The only thing better than adventuring in one of America's national parks is doing so for free. And, it just so happens that as part of the annual National Park Week, put on by the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation, admission to our country's wilderness areas and historic sites will be on the house this weekend. Many parks will even offer free entrance for the entire week's festivities, which run from April 19-27.
To celebrate, lots of national parks are putting on special events, ranging from jam sessions to history lessons to wildlife tours. We sifted through the packed schedule so you don't have to, highlighting both events special to National Park Week and recurring ones that sound nothing short of awesome.
Muir Woods National Monument, California
We can hear you grumbling that everyone knows Muir Woods. But quit your complaining because the national monument is putting on special events for National Park Week that you won't want to miss. As part of an appreciation for the forest, rangers will host discussions, poetry readings, and a scavenger hunt through the groves of ancient redwoods, located a stone's throw away from San Francisco. Afterwards, explore the forest's extensive network of hiking paths, ranging from basic to grueling, for a day of gorgeous fun. We suggest the Lost Trail.
Details: April 20 and May 4, 10:30 to 11:45 a.m.
Best Photography Destination
History Exhibit: The Amazing Kolb Brothers
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Photographers have been flocking to national parks since before the government even created the NPS nearly 100 years ago in 1916. And although nothing beats seeing places like the Grand Canyon with your own eyes, images by photographers such as the Kolbs have come close. In 1904, brothers Ellsworth and Emery built a photo studio at the Bright Angel Trail trailhead on the South Rim, snapping pictures of hikers and mule caravans descending into the canyon, and developing prints before their subjects returned to the rim. And forget GoPros; in 1912 these guys filmed a river trip through the canyon, capturing video footage of what was the eighth-ever successful journey down the river. The exhibit displays stories and photographs in their historic studio. We won't judge you if you step outside to snap some shots of your own with your iPhone's panorama feature, but we can hear the Kolbs laughing from their graves.
Details: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., exhibit extends through September 7
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
If the bright lights and smog of the Strip have got you down, venture a few hours from Sin City for a truly majestic trek through Great Basin National Park. Situated near the Utah-Nevada border, and about equidistant from Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, the park is a must for any outdoor enthusiast. After a long day of hiking, backpacking, or biking, head over to the visitor center for the park's "Dark Rangers" astronomy program, where rangers lead talks and help visitors study the stars with telescopes. The buzzing of slot machines has never sounded so unappealing.
Details: April 19 and 26, May 3, at 7:30 p.m.
Best Local Grub
Countryside Farmers' Market at Old Trail School
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a well-known birdwatching destination and will be putting on a special NPW event on April 19 to search for yellow-throated warblers. For $12 a head, visitors can also take scenic railroad rides through the valley. But, because we often put our bellies first at Outside, we're most excited by the park's farmers' market, which will be held for final time this spring on April 19. Stop by the Old Trail School for fresh produce, sustainably raised meets, fresh eggs, and baked goods all sourced from within 75 miles of the park. You hear that sound? It's your stomach growling.
Details: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Bicycle Tour of Stones River National Battlefield
Stones River National Battlefield, Tennessee
Inject your workout with a healthy dose of history and beauty with this ranger-led bike ride through Tennessee's Stones River National Battlefield. About 30 miles outside of Nashville, the battlefield is the site of an important Union victory that took place on New Year's Day 1863, where nearly 3,000 soldiers lost their lives. Limited to 15 participants, the five-mile ride lasts about an hour and makes stops at notable spots for ranger explanations.
Details: Saturdays until October, meet at the vistor center at 8:45 a.m.
Best Spooky Cave
Gap Cave Tours
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park; Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia
Don't say we didn't warn you; this tour of the Gap Cave might be one of the spookiest adventures available in a national park. But, the cave's beauty is well worth a mild case of the heebie-jeebies. The 1.5-mile walk leads park visitors through impressive geologic formations including stalagmites, stalactites, and flowstone. Don't be surprised if a bat swoops by your head or a cave salamander slithers over your boots. Once you're out of the cave's confines, enjoy blooming Appalachian flowers including the yellow wood sorrel, violet liverwort, and pink lady slipper on the park's NPW-only weekend wildflower hike.
Details: Saturdays and Sundays until November, twice a day (10 a.m. and 2 p.m.), $8 for adults and $4 for children on top of park fees, reservations suggested
Best "On This Day In History"
The British Redcoat
Minute Man National Historical Park, Massachusetts
It just so happens that National Park Week kicks off on the 239th anniversary of the famous Battles of Lexington and Concord that sparked the American Revolution, now commemorated as Patriot's Day. To celebrate this special double whammy, Minute Man National Historical Park, located about a half hour outside of Boston, will put on a series of special events. Arrive early on April 19 for a 5:45 a.m. 21 gun salute, and stay all day for events ranging from a performance of period music by the 1st Michigan Colonial Fife and Drum Corps to meticulously researched reenactments. Return the next day for lessons about how the Redcoats retaliated and how rebels at the Barrett House Farm prepared to march into battle. You'd better wear red, white, and blue.
Details: events occur throughout April 19 and 20
Best Nature Walk
Earth Week Campfire, Reptile Program, and Night Hike
Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Georgia
Bring the family along for this special night of fun along the Chattahoochee River, about half an hour north of Atlanta. To kick off their week long celebration of Earth Day, park rangers will put on a series of events, including a stroll along the Three Forks Creek, lessons by naturalists about native fauna, and tips about protecting the environment. Visitors will receive free journals with wildlife lists and paw prints, and should come hungry; the staff roasts marshmallows.
Details: April 19, from 7 to 10 p.m.
Best "That's Sick" Event
Historic Weapons Demonstration
Castillo De San Marcos National Monument, Florida
Do you feel stifled on silent bird tours? Do you think national parks are best served with a side of brazen violence? For a change of pace from typical nature-revering events, get down to Florida's Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, for an 18th-century weapons demonstration. Rangers and volunteers will show off period weaponry and explain how colonial Spanish soldiers used them in 1740s St. Augustine. Don't forget your earplugs.
Details: Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through the end of the year; occurs at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m.
Best Literary Event
Walk: Thoreau Beach Walk
Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
"Awe-inspiring." You hear that term a lot when people describe national parks, but who exactly was getting inspired? The park system recognizes many of America's artistic and literary luminaries, and this walk along the beaches that inspired one of the country's great naturalists won't disappoint. Connect with Henry David Thoreau by strolling along the beaches, marshes, and ponds that inspired him, dotted with lighthouses and wild cranberry bogs. "My life is a stroll upon the beach," Thoreau wrote, "as near to the ocean's edge as I can go." Well put, good sir.
Details: April 22 and 29, 10 to 11 a.m., meet in the Coast Guard Beach parking lot
Surf Fishing Clinic
Gateway National Recreation Area; New York, New Jersey
Anglers can enjoy our national parks, too. Escape Brooklyn's concrete jungle for exclusive fishing lessons offered at Staten Island's Gateway National Recreation Area. Park rangers will accomodate aspiring fishermen (and women) of all skill levels and ages as they hone their skills in the shadows of skyscrapers. Plus, all visitors need to bring is a lunch; the park will provide rods, reels, and tackle. You might want to double-check the subway's policies about transporting raw fish, though.
Details: April 19 at 8 a.m., call 732-291-0055 for reservations
Best Cultural Event
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana
The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve feels a little bit like the national park Saturday Night Live's Stefon would recommend if he were an outdoorsman, because it has everything. Civil War buffs will enjoy the park's coverage of the Battle of New Orleans, while nature enthusiasts can stroll along the wetlands or take boat tours on the bayou. But we're there for the classic New Orleans culture. You can sit in with local musicians for a Cajun jam from 5:30 to 7 p.m. every Monday until the end of June, or come to special folklife demonstrations on April 19 or 26. The folklife events, which take place the the park's cultural center, features cooking tips and fresh food from local chef Jordy Carrier, as well as quilting lessons and dancing lessons.
Details: April 19 and 26, 1 to 5 p.m.
Best Jam Sesh
Back Porch Old Time Music
Great Smoky Mountains National Park; North Carolina, Tennessee
Few styles of American music are as idiosyncratic and distinctive as the folk tunes native to the Appalachians‚ and now you can get in on the fun. Bring your acoustic instruments down to the back porch of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor center to join in a jam session with park rangers and other park visitors. Whether you're a beginner or Marcus Mumford-level virtuoso, the event welcomes you to bring your chops, also encouraging non-musical people to come out and enjoy some good tunes in one of America's most gorgeous spots.
Details: April 19, May 3, May 17; 1 to 3 p.m.
Best Service Project
Stewardship at the Summit
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Park rangers participate in a proud lineage of public service, so consider devoting part of National Park Week to volunteer work. One of the many opportunities that catches our eye is a one-mile hike put on by the staff at the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, where volunteers will help protect the aina, local lingo for "land"‚ by chopping the invasive himalayan ginger that grows over some of the park's trails. If you're going to do service work, it doesn't get much cooler than this three-hour excursion into the Kilauea caldera down the Halem'auma'u trail. And hey, because the event ends at noon you'll still have time to meet your friends for an afternoon of surfing.
Details: April 23 and 30; May 9, 17, 23, 30; June 6, 13, 20, 27