The Magnificent Seven
Glacier National Park
Where Everyone Goes: They should issue elephant tails at the Apgar Visitor Center, so circuslike is the chain of rigs journeying along the park's primary roadway, the Going-to-the-Sun Road between Lake McDonald and St. Mary. The average visitor never ventures more than 15 feet off this spectacular, 51.2-mile north-south glorified trail over Logan Pass. It's easy to see why: The roadway provides a year's worth of extraordinary mountain scenery in one three-hour trip, and really is the best (and only) way to sample all of Glacier's magnificence in a single day. Needless to say, most campgrounds and trailheads along the route are jammed from June through August. Like it or not, the drive is a must: Follow the hordes to the summit of 6,680-foot Logan Pass, where a boardwalk-covered trail leads 1.5 miles over alpine meadows, crossing the Continental Divide, to a grand vista of Hidden Lake. Few places in North America offer as much alpine splendor less than an hour from the car.
Out There: Your strategy is simple: Bring the Subaru, not a Winnebago, and treat the Going-to-the-Sun Road as a means, not an end. There are relatively untrammeled areas on the far west, north, and east borders of the park, two of which can be reached without ever even setting foot on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
A good example: The Polebridge area on the park's northwest side. From Apgar near the main park entrance, Camas and North Fork roads (rough gravel for a good portion of the distance; annoying, but a grand RV eliminator) lead to Polebridge and two of the loneliest campgrounds in Glacier, Kintla Lake and Bowman Lake (no reservations). Both are tent-camping domains set on fjordlike lakes in the North Fork Flathead River drainage, with excellent nearby day hiking, canoeing, fishing, and backpacking. Kintla Lake, in particular, is a hidden gem. The lower campground is small (13 sites) and unimpressive, but you can hike up to a separate backcountry camp at the head of the lake (6.3 mostly flat miles), an ideal family destination (snare a free backcountry permit at the Apgar Visitor Center). Great next-day hikes from there include the family-friendly jaunt to Upper Kintla Lake (2.7 miles), fairly level and good for kids age seven and up, and the long, steep haul (stronger, older kids only) to spectacular Boulder Pass (8.7 miles). Kintla Lake is Glacier's best canoeing/kayaking venue. Paddlers can easily make the journey from the campground to the upper-lake backcountry camp in a day. Warning: Mosquitoes are relentless here in midsummer.
A less primitive, more crowded alternative on the east side is Two Medicine Lake, the only major area without overnight lodging. The large Two Medicine campground can be a zoo in midsummer, but it's worth investing half a day to fight for a spot. Once in, many days of nearby exploring await. A quaint old tour boat--always a hit with the kids--journeys up Two Medicine Lake several times a day, allowing memorable hikes to Upper Two Medicine Lake (an easy, 4.5-mile round-trip to a stunning primitive campground with a one-night limit). There's good trout fishing here; rent rowboats, small outboards, and canoes through Glacier Park Boat Company (406-257-2426).
For a two- or three-day backpack easy enough for the whole family, end your obligatory Going-to-the-Sun adventure at St. Mary, near Glacier's northeast border. Stop for a night at Rising Sun or St. Mary Campground, then get up early for a trek up the nearby Red Eagle Lake Trail. Unlike most Glacier hikes, this one goes around--not up--the park's spectacular peaks. Total elevation gain on the 7.7-mile walk to nice campsites at the lake is 300 feet, so even kids as young as seven or eight will be able to handle it. Get an overnight permit at the St. Mary Visitor Center.
Resources: For campground and backcountry permit information, call 406-888-7800. Rent camping gear from Rising Sun Outdoor Adventures; 406-892-2602 summers, 406-862-5934 off-season. Helpful guides include the Glacier section of Lonely Planet's Rocky Mountain States USA ($21.95) and Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes
National Park (The Mountaineers Books, $14.95). For information and reservations at the park's lodges and inns, call 602-207-6000.
Banff/Jasper National Parks
Fear not: Visitors arriving even slightly off-season--or stubborn midsummer tourists willing to hoof it or paddle a few extra miles--can still find moments of mountain bliss in Canada's first and still-best national park.
Where Everyone Goes: In and out of the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, Ralph Lauren, the Body Shop, and Joe Btfsplk's Diner in the town--okay, city--of Banff; up to Lake Louise for an afternoon, then up and down the 143-mile-long Icefields Parkway to Jasper, scurrying to get back for a tee-time or teatime at the Banff Springs Hotel. That's actually not such a bad road map for the less-rushed, more-adventurous traveler: Crowded or not, the Icefields Parkway (93 North) 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. And with only a small amount of map-squinting and pit-sweating, the same Parkway pavement leads to lands where the Greyhounds don't roam.
Out there: Bring your boots. In general, the woods get lonely even several miles off the pavement here. In the town of Banff, smart summer campers avoid the main campground (Banff's Tunnel Mountain) and head for the outskirts.
Johnston Canyon Campground, a half-hour northwest on the winding, scenic Bow Valley Parkway, is more private and laid-back, particularly for tent-campers. It's a great family spot: Day-trip possibilities include a mostly boardwalked hike up Johnston Canyon (easy for all ages) and pick-a-length cycle trips in either direction up the scenic Bow Valley Parkway. Watch out: Traffic is usually heavy here in summer, but the speed limit is low (about 25 to 40 miles per hour throughout), shoulders are ample in most places, and the pullout lunch spots offer magnificent views of the Bow River and a dozen surrounding peaks. Keep an eye out for elk, bears, and wolves along the riverbank.
Two hours north along the Icefields Parkway, tour buses stack up by the hundreds at the Icefield Centre, and most RVs herd into nearby Wilcox Creek Campground. Slip right between them into the Icefield Campground (22 spots, pit toilets, tents only!). This is a stunning spot, with a view across the valley to Athabasca and Andromeda, two 12,000-foot-plus glacier-capped peaks at the edge of the Columbia Icefield. But this campsite's true beauty is hidden behind it, where a series of short-but-steep way-trails lead up the ridge and connect with the Wilcox Pass Trail (best for older kids, age 12 and up).
Although this trail is within sight of the main highway, it's one of the most rewarding day hikes in Jasper, with herds of bighorn sheep on the ridgeline just above the campground, and views across the valley. Families with younger children can start at the official Wilcox Pass Trailhead a half-mile south on Icefields Parkway, which bypasses the steep way-trails above Icefield Campground.
Farther north around Jasper townsite, avoid the well-worn tourist path between Whistlers Campground and Maligne Lake by taking a daylong bike-and-paddle trip to Patricia and Pyramid lakes. Park in Jasper and set off by mountain bike on Pyramid Lake Road (rentals are available at Freewheel Cycle on Patricia Street in the center of town). It's 4.2 miles (mostly uphill, but not steep) on a paved, lightly-traveled road to Patricia Lake, where several easy hiking trails skirt the aspen-dotted shoreline.
Continue on to Pyramid Lake and the Pyramid Lake Resort (403-852-4900), where there are rental canoes and rowboats. Strong paddlers can circumnavigate the lake in an hour or two, but even newbies can paddle the mile or so to the small island connected by a footbridge to the east shore. Watch for elk (numerous) and moose (rare) on the downhill bike ride back.
Resources: For general information, call 403-762-1550. The main number of Jasper National Park is 403-852-6162.
Yellowstone National Park
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. (Echinus Geyser in the Norris Basin, about 30 miles north of Old Faithful, is less crowded and almost as reliable, spewing to 80-foot heights about once an hour). Hit the road before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. to avoid the heaviest traffic. For a more informed view of the must-see wonders along the Grand Loop, hire naturalist Ken Sinay of Northern Rockies Natural History, a kid-savvy guide who can deliver the goods on your megafauna wish list from a touring van equipped with spotting scopes and binoculars ($120 per person for a family of four for a full day).
Out There: Take a couple of days to navigate the Grand Loop, then light out for the wilderness. The Yellowstone Institute organizes three-day outings for families with children six and older. Naturalists lead wolf prowls ($142 a day for adults; $79 for kids 16 and under) from June 21-23 from the Pebble Creek or Slough Creek campgrounds in the northeast corner. From July 7-9, a horsepack trip in the Hellroaring Creek region near the north-central boundary takes in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone ($600 per person).
Children eight and older can take on the undemanding but scenic Cascade Lake Trail, a fairly level 16-plus-mile route that arcs west from Canyon Village through forests and across meadows to four backcountry lakes. Limit the first day to a three-mile hike into Cascade Lake. On day two, hike up 9,397-foot Observation Peak (six miles round-trip) for panoramas of central Yellowstone before settling in at Grebe Lake (another 3.7 miles), well-stocked with rainbows and whitefish. You could also go a mile farther west to Wolf Lake and 3.7 miles to Ice Lake before returning.
Backcountry-bound families with anglers age six and older can arrange a "drop camp" at Slough Creek or Pebble Creek. An outfitter escorts you on horseback along an easy two-hour trail ride up Slough Creek, sets up a fully equipped tent camp, then rides out with the horses. After a few days of superb catch-and-release fly-fishing, the wrangler returns to lead you out.
If your children are old enough to walk three to six fairly level miles a day (eight or older), consider a llama trek through the backcountry. Children will enjoy a customized five-night trek with Llamas of the Yellowstone (406-587-2661) from Old Faithful southwest to roadless Bechler country, aka Cascade Corner, where numerous waterfalls spill off the Pitchstone and Madison plateaus.
Relax hike-hardened muscles by "hot-potting"--soaking in the stretches of the Bechler River, its Ferris and Gregg forks, and other streams warmed by the region's 400-plus hot springs. A naturalist accompanies each trek, and one evening a buckskin-clad "mountain man" (actually a biologist), carrying an unloaded long rifle and a bundle of furs, drops by the camp to jaw about the park's colorful natural and human history. Bechler country works best in late summer, when it's drier and less buggy.
Canoeing or kayaking in the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake is a "dream trip." Hire a motorboat to take you and your canoe from Bridge Bay Marina across the lake for a drop-off at The Promontory (about $80). From there, paddle eight leisurely miles down the sheltered Southeast Arm, stopping at shoreline campsites. From the safety of your canoe you can watch grizzlies fishing for cutthroat trout at the mouths of spawning streams. Return to The Promontory for your prearranged pick-up (another $80).
Resources: Northern Rockies Natural History (406-586-1155) prepares personalized Yellowstone itineraries. Call the Yellowstone Institute at 307-344-2294. Request a backcountry travel planner from the Backcountry Office (307-344-7381). To set up a canoeing trip, contact AmFac Parks and Resorts, Inc. (307-344-7311).
Yosemite National Park
Where Everybody Goes: This Rhode Island-size park contains wilderness on an operatic scale, so it's only natural that the crowds are epic, 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. At Yosemite Falls, buses disgorge polyglot herds that dutifully shuffle to the base of the cataract. But you could also 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. Another front-country must-see: the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, south of Yosemite Valley.
Out There: Head northwest to Crane Flat and the Yosemite Institute, a nonprofit extension of the Park Service that focuses on education. Groups of 12 or more can stay in their simple but comfortable dorms (about $55 per person per night) and eat family-style breakfast and dinner in the dining hall. Naturalists lead your group on wildflower walks in Tuolumne Meadows, sequoia strolls in the Tuolumne Grove, and short hikes from Glacier Point Road to the cliff's edge at Taft Point, where you can peer down into the valley 3,000 feet below. The institute also customizes backpack itineraries, obtains permits, and provides drop-offs and pick-ups. One family-friendly three-day outing: Hike from Tuolumne Mea-dows up Lyell Canyon, set up a base camp near Ireland Creek, and hike up to Ireland Lake.
The park is a good place to introduce your kids to the joys of granite grappling. The Yosemite Mountaineering School has two locations; the Tuolumne Meadows setup is less crowded and cooler (as in temperature, not social acceptability) than the one in Yosemite Valley. Kids 12 and up can climb if accompanied by a lesson-taking parent; otherwise, the minimum age is 14. By the end of the first class, even tyros tackle 60-foot climbs. Full-day lessons for groups of three or more are $65 per person for beginners, $80 per person for intermediates.
For backcountry luxury, stay at the five High Sierra Camps pitched eight to ten miles apart along a roughly circular 50-mile trail (about $90 per person per day; minimum age is seven). Each camp has 10 to 24 tent cabins with four beds and wood-burning stoves. The cabins are same-sex, so families may not be able to bunk together. Breakfast and dinner are served in the dining hall, where trail lunches also are prepared. Beds are reserved by lottery, so improve your odds by being flexible about dates. You could also pitch your tent near a camp and drop by for breakfast and dinner ($26.28 a day for two meals).
You can ride from camp to camp with horsepack outfitters (minimum age seven; four-day trips, $562 per person; six days, $886). Try the four-day, 35-mile North Loop (see spectacular White Cascade and Waterwheel Falls) or the South Loop (36 miles) to see rock formations.
Resources: For general information, call 209-372-0264. Call 209-252-4848 for reservations at the park's roofed facilities. For campground reservations, call Destinet at 800-436-7275. Call Yosemite Institute at 209-379-9511. To reach the Yosemite Mountaineering School, call 209-372-8344. Call the High Sierra Camps (209-253-5674) from Oct. 15-Nov. 30; the lottery is usually held
in January, and camp reservations are due by the first week of December.
Grand Canyon National Park
Where Everyone Goes: Ninety percent head for Grand Canyon Village, the mini-metropolis on the South Rim. Sedentary folks ride the shuttle bus along West Rim Drive to the eight orthodox viewpoints, then retire to the air-conditioned IMAX Theatre just outside the park border where, for $7.50 a pop ($4.50 for kids 4 to 11), they tour the inner canyon for 30 minutes without that annoying heat, dust, and sweat. For the moderately ambulatory, there's the stroll along the 2.7-mile paved section of the Rim Trail, or even a day hike partway down into the canyon along the well-maintained South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails. The hike to the canyon floor is 13.8 miles round- trip via the South Kaibab, 19.6 miles via the Bright Angel--out of the question for the vast majority of canyon visitors. Mule rides below the rim are a Grand Canyon tradition; there's no minimum age, but riders must be at least four-foot-seven.
Out There: Your best strategy is to head either up there--to the North Rim--or way down there, into the depths of the canyon itself. The higher, cooler North Rim usually is buried in snow through April, while the canyon floor is insufferably--even dangerously--hot in July and August.
The North Rim, site of the rustic Grand Canyon Lodge and a large campground, still has the feel of a remote deadend outpost, which it is. The Widforss Trail, which winds five miles through pine forest to a spectacular overlook, is a fine all-day hike for active kids age ten and up. Teenagers may want to try the more challenging 9.4-mile round-trip hike down the North Kaibab Trail where the halfway point is the waterfall at Roaring Springs.
Overnighting below the rim requires meticulous planning done well in advance. The limited number of backcountry permits and campsites--as well as rooms and meals at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor--are typically booked up months ahead. An alternative is the Grand Canyon Field Institute, which offers a number of guided overnight trips below the rim. A six-day backpack trip (September 7-12, for kids 14 and up) into phantasmagoric Havasu Canyon ($295 per person, BYO food) includes visits with the Havasupai Indians. GCFI also customizes backpacking trips and llama treks for groups of six or more.
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, 1-5 p.m. MST only. Call the River Permits Office at 520-638-7843. To make campground reservations, call 800-365-2267. Call AmFac Parks and Resorts, Inc. to book reservations for rim lodges and Phantom Ranch, mule rides, and
smooth-water rafting trips at 303-297-2757. Reach the Field Institute at 520-638-2485. Outdoors Unlimited (800-637-7238) runs raft trips on the Colorado River; call 520-638-7843 for permits. Pick up a copy of the Official Hiking Guide to the Grand Canyon, published by the Grand Canyon Association ($11.95; 800-858-2808).
Acadia National Park
Where Everybody Goes: Acadia draws almost as many visitors as Yosemite, more than 20 times its size. The vast majority congregate in a daily summer gridlock along the 20-mile Park Loop Road, peering from their car windows at attractions such as Thunder Hole, a seaside rock formation that booms and hisses under certain wave and tide conditions; Sand Beach, where the bold and/or foolhardy swim in 54-degree water; and Jordan Pond, where you can take tea on the lawn of the historic inn, the Jordan Pond House. Cadillac Mountain, a 1,530-foot knob of granite overlooking the Porcupine Islands, is a traditional spot for sunset-viewing.
Out There: "Backcountry" is not a term that applies to Acadia. No place in the park is more than three miles from a road, and the two main campgrounds are set up for cars and RVs, not hikers. Overnight backpacking is prohibited. But since most Acadia visitors are tethered to their cars, it's surprisingly easy to escape them during the day. One way is a bike excursion along the 45-mile network of car-free carriage roads, most of which wind through the forest south and west of Eagle Lake. The broken-stone roads are wide, smooth, and graded gently enough for an eight-year-old on a one-speed BMX. To avoid the Eagle Lake crush, head for the 4.5-mile Hadlock Brook Loop, which crosses three ornate stone bridges and skims the shore of Upper Hadlock Pond. Rent mountain bikes for $10 to $16 a day at Acadia Bike and Canoe in Bar Harbor. In the Western Mountain section of the park, the 1.5-mile hiking trail from Seal Cove Pond to the top of 1,071-foot Bernard Mountain, suitable for kids as young as six, cuts across broad granite ledges and has sweeping views of Blue Hill Bay. Older kids may prefer the two-mile round-trip Perpendicular Trail up nearby Mansell Mountain.
Isle au Haut is a remote section of the park on a small island 16 miles by boat southwest of Mount Desert. Take the 55-minute ferry ride from Stonington ( round-trip, $20 for adults; $10 under 12). If you don't have time to cover all 17 miles of hiking trails, be sure to take the Goat Trail, which winds for a mile along the southern coastline atop cliffs and past tide pools. Isle au Haut's five lean-to camping shelters ($25 permit fee; reservations request forms accepted after March 31) are just steps away from a summer ferry stop at Duck Harbor.
Resources: Call Acadia Park Headquarters at 207-288-3338; for Mount Desert Island campground reservations call 800-365-2267. For Isle au Haut campground reservations 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.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The cape of white that inspires the name isn't smoke but fog and clouds, forever swirling and shifting among the tightly woven forests and valleys and peaks that turn purple at sunset. Families love the Smokies because of the countless places to picnic and fish, summits to scale, old homesteads to explore, and stunning views around every turn.
Where Everyone Goes: The two-lane, 32-mile Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) cuts north to south through the heart of the park and crosses the mountains, connecting the two gateways. On summer weekends, driving is frightfully slow, and the vapors you experience won't be fog but exhaust. Still, every family must drive the road to reach 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 on the western side of the Smokies, 25 miles off Newfound Gap Road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Come to Cades Cove on Wednesday or Saturday mornings and rent bicycles; until 10 a.m., the 11-mile, scenic Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to motor vehicles.
Other popular stops include Sugarlands Visitor Center on the northern edge of the park, which has pioneer exhibits, and the Pioneer Farmstead, with the remains of primitive farm buildings set among wildflower meadows on the southern border of the park.
Out There: Start your day early to enjoy the overlooks and walkways in solitude. Later in the day, veer off the main roads, searching out remote trails that curl through the park. Trails to try: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (off U.S. 441, about four miles south of Gatlinburg), a paved, five-mile loop through forested hills, with numbered roadside stops including an 1865 log cabin and a waterfall called "The Place of a Thousand Drips."
At night, stay in one of the park's many remote campgrounds (ten of them are developed). On the eastern rim of the park, Cataloochee Campground was once the Smokies's biggest settlement but is now just wilderness, pale green flatlands, and ridges, with last century's farmsteads, churches, and schoolhouses tucked into the valleys.
Ten-mile Cove Creek Road is the easiest way to Cataloochee Campground (no reservations, so arrive mid-week; campsites are full on weekends), though more than half the drive is over gravel. Kids like the Boogerman Trail, a 6.5-mile trek that forms a loop with the Caldwell Fork Trail through poplar and hemlock forest into an enclosed cove. Along the way you'll see vestiges of pioneer farms. There are shorter, easier trails, suitable for children three to seven, including a self-guided nature trail. And there's Cataloochee Creek, with some of the best trout fishing in the park.
Southwest of Cataloochee, off Balsam Mountain Road, Balsam Mountain Campground (no reservations) has the Smokies's highest camping, 5,310 feet up, and is wonderfully cool on midsummer nights. It also offers one of the park's premier hikes: the 2.6-mile (one-way) Flat Creek Trail, with its grassy carpets of ridge forest, a double waterfall, and myriad stream crossings, begins just south of the campground.
Also off the main road, Cosby Campground (no reservations; in the northeast corner of the park, two miles south of the town of Cosby) has a self-guided nature trail great for kids three and older. Teens can try the 5.3-mile (one-way) Snake Den Ridge Trail and its views of waterfalls.
The park has one lodge, LeConte Lodge, in the north-central section of the park atop Mount Le Conte, accessible only via a fairly rugged 5.5-mile hike (one way) suitable for kids 12 and over. From the trail you'll see boulders improbably hinged on bluff walls, streams dotted with stepping stones, and black bears nosing around for handouts. Take the shortest route, the Alum Cave Trail (along Newfound Gap Road, 8.6 miles east of the Sugarlands Visitor Center) and climb 6,593 feet to find the lodge's hand-hewn cabins and outhouses (think rustic) set on Mount LeConte, the Smokies's third-highest mountain.
The bad news: LeConte Lodge books up a year in advance; reservations are taken every October 1 for the following season. However, cancellations are common, so keep calling and be flexible with your dates. Nightly rates are $66.50 per adult and $58.50 per child four to ten (11 and older pay the adult rate), including breakfast and dinner; accommodations are rooms or private cabins.
If LeConte is full, try Fontana Village (off North Carolina 28 just outside the park's western edge), a family tradition since 1947. Parents and kids can play together or apart; there's horseback riding, mountain biking, canoeing, crafts workshops, nightly dances, and bonfires. You can book a motel room, rustic cabin, or contemporary two- or three-bedroom condo ($79-$189).
Resources: The park's main number is 423-436-1200, but it's a maddening, automated line. You're better off stopping at one of the visitors centers--Oconaluftee, Sugarlands, or Cades Cove--which have excellent maps and volumes on park pursuits. Reach LeConte Lodge at 423-429-5704, and Fontana Village at 800-849-2258. Especially helpful: Mountain Roads
& Quiet Places ($8.95) and Hiking Trails of the Smokies ($16.95), both published by the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association. Three of the park's ten campgrounds take reservations for mid-May through October stays; call 423-436-1226 or Destinet at 800-365-2267.