National Parks: Free Week, Fabulous Vacations

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A stay at a national park gives you and your family an incomparable vacation – scenery as grand and as varied as all outdoors, at bargain prices. April 16 through April 24 the parks are an even better deal since admission is free, a bonus of National Park Week. To explore the diversity of US national parks and to discover some of the parks’ special experiences, review Find Your Park, a site launched by the National Park Service and National Park Foundation in celebration of the park service’s 100th birthday this August.

Consider these three national parks, of the many whose settings, wildlife, and natural wonders will delight you and your children whenever you visit.

Shenandoah National ParkHarris Shiffman

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park, VA
Just 75 miles from bustling Washington, DC, Shenandoah National Park’s nearly 200,000 acres of forests, rivers, and mountains feels worlds away. More than 100 hiking trails cover 500 miles. With young kids, try the Limberlost Trail. The 1.3-mile loop has benches and leads through forest and mountain laurel groves, especially beautiful when blooming in June. The more challenging Doyles River Falls, 2.7 miles round-trip, leads to a waterfall. For more scenic views, drive a portion of Skyline Drive, the windy road that cuts through the park, stretching for 105 miles.

Glacier National ParkWilliam Perry

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park, MT
Forests, meadows, lakes, and snow-covered mountain peaks define Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails plus a dramatic road that affords spectacular views, Glacier National Park offers many ways to enjoy the wild, western scenery.

A top choice is to drive the 52-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which bisects the park and crosses the Continental Divide. En route you see the waterfall Bird Woman Falls. Logan Pass is virtually atop the Continental Divide at an elevation of 6,646 feet and Jackson Glacier Overlook offers a good view of a glacier. An alternative to driving is to board one of the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttles, typically available July 1 through Labor Day.

Zion National ParkZack Frank

Zion National Park

Zion National Park, UT
Erosion by wind and the Virgin River has carved the multi-colored cliffs and unusual sandstone formations that mark this park, an intriguing series of canyons, forested mesas, and rocky deserts. Spring and fall are the best times to visit since summer temperatures in Zion National Park can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

For an easy walk, go along the Virgin River and the Canyon Overlook trail, which passes juniper and yucca for a view of the Great Arch, a popular formation. Older kids enjoy the moderate 1.2-mile roundtrip trek to the Emerald Pool waterfalls. Pass hanging gardens of ferns and golden columbine on the Gateway to the Narrows trail, a popular 2-mile roundtrip path.

With little ones who prefer the air-conditioned comfort of a car, follow Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, 12 miles roundtrip, from the South entrance to the Temple of Sinawava, a natural amphitheater named by the Paiute Indians for the coyote spirit. Along the way kids ooh and aah at the red, pink, and grey Great White Throne, a 2,400-foot monolith. Currently, Peregrine falcons are nesting on the cliffs.

Also, take kids to see some of the park’s “oddities”: the isolated mesas, the hanging gardens, and the Narrows, where 2,000-foot-high cliffs are only 20 feet apart.