By Bryna R. Campbell
Yesterday was the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, and I am so excited! Yes, I am a giddy fan for the NPS. If you took a look around my house you might even consider me obsessed. There’s a shelf in our house devoted to books on National Park trails. If you look in our games cabinet, you’ll find a special National Parks edition of monopoly (purchased at Badlands, thank you very much). In graduate school, I even went so far as publish an academic essay about the early photographs taken in one future park, Mesa Verde. And as an instructor, I include lessons on Yosemite photography in all my American art classes.
This giddy love derives from a childhood filled with numerous family vacations across the American West to my grandparents’ home in southern California, each of them dotted with stops at National Parks lining the path between the farmlands and the desert. Arches, Grand Canyon, Zion, Mesa Verde – by the time I was ten, I had already been to most of the parks in the four corners region of the southwest. My love is also forged through a connection to the agency’s longer history through the grandpa we had visited on those trips. He had worked as a maintenance laborer at several of the Parks and Monuments, including Death Valley, where my mom spent her high school years (more on this here).
When I in my twenties and living on the east coast, I got to familiarize myself with Shenandoah National Park during some of my first camping trips with friends. After moving to St. Louis and having a kid, my husband and I made the Great Smoky Mountains a regular family vacation spot. Once, before our child was born, the two of us made a cross country road trip from park to park in the American West. More recently, we did another version of that road trip with our son when we moved from St. Louis to Portland. And now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I take every chance I can get to the parks around here. In fact, just two days ago, I returned from a four day camping trip to Mount Rainier.
I have experiences that I plan to share in a short series of posts that will start coming out next week. For now, I reserve the right to proudly wear my badge of NPS geek. Speaking of badges, did I mention that my son has two Junior Ranger badges? (I’m also raising a mini-NPS geek).
Here is a list favorites, bests, worsts, etc. – which I reserve the right to edit at any time. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments. And if you live near a park, take advantage of the free admission going on between now and August 28.
My National Parks List
Number of parks (not including Monuments or Historic Sites) I’ve visited: 20
Number of parks (not including Monuments or Historic Sites) my 6-yr-old has visited: 8
Favorite campgrounds I’ve visited:
- Cougar Rock in Mt Rainier NP, WA, where my kid can play among the boulders and downed trees, leaving me to relax by the fire
- Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain NP, CO, which has lovely lovely meadow/mountain views
- Sunset Campground in Bryce Canyon NP, UT, due to its proximity to the canyon
- Big Meadows Campground in Shenandoah NP, VA, mainly for all the fun raucous friend-filled memories
First National Park I stayed in for more than a day trip: Mesa Verde, in their basic lodging, as a kid
Park I haven’t camped at yet, but want to: Arches National Park
Hottest visit: Zion NP, on my second time there, when it was 108. All I remember clearly is that the lodge had ice cream.
Worst weather visits:
- Shenandoah NP one fall, for a friends’ wedding weekend event at the lodge. A misty dense fog shrouded the park for two straight days. We played lots and lots and lots of cards with friends.
- Rocky Mountain NP, on a day drive through with a college friend. We could see nothing the entire drive, except fog, rain, sleet.
Favorite lodge: Probably Crater Lake, because it sits on one side of the lake and has a patio where you can watch the sunset while also drinking wine. Speaking of sunsets…
Favorite places I’ve watched the sunset:
- Crater Lake. It’s spectacular from the lodge. And accessible. And you can enjoy it with a martini in your hand if you so choose. The lake is this incredible blue until sunset, then it transforms to match the sky itself.
- Bryce Canyon, another space of total transformation. As the sun sets, the “hoodoo” rock formations of the canyon change colors, the shadows they cast grow and make the space seem to come to life.
- Mt Rainier, from the lower parking lot of Paradise Lodge, where you can get a view of the mountain and the vista below. This is the kind of sunset experience that can bleed into star gazing while you lean back looking upward from the hood of your car.
- Blue Ridge Mountains, from Clingman’s Dome, watching those famous layers of blue hills shift from a light grayish blue, to a purple, to black.
- Olympic National Park, on Rialto Beach
Favorite stargazing experiences:
- Rocky Mountain NP at their official stargazing program, which included serious telescopes for all to use.
- Bryce Canyon NP. Also the most terrifying star gazing because you are standing at the edge of a canyon staring out into an abyss.
Favorite sunrise moments (it takes effort to do this, so…I don’t do it enough):
- Death Valley, from Dante’s Peak, which rises a mile high above the lowest point in the US.
- Bryce Canyon, for all the reasons I mentioned with the sunset.
Where I have seen the most bears? Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains
Least favorite animal experience: The time a skunk visited our campground (and scurried into our trashbag!) in Shenandoah National Park.
Favorite Parks for Animals-not-bears (elk, marmots, deer, bison, and the
like): Yellowstone, Wind Cave, Rocky Mountain, Mt Rainier
- There are too many to count, but one of my favorites is Alum Cave Trail in Great Smoky Mountains
- I am also fond of the vertigo inducing Mount Fremont Lookout in Mount Rainier, though my fear of heights prevents me of doing this one again anytime soon
- I loved going on Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley with my son and family. It’s a slot canyon with areas for sliding, climbing, and if you are six, for playing pretend.
- I loved hiking to the top of Wizard Island in Crater Lake. Take the boat tour there. It’s worth it.
Favorite place to explore with a kid:
- Death Valley’s sand dunes, where parts of Star Wars were shot
- Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rainforest, which looks like a film site from Star Wars, but is not
- Olympic National Park’s beaches
- Shenandoah’s Big Meadow, particularly at dusk when the deer are out and about, near the campsite.
Feature image, of Diablo Lake, is from a trip in July to Northern Cascades National Park.