20 Things You Didn’t Know About National Parks
At first glance, Alaska's Denali National Park is colossal. It’s about the size of Vermont—or half the size of Switzerland. The park’s main attraction, Mount McKinley, is the tallest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. Even the wild animals that roam the grounds are oversize: hulking grizzly bears, towering moose, imposing caribou.
But one of Denali’s most irresistible attractions is tiny. Each year, staff breed a litter of puppies to replace a group of retiring sled dogs. While a fair number of people know that you can visit the wriggly little balls of fur at the park kennels, few know that you can also see them virtually anywhere via Denali’s Puppycam, a live stream that captures the puppies in action for the first three months of their lives.
Our national parks are celebrated for their majestic features, and rightly so. Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, Volcanoes National Park’s awe-inspiring lava flow, Redwood National Park’s soaring trees—all are wildly impressive. But some of the most interesting details about the parks aren’t the ones that make it into the guidebooks and the tours.
We set out to uncover some of the lesser-known facts about the parks, interviewing park rangers, researching weather patterns, and talking to birding fanatics.
Read on to learn what secrets and factoids we uncovered, including a secluded spot in the most popular national park, where to go to be one of the first people in America to see the sun rise, and what actually poses the biggest risk to visitors. Oh, yes, and the URL for that Puppycam.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
You can escape the crowds. With more than 9.4 million annual visitors, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee is by far the most popular national park. Follow the lead of park ranger Caitlin Worth, who finds seclusion along Balsam Mountain Road, a high-elevation gravel road accessible from the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s one of the best spots to take in the brilliant yellows, reds, and oranges of the Smokies fall. “And in summer, the verdant green tunnel is highlighted with the crimson, purple, and yellows of late-summer wildflowers such as bee balm, joe-pye weed, and coneflower,” she says. Keep your eye out for elk and cow with calves that go to the mountain to escape the heat and humidity of the lower elevations. Open mid-May through mid-October.
National Park of American Samoa
You need a passport. It’s as much a part of the NPS as Yosemite and Yellowstone—but all visitors to the National Park of American Samoa are required to have a passport valid for six months or more, as well as a return (or onward) ticket and enough funds to support their stay. The only unit of the National Park Service located south of the equator, the Polynesian park celebrates culture as well as nature. You’ll be as wowed by the 2,500 acres of coral reef as by the siva, the traditional dance performed by women, and the siva afi, the knife dance performed by men. For a truly immersive experience, call the visitor center to arrange a homestay with a Samoan family (684-633-7082, ext. 22).
You need to watch out for water. National parks are rife with predators like bears, great white sharks, and rattlesnakes. But wild animals aren’t even close to the leading cause of park fatalities. Instead, the biggest culprit is drowning. According to the National Park Service, 34 percent of all deaths in the parks are caused by drowning, followed by falls (14 percent), and motor vehicle accidents (12 percent). In other words, even the fiercest predators are no match for humans and the damage we can do to ourselves and each other.
Volcanoes National Park
You can visit 24/7. Once darkness falls, crowds jockey for position at the Jaggar Museum observation deck at Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park to see the main attraction: the glow from the lava lake within Halemaumau, the active volcano’s summit crater. The park stays open around the clock, though most visitors vacate by 10 p.m. If you can get there at 4 a.m. or after 10 p.m., there's a good chance you'll get the entire observation deck to yourself. “When there are no people, chances of hearing the churning lava lake increase,” says Jessica Ferracane, public relations specialist for the park. “It's an amazing sound during the right conditions—like surf crashing on a nearby shore!”
Glacier, Grand Canyon National Parks
You can’t be sure a park will stay the same. A national park designation provides only so much protection. Consider Montana’s Glacier National Park, which has shrunk from 150 to 25 glaciers. Some predict that if global climate change continues at the current rate, there will be zero by 2030. Arizona's Grand Canyon faces risks of its own thanks to two controversial development proposals. One is the Grand Canyon Escalade, a tramway designed to send gondolas—and up to 4,000 people per day—from the rim down to an area of the canyon floor that’s sacred to several Native American tribes. The second is a huge housing and commercial-space development just a couple of miles from the South Rim.
Petrified Forest National Park
You can get your kicks on Route 66. In addition to protecting badlands, desertscape, and fossilized trees, the 146 square miles of Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park encompass part of historic Route 66. It looks like a ghost of a road, with just a strip of weathered telephone poles and some cracked remnants of the legendary route. To see the neon signs and roadside diners of Route 66 evoked in songs and stories, follow the Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary, designed by the NPS.
Yellowstone National Park
You can see a million dollars. Nearly everyone who visits Yellowstone stops at Old Faithful, the park’s million-dollar view. But only a fraction knows about the Million Dollar Room. In 1915, park employee Charles Hamilton bought the general store at Old Faithful and, throughout the years, papered the walls with $1,839,105.60 in canceled checks. To see it for yourself, visit the Old Faithful Basin Store and ask the staff for a tour.
Denali National Park
You can just log on. Alaska's Denali breeds a litter of puppies each year to replace a retiring litter. If you can’t make it to the kennel to meet the future sled dogs for yourself, just log onto the Puppycam and get your daily dose of adorable as they eat, sleep, and frolic. The camera typically captures the pups from the spring, when they’re about three weeks old, until the fall, when they’re two or three months. It’s turned off when it gets too dark and cold for the dogs to be outside much.
Haleakala National Park
You need to bundle up. The Hawaiian island of Maui brings to mind tropical images, but that’s not the full picture—especially not at Haleakala National Park. You get the expected balmy Hawaiian air at the base of the crater, but as you make the two-hour drive to the 10,000-foot top of the world’s largest dormant volcano, you pass through as many ecological zones as on a drive from Mexico to Canada. By the time you make it to the summit, the temperature can be 30 degrees cooler than at sea level.
Olympic, Yosemite, Grand Canyon National Parks
You should reserve dinner in advance. Sure, you can cook over a campfire, but you can also opt for a fine-dining experience. At Creekside Restaurant in Washington's Olympic National Park, for instance, diners savor views of the Olympic Coast along with Pacific Northwest bounty like wild salmon, Dungeness crab, and world-class Pinots. From the granite pillars to the chandeliers, everything about Ahwahnee Restaurant in California's Yosemite seems designed to match the grandeur of the park; request a table next to one of the 34-foot-high floor-to-ceiling windows. On the North Rim, Arizona's Grand Canyon Lodge offers such spectacular views that it could serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and people would still make reservations months in advance. Fortunately, the chef aims higher, with dishes like smoked grilled duck breast topped with prickly pear cactus drizzle.
Volcanoes, Acadia National Parks
You can find weeks of creative inspiration. The National Park Service offers more than 50 artist-in-residence programs around the country. Open to everyone from painters and writers to musicians and photographers, the programs usually include housing and last for two to four weeks. In 2014, Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park debuted its program with Rick Makanaaloha Kia'imeaokekanaka San Nicolas, known for his intricate feather leis. In 2015, 10 artists, including photographer Barbara Southworth and children’s book authors Emily and Monte Yellow Bird, will spend up to a month each at Acadia National Park in Maine.
Acadia, Bryce Canyon, Haleakala National Parks
You can be first to see the sun rise. Maine’s Acadia National Park isn’t just one of the best places to see the sun rise. Between October 7 and March 6, Cadillac Mountain—the highest point along the North Atlantic Seaboard—offers early risers the first gorgeous views of the sun as it peeks over the horizon. At the end of the day, it’s hard to beat the aptly named Sunset Point, in Utah's Bryce Canyon, where the changing light bathes the park’s famous hoodoos (tall spires of rocks) in countless shades of pink, orange, and yellow. And while Hawaii's Haleakala isn’t the most hospitable spot (temperatures are often below freezing when it’s dark), watching the sky come alive with fiery reds and deep blues over moonscape-like terrain makes up for any discomfort.
Mackinac National Park
You can visit delisted parks. Once a park, not always a park. To date, 26 areas that once had national park status have lost that designation. The first was Mackinac National Park, on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. Named a national park in 1875—just three years after Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park—Mackinac wasn’t getting the attention it needed from the federal government and was turned over to the state of Michigan in 1895. It has been a state park ever since. Some areas, like North Dakota’s Sullys Hill National Park (now administered as a National Game Preserve), didn’t draw enough visitors, while others, like Arizona’s Papago Saguaro National Monument (now Papago Park, part of a regional park complex), suffered from lack of funding.
Big Bend, Grand Canyon, Everglades, Congaree National Parks
You can add birds to your life list. From hummingbirds weighing less than an ounce to condors with wingspans topping 10 feet, America’s national parks support a dizzying array of birds. If you’re going for volume, head to West Texas’s Big Bend, where more bird species have been spotted than at any other park. Other birders plan their visits to Grand Canyon National Park from August to October, when one of the largest concentrations of migrating raptors passes through. In Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, aim your binoculars at the branches of the ponderosa pines and spruce trees to see species like the mountain chickadee and the pygmy nuthatch that are found only in mountain habitats. Down at sea level, in Florida, Everglades National Park features 360 different species of birds, including the crowd-pleasing greater flamingo. And amid the old-growth bottomland hardwood forest of South Carolina’s Congaree National Park, you can spy barred owls by night on the ranger-led Owl Prowl (call 803-776-4396 for reservations).
Denali National Park
You can make history. Twenty-three African American climbers made mountaineering history in 2013 when they set out for Alaska's Denali, the highest peak in North America. Organized by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Expedition Denali marked the 100th anniversary of the mountain’s first ascent, but its true objective was much more significant: to inspire African American youth to get outside and become stewards of the outdoors. After the historic climb, the team embarked on a yearlong tour during which they talked to more than 8,000 people—many of them African American youth. Distill Productions’ documentary about the expedition, called An American Ascent, screened at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to a sold-out audience in June 2014.
Mammoth Cave, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Great Sand Dunes National Parks
You may leave with a ghost story. Disembodied legs have been spotted running around the visitor center at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. According to legend, a “wailing woman” roams the trail behind Arizona's Grand Canyon Lodge. Yosemite has a wailer, too: a cry coming from Grouse Lake (the sound, some say, of a Native American boy who drowned in the lake: legend has it that the boy calls to hikers for help, but that anyone who tries to help him will be pulled under). At Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park, the visions aren’t ghosts, but aliens. More than 60 UFO sightings have been reported in and around the area.
You don’t know what they’ve been through. Park rangers often say that they’re paid in sunrises and sunsets—and with salaries starting at $15.15 per hour, they’re only barely exaggerating. But the low pay doesn’t seem to deter hopefuls. Requirements vary depending on the specific job, with some asking for just a year of applicable experience and others asking for college degrees and leadership skills. (Then, of course, there are the unofficial requirements, like being able to break up a traffic jam caused by elk in the road, or bandaging up a visitor bitten by a squirrel.) With the competition so stiff, several rangers start out as volunteers, interns, or part-time workers just to get a foot in the door. One way around the application process: produce a wildly popular six-episode series about the parks for PBS, and, like Ken Burns, you’ll be named an Honorary National Park Ranger.
Hot Springs National Park
You can visit a spa. Introducing the ultimate destination spas: national parks with natural mineral waters. Nicknamed the American Spa, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas counts 47 thermal springs. Suit up at Bathhouse Row, where Buckstaff Baths and Quapaw Baths offer communal soaking pools and private bath and spa treatment packages. Looking for something more rugged? You can also take a dip in Yellowstone’s Boiling River, formed by a hot spring flowing into the Gardner River in Wyoming. Accessible by an easy half-mile trail just south of the 45th Parallel Bridge, the river is one of the best spots to take in the views of the park and, if you’re lucky, the elk and bison wandering through.
Yosemite National Park
You (yes, you) can backpack. Just because you haven’t logged hundreds or even tens of miles backpacking doesn’t mean you can’t trek through California's Yosemite National Park. In 2014, the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service launched the Yosemite Valley Rim Adventure, a guided three-day backpacking trip geared to beginners. Hikers spend the first night camping on El Capitan and the second above Yosemite Falls. $375, includes permits, backpacking meals, tent, stove, and water filter rentals.
Newest Park Visitors
You leave the parks in good hands. The National Park Service is making big efforts to engage the next generation. There are more than 200 Junior Ranger programs, each requiring kids to complete a series of tasks like interviewing rangers and answering questions about the park. More than 810,000 children completed the program in 2013—and earned the official Junior Ranger badges to prove it. Students in a multimedia class in Skagway, AK, even developed a free mobile app about Dyea, a town in Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.