Park It Right

Play hard by day at these nine classic national parks, then ditch the franks 'n' beans by night and live large outside the boundaries

NEW MONEY IS COMING to the national parks. This year, with the surprising support of George W. Bush, the Park Service's budget increased by a record $110 million. Longer-term, the Centennial Initiative, a challenge from Dubya—the national parks' new enthusiast-in-chief—could add up to $3 billion to Park Service funding between now and 2016, when the system turns 100.

In anticipation of so much green stuff and, probably, of visits from people who possess more of it, many of the parks and nearby amenities are spiffing up. Hotels with 400-thread-count sheets are taking over where motels once reigned. Sommeliers are shouldering aside docents. Elegance is returning to the national-park system.

But what about those of us who still plan to sweat and grunt up rock-strewn trails, who want to wallow in the essential wildness of the parks? Can we luxuriate in high style without losing touch with our Ed Abbey side? The answer is yes, if you choose wisely. Pick the right parks and the right accommodations (within day-trip range) and you can combine strenuous adventure with plasma-screen TVs. And why not? As the president himself might say, there are nothing greater than our national parks.

Acadia

Maine

Acadia National Park, Maine
Biking in Acadia (courtesy, NPS)

More than a quarter of the craggy seafront and piney hills of 35,000-acre Acadia was bequeathed to the publicbetween 1935 and 1960 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., a man who knew how to live—and what to do with his property afterwards.

Park Action
Ride like a robber baron on 45 miles of hard-packed dirt carriage roads cut more than a generation ago on Mount Desert Island; some of the steepest, most scenic, and least visited trails are to the west of Eagle Lake. The 11-mile Around Mountain Loop, with views out to sea, is a local favorite. Find rental mountain bikes ($21 per day), maps, and sound advice at Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop. barharborbike.com

Where to Stay
The shingle-style Peregrine Lodge, recently built in Northeast Harbor and minutes from Acadia, eschews the chintz and communal pancakes (breakfast is at a restaurant down the street). Large groups can rent the entire six-room inn, which includes a full kitchen and balconies opening to the harbor air. Doubles and suites, $215–$325; maisonsuisse.com/peregrine-lodge.html

Where to Eat
Since it opened in 1999, Havana, with an eclectic wine list and entrées like fresh tuna doused in Thai-dragon-oil-and-guajillo sauce, has been Bar Harbor's hottest restaurant. havanamaine.com

Extra Credit
As rollicking—and déclassé—as it sounds, Carmen Verandah, on Main Street in Bar Harbor, romps with live music after 9:30 p.m. on weekends and has billiards, dancing, and the Atlantic Brewing Company's latest on tap every day. carmenverandah.com

Grand Teton and Yellowstone

Wyoming, Montana, Idaho

Amangani Resort in Jackson, Wyoming
Indoor and outdoor soaking at Jackson's Amangani (courtesy, Amangani Resort)

Yellowstone was our first national park, and in the eyes of many—with all those white-capped mountains, wandering wolves, and, not least, Old Faithful—is still champion. But neighbor Grand Teton comes darn close.

Park Action
Trek in the tracks of wolves on custom llama-packing trips into Yellowstone and wildlife-viewing trips in both parks. Itineraries vary, but often center on the Daly Creek section of northwestern Yellowstone, with a day hike up Big Horn Peak. The shaggy camelids carry your gear (but not you), and, unless sorely provoked, they don't spit. Yellowstone Llamas, $220;yellowstonesafari.com/safaris/llamas.html

Where to Stay
The impressive, stone-and-redwood Amangani resort is set high on a cliffside about eight miles from Jackson Hole ski area, with stunning views of the Tetons. The only Aman property in the United States, it shares with its overseas brethren exorbitant rates for exorbitant luxury. After a day of hiking or climbing, soak in a deluxe tub looking out at the mountains and think of all those staying elsewhere in the valley, far, far below. Suites, $565–$1,680; amanresorts.com

Where to Eat
The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort pumped $10 million into the new Couloir restaurant, at the top of the Bridger Gondola. Open since June, with a chef poached from the local Four Seasons, it has views of Corbet's Couloir and perhaps the best seafood in the Teton range. jacksonhole.com

Extra Credit
Be sure to drop into SoBo ("South of Broadway"), reputed to be Jackson's most happening art scene, anchored by the hip Lyndsay McCandless Contemporary gallery (lmcontemporary.com) and the galleries and performance spaces at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts (jhcenterforthearts.org).

Canyonlands

Utah

Rafting in Canyonlands
Whitewater rafting in Canyonlands (courtesy, NPS)

The ur-western red-rock landscape of cinema, myth, and postcard, Canyonlands is southern Utah's most famous park but nowhere near its most popular. Its neighbor, Arches National Park, sees far more visitors. Good.

Park Action
Raft down a gorgeous section of the Colorado River, putting in above Cataract Canyon and floating for a hundred miles, stopping along quiet stretches in Canyonlands to hike in the park. On the second day, you hit the rapids of the Big Drops. Four-day trips, $945; six-day ranch-and-river trips, beginning with two days at the Sorrel River Ranch, $1,620; westernriver.com

Where to Stay
Upmarket ranch decor, claw-foot soaking tubs, pillow-top mattresses, gaudy views of the peppermint-stick cliffs of the Professor Valley, and a gazebo with a private room for couples Swedish massage are a few of the amenities of the Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa, about 20 miles from Moab. Canyonlands and Arches are both less than an hour away. Doubles and suites, $279–$389; sorrelriver.com

Where to Eat
The Desert Bistro, in a historic ranch house at the north end of Moab, serves up piñon-crusted chicken breast and smoked elk tenderloin wrapped in bacon. desertbistro.com

Extra Credit
Pick up a bottle at Spanish Valley Vineyards, five miles south of Moab off Highway 191, and stick around for free afternoon tastings, including its award-winning cabernet. moab-utah.com/spanishvalleywinery

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Colorado

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado
Tomichi Point in Black Canyon (courtesy, NPS/Lisa Lynch)

With gushing whitewater and plunging snaggletoothed cliffs, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is remote and geologically dramatic. It's crowded only in June, during the salmon fly hatch, when fishermen grab all the backcountry permits.

Park Action
Scramble into the canyon. You won't find marked trails, but routes exist. "They're all steep, loose, and strenuous," says park ranger Heather Boothe. One of the easier is S.O.B. Draw, which begins just west of the north-rim campground; allow five hours for the almost-four-mile in-and-out. Wear long sleeves and pants; poison ivy along the river grows to a mutant five feet. Free backcountry permit required; nps.gov/blca/planyourvisit/hikinginnercanyon.htm

Where to Stay
Ninety miles and a quantum degree of refinement from the Black Canyon, the new, boutiquey Crested Butte Retreat offers suites with fireplaces, hot tubs on private balconies, a state-of-the-art entertainment center in the great room, and enormous views of Crested Butte Mountain (and, less stirringly, of the Crested Butte ski resort's parking lot). The entire lodge, with five rooms and five suites, can be rented for $1,750, breakfast included. Doubles and suites, $190–$495; crestedbutteretreat.com

Where to Eat
Emulsions and demi-glazes on a sturdy base of game and beef make Timberline Restaurant, in downtown Crested Butte, as haute as central Colorado gets. The wine list is long, with plenty to like in the $30–$40 range, and a few to lust after for $300-plus. timberlinerestaurant.com

Extra Credit
We cringe at the water usage, but the Devil's Thumb Golf Club, in Delta, has the prettiest godforsaken public course in the West. Tucked up against the massive Grand Mesa, 35 miles north of Black Canyon, the emerald course wanders through mud-gray high desert, with the blue peaks of the San Juans to the south. Green fees, $35–$42; deltagolf.org

Golden Gate

California

Golden Gate National Park, California
Golden Gate Bridge (Photodisc)

A city park on a grand and wild scale, the 114-square-mile Golden Gate National Parks run up and down the coastline for about 60 miles near San Francisco, hopscotching around private land and incorporating several islands, including infamous Alcatraz.

Park Action
The recently completed, shoreside Crissy Field bike path begins in the Presidio and rolls across that iconic bridge to the Marin Headlands. Fat-tire riders should turn right there, following multiple dirt tracks along the ridgelines. Skinny-tire types can head left, up Conzelman Road to the 673-foot crest of Hawk Hill. Phenomenal views, serious workout. Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals and Tours, with five locations in the city, rents high-end road bikes ($48–$68 per day) and provides ferry tickets. blazingsaddles.com

Where to Stay
Opening this May on green, rippling parkland at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito is Cavallo Point: The Lodge at the Golden Gate. The staff is already organizing environmental conferences and programs, many in conjunction with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The 142-room hotel's elegant physical plan incorporates restored 19th-century colonial revival buildings—with the tin ceilings, crown moldings, fireplaces, and wood floors intact. Suites, $300–$600; cavallopoint.com

Where to Eat
One-year-old Ubuntu Restaurant and Yoga Studio, in Napa, 50 miles from Cavallo Point, is the only place you can chase Cauliflower Three Ways in a Cast Iron Pot with a Yoga for Athletes class ($18 for drop-ins). The veggies are organic, primarily from the restaurant's gardens. ubuntunapa.com

Extra Credit
This fall, the California Academy of Sciences returns from temporary digs to its home in Golden Gate Park, massively expanded into a state-of-the-art $484 million architectural wonder. Almost two million plants will sprout on the living roof, and the charismatic penguins and 38,000 other museum animals will get spacious new exhibits, as will the big-nose unicornfish. calacademy.org

Mesa Verde

Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde’s legacy (Corbis)

Charged with protecting the human past as well as the physical landscape, Mesa Verde contains cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people, in a sweeping high-desert setting in which all the doings of man can seem ephemeral.

Park Action
Tours to Mesa Verde's cliff houses are rewarding but can be overrun in summer. Get cultural immersion without the crowding next door at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, where mountain bikers can follow a mounted Ute guide up a lonesome dirt road to a series of Pueblo home sites, the farthest of which demands scrambling up and down high wooden ladders. Reservations and a Ute guide are required, with a minimum of five riders. $44 per person; utemountainute.com

Where to Stay
Near Hesperus, a half- hour from Mesa Verde, the Blue Lake Ranch bed-and-breakfast sits on about 200 acres, much of it planted with kaleidoscopic native flowers. Accommodations are spread across the property, with the Cottage in the Woods and Cabin on the Lake offering the most solitude. All come with exquisite breakfasts and squatter's rights to Adirondack chairs by the resort's trout pond, with the toothy La Plata Mountains in the background. Doubles and suites, $135–$375; bluelakeranch.com

Where to Eat
The wizards at Durango's East by Southwest craft some of the most imaginative sushi in the West. Go for the Kamikaze (barbecued eel), Spyder (soft-shell crab), and one of 30 types of sake. eastbysouthwest.com

Extra Credit
Zoom through stands of tall ponderosa pines and aspen on a zip-line course in the wild, roadless country between Durango and Silverton. Accessible only from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the zip lines, once reserved for guests of the isolated Tall Timber Resort, are open now to any who relish soaring from platform to platform with the tree-shadowed ground 100 feet below. $329 per person per day; soaringcolorado.com

Everglades

Florida

Everglades National Park, Florida
An alligator in the Everglades (Photodisc)

Almost as aqueous as it is terrestrial, the subtropical, primeval wetlands of the Everglades are heavy with humidity, overhanging mangroves, and very old menace. It's the only place in the U.S. where the alligator and the crocodile coexist.

Park Action
Extend the de rigueur paddle along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, in Everglades National Park, with the new Paradise Coast Blueway, a group of GPS-marked water routes of varying lengths (from an easy afternoon's paddle to multi-day jaunts) that begin at the edge of the Everglades and continue along the coastline into Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and north toward Goodland (by 2009, the trails will continue to Naples). Signage is rare; paddlers follow GPS coordinates on a free Collier County map. Dolphins and manatees are common; other paddlers aren't. paradisecoastblueway.com

Where to Stay
"Minimalist verging on monastic" describes the Aqua Hotel, in South Beach, 90 minutes from Everglades City and one of the park entrances. Trendiness blends with slacker cool: The front desk is made of a surfboard; bedroom furnishings include plastic chairs. Most important, the Aqua sits less than five minutes from the beach, in the heart of South Beach nightlife. Doubles and suites, $175–$300; aquamiami.com

Where to Eat
Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, opened last spring by local celeb chef Michael Schwartz, is ambitious, unpretentious, and one of the city's toughest reservations. Suck up to a concierge or miss out on harissa-spiced black grouper, slow-roasted Berkshire pork shoulder, and the Mayflower Martini, made with smooth Plymouth gin. michaelsgenuine.com

Extra Credit
Catch big air at Crandon Park Beach, a 15-minute drive from South Beach. Kiteboarding lessons, $200 for two hours. southfloridakiteboarding.com

North Cascades

Washington

North Cascades National Park, Washington
Mount Logan from Easy Pass (courtesy, NPS)

With so many knife-edge traverses and white-rimmed vistas, it's the Alps, only in America, and minus the lederhosen. Much better that way.

Park Action
North Cascades Mountain Guides specializes in very private, European-style mountaineering trips; the ideal group size, says Larry Goldie, owner and lead guide, is "one." If you insist, on some climbs the company will take up to four. Trips begin with orientation and instruction, including a half-day of rock climbing, at the headquarters in Mazama, followed, usually the next day, by an alpine ascent of the Beckey Route up 7,680-foot Liberty Bell Mountain or the South Arête of South Early Winter Spire. $250 per person per day; ncmountainguides.com

Where to Stay
The Freestone Inn sits invitingly against a backdrop of cliffs, high pines, and spiky rock spires above the Methow Valley, east of the Cascades. Founded in the 1940s as a string of cabins, the inn today is a zillionaire's idea of a simple ranch retreat, with 21 inn rooms, six lodges with full kitchens, some clustered along a man-made trout lake, and 15 secluded cabins with kitchenettes. At Jack's Hut, a building near the pool that serves as the inn's adventure-concierge-service-cum-supply-store, you can get advice on off-site rock-climbing classes, rent a mountain bike ($35 a day), or sign up for fly-fishing lessons ($95 for two hours). Doubles from $185; freestoneinn.com

Where to Eat
Order the Angus rib eye with jalapeño blue-cheese butter at the Freestone's own restaurant. The menu relies heavily on fresh ingredients grown locally and has a wine list, loaded with Washington and Oregon vintners, to match. 509-996-3906

Extra Credit
Raptors dominate the airspace over the glacial Cascades. Make them share by chartering Catlin Flying Service's five-passenger Piper Cherokee Six and soar above Lake Chelan or through Washington Pass, the snow-tipped peaks and spires of the North Cascades filling the windshield. $350 per hour; catlinflyingservice.com

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