National Pastimes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Park Places, Summer 1998

National Pastimes

A visit to these parks is right up there with baseball, hot dogs, and the Fourth of July


National Pastimes
A visit to these parks is right up there with baseball, hot dogs, and the Fourth of July

Six Great Unsung Parks
Lesser-known marvels that lack nothing in beauty

Here's looking at you, kids

Yosemite National Park

Gateways: Two are on the west side: Arch Rock Entrance is reached via California 140 and Big Oak Flat Entrance on California 120. California 41 enters the park at the South Entrance. From the northeast, Highway 120 climbs to the Tioga Pass Entrance. Annual visitors: 4 million. Annual overnight visitors: 2 million.

Last year was the park's annus horribilis. The 1997 New Year's Day flood shut down the sanctuary until March 14 — the longest closure in Yosemite's 107-year history. Raging torrents inundated 550 acres of Yosemite Valley meadows, permanently washed out hundreds of campsites, and eroded miles of roadways. The floods also delayed plans to establish a family education camp in the Valley. When the park reopened, entrance fees quadrupled from $5 per car for a seven-day pass to $20, provoking much grumbling from gateway communities. Then in October the park terminated its contract with the company handling campground reservations; more grumbling followed. Now, the good news: In September the park completed a $3.2-million facelift of Glacier Point lookout, one of the most dramatic viewpoints in America, with vistas of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, waterfalls, and the High Sierra. The badly trampled lookout was replanted with native species and a 150-seat granite amphitheater was built for interpretive programs. Where everybody goes: This Rhode Island-size park attracts major crowds, especially in mile-wide Yosemite Valley. But first-timers shouldn't miss out on exploring the seven-mile-long valley; beat the traffic on a daybreak drive around the steep-walled granite corridor to see El Capitan and other national treasures. You can take a bus (departing twice daily from all hotels in the Valley) to Glacier
Point, 3,200 feet above the valley floor, then hike eight miles back down on the Panorama Trail past seldom-seen 370-foot Illilouette Fall. Out there: The nonprofit Yosemite Association conducts three-day family trips suitable for kids six and older in Yosemite Valley (June 26-28 and August 14-16) and at Tuolumne Meadows (August 28-30); rates are $165 for adults and $70 for ages 6-12, camping included (hotel rooms available for an extra charge). Naturalists lead groups (13 people maximum) to explore caves, learn Miwok Indian legends, scale a waterfall, and hike to Sentinel Dome. Children six to 12 who can handle about four miles of hiking a day will enjoy the association's family backpack trip from Tuolumne Meadows to Sunrise Lakes and Cathedral Pass July 29 to August 2 (adults, $190; ages 6-12, $95).

Families based at Tuolumne Meadows can go trout fishing and swimming at Dog Lake, 1.5 miles north, or at the larger of the two Cathedral Lakes, four miles south. Entry-level hydrologists stroll along a flat one-mile trail in the middle of the meadows to a naturally carbonated mineral spring. Lembert Dome, one of the High Sierra's odd granite monoliths, is just a 1.4-mile hike northwest and offers panoramas of the meadows from its pocked, bald summit.

If your children are seven or older with riding experience, you can join Tuolumne Meadows Stables (209-372-8427) for outings of two hours ($35), a half day ($45), or a full day ($67). Guests ride mules; wranglers get horses. Experienced riding families can customize drop camps to more remote locations ($66 per person per day for saddle or pack animals; $132 a day for guides).

North of Tioga Road is backpacker heaven, so you'll probably have to share drop camps with other wilderness parties. If the flood-damaged Wawona Stables is open for the summer of 1998, you can dodge backcountry congestion in the southwestern corner of the park with a guided five-day trail ride that loops between Johnson, Royal Arch, Buena Vista, and Chilnualna lakes. The trip requires a maximum of six hours' riding per day, but usually far less.

Resources: For general information, call 209-372-0264. Call 209-252-4848 for reservations at the park's roofed facilities. No new campground reservations are being accepted until the park has another system in place, possibly by the spring of 1998. Until then, campsites will be first-come, first-served. Reservations for summer wilderness permits may be made 24 weeks in advance by phone (209-372-0740) and by mail (Wilderness Permits, Box 545, Yosemite, CA, 95389). — David Dunbar

Shooting Stars
Picture this: Everyone, including your cranky, hungry two-year-old, actually wants to participate in this year's family vacation photographs. Why? Because this time, everyone, including your cranky, hungry two-year-old, is taking the photographs. Instead of having mom or dad as the sole photojournalist, why not arm all hands and eyes with cameras?

Before your trip, stock up on disposable cameras — enough so that each child has a camera for each day of the trip — and mini photo albums (the kind that hold one photo per page). Let the kids shoot whatever they want — the undersides of boulders, butterflies in motion, marshmallows aflame. (Be prepared for an occasional tantrum, however, when Billy has spent his wad within 15 minutes while Sarah still has half a roll left at dinnertime.) When you get to a town, drop your film at a one-hour developer while you stock up on t-shirts. Later, let the kids "edit" their work, then help them assemble their albums. A best-case scenario: Your kids suddenly grasp the concept of a temporal experience, thereby learning moderation, patience, and the sometimes brutal reality of the fleetingness of time. A more realistic scenario: They have a good time, and you get a couple of cool snapshots out of the deal. — Susan Scandrett

Grand Canyon National Park

Gateways: South Rim: U.S. 180, 78 miles north from Flagstaff; or Arizona 64, 57 miles west from the junction with U.S. 89. North Rim: Arizona 67, 42 miles south from Jacob Lake. Annual visitors: 5.1 million. Annual overnight visitors: unknown.

"Aw, c'mon Dad, it's just a big hole in the ground." Those words were actually spoken by a nine-year-old friend of mine in response to his parents' attempts to cajole him out of the car and away from his Game Boy for a five-second glance at the Grand Canyon. Despite all entreaties, he refused to budge. Looking back on the incident, older and wiser at 13, he now regrets his ennui, which he attributes to immaturity. "The pictures I've seen are awesome."

For whatever reason, the Grand Canyon, despite its crowds, air pollution, and incessant buzzing of sightseeing planes, still has the power to astonish even the most jaded kid — if only you can persuade him to get out of the car. It may be just a hole in the ground, but the Grand Canyon remains the biggest, baddest hole in the ground anywhere on the planet. Cool. Where everybody goes: Nine out of ten visitors agglomerate in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, a mini-metropolis of motels, restaurants, gift shops, parking lots, and asphalt "trails" to eight orthodox view points. (To the Park Service's credit, it is now further limiting private vehicle access to West Rim Drive; if you want to hike down the popular South Kaibab Trail this summer, you'll have to ride a shuttle bus to the trailhead.) If your kids are getting cranky from the heat, head for the IMAX Theater, just outside the park border. For $7.75 a pop ($5.50 for kids 3-11) you'll get a half hour of air conditioning, not to mention a film tour of the inner canyon on a really big screen. Mule rides below the rim are a Grand Canyon family tradition, but an expensive one: $107 per person for a one-day ride. There's no minimum age, but riders must be at least 4 feet 7 inches tall. Out there: Hard to get to but worth the effort, the North Rim has the rustic Grand Canyon Lodge and a large campground. In 1998, the Grand Canyon Field Institute is offering a four-day North Rim hiking program for families with kids ages 16 and up. You'll take easy and moderate day hikes along the rim with an expert on the area's geology, ecology, and human history. More strenuous below-the-rim hikes are optional. Programs start June 17, August 26, and September 16. The $195 price includes daily activities only.

Day-hike outings range from the quarter-mile stroll to Bright Angel Point to the 9.4-mile round-trip below the rim to Roaring Springs via the North Kaibab Trail. Mule rides are also available on the North Rim. The Grand Canyon Field Institute offers scheduled outings below and along both rims, and can customize backpacking and llama trips for groups. Starting in 1998, GCFI's popular six-day backpacking trip into Havasu Canyon — $325 per person, BYO food — now has a minimum age of 16. Also new this summer is Western Spirit Cycling's fully supported five-day biking trip along the South Rim ($795 per adult; $495 for kids under 16; call 800-845-2453).

Due to the limited number of accommodations and backcountry permits, overnighting below the rim requires meticulous advance planning. Rooms at Phantom Ranch, the sole outpost of civilization on the canyon floor, are booked up many months in advance, as are below-the-rim campsites. Midsummer camping in the inner canyon is a serious proposition, recommended only for older kids with backcountry experience and well-prepared parents. Several people die from heat and dehydration in the park every summer, and their deaths have spurred a "Heat Kills" educational program in which visitors are asked to voluntarily limit their midday hiking. Resources: Call Park Headquarters at 520-638-7888. Call the Backcountry Office (camping permits, $20 plus $4 per person per night) at 520-638-7875, 8-12 a.m. and 1-5 p.m. MST only. For campground reservations, call 800-365-2267. AmFac Parks and Resorts (303-297-2757) books rim lodges, Phantom Ranch, mule rides, and smooth-water rafting trips. Call the Grand Canyon Field Institute at 520-638-2485. The Official Hiking Guide to the Grand Canyon ($11.95) is published by the Grand Canyon Association (800-858-2808). — David Noland

Glacier National Park

Gateways: Whitefish/Columbia Falls, Montana, on U.S. 2 to Apgar Visitor Center, and St. Mary Visitor Center on U.S. 89 from the east. Annual visitors: 1.7 million. Annual overnight visitors: 359,000.

When the ice melts on Going-to-the-Sun Road, summer in Montana's Glacier National Park will be pretty much the same as usual: crowded to the point of annoyance, but magnificent to the point of awesome. Glacier, 1,584 square miles of sheer cliffs on the U.S.-Canadian border, is a place to get lost in the crowd and lost in the wilderness all at once. An added thrill — or fright, depending on one's wild-beast tolerance quotient — is the one-in-a-half-million chance you'll run into one of Glacier's most infamous inhabitants, a grizzly bear. Not likely, actually. Many, many more people drown in park rivers and lakes than meet their ultimate fate in the claws of a griz'. But just knowing you could see one somehow makes every trail corner and campsite search all the more exciting.

Where everybody goes: The average visitor never ventures more than 15 feet off Going-to-the-Sun Road between Lake McDonald and St. Mary, a spectacular, 51.2-mile north-south glorified trail over Logan Pass. The roadway is the best (and only) way to sample all of Glacier's magnificence in a single day; as a result, most campgrounds and trailheads along the route are jammed from June through August. Out there: Head for the corners. Those who venture off the Going-to-the-Sun Road will find relative solace in the park's lonelier outposts, such as the Polebridge area on the park's northwest side or the Two Medicine Lake area on the east side.

A good (and by this we mean paved) alternative to those, one that gets you "out there" but never far from an overnight lodge should that center tent pole finally give way, is the Many Glacier region near the park's northeast boundary. Get there by following Going-to-the-Sun northeast, then taking U.S. 89 North at the St. Mary entrance for eight miles to Many Glacier Road, which leads east into some of Glacier's most eye-pleasing wilderness. The road runs 12 miles along long, glacier-carved Sherburne Lake to Many Glacier Campground and the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (double rooms, $73-$85; cottage rooms, $40-$60) and Many Glacier Hotel (doubles, $99-$181), tucked between majestic peaks on either side of Swiftcurrent Lake. Both properties allow kids 11 and under to stay free in the room with their parents.

You can set out from here on some of Glacier's finer hiking paths, including the Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier trails, both of which are moderate, eight- to ten-mile round-trip hikes that begin near the end of Many Glacier Road, near Swiftcurrent Picnic Area. The Grinnell Glacier Trail (a bit more difficult) is a magnificent summer showcase, climbing beyond Swiftcurrent and Josephine lakes through a series of alpine meadows to one of the park's most easily accessible active glaciers. Hint: It's three-fourths of a mile shorter each way if you take the boat from the Many Glacier Hotel to the head of Swiftcurrent Lake. Equally impressive is the Iceberg Lake Trail, which passes by a lovely waterfall on its way to aqua-blue Iceberg Lake, where namesake ice chunks usually bob well into the summer. Watch meadow areas for grizzlies on both of these trails. They're common here, and one or more trails in the Many Glacier area might be closed if they're on the prowl.

Another, foot-friendlier option: Hoof it on horseback. Many of the alpine haunts around Many Glacier can be visited on horseback, with one-hour rides to overnight trips available at the Many Glacier Corral. Resources: For campground and backcountry permit information, contact Glacier National Park at 406-888-7800. Glacier's better-than-average official website (http://www. is rife with good planning tips. For reservations at any of the park's half-dozen swanky lodges and inns, call 406-226-5551 from May to September, 602-207-6000 off-season. — Ron C. Judd

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Gateways: Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina, and Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Annual visitors: 9,965,074. Annual overnight visitors: 472,800.

The Smokies experience, unlike the Grand Canyon, is not about seeing a single phenomenon. It's more a gradual, Jungian journey through blue-gray mountains, whispering streams, and plateaus inhabited by foggy ghosts. Extraordinary views wait around every bend in the road, water thunders down walls of granite, shoulder-high wildflowers hum with the sound of crickets. Kids especially love the pioneer coves with old log cabins and bike trails, and the visitor centers where they can prowl through rooms of Cherokee and logger artifacts and taxidermied animals. More than 800 miles of hiking trails, including 70 along the Appalachian Trail, take families into the moist richness of the Smokies, where it rains more than anywhere else in the southeastern United States — nearly 90 inches annually in the high forests. Where everybody goes: On the "Big Three" roads: Newfound Gap, Little River, and Cades Cove Loop. Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) makes a two-lane, 32-mile cut across the heart of the park, connecting its two gateways. Little River Road angles 25 miles west off Newfound Gap on the north side of the park, delivering drivers to Cades Cove Loop Road. On summer weekends traffic crawls along, fraught with exhaust fumes and anxious drivers. Still, every family should take these routes, for along them await some of the Smokies' premier sights. Newfound Gap Road is the way to 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome (from Newfound Gap Road, a quarter mile south of the Tennessee line, turn onto Clingmans Dome Road), the highest point in the Smokies. Just as popular is Cades Cove, a near-flat hamlet of early-1800s hewn log and simple wood homes. Cades Cove Loop Road circles 11 miles, and on Wednesday and Saturday mornings is closed to motor vehicles until 10 a.m. — perfect times for family biking.

Out there: Scheduled to reopen in late spring 1998 after floods closed it in 1994, Parson Branch Road is a graveled-over wagon trail running eight miles one way from Cades Cove Loop Road to U.S. 129. The road's single rugged lane lets families get close to primeval forest riddled with waterfalls and streams. Most days, you won't see another car.

From U.S. 129, make your way just outside the park's western border to Foothills Parkway, another lonesome scenic drive. For 17 miles you ride the narrow crest of Chilhowee Mountain, looking across a sweep of Smokies and the knob of Clingmans Dome looming to the southeast. There's remote camping along the parkway at cool and breezy Look Rock Campground, with 68 paved sites that some years never fill up. But nearby Abrams Creek Campground does, so come Monday through Thursday to get your pick of 16 gravel campsites.

On the park's south side near Bryson City, Deep Creek Campground is much bigger, with 108 developed sites, and it's rarely full. It's set along brisk streams with waterfalls and smooth rock outcroppings. Kids here can choose from three trails, all less than a mile round-trip, that lead to waterfalls.

Families especially enjoy Cataloochee Ranch (on Fie Top Road, three miles off U.S. 19), located on 1,000 acres on a mountain above Maggie Valley about 35 minutes from Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The former sheep and cattle farm is now a family-style compound where you can hike, fish for trout, and ride horses. There's a historic ranch house (it sleeps two to four people) and newer lodge (six units sleep two to eight), but families usually go for the 12 cabins (each sleeps two to eight) that have refrigerators, fireplaces, and porches (some have kitchenettes). Rates including breakfast and dinner are $130-$275 for two adults, $60 for kids 13-17, $50 for kids 6-12, and free for under six. Resources: The park's main number is 423-436-1200, but it's a maddening, automated line. Instead stop at one of the three visitor centers — Oconaluftee, Sugarlands, or Cades Cove, which have excellent maps and books. Call Cataloochee Ranch at 800-868-1401. Three of the park's ten campgrounds — Smokemont, Elkmont and Cades Cove — require reservations mid-May through October; call 800-365-2267. — Stacy Ritz

Acadia National Park

Gateways: Mount Desert Island: On Maine 3, 20 miles south from Ellsworth. Isle au Haut: Four miles by ferry from Stonington. Schoodic Peninsula: on Maine 186, about ten miles south from West Gouldsboro. Annual visitors: 2.7 million. Annual overnight visitors: 154,000.

In the late 1800s, the wealthy elite of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston built their summer estates on Mount Desert Island, a remote rocky enclave of spruce forests, lakes, pink granite peaks, and rugged sea cliffs just off the coast of downeast Maine. But soon after the turn of the century, the threat of development by the hoi polloi inspired the Rockefellers and their pals to donate their holdings to create the core of the first national park east of the Mississippi. Acadia is still quintessentially Eastern in character: compact, crowded, civilized, and tightly regulated. (The newest regulations, to go into effect this summer, will rein in rock climbers a bit.) Acadia is by no means a wilderness; in fact, half a dozen seaside villages and numerous private landholdings are scattered throughout the park. Most visitors are drawn as much by the antique shops and B&Bs of Bar Harbor as by the bears, blueberries, lobsters, and loons of the park itself. Where everybody goes: Acadia suffers from a high-season Park Loop Traffic Hell rivaling even pre-flood Yosemite — not surprising, considering that the 36,000-acre park draws nearly as many visitors as Yosemite, yet has only five percent of its area. The 20-mile loop takes the sedentary gawk-out-the-window crowd past such tidy ten-minute attractions as Thunder Hole, a seaside rock formation that rumbles and burbles under certain wave and tide conditions; Jordan Pond, where you can take tea and popovers on the lawn of the Jordan Pond House; and Sand Beach. (OK, so it's just a sandy beach. But in Maine, a beach without rocks is worthy of both a special name and a stop on the Park Loop.) Every summer evening there's more gridlock on the road up Cadillac Mountain, a 1,530-foot granite nob where hundreds congregate for ritual viewing of the sunset — like Key West without the margaritas. Out there: To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there's no out there out there. No place in Acadia is more than three miles from a road, and overnight backpacking is prohibited. The two main "campgrounds" are essentially rustic RV parks. But since most Acadia visitors are reluctant to stray more than a few hundred yards from an internal-combustion engine, it's easy to escape them. Fifteen minutes of pedaling a bike on the park's 45-mile network of carriage roads will get you well clear of the crowds around Eagle Lake. Head for the uncrowded 5.2-mile Amphitheatre Loop, which winds through deep evergreen forest and crosses two ornate stone bridges. Bikes can be rented for $10-$16 a day at Acadia Bike and Canoe in Bar Harbor. Semi-fat tires are recommended for the crushed-stone surface, but don't worry about gears; the roads are gently graded. For family hikes, the easy 1.7-mile Parkman Mountain Trail has great views of the Cranberry Isles. If the kids are still feeling frisky, continue 1.2 miles along the occasionally steep trail to Sargent Mountain, the park's second-highest peak at 1,373 feet. Rock climbers head for Otter Cliffs, a series of 60-foot cracks and faces directly above the crashing waves of the Atlantic. Routes range from 5.4 on up. For beginner and kid-friendly climbing routes, head for the higher but gentler cliffs at South Bubble. Starting this summer, all climbers must register, and in certain areas new routes may not be put up without park approval.

If you seek still more remote corners of Acadia, take the 55-minute ferry ride from Stonington to Isle au Haut, a small island outpost 16 miles southwest of Mount Desert. Five lean-to camping shelters are the park's only vehicle-free overnight spots. (Permits are $25; apply for summer reservations as soon as possible on or after April 1.) Seventeen miles of hiking trails wind along sea cliffs and past tidal pools swarming with the kind of wiggly, slimy stuff that keeps kids entertained for hours.

Resources: Call Acadia Park headquarters at 207-288-3338 for information on Mount Desert Island campgrounds. For Isle au Haut campground reservation forms, call 207-288-3338; for Isle au Haut ferry schedule and information, call 207-367-5193. Contact Acadia Bike and Canoe at 207-288-9605 and Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School at 207-288-8186. — D. N.

Yellowstone National Park

Gateways: In Montana, U.S. 20 leads to the West Entrance, U.S. 89 goes to the North Entrance, and U.S. 212 heads to the Northeast Entrance. In Wyoming, U.S. 14/16/20 goes to the East Entrance and U.S. 89/191/287 leads to the South Entrance. Annual visitors: 3 million. Annual overnight visitors: about 2 million.

This 2.2-million-acre park, which occupies the northwestern corner of Wyoming and spills over into Idaho and Montana, is huge and impressive no matter how many national parks you've seen. There are mountains, canyons, rivers, lakes, and more than 10,000 weird geothermal features — spewing geysers, burping mud pots, steaming hot springs. There's also the greatest concentration of wildlife in the Lower 48: bison, moose, elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, and bighorn sheep. The wolf population, which was jump-started in 1995-96 with 31 imports, now tops 90. "Wolf groupies" have registered increased sightings in the past few years in the Lamar Valley, especially in spring but also in midsummer. With the addition of the wolf, Yellowstone now has within its borders every species of animal that was there when the park was founded in 1872.

Where everybody goes: The park's five entrances funnel motorists onto the Grand Loop Road, which twists and turns for 142 miles through the heart of Yellowstone, passing attractions like the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Mammoth Hot Springs, and, yes, Old Faithful. Hit the road before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. to avoid the heaviest traffic. Out there: Families should spend a little time along the Grand Loop, stopping for the Junior Ranger Program ($2 per child) in which ranger trainees ages five to seven learn to imitate birdsongs and trace their hands over wolf paw prints in an activity newspaper. Children eight to 12 keep journals, study animal tracks, and work on mapmaking skills.

Once you're ready to light out for the wilderness, try the Pitchstone Plateau/ Union Falls trails in the southwestern corner of the park. It's a good six- or seven-day backpacking trip for ages 12 and up. From the trailhead two miles south of Lewis Falls on the South Entrance Road, the route climbs steeply, then more gradually for 5.5 miles as it ascends the Pitchstone Plateau, an immense dome of solidified lava flow. Skirt the steam vents and mudpots of the Phantom Fumarole, then overnight at a backcountry campsite near a cold-water spring where elk and mule deer congregate. Day two is a 12-mile hike, mostly downhill, through volcanic rock outcrops and grasslands where bison, elk, and deer graze in summer. The trail descends the plateau as it heads southwest toward Cascade Corner. Camp at the junction of the Pitchstone Plateau/Union Falls trails. The next day, hike about six miles northwest over a pair of ridges to spectacular Union Falls, at 250 feet the second-highest cascade in Yellowstone. Stay overnight at the campsite downstream from the falls, then retrace your steps. Prime time is August, when the trails dry out and the mosquitoes disperse.

For an easier five- or six-day backcountry camping experience, launch the family canoe on Lewis Lake. Paddle north about four hours, with a stop to look at the hot springs along the western shore, then go three miles up the Lewis River in the company of moose and bald eagles to wilderness campsites along the southern shore of Shoshone Lake. Ambitious crews can continue seven miles along the shoreline to the Shoshone Geyser Basin at the western end of the lake, one of Yellowstone's most spectacular backcountry thermal areas. A nearby backcountry campsite has room for up to eight people. From there, head back east and follow the Lewis River to Lewis Lake.

A great adventure for families with children ages eight and older is a five- or six-day horseback outing with Wilderness Connection (800-285-5482) to the remote, unheralded northwest corner of the park. There's great fishing for brown and rainbow trout in the headwaters of the Gallatin River and for cutthroats in Fan Creek, High Lake, and Sportsman Lake. Resources: Northern Rockies Natural History (406-586-1155) prepares personalized Yellowstone itineraries. Do-it-yourselfers can request a Backcountry Trip Planner from the Backcountry Office (307-344-7381). To set up a canoe trip, call AmFac Parks and Resorts (307-344-7901). — D. D.

Banff/Jasper National Parks, Alberta

Gateway: Calgary, Alberta, 80 miles east of Banff. Annual visitors: 5 million. Annual overnight visitors: Unknown.

Driving directions from New York: Head north to the border and proceed west until you're choking on tour-bus fumes. But don't let all that diesel smoke choke the life out of your family adventure in the land first opened by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. You might not realize it if you stick close to the highways and train tracks, but these two big, occasionally bad, always crowded Canadian national parks really do contain some of the loneliest places — and cleanest air — in populated North America. Banff, in particular, illustrates the paradox of national-park life near the dawn of a new century. In the past 75 years, Banff townsite has ballooned from a sleepy mountain railroad stopover to a major international tourist destination (definition: it has its own Body Shop). Today, if not for the occasional elk strutting its antlers up main street, the place would feel more like Toronto than the outback. Where everybody goes: In and out of the Cave and Basin National Historic Site; the town of Banff; up to Lake Louise for an afternoon, then up and down the 143-mile-long Icefields Parkway to Jasper. Crowded or not, the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) truly is one of the most magnificent drives on the planet, with a dizzying series of 10,000-foot-plus glacier-draped peaks on either side. Out there: The Three-Mile Rule dictates that even in the most tour-bus infested national park, truly good stuff can be found three miles in any direction from any Parks Canada gift shop. One example: The Valley of the Ten Peaks, one of Banff's most magnificent day hikes, lies a short drive from tourist-trap Lake Louise, but only a fraction of the park's millions of summer visitors ever make it there. Families staying at Banff or Lake Louise lodgings — or better yet, at Tunnel Mountain or Johnston Canyon campgrounds — can make a short drive and embark on the Valley trail at the Moraine Lake Trailhead. It's a steep, steady 1.5-mile climb (kids six or seven can probably handle it) through forest to Larch Valley, a magnificent alpine parkland. Stronger hikers (kids at least 12) can continue to 8,566-foot Sentinel Pass, 3.5 miles and 2,379 feet above the Moraine Lake Trailhead.

Another example: The Wilcox Pass Trail (a moderate five-mile round-trip) hugs the border between Banff and Jasper national parks and leads to some of the most stunning alpine terrain in either park, yet rarely gets noticed by tourists flocking to the nearby Icefield Centre. The Centre has a relief model of the Columbia Icefield and a three-dimensional exhibit of a glacier. But you can see the real thing from the ridgeline on the way to Wilcox Pass, where the view across the valley to Mounts Athabasca and Andromeda, two 12,000-foot-plus glacier-capped peaks, is unforgettable. Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep here. The trailhead is on Icefields Parkway, a half-mile south of another little-known treasure, the 22-site (tents only) Icefield Campground.

Visitors to Jasper townsite at the north end of this two-park complex can break free from the crowds by taking a memorable daylong bike-and-paddle trip to Patricia and Pyramid lakes. Park in Jasper and set off by bike (rentals are available at shops such as Freewheel Cycle on Patricia Street in the center of town). It's 4.2 miles (mostly uphill, but not steep) on a paved but relatively lightly traveled road to Patricia Lake, where several easy hiking trails skirt the aspen-dotted shoreline. Less than a mile farther is larger Pyramid Lake, where 9,027-foot Pyramid Peak is a spectacular backdrop to a scenic lakeside lunch spot. Continue around the lake to Pyramid Lake Resort, where a fleet of rental canoes, kayaks, and rowboats awaits. Watch for elk and the occasional moose in the woods on the downhill bike ride back to town. Resources: Call Banff National Park at 403-762-1550 or Jasper National Park at 403-852-6161. — R. C. J.

Copyright 1998, Outside magazine

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!