In between rapids along the Flathead River, our whitewater rafting guide Nick asks our group of nine to guess what percentage of visitors to nearby Glacier National Park don't ever venture more than a half a mile away from their car during their stay. I guess 50 percent. Carol says 60 percent. More like ninety percent, he tells us, much to our amazement. Whether he’s 100 percent accurate or not, I find this figure especially hard to believe considering just the day before, I felt like I was sharing one of the park’s most popular hikes, the Avalanche Trail, with half of Montana’s population. It was so crowded (for hiking standards) when we set out on the 4.7 mile loop, that I told Carol and the kids that we were on the Disney Trail, and that we should have gotten a FastPass.
Glacier was, in fact, the sixth national park we would visit during our seven-week cross-country odyssey that begins our around-the-world trip. That’s six of the 58 officially designated national parks in the U.S. No wonder Tyler made the sarcastic comment that America was being overrun by national parks. “Hey, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it?” I told him. But his comment made me wonder. Would this be the impression Tyler takes away from his trip across America, that the country is nothing but beautiful mountains, lakes, landscapes and hiking trails? That wildlife runs wild outside the confines of the New York metropolitan area in which he was raised? Probably not, but as I observed the multitude of other vacationing families accompanying us, I realized that many children are getting the same opportunity to see these magnificent wonders, and I hoped they are getting the full experience, which must involve getting out of the car.
So how do you make the most of your time at a national park during the peak season and with kids in tow? There are certain rules that most seasoned travelers swear by (but often break) when in the throes of a family vacation. Go to the most popular attractions early or late in the day; venture off the beaten path; and allow yourself more time to take everything in. Even though we are traveling for a year, I have to admit we didn't follow every rule every time. But here’s some of the best advice I've gathered after the final leg of our national parks tour.
The Road Less Traveled: If you want a hiking trail to yourself or desire some serenity, don’t go on the one that’s ‘the most popular.’ Inquire about those less traveled and away from the park’s main attractions. Even if that means missing the dramatic waterfall or impressive view, you’ll be much more likely to have an intimate experience with nature if there are fewer people around.
When to Deal with Crowds: Except for hiking, there are activities that are okay to do even with a lot of other people around. Visiting Old Faithful at Yellowstone, for example. Yes, it’s going to be crowded most times of the day, but you don’t need to be alone to appreciate the splendor of a geyser. Besides, there are so many other (more dramatic) geysers and pools to see around the area, that the experience is well worth dealing with, even with crowds.
Less is Not More: You cannot appreciate the splendor of Yellowstone, or most other parks for that matter, in a day and a half. Apply at least a "three-day minimum stay" rule. After all, if you expect to see any significant wildlife, you’ll need time, patience... and some luck.
Book Early: Book up to a year in advance if possible and stay in the park. Most have accommodations within their borders, not just for camping, so try to take advantage of them. They may be far from luxurious, but that’s not why you’re there, at least for most people. This will also allow you to take part in the evening ranger programs, which are terrific and popular with most kids.
Bring Food With You (And Plenty of Water): If you don’t pack a lunch, picnic or even some snacks like trail mix, you’ll spend a lot of time dealing with hungry children, and miss too much of the park. Again, most people don’t visit national parks for fine their dining, so take the time to prepare for food breaks, and you’ll have a much more complete and rewarding day.
As we prepare to leave the States and head out to countries far and wide, I’m sure we’ll look back at our experience here at home with fond memories of seeing brilliant and diverse scenery. We are already looking forward to visiting some of these magnificent places again, and seeing some of the places we missed when we were busy breaking the rules of intelligent travel!
Keep up with the Jensses travels by bookmarking their entries here.
Photos by Rainer Jenss