I turned onto a narrow back road at Custer State Park in South Dakota's Black Hills, following it for miles through scattered woods and rolling grasslands. After an early afternoon rainsquall, the land gleamed fresh and clean. Rounding a curve, I suddenly caught sight of a large bison herd crossing in front of me. On they came by the dozens, these massive beasts, kicking up a cloud of dust and blocking my path. They traveled almost at a run-an ungainly stride, not quite a stampede-hastened perhaps by the thunder and crackling lightning of another approaching storm.
I counted 100, and then maybe another, and then I gave up counting. For almost 15 minutes they passed directly in front of the car, occasionally scuffling among themselves at a momentary irritation. I felt as awed as the early explorers when they first spotted the huge bison herds of the Great Plains. Finally, a trailing calf scurried by to catch up with its mother, and I drove on.
Scenes like this, unplanned but always plentiful, keep me returning to America's state and national parks. They are my favorite places to vacation, each offering an unbeatable package. You get spectacular scenery-these are the country's most beautiful landscapes; you get lots of fun and real adventure and challenge; wild life abounds (1,500 bison roam freely at Custer); and to top it all, this is one of the cheapest vacations that you can take. You definitely get value for your money.
My as yet unrealized goal is to visit every national parkland-all 388 of them. The problem is that I keep going back to many of the same parks, the extraordinary ones-America's best. They are the parks that everybody ought to make an effort to see at least once.
To get you started, I've put together a list of five that should not be missed. The names are legendary: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Great Smoky Mountains. To that list I've added two great state parks, including Custer, that provide a similarly rewarding and inexpensive vacation.
Let's take a quick look here at costs. Twenty bucks is the most expensive entrance fee charged at any national park-and this covers everybody in the car for a week. Good family lodging within the parks or just outside charge from $60 to $100 or a litt le more a night. Share a bath, or camp, and the price drops sharply. Many parks operate budget-priced cafeterias, and family-friendly restaurants can be found nearby.
All seven parks are open to camping, and reservations are advisable in the summer. At most of the national parks (the exception is Yellowstone) you can book online at the National Park Service reservation desk: http://reservations.nps.gov/index.cfm. Call or check the Web site of each park for more camping details and reservation contacts. At the major parks, expect to pay $15 to $18 a night for a campsite.
As for fun and adventure: Hike into the rocky depths of the Grand Canyon. Swim in a clear Yosemite river. Watch the geysers spout at Yellowstone. Peer into ancient Native American cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. You won't pay a penny extra.
Sierra Grandeur: California's Yosemite As a travel writer, I've explored the world for years. Whenever asked, I tell folks that I think Yosemite is the most beautiful pla ce I've seen anywhere. I'm awed over and over by its towering, 4,000-foot-high granite walls, cascading waterfalls, and majestic groves of giant redwoods. True, Yosemite Valley-the hub of the park-gets congested in summer. To escape the crowds, take Tioga Road into the Sierra high country, where brilliant wildflowers fill the meadows and polished-granite peaks soar above sparkling lakes. Picnic at Lake Tenaya, which may be the prettiest spot in the park.
If you've got strong legs, climb Yosemite National Park's Mist Trail-a spectacular day hike. The three-mile (round trip) trail out of Yosemite Valley ascends countless steep stone steps alongside thundering Vernal Falls, which plunges 317 feet. As you climb, the powerful falls seem almost near enough to touch; its roar drowns out any conversation. But watch your step-a stumble could tumble you over the precipice. Often a rainbow forms at Vernal's base, created by the billowing cloud-like mist that gives the trail its name. If a breeze is blowing, you're apt to get drenched. The reward is nonstop vistas all the way to the top. Back in the valley, cool off with a plunge in the Merced River.
Details: Fly into Fresno or the San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose area. Stay in the park in Yosemite Valley. The cheapest accommodations are the canvas-tent cabins at Curry Village. There are 427 tents set in a pine forest. Each is furnished with two to five cots; an electric light dangles from the ceiling; and rest rooms and bathhouses are nearby, $59. Camp Curry cabins with bath begin at $87. Also in the park, a standard room at Yosemite Lodge is $112. Book all park accommodations through Yosemite Reservations (559/252-4848, yosemitepark.com). Outside the park, stay in the old mining town of Mariposa at the 27-room E.C. Lodge Yosemite (209/742-6800), $69; or the 78-room Miner's Inn Motel (888/646-2244), $70. Both Camp Curry and Yosemite Lodge operate well-priced cafeterias. As you might expect, camping is ver y popular at Yosemite, and tent and recreational vehicle campsites book quickly. Campsites are $18 a night. To reserve: 800/436-7275, http://reservations.nps.gov. Park information: 209/372-0200, nps.gov/yose.
Thermal Hijinks: Wyoming's Yellowstone Throngs gather at Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful Geyser to watch its hourly (more or less; rangers can give you an estimated schedule) eruption-jets of boiling water shooting more than 130 feet into the air. But that's only a part of the park's geo-thermal goings-on. All around you even bigger geysers blow their tops, hot springs froth wildly, smoke holes spout noisily, mud cauldrons bubble ominously, and steaming rivers, flowing through water-scalded valleys, appear on fire. These are nature's fireworks, and there are few shows like it anywhere else on the planet.
While the effect is rather scary-you think Yellowstone may explode at any moment-there is also great beauty. The hot-spring pools rival one another in the radiance of their color. The prettiest, I think, is Abyss Pool, an uncommonly deep pool in West Thumb Geyser Basin. The sides of the pool are a porcelain-like white, and the water is a clear emerald green, highlighted by wispy threads of steam dancing on the surface.
Lake Yellowstone is one of America's largest mountain lakes. In another park, it would be the starring attraction. The Yellowstone River, a fisherman's dream, pours over two grand waterfalls before dashing through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, an awesome chasm of red and yellow rocks. The park claims 950 miles of hiking trails; one of the most scenic is the 1.5-mile (round trip) descent into the canyon. Keep alert for bison, black bears, and-in the backcountry-fearsome grizzlies. And don't miss the dramatic peaks of Grand Teton National Park, just to the south.
Details: Fly into Jackson Hole, Wyoming (relatively nearby), or into Bozeman, Montana (a few hours away). But Salt Lake City, five hours distant yet doable, may be much cheaper for airfare and car rental. For geyser viewing, stay in the park at the 327-room Old Faithful Inn. Rooms without bath, $71; with bath, $94. Less glamorous, Old Faithful Lodge offers 97 cabins. Without bath, $46; with bath, $72. For all park lodging: Yellowstone Central Reservations Office (307/344-7311, travelyellowstone.com). Or stay outside the park in West Yellowstone, Montana, where motel rooms are generally available even on the park's busiest weekends. Try first at 40-room Al's Westward Ho Motel (888/646-7331), $60. Eat at the Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria. Park information: 307/344-7381, nps.gov/yell.
Colorful Chasm: Arizona's Grand Canyon You've seen Grand Canyon National Park in photos, so your expectations as a first-timer are probably high. And the canyon delivers. I've returned a dozen times and I still get misty-eyed, my spirits lifted by the views. The chasm's soaring, multicolor walls, carved by the Colorado River, dazzle the eyes, and its massive size leaves you stunned in wonder. It's a fantastical landscape, unique in the world.
Most visitors come to gaze in awe and snap photos from the South Rim. But to really see the canyon you ought to join the relative few who descend into its depths. Hardy day hikers (with water bottles) might tackle the nine-mile round trip on Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden, easily visible from the South Rim. At the very least, drop into the canyon a hundred yards or so to experience it looking from the inside out.
Even on a short hike down, you can see the abrupt changes in geological strata as you edge past some of the planet's oldest exposed rock. I've hiked to the canyon's bottom at the Colorado River. But this is a strenuous trip, especially in the summer months, requiring overnight reservations at Bright Angel Campground or the Phantom Ranch hiker's dorm.
Like Yosemite Valley, the South Rim can get crowded on a summer afternoon. To savor the canyon alone , stroll one of the reasonably level rim trails. From Bright Angel Lodge, the Rim Trail heading west traces the canyon's precipitous ledge for eight miles; the Rim Trail heading east clings to the rim for about six miles. Either way, you will see exciting new views at every twist in the path. In a half hour, you'll likely have the trail to yourself.
Details: Fly into Phoenix. First choice for lodging at the South Rim is the 89-room Bright Angel Lodge. Lodge rooms without bath, $51 to $68; cabins with bath, $81 to $109. Set back a quarter mile from the rim, the 288-room Maswik Lodge is a good second choice at $76 with bath. Book all South Rim accommodations at Xanterra Parks & Resorts (888/297-2757, grandcanyonlodges.com). Or stay in Tusayan, a village at the park's entrance. Try Rodeway Inn's 231-room Red Feather Lodge (800/538-2345), $94. Eat at the Maswick Lodge cafeteria. Campsites are available at both the North and South Rims. Cost is $15 a night per site. To reserv e: 800/365-2267, http://reservations.nps.gov. Park information: 928/638-7888, nps.gov/grca.
Mountains and prairies
Rolling Grasslands: South Dakota's Custer Almost eerie in its vast emptiness, the Great Plains is a sea of wild grassland that reaches north from Texas through both Dakotas into Canada. In spring, the grass is a thick and beautiful green, varying in tone from light to dark depending on the play of sun and clouds overhead. Knee-high in summer, it is scorched yellow and brown by the sun. When breezes sweep the Dakota hills, the dry grass is tossed like waves in a squall. Behind the wheel of your car, you feel like a sailor navigating solo across an endless ocean.
Rising from the grassland are the pine-draped Black Hills, a cool sanctuary of alpine lakes, rugged peaks, and rushing streams. Draped across both is Custer State Park, partly an open range for the large bison herds but also offering one of the region's most spectacular mountain settings. This is one of the country's most scenic state parks. Narrow Needles Highway treats you to the best of the views-and throws in a couple of thrills along the way. So twisting is the route as the road climbs up and down over high ridges that at least a couple of spiraling curves are called "pigtails." Tunnels cut through solid rock are only wide enough for one car.
When I'm in the Black Hills, I make Custer State Park my headquarters for easy exploring. Nearby are two national parks-Wind Cave and Badlands-and popular Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The town of Deadwood, once home to Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, retains its boomtown flavor with legalized gambling. Near the town of Custer, you can watch the huge sculpture of Crazy Horse, the Sioux chief, being carved from Thunderhead Mountain.
Details: Fly into Rapid City. Stay in Custer State Park, which offers four lodges totaling 188 rooms or cabins. At the 68-room State Game Lodge, the cheapest, room rates begin at $80. For pa rk lodging: Custer State Park Resort Company (800/658-3530, custerresorts.com). Stay outside the park at the 48-room Super 8 in Hot Springs, site of a giant hot springs swimming pool (800/800-8000), $79; or the 35-room Super 8 in Hill City, close to Mount Rushmore (800/800-8000), $96. Eat at the state park lodges. Park information: 605/255-4515, custerstatepark.info/index.htm.
Ancient Cliff Dwellings: Colorado's Mesa Verde Skirting the cliff's edge, the winding road climbs steeply from the Montezuma Valley floor. In a matter of minutes you are lifted from the world of today into the ancient realm of the Anasazi Ancestral Puebloans at Mesa Verde National Park. Carved into the 8,000-foot-high plateau are the largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America. To protect themselves from attack, the Anasazi made their homes hard to reach. Centuries later, it's still something of an adventure to get to them.
The two most impressive ruins, the ones everyone shoul d visit-if you've got the stomach for it-are Cliff Palace and Balcony House. A guide leads the way on hour-long tours, for which reservations are required and a modest fee of $2.50 per person is charged.
At Cliff Palace, stone steps cut into the side of a canyon wall descend through a narrow crevice to the floor of the ruin. The Anasazi once entered in much the same way. The dwelling, which once housed more than 100 people in 150 rooms, occupies a deep, cave-like ledge beneath the canyon rim. The Anasazi lived here for less than 100 years, abandoning it by the beginning of the fourteenth century, perhaps because of a lengthy drought. Exiting is another scramble. First, you edge up stone steps through another tight crevice, and then you must climb a series of three ten-foot ladders placed one atop the other up the canyon wall. Words of advice: Don't look down.
Balcony House, also tucked inside a canyon wall, is another test. To reach it, you must climb a dizzying 32-foot ladd er. Following the ranger's advice, I hastened up looking into the canyon wall. Those who looked backward down into the canyon's depth-700 feet below-often faltered. But don't let any of this stop you from visiting. Other fine cliff dwellings, among them Spruce Tree House, have been made more accessible.
Details: Fly into nearby Durango, Colorado, or Albuquerque, New Mexico. Stay in the park at the 150-room Far View Lodge, which offers a view that seems to stretch forever (800/449-2288, visitmesaverde.com), $93 to $135. Outside the park, stay in Cortez at the foot of the mesa. Try the 77-room Days Inn (970/565-8577), $69. Eat at Far View Lodge or the Far View Terrace, a cafeteria at the visitors center. Park information: 970/529-4465, nps.gov/meve.
In the east
Lofty Ridges: Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina/Tennessee The lofty green ridges of Great Smoky Mountains National Park roll across the horizon in giant waves that lap gently at the soul. In these wild w oodlands, you are wrapped in the spirit-invigorating beauty of misty peaks, idyllic coves, and tumbling streams. On my first visit, I sat on a stump for a half hour, or perhaps it was an hour, drinking in the view as if it were a tonic.
Once, the park's deep valleys were home to rugged subsistence farmers and their families, the now legendary Appalachian folk who were forced to move from their old homesteads when Great Smoky was created in 1934. Many of their weathered old structures-the wood-frame cabins, barns, corncribs, and outhouses-are preserved in the form of open-air museums.
Much of the park's rugged interior, where peaks climb above 6,000 feet, can be reached only on foot. Eight hundred miles of trails lace this formidable wilderness-prime black-bear habitat. And yet the lush interior is surprisingly accessible, even to the less adventurous. Short paved roads make deep cuts into the backwoods; other unpaved roads probe even farther. Easy, well-marked nature trails extend beyond. The paved trail to Laurel Falls, 2.5 miles round trip, is popular-though I had it almost to myself on a stormy day. The hike took me alongside damp ravines and over rocky ridges. The reward was a sprightly little falls cascading in two giant steps down a steep ledge.
Details: Fly into Knoxville or Chattanooga, Tennessee. There are no park accommodations accessible by car; stay just outside in Gatlinburg. Try the 63-room Super 8 (800/800-8000), $60; or the 217-room Glenstone Lodge (865/436-9361), $81. Eat at the Smoky Mountain Brewery & Restaurant. Gatlinburg information: 800/900-4148, gatlinburg.com. Park information: 865/436-1200, nps.gov/grsm.
Allegheny Highlands: West Virginia's Canaan Valley Among the East Coast's best travel bargains are West Virginia's inviting resort state parks. The premier park among them is Canaan Valley Resort State Park, close to Davis. Covering 6,000 acres, it is tucked into the prettiest, most mountainous part of West Vir ginia: the Potomac Highlands near the state's northeastern reaches. Here are combined the attractions of an untamed region (forested slopes, rocky cliffs, splashing streams) as well as amenities one would expect of any fine resort (18 holes of golf, tennis, indoor and outdoor pools, lodge, lounge, and restaurant).
The valley, about 15 miles long and three miles wide, has become a year-round center for both rugged outdoor recreation and the resort life. Surrounding it are 909,000-acre Monongahela National Forest and the Dolly Sods and Otter Creek wilderness areas. In summer, those of us who live in the mid-Atlantic states flock to the valley to hike, climb, canoe, fish, raft, cave, horseback ride, and mountain bike on miles of old Forest Service roads. I've always stayed at the Canaan Valley State Park Lodge, perched high on a hilltop overlooking this domain.
Details: Fly into Baltimore, Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh. Stay at the 250-room Canaan Valley Resort Lodge (800/622 -4121), $86 weekdays/$99 weekends. An alternate choice is the nearby 54-room State Park Lodge at Blackwater Falls (800/225-5982), $80. Eat at either lodge. The greens fee at Canaan Valley's golf course is $30 weekdays/$35 weekends. Park information: 800/225-5982, canaanresort.com and wvparks.com.