America’s Best Idea

The National Parks play a fairly significant role in our family’s story. When Frank and I were dating, we took a weekend road trip up to Yellowstone, about 10 hours north of us. We left right after work and drove through the night. Driving through the Grand Tetons early in the morning was an amazing experience. We spent the weekend hiking, drinking gimlets in rocking chairs on the porch of Roosevelt Lodge, and seeing all sorts of wildlife. It was on this trip that I realized I loved Frank and could imagine spending our lives together. Over the past nearly-5 years of marriage, many significant moments have happened in National Parks. From our honeymoon back in Yellowstone to snowshoeing trips in Rocky Mountain to post-tax season getaways in Bryce Canyon and family reunions in Zion, National Parks have woven themselves into our family history.

Specimen Ridge Trail, Yellowstone
Specimen Ridge Trail, Yellowstone

During our first year of marriage, we would sit on the couch in our pj’s, drinking coffee, eating scones, and watching Ken Burns’ National Parks: America’s Best Idea series. It’s an amazing, in depth history of the parks system and also a wonderful story of John Muir. (I cried during the episode about the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley and how that broke Muir’s heart.) We dreamed about visiting the Parks with our kids, and when we retired buying a camper and spending our summers working at the convenience stores.

This past weekend, to celebrate my birthday, my parents rented a cabin in Estes Park and we spent time lounging, laughing, and hiking in Rocky Mountain. Bea has been snowshoeing in RMNP since before she was born. Last year she was snug in the Ergo, and this year she rode in the pack on Frank’s back. She loved pointing out the trees and feeling the wind in her face. Rocky Mountain is one of our favorite getaways: Close enough to Denver for a day trip, yet feels like a true vacation. We have favorite hikes year-round and each season is phenomenal for exploring. We always invest in a year pass, and my dad bought his Golden Eagle pass this year: $10 for a lifetime pass. On Monday the Parks were free, and the next free weekend is in February.

Because I love lists, I thought I’d present my Top 10 Favorite Things About National Parks:

1. Mary Mountain Trail, Yellowstone: We had the whole trail to ourselves and the bison. It felt as though we were the only people in Yellowstone. (Until we tried to make it back to our hotel for a dinner reservation and were stuck in wildlife-spotting traffic.)

2. Gimlets, Any Park’s Lodge: There’s something about sitting in a wooden rocking chair on the porch overlooking amazing scenery and drinking a 1920’s-era cocktail. It always makes me imagine Teddy Roosevelt might join us.

3. Nymph Lake, Rocky Mountain: This is a beautiful hike at any time of year, but one of our all-time favorite snowshoe hikes. There’s usually enough snow, no matter what the recent weather is like. It’s a fairly easy hike, and a perfect way to introduce guests to the world of snowshoeing.

4. Never Summer Range, Rocky Mountain: We went backpacking here one weekend in August. Living up to its name, it was a chilly hike. What I love about the Never Summer Range is that, since it’s on the West side of the park, not many people visit. We only met a couple people on the trail and camped in a secluded clearing.

5. Angel’s Landing, Zion: This was a challenging hike for me. We took Bea with us up to the saddle and attempted the chained path but ended up leaving her with my mom, aunt, and cousin while we summited. It was an incredible view of the park and so amazing to think about the early explorers of the parks systems doing it without chains.

6. Queen’s Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon: This whimsical hike has everything you hope to see in the hoodoos of Bryce. It’s such a feast for the imagination and a fairly easy hike. We went for a post-tax season getaway, before having Bea and I can’t wait to take her there when she’s old enough. It’s incredible to see what nature and erosion can produce.

7. Delicate Arch, Arches: Moab, Arches, Canyonlands, Dead Horse Canyon… I love this area of Utah! Any hike is incredible in Arches, but Delicate Arch is a must see: Truly a postcard quality hike. I’m looking forward to reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire for our Reading Challenge for a look at Arches before roads “corrupted” it.

8. Lake Hotel, Yellowstone: Lake Hotel is one of my favorite places. After a long day of hiking, we would order gimlets and listen to the string quartet in the sunroom. It reminds me of how people used to travel to Yellowstone when it first opened in the late nineteenth century. The history is amazing, as well as the vision of the National Parks, and sitting in the sunroom at Lake is a perfect reminder of how many people have visited the park.

9. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Technically this is a National Historic Park, but I thought I’d include it. We bought the CD to play in the car as we drove to each site, and I’d highly recommend this. It gave context to each cabin and trail. I had no idea how big Valley Forge is and it really brought history to life.

10. Huckleberry Hot Springs, Grand Teton: According to purists, Huckleberry Hot Springs isn’t what it used to be… However, I loved the hike and hot springs are such a cool natural phenomenon. I love that they haven’t been built up and, when we stopped over a Labor Day weekend, we didn’t see many people on the trail.

There are still so many I want to see. I’ve never been to Yosemite, would love to go up to Glacier, Acadia, Crater Lake. In this season when international travel seems so complex, I love that National Parks are such an accessible, family-oriented way to see our own country.

What is your favorite National Park? What about a favorite memory in a Park?