Kurt Repanshek, author of Frommer's National Parks with Kids, answered your questions about vacations in the National Parks.
Kurt Repanshek: Hi, thanks for joining me to talk about the national parks. Hopefully I'll be able to get to all your questions.
Sandy Hook, KY: We're planning to visit Yellowstone & Grand Tetons in September. Is this too late to see good waterflow in the upper/lower waterfalls? What about fall colors and/or wildflowers?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi John,
September in Yellowstone and Grand Teton is perhaps my favorite month in those parks. The summer crowds are on the wane, the season is changing, the wildlife are more active as the elk rut gets under way and you often can hear the bulls bugling around dawn and dusk.
No need to worry about lack of water flow in the Upper and Lower falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Unlike the falls in Yosemite Valley, which are triggered largely by snowmelt, the Yellowstone River taps Yellowstone Lake, which is a massive body of water that keeps the river "running on high" year-round.
While you won't see many, if any, wildflowers, depending on when you head to the parks in September you might see some great fall color. It typically begins to peak towards the end of the month. If it's an unseasonably dry summer, the leaves could turn a bit sooner.
All in all, though, September is a great time to be in Yellowstone.
Ashland, Ohio: What national park should I consider for summer vacation this year? I would like it to be somewhat close to Ohio perhaps within 600 miles. It seems like all the great national parks are in the west. I have three kids, 11, 7 and 4.
Kurt Repanshek: Hello Heidi,
True, it seems like many of the great parks are in the West, but there are a surprising number in your backyard. Five that fall within your 600-mile radius are Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Indiana, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee/North Carolina. All offer something for youngsters with energy to burn.
At the two lakeshores you have plenty of beachfront for swimming and sand castles and other activities such as hiking, bicycling and kite-flying. Too, there are Junior Ranger programs that get kids involved in learning about the lakeshores' natural and cultural histories.
Mammoth Cave has some great cave tours and canoeing on the Green River, Shenandoah some great hiking and biking, and Great Smoky great hiking and water fun in the form of tubing in creeks and streams. Junior Ranger programs are available at these parks as well.
All five also have nice campgrounds and fishing possibilities. Any one should make for a great vacation.
Penney Farms, Florida: What features do you recommend for seniors in their middle seventies when visiting National Parks? What is the best time of the year for seniors to travel, and best places to stay? We are planning a trip in 2008 and would like to cover the area from Grand Canyon to Yellow Stone. We would probably fly into Las Vegas and rent a vehicle and drop it off in Denver.
Kurt Repanshek: Greetings, Penny Farms, Florida,
If you're planning to visit the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in one trip, I'd recommend a September trip. By then the height of the summer vacation season has passed, crowds are easing off, and the weather is moderating.
However, you might want to consider reversing your trip: Unless you have a reason to visit Denver, fly into Jackson, Wyoming, and rent a car there. Then visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton and head south with stops in Bryce Canyon and possibly Zion before continuing on to the Grand Canyon.
I suggest this as you'll be less likely to run into any early season snowstorms in Wyoming by visiting there first and heading south. Too, by the time you reach the Grand Canyon it won't be as hot as it would normally be earlier in the month.
Have a great time!
Snohomish, Washington: My wife and two teenage daughters are planning a trip to Yellowstone & The Grand Teton's NP the last week of June. We already plan on seeing Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. But were wondering what other sites are a must see. Plus, are there any activities that would be better for teenagers? We see a lot for younger kids, but not teenagers.
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Snohomish,
There are plenty of activities for teens, depending on how ambitious they are.
At Grand Teton, for instance, you can enroll them in climbing school with an eye on possibly summiting the Grand Teton. Or as a family you could take a raft trip down the Snake River.
You also could rent kayaks or canoes at Dornan's in Moose Junction for some paddling on Jenny Lake or, if time allows, for a longer camping trip on Jackson Lake. You actually can circumnavigate Jackson Lake, with overnight stays at designated campsites, in three days if you're experienced paddlers. Of course, you do have to line up a backcountry permit for that, but that's not insurmountable.
There's lots of paddling possible in Yellowstone, as well, on Lewis, Shoshone and Yellowstone lakes, but you really need some experience before you embark on one of those adventures.
For a short backpacking trip, you can hike from the Old Faithful Inn down to a backcountry site near the Lone Star Geyser, spend the night, and then hike out via the trail from Lone Star to the main road a relatively short distance from the inn. Or, if you have more time, continue on down to Shoshone Lake for an overnight there.
There are plenty of day hikes in Yellowstone that are apropos for teens but not younger kids, such as the hike up onto Specimen Ridge and then over to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. If your kids like history, they might enjoy the Museum of the National Park Ranger housed at the Norris Ranger Station, or hiking down to Tower Fall to see where 19th century artist Thomas Moran painted the view.
Another great resource is the Yellowstone Association, which offers many field seminars for young and old. In late June, for example, they are offering programs on photography in Yellowstone, wildflowers, Yellowstone's "geoecosystem," field sketching, and learning how to navigate by map and compass. Check out their programs at yellowstoneassociation.org.
Manhattan Beach, CA. : We're planning a trip to National Parks in Western states and we'd like your opinion on the best parks to find some outstanding fishing opportunities. We don't mind some hiking in order to get to pristine, off-the-grid areas of the park, if we can have a unique fishing adventure. We are planning our trip during the summer of 2007.
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Greg,
Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are renowned for their trout fishing, and you really don't need to put a lot of hiking in to reach the streams. In fact, there are many places in both parks where you can simply park in a pullout and hike down to a river and begin casting.
In Yellowstone, the Madison River between the West Entrance and Madison Junction and the Yellowstone River north of Fishing Bridge, both are popular with anglers. Yellowstone Lake, meanwhile, has a sizeable lake trout population that park officials would like to eradicate because it's non-native, so if you have a boat or don't mind renting one that's a good place to try your luck. You also might hook into one of the lake's famous cutthroat trout.
If you want a good hike before fishing, head to the Lewis River Channel that ties together Shoshone and Lewis lakes and see what's biting. For a longer hike, consider the Bechler region in the park's southwestern corner. I'm told the cutthroat and rainbow trout fishing in the Falls River above Cave Falls, about 4 miles in from the Bechler Ranger Station is pretty respectable. One problem with this option, though, is the bugs are pretty notorious until August.
Yet one more option is to go to Tower Fall, head down to the Yellowstone River, and work your way along the stream away from the crowds for some angling.
In Grand Teton, you can hire a drift boat to float the Snake, work the waters along Oxbow Bend, or head onto Jackson Lake for lake trout. To work some hiking into the equation, head to Phelps Lake, which holds brook, cutthroat, and some lake trout. The roundtrip is only 4 miles.
Be sure, of course, to check the parks' fishing regulations and to pick up a Wyoming license.
Best of luck!
Portland, OR: I'm going to Alaska for a little over a week and definately want to visit Denali National Park, what do you recommend doing at the park to get the best experience? We are two healthy 20/30s hikers. We would really like to camp out in the part but are nervous about the bears, any advice?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Kellie,
The first couple times I backpacked in Yellowstone I dreaded calling it a night and crawling into my tent. I thought for sure I was going to have a bear experience. That was more than two decades ago. I'm happy to report that the only grizzly bears I've seen in Yellowstone have been more than a quarter-mile away from me, interested in everything but me.
The key to having a good time in bear country is keeping your head about you and paying attention to the basics. In Denali, as in other parks with bears, whether they're black or grizzlies, avoid surprise encounters. Don't go through thick, brushy areas if you can avoid it. Make some noise, whether that's talking loudly or even singing, if you're hiking through areas where you can't "see around the next bend." And pay attention for bear sign, whether that's fresh scat or tracks, both when you're hiking and when you're deciding where to camp. Obviously, you don't want to camp anywhere near a bear kill.
When you do choose your campsite, be sure to set up your kitchen at least 300 feet downwind of where you pitch your tent, and be sure to change the cloths you wore for cooking and eating before you call it a night. Also, keep your camp clean and store all food and scented items -- including toothpaste -- in bear-resistant containers at least 300 feet from your tent.
And before you head out into the park, check with rangers for areas where bear activity has been reported recently.
Don't let bears keep you out of the parks. Just accept that they're part of the landscape and that while you don't have to fear them, you surely must respect them, and preparing properly for hiking and camping in the landscape is part of that respect.
Seattle WA: My husband and I want to take our kids, ages 11 and 13, to the Nat'l Parks in the southwest. Since missing school is something we'd like to avoid, we can go either this July or August, or next April, for nine days (a week with weekends on either side). We plan on car camping in the parks. Given our timeframe, what is the best way to do this trip? Should we drive straight through? Should we fly then rent a car? What is the best place to fly in/out of from Seattle? Which parks should we see? We want to be immersed in the natural habitat. My son loves reptiles so we want to see the snakes, lizards, and really take in the spendor of the rocks and canyons. We hope to spend less than half the time actually on the road. Is that possible?
Thank you for time.
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Seattle,
The Southwest has some great parks, ones that will amaze you with their "rock architecture" as well as with their natural and cultural history. But you probably don't want to visit them in July or August, as that's the hottest time of the year, with temperatures reaching, and surpassing, 100 degrees Fahrenheit, often on a daily basis.
April, though, would be a perfect time. The weather is gorgeous -- daytime highs in the 60s and 70s -- and crowds reasonable as long as you avoid Easter weekend. Driving from Seattle probably isn't a good idea. The Southwest is a large, sprawling region, and depending on your trip you could face a lot of windshield time once you arrive there.
Here are two options: You could fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, and tour Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon, or you could fly to Grand Junction, Colorado, rent a car, and tour Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde and perhaps Natural Bridges National Monument.
The first option offers the towering walls of Zion with the deep chasm at Grand Canyon and the haunting hoodoos at Bryce Canyon. While Zion is only about two hours from Bryce Canyon, from Bryce to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon it's a good day's drive. While the North Rim is much closer to Bryce, unfortunately its facilities typically don't open until mid-May.
You easily could spend two or three days at Zion, two at Bryce Canyon, and several at Grand Canyon, more if you manage to land a room at Phantom Ranch and hike or take a mule down to the canyon floor. Each park has good campgrounds and plenty of lizards to go around.
The second option offers Arches, the park with the most rock spans in the world, Canyonlands with its panoramic vistas and colorful landscape, Mesa Verde with its rich tableau of human history, and overlooked Natural Bridges with its massive rock bridges and ruggedness. All four have plenty of lizards and snakes if you really want to find them, and Canyonlands and Natural Bridges also have ruins and artifacts from the ancestral Puebloans, though not as many as you'll find at Mesa Verde National Park.
Arches and Canyonlands, which practically border each other, are only about two hours from Grand Junction. From downtown Moab, the gateway to those two parks, Natural Bridges is only about two hours to the south. From Natural Bridges, Mesa Verde is only about two hours away to the east.
With this option you could make a nice loop tour of the parks. You could use Moab as a base camp for visiting Arches and Canyonlands (and possibly to add a day rafting the Colorado or mountain biking the Slickrock Trail), then swing down to Natural Bridges, then head over to Mesa Verde, and then head back to Grand Junction.
Depending how much hiking you like to do, you easily could spend four days visiting Arches and Canyonlands, another night and a day at Natural Bridges, and at least a night and a full day at Mesa Verde touring the cliff dwellings.
There's a nice campground at Arches--Devil's Garden--and one of my favorite campgrounds, Squaw Flat, is in the Needles District of Canyonlands. If you somehow can't land a spot in Devil's Garden, there are plenty of BLM campgrounds along the Colorado River just east of Moab, and Dead Horse Point State Park located between Arches and Canyonland's Island in the Sky District has a nice campground and great views of the Colorado River. There's also a reasonable commercial campground just outside the Needles District if you can't land a site in Squaw Flat, which fills up early.
Natural Bridges has a 13-site campground that in April shouldn't be hard to find a spot in. If you can't get one, the surrounding landscape is mostly Bureau of Land Management lands with lots of camping opportunities.
Have a great time!
Lilburn, GA: I'm going to Yellowstone and Grand Teton NPs in less than 4 weeks. Where is the best chance to spot a moose?
Kurt Repanshek: Greetings Lilburn, Georgia,
Best bets for spotting moose are in Grand Teton, particularly in Willow Flats right behind the Jackson Lake Lodge. There also are a number of wildlife-viewing pullouts along the renowned Oxbow Bend area of the Snake River that often reward you with views of moose.
That said, I've also found moose along the Snake River right across from the park's Moose visitor center and in ponds along the Cascade Creek Trail on the west side of Jenny Lake. Yet another reliable area is in the wetlands along the Moose-Wilson Road between Teton Village and Moose Junction.
By looking in the mornings and evenings in these areas you'll increase your odds of spotting some.
Yucaipa, CA: I have a questions regarding local roadtrips to hit up several national parks. My husband and I live in So Cal and we have a small group of teenagers that we mentor. (9 teens) One of the boys is graduating from Highschool so my hubby decided to surprise him with a roadtrip! They really only have about 4 days and would like some adventure. Have any ideas? Thanks for the help! My husband and I are both in college right now and are having trouble devoting time to planning.
Kurt Repanshek: Hey Yucaipa, California
You have a few great options, depending how adventurous you want to get and how much your budget allows. You could take a boat out to Channel Islands National Park for a camping trip. That certainly would stand out. If that sounds interesting, check the park's website, www.nps.gov/chis, for a list of companies that can get you to the park and their fares.
Of course, being so close to Joshua Tree National Park you might want to consider a backpacking trip there, but it might be too close to be truly unique.
One envelope-stretching possibility would be to head east to Zion National Park in southwestern Utah for a two-night backpacking trip. Zion actually is closer to you than the Grand Canyon, Sequoia, or Kings Canyon national parks. Plus, the landscape with its towering, redrock cliffs is so different than what you have in southern California.
A great section of Zion to retreat to for a backpacking trek is the northwestern corner, also known as the Kolob Canyon entrance. There you'll find a 7-mile-long trail that heads into the backcountry along LaVerkin Creek.
In this corner of Zion stands Kolob Arch, which at roughly 310 feet across just might be the largest free-standing arch in the world. Of course, the trouble with heading to Zion in late May or early June is it's really starting to get hot down there, with daytime high temperatures at least in the 90s. Still, LaVerkin Creek provides plenty of water and even a place to cool off in, and the arch is incredible.
The easy section of this hike is the way in, as it's downhill. Coming out can be a grunt under a hot, glaring sun.
Enjoy your adventure!
scranton pa: We are driving to the Blue Ridge Mtns and on to the Great Smokey Mtns at the end of October. We will be traveling with friends from Great Britain and want to showcase our beautiful parks. At a loss for lodging with some "character"; somewhere close to day hikes and noted scenery/views. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Marianne
Kurt Repanshek: Greetings, Scranton, Pennsylvania,
October is about the best time of year to travel the Blue Ridge Parkway down to Great Smoky Mountain because of the fall colors. Of course, this makes the route heavily traveled at this time of year and the most expensive in terms of lodging. And if you haven't already made lodging reservations, it might be too late.
As for lodging, I love the arts and craft influences in the Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah National Park near the northern end of the Parkway, and the Peaks of the Otter Lodge at milepost 86 on the Parkway is in a gorgeous setting and offers comfortable rooms, though I'm not sure how much "character" they exude.
As you get closer to Great Smoky Mountains, your best bets will be in the towns along the route.
Good luck and good travels!
Mt. Laurel, NJ: We're going to Glacier NP the last week of August and wondering the best things to do for a couple who are into short hikes, but nothing too strenuous. Are the boat trips worth going on?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Mount Laurel, New Jersey,
Glacier is one of my favorite parks. It's wonderfully scenic and definitely has a raw, wild side to it.
One of my favorite hikes is to Avalanche Lake. The trailhead is just a bit east of Lake McDonald and the trail itself is relatively short, just 2.3 miles from the trailhead to the lake, and not steep at all.
Along the way you cruise through a cedar and hemlock forest alongside Avalanche Creek, which crashes and roars on its way down towards Lake McDonald. The payoff is a beautiful lake surrounding on three sides by towering cliffs, down from which streams cascade (although in late August there might not be too much water in those streams). The lake is a perfect destination for a picnic.
Another favorite Glacier hike of mine is the walk to Hidden Lake. This trail heads out from the Logan Pass Visitor Center and runs 1.5 miles to an overlook of the lake. Again, this trail isn't too steep. It winds across alpine meadows that lure mountain goats to the grasses, forbs and wildflowers. The views in all directions are spectacular.
A third possibility is the St. Mary Falls Trail, which is less than two miles roundtrip. It runs from the Jackson Glacier Overlook to some falls on the St. Mary River.
As for the boat trips, if you like to spend a lazy hour or so cruising across one of the lakes while listening to a naturalist talk about the area, they can be enjoyable. I much prefer the Red Jammer tours. Cruising about the park in the open-air bus without having to worry about other motorists or parking while drinking in the scenery and learning some insights from the driver is wonderfully relaxing. There are half-day and full-day tours available.
Have a great visit!
Honolulu: I am planning a trip to the Western Rockies and Yellowstone, etc in late September. Will this be a good time to go or will there be snow at that time? Living in Hawaii I do not relish seeing snow. Cool weather is OK ...
Kurt Repanshek: Greetings Honolulu,
September is a fantastic time to be in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Will you see snow? That's hard to say. When I first moved out West back in 1985 there were two incredible snowstorms in September that, if memory serves me right, dumped upwards of a foot of snow on the parks.
But I also recall a backpacking trip in late September in 1989 when a buddy and I caught some rays lying on the black sand beaches of Shoshone Lake in just our shorts.
That said, odds are that while it will be cooling off, you probably won't see any snow.
Corning, NY: We want to wander from national park to national park camping in our 5th wheel. We don't want to be on a schedule so we could stay as short or long as we decided at the time. Are there national parks that we do not need reservations and what time of year?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Corning, New York,
Not knowing when you plan to travel or in which direction, it's a bit hard to answer your question. That said, the shoulder seasons offer you the best bets for arriving in a national park and finding a site for your rig without an advance reservation.
Of course, shoulder seasons are getting shorter and shorter and they differ in different parts of the country. For instance, in Death Valley the summer months is the slow -- and incredibly hot -- season, while winter is busy. It's just the opposite in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton.
You could simply follow the seasons, cruising through the South and Southwest during the fall and winter months and then head north for spring and summer. Your best bet would be to settle on a route to follow and check with each park's website for camping information to get a rough idea of what to expect.
Another thought is to avoid the "crown jewels" of the park system, the Yellowstones, Yosemite and Grand Canyons, and look to places such as Cape Lookout National Seashore, Great Basin National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Redwood National Park. They're just as scenic and relaxing, but without the crowds.
And with the online reservation system, you can see what's available and plan your next move as you work your way across the country.
Have a great trip. Sounds like a wonderful way to enjoy the park system.
Pomona, CA: Which National Park in California is the kid friendliest or most fun?
Kurt Repanshek: Greetings, Pomona,
They're all kid-friendly! Of course, different kids have fun doing different things.
Kids who like to be dwarfed by trees or like crawling through the trunks of trees have a great time in Sequoia. Too, the concessionaire also happens to have an incredibly kid-friendly BBQ at Wolverton during the summer.
Yosemite, of course, offers so many activities -- floating on rafts down the Merced, biking, hiking, outdoor pools, -- that it's almost like summer camp.
Point Reyes National Seashore isn't any less kid-friendly, but it relies a bit more on a kid's imagination and self-motivation. There's beach-combing, kayaking, bike riding, and self-guided trails that teach kids about earthquakes and wildlife.
I think the final answer comes down to what you think your children will enjoy the most.
Wellsville, KS: Which national parks require an advance reservation to get into?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Wellsville,
No park that I know of requires an advance reservation to enter. However, some parks do require you to make advance reservations for things like backcountry campsites, and in the case of the cave tours at Mammoth Cave National Park it's not a bad idea to book ahead.
In the case of backcountry campsites, parks typically reserve a number of slots for walk-up traffic
Minster, Ohio: My husband Ken and I (55&54) are planning to visit friends in early September at Lake Powell. We'll be staying with them on their houseboat for several days, but in the area for a week or so. We would like to know what day trips we should definately do while we're there. We'd fly from Dayton, Ohio...is it best to fly into Vegas and drive from there or is another way more scenic. We've already done Red Rocks and Valley of Fire, we like hiking but are not mountain climbers. Highlights of the Lake Powell area? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you! Sarah
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Sarah,
Yes, your best bet probably is to fly into Vegas and rent a car from there. One option you might want to consider is a stop at Snow Canyon State Park just north of St. George, Utah. While this is a state park, I've told many friends that its scenery deserves national park status. It's gorgeous and there are some nice day hikes. (Movie trivia buffs will know that parts of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Jeremiah Johnson" were filmed here.)
From there you can swing by Zion National Park on your way down to Lake Powell.
A great day hike in the general vicinity of Lake Powell if you've never done it is in Buckskin Gulch along the Utah-Arizona border. The gulch actually is a slot canyon with colorful, beautifully fluted walls. You can reach both the Buckskin and Wire Pass trail heads via a passable dirt road that heads south off U.S. 89 near milepost 26 east of Kanab. The Buckskin Trailhead is about 4 miles down this road, and the Wire Pass Trailhead about another 3.5 miles. The difference between the two is that the Wire Pass Trailhead gets you into the narrower sections of the canyon more quickly.
If you do consider this, it's paramount that you pay attention to the weather, as thunderstorms even 10 miles away can cause deadly flashfloods through the canyon.
Another interesting side-trip in the area is to the Paria movie set, where parts of Westerns such as "The Outlaw Josey Wales" starring Clint Eastwood and "Sergeants Three" with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. were filmed. A road leading to the set is about 45 minutes east of Kanab on the north side of U.S. 89.
Finally, have you ever visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon? It's a relatively short distance from both Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah, and offers heavily treed forests, much cooler temperatures, and great views into the canyon.
Have a fantastic trip!
Tampa, Florida: My husband and I are taking a trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in June with our energetic and adventurous 3-year-old son. What hikes and activities do you recommend?
Kurt Repanshek: Hello Tampa,
Yellowstone and Grand Teton offer great adventures for youngsters with energy to burn.
In Grand Teton you can take a boat across Jenny Lake -- or hike around the lake on a paved trail -- and hike a little way up the Cascade Canyon Trail to Hidden Falls. Climbing classes are held here throughout the summer because of the rock formations, and there are plenty of small bouldering areas where your son can work on his own moves, as long as you carefully spot for him.
String Lake and Leigh Lake, found just north of Jenny Lake, are popular for swimming because they're relatively shallow and so warm up a bit. String Lake is the shallower of the two.
In Yellowstone, the geyser basins no doubt will captivate your son. Just be careful to keep him under control, as the waters are dangerously hot. Hiking the entire boardwalk through the Upper Geyser Basin likely will tucker him out.
Another good hike is the one to Lone Star Geyser, as it's only 5 miles roundtrip, is paved, runs along the Firehole River, and culminates at the geyser. Before you head down this trail, though, check with the Old Faithful Visitor Center for the estimated time of Lone Star's next eruption so you can time your hike perfectly.
For some "western" fun, you and your son might consider one of the Chuckwagon cookouts operated out of Tower-Roosevelt.
Have a great trip!
Raleigh, NC: Me and my fiance would like to plan a trip out west next year. There are so many beautiful National Parks out there, we don't know which to choose. The trip will be 2 weeks long and we would like to backpack through 3 Parks. Which would you recommend and when would be the best time to go?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Raleigh, North Carolina,
I'm partial to the Rocky Mountain parks, as they're in my backyard, but if you want to visit three national parks without getting in and out of your car I'd have to suggest Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite as Sequoia and Kings Canyon share a common border and Yosemite is just to the north.
Depending on how strong of hikers you are and how much time you want to spend on the trail, you could probably knock off the 211-mile-long John Muir Trail during your trek. It runs from the Yosemite Valley south to Mount Whitney on Sequoia's southeastern boundary. It's pretty hard to beat the alpine lakes and granite domes that highlight the High Sierra scenery.
Time-wise, I'd consider late-August or early September, as it will be cooler, less crowded and not so buggy. If you head south to north and book now, you can land a pretty nice room in the Yosemite Lodge at the end of your hike!
Sounds like a great escape!
Charleston, WV: My husband and I will be staying at the Grand Canyon for two days the week of December 16 as part of a trip to Vegas. Would you recommend a room on the rim of the canyon to experience the great views, or should we stay at El Tovar? Also, what should we definitely plan to see and do during our visit? Thanks for your assistance.
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Charleston,
A benefit of visiting the Grand Canyon in December is that you'll avoid the bulk of the crowds. Landing a room won't be as hard as trying to reserve one, say, in June or September.
If price is of no concern, by all means stay at El Tovar. It's beautiful, historically significant, has great amenities, and a great dining room. At Bright Angel, though, you could save some money by reserving one of the cabins with a view of the canyon. They're not as upscale as El Tovar, but they're nice, clean, and reasonable. Plus, you can't beat the view. The Arizona Room, which also has a great chef, is a short walk away.
As for things to see, keep in mind that in December daylight is precious, so you'll have to get right after things in the morning. If you like to hike, head out to Yaki Point and head down the South Kaibab Trail. Now, you're certainly not going to make it all the way down to the Colorado River and back, but a nice three-mile-long roundtrip takes you to Cedar Ridge, which has some great views into the canyon. If the day is nice, it's also a great spot for a picnic.
Another nice hike can be accomplished simply by walking along the paved trail winding along the South Rim.
Though it's small, the Tusayan Museum and associated ruins shed some great light on how ancestral Puebloans lived on the South Rim.
If you're looking to capture the perfect photo of the canyon, sunset shots are best taken from Hopi, Mojave or Pima points, while sunrises are best viewed from Mather, Yaki, Yavapai or Lipan points.
If the weather isn't cooperating, the Kolb Studio usually has some great art exhibits, and at the recently renovated Yavapai Observation Station you can get a pretty thorough geologic primer on the canyon, as well as some great views.
Have a great time!
Herndon, VA: What are your favorite or "secret" places to visit in Yosemite?
Kurt Repanshek: C'mon, Herndon, Virginia, travel writers don't divulge their secret places;-) But if you promise not to tell anyone else...
One of my favorite areas in the park is the landscape on either side of the Tioga Road running all the way to Tuolumne Meadows. Most of Yosemite's traffic stays in the valley, so most of the trails that peel off from the road don't see that much foot traffic, at least not compared to trails that start from the valley floor.
Also, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias near Wawona doesn't draw as many folks as does Sequoia National Park. There are a number of trails here that will lead you away from what crowds do show up and under the giant trees.
Orlando, Florida: Can a family with a 5 year old enjoy Navajo loop trail and Queens Garden trail in Bryce National Park? or is it too strenuous? suggestions?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Orlando,
This is a good news, bad news answer.
Yes, a 5-year-old should be able to handle the Queens Garden Trail at Bryce. It's actually the least difficult of all the trails that lead down into the canyon.
However, keep in mind that Bryce Canyon is at an elevation of 8,000 feet, quite a bit above sea level, and so it might take you and your 5-year-old a couple days to get used to the thin air. Too, there's a 320-foot elevation change from the trailhead down into the canyon, and you have to climb back out. Still, I would think the hike shouldn't be a problem if your family is in relatively good shape and you pace yourselves.
The bad news is that the Navajo Loop Trail is only partially open. A massive rock slide that came down one year ago tomorrow blocked a section of the trail, so you can't hike the entire loop.
If you visit the park's website, www.nps.gov/brca, you'll be able to find a hiking guide that lists all the trails and their degree of difficulty.
Enjoy your visit!
Columbus, Ohio: Kurt,
I will be traveling this summer from 6/28-7/30 to National Parks, Sand Dunes (C0), Messa Verde, Arches and Yellowstone- North side. We are traveling by car. My kids are 14, 12 and 10. What hikes are your favorites in these NP? My kids just did a very difficult hike yesterday in S. Ohio- our high hills- 1240ft- 7 miles of ups and downs- 5 hours, to let you know their ability to do hard hikes.
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Suzanne,
It sounds like you've lined up a fantastic roadtrip. You might want to toss Grand Teton into your itinerary, as you'll drive through it on the way to Yellowstone.
I'm afraid I haven't been to Great Sand Dunes National Park just yet, so I can't recommend anything there. At Mesa Verde, though, you'll definitely want to tour the cliff dwellings. The most challenging and one your kids will probably like the most is Balcony House, as you have to climb a series of ladders as you work through it. Cliff Palace isn't as challenging, but is impressive because of its size.
Long House is the second largest dwelling and also requires more of a hike and scampering around that is kid friendly.
In Arches, definitely head out to Landscape Arch and beyond to Double O, then return via the Primitive Trail, which runs through washes and along the backs of stone fines. Your kids will love it. Delicate Arch, of course, is mandatory!
In Yellowstone, hike up onto Specimen Ridge. The thin air might challenge you a bit, but the views are wonderful, as are the stone trees. Plus, you can go cross-country to the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Have a fantastic time!
Kurt Repanshek: Well, I'm afraid my time is up. Thanks for all your great questions and interest in our national parks. They're wonderful places to experience.
If I wasn't able to get around to your specific question, contact the park it relates to and the staff should be able to help you out.
To stay atop of park issues and information year-round, visit my blog, nationalparkstraveler.com.