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5 US National Park Experiences for Summer Travel

As the economy continues to slowly improve and springtime turns to summer, many Americans are starting to plan their summer vacations. Some renew their passports and look overseas for adventure, while others consider exploring the remarkable diversity of travel options within our own large country. For those planning to take road trips and stick to summer vacations here in the United States, a trip to one or more of the US National Parks is more than simply suggested. A US National Park summer vacation is most wholeheartedly recommended for travel that expands appreciation for our country’s most precious resource: the places designated to remain as nature intended.

The Vacation Gals has partnered with ARAMARK Parks and Destinations to put together this Top 5 US National Park travel experiences for the summer. ARAMARK Parks and Destinations is one of only three national companies that specialize in concessions for the National Parks and Forests and State Parks systems; their experts clearly know a thing or two about what to do in a national park!

Summer Rainforest in Olympic National Park (Jennifer Miner)

1. Sleep in a Temperate Rainforest 

The rainforests in Costa Rica and other southern countries are what we usually picture, but the temperate rainforest in the Pacific Northwest are wild, lush, green — and a lot less humid. The Olympic National Park is one of my favorite US National Parks because there is something so primordial about it. The 15 feet of rain each year leads to giant redwoods, huge ferns, and moss that covers the ground like a carpet. Lake Quinault Lodge fits the timelessness of the rainforest here in the Olympic National Park; I participated in a tour of the Quinault Rainforest with one of the lodge’s outdoorsy guides and loved it. The lakeside rooms are the only rooms at the lodge with televisions. I’ve also stayed at Kalaloch Lodge, on the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s part of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and the area is home to sea otters, puffins, bald eagles, and more.  As the only oceanfront lodge in the national park, it’s really a special place to stay, and experience this remote, wild part of our country.

Grand Canyon National Park Summer Sunset (Jennifer Miner)

2. Raft the Grand Canyon

While the Olympic National Park is green and sometimes cold and rainy in the summer, Arizona is HOT that time of year. The Grand Canyon National Park feels like a different planet than its Pacific Northwest cousin…but the Colorado River is always cool and refreshing. The perspective change achieved by rafting at the base of the Grand Canyon allows for a new appreciation of one of the world’s largest canyons. Its size and beauty, from the bottom up, is awe-inspiring. With Wilderness River Adventures, you can paddle the rapids yourself, or opt for a raft or motorboat; the company has been operating in the Grand Canyon National Park  since 1983 and their knowledgable guides share information about the geology, history and folklore of the area. From 3 1/2 day motorized boat trips to epic 16 day oar boat trips, WIlderness River Adventures is recommended by ARAMARK Parks and Destinations for an unforgettable Grand Canyon experience.

Shenandoah National Park Summer Travel (ARAMARK Parks and Destinations)

3. Hike the Appalachian Trail

NO, I haven’t personally done this! To hike the entire 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail is a multi-month affair, and most summer travelers set out to just hike a portion of the trail. There is a handy lodge-to-lodge hiking path in the Shenandoah National Park portion of the trail, in Virginia. This beautiful stretch of the trail is more manageable than the long stretches without any accommodations. You don’t need to for a tent in your backpack, either; the Big Meadows Lodge, Lewis Mountain Cabins and Skyland Resort are around 10 miles apart from each other, so summer hikers can enjoy hot showers and fresh prepared meals incorporating local ingredients in the restaurants (Skyland Resort, for example, offers regionally sourced trout, beef and more). Guided hikes of Shenandoah National Park are available, as are twilight hikes, horseback riding, and and that good stuff. If your’e like me, and love hiking but not camping, this is the multi-day national park hiking experience for you.

Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park; Kilauea (Jennifer Miner)

4. Explore an Active Volcano

This is one of the most unique US national parks. Volcanoes National Park isn’t near any of ARAMARK Parks and Destinations’ concessions, but it’s a favorite national park for many because, hey — you’ve got to be in Hawaii to see it! Two of the world’s most active volcanoes are here: Kilauea is the more accessible one, whereas Mauna Loa is more famous.  Besides hiking around Kilauea (a flat, very easy hike) and gawping at steam venting from the crater,  travelers can explore a walk-in lava tube. It’s an intrepid feeling walking down the slightly sloping, dimly lit lava tube; I explored the tube when it was raining, and felt like Indiana Jones. Crater Rim Drive takes visitors to the Kilauea Caldera and its overlook, Halemaumau Crater, Devastation Trail, that previously mentioned Thurston Lava Tube, and more. You can walk past steam vents, learn about the area’s geologic history at the Jaggar Museum, and (weather permitting) drive south of Crater Rim Drive to the Chain of Craters Road. I have not been able to see the lava flowing into the ocean yet, but a summer trip to Hawaii Island is your best bet for dry enough weather to do so.

Summer Vacation in Southern Alaska with Glacier (Jennifer Miner)

5. See Glaciers Up Close

The national parks in Alaska are mind-boggling in their expanse. For most of us, though, summer is prime vacation time to see Alaska — the weather’s a bit too brutal for us the rest of the year. Glacier Bay National Park in Southern Alaska is one of the more tourist-friendly of the Alaska national parks (along with Denali National Park, which is about the size of the entire state of Massachusetts). ARAMARK Parks and Destinations recommends taking the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry from Juneau to Gustavus, from where where the Glacier Bay Day Cruise departs. This is the only day cruise permitted in the national park, and it takes intrepid daytrippers as close to the mammoth glaciers as legally possible. Due to glaciers calving, it’s not recommended to get right next to the them, but Alaska travelers can approach and touch the ice that shears off, commonly known as icebergs.  The vivid blue of the densely packed ice is a sight to see.

The National Park Service offers so much to the United States (I’ve never met a park ranger I didn’t like) and all that’s asked in return is appreciation for the wild spaces still left in this country. If overseas travel isn’t part of your summer plans, consider spending some vacation time in one of the US National Parks. You’ll be glad you did.

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10 Responses to “5 US National Park Experiences for Summer Travel”

  1. 1
    Catalina says:

    I love the photo of the Quinault Rainforest — it looks mysterious and magical. (I watch too many movies ;) I’m not much of a swimmer, but I would also love to test my luck at rafting through the Grand Canyon. Great tips for summer fun with the family!

  2. 2

    Olympic NP and Lake Quinault is a family favorite! Looks like I’ve done 3-5 on this list…better get cracking!

  3. 3

    Aside from the fact that this is an amazing post of places I never new existed in our country – I just realized that I used to work with your incredibly lovely husband! Small world!

  4. 4

    Wow Jen — your site is phenomenal. We’re planning to travel up the California coast this summer stopping along the way until we reach San Francisco. I’m going to have to surf your site to see your recommendations. xo

  5. 5
    Jamie says:

    wow, beautiful spots!
    That Alaska cruise looks like so much fun. I get sea sick and I’m determined to figure out some sort of treatment so I can hop on a boat when I’m in Alaska!

  6. 6
    Allison says:

    Our family loves the national parks and we often include them in our vacation plans. If you have kids, most national parks offer free Junior Ranger programs geared toward children between the ages of 5 and 12. Get a booklet from the ranger desk at the beginning of your visit and then return when the activities are complete to be sworn in as a Junior Ranger and receive a souvenir gold badge. Also, the national parks are offering several free entrance days in 2012. Some of them are this week, April 21-29, which makes visiting the parks even more affordable.

  7. 7
    Caryn B says:

    First, the photos are stunning. And some of those places are definitely on my bucket list!

  8. 8

    You have the best travel guides. I love reading this site!

  9. 9
    Jeremy Branham says:

    What a great post for National Parks Week! I grew up in SC and never hiked the Appalachian Trail! Lots of great options for this. I just shared my experience at Muir Woods exploring the Redwoods. This week has really inspired me to get out and do more outdoors.

  10. 10
    AnitaMac says:

    Oh dear – I haven’t been to any – better get cracking! Love the diversity on offer out there – from Glaciers to Volcanos – that’s awesome!

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