Petrified Forest, Redwoods, Mammoth Cave, and more
Everybody has heard of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon-America's most famous national parks - and in previous issues of Budget Travel I've described them as among the country's best vacation bargains. But other lesser-known parks shouldn't be overlooked if you can't make it to the Big Three. Here's my list of 11 unheralded gems, each of which will treat you to just as memorable and rewarding a vacation-but mostly without the summer crowds and congestion. Go for two or three days or for a week. On a budget, of course. Though very different, all 11 display a scenic beauty and quiet serenity that refresh the spirit. For a full week of this natural rejuvenation, the entrance fee is just $10 or less per car. Superb hiking and awesome scenic drives are the most popular pastimes, neither of which will strain your budget. Some activities may entail a small fee, but I'll direct you to the best buys. And in or near each park, I've searched out affordable lodgings and cafes. As a full-time travel writer, I'm dispatched around the world on an expense account. When I'm vacationing on my own buck, I head for parklands like these, where a little money buys a wealth of outdoor fun in America's most beautiful settings.
Rates are per room, housing two persons in summer.
Land of waterfalls
The Cascade Range in Washington State got its name from an abundance of cascading waterfalls. When winter snows are heavy, the falls tumble in summer with thundering power, as my wife and I recently discovered on a visit to amazing North Cascades National Park (360/856-5700), which is little known outside the Pacific Northwest. Time and again as we drove State Route 20, the North Cascades Highway, I spotted a dozen or more falls in a single mile's drive. We were almost never out of sight or sound of racing white water.
One of the wildest corners of the country, the jumbled landscape-dense evergreen forests, craggy peaks, sheer rock cliffs, twisting gorges, and fjordlike lakes thrill sightseers but can intimidate even experienced hikers. So my wife and I spent much of our time on minihikes on the periphery of the wilderness. The easy Trail of Cedars, marked with interpretive signs, wanders among giant Douglas firs and western red cedars. Once I caught sight of a black bear scurrying away; deer were more common. Near the Visitor Center, steep stone steps climb the more challenging trail alongside Ladder Creek Falls, which gushes in turbulent frenzy through a narrow cut in the rocks. The cattle-raising town of Winthrop, just east of the park, looks like the set of a Hollywood western.
Details: Fly to Seattle. Stay in Winthrop at the 37-room Virginian Hotel (800/854-2834), which offers a heated pool, $50. Two more options are the six-room Duck Brand Hotel (509/996-2192), $62, or down the road nine miles in Twisp at the 25-room Idle-a-While Motel (509/997-3222), $58. Dine at Three Fingered Jack's Saloon; the sirloin steak dinner (served with salad and potato), $9.95. Information: 888/463-8469, winthropwashington.com.
High desert colors
On my first visit to Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park (520/524-6228), I'd allotted only an afternoon because it looked so small on the map. Bad planning. Once there, entranced by the fallen forest of giant trees turned to stone, I carved another full day out of my schedule. Petrified wood is a geological curiosity found in most U.S. states, but nowhere else in such profusion and color. One after the other, I trekked mostly easy trails through the high-country desert leading to dazzling clusters of these unusual rocks.
The milelong Blue Mesa Trail drops quickly down a rocky slope into a slender valley of hard-packed gray clay. Into this arid landscape has tumbled an array of fossilized logs and segments. They lie scattered across the valley, their slick, polished surfaces displaying a rainbow of colors - reds, yellows, browns, blues, and purples - like field flowers on a moonscape. My approach scattered a small herd of pronghorn antelope, and I was soon chased away by a thunderstorm I could see approaching for miles.
The trails should keep you busy for a couple of days. But the park also makes a good location from which to tour the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations to the north and the Fort Apache Historic Park to the south.
Details: Fly to Phoenix. Stay in Holbrook, just west of the park, at the 63-room Econo Lodge (520/524-1448), $43. Another option is the 126-room Motel 6 (520/524-6101), $32. Go Tex-Mex with the locals at Romo's; the combo plate (taco, two enchiladas, rice, beans, dessert, and soft drink), $8. Information: 520/524-6558.
In the heat of summer, slip away to Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (715/779-3397), a cool and serene cluster of 21 islands in the western tip of Lake Superior. We spent four days there a while back, reveling in the refreshing breezes and water views and (to our further delight) sampling sweet, juicy strawberries plucked ripe from farmyard vines. They're found everywhere in this unspoiled, out-of-the-way corner of the Great Lakes. Many visitors hike the mostly uninhabited islands or sail or kayak among them. I braved a swim at a sandy beach, but only briefly in Superior's frigid embrace.
For nonsailors, Apostle Islands Cruise Service of Bayfield (715/779-3925) offers a variety of boat tours (half-day $25) among the islands, with brief stopovers on some. Or you can catch the service's daily shuttle ($25 round-trip) to Oak Island for a day hike. Twelve miles of trails edge ravines, climb to spectacular viewpoints, or take you to hidden beaches. The pick-up shuttle returns in five hours. If this is too stiff a price, a ferry ($9 per car or $4 per adult, 20-minute ride) serves the resort community on Madeline Island, the only Apostle not a part of the park. On flat little Madeline, about 14 miles long and three miles wide, bicycles seem to outnumber cars.
Details: Fly to Minneapolis. Stay in Ashland, a small city on Chequamegon Bay, at either the 18-room Anderson's Chequamegon Motel (715/682-4658), $55, or the 12-room Town Motel (715/682-5555), $38 weekdays/$42 weekends. Dine at the Breakwater Cafe; broiled lake trout dinner, $9. Information: 800/284-9484, visitashland.com.
Where the West begins
On the edge of the prairie where the West begins, North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park (701/623-4466) possesses the wonderful, soul-nurturing beauty of wide-open spaces. Rolling green hills stretch endlessly into the distance, the tall grass tossed by the wind like waves of the sea. From this serene landscape rise the badlands, an incredible chaos of high buttes, windswept bluffs, twisting canyons, and multicolored cliffs. As I explored by foot and car, I caught sight of plentiful elk, a village of prairie dogs, wild buffalo, and - to my momentary horror - a pair of prairie rattlers that slithered from my path as I was about to step on them.
The park is divided into North, South, and Elkhorn Ranch units, separated by about 70 miles. Hiking trails and scenic drives at the North and South units are rewards enough for a visit. But plan, too, for a horseback ride into the surrounding hills. And delve into Roosevelt's link to the park. His historic footsteps crisscross the land. In 1884 he established a ranch called the Elkhorn - the site of which can be visited. The town of Medora at the entrance to the South Unit is an Old West charmer. In the summer, a nightly outdoor show, "The Medora Musical" ($19), is a rip-roaring spectacle celebrating Roosevelt and the area's ranching heritage with songs and dances.
Details: Fly to Bismarck. Stay in Medora at the 160-room Medora Motel (800/633-6721), $64. Another option is the 19-room Alfred Sully Inn (701/623-4455), $40-$60. Dine at the 1884 Rough Riders Hotel; the buffalo burger is $7. Splurge on the nightly "Pitchfork Fondue," a western cookout, $19. Information: 800/633-6721.
Monarchs of the mist
"Monarchs of the Mist" is the catchy nickname bestowed on the groves of redwood trees in California's Redwood National Park (707/464-6101). It attests both to the frequent presence of fog, especially in summer, along the state's northern coast, and to the coastal redwoods' most striking characteristic. They are the tallest trees on earth, soaring skyward - upwards of 300 feet - as if to break free of their wrap for a few hedonistic moments of warming rays.
The park is an inviting blend of rock-strewn beach, thickly forested mountains, grass-covered prairie, and cathedral-like groves of redwoods - great country for a variety of hikes. Some trails descend from deep, fern-laced woods to isolated sea coves, where you can explore tidal pools, fish in the surf, or watch for passing whales. Swimming and canoeing in the park's rivers tempt when the sun shines. But more than anything, you'll want to wander among the majestic trees on needle-strewn paths.
Details: Fly to San Francisco or Portland, Oregon. Stay in Crescent City at the park's north end at the 48-room Gardenia Motel (707/464-2181), $50, or the 65-room Bayview Inn (800/446-0583), $69. Dine with a Pacific view at Harbor View Grotto; the seafood platter (fried prawns, oysters, and scallops with salad and fries) costs $10.95. Information: 707/464-3174, delnorte.org.
I'm not a spelunker, so I signed up for one of the shorter and less claustrophobic descents into Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park (270/758-2328). The world's most extensive known cave system, it stretches more than 350 miles - with more passages to be explored. My quick 75-minute Travertine Tour ($7) gave me a peek at Frozen Niagara, among the most colorful formations. Fluted stalactites spill from above like a large pink waterfall. To reach it, our group ducked and dodged down a tight twisted path and steep stairway. Along the way, we peered deep into a shaft where we could see emerald green Crystal Lake far below.
Serious cavers will want to join a series of more exacting tours into Mammoth's depths, lasting six hours or more. For the five-and-a-half-mile "Wild Cave" adventure ($35), kneepads are advised because you'll be crawling on your belly in tight passages. In truth, I was happier hiking the park's aboveground trails. A dappled forest of oak and hickory covers a scenic landscape of high bluffs, narrow gorges, and meandering rivers.
Details: Fly to Louisville. Stay and dine in the park at the 92-room Mammoth Cave Hotel (270/758-2225), $48 for a rustic cottage (no heat/air-conditioning). In the dining room, try the baked ham dinner for $8.75. Tour reservations: 800/967-2283.
If you're not a skier or mountain climber, you've probably never stood on a mountain perch at more than 12,000 feet above sea level. In Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park (970/586-1206), Trail Ridge Road, the nation's highest continuously paved through-highway, travels above 12,000 feet for four miles. The first time I took my wife, she got woozy from the altitude, and we had to descend until she acclimated. Even in summer, snow often lingers beside the road, and icy winds prompt you to grab a jacket. This is a rocky realm of alpine tundra, high above the tree line. Snowcapped peaks can be seen in every direction.
More than 300 miles of trails trace the park, mostly at lower, more comfortable altitudes, attracting both easygoing day hikers and experienced backpackers. From Grand Lake on the park's western edge, gentler trails wind along tumbling streams through forests of evergreens. On Trail Ridge, you can't avoid summer crowds. But go for a hike, and you're apt to see more elk than people.
Details: Fly to Denver. Stay in Granby at any of several small mom-and-pop motels: the 12-room Broken Arrow (970/887-3532), $39; try the 11-room Trail Riders (970/887-3738), $54; or the 14-room Blue Spruce (970/887-3300), $55. In Grand Lake, 15 miles north, is the 11-room Bluebird Motel (970/627-9314), $70. Dine in Granby at the Silver Spur Saloon and Steakhouse; the eight-ounce sirloin platter is $9.95. Information: 800/325-1661.
The name Badlands National Park (605/433-5361) is ominous, and understandably so. In a small corner of western South Dakota, centuries of violent wind and thunderstorms have eroded the landscape into a bleak yet fantastic jumble of pinnacles, buttes, and spires. Surrounding these badlands is an enveloping sea of wild grasslands, equally spooky in their unnerving emptiness.
So why would you want to vacation in such desolation? Because the park is so wonderfully peaceful, except maybe when a prairie squall rages overhead. And because the twisting gullies and steep canyon walls possess their own quiet beauty. Hike its trails, take the scenic drive, and keep an eye out for buffalo. And then take a look at nearby Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, and the gaming parlors of historic Deadwood.
Details: Fly to Rapid City and stay in town at the 150-room Motel 6 (605/343-3687), $76. Dine nearby at the Millstone Family Restaurant; roast pork dinner $6.45. In nearby Hot Springs, where the kids can frolic in a giant hot-springs pool called Evans Plunge, try the Super 8 (605/745-3888), $78. Information: 800/487-3223, rapidcitycvb.com.
High and low
On this trip, you'll visit two neighboring national parks sprawled across a magnificent expanse of high Sierras in central California. Despite their proximity, they couldn't be more different.
Sequoia National Park (559/565-3134) encircles 14,495-foot Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. And Kings Canyon National Park (559/565-3134) takes its name from the narrow chasm - one of the deepest in this country - cut by the Kings River.
More than 700 miles of trails, some easy and many hard, lace this mountain wilderness. Many climb to remote snow-fed lakes where, if you dare the frigid water, you can take a cooling dip - or at least soak tired feet. Even if you're not a strong hiker, you will want to see the parks' giant sequoia trees, the world's largest living things. A part of the redwood family, they don't grow as tall as the coastal redwoods, but their massive trunks give them an advantage in bulk.
Details: Fly to Fresno. Stay at Kings Canyon (559/335-5500) at one of 42 basic cabins, $38-$45, or in nearby Visalia at the 39-room Super 8 (559/627-2885), $55. Dine at Grant Grove Restaurant in Kings Canyon; full dinners start at $9.95. Information: 559/734-5876, cvbvisalia.com.
An awesomely deep and narrow gorge, Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (970/641-2337) is a rugged land that excites strong hikers who can manage the 2,000-foot drop from rim to river. Less athletic visitors can peer into the depths from the rim roads that skirt the Gambel oak- and sagebrush-lined canyon. A pair of binoculars is a big help in viewing the pale green Gunnison River as it races through the rocky chasm.
At the adjacent Curecanti National Recreation Area, go swimming, waterskiing, or windsurfing on a trio of lakes formed by dams on the Gunnison. About 35 miles south of Montrose, the mountain resort town of Ouray is famous for its natural hot-springs swimming pool, great for the kids.
Details: Fly to Denver or Grand Junction. Stay in Montrose at the 42-room Super 8 (970/249-9294), $54. Or head for nearby Gunnison to the 24-room ABC Motel (800/341-8000), $62. Dine at the Red Barn in Montrose; a seven-and-a-half-ounce sirloin steak platter is $11.95.