Millions of travelers will enter national parks in their personal vehicles this summer, and most of those visitors will not wander beyond a park’s close-in viewpoints and parking lots – often with their cars well within sight. An intrepid few, however, will leave the comfort of their vehicles and experience parks by paddling, peddling, diving, walking, running, climbing, casting, hiking or swinging.
“I’ve heard National Park Service rangers say that most visitors barely wander beyond 50 yards of their cars, and many of those visitors only stay in a park for a few hours,” said Dave Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of concessions in several parks. “Although there is certainly nothing wrong with driving through a park, when travelers go beyond the viewpoints, they are treated to sights and sounds of wilderness that cannot be experienced unless you get a little physical.”
Xanterra operates lodges, restaurants, gift stores, tours and activities in Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, Death Valley, Zion, Petrified Forest and Rocky Mountain National Parks and Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and these locations offer countless adventurers for park visitors wanting to take powerful memories home with them.
And visitors do not necessarily have to be in top-notch physical condition in order to have these human-powered experiences, Hartvigsen added. “Although there are plenty of more extreme experiences – such as climbing the cliffs in Zion National Park or hiking to the top of Mount Washburn in Yellowstone – there are also numerous experiences for travelers in average physical condition,” said Hartvigsen.
Here are some human-powered activities recommended by Hartvigsen:
- Kayak or canoe the backcountry in Yellowstone National Park. Xanterra offers a shuttle service on Lake Yellowstone that transports kayakers and their kayaks to the southeast section of Yellowstone Lake where motorized vessels are prohibited and the Yellowstone River feeds into the lake. Travelers must bring their own kayaks. Canoes can be rented from the marina. This wildlife-rich area is adjacent to the park’s Thorofare Region which has been designated as the most remote wilderness in the continental United States. The shuttle service is available from mid-June to early September, and it can be booked one-way, round-trip or for any point-to-point service from five drop-off points as well as to or from Bridge Bay Marina. Arrangements can be made by calling 1-307-242-3893.
- Climb the cliffs in Zion National Park. This park in Southern Utah is home to several 3,000-foot-high sandstone cliffs, and the National Park Service recommends only experienced climbers attempt them. Best times to climb are March through May and September through early November. Some of the cliffs are closed in the summer to protect nesting peregrine falcons. The Park Service requires permits for overnight bivouacs but not for day-climbers. Zion Lodge – the only in-park accommodations – is a good home base, especially for climbers wishing to get an early start.
- Walk the Presidential Trail to have an up-close look at the 60-foot-high sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This fully accessible ½-mile boardwalk features several viewpoints and interpretive signage. Travelers can wander the trail on their own or join a free interpretive walk led by a National Park Service ranger. Some lucky visitors may get a glimpse of a mountain goat precariously perched on the cliffs. Cap the experience by enjoying a “Monumental Scoop” of hand-dipped or soft-serve ice cream cone from Memorial Team Ice Cream Station, a Xanterra-operated shop named in honor of the baseball team formed by the Mount Rushmore carvers.
- Run the Badwater Ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley National Park. Obviously only for elite athletes, this annual race draws competitors from around the world who run 135 miles from Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level, to the Whitney Portal at 8,360 feet (and the starting point for climbers attempting Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet above sea level). Temperatures can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, another reason this ultramarathon is often called the “world’s toughest foot race.” Competitors run past the Furnace Creek Resort, where spectators line the road to watch these incredible athletes.
- Peddle the parks. Bright Angel Bicycle Rentals at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park offers a wide range of bicycles for rent for one to 48 hours. Cyclists can ride along Hermit Road, where private cars are not permitted during peak season. Originally built by the Santa Fe Railroad, this winding road follows the Canyon rim and offers panoramic views of the Grand Canyon. Bicycle rentals are also available from the Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley. This huge park has hundreds of miles suitable for mountain biking. A difficult but highly gratifying ride is Artist’s Drive, a hilly, nine-mile, one-way paved road named for the palette of colors – from red to green – caused by the oxidation of minerals within the volcanic rock. Guided scenic downhill bike tours are also available. Bicycles can also be rented at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in Yellowstone National Park. The 33-mile rim drive circling Crater Lake in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park is also a stunningly popular bike ride.
- Swing at the Furnace Creek Golf Course, the lowest golf course in the world, at 214 feet below sea level. One of the few golf courses within national park boundaries, the Furnace Creek Golf Course provides challenging play and is surrounded by four mountain ranges. The golf course is an oasis of spring-fed green contrasted against the stark setting of Death Valley.
- Go for a hike. Although most national parks feature memorable hiking, few hikes are as famous as the hike to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Many hikers take the steeper, 7.3-mile South Kaibab Trail down and the 9.3-mile Bright Angel Trail back up to Grand Canyon Village. Hikers can make reservations for Phantom Ranch dormitories and cabins up to 13 months in advance of the trip. Backcountry permits are not required by the National Park Service for travelers staying at Phantom Ranch. Another memorable hike is Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, where the summit provides a spectacular 360-degree view. Countless other hiking trails are available at Crater Lake, Mount Rushmore, Petrified Forest, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Zion National Parks.
- Cast away. Anglers have many options at Yellowstone National Park, where fishing is permitted in Yellowstone Lake and in the park’s many rivers. Fly fishing guides offer a variety of experiences fishing the Firehole, Madison or Lamar Rivers or other creeks and streams in the park. Full-day Guide Service includes transportation, instruction, lunch, beverages and flies. Rods, reels and waders can also be rented. Another great park for anglers is Crater Lake National Park, where Kokanee Salmon and Rainbow Trout can be found. The lake can be fished year-round, and is accessible only by hiking trail to the Cleetwood Cove on the north shore of the lake.
- Go diving in the clearest and deepest lake in the country, Crater Lake. At 1,949 feet deep, Crater Lake is the ninth deepest lake in the world. Divers must be certified and must obtain a permit from the National Park Service. Since Crater Lake is only accessible by hiking a steep trail, divers must be prepared to carry all of their equipment with them. Visitors to the lake should be on the lookout for “The Old Man,” A floating log within the lake that has been one of the park’s celebrated features for decades.