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5 Fabulous National Parks

These classic landscapes are among
America's most popular preserves

By Van Sheridan

Vacations Magazine: 5 Fabulous National Parks
National Park Service
The Earth is boiling below Yellowstone National Park, sending up belching mud pots and steam-spewing geysers to the delight of millions of spectators. But this northwestern attraction isn't the only geological hot spot in the U.S. Our land of opportunity affords many natural wonders to bedazzle and stir the senses -- 397 national parks, to be exact. Here are five of our favorites, scenic American treasures that have inspired and amazed generations of visitors.

Vacations To Go offers a wide array of escorted vacations that spend time in the preserves. The upfront rates for these trips include lodging, transportation between destinations, private walks and presentations with park rangers and the assistance of a tour director who accompanies the group and takes care of the day-to-day details of traveling. Itineraries can include a few hours to explore on your own, and below we offer some insider tips from park veterans to help you get the most out of that time. Contact an agent at (800) 680-2858 for more information, or browse itineraries below.

Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana and Idaho

Yellowstone has plenty of room to roam. With wildlife unfolding across 2.2 million acres, you can spend countless hours exploring the terrain. Founded in 1872, this wilderness became America's first national park, with territories in three states. Larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, it annually attracts 3 million-plus visitors aiming to explore this turf through backpacking, horseback riding, fly-fishing and boating.

"While many first-time visitors focus their trip to Yellowstone on Old Faithful, many overlook other scenic areas in the park," says spokesman and former park ranger Al Nash.

"Lake Village and Fishing Bridge have a reputation as an idyllic area to slow down, enjoy yourself and get away from the hustle and bustle one experiences at busier locations such as Old Faithful and Canyon Village," he says. "There are wonderful views along the lakeshore, vintage displays in the Fishing Bridge (visitors center) and wonderful short hikes such as the round trip to Storm Point. The ice typically breaks up on Yellowstone Lake around Memorial Day, with boat rentals, fishing and guided cruises available during the summer."

At 136 square miles, Yellowstone Lake is one of the world's largest alpine lakes, located in the southeastern corner of the park known as Lake Country. It was formed in a crater that was created after a volcanic eruption. Along the 141 miles of shoreline, travelers can soak up the postcard-pretty scenery and wildlife, including elk, bison, deer, moose, bald eagles and, if lucky, a grizzly bear or two.

The snowcapped Absaroka Range stretches across the lake's northern skyline. During a boat tour, you can see Steamboat Point, one of Yellowstone's famous geothermal features. Nearby is the West Thumb Geyser Basin, where hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles meet the lake.

Glacier National Park

From Logan Pass, the highest point on the winding, two-lane Going-to-the-Sun Road, you get a panoramic view of glacial-carved valleys blanketed by a sea of tall bear grass crowned with creamy white blossoms. The wildflowers, along with bright yellow glacier lilies and scarlet Indian paintbrush, are in full bloom by June or July in Glacier National Park, established in 1910.

"When people visit Glacier National Park, they think of Logan Pass," says information receptionist Kim Redding. "Admittedly, the view is pretty breathtaking. But they also think that the park is closed if Logan Pass is closed. Logan Pass is open mid-June through mid-September, but the park is open year-round, and there are some areas that get overlooked."

Situated on more than a million acres, the Land of the Shining Mountains, as it was known to Native Americans, is a hiker's paradise with more than 700 miles of trails that meander through forests, alpine meadows and lakes. Along the way, visitors may spot grizzly bears, wolverines, gray wolves, harlequin ducks, red-tailed hawks and golden eagles.

Redding's favorite place to take photographs is Two Medicine, with its pines and pristine, turquoise-blue lakes against a backdrop of granite peaks. This southeast corner was the social hub for the Blackfeet tribe and for European explorers who lined their pockets with income from beaver fur and other pelts. Another photogenic spot is behind the Swiss chalet-inspired lodge on the eastern shore of scenic Lake McDonald, the largest body of water in the park.

"It's an amazing spot," Redding says. "The building faces the lake, so the back or backyard is actually the front of the lodge, where you can get a beautiful view of the lake with the mountains in the background. For people short on time, I suggest grabbing a few rocking chairs and soaking up the scenery."

Inside is a restaurant that serves local specialties such as huckleberry pie and venison sausage with huckleberry mustard sauce. In the soaring lobby, a gigantic fireplace warms chilly toes and hands. "Do yourself a favor and grab a cup of coffee and sit by the fire," Redding says. "The lobby of the lodge is very historic, and you'll feel yourself step back in time."

Arches National Park

Few places boast the sculpted artistry of Arches National Park, where curvaceous rocks reach toward a brilliant blue sky. More than 2,000 natural arches are strewn across some 76,000 acres, creating a stony surrealism that captivates visitors. Arches, which attained national monument status in 1929, was promoted to a national preserve 41 years ago.

Sandstone rock formations in shades of red, orange and brown create a unique desertscape of towers, arches, spires, pinnacles, slickrock domes and other whimsical geological compositions. Situated high above the Colorado River, the park is part of east-central Utah's expansive canyon country, carved by eons of erosion.

Wind and rain shaped the soft stone into spectacular sculptures that were given names such as the Tower of Babel, Elephant Butte, Balanced Rock, Three Gossips and the most famous of them all, Delicate Arch. This graceful icon has been photographed countless times. But the longest arch in the park is in the Devils Garden section: Landscape Arch spans 306 feet.

Although sturdy in appearance, these formations are susceptible to forces of nature, and arches occasionally collapse (the most recent was the Wall Arch in 2008). Professional and casual photographers alike seek to preserve these scenic works in pictures. The light here is unique, and some arches are best captured at certain times of the day. For example, park rangers recommend snapping shots of the Delicate Arch at sunset. The same goes for Balanced Rock and Tower Arch.

In the early morning, the best vantage points are at Moab Fault, the Three Gossips and Sheep Rock. But truthfully, just about everywhere you look at Arches National Park is a picture waiting to happen.

Zion National Park

Shadows grow deep and long at the bottom of the canyon referred to as the Narrows. The gorge at Zion National Park houses the north fork of the Virgin River, which gets only a glimmer of sunlight at the base, flanked by towering sandstone walls that are 40 to 100 feet apart. It's one of many gorges that make up the stony maze at Utah's oldest national park, which attracts about 3 million visitors a year.

Founded in 1919, Zion is famous for the gold-orange tapestries of its canyon walls, which mesmerize painters and photographers. It's also characterized by high plateaus and rock towers. The climate here is arid, and the land has only sparse vegetation. However, the riparian area of the Virgin River is lush with different species of aquatic plants, cottonwood trees, herbs and wildflowers.

The river path along the Narrows is a popular hike, considered one of the world's best by many adventure enthusiasts. "While the Grand Canyon is a rim-to-rim experience, here at Zion, you're in the canyon floor, so the experience is different," says park ranger Christopher Gezon. "The experience here tends to be more intimate. Many people will hike the Narrows or Angels Landing, but they're two of our more hazardous locations. Fortunately, there are simpler trails."

The Emerald Pools route, for instance, is an easy hike that can be done in less than an hour. The lower trail is well-suited for parents with young children or baby strollers and, with some assistance, people in wheelchairs. Along the way, visitors will see Lady Mountain, the Great White Throne, Red Arch Mountain and finally, ethereal white waterfalls and glimmering pools.

Grand Canyon National Park

The view from the rim of the Grand Canyon gives many vacationers the feeling that they're on top of the world. Every year, about 5 million people make the pilgrimage to this American icon, which gained national park status in 1919. But only 1 percent venture down to its inner sanctum, carved by the Colorado River. The vast landmark stretches across 277 miles, with steep, rocky walls that descend more than a mile to the floor. Most people view the canyon from the South Rim, accessible from the towns of Williams or Flagstaff, AZ. But you also can gaze into the recesses of the gorge from the North Rim, about 1,000 feet higher than its southern counterpart.

The North Rim is closed in the winter because of its elevation, and generally, the crowds are smaller on the north side, making it ideal for solitude seekers. It also is home to the rustic Grand Canyon Lodge-North Rim, a historic landmark with a restaurant. From this vantage point, you can scan the vastness of the geological phenomenon, with rocks that date back about 2 billion years.

Less visited is the West Rim of the Grand Canyon, and yes, there is an East Rim, which is called the Desert View because it consists of a 26-mile scenic drive along the edges of the canyon.

However, you'll find that most activities are centered at the South Rim, including daily talks with a park ranger about the California condor and a geology program.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May/June 2012. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.

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