Today is Earth Day and this week is national park week. It is the perfect time to reflect on over 30 years of outdoor travels by chronicling my top five national park adventures. My first national park was the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was only 11 years old, and I went on a three night hiking trip with my mom, dad, brother, and two of my dad’s friends. This was perhaps the scariest and the most exciting adventure of all my trips.
My last two national park trips have also been fruitful on the adventure front. Last April I visited Big Bend National Park and had a brutal time crossing the Chihuahuan Desert in temperatures reaching triple digits. I had to carry all my water as there are no reliable springs along the route. Last 4th of July I revisited the Great Smoky Mountains and saw four black bears while hiking in the back country.
Five amazing national park adventures
Great Smoky Mountains
As I mentioned in the intro, this hike with my parents when I was just a lad was quite the experience. We got off to a bad start when we came across a swollen mountain river with no bridge spanning across. My parents spent over an hour trying to find a safe crossing. We ended up just going straight across. They took my pack across and helped me and my brother wade across safely.
We had a long hike ahead, and the time spent looking for an adequate crossing delayed us. We ended up getting stuck in the pitch dark with poor flashlights as we approached the Appalachian Trail. To make matters worse, a buck deer kept charging at us down the trail. It ran straight at us twice before stopping when it realized we were not another male deer. We finally made the Appalachian Trail and our shelter was only a half mile away. I wrote about this experience in more detail here
Everglades National Park
When I was in high school, my mom and dad, and my dog took off for winter break for two weeks in the Everglades. The highlight was canoeing out to Cape Sable, which is the farthest southern tip of mainland Florida. We camped on the beach after a grueling 13 mile paddle through mangrove swamps and alligator infested lakes. In fact, one of the lakes was called Alligator Lake. It was appropriately named as we saw nine swimming in the water peering at us as we paddled by.
When we were camping on the beach, the mosquitoes and the sand fleas were so bad that we escaped into the canoe and paddled out about a half mile into the ocean to catch a breeze. Then a shark fin emerged right next to our canoe and silently dove back underwater. We returned to the mosquitoes and the sand fleas.
Isle Royale National Park
Over 30 years ago, I went on a two week hike with my dad. We hiked from one end of the island to the other and then back. It took us two weeks. This was the longest hike I have ever taken and the longest I have spent at one time outdoors. It was amazing. We met the most incredible people too including this young couple from Lansing named John and Amy who we virtually became attached to at the hip as they were taking virtually the same route.
We saw several moose, fox, beaver, loons, and heard wolves. I returned to Isle Royale a couple of years ago and had plans to hike a similar trip, but hot and humid weather and problems with my water filtration system cut the trip short. I still enjoyed being back and seeing this beautiful park after all this time. Read about my Isle Royale misadventure here
Big Bend National Park
Last year I hiked the 30 plus mile Outer Mountain Loop solo. I knew it was going to be a tough hike when at the ranger station they took a picture of me, my backpack, and my boot soles in case I got lost. The last thing the ranger told me was to take more water than I needed. I heeded her warning, and I purchased two more liters of water and stuck it in my pack.
This water saved me and was a curse. My pack was incredibly heavy strapped with two gallons of water. Furthermore, I had to climb the 7,000 foot high Chisos Range. The next day was even tougher when I had to cross the Chihuahuan Desert in 100 degree heat. I thought I would be cooler in April as far as temperatures go. It was beautiful and cool the day I got there, but this did not last. I never felt I was in serious danger. I was just tired and thirsty. I would have been in a predicament; however, if I got lost, even for a mile or two. Fortunately, that did not happen, and I made it back to the Chisos Basin. I was never so glad to see buildings and a water fountain.
Zion National Park
All of the above national park adventures were actually not the best times during the moment. Sometimes the most memorable trips are the ones full of adversity. My hike in Zion was absolutely wonderful and nothing really went wrong. I spent two nights camping in the wilderness and camped in the Wildcat Canyon area the first night and Hop Valley the second. These two areas are not as heavily visited as the day hikes in the main canyon. They may not be as beautiful as the main canyon, but they are both pretty sensational in their own right.
I think I saw only a handful of people in the three days I hiked and just spent the whole time with my mouth wide open gaping at one amazing rock formation after another. Sometimes an adventure can happen when you just enjoy scenic beauty and have a great time outdoors. Writing about national park adventures has psyched me up to visit more of America’s best idea. I am hoping to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park later this year in North Dakota. What was your best adventure in the U.S. National Park system? Feel free to comment about it below.
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Great article, Ted!
For me, 2 adventures come to mind, but I think my favorite one was exploring Yellowstone National Park with my kids in October one year. It was amazing and unforgettable!
Backcountry backpacking with my daughter at Cracker Lake in Montana’s Glacier National Park in Septmber was pretty incredible also!
But what about all the jaw-dropping spectacular beauty I’ve seen in Canadian National Parks?
Thanks for sharing Hank. National parks are even more incredible when shared with family.
Since this week is national park week in the U.S. this post focuses on just park in my country. Canadian Provincial Parks are well represented on this blog and also on my bucket list. I have been to three now: Gatineau, Quetico, and Samuel De Champlain. Hope to visit more in the future.
I am not an ADVENTURE traveler but more of a history traveler. Most of my visits to sites in the National Park Service centered around the love of knowledge.
If I could visit D.C. weekly for a year, it still would not be enough time for me to explore in depth all there is to do there. I have also visited Lincoln’s Birthplace (KY) and Gateway Arch (MO) numerous times and will continue to do so.
I also love the beauty of nature and have made several return trips to Niagara Falls (NY), Mammoth Cave (KY), Cumberland Gap (KY), and Great Smoky Mountains (TN).
Now that I have moved west of the Mississippi River, I am looking forward to return trips to Yellowstone (WY), Yosemite (CA), and Tetons (WY) plus exploring many more parks.
I am a big fan of history myself. I have visited several battleifield sites including Chickamagua, Stones River, Antietam, and Gettysburg. I forget sometimes that the national park system encompasses all the historical gems as well because I think of them as separate entities.
I did not realize you relocated west. Congrats on getting closer to some even more amazing scenery.
Yay for the National Parks! I know the story of the Smoky Mountains mishap well 🙂 And you couldn’t pay me enough to paddle Alligator Lake! That’s the stuff my nightmares are made of.
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Alligators are like big cuddly turtles.
One of the things I admire most about the USA is its natural beauty. And even though I’ve lived here for over a decade there are still so many I should visit. From your list, Smokey Mountains would be my first choice, because I loved the area when I went there during my first summer in the US.
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The Great Smoky Mountains would be a great place to start, finish, or go sometime in between.
I had to look up Isle Royal since I never heard about it and since it made the top5…. For me, It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I will say my first, always a memorable moment, would also make my top5, definitely consider Bad Lands, SD if you haven’t been. Something so special to the landscape there….
Next up for me, a quest to visit the NPs in Utah, so I was also happy to see Zion make your list too…
Stay National Parking it, Craig
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These are just my top five adventures, not necessarily the top five parks. I have been to the Badlands before and they are beautiful although I was only there for one day. I definitely want to return and explore more. Isle Royale is incredible. One of the best hiking parks with over 160 miles of trails.
Great list to needless to say as I’ll be road tripping in the near future trying to stop by a few of these parks.
De’Jav recently posted..Traveling south in Western Australia
I hope you get a chance to visit some De’Jav.
I’ve heard a lot of great things about Zion National Park. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit there the next time I plan my trip to the U.S.
Zion has breathtaking beauty around every bend.
Oh Ted, I hope you do make it to the other parks you’d like to visit this year. I grew up going to some of the country’s National Parks and I love those memories. There are still so many I’d like to see. They really are special.
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I am looking forward to visiting some more this year and in the future.
I would second the Great Smoky Mountains. My recent visit took me to the (near) apex of The Chimney Tops ascent. A rugged, 2 mile hike where one ascends over 1000 feet. I was close to the top, but the sheer drop on either side and the impending storm clouds (along with my fatigue) led me to stay put about 15 feet from the top and enjoy what was a spectacular view nonetheless. Heading off to backpack in Canyonlands Utah in less than a month and I can’t wait to see what it offers. Big Bend looks like a great destination I must visit someday.
I hiked up to the Chimney Tops one time, but I did not bother going to the top as it was so cloudy you go the same view from one mile up the trail as you did from the top, which was a whole lot of smoky clouds. Enjoy Canyonlands. I hear it is pretty amazing.
Well, I think you know which is my favorite of these national parks. I’m so happy you included Big Bend. At one time, it was the least visited national park in the USA, and that’s such a shame. As you discovered, it’s amazing!
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A year later I still think of Big Bend often. One of my favorite National Parks. It took me over 25 years to return after the first time I visited. I hope it does not take as long for me to return for my next visit.
How have I been to none of these?! Oh my goodness, I’m really lacking in the National Park adventures area! I have heard amazing things about Great Smokey Mountains and Zion, so I’ll have to check those two off first. Then on to the rest of them!
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There are a lot of national parks that I have never visited either. Some big ones in that list too including Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and Yosemite. I try and make one or two a year.