Kurt Repanshek, author of "National Parks With Kids," answered your questions about vacations in the National Parks with (and without) children.
Kurt Repanshek: Hi folks, Kurt Repanshek here, author of National Parks with Kids and the webmeister of nationalparkstraveler.com. Thanks for your interest in our national parks. They're fabulous places to visit. So let's get right to your questions to see if I can't help you out with your vacation plans.
Lansing, Mich.: We are planning a national parks trip this fall and have tentatively planned on flying into Las Vegas, renting a car and then heading to the north rim of the Grand Canyon for one night. Then on to as many of the parks in Utah as possible. We want to see as much as we can. Can we spend a day in each park and get a good sense of what they are all about?
Lansing, without knowing how much time you're blocking out, my initial reaction would be that you're short-changing yourself by trying to see as many parks as is physically possible. I was just telling someone the other day that you need to experience the parks, not be a windshield tourist trying to notch as many overlook photos as possible. A big problem you're going to encounter is the enormity of this landscape. Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon is roughly 250 miles, or a good half-day's drive. Also, when in the fall are you planning your visit? The Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim closes for the season in mid-October. All that said, I much prefer the North Rim to the South Rim. It's less crowded, has some great views, great hikes, and great trees. Since you're planning to visit the North Rim, you can plan a route that will take you to Zion and Bryce Canyon and possibly Cedar Breaks. Whatever route you choose, be sure to plan enough time on the ground in each park!
Richmond, Va.: Our family of 4 (2 daughters 13, 16) have a Mon-Fri in Seattle the 2nd week of July. Which National Park should we visit for a couple days: Olympic, Mt. Rainier, Cascades, or San Juan Island, and why? We figure 2 days for Seattle, the other days for a park. Thanks for taking my question. Tom
Kurt Repanshek: Tom, you ask a tough question, as all the parks are great and have their own unique personalities. But in a pinch, I'd suggest visiting Olympic because, in truth, it's three parks in one. You've got the rugged coastline, which is simply gorgeous and nothing like your Virginia beaches. The sea stacks are awesome to see and the cobbled beaches great for beach-combing. And if you pay attention, you'll likely see some seals. Then there's the Hoh Rain Forest, an incredibly lush temperate rain forest with crystal clear streams, ferns, mosses, old-growth trees, banana slugs—something you just can't experience on the East Coast. And then if you head up to Hurricane Ridge you're at the alpine ceiling of the park with glaciers in view as well as the Strait of Juan de Fuca. You might even be able to play in snowfields. About the only downside is the park is roughly a 3-hour drive from Seattle. But you can get around that by taking a Washington State Ferry to Port Angeles.
Santa Clarita, Calif.: Are you going to address how unsafe our national forests are with all of the Mexican drug cartel activity?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Santa Clarita. I'm not well-versed on national forests, but I can tell you that there are some drug problems on the national parks, ranging from marijuana "plantations" at Sequoia National Park to drug runners in some of the border park units, such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Coronado National Memorial, and Big Bend National Park. Now, fortunately, most of these are isolated incidents in somewhat remote sections of these parks. That said, more and more the National Park Service is hard-pressed, financially, to deal with these problems as well as with the more traditional park problems, such as poaching, search-and-rescue missions, interpretive programs, and wilderness caretaking. We all need to lobby our congressional delegations about how important the parks are to us and that we want them to be adequately funded. For instance, did you know the National Park Service was tasked by the Homeland Security Department to handle border control? Not too many years ago this was costing the Park Service $40 million a year, a sum that Homeland Security did not reimburse.
Denver, Colo.: We'll be traveling up to Glacier National Park for a week at the end of July for a family reunion. Do you have any trails or sites you would suggest for children, or some ideas for my grandparents, who have some limited mobility?
Kurt Repanshek: Greetings Denver. Glacier's one of my favorites. In fact, I'm hoping to get back there this summer.
Here are a couple suggestions: I think the Hidden Lake Trail is one of the best in Glacier for just your mix of ages. Located at Logan Pass, the trail is not too steep, starts out with boardwalk before turning into a somewhat rougher trail, passes through some of the most beautiful alpine meadows you'll see when they're in bloom and which are a magnet for mountain goats that, I swear, making a living by posing for cameras.
Closer to Lake McDonald Lodge are the Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail and the Avalanche Lake Trail, two more of my favorites. The Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail is great for inquisitive children. Running just a quarter-mile along a raised boardwalk, the trail meanders through a lush, temperate forest of cedars, hemlocks, ferns, and mosses. The adjacent Avalanche Lake Trail runs 2.3 miles one-way to its namesake lake. The trail is not steep, quickly brings you to a moss-covered gorge cut by Avalanche Creek, and leads to a magnificent setting perfect for a picnic lunch. You can preview these two trails from this page.
Have a great trip!
Durham, N.H.: What lodging would you reccommend, please, inside or just outside Yellowstone for two couples in their 60's who enjoy mid-level activities?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Durham, I'm afraid your question prompts more questions. What part of Yellowstone do you want to see? How far is too far to drive? What sort of activities are you interested in?
If geyser basins are a priority, West Yellowstone might be perfect for you. There's a wide range of lodging (price-wise and accommodation-wise), there's a variety of restaurants, and it's well-located in terms of the Upper, Lower, Midway and Norris geyser basins, there are some excellent hiking trails in this area of Yellowstone, and, if you like to fish, the Madison River is renowned for its trout fishery.
You can either rent a motel room or two or rent a house for a reasonable amount of money. We did the later last summer with three couples, and had a blast. If this sounds good, check with the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce for possibilities.
If you'd rather tackle more of the park, I love Lake Yellowstone Hotel. It's pricey, but you can save some money by looking into one of the Western Cabins at the adjoining Lake Lodge and then heading over to the hotel for meals. The location is great, as you're close (relatively speaking) to West Thumb, Old Faithful, the Hayden Valley, and Canyon, there's plenty of hiking, boating, angling, and wildlife viewing nearby as well.
And there's nothing like relaxing in the hotel's Sun Room with a drink before dinner while the string quartet is playing!
Old Bridge, N.J.: I'll be spending 3/4 of a day at Yosemite on May 14th. What is the most recommended way to get to see the big attractions in a short period: hike/walk, bike, etc?
Kurt Repanshek: Old Bridge, you need to squeeze in another day in the park!
That said, head to the Yosemite Valley. In mid-May the runoff is starting to peak and the waterfalls will be at full throttle. If you're in good shape and like to hike, I'd suggest you head up the Mist Trail. This hike takes you up past Vernal Fall to the top of Nevada Fall. Not only do you get some great exercise, but this is arguably the valley's 'classic' hike and the payoff, along with being cooled by the waterfalls' mists on warm days, is the view back down into the valley.
If you don't have time for the hike, after checking out the valley floor, head up to Glacier Point for a bird's eye view down into the valley.
Huntington, W.Va.: Kurt, My husband and I are in our 60's, and will reach the Great Smokey Mountains on April 19th via the Blue Ridge Parkway. Can you suggest lodging on that side of the park? Also, what do you consider to be the must see sights of the park? Thanks. Anne
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Anne. On that side of the park I like the Jonathan Creek Inn in Maggie Valley. There area is quieter than Cherokee and the inn is charming and has some nice amenities—some rooms have fireplaces and Jacuzzis in them, for example, and to stay in touch there's wireless Internet.
Must-see sights? I really enjoyed the Cataloochee Valley, which is not far from Maggie Valley. It's a smaller version of Cade's Cove but without the crowds. There are some nicely restored homesteads there, some decent fishing, a nice campground, and you might see elk in the valley's meadows early in the morning or around dusk. Plus, you can head over to Little Cataloochee, where there's a beautifully restored church and more remnants of the homesteads that used to dot the Smokies.
Back in the main part of the park, I think one should definitely climb to the top of the tower at Clingmans Dome for a view of this rumpled mountainscape. To learn more about the homesteaders, check out the Mountain Farm Museum behind the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and to learn more about the Cherokee nation, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian is worth a visit. And then, of course, be sure to park the car and take a hike into the mountains!
Camas, Wash.: Do you think hiking the Grand Canyon with an 8 year old is feasible? What other things would you recommend to do while at the Grand Canyon to keep our 8 year olds attention and enjoy the experience? Thank you!
Kurt Repanshek: Camas, not knowing your 8-year-old, in general I think hiking the Grand Canyon would be biting off more than they could chew and could be dangerous. Of course, I don't know what their ability is, what time of year you're planning to visit the canyon, which rim, and what you mean by "hiking" the Grand Canyon.
Certainly, walking along the South Rim Trail would be manageable and give your child some eye-popping views, and if you're lucky you might be able to spot some California condors flying along the rim. Perhaps a good hiking option would be to head down the South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge. This hike is 1.5 miles one way and less than a 1,000 foot drop in elevation. It will certainly give you and your 8-year-old a much better perspective of the canyon than from the rim top. Just be sure to carry plenty of water and keep an eye on how your child is holding up to the hike.
Another fun thing for a child would be heading to Desert View and climbing to the top of the replica Watchtower they have there. You might also look into the offerings of the Grand Canyon Field Institute. It has some family classes that are a great way to learn about the canyon, its natural resources, and its ecology.
Boise, Idaho: I have been trying to plan online a multiple National Parks and Monuments tour. In addition we would like to find State Parks that offer outstanding facilities or historical information. All of the programs have been difficult and unwieldy. Do you have a suggestion for a good program that easily allows for changes in the routes, information on RV Camping Reservations, Senior Rates, individual park openings and closures, etc. We would like to leave here in about two weeks and tour a number of parks to the east of us. We have about six weeks and are considering the parks in WY, SD, ND, and MT, Canada, and WA. We will be traveling in a 30 foot RV with two small (5 lbs. dogs), any special suggestions? bnj
Kurt Repanshek: Boise, you ask a question that requires a great deal of time and research. I admire your ambition. I would start by deciding which national parks you'd like to visit, then fill in the blanks.
A great resource to begin would be the National Recreation Reservation Service. This site will help you plot the 'federal' aspects of your trip—the national parks, possible U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, even BLM and US Fish and Wildlife Service refuges where you might want to stay. Unfortunately, it doesn't track state parks or Canadian parks.
You'll probably want to invest in a Woodall's Guide, which will help you decide which RV parks to reserve a spot at. Good luck!
NYC: Kurt, I enjoy your website, NationalParksTraveler.com. This past weekend you talked about a body that was found at the Grand Canyon. How safe are our national parks, and what precautions should visitors take?
Kurt Repanshek: NYC, you ask a good question, one that sometimes I wonder if enough park visitors ask themselves before they pass into a national park.
I've been roaming national parks for more than three decades and about the worst injury I've suffered is a blister or two. What visitors have to keep in mind is that national parks can be rugged, wild places. The animals are not tame, the mountains can be steep, and the rivers swift.
On top of that, there are a lot of other people in the parks who are on vacation and not always paying as much attention as they should be. Now, the recent incident in the Grand Canyon was a very unfortunate one, to say the least. What the circumstances were behind it remain to be seen.
That said, I believe that if you go in prepared for your vacation in a national park and know largely what to expect, that parks can be very safe, magical places. If you're going into the backcountry, it's prudent—in addition to all the usual camping gear—to have a good topographical map, a compass, and, more and more these days as prices come down, a good GPS unit to ensure that you'll be able to find your way not just to your campsites but back to your car.
Before you head off into the backcountry, don't be afraid to ask a ranger what conditions are like. Have there been any animal sightings of concern? Are rivers and streams running high? What's the fire danger?
In the front country, keep an eye on your children to be sure they don't get too close to a cliff, geothermal feature, rip tide, water fall, etc, etc. And keep an eye out on other visitors who might not be paying terribly good attention as they drive out of a parking lot you're trying to cross on foot or pulling too quickly into or out of a scenic overlook.
Finally, I think it's also important to remember your own personal responsibility. You can't expect others to be looking out for you.
Roanoke, Va.: Do you have any tips for combating mosquitoes? It's particularly bad every time I visit Assateague National Park.
Kurt Repanshek: Roanoke, I feel your itch. Seriously.
I've tried just about everything for persuading mosquitoes to bite someone else, with little luck. I've tried DEET (Cutter, Off, you name it), I've tried Burt's Bees, I've tried skin lotions, I've tried that supposedly bug-repellent clothing, I've tried patches.
I'm afraid I haven't found a reliable solution. I usually start with the least-repugnant remedy and move on from there towards the heavy duty DEET concoctions. I like the Burt's Bees bug repellents, as they're natural (built around Rosemary, Lemongrass, and Citronella oils with 5 other oils that bugs supposedly hate) and, frankly, smell OK. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.
The only sure-fire solution I've discovered is restricting my campouts to before Memorial Day and after Labor Day.
San Francisco, Calif.: What's NEW in national parks? Any amazing new parks open west of the Mississippi in recent years? Also--what do you think is the most underrated park, and why?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi San Francisco. What's new in the parks? Well, probably the "newest" park west of the Mississippi is the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in eastern Colorado some 2 to 3 hours from Denver.
Dedicated just about a year ago by National Park Service Director Mary Bomar, Sand Creek tells the sad tale of the U.S. Army's slaughter of members of Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes on November 29, 1864. If history interests you, this would be a great "new" Park Service site to visit.
And while you're in the area, I'd highly recommend a visit to nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park. Although it gained national monument status back in 1932, it wasn't until 2000 that an act of Congress bestowed national-park status on Great Sand Dunes.
This park offers not only has sand dunes—30 square miles of dunes, some of which climb 750 feet—but also alpine peaks rising to 13,000 feet, high-country lakes, and forests of aspen and conifers. In other words, you get quite a bit of bang for your buck when you visit Great Sand Dunes National Park.
New York, N.Y.: When does it pay off to buy a year-round parks pass from NPS? And what are the pros and cons? In other words, how many trips do you need to take to make it worth considering--or are there other perks? much obliged
Kurt Repanshek: New York, New York. These days, if you plan to visit three or more parks in a year's time, the $80 investment in an America The Beautiful Pass generally is worth it, as more and more parks are charging either $20 or $25 for entry.
Now, I was pretty disappointed when they went from the National Parks Pass to the ATB Pass. With the National Parks Pass, you knew your $50 was going right to the National Park Service and the national park system. With the $80 ATB Pass, it all depends on where you buy your pass.
Since the ATB Pass covers entry to "fee lands" on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, AND the National Park Service, fees currently are distributed to the agency that sells the pass. In my case, the nearest Forest Service office is about a 25-minute drive away, while the nearest NPS unit is about an hour. So if I didn't care which agency my money went to, I'd buy the ATB Pass at the Forest Service office. Since I want my dollars to go the parks, I make a point to buy the pass at a Park Service site.
Now, if you're planning to visit the same park over and over again over the course of a year, you can save money by buying that specific park's "annual pass" instead of shelling out for the ATB. For instance, at Acadia National Park the annual pass costs just $40, or half the ATB.
There is talk in Congress of bringing back the National Parks Pass, but I'm not holding my breath.
Boston, Mass.: What's your favorite, must-bring, most indispensible tool for backpackers in the parks?
Kurt Repanshek: Boston, I'm gonna guess that you're exempting tents, sleeping bags, water bottles, matches, and that sort of thing.
I guess something along the line of a Leatherman multi-tool would be one of the best things to pack, ounce-for-ounce. After all, a good one has a can opener, a knife or two, scissors, awl, file, screwdriver, pliers, bottle opener, and on and on. Seems like a no-brainer.
D.C.: Hello, Getting my young boys (8, 11) to pull their eyes up from their playstations is almost impossible. I worry about hyping up the chances of seeing bears because they may get disappointed. What advice do you have about engaging kids in the National Parks? Thanks!
Kurt Repanshek: Hi D.C. Actually, you needn't worry too much about "hyping up the chances" of seeing bears in the national parks. Black bears are fairly common sights in Grand Teton (look along the Moose-Wilson Road where berry bushes lure them in), Mount Rainier (I've seen them in the Ipsut Creek Campground just inside the Carbon River Entrance as well as at Reflection Lakes), Sequoia and Yosemite parks, and on occasion in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Grizzly bears often are visible in the early summer in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, too.
I would think Yellowstone's geyser basins with their spouting geysers and sputtering fumaroles and mudpots would prove engaging to your boys, too. On the East Coast, I'll never forget running into a 7-year-old boy and his 9-year-old sister, and their parents, of course, atop the Beehive, a rocky promontory in Acadia National Park. The Beehive can be a somewhat challenging climb, especially for youngsters under 10, because it entails climbing vertically up, hand-over-hand, on iron rungs for short distances. Making it to the top, as a result, delivers a real sense of accomplishment. And the view ain't bad, either!
Many Western parks offer horseback riding—another lure for many kids—and canoeing. And there are plenty of lakes, which kids seem to enjoy tossing rocks into.
Something you might try is surfing with your boys through the park system on the Internet to look at various parks and the activities they offer and see what resonates with them. I'll bet you can find something that intrigues them.
Bronston, Ky.: Where can I get a senior pass?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Kentucky. You can buy a pass, senior or otherwise, at national parks, U.S. Forest Service offices, U.S. Bureau of Land Management offices, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices.
New Palestine, Ind.: Are the National Park passes available at a discount anywhere?
Kurt Repanshek: Greetings, Palestine, Indiana. I'm afraid that, to the best of my knowledge, there are no discounted America The Beautiful passes to be purchased.
Of course, that's kind of a trick answer. If you're 62 or older you qualify for a senior ATB pass, for the princely one-time fee of $10. If you're disabled you can get a life-time pass for free.
Both passes can only be obtained in person from a Park Service, Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, or Bureau of Reclamation office. For details on what proof you'll need to provide, surf over to http://store.usgs.gov/pass/.
Chicago, Ill.: Hey Kurt, I'd like to take my family to camp in Yellowstone relatively near the Bridal Veil. Are all the affordable camping spots already booked up for this summer? In planning for summer 2009--what advice do you have for booking ahead the affordable campsites? Thank you
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Chicago. You've got me a bit confused. Are you referring to Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite? If so, your closest, most affordable, camping options are at Curry Village or Housekeeping Camp in the Yosemite Valley.
Now, some folks swear by these locations and accommodations, but they are not my favorites because of the crowds, noise, and stress on the infrastructure they generate. I'd much rather stay at Tuolumne Meadows or Wawona and drive into Yosemite Valley for a day trip.
That said, depending on how flexible you are, you might be able to find an opening in one of these places, but it's getting pretty late for this summer. The reservation system allows you to reserve a site for up to five months down the road, beginning on the 15th of each month. So, for instance, on April 15 you'll be able to reserve a site up until September 14.
You might be wiser looking ahead to the summer of 2009. For help in carving out your reservations, check out the National Recreation Reservation Service.
Round Lake, Minn.: We have an exchange student from Germany whose mother will be visiting June 10-26. They would like to head to the Wyoming, Yellowstone area by way of Mt. Rushmore. Any recommendations for their road trip?
Kurt Repanshek: Round Lake, I'm afraid your friends might be starting a bit late in the 2008 cycle and have very few options in terms of in-park lodging. The first thing I'd do is see what is available. Yellowstone's lodging concessionaire, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, has a good website that will help you and your friends see what's available.
From Mount Rushmore, head west on Interstate 90 to Buffalo, Wyoming, then go up and over the Bighorn Mountains—an incredibly gorgeous range—on U.S. 16 to Worland. From there they can work their way up to Cody and into Yellowstone. A slight alternative, once they reach Cody, would be to head north up the Chief Joseph Highway, into the Sunlight Basin, and then through Yellowstone's northeast entrance at Cooke City. This route, I would say, is the most gorgeous into the park.
If they have time for a sidetrip, dropping down to Thermopolis, Wyoming, for a stay at Hot Springs State Park would be a treat.
San Diego, Calif.: Which parks have budget rates for a single adult? Also, I vaguely recall a park where there was a private mansion that has been turned over to the park and has reasonable accommodations. Where is it located? Thank you very much.
Kurt Repanshek: San Diego, off the top of my head I can't think of any park that has "budget rates for a single adult."
You can stay in a campground and pay for one adult, but most lodges I know of offer rooms based on double occupancy.
As for a private mansion turned over to the park, well, there's Scotty's Castle in Death Valley, but there are no rooms to rent there. It is, however, a fascinating place to tour!
Dublin, Ohio: What is a feasible way to see Yellowstone with only a one night stay in the park? We reserved the last room on the only night available during our trip in June. All of the hotels in Jackson Hole, Jackson, and West Yellowstone that have rooms left are very expensive. What will give us the most time in Yellowstone without having to spend $200 for a one night hotel stay?
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Dublin, I hope your room is at Old Faithful, as that's the best location for the limited amount of time you have. From Old Faithful not only can you catch the highlights of the Upper Geyser Basin by walking the boardwalk along Geyser Hill and venturing over to Black Sand Basin, but you are close enough to check out the West Thumb geyser basin.
Chicago, Ill.: Hello Mr. Repanshek, Me, my husband, and my 10 year old daughter are going on a vacation this coming August 2008. We're going fly to Las Vegas, then drive to the Grand Canyon. We have 1 week for this vacation--what is your suggestion on where we can go so my daughter won't get bored--somewhere she can appreciate the history and landmarks of Nevada and Arizona. Thank you, Elisa
Kurt Repanshek: Hi Elias, you ask a tough question, both logistically and because of your daughter's age. Getting from Las Vegas to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon will take four-and-a-half to five hours. That's a lot of car time for a youngster.
Once at the South Rim, though, I think just walking along the South Rim Trail and taking a gander into the canyon would interest your daughter. And, as I told another, you might just see condors drifting on the thermals along the rim. Hermit's Rest is a curious old place that she might find fun for a little while. Then, too, there's the Watchtower at Desert View that I'm sure she'd enjoy climbing to the top of.
Of course, driving over from Las Vegas a stop at Hoover Dam to get a close-up look of this engineering marvel might be fun.
Kurt Repanshek: I can't believe it but my hour is up. I really appreciate your questions and the time you put into them. I only hope I was able to give you some good advice.
If you have any other questions, head over to the Traveler and contact me through the "contact" form.
And if you do nothing else this summer, find time to enjoy at least one national park!