VIDEO: National Parks Offer Peak Experiences

by Community Manager ‎02-11-2015 01:46 PM - edited ‎03-05-2015 09:19 AM (14,346 Views)

The 59 national parks of the United States are a treasure trove of unspoiled vistas, fascinating animals and deep, delicious serenity. But each park enjoys its own exclusive charm and unique experiences. Whether it’s watching chubby bear cubs playing in a meadow, gazing at stars twinkling in a velvet sky or clip-clopping down a canyon on mule back, you’ll see why the national parks are “America’s best idea.” Here, grand experiences in five of our nation’s jewels.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Watch Bears in the Wild

What: Spying black bears playing in a lush valley of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Why: About 1,500 of the lumbering creatures live in this park, located in North Carolina and Tennessee; it’s one of their largest protected habitats in the eastern United States. With about two bears per square mile, the park is among the best places to see bears.


Cades Cove, located in an isolated valley in the Tennessee portion of the park, sports lush but open terrain that makes it a prime spot for bear viewing. Your chance to see bears here is best in spring and summer, when you can watch them forage in berry patches, lope along meadows or splash through streams. An 11-mile road circles the cove, so visitors can spot bears in their natural habitat from the safety of a car. Binoculars (or a telephoto lens) help bring every whisker into view.


More to See and Do: The park also harbors some 1,500 types of flowers, more than any other national park in North America. A good time to find wildflowers is between mid-April and mid-May. A few to look for: bright-yellow lady’s slipper orchids, spiky white foamflowers and pale pink spring beauties. You’ll find some of the best blooms along the ¾-mile Cove Hardwood nature trail.

When to Go: August, when Cades Cove’s cherry trees are in full bloom, is a particularly good time to spot bears, who love to snack on the sweet fruit.


Grand Canyon National Park: Ride Into the Grand Canyon

What: Riding a mule to the floor of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Why: Heading on mule back into the canyon is a true escape. Less than 1 percent of the Grand Canyon’s 4.5 million annual visitors ride to the canyon floor. An alternative to viewing the canyon from its most accessible spots—such as the Visitor Center, Rim Trail and Desert View Drive—the  overnight trip ends with a stay at Phantom Ranch, the historic lodgings on the canyon floor, more than a vertical mile below the rim.


Just as they’ve done at the canyon since 1887, the sure-footed mules carry visitors along the rugged and beautiful Bright Angel Trail, led by experienced wranglers who keep everyone safe in the saddle. Riders find themselves entranced by the canyon’s endless rosy vistas and craggy cliffs. At Phantom Ranch, riders can take a cooling dip in a creek or explore a nearby ancient Puebloan site, then retire to a cabin before riding back to the rim the next day.

More to See and Do: Everyone wants a Grand Canyon photo to take home, and with a little know-how, it’s easy to snap a great one. Early mornings and late afternoons, when long shadows lend drama, make for the best pics. One spot that yields great shots is the watchtower at Desert View, based on an ancient Puebloan tower. Climb to the top to capture far-flung canyon vistas. Or, drive to the North Rim’s Cape Royal, a scenic overlook where the sunrise and sunset provide especially spectacular views.

Inside Info: Not up for an overnight trip? The park now offers three-hour mule rides along the canyon’s rim.

Yosemite National Park: See a Starry, Starry Night

What: Stargazing at Yosemite’s Glacier Point.

Why: The entire park—in California, miles from urban areas—has a very dark night sky. But that’s just the beginning of why it’s a great place for stargazing. The park’s Glacier Point sits 3,200 feet above valley floor, offering breathtakingly clear views of the night sky. Easily accessible via car or park shuttle beginning in late May (plus a short walk on a paved trail), the overlook on cloudless nights offers a canopy of stars sparkling overhead, so bright and plentiful that the entire heavens seem alight.

The stargazing is spectacular in summer, and those who thrill at the sight of shooting stars will want to visit in August, when the Perseid meteor shower streaks the sky with silver. Naturalist talks at the open-air Glacier Point Amphitheater help visitors learn how to spot their favorite constellations and planets. One can’t-miss: the luminous smear of stars and gas clouds known as the Milky Way—on clear display against the backdrop of a night sky.

More to See and Do: At almost 1,200 square miles, Yosemite offers no shortage of other peak experiences, such as fishing, hiking and rock climbing. Take in the majesty of El Capitan, the largest monolith of granite in the world. Another popular sight: Yosemite Falls, especially in May and June—when runoff from melting snow makes the falls  most dramatic.

Tumbling 2,425 feet, the falls—one of the tallest on the North American continent—can be seen
from afar at park headquarters in Yosemite Valley, or up-close thanks to a one-mile loop hiking trail that leads to the falls’ base. Either way, onlookers find themselves wondering whether it was the sight of the sinuous, streaming waters that inspired the great naturalist John Muir to write: “. . . no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.”

Budget Tip: On summer Saturdays, many amateur astronomers visit Glacier Point—and are happy to let new friends take a peek through their telescopes.


Rocky Mountain National Park: Take in Stunning Mountain Views

What: Driving Trail Ridge Road in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.
Why: Yes, the national parks abound with pretty driving tours, but Trail Ridge Road is no standard-issue scenic byway. Said to be the highest continuous paved road in the nation, Trail Ridge offers the rare chance to soak up the special wonders of three distinct types of ecosystem—montane forest, subalpine forest and alpine tundra—in a single afternoon. And, above the tree line, the park’s many scenic overlooks allow visitors to take in sweeping mountain views that extend to Wyoming.

Soaring to an elevation of 12,183 feet, this 48-mile journey snakes through thick forests of spruce and fir, climbing above the tree line and into a wind-whipped world of alpine tundra. As the road rises and the temperature dips, the beauty intensifies: Wee alpine plants blossom in a colorful carpet, bighorn sheep pick their way along rocky ridges and massive elk graze in meadows.

More to See and Do:
For fans of megafauna, there are few better places to whip out the binoculars than this wildlife-filled park. Moose, elk, mule deer, bobcats and even mountain lions lurk here, and the 355 miles of hiking trails make it easy to visit their habitat. One unusual mammal to watch for: the pika, a cuddly-looking, rabbit-like creature found at elevations above 11,000 feet. Those who spot one may, if they listen closely, hear its high-pitched chirp as it dives into or pops out of the rocky crevices it calls home.
Inside Info: When driving Trail Ridge Road, it’s wise to pack sunscreen and water— to ward off altitude-induced sunburn and thirst.


Yellowstone National Park: Sleep in a Historic Hotel

What: Staying in the oldest operating hotel in the oldest national park.
Why: The Colonial Revival building that is the centerpiece of Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins in Wyoming opened in 1891—and has welcomed such figures as President Calvin Coolidge. The hotel’s Sun Room overlooks the sparkling expanse of Yellowstone Lake, a calm panorama that soothes the senses. A $28.5 million renovation completed in 2014 has restored the hotel to its full historical elegance.

More to See and Do:
Almost 60 percent of the world’s geysers are found in the park—including Old Faithful. Those who prefer to experience their hot water up-close and personal head to the “Boiling River” (actually a hot spring), where bathers can enjoy a naturally warm soak.

Don’t Miss:
When not enjoying the views of Yellowstone Lake, guests can climb aboard the Lake Queen for a guided trip on those delightful waters.


AAA Travel offers a wide array of vacation options to the national parks, including exclusive AAA Vacations departures with select partners. AAA Members get special benefits, including complimentary inclusions, savings, 24/7 Member Care and a best-price guarantee. Visit, or go to


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