National parks in crisis

by Denver Dad

Totebaggers are fond of our national parks, but now the parks are becoming victims of their own success. What do people think should be done to maintain them?

Horseshoe Bend is what happens when a patch of public land becomes #instagramfamous. Over the past decade photos have spread like wildfire on social media, catching the 7,000 residents of Page and local land managers off guard.

According to Diak, visitation grew from a few thousand annual visitors historically to 100,000 in 2010 – the year Instagram was launched. By 2015, an estimated 750,000 people made the pilgrimage. This year visitation is expected to reach 2 million.

Crisis in our national parks: How tourists are loving nature to death
As thrill seekers and Instagrammers swarm public lands, reporting from seven sites across America shows the scale of the threat


75 thoughts on “National parks in crisis

  1. There is a huge dilemma between limiting visitation (parts, seasonal, total # of visitors) to protect the park and the need for the money those extra visitors bring to maintain the park and to the economies of the outside the park. In some cases, the demand also means making modifications to support the visitors (restrooms, restaurants, lodging) inside the park.

  2. I agree with AustinMom. I’ve noticed an uptick in signage that the parks in key areas to protect habitats and buffers. Unfortunately, a good majority of the tourists don’t pay attention to those signs. Many don’t care about creating pathways where none existed before (which can be harmful), or that they are putting their lives in danger. The National Parks are still open, wild spaces that can be dangerous. Yellowstone is credited with saving a few charismatic megafauna from extinction, but that doesn’t mean Yellowstone is a petting zoo.

    I agree with TR’s overarching principle – that this nation should have open spaces open to all. Protected from development or exploration that could bring harm (that is drilling…). I think people need to realize how precious the environment really is. But I’m a tree hugger at heart who’s in the environmental field. I think people can learn and eventually learn to take care of these areas and help the NPS manage the parks wisely.

  3. Reservations sound like a great idea. On the one hand I think high fees would be the most economically efficient way of raising revenue for the parks while at the same time reducing the number of visitors. On the other hand I think that’s what taxes are for.

  4. I’d kind of like both the National Parks and National Forest managed so that they don’t continue to burn and kill hundreds of people.

  5. “People poured out, leaving their cars parked cattywampus, blocking traffic in both directions.”

    I love that the author used “cattywampus”. That’s the best word ever.

  6. Seeing those pictures makes me happy that I most recently visited Yellowstone in winter. Reservations are required via tour guides only. It was a completely different experience then the summer 10 years earlier. I’ve also seen Glacier and Teddy Roosevelt in the winter and it was like we had the whole park to ourselves (Although I be Roosevelt is pretty quiet in the summer too).

    When we were recently at RMNP we said on the western side of the park. It felt much more wild. One day we went to the Eastern side and it was so stressful. We had to be sure to get there before 9:30, or else the shuttle lot fills up and you can’t get to Bear Lake trails at all, then the traffic was insane, just crawling by. I would love to have all campers, trailers, RVs, and bus RVs banned from the NP. That would be as start.

  7. The article mentioned Acadia going for a reservation system. That place needs to. The island is just too small to handle the amount of tourists that are there in the summer. It was dicey in mid fall when the cruise ships were in port. On the weekend, we had more than 3,000 companions in Bar Harbor alone. Many more in the park. And the damn tour buses weren’t helping things. This is also why I don’t visit during peak season.

    The one upsetting thing about visiting Grand Tetons in mid May – half the trails were still closed. We would have loved to see more, but we couldn’t. But I don’t want to go back in June – that would be insane.

    I think a larger issue is that air/land travel is so cheap comparative to the 1950s-1980s. People can get to remote places faster and cheaper than they did a generation or two ago (or three…).

  8. Apparently, in the early 1900s the inflation adjusted cost to go to a national park was close to the inflation adjusted price to go Disneyland in the mid 1990s, My research is way out of date, but I don’t think the gap has changed. This is a wealthy country, there is lots of spare wealth for recreational purposes. National parks serve a recreational purpose. PERC, in Bozeman, Mt has been doing research on this for decades.

    The long and the short, if you want fewer people at the national parks, there needs to be some sort of rationing mechanism. Price is a rationing mechanism, queuing time is a rationing mechanism, having too few amenities so that the experience is less pleasant is also a rationing mechanism, reservations are a rationing mechanism. Equity and equal access are factors in which ones to use.

    Oh, and banning transport is a good way to discriminate against people with mobility issues.

  9. but I don’t think the gap has changed.

    You mean in terms of transport and hotels? The most expensive National Parks are like $35/vehicle. 5 one day passes to Disneyland are $550.

  10. The last time I was in Yosemite was summer of 1979 (DH and I are planning another trip pretty soon) and even then Tuolumne Meadows was wall-to-wall RVs. I think Cassandra has outlined the problem pretty well. DH and I spend a lot of time at the state parks in California, because they’re wonderful and less-crowded. I’ve been to one state park in Indiana and was underwhelmed. So obviously not all state parks are equally great.

  11. DH wanted to go to a major National Park on very short notice. I don’t think he had any idea of how far in advance bookings are required. The crowds seem to be an issue at the more well known parks. In the smaller parks/recreation areas there are few people and they are not looking for the next selfie moment.

  12. “but I don’t think the gap has changed.

    You mean in terms of transport and hotels? The most expensive National Parks are like $35/vehicle. 5 one day passes to Disneyland are $550”.

    As I recall the research from a quarter century ago, in the early 1900s it cost about the same amount, transport, hotels, meals, fun stuff, etc to go to Yosemite as it did in the 1990s to go to Disneyland. Dollars inflated/deflated to be equivalent.

  13. “DH wanted to go to a major National Park on very short notice.”

    In the mid 1990s,DH and I had a no children, vacation time and managed to get last minute reservations at the Awahnee (main Yosemite hotel). We were all set to go and Newt shut down the government. Still haven’t forgiven him.

  14. but I don’t think the gap has changed.

    You mean the cost of going to the national parks has fallen significantly vs. other options?

  15. You mean the cost of going to the national parks has fallen significantly vs. other options?


  16. I’m thinking about the idea of reservations, and it does have appeal. It w would make it much more challenging for visitors to plan trips to the popular parks, but that may have a side benefit of steering more visitors to some other less popular national parks and to state parks. I agree with Rocky that some state parks are hidden gems.

    And I would not necessarily be opposed to creating a “luxury” tier of reservations for wealthy travelers that could be a revenue enhancer. The bottom line is that some of these sites cannot handle the crowds and still preserve the park experience that many visitors desire. Or maybe most people are fine with crowded hiking trails as long as they can get the right Instagram photo. I don’t know.

    “DH wanted to go to a major National Park on very short notice. I don’t think he had any idea of how far in advance bookings are required. “

    My impression is that for some parks booking on-site lodging is best done 9-12 months in advance. However, we planned our trip with a three-month lead time and found reasonable accommodations within 5-20 minutes of park entrances. It worked out all right.

  17. Maybe virtual reality technology will take care of the crowding. From what I’ve seen, in a few years a virtual trip to some of these fabulous places could become almost as good as the real thing.

  18. When my in-laws were here in June, DH had booked the campsite in Yellowstone several months in advance. But then when it turned out 87-year-old FIL couldn’t really deal with the tent, the uneven ground, etc., we did manage to find a motel at the entrance to Yellowstone at the last minute. $300 a night for a bog-standard Days Inn. So maybe absolute last minute deals do exist, but you can’t really count on them.

  19. Does anyone else have the National Park tours on the ellipticals and treadmills at their gym? I think it would fun to hike the trails I’ve virtually hiked hundreds of times.

  20. July – reservations and “luxury tiers” are exactly how the Mouse does it. Unless you are going on an off time of year, walking up to the ticket stand is unheard of at Disneyland or world. Universal also follows that model. Makes them buckets of money.

    My only issue with the fees for the National Parks following the Mouse and Universal models is that National Parks are supposed to be paid for by taxes. They are “our” parks, even if we live on the other side of the country. By passing the cost to the consumer, we are, in a way, privatizing our parks. Yes, visitors need skin in the game, but I fear too much skin and the bottom would drop out. Visitation declines and it’s highly unlikely that the Federal Budget would make up the difference.

    Look what happened recently… they tried to increase entrance fees at all parks and people balked. I feel bad for seniors. The days of the $10 lifetime pass are over. My mom just squeaked by 2 years ago, but her sister didn’t make it. My aunt had to shell out $85. Not terrible, but if you are expecting $10, it’s quite a jump.

  21. My oldest had his company holiday party at National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey in Times Square. He said it was pretty cool, and it hints at what may be possible in the near future. (It’s not up to Rhode standards, I’m sure!)

  22. Yes, visitors need skin in the game,

    All the Smithsonian Museums are free – you just walk in. And for high demand events it’s still free but you need a free timed ticket. I think the National Parks should work the same way. Walk in on Wednesday in late September but if you want to go Fourth of July weekend*, you need a free timed ticket.

    * Adjusted as need to make for a decent experience.

  23. I think a combination of reservations, lottery and increased fees are the best way to approach the problem. A few years ago, my sister got to do the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite because one of her friends won the lottery (a few of them had been applying, I think) and invited her along.

    I think raising rates at the hotels in the parks is good to raise revenue via the “luxury” tier. Economies outside the park benefit from the few weeks/year that hotels can charge high rates. Many of the western parks are seasonal due to snowfall and trail accessibility.

    I like the current model of having campgrounds with reservations at a price most people can afford. That limits the need for services within the park (most campgrounds have water and bathrooms but no restaurant or source of clean sheets/towels) but provides good access to the park for people with typical mobility. There is a move to make some parks/monuments/refuges accessible primarily via leave-no-trace backpacking policies, and I think that’s too limiting.

    We are fortunate in Oregon that the hiking trails, etc. are great in our national forests, on BLM land and in state parks so that only particular features (geysers in Yellowstone, Crater Lake) require a visit to the national park. Our family is probably heading to the Redwoods again for a few days in late March (spring break here) and the national park and the adjoining state parks are largely indistinguishable to me. Redwood is my favorite off-season park because the coastal climate is almost the same year round, cool and damp.

  24. Rhode – I agree with you that we all pay for the parks with tax dollars and thus we should keep entrance fees low enough that most of society can benefit from them, but I also think that the parks should be able to increase entrance fees with the rate of inflation. This summer I paid $10 for our family to see Antietam. That is a heck of a deal compared to a day at Disney, or even at the local waterpark, or even just getting lunch at Potbellys. Just thinking out loud, should we charge more for foreign visitors? If you don’t have a state issued ID the cost is double?

    And speaking of fees, this summer we hiked for a few miles the PCT in Oregon. The National Forest service has a $5 vehicle fee. Only there wasn’t even an honor box to put my $5 in. Just a sign saying you needed a forest pass. So I took $5 and put it under my windshield wiper. When we got back to our car about 5 hours later there was a note with my $5. The note thanked me for paying, but unfortunately the ranger couldn’t accept cash, so if I would kindly drive to the next honor box, which was 8 miles away. I noticed two other cars had tickets for not having a pass (they took a gamble and lost). We did end up paying on our way back into town. But if money is so badly needed, then leave a box at every parking lot, specially one as busy as the PCT. The people hiking these trails are much more likely to pay than take a gamble.

  25. We spent a week in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in August. The crowds weren’t as bad as I expected (most of the time). On our first day we visited the Grand Prismatic Spring mid-day and there were lots of busses disgorging tourists and parking was difficult. There were too many people on the boardwalk surrounding this boiling spring which I thought was really dangerous. After that experience, we visited the really popular spots early AM or late afternoon-early evening. From my experience, and what I’ve read, most visitors hit the top 3-5 spots in each park in 1-2 days. 85% of the visitors don’t venture beyond a 15 minute walk from the parking area. I can vouch for that. We took some nice hikes and I encountered more bears than I would’ve liked. We also found ourselves on a road surrounded by bison. It was very cool and one of the highlights of the trip.

  26. We stayed in the park and booked our rooms 13 months in advance. And I still was shut out of certain rooms.

  27. July – that is so cool! Totally up to my standards… the real thing is far superior, but most of those critters would hear/feel/see you a mile away and never come close. At leas there you understand their habitat better. (This is also the person who stares at Blue Planet 2 on the giant TVs at BJs for a ridiculous amount of time).

  28. Rhett – I’m going to bet there’s more maintenance within the parks than the museums. Whenever I’m at a park, I spend a good deal of time doing trash pick ups for the slobs around me (the amount of plastic is sickening). I’ve rarely had to do that at the museums. That’s why I think visitors need a skin in the game – if you take ownership you’re more likely to treat something better than if you don’t.

    Lemon – if I have to pay double to enjoy another town’s beach because I’m not a resident, and I’m OK with that (I am), then I’m OK with charging foreigners more. {enter the swath of people who will yell at me ala Voter ID rights, etc…}. When my mom uses her lifetime pass, she has to produce her ID (not mine, not DH’s, hers and hers alone). It’s good for the car she’s in, but she has to be in the car. I’m cool with that. She’s earned her cheaper rate. We, as taxpayers, have earned our cheaper rates.

    I agree about your PCT example. Or have some mechanism to pay online and show that you paid (I’m a little lost at how to do this because it’s not like they have wifi/cell service and printers near some of these places). We must have a way to use our plate #’s as IDs for those instances. Pay as you enter, your plate is your pass #. Forest service guy comes up, checks the plate against his list (which, if in a cell serviced area, could be updated in real time), and poof, you’re good. Without the paper.

    Ginger – I was stuck in a bison traffic jam at Yellowstone. Highlight of the trip, but man, a few came too close for comfort. Wasn’t sure how to explain it to the car rental agency. We didn’t have to, but I did wonder a few times.

  29. I’ve only ever been to Acadia (shhh) – never felt the need to go to the other parks, but maybe we should at some point. I’ll know to book in advance!

  30. Rhode,

    I’d think the complete opposite. It’s like leaving your shit on the floor of a hotel room vs. a beach house you got invited to. If you’re paying, you’re more likely to expect someone to clean up after you.

  31. OK. Maybe that was a poor example. Buildings don’t need to maintain walkways as frequently as parks do. And keeping people out of somewhere is easy with doors and locks. Not so much in the parks. In the parks, some trails and walkways need to be blazed every year because they are covered in the winter and don’t reappear in the spring. The employees need to rope off areas constantly so no one treads on them. Plus, if you need a rescue at a hotel that’s an ambulance ride vs. helicopter and off-road vehicles.

    In a hotel, how many maids are there per floor? 2?3? depends on the size of the floor? If you scaled that up, we’d need thousands more NPS employees willing to scale the mountains and spend long days outside in all kinds of weather to keep up. Not gonna happen.

  32. L – it’s one of the most beautiful parks we have. No shame in that. Plus the history of how it was created was so cool – mostly by private land donations.

  33. ” I would not necessarily be opposed to creating a “luxury” tier of reservations for wealthy travelers that could be a revenue enhancer.”

    Yosemite has had that for years with the Ahwahnee and Wawona hotels.

  34. I agree with Rhett – you expect a lot more when you are paying than when something is free. Having said that, I am fine with a reasonable entrance fee (we can debate forever what is reasonable). I am completely against a “luxury tier” – these belong to the public and you shouldn’t be able to pay your way to better service or jump the lines like at amusement parks.

    I think they should go to a reservation system to control the number of visitors at the more popular places.

  35. A lot of the maintenance the needs to occur on national parks and national forests is clearing out the underbrush and fire fuels. Trail maintenance, not nearly as important.

  36. we’d need thousands more NPS employees

    Right it we charged the market clearing price* for a ticket (maybe $400/person on 7/4) then you’d need an army of staff. But if it’s free you need fewer people as (per the beach house example) people don’t expect as much when they are getting something for free.

    * If 75k people want to go on 7/4 and the park can only handle 25k how high would the ticket price have to be so that only 25k would buy tickets.

  37. We passed through Page, AZ — even ate lunch there! — and toured the extremely photogenic Antelope Canyon, but I wasn’t aware of Horseshoe Bend. I guess even three years ago it wasn’t all over everyone’s social media the same way.

    We certainly found that even in Yellowstone in June, you don’t have to get very far away from the road for the crowds to evaporate. So it’s more a problem of crowds detracting from the experience at the most obvious viewing spots for the most famous sights, and detracting from the driving experience, rather than of the parks as a whole no longer offering solitude or unspoiled natural beauty.

  38. I went with a few girlfriends in a K car after graduation to tour the west. We drove over 8500 miles in that K car in about 5 weeks. We started the trip in Denver, and then we went to as many national parks as possible. It was all planned at AAA with a nice guy that helped us using Triptiks. The only reservations that we made in advance were in Page AZ, Wyoming (outside of Yellowstone), Jackson (Grand Tetons), and inside Badlands. The only night that we actually spent inside a park was in the Badlands. It was not easy to find out about motels BITD, and we had to rely on AAA guidebooks or just wait until we pulled into a town. We didn’t exactly know when we would arrive in some places, so we had to plan our trip to get to certain places if we had a reservation. Great trip, and I haven’t been back to any of these parks with my family. I really want to go because we went to so many amazing parks. I’ve been to Acadia a few times and I love it, but I’ve never been with DH/DD. I am trying to convince them to go this summer in late June, but they are very lazy about the driving.

    Great trip and my biggest regret is that we didn’t get to Yosemite. it just didn’t fit for some reason, and i still haven’t made it there yet for a visit.

  39. Cassandra – I remember that time in 1995 when Newt shut down the government. We were on our honeymoon in Hawaii. We had planned to spend the last couple days on Oahu visiting Pearl Harbor and touring the USS Arizona but it was closed due to the government shutdown.

    WCE – you and I have opposite ideas of the ideal climate. I get enough of cool and damp in Seattle – when I vacation, I want some place warm and sunny

    I favor a combination of reservations and lotteries to manage visitors at the busiest parks – not increasing entrance fees.

  40. I favor a combination of reservations and lotteries to manage visitors at the busiest parks

    That could be a reasonable approach. Some people just have more ability to plan way ahead — they’re retired or otherwise own their time, or their employer is supportive of approving time long in advance and doesn’t rescind it due to stuff that pops up, and their lives are relatively free of medical issues or the kind of drama that makes planning ahead more challenging — so a reservation-only system tends to favor healthy retirees and financially comfortable professionals. But the element of chance involved in a pure lottery system means it won’t work so well for those who, if they can’t do trip choice 1, would rather nail down slightly less competitive trip choice 2 before it fills up. So let the planners compete for one pool of slots, and leave another pool to be allocated by lottery 2 months ahead, or half of them 3 months ahead and half of them 2 weeks ahead, or have a few that people can line up for on the day, or whatever best suits the mix of would-be visitors.

    And if the reservations / lotteries are for time slots to visit particular attractions within a park, then those who aren’t successful can still visit the other attractions they might not otherwise have focused on. If it’s for entry to the park itself, I supposed then you’ll focus the unsuccessful folks on the nearby national forest or state parks or area tourist attractions.

  41. SSM, camping in Redwood with my family isn’t a vacation, it’s a trip. :)
    The last time we were there, Twin1 was not entirely potty trained and we lost him for 40 minutes when he slipped away to hide in a log just off the trail to poop. He didn’t respond to calls and everyone in the area was keeping an eye out for him.

  42. OK other client-facing Totebaggers. What is the nicest way to say, I don’t give a fuck how important this project is, you should have had it to me 3 weeks ago if you wanted it turned around by Friday and there’s no goddamn way I’m working on it next week or even past 4:59 on Friday and no I really don’t care if you fire me because you need me more than I need you. Merry Christmas.

    There are different words for this, right?

  43. When we were there the kids squabbled and we moved at a snail’s pace because the teens had to take 20 thousand photos for Insta. It was still nice. And it’s even nicer now that I reflect it could have involved camping with small children who vanish into the woods to poop.

  44. Lark, something like

    I am excited to work on [new project]. Although I do have prior commitments for the next week and a half, I have some availability during the remaining two days of this week, and then good availability from January 2 onward, so given the level of attention this project requires, I’ll be able to have it done by [date]. I understand you weren’t able to get it to me sooner, but to turn it around by [desired date] I would have needed to start work on it in early December at the latest,

  45. The answer to this, like virtually all the great questions of our time: homeschool! Okay, maybe not.

    I have this idea (a serious idea! there’s a spreadsheet involved) of taking a 100-day road trip and visiting all of the 44 national parks in the lower 48 (excludes the ones only accessible by water – Isle Royale, Channel Islands, Dry Tortugas. There is some serious rationing going on at Dry Tortugas when the National Park Service ferry costs about $1k for a family of 5 to visit). It would be a fall trip, as you wouldn’t want to battle crowds, traffic and reservations of summer travelers. DH thinks it sounds like one of the worst ideas in the world but I am pretty sure I can wear him down (and offer good noise-cancelling headphones.) Doing it over 100 days works out to about 150 miles of travel every day, or (per the spreadsheet!) about 6 hours in the car every other day for 3 months. What is not too love? I mean, you muggles put your kids in school for 7 hours every single week day and they almost never get s’mores!

    The route would be mostly based on this. I was surprised how few parks there are in the east and how most of them have minimal accommodation.

    I think National Parks offer an accessibility (not just physical, but that is part of it) that is not available in other formats. Having spent quite a bit of time in our National Forests – there are no junior ranger badges, no 1.2 mile paved look trails with interpretive signage, no ranger led strolls through meadows or educational campfires. A lot of energy and money has gone into figuring out what is remarkable about the area and how to present it to the masses. Other venues don’t do that.

  46. I went to a lot of national parks as a kid. Honestly, they were getting crowded even back then, at least the popular ones. The campground we liked at Mt Rainier was already chockablock with RVs, and the one time we visited Yellowstone, it was packed. The Smokies were really crowded back then too, just like today.

    We went all the time to Mt Rainier in the summer, and always camped in a tent to keep it cheap. I would like to see prices remain at a level that a family like ours could afford to go tentcamping there. The National Parks system was set up as a national treasure by Teddy Roosevelt, who felt that these places were as important as museums. If anything should be supported by taxes, that is it. I also would like to see some of the lesser known national parks get more marketing. There are places to visit that are just as nice as Yosemite or Acadia, but just less well known. I am a big fan of state parks too. We have some lovely ones here in NY. We used to go camping all the time at state parks when the kids were younger.

  47. I couldn’t find this information on a quick search, but I suspect the ratio of visitors to in park accomodations has changed drastically over the past few decades. Of the few national parks I have been in more than once, I can’t ever remember seeing a new campground.

  48. Ada — when we were doing our drive-around-the-West trip, we ran into what were clearly some homeschooling families who were living out of a camper as they drove around checking off as many Junior Ranger badges as they could. The kids wore vests glittering with plastic Junior Ranger badges. It actually did not look that appealing — the kids seemed to view it like a homework assignment where you do the minimum possible to pass, like when attending a Ranger talk as required for the badge, your questions are purely directed at getting the information required to complete the booklet, then turn it in, bam, another badge. And once they had the ranger signature and the answers, the mom yanked them from the rest of the talk to go complete whatever was their the next step. They struck us as pretty jaded. Meanwhile other Junior Ranger aspirants we ran into were, like my kids, doing it for fun and asked questions about things that interested them, stopped to look at cool things on the trail, and appeared excited to get the badge at the little swearing-in ceremony.

    So if you’re considering doing a really long road trip, be aware of the risk that what you’re seeing and doing ends up not being special anymore for your kids, just a ‘if this is Tuesday this must be Zion’ scenario.

  49. Your arguments have significant overlap with my husband’s. So I will dismiss them outright!!

    Okay, not really. We’ve had some conversation about the marginal utility of park 37-44. At what point does an additional park add very little to the experience? DH might argue parks 4-44 add quite little.

    On the loop I posted above, it’s easy to incorporate a day at Kidzania Chicago (opening this spring!) and Kidzania Dallas (opening summer?), a day a Disney World and a few other day long non-national park stopovers. I’m fully aware of how crazy the idea sounds and how tedious it might be in real life. But three days of amusement park promises have totally sold my kids on the idea…

  50. A week with my family in a national park is about enough family togetherness for me, less if the weather is bad. The rock parks all seem about the same. If we didn’t go all the time anyway, in the west, I would do 1-2 parks and see (not in priority order)
    1) geysers, bison at Yellowstone
    2) Grand Canyon, with mules
    3) Redwood or Sequoia, not both, one tree looks a lot like the others
    4) Crater Lake or Yosemite, I’d pick Crater Lake because it’s not crowded
    5) Mesa Verde National Park- rocks + native people

    Hiking at Crater Lake or Redwood is about like hiking at Mt Rainier, North Cascades or Olympic National Parks. It’s cool and damp and you see mountains, evergreen trees, slugs, fog and nurse logs. Joshua Tree, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion and Bryce have hikes and rocks that look much like the rocks in Grand Canyon or Mesa Verde. Glacier looks like Yellowstone + the snow pile in a Walmart parking lot in March. I’ve never been to Death Valley but I’ve been to alkaline deserts in eastern Oregon.

  51. Ada your trip idea sounds great and I agree with WCE that you could skip several of them because there are elements to many that are similar. Also, some you could spend less than 2 hours there. We saw Badlands by driving through it on the way home from Mt. Rushmore.It was over 100 degrees and the kids had no desire to leave the car to look at anything. We made it home by dinnertime. It was cool, but I wouldn’t drive out of my to see it. Everglades is cool, spend the money for a boat ride, and you’ll be out of there in less than 3 hours.

  52. July is so nice… I could take issue with my assessment that rock parks look pretty much alike.

  53. haha! And I might say all forests look pretty much alike. Painted Hills in Oregon — now that’s one place I’d like to visit.

  54. Ginger — I was in Yellowstone last August so maybe we were there at the same time. Driving through the bison herds was an amazing experience. I have a trip report up on that trip.

  55. That circuit is not completely doable from Labor Day to Christmas because there are seasonally impassible altitude/snow/mountain sites on the beginning and end of a loop starting in PNW, and of course it feels to me like a competitive keeping score kind of trip rather than an adventure, and why would I want to use up all that spousal credit if has to go too. And If you plan to do it solo with the au pair and a couple of one week drop ins from him, homeschool mom might want to ask doc mom to examine her head. But doing a portion for a month for two or three Septembers sounds lovely.

  56. July, you should subscribe to the updates from John Day National Monument on Facebook for Painted Hills pictures. We were at the Painted Hills a couple years ago and I thought of you. The boys prefer Bruneau Dunes in Idaho, where you are allowed to slide/surf down the sand dune hills.

  57. I have enjoyed sliding down sand dune hills at both White Sands National Monument and Monahans Sandhills State Park. Awesome.

    OMG I just remembered this selfie in Yellowstone. I have met the enemy and he is ME!

  58. Ada, a friend from grad schooling recently did a yearlong home schooling trip with her kids on the mainland (she lives in Hawaii, retired early forties, has two cute kids, seems to really enjoy life, but is nice person nonetheless). There is so much to see and why restrict the trip to just national parks when there is just so much to see.

    Also Lassen National Park is beautiful and has boiling mud pits that you can ride horses to.

  59. OMG I just remembered this selfie in Yellowstone. I have met the enemy and he is ME!

    He He ! Very cute picture.

    We saw sand dunes for the first time at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. We enjoyed our trips to both Oregon and Arizona. They were what I will call relaxed trips, so driving, stopping, visiting attractions but no real mad dashes to try and check off a long list.

  60. We used to slide down snowy slopes on garbage bags, high up above timberline in the Cascades. It was really fun but probably not very safe.

  61. One problem with playing in sand dunes is collecting all the sand in various parts of your clothing. Not quite as bad as the beach, I think. I guess for snow that’s not a problems since it just melts.

    There’s a great sand hills park in southern Colorado that my son and husband visited on a Scout trip. From the pictures it looks amazing.

  62. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is worth the trip. 450 foot high dunes that ends at Lake Michigan. But yes, sand is everywhere, and I hate sand. I do it for the kids.

    A few years ago Nat Geo had an article about how much should we do to save the National Parks. One of the examples they used was in the Carolinas. Erosion, hurricane damage, etc. caused the Parks to have to move bathroom facilities, fix parking lots, and put up barriers to try to stop erosion. Do you let nature take its course, or just keep spending oodles of money to fight a never-ending battle?

  63. I’d recommend Cedar Breaks National monument in southern Utah. Its near Zion/Bryce/etc but more accessible. It wasn’t too crowded when there and pretty cool. I did a hike through woods as well as checking out the rocks. Great views close to parking lots, which were not full.

  64. Lemon – you’re clearly my soulmate. You are the only person who has heard about this trip and said, “Oh! That’s fun; I bet you can do it even faster and more efficiently.” A woman after my own heart. The thing is, there is cost of getting to a lot of these places – seems silly to spend 3 hours in the Everglades, after a few days of driving, so maybe extend to a full day AND the evening campfire? And stop at the Badlands visitor center mostly because it is air conditioned.

    To MMs point – there are lots of places that are probably worthy to visit that are not National Parks. There are 117 National Monuments, and I think also there is a separate category for seashores, and then a few thousand Historic Places. I don’t know how to build a trip around that – a trip that feels complete. Also, I am not sure that monuments have the same level of programming and accessibility. I have never spent a day at Badlands, but I am pretty sure that there is a short loop walk, a interesting film in the visitor center, and a few other things that I can do there on 360 days of the year. I am not sure that is true of a random seashore or national monument. And, unless Lemon is coming with me, I wouldn’t really want to add anything to the agenda.

    Meme – we are more tied to the school calendar than I would like to be with one kid in school, and two in many pseudo-school activities. We can’t take sequential Septembers off for school reasons, and it is a nonstarter with work as well. If this (highly hypothetical) trip were to happen, it would be during a break between jobs for DH and I and part of a bigger move. And you’re right to note weather – camping in the Rockies in November a little more high-tech than I’m ready for (but not impossible). However, the parks are all open year-round (I think). The route would be modified to hit the high country places in September, and the more forgiving areas in October, November.

    It’s fun to fantasize about for now.

  65. Ada, Bandelier has lots of services, walks with signage, and educational stuff. It is a National Monument.

  66. Ada – I’ll meet your family up at Voyageurs NP, or even Badlands/Custer State Park/Wind Cave. :)

  67. “But climbing up them not so much :)”

    True – but it’s a good way to wear out a 10 year old boy.

    “Why don’t you run up that Dune 10 times while I sit here in a beach chair drinking a beer?!”

    Sleeping Bear Dunes is gorgeous but the other, closer parks aren’t bad either.

  68. July, I totally forgot to post about our trip. I’m interested in reading yours, though. We were there the first full week in August.

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