Note: Retirement is more than just a math problem. Yes, money is important, but you need meaningful activities and relationships too. When money and meaning intersect, you have the chance for something special. With that in mind, I’m starting a new periodic series called “aMUSEments” that will focus on a particular trip, activity, idea or adventure. Each article will be packed with links and resources to help you dream, plan and do. I hope they act as a muse to stir your imagination and help you plan your own adventures. Enjoy!
America’s Best Idea
Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called the national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Filmmaker Ken Burns summarized this sentiment when he named his wonderful national parks documentary “America’s Best Idea.”
With spring in the air, now is the perfect time to begin planning an adventure in one of the parks. Incidentally, I’m eating my own cooking on this recommendation. In about a month, I’m heading to the Grand Canyon to hike it from one side to the other and back again. Rim to Rim to Rim. My family and I will also be hitting a few of the other parks this year to do some hiking and camping. Assuming I survive the GC, I’ll let you know how it goes.
What they are
There are 59 national parks that cover 51 million acres in 27 states and two U.S. Territories. They contain some of the most beautiful scenery and natural wonders anywhere in the world. The first National Park was Yellowstone. It was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. President Theodore Roosevelt established more national parks (5) than any other president. California has the most (9) and Alaska has the biggest (Wrangell-St. Elias) as well as the least visited (Gates of the Arctic). The most visited parks are the Great Smokey Mountains and the Grand Canyon.
List of Parks
It’s fun to visit exotic, far flung places, but let’s not forget that we have some pretty incredible places right here in the United States and the national parks are the crown jewels of that collection. They are relatively inexpensive to visit and because they’re spread out across the states there is a variety and selection that is tough to beat.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. There will be special programs at the different parks to celebrate the milestone and there will be 16 days where entrance fees will be waived in order to encourage people to visit. Throw cheap gases prices in the mix and this is the perfect year to plan a road trip to one or more parks.
Why retirement is the ideal time to visit
Retirement is the ideal time to visit the national parks. Why? For starters, you can get a lifetime annual park pass for $10 once you hit age 62. That same pass is normally $80 per year. Also, because you have a flexible schedule during retirement, you can visit the parks during the off season when things are less expensive and there are few crowds. Finally, there tons of volunteer (or even employment) opportunities geared towards seniors.
If you’re planning on visiting a few parks each year, it’s probably cheaper to buy an Annual Park Pass. The pass is normally $80, but is only $10 for a lifetime pass for those 62 or older and free for current members of the military. In addition to the pass, some parks require you to apply for permits if you plan on camping or staying in the backcountry. You can find specific requirements at the NPS website for the park you’re considering.
Best time of year to visit
This depends on the park, of course. If you’re visiting Death Valley, best to go January through March before the heat becomes unbearable. If, on the other hand, you’re heading to Glacier National Park, go in June when the weather is warming and the park is in bloom. Just Google “best time to visit <park name>” or visit the park’s official website to get recommendations on the best time to visit. In my opinion, the worst time to visit many of the parks is when the weather is the hottest and the crowds are the biggest. That means June and July for most parks when school kids are on summer break. Thankfully, one of the benefits of retirement is the flexible schedule so you can avoid peak crowds and visit in the shoulder seasons (just before or after peak season). September and October are often ideal months because the crowds have gone and the weather is mild.
What to do
Each park has a unique list of things to do and see like Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Half Dome in Yosemite, giant Redwoods in Sequoia and the Grand Canyon in…well…the Grand Canyon. In addition, there are plenty of other activities in the parks like hiking, camping, horseback riding, rafting, spelunking, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, swimming, rock climbing, wildlife watching, sandboarding, hang gliding and leaf peeping. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to things to see and do.
There are tons of volunteer opportunities in the parks (usually in exchange for free lodging). You can get more information about the Volunteer In Parks (VIP) program here or find specific volunteer opportunities here.
Most of the official park websites have Trip Planner pages. Just visit the NPS site for the park you want to visit and look for the link that says something like “Plan your visit” or “Trip Planner.” Here’s the Trip Planner page for the Grand Canyon so you can see an example.
Can I take my pet?
Most National Parks don’t allow pets, but there are some parks that do. Acadia (Maine), Shenandoah (Virginia) and Cuyahoga Valley (Ohio) have hundreds of miles of hiking trails open to you and your pet. Other parks, like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, don’t allow pets in certain areas of the park, but do have limited trails or other parts of the park where you can take your pet as long as they’re on a leash. If you want to take your pet, do some research before you go. The NPS website for each park lists their official pet policy.
There are thousands of videos online about the national parks, but I wanted to highlight a series by Jim and Will Pattiz called More Than Just Parks. They are brothers and filmmakers and have set a goal to create a short film using time lapse photography for each of the national parks. The videos are amazing. Click on the Zion video for starters. That 4 minute video will do more to convince you to get out and enjoy the parks than anything I could ever say.
If you’re thinking of visiting a park you might want to pick up a book or guide to help supplement the information you get from the park’s website. Lonely Planet makes great guide books and they have guides designed for many of the parks available at Amazon. Also, on April 19 they are publishing National Parks of America: Experience America’s 59 National Parks. It will be packed with photos as well as information, tips and sample itineraries for all 59 parks. If you’re looking for amazing photos, Ansel Adams in the National Parks is also a great option.
There is a new IMAX film called National Parks Adventure that is narrated by Robert Redford. It not only provides a history of the parks, but follows modern day adventurers as they explore some of the best things the parks have to offer. Here is a list of cities and theaters where the film is playing.
As I mentioned earlier, Ken Burns has a wonderful, six part documentary on the parks. It used to be available for streaming on Netflix, but I don’t see it there currently. You can try checking out a copy from your local library or it’s available for purchase at Amazon if you’d like to buy a copy.
Photos by Jeff Gunn, Srini Sundarrajan, Michael Balint, Arches National Park and Tupulak. Used under Creative Commons License. Note that several of the Amazon links in this post are affiliate links. That means Amazon will pay me a small commission (at no additional cost to you) if you make a purchase using one of the links.