying of the pipestone is still happening today and is done on a permit basis. One must be a member of a federally recognized tribe before being placed on the quarrying waiting list and may wait for years before a quarry permit becomes available. The belief is that smoke from a red pipestone pipe carries one’s prayer to the Great Spirit so many believe that these grounds are sacred.

There is no camping at national monuments.

There is a book about Pipestone: My Life in an Indian Boarding School written by a native who spent time in a boarding school at Pipestone that I found interesting.  It’s available on Amazon.

Big Bend National Park

While I am in Texas, Big Bend National Park is a favorite destination. There are 150 miles that one can hike taking one alongside rivers and into the mountains that are a part of the desert here. It is a great place to go birding.

Cactus blooms are common in mid to late spring while the famed Texas Bluebonnets bloom in the early spring season. The flowers start to bloom in late February and continue into mid-April. This happens as the blooming season progresses up higher and higher up the mountain sides. Desert sage will bloom after rains in the summer.

Kayaking in Santa Elena Canyon is beautiful with the cut rock of the cliff faces rising above. When one heads upstream the waters are low there is also a good chance that the current is low also. Downstream the current is swifter and is great for a longer trip.

Yellowstone National Park

My last and all-time favorite National Park is Yellowstone since I was about 5 but this was not due to any geyser activity in the area. The most exciting part of my vacation when I was 5 was watching a mama bear coming through the campground opening up all the bear proof trash cans and swiping open ice chest after ice chest so her cubs could eat. Many people were screaming and running but I watched her go through. She didn’t want me (luckily). It was all I talked about for weeks.

Only later did I understand how unique and amazing the geysers were. Old Faithful erupting on schedule, grounds that were steaming hot underfoot and the beauty of Yellowstone Lake later became my favorite parts.

Have you watched the 2012 movie “Where the Yellowstone Goes”? It’s a movie about a 30 day drift trip down the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone is the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. One of my favorite lines is, “So you people think you are roughing it?” as the old lady laughs. I think that movie helped me fall in love with Yellowstone Park again.

Now my three favorite places to visit in Yellowstone are Old Faithful Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Lake and Mammoth Hot Springs.

What are your favorite National Parks?

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