With both gasoline and groceries at wallet-busting prices, it’s great to hear about something that’s actually free. If you can access one of our country’s national parks (there are a whopping 397 of them in every state except Delaware), you won’t have to pay park admission from April 21–29 in celebration of National Park Week. If you’ve been meaning to get back to nature, to brush up on your photography skills, or to jump-start your exercise regimen with some hiking, biking, or rock climbing, National Park Week is the perfect excuse. To inspire you, here’s a selection of unforgettable experiences at five national parks, some of which are surprisingly accessible.
1. Yosemite National Park, California
Why Go Now: As one of the most popular parks, Yosemite gets unbearably crowded during the peak summer months, so late April is ideal for a visit. Plus, the park’s iconic waterfalls—namely Yosemite, Bridalveil, and Vernal falls—are flowing at their fullest and most photogenic. Yosemite has a full range of activities planned for National Park Week, from Ansel Adams photo walks and ranger-led poetry strolls to Junior Ranger Day mini-hikes and an Earth Day (April 22) Volunteer Project. To get your adrenaline pumping, reserve a lesson or guided climb with Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service, the only climbing outfitter allowed to operate within the park proper. If you’re up to the challenge, sign up for the strenuous but memorable excursion to the summit of Half Dome ($175 per person).
Where to Stay: The architecturally inspired Ahwahnee Hotel is hands-down the best accommodations in the park—but all that circa-1920s stone and wood ambience comes at a price (rates from $497/night).
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Yosemite Travel Guide for the latest hotel, restaurant, and activity reviews—and tips on how to get the most out of Yosemite in one day.
2. Biscayne National Park, Florida
Why Go Now: If you’ll be in the Miami area in late April for leisure or business you’ll have a chance to get in on the final Jones Lagoon Kayak Trip offered at nearby Biscayne National Park. The full-day, ranger-led backcountry kayak excursion from Adams Key departs at 8am on April 21 (weather permitting) and paddles through crystal-clear waters filled with sharks, rays, and assorted fish, while the lagoon’s keys are home to roseate spoonbills and other bird species ($89 per person). Even if you don’t kayak, you can still enjoy the park’s underwater wonders via a snorkel excursion or glass-bottom boat trip.
Where to Stay: After a day of nature-watching, people-watch by night along Ocean Avenue in Miami Beach from the comfort of The National Hotel, a retro, circa-1930s Art Deco property with a famous pool that leads straight to the beach (rates from $458/night).
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Miami Travel Guide for the latest hotel, restaurant, and activity reviews—and tips on the best places to indulge in South Beach’s favorite pastime: bar-hopping.
3. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island of Hawaii
Why Go Now: Be one of just 15 people a month (on April 21, 2012) who get to enjoy the ranger-led Kipuka ’akihi, a challenging 1.5-mile, five-hour hike through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Hike participants will get to see some of the rare plants and wildlife that inhabit the old-growth forest, surrounded by lava fields known as the kipuka (Hawaiian for "island of life"); preregistration is required. Back in your car, you can tour the park’s better-known sights, such as Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road, which leads to active lava flows from Kilauea Volcano; it’s been continuously erupting since 1983.
Where to Stay: After a day hiking amid hot lava, return to relax on a golden-sand beach at The Fairmont Orchid, a luxury property on the palm tree-studded Kohala Coast with several restaurants, an impressive pool, and a fabulous spa (rates from $369/night).
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Travel Guide for the latest hotel, restaurant, and activity reviews—and to learn about why you shouldn’t try to take any volcanic rocks home.
4. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Why Go Now: Hoof it, literally, on horseback while taking in some of the most dramatic scenery in the western U.S.: The orange "hoodoo" formations at Bryce Canyon National Park look like something out of a Dr. Seuss tale. You can saddle up with an experienced outfitter, such as Ruby’s Red Canyon Horseback Rides, which offers an excursion that retraces scenic trails taken by infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy (three hours, $85 per person) or through the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument (5–6 hours, $130 per person).
Where to Stay: The Bryce Canyon Lodge, a rustic wood and stone hotel located near the amphitheater’s rim and trailheads, makes a great base for exploring since it’s the only lodge located within the park (rates from $175/night).
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bryce Canyon National Park Travel Guide for the latest hotel, restaurant, and activity reviews—and tips on the best spots and times of the day to capture the park’s surreal landscape.
5. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco
Why Go Now: Make a difference by joining the Healthy People Healthy Parks volunteer initiative to help maintain, repair, and enhance the trails in this 80,000-acre urban eco-zone located just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in Marin County (9am–noon on April 21, 2012). Pack a lunch and afterward you can enjoy it atop the bluffs at the Kirby Cove Picnic Area with its sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city, or amidst the towering beauty of the nearby Muir Woods redwoods.
Where to Stay: To keep the urban nature theme going, stay at the lovely, relaxing, and LEED Gold-certified Cavallo Point in Sausalito, which offers panoramic city views, nature walks, yoga classes, and a spa, in addition to both historic and contemporary room options (rates from $339/night).
For additional information on National Park Week events and lodging, visit www.nationalparksonline.org.
Photo Credit: courtesy NPS.gov / National Park Service