2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and April 16th is the beginning of National Park Week.
America’s National Parks are captivating examples of the greatness of our land. We play in them, we marvel at them. Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner said, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
I grew up near Glacier National Park in Montana. As a child I fell in love with “The Roof of the World”. Glacier has this nickname because of its titanic Rocky Mountain peaks. These jagged, glacier-ridden mountains seem to scrape the incredibly blue sky. Mountain goats with shaggy beards and spiky horns climb to the highest reaches of the crags. These photogenic creatures are a big attraction for tourists.
But what if you and your family don’t want to do what all the other tourists are doing? At any of our National Parks, there are the standard activities, such as hiking and sight-seeing. You want something more, something exciting. And that’s the spirit of our parks. Unique, breathtaking, wild. Here are activities to help you capture that spirit.
1. Glacier National Park: Bike Going-to-the-Sun Road
Ready for a challenge? Going-to-the-Sun Road provides one. An epic bike trip on Going-to-the-Sun will take you across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. You’ll feel the burn as you ascend from West Glacier to the pass at 6,646 feet above sea-level.
If you decide to do the whole trip, you’ll bike for 50 miles. But be careful. Because of rugged, unpredictable conditions, portions of the road may be closed. And this trip takes endurance. Watch for wildlife, bring camping gear, and keep your camera on hand for some of the most scenic views of your life.
2. Grand Teton National Park: Go Heli-skiing
Want to combine scenery with thrills? Heli-skiing is a year-round activity, and the Northwestern Wyoming backcountry is the perfect place to do it. Seven mountain ranges get more than 400 inches of snow each year. The powder seems limitless, a vast expanse of crystalline whiteness.
You and your group will need average to expert skiing skills, good skiing gear, avalanche transceivers, and you’ll need to be on a buddy system. Your pilot and guide will pick you up at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. They can provide fat skis (best for powder), transceivers, lodging, meals, and other supplies. You provide the desire for adventure and the daring to ski where you and your crew are the only ones on the mountain.
3. Denali National Park: Pan for gold
What’s exciting about this? You get to keep the gold you find. And, in the process you can take advantage of some of the other great activities that make Alaska so captivating. Dog-sled on a glacier, get an eye-full of Mt. Denali—which is North America’s tallest peak—or explore the Last Frontier of Alaska’s backcountry.
If you are planning on prospecting for gold, be aware that the Alaska’s gold prospecting season runs from June through September. And, if you’re planning on exploring the backcountry, the road there is closed to private vehicles. You can take a private flight on an Alaskan bush plane from Katishna. You can also take a bus from Denali Cabins or Denali Train Depot.
4. Petrified Forest National Park: Try Geocaching
What is Geocaching? It’s the combination of hiking, mountaineering, treasure hunting, and GPS (Global Positioning System) technology. The sport was invented by Oregonian Dave Ulmer at the turn of the century. Participants hide a cache or trove of objects. Then, using GPS they determine the coordinates of the cache. Next, they log the location on an online forum. Other people find the cache with their GPS.
The National Park Service sponsors Geocaching at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. The activity is free—all you need is a GPS. You’ll learn about major geological resources. You’ll also get to learn about the Historic Route 66 Geocaching Project. Some of the caches are physical, while others are virtual. Geocaching is a fantastic way to both explore and have a unique experience.
5. Yellowstone National Park: Catch some whitewater
Ever been whitewater rafting? Yellowstone is a great place to do it. Frothing, roiling water awaits on the Gallatin, Yellowstone, Snake, Wind, Still Water, or Shoshone River. These rivers are primarily situated around the perimeter of the park. Depart from towns such as Jackson, West Yellowstone, Red Lodge, Gardiner, Big Sky Riverton, or Cody. You can find guided trips, or really dive in and do some private rafting.
If you choose to go through a company, they’ll provide you with helmets, paddles, and life-jackets. The guide will also know what parts of the river to avoid. Just hang on tight and don’t be afraid to get wet. A heart-pounding ride, whitewater rafting frequently results in someone falling out of the raft. Don’t worry, the guides are experienced and it’s well worth the risk.
NPS and National Park Week
As part of its centennial celebration, the National Park Service is offering a variety of experiences. You can do anything from helping bats to exploring an authentic Indian Wars era fort. These experiences are all unique, and they’re part of the Find Your Park Centennial Project.
And, to top this off, the Service is offering sixteen free entrance days in 2016.
Daniel Matthews is a 33 year-old freelance writer, musician, and traveler from Boise, ID. He wasborn in Eureka, MT just an hour or so from the West Glacier entrance to Glacier National Park. He received his BA in Creative Writing from Boise State University in 2006. Find him on Twitter.