Off the Beaten Park

Big Fun in 17 National Parks

ONE OF The nation's tiniest national parks—a diminutive 35,500 acres, smaller than any Ted Turner ranch—Acadia National Park ranks second only to Cuyahoga Valley National Park for the dubious distinction of most tourists per square foot: 81.7 annually. However, adventure in Acadia isn't an oxymoron. The park's humpbacked Porcupine Islands are one of the most coveted paddling spots on the planet: Hop in your sea kayak and lose the crowds (most of them, at least).

The Black Guillemot

What's not to love about the black guillemot, a seabird with brilliant red feet that squawks like a bath toy? This raven-size bird with a distinctive white wing patch nests on Long Porcupine Island, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Scan the island's steep ledges for this raucous cousin of the auk and the puffin. A breathtaking treat is watching guillemots dive—they can go as deep as 165 feet—to snag cod and mollusks.

Acadia at dawn

The Porcupines are a collection of four small islands in Frenchman Bay, off the larger Mount Desert Island, where much of Acadia proper is located. While Frenchman Bay can be calmer than the water in most bathtubs, there is lobster-boat traffic to contend with, and the weather here, even in summer, can change at the drop of a spray skirt. When it does, the winds pick up suddenly and the tides get muscular; there's no choice but to find the quickest route possible back to port. These are reasons why a guide is a wise investment, especially for first-timers to Acadia. We threw in with David Legere, a gregarious and thickly accented Maine-iac who owns Aquaterra Adventures. The outfit's dock is right in downtown Bar Harbor, the little town on Mount Desert Island that is most convenient to the Porcupines.
You can easily see all four islands in one day. Burnt Porcupine and Bald Porcupine islands have the most dramatic features—steep ledges, pounding surf, bristling stands of thick spruce and fir. Getting to Burnt Porcupine, 1.25 miles offshore, involves an exposed open-water crossing with potential for extra-choppy seas and strong winds.
Acadia is silly with birds—273 species in all—and from the sound of it, most happily hang out on Long Porcupine. Look for peregrines, ospreys, blue herons, and guillemots. Sheep Porcupine Island hosts an active bald eagle nest—you may spot young eaglets poking out in early summer. In the water, keep an eye peeled for harbor seals and harbor porpoises.
No camping is allowed on the Porcupine Islands. So at day's end, throw the boat on the car, drive 65 miles from Bar Harbor to the fishing town of Stonington, and hop the passenger ferry to Isle au Haut. We like the lean-tos at Duck Harbor Campground, just off the south ferry landing. This 4,000-acre island is the perfect spot to bring your own craft for a second day of low-key island exploration.
THE DETAILS
LODGING – Acadia National Park (207-288-3338, www.nps.gov/acad) allows camping at Duck Harbor campground. The fee is $25 per campsite per night, and a permit is required; call the park or stop by park headquarters, three miles west of Bar Harbor.
OUTFITTER – Aquaterra Adventures (207-288-0007) offers a two-and-a-half-hour paddle around Sheep Porcupine for $37 per person. Kids must be ten or older. Or David Legere will customize an Acadia sea tour for your family (price depends on number of hours).

Montana

Glacier National Park

Grizzly Watch

In the past 100 years, grizzly bears have disappeared from 98 percent of their original range. Glacier National Park is a swath of their shrinking habitat—an estimated 400 bears live in the northern Continental Divide ecosystem, which includes Glacier. A good place to try spotting this threatened species is the park's less-crowded Many Glacier region.

I'd just finished breakfast and was checking out the gift shop at the West Glacier Restaurant ("Family Dining Since 1938") when I bumped into my first bear bells. Were they kidding? There were handhelds (like sleigh bells) for sale, as well as walking sticks with tinkly bells. While bear bells might make charming souvenirs for some of Glacier National Park's 1.8 million annual visitors—only a tiny percentage of whom come anywhere near actually bumping into a bear—I didn't think I'd march my kids down the trail without at least stocking up on pepper spray.
The thing about Glacier is that although it may be bumper to bumper on the famed 52-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which spans the park between Lake McDonald and the town of St. Mary, step out of your car and there's a serious wildernessful of adventures to be had. During a one-week visit last fall, I spent a few action-packed days in West Glacier, then drove across to the less-visited eastern side of the park before looping back on U.S. 2, along the southern boundary. I joined a family field seminar at the Glacier Institute and went mountain biking, rafting, fly-fishing, and horseback riding, but the most exciting thing, in the end, was plain old hiking.
Some 730 miles of maintained trails crisscross the park, all running through country that's spine-tinglingly wild—just knowing that grizzlies are out there makes rounding each bend that much more interesting. It isn't often you find yourself encouraging your kids to be noisier on the trail, but that's what you need to do when you are, frankly, lower on the food chain and don't want to surprise anyone outranking you.
We learned the ins and outs of hiking in Glacier from Bill Schustrom, a retired science teacher who's worked in the park for 30 years and now gives campfire talks. During the summer months he plays the ukulele and sings songs like "Bats Eat Bugs, They Don't Eat People." The chorus, "Nothing in this park / Wants to eat you for a meal / Because if they do / They know how sick they'll feel," cracked us up and calmed our nerves. Another hit was communing with the park's smaller denizens at the Glacier Institute, a nonprofit outdoor-education center that offers family field seminars. Our Teva-clad teacher, Chris Gibson, led us down to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and set up an impromptu classroom before outlining the basics of aquatic insects. "Here's how to tell the difference between insects on the river: A stone fly has two tails and armpit hair. Mayflies have three tails and a hairy butt," he instructed, eliciting giggles from preteens and parents alike. Looking for bugs turned out to be better than it sounds—sort of like a treasure hunt. What you do is crouch along the edge of a stream and turn over stones, looking for anything interesting hanging on. Once you find a live specimen, you shake it into a bucket to examine later under a microscope—and recall that the park has incredible diversity, from tiny stream creatures to large mammals. Glacier is one of the few places in the world, we learned, where all native predators and virtually all their prey still survive in the wild.
Our Glacier game plan was to mix a steady diet of hikes (which my husband and I love) and other outdoor activities with some requisite drives (which are so spectacular that even the kids stayed awake). Thus the field seminar was followed by an afternoon rafting the Middle Fork of the Flathead, ideal for families because it's mostly flat, with a handful of Class III rapids. Another day we rented mountain bikes and cruised the banks of the Middle Fork on deserted trails, then drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road in the sweetest of rides: one of the park's fleet of restored 1936 "Jammer" buses (nicknamed, it's said, for the sound of drivers jamming their gears up and down the highway) with the canvas top rolled back and wool blankets tucked under our chins. Another morning was spent horseback riding before heading up to the Many Glacier region in hopes of spotting a grizzly.
Sure enough, we came across hopeful visitors with spotting scopes trained on two tiny specks that were supposedly bears (they looked like rocks to me). We had given up the search and started back when one of our young companions shouted, "There's a bear!" A hundred yards up the scree field to our left, we saw a hefty, cinnamon-haired griz. It stood sniffing the air for a moment, then lumbered into a patch of huckleberries.
We wondered aloud about the sixty-something couple we'd just watched hike up the same slope. "What's he eating in those bushes?" someone joked, laughing nervously.
Now that we'd encountered this truly wild thing roaming the park, an awestruck hush settled over the group. I thought about the bear talk that Bill, our Jammer driver, had delivered.
"Do you know what to do if we spot a griz? Gather together in a tight circle, and make sure your driver is in the middle!" he'd quipped.
Call me chicken, but I'm with Bill.
THE DETAILS
GETTING THERE – To reach Glacier National Park (406-888-7800, www.nps.gov/glac), fly into Kalispell's Glacier Park International Airport or drive 25 miles from Whitefish, Montana.
LODGING – Glacier Raft Company Cabins (800-235-6781, www.glacierraftco.com) is a half-mile from the park's west entrance. One-bedroom cabins, with log beds, kitchens with Franklin stoves, and front porches, sleep four and cost $195 per night in peak season. Doubles at the historic Glacier Park Lodge (406-892-2525, www.glacierparkinc.com) start at $135 a night. Doubles at The Resort at Glacier's new Great Bear Lodge (800-368-3689, www.glcpark.com) are $170. Along the southern boundary, the Izaak Walton Inn (doubles from $108; 406-888-5700, www.izaakwaltoninn.com), built for railway workers in the 1930s, is a great find—kids will love sleeping in a retrofitted railcar.
OUTFITTERS – Daylong seminars with the Glacier Institute (406-755-1211, www.glacierinstitute.org) cost $30 for adults, $20 for kids. Glacier Raft Company (800-235-6781, www.glacierraftco.com) runs half-day ($40 adult, $30 child) and full-day ($65 adult, $48 child) rafting expeditions on the Flathead. Rent mountain bikes from the Glacier Outdoor Center ($29 per day for adults and $15 per day for kids 12 and under; 800-235-6781). Glacier Wilderness Guides (800-521-7238, www.glacierguides.com) runs top-notch fly-fishing trips on the Middle and North forks of the Flathead (from $225 for two people). For horseback riding outside the park, try Montana Ranch Adventures—their motto is "Real Cowboys Don't Ride Single File" (half-day rides, $65 per person; 888-338-3054, www.montanaranchadventures.com).
FOOD – Don't miss the Two Sisters café (406-732-5535) on U.S. 89, outside Glacier's east entrance, where the ceiling is hung with Elvis memorabilia, and the comfort food (spicy chili, burgers, buttermilk chocolate cake) is surprisingly great.

Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Hellbender

The Smokies are the salamander capital of the world, with more species than any other habitat. Slime-sleuths can seek out the hellbender, which grows up to 25 inches in length. One myth is that its bite is poisonous. Wrong. The beast just appears dangerous. Look for this nighttime creature feeding on crayfish and worms in low-elevation stream bottoms.

The Smokies, true to their moniker

Tennessee's Goshen Prong Trail is so blissfully quiet you can hear twigs snap under your hiking boots and a creek, Goshen Prong, tumbling nearby. The leaves of the old-growth deciduous trees rustle softly; not another trekker is in sight. Ah, solitude. It's only after a smack of open palm to forehead that you remember that this is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most heavily visited of our national parks.
Despite the Smokies' bad rap (a daunting ten million visitors annually), most tourists are car-bound, leaving 512,000 acres of uncongested backcountry for hiking adventures. Vesna Plakanis, who owns the outfitter A Walk in the Woods with her husband, Erik, is a modern-day John Muir of the Smokies—smitten with the park and extremely knowledgeable about its ecology. Let her guide you on a hike; with a gifted naturalist on hand, the park's astounding biodiversity (Great Smoky Mountains National Park is richer in flora and fauna than any other national park) springs to life.
Here's an ideal two-and-a-half-day, 15-mile hike: Ditch the masses as they slog up the paved half-mile Clingmans Dome Trail, atop the park's highest peak (6,643 feet). Instead, take the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. Few people use it, because it's rocky, wet, and overgrown. Tread nimbly and enjoy the dearth of humanity and breathtaking views of North Carolina and Fontana Lake.
Watch for a rock outcropping where this path intersects the Appalachian Trail after a half-mile—look for raptors coasting overhead. While it may be tempting to turn off onto the AT and skip Clingmans Dome, now a third of a mile away, gird yourself for the mob in order to take in the sweeping multistate views.
Then double back to the AT and the ridge that is the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. You'll see beech gaps, grassy balds, and some of the oldest trees east of the Mississippi River. You might also see some of the eccentrics who give the AT its personality. Vesna remembers one toting a large college flag on a mast and another packing his own Porta-Potti.
Go 2.5 miles along the AT and then peel off on the Goshen Prong Trail. A prong is a tributary, and this one is a delightful companion—an Appalachian stream with small cascades. Pitch your tent at backcountry campsite 23 and fall asleep to the sound of water. Next morning, continue northeast on the trail for 3.3 miles to the turnoff at Little River Trail. After about a mile of flat hiking in dense forest, grab the Husky Gap Trail and head north 2.1 miles to the Sugarland Mountain Trail. Campsite 21, ideal for night two, is less than a mile down Sugarland. Your reward: an awesome swimming hole, with a huge slanting rock that serves as a slide. Wake up for a low-key four-miler out on the overlook-rich Sugarland Mountain Trail.
THE DETAILS
LODGING – Great Smoky Mountains National Park (865-436-1200, www.nps.gov/grsm) requires free permits for its 114 backcountry camping sites. Reservations are required for campground 23 but not for campground 21. Call 865- 436-1231 to book.
OUTFITTER – A Walk in the Woods (865-436-8283) leads guided walks starting at $20 per adult and $16 for kids; a guided trip for a family of five runs $250 per night and includes meals and cooking gear.

Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park

Frigate Ahoy!

The Dry Tortugas and a few keys to the east are the only U.S. nesting grounds for the magnificent frigate bird. In its watery domain, the bird is a pirate, stealing most of its food from gulls and shorebirds. And the Darth Vader-esque black bird can glide for hours without a wingbeat—longer than any other avian.

Fort Jefferson

Any fool living in Maine would seize the opportunity to sail with his family in the Florida Keys in November. Any fool, even if his wife, Lisa, was seven months pregnant and had suffered a near-deadly case of bacterial meningitis a week earlier and had been told by her doctors that she absolutely could not leave the state. Even if this were his crew: Helen, age five, a hellcat whose greatest desire is to own a pig; Anabel and Eliza, six-year-old twin acrobats with no understanding of the word no. And even if he'd be guiding a 36-foot sybaritic catamaran 70 miles west of Key West with only a modicum of captaining experience so his family could fulfill his desire to visit Fort Jefferson, a 150-year-old red-brick monolith set on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park that is known mainly for housing Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was serving a life term for helping John Wilkes Booth evade capture.
We're talking the Dry Tortugas. Even its name sounds exotic. It's been a national park for just ten years and is known mostly to sailors and a few tarpon-chasing sportfishermen. Located on a major migratory flyway, the Dry Tortugas are visited by about 300 species of birds in the fall and spring and shelter the only U.S. nesting ground for the magnificent frigate bird. Its angular, six-foot wingspan is easy for young birders to spot as it glides across this collection of seven islands, the least disturbed and southwesternmost outpost of the Florida Keys.
Vibrant, colorful reefs and wrecked ships lie a mere five feet beneath the surface, almost as if they've been placed there for little kids to see more fish than they ever imagined. Even the guy at the charter-boat place agreed: "There's no finer place in Florida for snorkeling," he bragged. "You're gonna love it."
Clearly, we had to visit Dry Tortugas National Park, and so we set out with an itinerary I'd worked on for weeks. We started by traveling to Key West, the closest bit of developed land to the park, to pick up our vacation vessel at Oceanside Marina. It was then, during a precharter talk with Robin Rule, a partner in Southernmost Sailing, that our voyage began to take an unexpected course. She used the p-word. Yachtsmen love to bandy that word about—it's a verbal secret-society handshake and is the antithesis of my very being. But Robin used it, and that was that. "This time of year, with the sun setting so early, it'd be prudent to anchor by 4 p.m. And your plan to reach the Dry Tortugas? Not prudent. Five days isn't enough time. You're here to have fun, and if you bite off more than you can chew, it's no fun." Hmmm.
Five hours later, we were sailing downwind in a rolling sea as blue and blissful as my wife's suddenly sparkling eyes. I'd set my sights on sailing to Boca Grande Key, about 18 miles out to sea, with a few small keys en route. From there it would be an easy two-day sail to Dry Tortugas. We were making seven knots and the skies were clear. Never mind the fact that one of the boat's two 25-horsepower engines—used as backup if we couldn't sail—had quit on us as we motored out of the marina. To hell with it! We were bound for the Dry Tortugas, where kids turned angelic and parents felt at peace. I just needed the right time to tell Lisa.
We reached Boca Grande an hour before sunset, near a curving white beach that disappeared into mangroves. Great white egrets and a Helen-size osprey watched us anchor. A gentle wind whirred in the rigging, and mullets leaped like shimmering Baryshnikovs above the Atlantic's surface. We went ashore in the burnished glow of dusk on the edge of protected land—most of Boca Grande is a wildlife refuge. Stingrays stealthed into the sandy bottom, and the girls learned that sponges aren't really fluorescent rectangles manufactured for washing dishes, but are actual living creatures. Dozens lay washed up on shore; Anabel kept one as a hat.
The next morning we sailed on to the Marquesas Keys, a ring of islands about eight miles west and the only atoll in the Atlantic. My plan was to spend the afternoon there, snorkeling above a shipwreck, and then head across to the Dry Tortugas once the kids were asleep at 9 p.m. We could sail 45 miles and be anchored beside Fort Jefferson by 4 a.m. I decided to let Lisa in on my thoughts while we negotiated our way into the Marquesas. "Are you crazy? What happened with being prudent?" she asked, uttering the p-word for the first time since we left Oceanside Marina. I interrupted her, yelling, "Coming about!" She jumped up, cranked in the starboard sheet, and—huffing like a mama bear—turned her full attention to me.
"Are you even thinking about the kids?"
"I can handle this boat, sweetie," I answered, and then saw that something was amiss. The sails stalled, backed, and then headed us toward some rocks 100 yards away. "Let the sheet go! We didn't make it." We fell off the wind, sped up, came about, and failed to make it again. I cranked the remaining working engine, but it notched us up only a knot or so, no aid in getting us anywhere. We spent the next four hours trying to get a mile upwind. By this time, the girls were crying for a swim but wouldn't go in unless I did. Lisa wasn't really talking to me.
So I plunged into the five-foot-deep water, entering a forest of turtle grass. I repeated things like "have fun" to myself.
The girls jumped in. Lisa joined us, floating toward me.
"You know I love adventures. If it were just us—" she began.
"No, no. You're right. The p-p-p-prudent thing to do would be to return to Key West."
We didn't make it to the fort—we didn't even try. We did, however, do everything the girls wanted to do—swim, beachcomb, climb in the mangroves, and eat lots of crackers and goat cheese. We snorkeled in 40 feet of water that was visible to the bottom. And we made it back to Oceanside Marina. In other words, we were prudent and—to my surprise—we still had fun.
What did we miss? I don't know this from experience, but they say Fort Jefferson remains a marvel, though its facade of 16 million bricks needs replacing, and that just a mile from Garden Key an outcropping of staghorn coral is flourishing—just waiting for some fool in a sailboat escaping the North.
THE DETAILS
GETTING THERE –There are several ways to reach Dry Tortugas National Park (305-242-7700, www.nps.gov/drto) from Key West, including a charter catamaran, high-speed boat, and floatplane. Two companies offer round-trip boat service; both leave Key West at 8 a.m. every day and return at 5:30 p.m. Both cost about $100 and include breakfast, lunch, drinks, a tour of the fort, and snorkeling gear. For prices and reservations, contact Sunny Days Catamarans (800-236-7937, www.drytortugasferry.com) or Yankee Fleet (800-634-0939, www.yankeefreedom.com). Seaplanes of Key West (800-950-2359, www.seaplanesofkeywest.com) makes the trip in less than an hour. Price is roughly $180 for a half-day trip, $300 for a full day, and includes drinks, a fort tour, and snorkeling gear.
LODGING – Seven islands, including Garden Key, make up the park. Some are day-use only or are closed to visitors because of nesting birds and the fragility of the land. The park's 13-site campground on Garden Key, the only accommodation offered, costs $3 per site per night. It operates on a first-come, first-served basis, except for the group area, which has to be reserved. There are no boat moorings or slips for the public; overnight anchorage is limited to a designated area off Garden Key's eastern shore.
OUTFITTERS – To charter a sailboat, you have to prove your seaworthiness with a bareboat-school certificate or by listing your captaining history and passing a sailing test. Monohulls cost around $1,200 for a week; catamarans, up to $2,800. Contact Southernmost Sailing (888-352-7245, www.keywest.com/sail). We got a $200 refund on our charter because of the engine problems.
FOOD – There is no food service in the park, so stock up in Key West at Fausto's Food Palace (305-296-5663, www.faustos.com), a Cuban market. You must bring everything you need, including water.

Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park

Elk on the Rise

Before 1900, commercial hunters pursued Colorado's elk almost to extinction. In 1914, 28 elk were imported from the Yellowstone herd, and they thrived. Today, about 3,000 elk—called wapiti by the Shawnee—feed here in the summer. The best place to see them is in the meadows near Moraine Park Campground. September is bugling season, when rutting males bellow eerily for company, usually at dawn or dusk.

The magnificent elk, best seen during the September rutting season

High-altitude Rocky Mountain National Park, bursting with 74 peaks over 12,000 feet, serves as an adventure training ground for my family. Our ultimate ambition is to summit 14,255-foot Longs Peak—our team, including my 12-year-old daughter, Cleo, and her middle school pals Emma and Celeste, should be ready for this expedition in a summer or two. In preparation, we're working our way steadily higher on the park's 355-mile trail system.
We live in nearby Boulder, with plenty of good climbing and hiking a few blocks from home. The national park, with 266,240 acres of spectacular views and Lake Granby nearby, makes a favorite weekend destination. We start with the 4.7-mile hike through Glacier Gorge—perfect for kids because you can take it in easy stages and use Mills Lake, Jewel Lake, or Black Lake as your turnaround point, depending on the strength of your team. If they're really in shape, you can push onward, up a mile of steep switchbacks, all the way to Green Lake, at 11,550 feet. That's the next stage in our training course.
The first half-mile, from the 9,240-foot Glacier Gorge Junction trailhead to silvery Alberta Falls, is an easy 140-foot climb doable even by four-year-olds. Then the trail levels out to wind around Glacier Knobs, a pair of immense granite outcrops. It was here, during our most recent excursion, that the kids learned a lesson in noise control: They suppressed giggles so as not to frighten a chipmunk stealing a two-inch cube of Emmentaler cheese right off my lap. (But it's a mistake to shush kids up on these trails—you don't want to surprise a puma.)
As we continued hiking, the girls chattered back at colonies of pikas in the granite scree fields and conquered a gentle climb onto bedrock scoured by a glacier 10,000 years ago. We spotted plenty of birds—everything from mountain chickadees to golden eagles.
The first puddle is Mills Lake, where marmots gazed gravely back at us from rocks above. We skirted the rocky east shore, then climbed to marshy Jewel Lake. From there, the trail's last mile is a switchback climb alongside Ribbon Falls to Black Lake, at 10,620 feet, where we nearly popped our necks staring at the overhanging rock walls. They form an immense amphitheater, with six peaks soaring over 13,000 feet. We ate lunch with our sweaty feet dangling in the cold lake, and watched for jumping fish.
When it comes to camping, the kids like the spartan Moraine Park or Glacier Basin campgrounds, because from there (a short drive from the Beaver Meadows entrance) it's a quick walk to see elk gathered at dusk and dawn, especially during rutting season in early fall (that's when traffic is light on the trails, too). Around the campfire, I get to be a backwoods gourmet; Meredith, Emma and Celeste's mom, tells South African ghost stories from her childhood.
The day after our training hike we often drive over Trail Ridge Road to Lake Granby, in the Arapaho National Recreation Area, just past the park's southwest boundary. There we rent a sloop and sail with the mountain wind, a unique experience for our landlocked, high-altitude kids. From the boat we can plan our assault on Longs Peak, visible as it towers into the clouds, 13 miles away.
THE DETAILS
GETTING THERE – Rocky Mountain National Park (970-586-1206, www.nps.gov/romo) is reached by driving U.S. 36 northwest from Denver and Boulder.
LODGING – A tent site at Moraine Park or Glacier Basin, or any of the three other roadside campgrounds in the park, costs $18 a night. Call 800-365-2267 to make a reservation (recommended between Memorial Day and Labor Day). The park also offers 267 backcountry campsites; for full information on campsites, see www.rocky.mountain.national-park.com/camping.htm. The romantic Stanley Hotel (800-976-1377, www.stanleyhotel.com) was built in 1909 by F. O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, and was Stephen King's inspiration for The Shining. The front rooms command a magnificent view of the peaks. Doubles start at $149 per night.
OUTFITTERS – Rent sailboats from Captain Spongefoot Sailing Company (970-887-1043) on Lake Granby, in the Arap-aho National Recreation Area. A 24-foot sloop costs $145 for four hours. For powerboat rental (about $150 per day), call Highland Marina on Lake Granby (970-887-3541).
FOOD – Kids like the burgers and sandwiches at Penelope's World Famous Burgers in Estes Park (229 W. Elkhorn Ave., 970-586-2277) and the hearty chicken and deli specialties at Mountain Home Cafe, also in Estes Park (533 Big Thompson Ave., 970-586-6624).

California

Channel Islands National Park

Humpback Whale Watch

Black-and-white finned giants that grow to 50 feet long and live up to 50 years cruise the Santa Barbara Channel between the park and the mainland. Summer is the best time to spot humpback whales, especially from ferries headed out to the islands. The plankton- and fish-rich waters fuel about one-third of the world's cetacean species—26 types of whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Humpback whales breach the surface to feed

No way! muttered Chelsea as we paddled our sea kayak toward a 20-foot arch on Santa Cruz Island. With waves roiling through the rocky opening—at the base of a massive cliff called The Elephant on the island's east coast—kayaking through the arch must have seemed challenging, if not downright impossible, to even the most daring ten-year-old.
Our paddle beneath The Elephant was part of a three-day weekend in Channel Islands National Park, off the Southern California coast 70 miles west of Los Angeles. The park's five islands—Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and Anacapa—are pockmarked by hundreds of arches and caverns, roughly two-thirds of them along shore. As we discovered, each of these wave-forged openings in the coastal cliffs presents a unique navigational challenge. Seal Cave, with its rocky beach, is a refuge for harbor seals. Shipwreck Cave preserves the rusty remnants of a barge. Painted Cave, at nearly a quarter-mile long, is one of the world's largest sea caves.
Kayaking these marine caverns wasn't possible when I was growing up in Southern California: Most of the Channel Islands were privately owned, used as sheep and cattle ranches or hunting preserves. In 1980, the islands collectively became a national park.
Although they have similar natural histories, the islands are distinct. Anacapa is tiny, a razor-thin wedge of vertical rock topped by a lighthouse. Santa Rosa is known for its hundreds of ancient Chumash Indian sites and the remains of pygmy mammoths that lived almost 13,000 years ago. More than 50,000 seals and other fin-footed mammals—one of the world's greatest concentrations of pinnipeds—gather on San Miguel near Point Bennett. Isolated Santa Barbara Island, southeast of the main cluster, is for those who want to escape even the most minimal vestiges of civilization. And Santa Cruz, with its deeply indented topography, is ideal for cavers and paddlers.
The Channel Islands are called the American Galápagos because of their variety and volume of wildlife. Humans, however, are more scarce. Although 30 million people dwell on the adjacent mainland, only about a quarter-million people make the trip out to the islands each year.
Chelsea and I have made the voyage several times. We've scrambled up grassy peaks and trekked richly wooded valleys in search of creatures, such as the island fox, found nowhere else on earth. We've snorkeled kelp beds to see garibaldi (the bright-orange state fish), cruised through pods of several hundred dolphins, and glimpsed three humpback whales. And we've camped along an isolated beach, the waves lulling us to sleep with notions that the entire California coast used to be this way: wild, remote, utterly unspoiled—and ripe for kayak adventures.
Despite her initial trepidation, my daughter maintained her cool as we slipped beneath The Elephant. She kept the jagged walls at bay with her paddle, and I carefully guided us through the swell. As we breached daylight again on the other side of the arch, she whirled around with a grin of triumph and an idea: "Let's go again!"
THE DETAILS
GETTING THERE – Channel Islands National Park (805-658-5730, www.nps.gov/chis) is accessible only by boat or private plane. Island Packers (805-642-1393, www.islandpackers.com) runs ferries from Ventura Harbor on the mainland, where the park's visitor center is located, to all five islands. Round-trip fares range from $37 per adult and $20 per child for Anacapa to $62 per adult and $45 per child for Santa Rosa. Service to Santa Rosa and San Miguel runs May to November.
LODGING – Camping is the only overnight accommodation in the Channel Islands. Campers must obtain a permit ($10 per night; 800-365-2267, reservations.nps.gov). Each island has seven to 40 campsites; backcountry beach camping is allowed on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz.
OUTFITTERS – Aquasports (800-773-2309, www.islandkayaking.com) offers single- and multi-day sea-kayaking trips along the Santa Cruz coast that include sea-cave exploration and hiking. Trips leave from Ventura Harbor; fees range from $189 for a day trip to $359 for a three-day trip with overnights at Scorpion Ranch, a camping area on the east side of Santa Cruz Island. Horizons West Adventures (562-799-3880, www.horizonswestadventures.com) offers fly-in camping on Santa Rosa Island. Three-day trips cost $485 per person, including airfare, meals, and tents.
FOOD – Christy's Deli (1559 Spinnaker Drive in Ventura Harbor, 805-642-3116) prepares box meals for trips to the islands. Groceries are available at the adjacent Village Market (805-644-2970).

California

Yosemite National Park

Bat Spotted

With a set of ears larger than those of any other U.S. species, the spotted bat can hear the high-pitched clicking noises made by its brethren. This elusive creature lives in the cliffs surrounding Tuolumne Meadows and feeds on moths at night. Sit next to Upper Cathedral Lake and don't blink—the bat swoops down to drink water faster than you can say . . . spotted bat.

El Capitan and the Merced River

With its 360-degree views of the Tuolumne backcountry, the 10,940-foot summit of Cathedral Peak is the best place to fully appreciate the majesty of Yosemite National Park. There's the granite spire of Eichorn Pinnacle, sapphire-blue Cathedral Lake, and—way off in the distance—the unmistakable bald pate of 8,842-foot Half Dome. Of course, getting there involves rock climbing up at least 22 pitches.
Just because you don't climb now doesn't mean you can't learn. "People are surprised by how quickly they progress in our classes," says Doug Kerr, who has been with the Yosemite Mountaineering School for 20 years. Keep expectations reasonable—there's no way you'll be leading your kids up Yosemite routes after a week. But clawing up a face while safely tied into an experienced guide's belay line? No problem. (Kids should be, at minimum, a mature ten years old.)
Schedule your Yosemite climbing adventure for July or August, when the Yosemite Mountaineering School expands its operation from the crowded Valley (the park gets 3.5 million visitors annually) to the alpine meadows of Tuolumne. If your only experience with rock is through the speakers of a stereo, begin with the intro class; plan on a six-hour day of climbing instruction. You'll be scaling heights up to 60 feet by day's end. Even more fun, you'll experience the rush of rappelling down.
Subsequent classes teach increasingly sophisticated techniques such as crack climbing, multipitch climbing, and self-rescue. Reserve some of your vacation fund to hire a guide from the school after you graduate—it's the most expedient way to see parts of Yosemite that most people only dream about.
Pitch your tent at Tuolumne Meadows Campground, convenient to both the school and some of the West Coast's most memorable backcountry hiking. Get the ground perspective of Cathedral Peak, one of John Muir's favorite mountains: Just 3.5 miles from the campground at the Cathedral Lake Trailhead, there is a simple seven-mile out-and-back hike to stunning views at Upper Cathedral Lake.
THE DETAILS
LODGING – Yosemite National Park (209-372-0200, www.nps.gov/yose) maintains 304 campsites at Tuolumne Meadows, with flush toilets, drinking water, and a general store. Half the sites can be reserved in advance for $18 a night; call 800-436-7275.
OUTFITTER – Classes at Yosemite Mountaineering School (209-372-8344, www.yosemitemountaineering.com) average about $90 per person per day, including equipment (shoe rental is extra). Private guides start at $100 per person per six-hour session.

Maine

Acadia National Park

The Black Guillemot

What's not to love about the black guillemot, a seabird with brilliant red feet that squawks like a bath toy? This raven-size bird with a distinctive white wing patch nests on Long Porcupine Island, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Scan the island's steep ledges for this raucous cousin of the auk and the puffin. A breathtaking treat is watching guillemots dive—they can go as deep as 165 feet—to snag cod and mollusks.

Acadia at dawn

ONE OF The nation's tiniest national parks—a diminutive 35,500 acres, smaller than any Ted Turner ranch—Acadia National Park ranks second only to Cuyahoga Valley National Park for the dubious distinction of most tourists per square foot: 81.7 annually. However, adventure in Acadia isn't an oxymoron. The park's humpbacked Porcupine Islands are one of the most coveted paddling spots on the planet: Hop in your sea kayak and lose the crowds (most of them, at least).
The Porcupines are a collection of four small islands in Frenchman Bay, off the larger Mount Desert Island, where much of Acadia proper is located. While Frenchman Bay can be calmer than the water in most bathtubs, there is lobster-boat traffic to contend with, and the weather here, even in summer, can change at the drop of a spray skirt. When it does, the winds pick up suddenly and the tides get muscular; there's no choice but to find the quickest route possible back to port. These are reasons why a guide is a wise investment, especially for first-timers to Acadia. We threw in with David Legere, a gregarious and thickly accented Maine-iac who owns Aquaterra Adventures. The outfit's dock is right in downtown Bar Harbor, the little town on Mount Desert Island that is most convenient to the Porcupines.
You can easily see all four islands in one day. Burnt Porcupine and Bald Porcupine islands have the most dramatic features—steep ledges, pounding surf, bristling stands of thick spruce and fir. Getting to Burnt Porcupine, 1.25 miles offshore, involves an exposed open-water crossing with potential for extra-choppy seas and strong winds.
Acadia is silly with birds—273 species in all—and from the sound of it, most happily hang out on Long Porcupine. Look for peregrines, ospreys, blue herons, and guillemots. Sheep Porcupine Island hosts an active bald eagle nest—you may spot young eaglets poking out in early summer. In the water, keep an eye peeled for harbor seals and harbor porpoises.
No camping is allowed on the Porcupine Islands. So at day's end, throw the boat on the car, drive 65 miles from Bar Harbor to the fishing town of Stonington, and hop the passenger ferry to Isle au Haut. We like the lean-tos at Duck Harbor Campground, just off the south ferry landing. This 4,000-acre island is the perfect spot to bring your own craft for a second day of low-key island exploration.
THE DETAILS
LODGING – Acadia National Park (207-288-3338, www.nps.gov/acad) allows camping at Duck Harbor campground. The fee is $25 per campsite per night, and a permit is required; call the park or stop by park headquarters, three miles west of Bar Harbor.
OUTFITTER – Aquaterra Adventures (207-288-0007) offers a two-and-a-half-hour paddle around Sheep Porcupine for $37 per person. Kids must be ten or older. Or David Legere will customize an Acadia sea tour for your family (price depends on number of hours).

Crème de la Canada

Northern Exposure

The Black Guillemot

What's not to love about the black guillemot, a seabird with brilliant red feet that squawks like a bath toy? This raven-size bird with a distinctive white wing patch nests on Long Porcupine Island, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Scan the island's steep ledges for this raucous cousin of the auk and the puffin. A breathtaking treat is watching guillemots dive—they can go as deep as 165 feet—to snag cod and mollusks.

Acadia at dawn

ONE OF The nation's tiniest national parks—a diminutive 35,500 acres, smaller than any Ted Turner ranch—Acadia National Park ranks second only to Cuyahoga Valley National Park for the dubious distinction of most tourists per square foot: 81.7 annually. However, adventure in Acadia isn't an oxymoron. The park's humpbacked Porcupine Islands are one of the most coveted paddling spots on the planet: Hop in your sea kayak and lose the crowds (most of them, at least).
The Porcupines are a collection of four small islands in Frenchman Bay, off the larger Mount Desert Island, where much of Acadia proper is located. While Frenchman Bay can be calmer than the water in most bathtubs, there is lobster-boat traffic to contend with, and the weather here, even in summer, can change at the drop of a spray skirt. When it does, the winds pick up suddenly and the tides get muscular; there's no choice but to find the quickest route possible back to port. These are reasons why a guide is a wise investment, especially for first-timers to Acadia. We threw in with David Legere, a gregarious and thickly accented Maine-iac who owns Aquaterra Adventures. The outfit's dock is right in downtown Bar Harbor, the little town on Mount Desert Island that is most convenient to the Porcupines.
You can easily see all four islands in one day. Burnt Porcupine and Bald Porcupine islands have the most dramatic features—steep ledges, pounding surf, bristling stands of thick spruce and fir. Getting to Burnt Porcupine, 1.25 miles offshore, involves an exposed open-water crossing with potential for extra-choppy seas and strong winds.
Acadia is silly with birds—273 species in all—and from the sound of it, most happily hang out on Long Porcupine. Look for peregrines, ospreys, blue herons, and guillemots. Sheep Porcupine Island hosts an active bald eagle nest—you may spot young eaglets poking out in early summer. In the water, keep an eye peeled for harbor seals and harbor porpoises.
No camping is allowed on the Porcupine Islands. So at day's end, throw the boat on the car, drive 65 miles from Bar Harbor to the fishing town of Stonington, and hop the passenger ferry to Isle au Haut. We like the lean-tos at Duck Harbor Campground, just off the south ferry landing. This 4,000-acre island is the perfect spot to bring your own craft for a second day of low-key island exploration.
THE DETAILS
LODGING – Acadia National Park (207-288-3338, www.nps.gov/acad) allows camping at Duck Harbor campground. The fee is $25 per campsite per night, and a permit is required; call the park or stop by park headquarters, three miles west of Bar Harbor.
OUTFITTER – Aquaterra Adventures (207-288-0007) offers a two-and-a-half-hour paddle around Sheep Porcupine for $37 per person. Kids must be ten or older. Or David Legere will customize an Acadia sea tour for your family (price depends on number of hours).

The Ultimate Classroom

Best Educational Parks

The Black Guillemot

What's not to love about the black guillemot, a seabird with brilliant red feet that squawks like a bath toy? This raven-size bird with a distinctive white wing patch nests on Long Porcupine Island, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Scan the island's steep ledges for this raucous cousin of the auk and the puffin. A breathtaking treat is watching guillemots dive—they can go as deep as 165 feet—to snag cod and mollusks.

Acadia at dawn

ONE OF The nation's tiniest national parks—a diminutive 35,500 acres, smaller than any Ted Turner ranch—Acadia National Park ranks second only to Cuyahoga Valley National Park for the dubious distinction of most tourists per square foot: 81.7 annually. However, adventure in Acadia isn't an oxymoron. The park's humpbacked Porcupine Islands are one of the most coveted paddling spots on the planet: Hop in your sea kayak and lose the crowds (most of them, at least).
The Porcupines are a collection of four small islands in Frenchman Bay, off the larger Mount Desert Island, where much of Acadia proper is located. While Frenchman Bay can be calmer than the water in most bathtubs, there is lobster-boat traffic to contend with, and the weather here, even in summer, can change at the drop of a spray skirt. When it does, the winds pick up suddenly and the tides get muscular; there's no choice but to find the quickest route possible back to port. These are reasons why a guide is a wise investment, especially for first-timers to Acadia. We threw in with David Legere, a gregarious and thickly accented Maine-iac who owns Aquaterra Adventures. The outfit's dock is right in downtown Bar Harbor, the little town on Mount Desert Island that is most convenient to the Porcupines.
You can easily see all four islands in one day. Burnt Porcupine and Bald Porcupine islands have the most dramatic features—steep ledges, pounding surf, bristling stands of thick spruce and fir. Getting to Burnt Porcupine, 1.25 miles offshore, involves an exposed open-water crossing with potential for extra-choppy seas and strong winds.
Acadia is silly with birds—273 species in all—and from the sound of it, most happily hang out on Long Porcupine. Look for peregrines, ospreys, blue herons, and guillemots. Sheep Porcupine Island hosts an active bald eagle nest—you may spot young eaglets poking out in early summer. In the water, keep an eye peeled for harbor seals and harbor porpoises.
No camping is allowed on the Porcupine Islands. So at day's end, throw the boat on the car, drive 65 miles from Bar Harbor to the fishing town of Stonington, and hop the passenger ferry to Isle au Haut. We like the lean-tos at Duck Harbor Campground, just off the south ferry landing. This 4,000-acre island is the perfect spot to bring your own craft for a second day of low-key island exploration.
THE DETAILS
LODGING – Acadia National Park (207-288-3338, www.nps.gov/acad) allows camping at Duck Harbor campground. The fee is $25 per campsite per night, and a permit is required; call the park or stop by park headquarters, three miles west of Bar Harbor.
OUTFITTER – Aquaterra Adventures (207-288-0007) offers a two-and-a-half-hour paddle around Sheep Porcupine for $37 per person. Kids must be ten or older. Or David Legere will customize an Acadia sea tour for your family (price depends on number of hours).

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